Production Talk - 'Homecoming' by Lee Thean-jeen

HOMECOMING is a series of intertwining stories about an ensemble of people on both sides of the Causeway as they head home to celebrate their Chinese New Year Reunion Dinner with their families.

A road-trip movie, comedy and heartwarming family drama all rolled into one, the movie takes place over the course of one day – Chinese New Year's Eve.

Hi Thean-Jeen, we understand this is your feature film directorial debut, how did you feel when you started this and what was your approach?

I didn't think that when I made a first feature film, it would be a Chinese New Year comedy! For getting that off the ground, I have Daniel (Yun), Phillip (Lim) and (Chan) Pui Yin, the producers of the movie, to thank. My main worry was doing comedy: as the saying goes, "dying is easy, comedy is hard"! Although I've done several comedy series on television, I've never been in the same room as my audience when they're watching it!

The stylistic approach to shooting the film came about through discussions with my DOP, Joel San Juan, whom I've worked with on many projects over the last few years. We like to try and see how long we can hold a shot and keep it interesting, and also, Joel is a Steadicam operator. So we decided to shoot as much as possible in long continuous takes that wouldn't interrupt the actors' momentum. Our opening shot is a single five-minute Steadicam shot that introduces most of the main characters and sets up the premise of the movie. By Hollywood standards, it probably isn't a big deal, but some of the cast did a double-take when we told them they'd have to perform 8 pages of script in one go!
Did you come up with the idea for Homecoming? Why this premise?

The idea for what became Homecoming actually originated with Adrian Tan and Phillip. They were interested in doing a road movie about people rushing back for Chinese New Year Reunion Dinner. When they told me about the premise, I was immediately attracted to it because of my own experience - I've been making the journey back from Singapore to Penang for Chinese New Year for the last 17 years. So what started as a series of casual conversations eventually became a script, and then a film.

How is it switching from TV directing to film directing? What were the things you had to get used to?
The one thing you have to get used to is the size of the canvas - a close-up on a movie screen is HUGE! I love extreme close-ups when directing TV, but for the movie, I had to keep reminding myself that my actors' faces would be two stories high on the screen. So I had to be really selective about when to go in close to an actor. I think there's actually only one extreme close-up in the entire film, and it comes at an emotional turning point in the story. Other than that, the same principles of telling a story apply.

How Homecoming, differ from the rest of the comedies produced by J Team?

I think that's a question you're more qualified to answer than me! I didn't set out to make a J Team comedy, nor did I set out to make one that was not. What I wanted to do, if this qualifies as an answer to the question, was to make sure that the comedy was a function of the story and characters. I personally dislike movies which are just laughs for laughs' sake - it was my hope that, after the laughter has subsided on this one, the characters and the stories still stay with you.

How was it like directing Jack Neo? Was it your idea to have Jack Neo cross-dressing after his many successfully entertaining personalities, e.g. Liang Po Po, Liang Si Mei etc.?

The idea to have Jack Neo play a woman came from one of the discussions we had with the producers of the movie, among them Daniel, Phillip and Pui Yin.

As for directing Jack Neo ... Jack came in as an actor on this film, and he was completely focused on his character - he was always concerned that the voice was the right pitch and the mannerisms were funny but not too large. He really wanted to create a comical character that was not a cariacature, and he put a lot of work into it. His performance as Karen Neo seems so effortless on screen, you tend to overlook the amount of detail - and Jack's talent as a comedian and observer - that went into it.

Are you someone who sticks with the original screenplay or you prefer your cast members to improvise on shoot? I understand you direct in English, how did you deal with the Chinese-speaking cast?

Even when I write my own scripts for TV, the actors are free to improvise ... provided they can come up with better lines! In Homecoming, there was great chemistry among the leads - Jack and A Niu especially - and when they got together, they would come up with interesting ideas for their characters or the scene. So we just went with it. As a director, sometimes the best thing you can do for the film is NOT try to direct, but just give your actors some space and then stand back and watch the sparks fly.

As for directing in English, my Mandarin isn't completely useless ... just near-useless! I could still direct in a combination of English and extremely basic Mandarin. Since I was born and raised in Penang, I could direct Mark Lee in Hokkien and the Malaysians in Malay. So it was really a multi-lingual set. I also had a great team of Assistant Directors who helped me watch over the language.

Absolutely loving the accents performed on the trailer! How did the cast acquire those accents? (Apart from Mark Lee whom we suspect was relying on his sheer talent!)

I can't take any credit for the accents, and you're right - Mark came up with the accent on his own, during the very first meeting we had to discuss his character. He just looked at the script and did it on the spot! In fact, his Cantonese-accent was so thick, we had to pull it back because some of my Chinese producers couldn't understand him! When we were in Hong Kong mixing the film, we asked the post-production people there if he was taking us for a ride with the accent, and they all said no - it was very authentic. So that was a great relief!

What were the bumps you and your team encountered during production? How did you overcome them?

The biggest production bump, in my opinion, was not being able to shoot with the actors on the actual North-South Highway, where the story took place. You simply couldn't close off the main expressway linking Singapore to North Malaysia, and shooting on a fully-operational four-lane expressway with actors and crew threw up a myriad of safety issues. So we had to find different sections of expressway both around KL and in Singapore (yes, Singapore!) that when cleverly edited together, would look like the same road.

Has the film turned out the manner you have envisioned it to be? If not, what would you have done though?

To me, making a film is an organic process. I don't go in saying, the film must turn out this way and this way only. You're closing yourself off to a lot of possibilities if you believe that there is only one way to make a film. So by that token, I don't reflect and make that comparison between what I started out to do and what I ended up with. I imagine every director believes they could have done better with more money and more time, but it's a self-defeating process for me to go down that path. Far better to look ahead, to the next story you're going to tell.

What are your upcoming projects? Any future collaboration with J Team or Homerun?

After working so hard to bring Karen Neo to life, I don't think Jack's going to hang up his D-cups so soon! But no, nothing has been seriously discussed as yet.

At the moment, I'm developing another project for Homerun Asia, a script for a film revolving around the events of 1965, when Singapore separated from Malaysia.

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