Production Talk - "Wake" by Atsuko Hirayanagi

Wake was Atsuko's first year project at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Asia. The project had to be an adaption of a news article, which led her to pick a Japanese article from 2004. It talked about a skeleton of a man being found in an abandoned apartment building situated in Tokyo that was about to be demolished – the person had been dead for 20 years of a natural cause. Thus, Wake was the result of her curiosity as to why no one had bothered to look for this all of those years.

"I first adapted the story into a Japanese script, but since we had to shoot in Singapore, I changed the setting to Singapore. While location scouting and speaking with HDB management, I realized that it would be very unlikely to find a dead body left unnoticed in an abandoned building in Singapore for more than 6 months, let alone for 20 years. At the end, I decided to suspend this portion of reality, as I felt that the spine of the story was fairly universal. I also found that there were many similar cases of bodies found in abandoned buildings and houses around the world, including in the US, Chile, Italy and Romania. In one of the cases, the body was found after more than 30 years.
The three and a half day shoot kicked off in March 2010 at an HDB in Jurong that had been empty for six years. It was actually spooky because there were still traces of people’s lives left behind, from posters and scribbles on the wall, to some furniture, dishes and kids toys buried in dust. We thought that we might really find someone dead there, as there were hundreds of apartments and each block was like 20 stories high.
The rest of the shoot was more ad hoc and a bit last minute, with the generous support of a funeral parlor and our cinematographer, whose apartment we literally trashed. This is because I wanted the protagonist, Mike, to live in a “garbage castles” (Gomi goten)—which is a recent phenomenon in Japan, some people bury their houses from inside and outside in clutter. I wanted Mike’s character to be a hoarder, who is stuck in the past and afraid of letting go. OK, I won’t give the story away. I just hope that Wake captures at least some moments that resonate with people, regardless of where they live."
You mentioned that your first year project had to be an adaption of a news article, so did you already had the intention of looking for news article regarding undiscovered corpses or did you happened to stumble upon them? Why the choice of undiscovered corpses?
I stumbled upon the article about 6 years ago when I was writing a Sci Fi script of similar topic. It was about a son returning home after a long absence, and discovering that his mother was actually an alien who had taken over the body of his long dead mother. I remembered this article, so I used it.
Speaking of undiscovered corpses, which would mean that you need a long abandoned place. So how did you go about scouting for locations?
We spent weeks location scouting, sometimes even sneaking into places (shh) or taking photos of abandoned houses from nearby rooftops. It was very hard because in Singapore they are always building new buildings, and they don't let old buildings just sit there. When we were getting really desperate to find the right place, Mike (the lead actor) told me about this HDB, which he had shot something at weeks prior. It was perfect. The HDB management were very flexible with us as well. So it was serendipitous.

How about casting? Did you already have a 'Mike' in mind?

Mike's name was referred to me by a friend, who had worked with him. I called him in for the audition, and during the audition, I asked him many random but personal questions. One of the questions was "what do you regret most in your life?" I thought that regret was a very important element of Mike's character, which brought to him to the 'current' state in his life. The audition was an emotional one. The way Mike told me a particular story, made me feel that he was it for the role.

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

The lack of pre-production time was the biggest challenge. Since this was a school project, we as a team of five were assigned a production period of 20 days, so each of us got 5 days (2 days of pre-pro and 3 days of shooting) for our films. The groups were assigned randomly, and we rotated in our roles, from DP to AD to Sound to Grip to Writer / Director. So basically you have no time to pre-pro once the production period starts, because you're constantly working for other classmates. I was missing a few actors until a night before the shoot, so it was extremely stressful. You're also physically getting really exhausted. You just have to have faith that it will come through, and it does, usually : )

On post production, Freddie Yeo from Infinite Frameworks was extremely helpful, from color correction support to introducing me to sound editors. Editing your own film is really hard, especially after getting a lot of different, and sometimes conflicting, feedback. You also become so close to it that you start losing perspective. It's good to have a deadline, then you can eventually let it go.

Did Wake turn out the way you've envisioned it to be ? If not/so, is there anything you would have done differently?

When I watched it recently at the screening of the Singapore Short Film Awards, I saw more holes than I remember seeing last year : ) In most part, Wake did turn out the way I envisioned it to be, but I really wished that I had more time to prepare. It would have been great to have more time for pre-production. I would have liked time to rehearse with actors and block the scenes as well. It's all a learning experience I guess. You can grow from it. Because of what I went through with Wake, I felt like I was in much more control during my 2nd year film production, which we just shot over the winter in Japan.

Future plans?

I'm in the middle of post production for my 2nd year film, so finishing it would be the immediate future plan. Then the next project would be my thesis, then you graduate, then your first feature... I hope it never ends. Hopefully I grow as a filmmaker each time.
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