Production Talk - '5 Films' by David Shiyang Liu

David : ‘5films’ is the working title of a series of 5 short vignettes in the secret lives of several disparate characters; inspired by the 5 human senses, and part of a series of an ambitious exercise where I make a film a month in 2008. Each film is a micro-short of no more than 5 minutes in length, and will be screened together as a collected narrative piece of no more than 25 minutes.
Early on in the year, I was brainstorming for ideas when I chanced upon the Nine Inch Nails' GHOSTS album. Trent Reznor graciously licensed the album under the Creative Commons, which meant that the music could be freely used without permission so long as he was attributed as the author, and that no profit is to be made from it. The music was never intended to be used as a soundtrack, just as 'writing music'; but certain, memorable tracks inevitably found their way into the films.
Each film blossomed from the seed of a random daydream, or the excited epiphany that follows the accidental observation of something that interested me as I walk out in the morning. They are among other stories that write themselves, that are hastily scrawled in a Moleskine notebook I keep in my back pocket. Their stories are separate, but only in the way that peoples' lives are separate. Human beings are strange, social animals – these films are a small tribute to that.

Jeremy (J) : To shoot a mini film a month is a big feat. Are you making films most of the time or are you juggling it with something else?
David (D) : I wish I could be making films most of the time! No, part of the reason why I wanted to make a micro-short a month was because I wasn't making enough films as it was - but more on that later. Filmmaking is, as I'm sure most of you know, a tiring, exhausting process. But just because it's hard doesn't mean it doesn't have to be fun.
J : What inspired you to start on this project?
D : To keep it brief, there was an expensive, massive, convoluted film that I was involved in in early 2007. I poured myself, my savings, and a whole lot of emotional investment into it; and for a multitude of reasons it crumbled into pieces. After that, I told myself, never again.
I took a sabbatical off filmmaking for a couple of months and tried to get reinspired by watching as many films as I could, and reading up literature about creative types and how they dealt with insecurity, personal failures, etc. Somewhere along the way, I rediscovered my love for the short form. I've always appreciated tvcs that told short stories, or music clips that had some sort of a narrative thread.
Then I chanced upon an article somewhere that harked on how creative people NEED to practice - the way a writer practices writing with a pen, or a singer with his voice... surely a filmmaker needs constant practice with a camera... at the very least! Think about how -little- films we make a year! Already the Coen bros are doing the nay impossible by churning out close to a film a year - how amazing is that?
But that is still a film a year. 365 days. 52 weeks. long time. student filmmakers, if they're lucky, make one SHORT film a year. ditto any other filmmaker with a day job. by the time we get a grant approved, investors excited, boof! a year gone. Didn't John Ford make close to 150 films in his lifetime? Like, holy hell. Money and time's no excuse - look at the gems that come out of the 15/15-flybynight-48hr film festivals.
Of course not all of these films are going to be masterpieces. But that's not the point. The point is that there's practice... and an attitude where mistakes are embraced. I'm sure any filmmaker can attest to the beautiful chance mistakes that happen on set, that turn out to be the best part of the film.Because the converse, well, fair enough - you might make 7 or 8 features in your lifetime, and they might be the best films in the world. Are you willing to wage on the odds of that happening?
I've too many rampant ideas and stories just dying to be made, and too little money to get them made expensively. I'm not sure if I'm that sort of filmmaker to spend most of my life in pre-production, and not actually MAKING a film. At least, not yet. Maybe when I start getting good at it.And structurally, there's Jonathan Coulton's 'Song a Week' that I must credit. And Jane Campion's 'Passionless Moments'. Because it's been done before, but at least it's now been done with my voice.
J : Was there a running theme through the different month's shoot? I am asking this because your anthology has the common theme of the senses.
D : Not at all. I just wanted to be kept busy, making sure that I'm constantly working on a project. for eg. one was a short doco I worked on with my good friend/filmmaker Chris Pahlow for the BBC World Service.
We were commissioned by an old art teacher/mentor of ours and that took us a convenient one month to finish. Another was an ad I did for Ford. (which is still in post...)I guess I cheated a little with the 5 senses... I dreamed up that idea in a shower at my girlfriend's house back in 2006, I think. I was thinking of something that most of us could relate to regardless of language, religion, ethnic-background, and all that kerfuffle. We're human beings - at least we have that in common.Then when I came up with my film a month idea, I knew I would slot the 5 senses into each of the months in 2008 - i didn't know what story each one was going to be yet.
I'm one of those annoying people who keep a moleskine in their back pants-pocket and just trusted that I'd have an idea in there that I could use with each of the 5 senses.I like the way your characters each have a kind of behavioural anomaly related to one of the senses.
J : What is your inspiration or motivation behind these characters?
D : Haha, it didn't actually occur to me that they were behavioral anomalies actually... but nicely observed! These stories are meant to be slice-of-life, moments in lives of people you might actually know. The moments that they, otherwise normal people, will never forget - moments when they do something extraordinary, or as you call it, 'anomalous'.I think if you empathised with at least one of the characters, I would be happy.
