Production Talk - 'Sandcastle' by Boo Junfeng

In the past three days, you might have come across news of a certain local film premiering at the Cannes film festival Critics' Week. Yes, Boo Junfeng seems to have done it again after his last piece, "Tanjong Rhu", screened at Berlin, another of the big three festivals. Amidst endless congratulatory calls, Junfeng's made time for our set of burning questions.

Just prior to 18-year-old En’s mandatory enlistment into the Singaporean army, a series of events and disclosures threatens to alter his worldview forever. The taste of his first romance, the death of his grandfather, his grandmother’s worsening Alzheimer’s disease, his schoolteacher mother’s affair with an uptight military commander, and En’s newfound awareness of his late father’s student activist past all contribute to his decision to reevaluate the pieces of his life before they are erased by the tides of time.

What started off the idea behind Sandcastle?
Inspiration for the story came from living with my grandmother over the last few years of her life. I witnessed her memory deteriorating with dementia, how it turned her into a different person during her moments of delirium, and how it affected the dynamics of my family. Initially, I wanted to address the pain and moral dilemmas associated with caring for an aged family member in Singapore. However, my grandmother passed away shortly after I had finished the first draft. While dealing with her demise, it felt impossible to continue on the original thread. I decided then to shift the focus thematically away from the illness and the pain it causes, to the idea of memory and how impermanent and mutable it is.

Why is national identity important to you? We saw that in "Keluar Baris" and this film seems to extend the theme.
I think identity is transient. The boys in Sandcastle and "Keluar Baris" are both at turning points in the way they identify themselves. I just wanted to capture those transitions.

Who did you consult for the material related to the student movements? Did you interview anyone interesting?
I tried contacting someone who used to be involved with the student movements. I asked to interview him but he turned me down. I was surprised that the subject matter still remained a taboo to a lot of people. To me, it is all history and I was just interested to hear anecdotes from different perspectives. Fortunately, while I was working on the screenplay, a number of books and newspaper articles related to the subject matter were published and I was able to refer to them. The only person who granted me an interview was Otto Fong, whose father is Fong Swee Suan. He gave me a lot of insight into his life growing up as the child of a political detainee, which was very helpful for me when I was developing En’s character.

What were your biggest roadblocks in the scriptwriting process? I mean it seems there are many issues and sub-issues involved, so my guess is the writing journey must have been challenging.
It took me about a year and a half to develop the story. Yes, I wanted to address a number of issues and had to weave them into the story but not turn it into a polemic. It was all quite delicate to handle. It was challenging for me also because it was the first time I was writing a full-length feature film. It was completely new territory for me.

Who is your target audience?
People who are interested.

How long did production take?
The shoot took 18 days.

What were your biggest challenges in making this film?
The most challenging part was in understanding the structure of a full-length narrative film, both as a writer and as a director. My experience from making short films gave me the technical knowledge in filmmaking and taught me how to work with actors. However, the development of characters and beats within the plot are very different. Fortunately, I have experienced mentors and advisers who were there to guide me along the way. I feel very grateful.

Any interesting anecdotes to share about the production?
I was working with an amazing bunch of people. They consisted of people from different parts of the world - all speaking Singaporean. A number of the team members are close friends and long-time collaborators. I owe the success of completion of this film to them. Like me, some of them were also making a full-length feature film for the first time. It was very encouraging to see that many of them had a sense of ownership for the film. I feel very proud of them.

It was quite a difficult casting process. I had intended to cast a mix of trained and untrained actors. For the lead role, we picked Joshua Tan – a bassist from the local band The Fire Fight. I got to know him when I collaborated with his band on a project for I invited him to come for auditions even though had never acted before and hardly spoke a word of Mandarin. When he came in to try out the role, I saw that he had an engaging presence on screen and was able to display a certain nonchalance that was essential to the character. Thereafter, we went through a month of workshops to get the tone of his performance right. The most delicate and complex relationship in the film is between mother and son. That is where we focused most of our energy on during rehearsals. Elena is a veteran actress who has been trained in both theatre and TV. It was very interesting workshopping with her and Josh; finding the chemistry between them. I learned a lot myself.

What kind of themes interest you, that we are likely to see more of in your future movies?
I guess I’ve always identified with themes like alienation, kinship, love and sexuality.

Selected links on Sandcastle's premiere at Cannes:
For more information on Sandcastle, you can check out Boo Junfeng's blog. The movie website will be out very soon.

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