Production Talk with Kristen Ong on 'Bird'
'Bird' by Kristen Ong was one of the most nominated short films at the 5th Singapore Short Film Awards, with nominations in Best Fiction, Director, Script, Cinematography, Sound and Performance.
Two girls journey back to an abandoned house they used to frequent as secondary school sweethearts. Though one attempts to salvage their unfinished romance before the night is over, the other is more preoccupied with the injured bird she finds on the porch.
What inspired you to write Bird? Is this your first short film?
"Bird" was my thesis film while studying at Ngee Ann Poly. It wasn't my first short film, but at that point in time it was the short film I had invested the most amount of time conceptualizing. The idea for the film had been on my mind for around three years, and the premise is partly based off a crush I used to have on a classmate while attending an all-girl secondary school.
The film displays a strong eye for location aesthetics (all your locations look very cinematic), tell us about your choice of shooting locations
I wasn't conscious of it then, but most of the locations we ended up shooting in had certain significance in my life. The bus stop where Shu waits for Sufi is just around the corner from where I live. The roads Shu and Sufi cycle on on their way out of the house were roads that my friends and I chanced upon while driving around aimlessly late at night. The abandoned house was chosen as a setting because my classmate and I used to like to sneak into abandoned houses and take photographs after school.
I was particular about the way these locations looked cinematically, but more than that I think I gravitated towards them because they helped to evoke certain moods that I had felt previously in my teens, moods and moments that I wanted to bring out in the film sincerely.
The film is also very consistent in terms of look and feel, take us through the production design and cinematography and sound and how you put them together
Everyone in my team brought something to the table. We really just strove to make a film that was honest in its storytelling, and at the same time as students, push the envelope in terms of skill.
My DP, Art Director and I selected a colour palette and constructed a mood board during pre-production and made most of our decisions with regards to mise en scene according to it. With the cinematography, it was a matter of trying to draw the audience into the film, closer to the characters while exploring Shu's state of mind. I knew that I didn't want too much music in the film, so for sound we worked mostly on building ambience that was not merely natural/ realistic to the locations on screen, but subtly supportive of Shu's emotional changes through the film.
How did you work with your actors? They seemed very comfortable in front of the camera.
Nessa, who played Sufi, was already an experienced actress. On the other hand Michelle, who played Shu, had never acted prior to "Bird". Because of her experience, Nessa was more attuned to direction and what tends to be expected of her from the scene. For her, it meant seeing how she interpreted the script and then dissecting the performance/ scene, whereas for Michelle it was more about building performance by adding detail and context and making sure she was comfortable in front of the camera.
Would the story of Bird have worked if the relationship was between a straight couple? The lesbian nature of it seemed to help bring out certain complexities in girl-to-girl relationships (be it friends or couple)
Hmm... I suppose the premise might have worked with a straight couple, but then it wouldn't have been the same story or dynamic anymore. I think the issue of Sufi "moving on" (her seeing her relationship with Shu/ girls as a phase in her life) and having a boyfriend ties in what I was trying to touch on with regards to change and sentimentality.
What were the challenges in shooting this film?
I struggled a lot with conceptualization... I was aware that I was writing something personal, and the story went through many revisions because I couldn't figure out which way I wanted to tell the story. There were people along the way who questioned the girl and girl element in the script because they knew it would be almost impossible to get public funding/ support for it, but we pushed on with it anyway.
With regards to shoot, we met with quite a bit of rain because our shooting period coincided with monsoon season. The night we shot at Swee Choon it poured so heavily the back of the restaurant flooded almost shin-deep.
Did you encounter any difficulty getting funding for this film?
We knew from the beginning that it was going to difficult to get support/ funding for "Bird" so we tried our best to self-fund and work with a small budget. The film cost around $5000 to make; $3000 came from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, $1000 from my film collective RAAPOW (we did freelance videography jobs during the school holidays to save up) and the rest came from the five of us in the team. We did not apply to MDA for funding.