I heartily believe that none of us are as 'normal' as we appear, or appear to other people. I'm certain that there are times, when we are alone by ourselves, that we'd do something... DIFFERENT that we'd be too shy or embarrassed about to tell others. That's why I think human beings are extraordinarily interesting. Everyone's lives are different, and everyone has a story to tell - and they don't need to be big stories.
As for how I came up with the ideas, I'll again have to credit my moleskine. I'd often overhear or dream up silly little things when I'm commuting, and i'd jot them down in my moleskine before I forget.
J : Do you maintain the same style throughout the mini-films or do you consciously try to make them different month to month?
D : Nope. Because they were all exercises for myself, they were also an experiment in form and style. I guess I was still trying to see what I enjoyed and what I didn't. When you watch the films, they will become apparent. Hopefully.I must add at this point that my producer Jack Haycox, would probably jump in and chide me for calling them 'exercises for myself'. Because it's his baby too, really. Thanks Jack.
J : How did you get help to shoot this? I mean, given that it is monthly, you must sure do a lot of begging!
D : Haha, I was just very lucky to be surrounded by very supportive friends, who have supportive friends, who too have supportive friends of their own! I was very clear to Jack about the leanness of these films from the beginning - we'd only have a core team of 3 - Jack, me, and our DP Simon Walsh. Each film will cost no more than AUD$500 to make, and no more crew than the set needed.I guess that it helped that some of us were still in film school then and we could use school gear half the time, but even then, we didn't take out more than we needed... which often was just a camera, a tripod, and one set of lights.
Most of the money went into stock, and food for the cast and crew... and ultimately, no film cost more than AUD$300 to make. And we made sure that the cast/crew were well fed! Which wasn't hard considering there were often no more than 6 - 8 of us at a time. Film #2, for eg., shot in SG when i was back briefly, only had 3 cast and crew in total: the production designer/makeup/costume dept/actress (all just dear Nicole), myself, and two of my friends who came at intervals to help briefly with grip-work and cleaning up.
Perhaps I was just trying to prove to myself that films don't need a grand hierarchy of crew, lots of money, and a lifetime in pre-production to make.
J : What were your biggest challenges in making this film?
D : Convincing myself that pre-production can be skimped on. Okay, I'm half-serious. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for pre-production when it comes to big films. Hell, big films are MADE during pre-production. But it was hard convincing people (and myself) at first that sometimes, at least for these films that we're making, traditional models of filmmaking can actually be very limiting. I wouldn't think '5films' would have been made if I had spent more money, or was slapped on the back with a significantly larger crew. I would have been too neurotic to make the films as intimately as I did. The result would be something I'd be less proud of, definitely.'5films' is what it is. I think I speak for the cast and crew that we're proud as heck for it having come so far.
J : Did you ever felt like giving up , like just skip one month or something ?
D : I've skipped two months - does that mean I've given up? I think not. At the end of the year, I think I spent so much time trying to get '5films' submitted for a screening that I had to forgo two months' worth of films. I don't regret it though. Sure, it's slightly cheating, but I'd still proudly call the project the result of an exercise in a film a month. It's all part of embracing mistakes. Shit's gonna happen on set, and in life. It's how we deal with it. Or so a similar cliche goes.
J : How many short films have you made prior to this?
D : Do you intend to make more and what are some of the ideas you have in mind?Not as many as I'd have liked. I made '4444' in 2005, which won a few things and convinced myself that there were at least 3 people out there who liked my work. After that, I think I was still finding my direction as a creative person - I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a DP, or a visual effects artist, or a motion graphics artist/animator, or a photographer, or a designer.
I think for several years I toyed around with all them disciplines before realising that I'd accidentally made myself a writer/director. After that, I tried for several years freelancing as much as I could to get a feel of the industry. I don't regret those years having done what I have, but in retrospect, I wished I thought of making small, fast films sooner... Yes, I do intend to make more. But in the meantime, I owe the Singapore Armed Forces 3 more months of mandatory military service, so I'm afraid that's got to be put on hold. For now.
J : 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!)
D :
1. Ghostbusters 2 - because really, i loved part one and the sequel was tame. And I've always wanted to sit in the Ecto-1!
2. Before Sunrise - because it was such an authentic, unforgettable poignance. I've harboured a crush for Julie Delpy since.
3. Lucky 7 - i've never seen it, but it sounds like such a collaborative, inspiring experience. Would love to be part of a future incarnation of it.
4. Me and You and Everyone We Know - The scriptwriting is superb, and I couldn't have done a better job than Miranda July.... but I wish I could have been the first to say... ))<>((
5. Mr Hulot's Holiday - If only to shake Jacques Tati's hand and learn French from him. Thanks for the interview opportunity!
David Liu's '5 Films in an Anthology of a Film a Month' is competing in the coming SIFF Shorts Silver Screen Awards.
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