Production Talk on 'Eclipses' With Daniel Hui

In a similar vein of his much-anticipated debut feature film, ‘Eclipses’, which made its world premiere at the 24th Singapore International Film Festival last year, the production talk with Daniel Hui displayed the honest and current reality of human communication. Swollen, if not thought-provoking and belated, email replies travelled painfully between Los Angeles where Hui is currently based now, and Singapore, over a three-month period.

If you haven’t caught ‘Eclipses’, here’s an inadequate synopsis that goes into generalisations towards the end, which should probably encourage you to watch the resonating ‘Eclipses’ yourself. In spite of that, and, in the meantime, whet your appetite with this production talk.

Synopsis: A woman begins to come to terms with society after having withdrawn into her own world to mourn her late husband. The film splinters away to document the characters surrounding her – people from different classes, including the director’s own family. An investigation of the landscapes in which we live, work, and play, this is Singapore seen through the prisms of family, class and race.

Vicki: Tell us more about Eclipses as your first feature length film. Has it got anything of special significance to your life or your love for film?

Daniel: I didn't choose Eclipses to be my first feature film. Instead, I chose to make it because I thought it was going to be the last film I'll ever make. It came at a time when I was graduating from film school and that meant losing access to all the resources I had to make a film. So I felt that if this was going to be the last film I'll ever make, I should show everything I wanted to show about Singapore in this film. Anyway I think it's always better to assume that every film you make would be your last. It makes you panic, and panic makes you think long and hard about what you want to make. Nothing is arbitrary. The more I thought about the film, the bigger it became and it gradually became, in my mind, this epic 4-hour experimental film.

Thankfully I realized halfway through that to make a film that represents everything in its totality is merely stupid megalomania, and that it's better to make an incomplete film that contributes to an existing (and future) discourse, than to make a film that claims to say everything. You see these megalomaniacal films everywhere. In Hollywood, of course, but also, especially, in art-house cinema. That Terrence Malick piece of shit The Tree of Life is a perfect example of that. It aims for the stars, but ends up being ignorant, racist, and self-absorbed.

Vicki: Why split (or rather blur) between fiction, and documentary in Eclipses? Why go to the lengths of coming up with Vel's story as a widow, when perhaps the reality of the other stories and perspectives of and in Singapore had a more resonating quality and honesty of documentation?

Daniel: I'm glad that resonated with you, and to be sure, that is very essential to the film. But my own entry point into the film was that of Vel's story. It was in a way my story. I was trapped in my own perspective for a very long time, that I couldn't see the outside world. My epiphany was when I started seeing the people and the world around me, and I wanted to make a film about that.

Vicki: In the post-screening Q & A at SIFF, you mentioned that you had an initial idea of showing landscapes and other people, but eventually many were cut from the film. That left your family and the people you care for, at its core, at least in the second part, where you had to "listen" to them. How much more did you learn through listening to these people close to and around you, within your film and on your set with this different approach?

Daniel: The biggest difference for me in this film is that I decided to open up my process. When I was making Night Lights, I was completely alone in that I was making all the directorial decisions. Since I had no script, I was basically making stuff up on the spot. I would go on set and everybody had their eyes on me and they would ask me, 'What are we going to do now, Daniel?' That put a lot of stress on me, and halfway through the month-long shoot I had a breakdown and I felt I couldn't continue. That experience really changed the way I made films. I realized how much I hated making films, because the director is always alone. He or she sits at the top of his ivory tower, yelling at his people and abusing his subjects. The director is the ultimate fascist leader. The violence he or she inflicts on his crew (people who were helping me too!) is incredible. 

I tried a different approach in my short film Rumah Sendiri, where it was just me with the camera, and Yanti as the subject in my film. In that film, I asked her to tell me what to do, to tell me where to move and etc. That process revived my interest in filmmaking again. I realized that a different mode of filmmaking was possible, that I didn't have to conform to the system- I could create my own system of working that I'm comfortable with, that I felt wasn't so violent. 

