Homecoming – An Interview With Jonathan Choo
After completing his Masters in Directing Fiction at the prestigious National Film & Television School, Jonathan Choo is back on our shores, ready to dive back into the local filmmaking scene. Having won the National Youth Film Awards for Best Direction in 2016 for his short film, HAN, this young filmmaker shows great promise in the industry.
Sinema had an opportunity to sit down with Jonathan as he took us down memory lane and offered a glimpse into what makes him tick.
Congratulations on winning best direction at the National Youth Film Awards and to Rachel Liew for Notable Cinematography at Camerimage. It was also screened at the latter and at the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia. A film that did so well – What was the idea behind HAN?
With HAN, I was just very grateful because I had a group of friends who were willing to push on and embark on the journey with me. Without them, this film would not have happened. The people who worked on the film were very automatic, like clockwork. At that time, we were still in school and the good thing about that was the amount of freedom given to us. We were allowed to go crazy with it, as long as we raised the necessary funds. We got jobs between us to raise funds. Would I do things the same way now? Probably not.
I initially just wanted to go overseas to make a film, which now, I would tell people is not a good way to start. There is no reason why you should go overseas if your story does not require it. We worked backwards in that sense. There was an emotion and a broad brushstroke idea that I was trying to express as a human being and filmmaker. That ultimately culminated in the film itself, with the idea of love and forgiveness. I wanted to do it in a dual, cross-boundary landscape. Many magical things came together and fell into place for HAN.
The film did much good for me because it was sent to NYFA and won Best Director, which was a huge encouragement for me. It also bagged the Notable Cinematography award at Camerimage as well. It helped me get a place at the National Film & Television School (NFTS) and a scholarship too. It was a good experience, more than just making a film. There were many challenges. but my team pushed together so well, that we never felt stuck at a problem for a long time. We just kept pushing through.
Getting into NFTS is an admirable feat! What was that experience like for you?
I just tried my luck to get in and did not have any plans to pursue postgraduate studies. A teacher of mine from NTU encouraged me to continue studying. It is only at NFTS that I learnt how to properly put a film together. I became more acute and sensitive in learning what exactly constitutes a film, what performance was and how to achieve tone and shape. I became far more intricate and was able to spot errors quickly. It changed my interaction with cinema and I learnt how it was parallel with my life experiences.
Being in a different culture was something else altogether. I was slightly confused with what I was trying to produce. Being in a scrutinised environment with a lot of feedback that came from a good place, I learnt to filter what worked for me and what did not. I came back as a filmmaker who was much clearer with what I wanted to create. Having said that, trying to create a film now is an ongoing challenge. Now, it is just having to focus on doing the next thing.
Having learnt so much from NFTS, what do you plan to bring forward into your work henceforth?
One of the biggest things I have learnt is how to direct actors’ performances and how to really tap into their work. If someone’s performance is not good, forget about it, there is no film at all. This is something I overlooked in my past films. I was just fortunate to work with good actors. Performance and writing are make or break things.
The questions with writing are always – Am I trying to write something or an idea of it? Am I trying to artistically present something? That regards poetics and that is where the craft comes in. How you piece things together to get that exact tone and shape that you are aiming for is the main crux of a production. I was rather disappointed in some of the films I have made before attending school. However, I would not have gotten a strong awakening if I did not make those mistakes. They are still a trajectory for growth.
Recently, you have worked with Charlie Lim on the video of Least of You. How did that materialise? What triggered the transition from narratives to music videos?
Charlie Lim is a good friend. It was a very enjoyable collaboration where there was a constant discussion of ideas. The transition was really organic. Music and films both deal with a lot of rhythm and shape. We are both trying to bring our audience on a journey. Music is always important to me when I am making films as well. So it was not hard to get into that world. I was just more familiar with creating narratives, which we did go in the direction of, during our first two videos.
With Least of You, it was a vibe that we were trying to present. Coincidentally, we both were in South Korea at the same time and decided to film there. The song is a love song but i wanted to do something completely opposite, to counter the obvious narrative. That is how the isolated tourist idea was born.
It was difficult for Charlie to get into it because he was initially shy, but that was exactly what I wanted to capture. I wanted that raw imagery of local folk just walking around. I thought it was real and truthful. Before we confirmed the final video, we designed a filter that brought a completely different emotion to the video. It ended up feeling like a weirdly wonderful dream, which we were both very happy with.
Given all the resources, what would your passion project be?
I had this absolutely crazy idea once. I only play this video game called NBA 2K which is about basketball and I play it a lot. I was thinking what it would be like if Hollywood goes crazy one day and decides to make a film based on the game – just the game, not the league. It’s about people trying to control these gaming characters based on real people and living vicariously through them. They are trying to control them and be someone they are not. Essentially, it is to merge what is real and what is not. It’s just this incredibly meta idea that you can afford to have fun with.
How can the industry help itself?
In terms of creating work, the commissioning bodies and the people who are creating should have more collaborative and less top down discussions. The kind of work produced then will be more vibrant, rather than coming in with a preemptive idea of trying to copy what has been done over and over again. I never understood the idea behind mood boards and references. I dread it, but they are necessary. One’s idea of visual literacy is very different from another. Maybe the industry should keep thinking and have higher standards towards that.
It is essentially a collective of many simple things done well. We need to be more focused and not be hasty. The narratives and commercials will then be better. Ideas are forms of communication. You are either conversing with someone or preaching to them. Art should put people in a comfortable spot. Even when attempting to shock them, it should not be forceful.
While Jonathan was initially soft-spoken, his talent and passion does all the talking for him. It was very insightful to listen to his experiences and understand how he views filmmaking and the world around him. We, at Sinema, are eagerly awaiting his future projects.