Production Talk: 4th SSFA - ASH by Taj J. Musco


 

The Singapore Short Film Awards organised by the Substation is back! If you are not aware of it, do try to catch the last few screening by tomorrow. 

To further quip your curiosity on this year's nominees, there's a series of Production Talks held with some of the filmmakers.

ASH by Taj J. Musco


Synopsis  

Ash depicts the unlikely friendship that develops between a grieving widower, upholding a
promise to scatter his wife's ashes before sundown, and a young Singaporean policeman who
has no choice but to intervene. Ash was written by Singaporean Su Ching Teh, and directed by
Taj Jenkins Musco, a filmmaker from the US. It premiered at the Moscow International FIlm
Festival, and also screened at the Telluride Film Festival, Valsele International Film Festival,
Glasgow Short Film Festival, and many other international venues.

www.tajmusco.com
https://www.facebook.com/AshShortFilm


What inspired the short film?

Writer Su Ching Teh and I decided to collaborate on a film together while we were both students
at Tisch School of the Arts Asia. I had been eager to make a film about Singapore, and Su had
this wonderful idea for film about an elderly man who is arrested while trying to scatter his wifes
ashes because he does not have the proper permit. He is arrested by a young policeman who is
determined to adhere to the law, and they subsequently take a journey together to the literally
heights of Singapores bureaucratic system. I thought this was a great premise for a short
film, and a perfect way to present a subtle satire of Singapore wrapped in a story about
unexpected friendship.



The film has a very distinctive look black and white scheme, stylised scenes, a surrealistic overtone could you share about your artistic direction in making 'Ash' in relation to this?

I worked very closely with cinematographer Jordan Quellman to create the distinctive look of
Ash. We felt that this story warranted the use of Black & White, and we decided to shoot on
35mm film to create a particularly cinematic look. We were careful to choose locations,
wardrobe, and lighting that would emphasize the contrast and make a powerful Black & White
image. In all of my short films, my characters journey to a surreal place and back be it a
dream, an altered state, or an undiscovered realm. I wanted to create this journey in Ash, as the
two men travel from the naturalistic beach setting of the opening and closing scenes, to the
strangely timeless and imposing Ministry of Death. It was our goal to make a film that portrayed
Singapore in a visual style you may not have seen before.


The old people made quite a presence in the film both the old man and the old lady who manned the approvals desk at the Ministry of Death. How did you direct these actors?

Both of the elderly characters in Ash were nonactors whom I cast specifically for their wonderful
faces. They were both incredibly generous and willing to work for me, even for the long, tedious
hours of a film shoot. I wanted to capture their natural expressions and inherent qualities, so my
direction was mostly technical; telling them where to look, where to move, when to speak.
Beyond that, it was my job to make sure I captured their faces on film and had enough material
to edit. I must give credit to actor Ryan YongYi (Police officer) who is a professional actor and
had the utmost patience and skill in working with me and the nonactors.

Where was the Ministry of Death shot? It provided a very distinctive and memorable visual for the film.

The Ministry of Death was shot in the abandoned Kallang Airport. We rented the space from the
SLA, brought in a generator and lights and created the Ministry of Death. The airport was built in
the 1930s, and I love the Art Deco accents in the architecture. It provided the film with a look that
is reminiscent of a lot of my favorite Hollywood films from the 1930s and 40s.



What were the biggest challenges in making this film?

This is a common question I receive over and over again, and I havent yet come up with a good
answer. There is no single challenge that stands out; filmmaking in general is incredibly hard. In
Singapore specifically, casting is challenging, transporting equipment is challenging, filming in
the sun in challenging. We do it because we love to, and at the end of the day its the people who
helped make the film possible that I remember the most, and who helped us overcome the
challenges. So I want to thank everyone who helped make Ash; people who donated time or
money or labor. It is because of them that Im able to show this film and answer your questions.

Some of the scenes resembled the styles of certain European arthouse cinema, like the works of Antonioni (many of which were also in black and white), especially the last frame where two policemen framed the foreground. Could you share some of your influenced in creating Ash?

Our influences in creating the look of Ash extend from Hollywood films to the work of European
masters to classic Japanese cinema. Before we started production, cinematographer Jordan
Quellman and I attended an Akira Kurosawa retrospective at the National Museum. Many of the
films we saw Ikiru, Drunken Angel, Stray Dog influenced our initial ideas for the look of
Ash. To learn how to make a beautiful Black & White image, we looked at the work of great
cinematographers, including Gianni di Venanzo (who worked repeatedly with Michelangelo
Antonioni and Federico Fellini), and Gregg Toland (who lensed Citizen Kane). Jordan also
studied Ansel Adams book The Negative. Once we started shooting, we let these influences
permeate in our minds and went to work creating an original piece of film that portrayed our own
vision.

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