Production Talk - 'Sink' by Kirsten Tan

A sink sitting in the low tides.
A boy playing by the beach.
A chance meeting.
“Sink” is a distilled exploration of innocence and experience, love and loss;
an intimation at what might lie beyond.

Director Statement:
I first saw in my head an image of a sink sitting in the middle of an ocean. Since I was going through a period of loss at that point, I weaved a theme around that in the form of a relationship between a boy and a sink.

Director Bio:
The greatest feeling Kirsten ever had, was walking out of a cinema feeling inspired by a film. Thus began her desire to make them. Since then, her films have been screened in more than 20 film festivals, garnering over 10 international awards. She is now based in New York City.
L (leew): Why and how did you make the film in Thailand...
K (Kirsten): I had the idea of "sink" sitting in my head for a long time. I've carried the idea with me for more than 5 years and I never thought I could actually make it. There just isn't a shoreline like that in Singapore - empty; with no one on it; without a ship in sight. I just kept the idea inside me, and it's an idea I loved so I knew I was willing to wait.

By chance I was on vacation with a friend. We were on a road-trip and we stumbled upon this beach. There is a fishing village nearby but otherwise, it is entirely empty. No tourist, no one. It's perfect. Looking at the vast barrenness of sea and shoreline, I was reminded of my story and I decided to film it there because I may never find a beach like that again.

L: What was it like making a film overseas with Thai crew and team?
K: I was lucky. I met the owner of a Thai production house called Pee Bpen from Big Eye. I had a talk with him about the film. He does mostly commercials but he really liked the idea and provided me equipment and crew at a really reduced price. He gave me his newly built underwater camera housing to test and that's how I achieved those shots that are partly submerged in water.

I am mainly indebted to him. The thai crew was amazing. I didn't have an art department and so those professionally hired ACs and Grips were actually doubling up as props people. They knew I needed help and just chipped in.

In general, I find Thai people very relaxed and very easy to work with.
L: From the synopsis, stills and description, 'Sink' sounds like a dream. It's a striking image, a sink in the middle of the sea. Is it a dream? Your previous shorts also seem to have a bit of dream-like quality about them...
K: You're absolutely right. The image of a sink in the sea did come from a dream. It was such a striking dream that I spent weeks after that trying to interpret it. The eventual film is based upon the interpretation of that dream.

L: Do you do things like wake up from a dream and write down notes, inspirations for a film or treatment?
K: This is actually the first time I've directly adapted a dream into a film. I didn't actually have to write it down because that image stayed with me for sometime after I woke up. It was one of those dreams where I told friends about. Eventually I did note it down when I started working on it as a script.

I do enjoy the moments between the time I wake up to the time I actually get out of bed. Those few minutes are actually my most creative. My mind is at its free-est. When I'm stuck with a script or with storyboarding, I know sleeping will always help me.

Perhaps that's why a Thai fortune-teller advised me to sleep less.

L: Tell us a bit about the production process of 'Sink', especially since it was made outside of Singapore.
K: I went to Thailand for a year to travel and work. I didn't actually go to Thailand to make the film. It just happened while I was there.

The whole process was pretty similar. I was stuck in my room working on the script and storyboard and when the time came, I submitted it to SFC for a short film grant and then I met up with friends and people whom I thought would be interested to work on the project.

The one particular process that was really different and interesting was casting. I had three roles in the film - a young boy; a man; and an old man. For the role of the man, I brought in a friend. I had no clue as to how to cast a young boy and an old man in Thailand. What eventually happened was that I went to a school by the beach I was filming. It was a local school in the village. I talked to the principal and she was really excited about being involved in the film project. The next moment, she went out to the courtyard, shouted for all her students to gather and the next minute, I had 50 kids sitting in front of me.
My lead actor was found that way. He was a complete country-side boy but was a lot of fun. He doesn't watch TV (they don't have TV sets at home), and needless to say, has never acted. Whenever I talk to him, his whole extended family (of about 20) would gather and watch. They would sit around and laugh. I had no clue as to what was funny and so the whole process was pretty daunting. I never rehearsed with him. On the day of shoot, he was pretty freaked out at first by the camera and the crew but eventually, he got used to it and completely opened up. There is something very natural about actors who don't watch too much TV.

