Production Talk - 'For Two' by Tan Shijie

“For Two” or “二人“ is a short film about a woman who lives inside the cupboard of man’s apartment, and the curious relationship that they share. I had directed it as part of
my first year at Tisch School of the Arts Asia; it was supposed to be a 7-minute adaptation of a news article of our choice. That was the practical genesis of the project. The students were given in total about seven weeks to complete their films from basic idea to a finished cut, in addition to working on each other’s films, so it was a crazy time! It is funny how much crazier production can seem when looking back in retrospect – I guess you forget when you are in the thick of it.
We shot for 4 days, with a wonderful cast and crew, who worked with me very energetically to create the film - it was a set with great atmosphere, a quiet buzz underneath a calm working environment. I believe this is key: the atmosphere on set has an inestimable influence on the film-making. On the set of this film, it allowed me to work with the actors, as well as my cinematographer, very precisely. As much as it was an incredible experience directing the film, what gave me great satisfaction was when they told me how fruitful the experience was for them.

We heard that your inspiration came from a news article depicting a homeless woman living inside a man’s apartment with him in secret for a year. You weren’t pulling our legs right?
No joke. It was in a Japanese newspaper: a homeless woman was found to have been living inside a single Japanese man’s apartment, inside the upper section of a quite un- used wardrobe. It was a really small article, literally 4 paragraphs that offered exactly the same information in the previous sentence. Oh, the article also mentioned: the two people were quite elderly, 60ish or 70ish. (I can’t remember exactly) I hate to invoke cliché: but truth can really be stranger than fiction. In any case when I read the article I was incredulous – the situation was pregnant with so many dramatic possibilities, I knew I had to make a film about this.

In that particular scene where the male lead could have exposed the stranger who was hiding his cupboard there and then as the alarm clock rang, why the portrayal of reluctance to acknowledge each other?

Well, this goes back to the news article: it mentioned that the man was unknowing of the woman inside his own apartment. When I read this, I could not believe this: how can someone not know? Especially for a year? It was then that I began thinking of circumstances in which the man would ignore or rather, deny, the woman in his apartment. That was how the story came to be; if I had to boil the film down, it is a love story about two people who have this need for each other, but in a way that keeps that them trapped in their own separate worlds.

A very tragic situation, I think, but one that is common in regular life.

Speaking of which, how did you manage to go about casting? Is there a particular reason why you picked a Caucasian/Eurasian for your female lead?
I was lucky to have met my cast! They were both wonderful to work with, incredibly kind and open to ideas.

The Man is played by Donovan Lee, whom I’m told quite regularly appears on television. I don’t really watch a lot of television (no time!) so I don’t know. Donovan was recommended to me by another local actor (who was in my classmate’s short); I called him up and had a chat, and that was that. He was very sensitive and open, and always offering suggestions.

As for the Woman, she is played by Faye Kingslee, who had just come to Singapore from Australia, just a few weeks before the shooting; she had sent me an email because of an audition notice I put up. I had not intended for any particular ethnicity for the role, but I thought she looked very interesting for this role, and she had a very intuitive understanding of the character.

How was For Two made possible? In terms of getting your crew support and financing. Were you offered financial aid to shoot this film?
It was a student film, so technical crew were my classmates and great friends at Tisch Asia. I had help from my friends outside of the school on certain days as well, I am really grateful for their help. As for financing of the film, it was a relatively cheap film to make: it was my friend’s apartment, and the equipment was from school. Money was spent on props, wardrobe, welfare for the cast and crew, and of course, that cupboard.

I did think of approaching the SFC for funding, but because of the tight timelines of my own schedule, I could not, and so I decided to use my own resources. This is pretty much common practice in student films, I think, and luckily production costs were quite low. In my next project though, I want to do something larger in scale, so I hope to get some funding!

Nothing is smooth sailing in life, so with the challenges you’ve faced during production, how did you overcome them?

It was a relatively trouble-free set; I had worked with my Assistant Director (AD) to talk about possible problems, and my strategy for shooting the film beforehand, so things could run as smoothly as they could.

One challenge was that I wanted to film the actors on separate shooting days (they never met on the set) – I wanted to achieve a distance between them. But this meant, to get the right performances, they needed to be very imaginative and emotionally accessible, acting alone; this meant I needed time to work with each individual actor to get to that state. I remember stressing my AD out because of the time I took.

The advantage though, was that once the actor is in that state, you no longer have to worry too much about performance. It carries over, and we always ended up catching up to the schedule, and ending early instead! I remember having a laugh with my AD about it afterwards.

Did For Two turn out the way you’ve intended? Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
They say, in making a film, you make it several times; once with the original idea, another when you write the script, third when you shoot it, fourth when you edit it. I think without exception, by the fourth iteration, it has become quite something different from what you’ve intended. The only thing that a director can do is to try to retain the essence of the original idea, that initial inspiration that started the thing in the first place. With For Two, I am satisfied that this was accomplished.

As for whether or not there was anything I would do differently, I think there are always these sorts of things: a shot here should be higher, the blocking there should be more to he left, etc. I think every filmmaker has these sort of trivial thoughts. At the end though, I have come to the conclusion that the more important question to be asked is this: Does the final film affect the audience in the way you had hoped? It is such a special experience when you connect with the audience, and to that end I have been very encouraged by the reception to For Two. I am grateful for that!

Future plans?
Script-wise, I am currently in development for a number of projects, including developing a short film ideas for my thesis film, as well as writing my first feature, about which I am quite excited. It is still the early stages to discuss it, but the script is about a Singapore family whose characters each undergo individual crises, and how the experiences of these individuals affect the family dynamic. What makes a family?
I am also now in the process of finishing a short film entitled “The Hole”, that I directed in Japan in January this year, up in the cold mountain-country of Akiruno, an outskirt of Tokyo. It is about the relationship between a middle-aged farmer and his elderly mother, who has an urgent wish for him to find a partner. Please do look out for it!

For Two (二人) competed in the 66th Venice International Film Festival in the Short Film competition (Corto Cortissimo).
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