Interview: Royston Tan and Gary Goh on ‘881’9 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
It is quite a feat to create not one but three made-in-Singapore feature films in five years.
We got hold of Gary and Royston for a few valuable hours amidst their busy schedules of being catching long delayed flights and tedious post-production work on their soon-to-be-released brand new feature 881.
The pulsating energy of youth in 15, the astoundingly silent 4:30, and now the visual and musical treat 881. It is rare for any filmmaker, much less a local one, to make the transition sans hiccups. Admitting the adjustment to be a little difficult, Royston is nevertheless quite pleased that his 3 feature films each have their distinctive differences.
So who inspired his latest labour of love? Royston’s mother, apparently. This filial son wanted to create a feature that his mother could understand. She has been his constant advocate, patron, fan and ally in his life. She watched 4:30 three times and even rounded up the family contingent in a tremendous show of support. This time around, 881, which is seventy percent in Hokkien, hopes to be more successful in capturing the heartland aunties and uncles’ hearts than yellow boots, a fuzzy toupee and a colossal mole, without sacrificing too much of the craft. Luckily for us, Royston’s signature elaborate and detailed art direction, soulful acting and memory-stirring music remains.
Royston divulged over tea, “881 first started out as a joke. One night after an Arts Fest event, I was just sitting around with Mindee Ong [one of the lead actresses in 881] and we wanted to explore the possibilities of exportable Singapore culture. In jest the name “Papaya sisters” came up and we had the idea for a short film right there!”
And now for the winning numbers. In 1 hour they had the key story structure hammered out. Royston wrote the outline in 1 night. In 3 weeks the script was fleshed out. And it was filmed in 22 very dynamic days. Thus, 881 so birthed.
Royston calls it “divine intervention”. As a filmmaker, he has always trusted his instincts. And for 881, he has this to say, “Everything felt so right and happened in a very natural way. Even for 4:30, I told Eric, if I didn’t make this film that year, I will stop making films altogether.”
Well, perhaps it was a sign from above that took him all the way to Chinatown, New York. He was there to promote his movie. “It was surreal, they didn’t know what we were putting up and the reaction was very big. I think it brought everyone together, the ah lians and ah-bengs. The tacky costume is very much part of our culture. All the way there, it still works! “
Speaking of tacky costumes, there were close to 60 costumes on set, considered big scale for a local production. For this, we consulted the producer, the guardian of the sacred purse strings – the ever-pragmatic Gary.
A graduate of the Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s mass communications course, Gary went on to a part-time degree from SIM then RMIT and a sales experience at MTVAsia. For him, managing numbers is almost second nature. And it’s not that far off considering Royston’s film titles have always had a share in the winning lottery numbers.
But seriously, Gary confides that the real difference in making a film with a higher budget is, without question, the responsibility that comes along. With responsibility comes the stress of having more people to answer to. “The scale of 881 is much bigger. We have close to 60 sets of costumes and accomplished musicians like Eric Ng. As a producer I need to deliver below budget and calculate overheads carefully. “
Having produced films of almost zero budgets to films with a $1 million budget, Gary reveals, “At the end of the day it’s all about margins.” Period. Marketplace realism hits hard. Gary’s opinion? “All producers will say it’s a thankless job, but that’s reality.”
Indeed, there are bigger issues to consider. Pondering the fact that Singaporean audiences need to be educated, Gary concedes, “Singaporeans need to learn to appreciate their own movies and this is where subsidies will come in to help build that pool of projects. Over the last two years, we are seeing an influx of independent films. The distributors have also more supportive.” Yes, we do hope that with more filmmakers coming out of the woodwork, Singaporean audiences’ movie-going culture will also begin to change.
In the meantime, you can be sure this power-packed producer will not stop just yet. He encourages aspiring filmmakers to keep their fighting spirit strong, “It’s really the belief that it can be done. That was how I started. When 15, the short, was discovered by Eric [Khoo] 5 years ago, that was how I got my job. So, I do believe in the struggle and that it can be done. “
We’re curious, did any part of the struggle hint of the indefatigable myths about antagonistic antics between producer and director so typical of Hollywood tabloids? Is it a case of “if we can’t be Hollywood, at least act like them”?
