LUNCHBOX 6 - Anthony Chen

We simply went the distance for this LUNCHBOX. No prizes for guessing where we went to catch our subject.

Sunday 21 Nov, 10 pm

Changi Airport Terminal 3

Jeremy (J): So apart from the film I helped out in, what other things are you doing right now?

Anthony (A): Currently working on my first feature film. Hopefully we will go into the production in the middle of next year.

J: Are you in the scripting stage?

A: Yes, in the scripting stage and trying to complete financing on that film. Then, hopefully we could start pre-production in January.

J: Is this going to be done in London or Singapore?

A: Singapore. (pause) It’s very important that I make my first film in Singapore.

J: So how are you straddling between the two countries? I assume you are based in London?

A: I would say based between Singapore and London.

J: What do you do when you are back there?

A: Load of development meetings. I am developing a few different projects there. Meetings with production companies and producers…. Developing other features…but this is a long process and you’ve probably have heard of the term development hell. (pause) Hopefully I will be doing some commercials in London but it’s quite tough because I am not physically there all the time. So it’s hard to do the shorter projects there.

J: So what can the audience from your feature film?

A: It’s exploring the same themes that I have always been doing – family drama. Very much in the same genre as Ah Ma, Haze and even the latest short I made in the UK. It’s about growing up, coming-of-age, family. Subconsciously, it has become something that is recurring in my films. At the same time, I think it is also because of some of the directors that I really like… directors like Edward Yang, Hou Hsien Hsien, Kore-eda whom I love a lot. Erm… Ang Lee too.

J: Has the London experience had any influence on your films?

A: The reason why I desperately want to make the feature in Singapore is because it addresses what I am about and where I am from. At the same, I think there would be quite a few collaborations with Europe in terms of the crew and even post-production. I think is going to be some form of collaboration, be it in sound or cinematography. I think that probably is the nearest link to London. (pause) With Hotel 66, I really, which was shot in London, I really wanted to explore the stylistic part of myself, that’s why it was a little heavy on production design. (pause) For the film that I am doing in Singapore, hopefully it is simple and humble. Not trying to be anything. You might not have seen it but I actually made another short film after Hotel 66, which was very back to basic, very personal, very observational kind of storytelling.

J: This is probably something a lot of the younger filmmakers will be interested to know. After having the Cannes and Berlin exposure (and you know not everyone can get that) and with the media playing it up in tiny little Singapore, did things get a lot of easier for you? In terms of your career? And how about being an Asian in Europe pursuing your vision?

A: Probably not easier in Singapore, unless you really up-play certain things and you are hungry to do just anything and everything. But I am quite picky and selective about what I do… and I don’t think I have been doing ‘proper’ work for the past 6 years. I have always been doing pro-bono, non-profit work. I have never really made money. (pause) Interestingly, I observed things to be a little different in Europe. People, I mean, producers make the effort to understand the filmmaker before making any decisions. Also, they seem to value the film festival credentials of the film more in Europe than in Singapore. Things are a little more pragmatic here.

J: I guess I am coming from the point of view of a person who wants to know the ‘route’ or to put it a bit awkwardly, the ‘route to success’?

A: Mm…. I may not be the best person to answer this! (laughs) However, and I can only say it in my case, I have had an easier time in Europe than in Singapore. (pause) Just digressing a little, the ways things work over there is quite different. You walk into a meeting with producers and you realized that they have done their due diligence on you. And I am also able to get feedback from these producers through my agent. In a way, the environment is very nurturing and it does not only apply to filmmakers but writers and people in other creative capacities as well.

J: Actually what you said is not very new. We all know too well how things work here. There are ‘KPI’s to be met – you know what’s a KPI?

A: Yes. I know that very well (laughs).

J: Sadly, this is true not only in film, but also in many other professions that also involve creativity. Perhaps society needs to change before you even talk about a sector like film. (pause) Actually I would like to link this to my next question. Erm, it is something you brought up when we met at the National Museum last month. You mentioned that you observed that many Singaporean filmmakers are churning out a lot of films, causing a dilution of the quality of films here or what a film may be truly defined as. But you know, some people will tell you that this is the age in which anyone with mobile phone can also make a film, who are you to tell…

A: Yeah, I mean it’s true and it’s about this whole purist dilemma. But I don’t think it is about the budget. In fact, one of the first films I am going to make after my feature is going to be really low-budget, like no-lighting, small crew, non-actors. I believe the story can be told that way but I feel it is very important that there is a certain form of discipline in the filmmaking. I am not into the whole ‘to be a filmmaker, you need to go to film school’ saying because there brilliant filmmakers who did not have formal education. Perhaps because in the past, it was so difficult to make films, so there was a lot of thinking before launching into something. (pause)

So I just think people need to think further than just to go ‘You know I am free this weekend, let’s make a film’ or ‘I am going to shoot a feature in one day. You know it’s realty interesting,. I just came back from Taiwan and had a very interesting discussion with a filmmaker friend of mine there. He said you can’t dictate what film is because film means something different to everyone. I tend to agree because some people see film as art, some people see film as a tool to make money. Some people see film as a political device. Some people see film as something that can be put on YouTube.

