SIFF: Interview with Ellery Ngiam, director of Dance of a Modern Marriage
Ellery Ngiam made his first film after winning a windfall from the lottery, a film entitled Charmed, a short story about an overworked boy who overdoses on paracetamol. He then went on to make Jia Fu (Family Portrait), and worked as 2nd Assistant Director on critically acclaimed film Perth.
At this year’s SIFF, he brings to us his latest work, Dance of a Modern Marriage, a 30-minute short centering around a married couple who have grown apart and turns to alternative means to try and work things out.
IM (Inez Maria): What inspired you to write such a film?
EN (Ellery Ngiam): For two and a half years, I set out to make an urban love story; about a married couple who rediscovers their love for each other.
So Dance of a Modern Marriage is essentially a contemporary love story.
It is about two people rediscovering the passion, truth and innocence of love, after having been with each other for a long time. The means of seeking out this fire of raw love are hedonistic and barbaric (in fact, many would even say immoral), but it is their quest for true love that remains pure and innocent.
IM: What were the difficulties you face while filming the film (eg. actors reaction regarding the orgy scenes)?
EN: Pre-production for the film took about three months. To create the setting where the orgy took place, we rented an old British colonial house. The house had nothing; no water and electricity. The walls were crumbling and there was no furniture. We had to rebuild the house and bring everything in.
One of the biggest challenges was choreographing the sex scenes. This was because many of the sex scenes involved more than two people. And if it was not choreographed properly, the sex scenes could have come of as amateurish, pornographic and tasteless.
And because of the strict censorship laws in Singapore, I had to be very careful of what I showed on screen. I had to make a film about an orgy without showing any nudity. I tried to use that to my advantage. Instead of showing any full frontal nudity, I chose to play with teasing and showing as little as I can. I wanted to evoke sensuality and tenderness, instead of raw sexuality.
In a way, this was a blessing in disguise. As this is a love story, the nudity and sex in its raw form would have been too in-your-face and distracts from the essence of the story. Sex may be the main focus of the plot, but the film is ultimately about love and marriage.
Casting was also a problem. As Singaporeans tend to be more conservative, getting the right cast to play the parts was challenging. Many actors and actresses turned down the roles, as it required them to strip. We finally found the perfect cast in Debra Teng and Rodney Oliviero, who played the main characters, Paul and Vanessa.
Post-production of the film took over a year. Much of the time was spent working with the music composer. Initially, the composer created a soundtrack heavy on lounge and house music, with hints of experimental music using traditional Chinese instruments. However, we found it too intense for the film. I found myself losing sight of my original intention of making a love story.
Four months into the work of composing, we scraped the entire sound track and the composer rewrote a score using just the piano and a male vocal. The new musical score gave the film lushness and brought back the romance into the film.
The journey to make this film is long and arduous. In total, I spent about $70,000 making this film. It took me two years before I managed to clear the debt incurred while making this film, but it was a journey well worth it.
IM: Why did you choose an orgy as a way to rekindle the passion between the married couple and not something else?
EN: The orgy is a metaphor for the desensitised nature of how we deal with love and sex. Sex is not sacred anymore. And we are constantly bombarded with images of sex till it does not mean anything to people anymore. The orgy gives a jolt to that desensitisation.
Also, the swingers’ party scene is a growing subculture in modern day America, and I thought it would be interesting to transplant that subculture and put it in the context of a more conservative society that is Singapore.
And while doing research for my film, I was very surprised to find out that there is also a growing swingers’ party scene in Singapore.
IM: How was it like working with Rodney Olivero and Debra Teng?
EN: It was great working with established and known actors for this short film. And working with them definitely taught me a lot about working with actors and crafting a performance.
As actors, they came prepared for their roles and it was a joy to work with actors who have done their research and homework. Even though this was a short film, our approach to rehearsals and character preparation was very professional. We were very detailed in character analysis and preparation.
Despite the fact that this was my first time dealing with sexually explicit and risqué materials, they made me feel comfortable and were very open to working with me. Their years of acting experience really helped in bringing greater realism to the sex scenes, and the choreography of the movements.
IM: What was Rodney Olivero reaction when he found out that he would be kissing a guy in one of the scenes?
EN: He was professional about it. We talked about what the kiss meant in the script, and why the character would do it. Though we talked about it, we never rehearsed the kiss. I didn’t want to rehearse it, as it would lose the spontaneity of it. I didn’t want to have the kiss seem rehearsed and scripted, and wanted to keep it unexpected.
However, before we shot the kiss, I decided to close the set to make the actors feel more comfortable. In the end, we did only about three takes. The actors were definitely game for it, and knew very early on what they were expected to do. So it was definitely not a surprise for Rodney.
EN: The experience was very enriching. It was the most challenging film I’ve written and directed as the subject matter was something I was unfamiliar with. I had to do a lot of research and speak to people to really understand what an orgy is and why people attend these events.
I’ve also learnt a lot about myself as a director; my strengths and weaknesses. Though it was a tough film to make, I believe I came out of it a stronger director. One who has a clearer sense of storytelling.
IM: Do you think that love is still an important factor in marriage in today’s society?
EN: Love will always be an important factor. That’s why people want to get married in the first place. If you love a person, you would want to marry the person, to spend the rest of their lives together.
However, it is getting increasingly difficult to remain committed in a long term relationship in today’s society.
Making this film does not mean I condone the actions of swingers, and it does not mean that I am a swinger myself. In fact, I’ve never attended an orgy, even while I was doing research for the film.
But this film allowed to me explore what it means to love and be in a relationship in today’s society, and the obstacles and trials we deal with.