Sign of the Times – An Interview with the Cast and Crew of NSFTV’s ‘An Instagram (Love) Story’
We’re all well aware of how COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the film and TV industry by now. With all the cancellation of jobs and postponement of projects, the industry is faced with a new kind of challenge – adapting to the new normal in the world entertainment and media. That’s exactly what the Not Safe for TV (NSFTV) team has done.
NSFTV embarked on a project, An Instagram (Love) Story, a modern and new take on storytelling. Told through Instagram stories, video calls and texts messages, we see a couple whose relationship has been put to the test, with one quarantined in Malaysia and the other in Singapore.
We got a chance to speak with the cast and crew members of An Instagram (Love) Story, to find out more about how this process and experience has been like for them.
Written and Directed by: Willie Tan and Chuah Wei Qi
Produced by: Benedict Yeo
Starring: Justin Teo and Caitlin Park
A project like An Instagram (Love) Story is different from your typical production. We see J (Justin Teo) and C (Caitlin Park)’s story unfold on social media, something that’s new, yet familiar to most of us today.
We learn about what goes on and how they’re dealing with the long distance relationship by getting a glimpse of their text messages and virtual dates over Facetime. Their Instagram stories also reveal that their relationship is on the rocks.
Such a format introduces a different kind of dynamic between actors, where their scenes together are shot remotely. Yet, this made the story feel more authentic, as we’re actually seeing our own friends’ relationship difficulties on our social media feeds. Despite the remote shooting, I got the impression that this format could also be more intimate given how similar the process is to most young people’s lives.
Does this change the dynamics between actors in any way?
Caitlin: If this were a short film and Justin and I were on set together, Justin and I would probably need space to connect with each other to pull off a good performance. But since we filmed this over Zoom, there wasn’t much room for that. We could all see each other on the call while we performed — Justin, Willie, Wei Qi and myself. And I don’t know about Justin, but I was definitely watching myself when I was acting instead of looking at him. Hahaha.
I think the process of filming didn’t feel too personal because we are all colleagues, we already know each other and are comfortable around each other. But afterwards there’s this realisation that we’re revealing a part of our private lives to people. Because I’m filming this in my own home, that’s what I look like when I’m on a video call with my friends or boyfriend, etc. So even though I know I’m playing a character who’s very different from myself, and people know I’m playing a character, you still can’t really disassociate yourself completely.
Justin: Yeah, precisely. A good thing about filming from home and not having a big crew around is that it made it easier to embody the character and immerse myself in the scene. All I needed to do was to close Willie and Weiqi’s bubbles during takes, and it would be just Cait and I while acting. And Cait’s a great actor; she makes you feel safe, so I felt confident playing to her.
I would say that it did feel more intimate especially in those circumstances, which I guess could’ve been what gave audiences more access to our characters. The way the script was written and the circumstances the characters were in reflected real life, so that also made the whole process feel a lot more alive and authentic. And the format also made it feel like you were on the call with us, which probably added to that feeling.
When asked about their first reactions regarding this new format, Justin and Caitlin shared their thoughts.
It’s a different approach to production, were there any uncertainties or is it more anticipation?
C: Definitely uncertainty for me, mostly in terms of the audience reaction. Because it’s a different format than what people are used to, it might not be as immersive as, say, a short film. People are already used to suspending disbelief when watching a video. So I wasn’t sure if people would be able to connect or relate to it as effectively. But at the same time I was excited to see it coming together. Sometimes you gotta take risks. If you don’t try you’ll never know!
J: I was pretty excited starting out the project because it was a medium that I hadn’t really seen used to tell stories like this. It was exciting to kind of push the label with NSFTV in this new format. I felt like I was ahead of the curve! I also thought the fact that it was through IG stories made it a lot more personable. My main concern, though, was not having enough stuff in my house to use for the shoot haha. Thankfully, the producers delivered a lot of stuff to us, like props, clothes and lights that we could use, and everything came together nicely.
Luckily, Caitlin and Justin are also familiar with the production process as they’re a part of the NSFTV production team as well.
The production seems to require more hands-on involvement from the actors as compared to usual productions (i.e. with the filming in IG story/Facetime form, or writing the texts). Could you tell us about this process?
C: For the actors, aside from being our own camera operators, we also had to prepare the props and set dressing, and keep track of the wardrobe. We had to light our scenes ourselves too, which was tricky sometimes because we had to improvise with whatever we had at home.
Apart from that there was still some similarity to conventional productions. Director starts recording – “Camera rolling”. Producer slates, but with a piece of paper and a marker. Action – we perform. Cut – director stops the recording. And then they watch the playback, and give us feedback. Same same but different.
J: A lot of the stuff that you saw that didn’t have our faces were actually done by our colleagues anchoring the creative side! They did the heavy lifting for those portions even before we began our process of shooting. When we came on board, we only had IG stories and video calls to do.
I think what Caitlin said about the process and the way the team was structured was also a great opportunity for us to contribute in small creative ways. For example, my floppy, “Hey Arnold!”-looking hairstyle was something I thought fit the character. A little touch by yours truly! Haha yeah so there were little ways we could contribute to how things turned out, and that gave us a sense of ownership and agency that a big set can sometimes drown out.
Creative leads Willie Tan, Chuah Wei Qi and Bernard Yeo also shared their experiences.
Could you share with us how this idea came about, and the production process given the COVID-19 situation and having to work remotely?
Wei Qi: I think the keyword is to adapt. Willie and I worked in a pair, and a small team was ideal for effective communication virtually. But it also meant having to wear all the hats from conceptualisation to finished product.
A lot of it was actually figuring out technology and exploring the options that were available to us to play with creatively. We did a lot of research on the different online platforms and video calling apps, and did a bunch of “rehearsals” on our own, before shooting with the actors, to see which platforms looked best, or which ones will actually let us record.
COVID-19 surprised everyone out of nowhere, forcing the industry to adapt quickly and act on their feet. But the team shared that as difficult and unprecedented the situation was, it wasn’t so different from usual productions. It’s “similar to locations not allowing us to film, or a hard drive crashing” said Bernard, issues that productions always have to challenge themselves to work around.
How has this experience been for you and the whole team?
Willie Tan: There’s the adrenaline rush from trying something new – exploring the Instagram Story format and shooting remotely, but there were definitely frustrations. But ultimately being able to create some meaningful content that people find relatable during these troubling times was very fulfilling and enlightening.
Personally, NSFTV’s An Instagram (Love) Story feels more real. There’s a greater sense of reality – I feel more attached, as if I’m seeing my own friends’ relationship evolve. I find myself looking forward to the story to come, and even feeling a little anxious as their relationship is on the rocks. NSFTV knows how to tell a modern love story, and they do it well even with the challenges posed by COVID-19. This kind of attitude is precisely what we need during these times, and gives us a promising look into the future of filmmaking.