Quick to retort, it’s comforting to hear Royston speak fondly about the long-time partnership with his friend of close to 2 decades, “I’ve known Gary half his life, or half of mine. There is a lot of mutual trust and understanding between us. He is great because he offsets a lot of things for me. He doesn’t buffer the situation. If there really isn’t any more money left, he’d say ‘Royston, try your best to help me out” and I will. You have to try and help each other out. Sometimes he depends on me as well, if certain things are simply not working for the film, and say I need an extra day, he will find it.”
The chemistry must indeed be electrifying, as Gary mirrors his sentiments exactly, “It is a general misconception that the director is the king of the project. As long as everyone does their job well and the director knows the distinction, it makes work a lot easier. Royston may request for a leap in the filming requirements but it’s never off a tangent, and there is a good reason for it. Ultimately, it is the producer’s call if it’s achievable or not. Despite what anyone can say, it’s down to respect and understanding.”
Adding to that, Royston’s maturity as a director shines through, “I want to emphasise that there’s always a spokesperson for a film, but behind it is an entire team of talented, capable people and I would like the public to know that amongst themselves they know that they’re doing this for the love of film, and not for recognition.“
Indeed, Royston has certainly come a very long way. Now, he can even boast of his very own fan site royston-tan.blogspot.com, created by one very creative follower.
The Singapore scene only really heard of Royston Tan after his infamous short “15”, but this restless filmmaker really started honing his craft 14-years ago.
Royston’s eyes cloud over slightly as he recalls with refreshing candour “I started out catering food for the cast, crew and director on TVC[television commercial] sets. It was a very difficult struggle at first and there was a lot of uncertainty.”
Moving on quickly, Royston divulged a tidy little secret from his humble beginnings, with a twinkle in his eye. It turns out, his first shot at stardom could very well be a split second on screen as an extra in a local hit movie! He was working then for love and passion on the crew of Phillip Lim’s “Teenage Textbook” and there came a time when they needed an ‘ah beng’. Somehow fingers pointed his way, “Ah, that one!” and it’s imprinted, now on film, for life.
He muses, “I’d like to take it as a compliment. I remember borrowing a python Versace belt from a friend…” and he’s quick to add a disclaimer, “…which explains the fact that I’m really not a techno-beng, by the way. Sadly, I lost the belt in the end.”
And whilst we were contemplating about the past, we asked him what he thought of “Nostalgia” – a theme increasingly popular in times when everything is going upwards and in various shades of chrome. Meditating on the question, Royston remarks, “It could be because it’s easier to cling to the past. The past is a part of your life, which you have already lived, where the emotion is strong enough to resonate. Perhaps it is also the desire to reconnect. It is sad that now when I want to retrace my childhood, I have to go back to Malaysia.”
Would he every retrace his short film roots? Replying with a resounding “Yes!”, Royston is almost emotional as he tells us that short films have always been his first goal, and feature films only his second. In fact, he quips, “I have 10 short films in my mind at the moment, and each is very different.”
With the grand opening of 881 just days away, any sentiments to share?
Royston heaves a sigh of bittersweet relief, “It has been an emotional ride for me. I had to reign in my emotions until the very last moment. When the final piece of music came out, I broke down. It has been no rest for me at all. I’m just glad I got it out of my system.”
For those of us who would’ve hoped the 9 August opening date holds a bit of the rebel in RoystonÃ¢â‚¬¦well, it’s just a date that’s closest to the start of the seventh month. With Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour 3 opening on the same day, it would be interesting to gauge the response of the local audiences. Singapura or Made in USA?
Whichever it is, the local feature film industry has certainly overcome many hurdles and with no small effort from these two young inspirational role models.
Royston’s’ last emotional response, “Life’s a way of pushing you”, and a crisp reminder from Gary, “If you need to get it out of the system, just do it.”
If life’s a getai, then theirs might just be a glittery one with lots of sequins and spray-painted flowery umbrellas.
881 opens 9 August 2007 in Singapore.
*images by Sinema.SG and from http://www.zhaowei.com/881/press.html