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Interview with Royston Tan on his latest feature film 12 Lotus

11 September 2008

Interview with Royston Tan on his latest feature film 12 Lotus

With well known local director Royston Tan’s latest film 12 Lotus still showing in cinemas, I had the opportunity for an interview to shed some light on the movie, how it came about, what’s behind the picture proper, and how it all fits in with the life and times of the filmmaker and local industry.

12-1.jpgMathias Ortmann (MO): Thank you, Royston, for granting this interview! Let’s go back to beginnings for a moment, to the very source and origin, if you will, of your becoming a filmmaker. Can you name any one special film or movie-going experience that effectively made you become determined to make films and an impact as a director yourself?

Royston Tan (RT): Well, it probably is An American Tale by Steven Spielberg* that really moved me the most when I watched it back as a kid. The one scene as Fievel is in search of his sister and then she is singing a song — that really moved me. I was tearing at the song. And that doesn’t happen easily to me. But whenever I watched it, at that one moment, full of emotions, I always tear. Ya, so it was the story and the song for me; I’m always moved by music.

MO: With respect to your latest, 12 Lotus, what of that which fascinated you so back then about the potential of film do you see captured in this, your own creation?

RT:  How much love they have for one another; and it’s all in the song. And I tried that as well in 12 Lotus, only it is more abstract. There is a lot of refinement in the song 12 Lotus as it reappears in the film, many variations in the instrumentation. I don’t play any instrument myself but I put a lot into it when working with Ricky Ho on the original scoring.

MO: What in essence is keeping you motivated, one project to the next? If there is more behind this one than just for you as a director to come up with another movie, then what is it?

RT: You always see the mistakes in your last film and try to improve in the next. I try to challenge myself and to avoid those mistakes. But there are different objectives for my movies. With 881 I wanted to connect to my home audience, to introduce myself. With 12 Lotus I wanted to take it further, to challenge them also. It is more showing of who I am. So, 12 Lotus is definitely more personal. It is different for the personal life story dimension of Liu Ling Ling in it.

MO: Generally speaking, with 12 Lotus it is quite evident how you have moved on from 881 to be much more of an author to your latest film. How would you define the story? In essence, what is it?

RT: It is that life really can be a big joke. I had long conversations with Liu Ling Ling about her life story and when I found it reflected in the song, this just made me see it all so very clear. It really is like this, that life makes you happy and after that very sad, first giving you something, then taking back twice that much. Then it is the song itself, the lyrics, which are so beautiful, all through the twelve stages of the Lotus. But it is all lost in the English translation. There was a theatre play called Purple that I saw when I was 18, and was also where I first heard the song 12 Lotus. Then, in watching 881 so many times over the course of the festivals, the song kept visiting me. That was when it was really getting to me, during conceptualising the film and writing it, in Rotterdam and France and those places.

MO: In short, you seem to have become markedly more serious — and more ambitious too — about being a narrator of tales. To me there appears a stronger involvement on your part as a director in 12 Lotus than there was in 881. If so, then what caused this change?

RT: You experience more and then you change. There have been lots of changes for me over the past months. Lots of things happened to me last year, many bad things. Every day there would be something really bad happening, and I just said, ‘okay, you go on.’ So my personal involvement with 12 Lotus was super-strong. Emotionally, it was even more demanding than 881. For the narration, which is a first time for me, and I wanted to do it. I wanted to challenge myself with it and so, yes, it was a deliberate challenge I posed myself.

12-3.jpgMO: The lead role, songstress Ah Hua (the Pitiful Lotus) as played first by Bao En Li, then by Mindee Ong and Liu Ling Ling respectively, she displays a remarkable sense of defiance, first in becoming an Opera/Getai singer, and later even in her persistence to live in her own world. Why do you think you know her so well that you thought you could (and wanted) to bring her to the screen? In other words: what fascinated you about her that made you want to tell her story?

RT: It’s the reference to Ling Ling’s own story as I said. And I also hide myself in her character. A friend of mine who has seen all my films from early on, when he’d seen 12 Lotus, said to me ‘Oh, that’s so about you, the film is, don’t try to hide it!’ And it is true, the 7th and 8th Lotus, is when the boy is standing in front of the door and singing to her in the room, I could feel myself in this, it was completely in line with my feelings at that time. The 8th Lotus is me. But, like you put it: she is a strong-willed woman in her own way. Her inner strength — it is a combination of the filmmaker and the actress.

MO: All of the actors’ parts certainly posed huge challenges to their craft and professionalism. How did you go about preparing them for their roles? How did you try to get them into their respective characters, so that they would eventually become real life instead of staged?

RT: There had been a lot of chemistry in 881 between the cast. For 12 Lotus, then, I wanted to break this up to get a distance between them. That was also because there was not much time between shooting the two films. And if the cast know to read each other too well, the little signs, it can spoil the result. So, to prepare them, I would separate them and make them do strange things, like Ling Ling wear a bath suit to the beach, all kinds of crazy things. I would challenge them. And after that I would give to them the script in parts only. We worked on a need-to-know basis, so they wouldn’t know what the story would be or how it added up. They would only get as much information as needed to understand their part for the shoot, not explain the parts of the others to them, keeping them isolated from each other. So each day, there would be an element of surprise. That’s because I wanted to get real reactions. Only me and my AD knew the whole thing and it was all kept totally confidential, even the title. Also Alan [DoP] had no idea what was going on. And we just made sure in the details and little gestures that it all links. It was a new way of working that I tried with 12 Lotus.

MO: Can you try to explain what exactly the inclusion of musical performance, song and dance, brings to a movie? What, to your perception of it, is gained by this breach in real life representation as seen on screen?