I think we, in Singapore, are in a very awkward position because we are not in a homogeneous society. We’re not Korea, China, Taiwan. We do not have a product that just caters to our local population. So it makes it very important that the product can travel overseas. So in a way, you need some form of branding. Among my Taiwanese and Hong Kong friends, it is slightly easier because of their history or heritage of films. But for us, it is more difficult. We have to fight so hard to convince people.

I just came back from a film financing forum and learnt a few things. I looked at the box office numbers of Singaporean films for the past twenty year. 8 to 9 out of 10 films lost a lot of money and you are looking at films with stars in it. The only films that constantly make money is films by Jack Neo. We don’t even need to look at the figures to know they make money. In fact, every single film, clocks a minimum of one million. One the other hand, there are films that make only 3000 in Singapore when it cost half a million to make. So in a way, we need to sell our product. Unless we can recover that costs, there is no way to get investors interested. Or they will say they will give you 10,000 to make it. But with 10,000, you can’t do very much that is fit enough to be picked up by the distributors. So, we don’t want to be trapped in this vicious cycle.

One top of this, film branding is not just influenced by the people working in that particular film itself. It can also be influenced by the general perception of films from that country by the rest of the world. You can be an award-winning filmmaker or an amateur filmmaker, all of us make up the general picture that is being judged by others. As a matter of fact, Singapore does indeed send 300 – 400 short films out to film competition overseas every year but the general tide of opinion towards them have not always been positive. Sometimes that can become a vicious cycle because our credibility is affected.

It also does not help that the films that are doing well in the film festival circuit are really arthouse, making it difficult for investors to be convinced about financing our films. So the moral of the story seems to be that we either make really bad films or we make arthouse films that are good but hard to sell.

J: Do you think the loophole in this is the ‘excessive submission’, so in fact we should continue to encourage filmmaking but to let the filmmakers know the difference between a film fit for a competition and a film good enough as a classroom project or for self-amusement.

A: I think it is interesting but I won’t name the person. I know the previous head of film school in Singapore who actually stopped his students from submitting certain films to festivals because he felt they were not good enough to go out. So I feel in a way, we need to contain…..

J: Opportunistic behaviour?

A: No not really… what I mean is everyone has a part to play to uphold a certain standard of filmmaking quality. And I am not talking about the medium. It could be really low quality, shot on DV, but what I saying is the quality of the story. I am sure there will be people who will argue against that because it is very hard to decide what is a good or bad film. It is subjective. But generally, everyone needs to come together to uphold the standards so that we are not known as people who are churning out quantity. In some years, we can get as many as 30 feature films, I think that year was the year when Lucky 7 and 881 were out. It is really huge for a country like Singapore.

(pause) You know, I am also noticing that people are thinking that it is very easy to be a filmmaker, in Singapore especially. Particularly in Singapore, everyone only wants to be the director, they forget that there are many other interesting roles to fill as well. Also, the media seems to be propagating that it is easy to be a Royston Tan or Boo Junfeng and that suddenly, so many local films are making it to Cannes, Berlin and Venice. But what many people may fail to see is that filmmakers could be working 20 hours a day, not earning much, no bread, no butter. It’s really tough. I think peple need to understand that there is something called ‘madness’ when it comes to filmmaking and you really need to …

J: Be a little mad.

A: And you really need to be risking a lot. It’s not really that glitzy. There is no ‘Light Camera Action’ red carpet whatever. It is so easy to think that that’s filmmaking but it really is not. I have been making films for a couple years and the day before my shoot, I am still sourcing for last-minute props, trying to solve production problems and all that. It’s not comfy at all. It’s really tough. People need to realize that it is not easy. It’s a tough route.

Some people are stirred up by the illusion that it is cool to be part of the film industry and the great number of film schools around here seems to support this buzz. But they don’t know that the money isn’t there. Jobs are tough. There is a lot of crap you have to go through. That is not being told. I am fine with the media encouraging people to go into filmmaking but people need to know the pitfalls. People need to be mentally prepared for that.

J: I guess what then happens subsequently is the drop out. True enough people want to get into it but at the same time, there is high drop out. So by the ecological balancing forces of it, people get eliminated and then realize that they might have a better future in TV or advertising. So in fact, people do see the reality after a while.

A: I don’t doubt that but I am just wondering if it is worth their time to go through 4 year of film school and only realize this is not for them after that. I mean even I am starting to feel that it is really tough./ You know in Taiwan they have this saying that you must be either dumb or crazy if you want to be a filmmaker (如果要拍片, 你不是傻子就是疯子。)

J: You kinda answered the last question I have for you – ‘Would you starve for the sake of art?’

A: (laughs) I have been starving so much you have no idea what I have been through. There are times when I so enjoy going to production so much, even my own because there is always catered food or 杂菜饭 (mixed rice) or whatever. Or if the shoot starts too early, you get to claim the taxi. So on $20 you can use it to take taxi again and there if free food……. You just feel so blessed to be on the production!

'Calling all passengers on flight SQ.................' and off he runs into the departure gates. I shouted across to say I wanted to see the finished product of his recent shoot.

Check the time on the clock!
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