So I wanted to continue this style of working on to Eclipses, a feature-length film, as an experiment. I asked a very close friend of mine, Lim Lung Chieh, who is also an amazing filmmaker, to write the film with me, together with the lead actress Vel Ng. When I say write the film, I mean that we were only working out the scenario, that is, we were working out what we were going to shoot. And we decided everything day by day. I usually hate working with screenplays. So in preparation for the shoot, the three of us would just meet and talk about anything under the sun. By the end of a few weeks, I would take things from our conversations and write a basic outline. I had a general concept of where we were going, so I was able to write the outline pretty quickly. But it was just an outline. It had no details at all. So we would show up where we were going to shoot, according to the outline, and we would just talk some more. Some days, we would talk for five hours, and only shoot for half an hour. The people in the scene would either write their dialogue or tell us what they were going to say. 

I approached this film as a student, I wanted to learn from the world. So I was learning so much from Lung Chieh, from Vel, from the other people in the film all the time. I knew nothing. I was an empty cylinder, and they were filling me up all the time. One time, Lung Chieh and I got into a huge argument over a scene where Vel is talking to her friend (the first scene of the movie). I wanted Vel to have bandages around her wrists to hint that she might have attempted suicide, although I never addressed it in the film. Lung Chieh was dead set against it, because he thought that the only ethical way to talk about suicide in a film was to address it head on. We spent many hours arguing back and forth, although I won out at the end. I guess filmmaking is an autocratic activity after all. 

There is some truth to the extent that I will always be the voice that animates the film after all, because montage- stringing images together- is the strongest voice in a film. No matter how hard I try, I can never erase myself. In fact, I've realized all the more that the film is an intensely personal film, and that even with the collaboration of so many people who are much more intelligent, much more talented than I am, it is still my film after all.

Vicki: In the post-screening Q & A at SIFF, you talked about the process of shooting Eclipses with film, and lovingly so at that. Will you ever go back to shooting with video?

Daniel: The whole basis of live-action filmmaking is choosing. You choose what should be in and out of the frame. You choose where you put the camera in relation to your subject. You choose the shots you want, the takes you want and etc. Once you take that choosing process out of filmmaking, you'd might as well ask a machine to make the film. And I think, these days, I'd much rather watch a film that a machine has made than a film that so-called 'filmmakers' make. 

People don't choose anymore. They set up multiple cameras – especially affordable these days with video cameras – and shoot for coverage. I think coverage is the most idiotic concept in filmmaking. That's why directors these days don't need to have any talent at all. They leave all the choosing to their editors and sound designers, who, faced with a mountain of useless footage, can only make the best out of it, which is not much. The idea of a director in old Hollywood movies is precisely that – the person that chooses. Howard Hawks and John Ford, in order to escape the tyranny of the producer, would only shoot things that they wanted in the film. They intentionally didn't shoot many other things, so that the producer would have nothing else to choose from aside from what Hawks and Ford gave them. And that's why when you watch their films today, it's as if you're watching how their brains work. You can literally watch them thinking – through their mise-en-scène and through their montage. Watch a film like Battle: Los Angeles and tell me if the director even thinks. It's no wonder that audiences are brain dead. The directors are brain dead too!

That's my contention with video too, is that it can produce so much footage that you don't choose at the level of shooting. You can just take everything and throw it to an editor. That's how reality TV and documentaries work these days. The people who are doing all the work are the assistant editors, who log and select all the usable footage. They skim it through once, give it to the editors, who stich the usable footage together. And yet these assistant editors usually don't even know what the programs are about! 

Yes, I would admit that video is a lot cheaper to shoot, and that opens up a lot of the stupid barriers of entry that industry insiders put on filmmakers. But we have to create our own system of filmmaking that feels comfortable to us. Right now, it is literally a hegemony of video that is ruling cinema. It's come right down to the government pouring all its money – misguidedly, I might add – into weird digital technologies that aren't taking off at all. But just because the government says it's right, just because everyone's doing it, doesn't mean it's the right thing. We all have to find our own canvas. A painter who works with oil would never ditch oil for watercolors just because it's cheaper would they?