RT: Music transcends all kinds of emotions, it allows an output for emotions. And it is a manifestation of what is going on in my mind. I always need music; without music I would die! So, my life is a music video, ya. It is a realism kind of fantasy.

MO: You have already indicated in previous interviews that this be your last film about Getai. Shall we assume that from now on there will be no more songs in your next films?

RT: Well, I can promise you that there will be lesser songs in my next film, but not that it will be totally without. But certainly no more Getai songs, no.

12-4.jpgMO: I’ve noticed that for 12 Lotus you’ve worked with quite an elaborate storyboard. If one compares that to, say, the way Monkeylove was conceived, it is a very marked disparity. Why is that?

RT: Yes, it can be very different from one film to the next. For this film it was very important to have the storyboard. I needed to have full control over the scenes and composition, the choreography and also the transitions. 12 Lotus required a lot more discipline to shoot and whole new filming technique. I wanted to take a new approach to make it almost as seamless looking. But then, with other films, it can be very free-flowing.

MO: Any director, if they are responsible in their craft and working with a large cast and crew especially, they have to be comfortable with making the decisions. How was it with this production, its scale and so many parties involved? Were you comfortable with the process? Could you enjoy it?

RT: Yes, I enjoyed the process, but it was also a very tedious and very tiring one. With 12 Lotus it was even more exhaustive than 881. To do it I needed to have the total trust of the whole crew who didn’t know what was going on or why the same song had to be sung over and over again. And we were under big time constraints, too.

MO: Will you work with DoP Alan Yap again on a future project, possibly your next?

RT: Ya, definitely! And my other cinematographers as well, they all shared in the same working relationship with me. They all know how to give me exactly what I want in a shot. Alan had done a lot of research on the looks and location, and how to create an atmosphere, so he could challenge me. He would make a suggestion, and say ‘Let’s try this!’.

MO: Which was the most difficult scene to shoot in this one, and why?

RT: The last scene, definitely the last scene. Because of how I had prepared the actors [Ling Ling and Yu Wu] for playing in 12 Lotus, it was all totally real, the fight and the emotions. Yu Wu told me how he was so in it, he just wanted to really kill her. And Ling Ling, as it was in part her own story, she said she fought back with all she had. It was absolutely real. It was emotionally a complete involvement. Also, that scene was very difficult because it is painful, very painful to watch. We did three takes to get it right for the film, with different angles.

MO: I want to bring up a statement you made about beauty in film. You said that for you these days, beauty is to be found in innocence. Now, can you tell us what constitutes the beauty — or innocence as we’ve learnt — in your latest film?

RT: I’d say it is in the innocence of the actresses, the little girl as well as Mindee and Ling Ling, who all have this way of looking at life; very uncorrupted. And as for the film, we had no rehearsals!

MO: Another dimension to this film is in the fact that 12 Lotus is your company’s maiden film. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, was it the right decision to go it alone? What are the next steps to take for 10twentyeight from here?

RT: Yes, there is no turning back! I’ve learned so much from the experience over these past 5-6 months and making this movie. For the company, next step is to make another film! (adds: And will probably take it to the other extreme with the next film…)

12-2.jpgMO: What is it that’s rewarding in being a filmmaker in Singapore in the year 2008?

RT: To be a part of almost a class of filmmakers these days. All through August and this September, especially, there are so many new films, it really is this current upsurge of film in Singapore. And to be a part of this, no conniving and everyone coming in to help everybody else, supporting each other and coming for the premiere, that is rewarding.

MO: And, on a final note, you are on record as almost refuting the notion that you were a Singaporean filmmaker, calling yourself “INTERNATIONAL” instead. But I think that in setting up shop here, on home soil, there is a very strong indicator and a commitment on your part to have your professional future in Singapore, is there not? What are your hopes for that future, what do you foresee?

RT: (taken aback and with a very doubtful look) I really said that?!?** Now, certainly, with what is going on in filmmaking in Singapore right now, I think I want to be a part of the change. Hopefully we can mature. And then, I realized I only can tell the best stories from my home town.

MO: We all have witnessed the grandiose spectacles that were this year’s Opening and Closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics, choreographed by renowned director Zhang Yimou and arguably the grandest of their kind the world has ever seen — some of us with mixed feelings. How did you like the show? If your government asked you to do the same for the 2010 Youth Summer Olympic Games here in Singapore, would you do it?

RT: But they would never ask me! – Ya, I’ve seen the ceremonies and I think is was one of the biggest blast I’ve ever seen. But I hated some of the songs in there and it was all like very show-off to me. As to the Summer Olympics in 2010, yes, I would do it; but they won’t ever ask me, no way! Although I’m actually on the jury to decide on a logo…


MO: Can you finish these sentences for me? I begin and then you complete with whatever comes to mind, OK? Spontaneously — just say.

If my new film were to be released in cinemas islandwide to clash with Jack Neo’s latest, I would follow his style of giving away free phone cards and stuff, double!

If I were carefree and no worries on my mind, I would lie on my bed with potato-chips and a bottle of vodka and just rest and sleep.

The only thing worth doing, besides making movies, is sleeping.

The one film I wished I had done myself is “Ed Wood”.

It is always the dumbest people who make decisions on marketing, think they are directors and take over the role.

Being a little mean from time to time means that I care.

I would never consider running for public office in Singapore because I never follow local laws.

I might very well run for public office in Singapore one day, if they declare Mondays a public holiday.

In this world, love is the most addictive drug.

MO: Once again, my sincerest thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I truly appreciate it!

* An American Tale, animated feature film and musical adventure journey directed by Don Bluth, executive producer Steven Spielberg (1986)

** Indeed he did — at least according to what’s been reported as in an E-Mail interview by Wong Kim Ho (The Straits Times/The Sunday Times, July 2 2006).

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