Production Talk - "Tabula Rasa" by Malcolm Ong

The film was originally made to compete in the 2010 Creative Video Awards organised by SMA, to fit the competition theme of "Best Memory". Initially, a very different direction was explored for the project, until inspiration struck from a drink driving advertisement. The film aims to explore how we perceive memories and consciousness, and the entire production period lasted roughly 3 weeks from concept to finish. It marks writer/director Malcolm Ong's first foray into serious short films, having only made simple school videos in the past. Comprising a cast and crew of friends, the film was a collaborative effort as everyone contributed greatly to make it possible. The intent, which we hope we accomplished, was to deliver a full story and a cinematic experience despite having a time frame of only 3 minutes, and more importantly, to establish an emotional connection with the audience.

We heard that Tabula Rasa's about a blank state. Could you tell us more about that? 

Well I was drawn to the philosophical concept of Tabula Rasa - I personally believe that everyone is born as a blank slate. In this film, I really posed the question of what would run through somebody's mind when he knew that he was going to regress to that "blank state" after having been filled by what anyone accumulates through simply living. I wouldn't pretend to say that I was attempting to make any form of grandiose social commentary through my film. Instead, I simply created the scenario and let my character (Joel) flesh out the rest of the story, and the film is the result of that thought experiment.

Where did the inspiration come from? 

The inspiration really stemmed from how terrible my previous idea was. I remember penning down my idea, and making it halfway through, then read it from the top and thought to myself: "Ok, this is crap". This spurred me to search for a new idea, and it was at this moment, incidentally, that my friend happened to post an advertisement about drink driving on facebook, and it was from that advertisement that I lifted my premise. From there, I just tried to connect it back to "Best Memory", and attempted to think of a creative way to work it in. 

How did the film come together in terms of obtaining crew, casting and location?

Pretty much everything was done on a referral basis, and I called upon friends and friends of friends for the majority of the work. My cast and crew were really invaluable in helping to realize my vision for the script, and it is to them that I owe everything that the film has achieved thus far. Everything was very challenging to put together however, as I was working under a fairly tight timeline. I'll outline the challenges that I faced in the following section.

What were the challenges you’ve faced from the pre-production to post production? How did you overcome them eventually?

Oh boy, where should I start. It began with casting - my entire production period lasted about 3 weeks from script to finish, and even for a 3 minute film, we really couldn't have finished it even a day earlier. I had based the character of Joel on a school friend who had earlier played a similar role, and was, thankfully, available on my shoot days. I had a greater challenge finding an actress, and pretty much called everyone I knew until I found a lead, and I cast her literally less than a week before we were slated to shoot the film. The main set, which was a bedroom was easily secured as my friend had a spare room in his house which he lent us to shoot in. The real challenge was in finding a convincing hospital room to shoot in. I called practically all the hospitals in Singapore looking for one that would consent to a poor amateur filmmaker using a room for an hour just to film a single scene. We finally locked down a location at the Alice Lee Center for Nursing Studies about 5 days before we had to submit the film. 

This was near the Christmas season as well, so it was a bit tough juggling production with festive duties. However my cast and crew performed superbly, and we really did manage to work as a coherent and effective unit. Granted that now and then creative differences did arise, but we kept a very collaborative and open environment on set and throughout production, and these issues were generally cleared up pretty quickly. I can't say how much I appreciate the efforts of my cast and crew, many of whom worked pro-bono on the project, and it really showed me the power of a good idea. They gave their time and effort because they supported the idea and my vision, and wanted to see the script go somewhere. I'm very glad that their efforts paid off and Tabula Rasa went on to receive the acclaim that it did!

Are you satisfied with how Tabula Rasa turned out? Is there anything you would have done differently?

I'm extremely satisfied with how the film turned out in the end. In fact, while it was a major challenge, I'm glad for the 3 minute limit that we had to adhere to. The original cut of the film was closer to 5 minutes long, and having to shave it down to 3 minutes meant that we dropped a lot of the fat, and I feel that the pacing is a lot better for the time limit. 

Of course in retrospect there are always things that you would do differently, but I can safely say that Tabula Rasa fulfills about 80% of my original vision which, I think, for an amateur independent production, is a phenomenal achievement considering all the compromises that one tends to have to make to get things under budget(in this case, no budget), and within the expertise of yourself and your crew. If I had to shoot it all over again I would definitely try to be a bit more adventurous in my shooting style to better complement the chaos that was going through his mind as it literally broke apart around him, but otherwise I would say that I am very satisfied with how this film turned out. Unlike much of my past work, this is something I would proudly show off to people!

How was the transition from directing school videos to a short film? Would you continue to do filmmaking?

It was quite an exhilarating experience all in all. When you direct a short film, you're not just putting it on display to your school - it's for the world to appreciate. With school videos, there are a few threads that you know will definitely strike a chord with your audience. However with the general public, you never really have that assurance. It's easy to feel insecure when you put your work out there to be judged by the masses. That being said, this film came after an extremely long hiatus for me, having had to put a pause in my filmmaking for my exam period, and subsequently my NS stint, and this experience has really reignited my passion for the art. I will definitely want to continue shooting films whenever I can, but man, finding inspiration is hard! Not to mention with Tabula Rasa's success so far, it'll be hard to make something that matches up! It is a worry of mine that I'll only ever be a one hit wonder...heh.

Any projects in mind?

A few doors have been opened since I made Tabula Rasa so I'm hoping to see where that leads. Nothing is really firmed up right now however. Currently I'm pretty much unemployed and waiting for university, so if you have, or know of anyone who has any jobs or industry-related industries to throw my way I'd be glad to try them out! 

Tabula Rasa bagged the 1st Runner Up title over at TNP First Film Fest. 

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