I don't know if I'll work with video again. Video is difficult to shoot too. It has its own limitations and shortcomings. But it definitely does have its advantages.

Vicki: You mentioned in the post-screening Q & A that you are not interested in stories, that barely anything in "Eclipses" was written by you, more spoken by the people in the film and you merely "listened". You also discussed how the camera should be like a bracket -- it contains, but also betrays the presence of other things beyond itself. Exactly what macrocosms do you as a filmmaker want to document, or perhaps feel that local audiences and other local filmmakers are not listening enough to?

Daniel: I met with Apichatpong one time, and I showed him parts of the film. I was telling him how, in my editing process, I wasn't trying to make a good film that pleased me aesthetically; rather, I was trying to be fair to the characters in my film. I believed in what Godard said about Rossellini- that we shouldn't try to make beautiful images. But rather, we should make images that are true, and they would necessarily be beautiful, because truth is beauty. Apichatpong disagreed with me and said that filmmaking is essentially about pleasuring the filmmaker, that I could never be fair to the audience nor to the characters. I still disagree with him. I think that kind of filmmaking would always fall into the trap of intellectual masturbation, which is why cinema today is so bad.

I meet a lot of local filmmakers whose only objective is to make a good film. Fuck good films. There are too many good films out there that don't have anything to say at all. I would much rather watch a shit film that has something interesting to tell me about the world, than an empty good film that doesn't illuminate anything about the world. Empty good films make me want to kill myself. 

Now I don't think I'm a talented filmmaker at all. One of the things I decided when I made Rumah Sendiri, when I regained my interest in filmmaking, is to stop trying to make good films. All the films I made before that were attempts in trying to gain acceptance as a filmmaker. I thought that if I made good films, people would finally treat me as a real filmmaker. It didn't take long for me to realize that nobody gave a shit. The world doesn't give a shit if good films ever come out of Singapore, because nobody else would pay good money to watch a good Singaporean film when they can have Tom Cruise in the next Mission: Impossible movie.

Besides, the very idea of 'a good film' is a concept invented by people who are in power to permanently marginalize and suppress people who can never have the same resources as them. It's a form of cultural colonialism. The notions of what makes a film good are notions set in place by Hollywood producers, precisely so as to justify their own films and to ensure that no one else can make films like them. It's funny how Asian people try to ape Hollywood films by making their versions of expensive blockbusters. Is it any wonder that these films feel like they were made by monkeys?

It's even worse with arthouse cinema. European cinema has dominated cinematic discourse since the camera was invented. The other trend of thought is that if a film gets into a film festival, it is a good film. Well, the arbiters of taste that decide who does and does not get in a film festival are Europeans themselves who have a very specific notion of what cinema is. Asian cinema, for example, is only accepted when it fits a certain idea of what Asian cinema should be – that is, it must already be neutered, tailored according to European tastes before it can even be considered as a film. Is it any surprise that the only Southeast Asian films we see in European film festivals are poverty porn? Again, it is a form of colonialism. Only an 'Other' that is comprehensible to them qualifies as an 'Other.'

Firstly, why are we defining ourselves according to standards that do not include us? Secondly, why do we hunger for acceptance so much? 

I think it's sad that Third Cinema has become nothing but a footnote in history. In Asia, we have little exposure to experimental films, to films that are not First or Second Cinema, and we are handicapped because of that. I think this applies not only to Singapore, but to Asia in general. Look at Japanese films today. They had such a rich culture of cinema, but its films these days are just monkey imitations of Hollywood or auteur cinema. 

An artform has to be borne out of a country's culture. We have the means, but not the inspiration. Because all we look at is across the ocean, at a mirror that does not reflect us.

And here's the trailer, if the production talk hasn't convinced you to watch 'Eclipses':

Fore more answers and director's perspectives, here's the post-screening Q & A session after its world premiere at SIFF 2011: 

Article by Vicki Yang
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