My old man in the film was actually the father of a papaya-salad street-side seller. I found him chilling on his hammock at the village and I approached him. He said no at first but his daughters were completely in love with the idea of him acting and basically forced him into it.

L: Any interesting things or strange incidents happened during the process?
K: The location was 3 hours away from Bangkok. I saw the location a few months prior to shoot and never went back again.

4 days before the shoot, I went down to the place and saw to my horror that the waves were insanely huge and that there was no beach at all since the tides rose to such a high level. My heart literally sank. I realize I was stupid enough to set the shoot dates during monsoon season.

It was a little too late to change since the entire production has been planned. A vehicle was coming down from Bangkok with equipment and crew and I already had all my props transported to the place. A day before the shoot, I was busily scouting for a new beach, one that wouldn't be so affected by the weather.

And then, on the day of shoot itself, the tides got incredible kind. I actually had a long expand of shore and I could actually see a beach. And it happened for two days in a row over the weekend.

The very day I stopped shooting on Monday, the tides rose again and the beach completely disappeared. If I shot just one day later, it would've been impossible.

I finished this film completely through the mercy of divinity. Being a filmmaker is not only about hard-work or talent or getting enough money to finance a film, it is also a lot about chance.
L: How do you direct actors who are non-Singaporean? Is it easier/tougher? Please share with us some things you learned as a director, working with people who may not speak the same language.
K: I had a friend acting as translator for me. This film was pretty easy since there is no dialogue. I just showed them the actions and directed them really simply. Most of the time, it was just "look here" and "do this." Since they were non-actors, it was all really straight-forward. No in-depth discussions about characters/back-story and stuff like that.

L: Is it cheaper or more expensive to make a short film overseas?
K: Depends on the country. It was definitely cheaper to shoot in Thailand than in Singapore but that's partly because I've lived in Thailand for more than half a year prior to shooting "sink" and I had friends who were willing to help me out.
I had a benefactor who was helping me out in terms of crew and equipment. I got all my film-stocks for free through short-ends from commercial production houses. I also got a 50% for all post-production processes. So I would say I did the film for about a third of the price it would cost had I done it in Singapore.
L: Do you think people ought to leave the country more, or spend a bit of time overseas. For whatever reasons...
K: I'm not sure what you mean when you saying "leaving" the country. Do you mean temporarily or permanently? Definitely spend time outside of the country but it's up to the person whether he or she wants to leave. I don't necessarily consider people who leave permanently quitters, nor do I think people who stay are necessarily patriotic.

Living in a place where you're a complete outsider is unnerving. At the same time, It's only when you realize how completely unimportant you are that you find out it is actually quite ok to be nothing. That is very liberating since it essentially means there is nothing to be afraid of.

I know for sure being out of Singapore for sometime has gained me a lot of perspective. I understand myself a lot better and I've become a braver person and a braver filmmaker because of that.
L: 'Come' was made in Korea as well. Now 'Sink' in Thailand. You're based in New York City now - for work or study or...? Is that where you'll make your next film?
K: I've actually made a film in NYC titled "Cold Noodles." It's part of my coursework in school. I'm doing my Masters in Film Production at Tisch, NYU.
L: Where do you feel most at home?
K: For sure, Singapore. In Thailand and Korea, no one understood me even though I thought I knew the language. In New York, my accent completely stands out.
L: Will you come back to Singapore to make films?
K: I don't know where I'll be after New York. I think the most inspiring thing about film is that the film-making has brought me to so many places. I have no plans for now but I know I will eventually go back to Singapore because that's where I feel most comfortable.
L: Do you have anything else to add before I ask the last question?
K: Not really.

L: Last question might take some time. It’s something I like to ask local filmmaker friends. What are the top 5 movies you wish you'd made? (This is just a fun question, please feel free to not take it TOO seriously or intensely. And note: it's top 5 movies you WISH YOU MADE, not top 5 fave movies!)
K: Ok, off the top of my head:

1) Cinema Paradiso
2) Band of Outsiders
3) The Professional (Leon)
4) Elephant
5) Days of Being Wild
6) ... I'm sure I can continue rattling on
Kirsten’s Sink is currently in competition at the 22nd Singapore International Film Festival (14 – 25 April 2009).

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