Boot Camp Memories ... of 'Ah Boys to Men' : Part 1

Things got a little too heated up on the set of Ah Boys to Men, clouding up heaven and earth

Many in the local film community would have felt the dark clouds of the closing of Tisch Asia and Homerun Pictures casting a shadow on the steadily growing scene here. Bucking the trend of gloomy news, Jack Neo’s latest movie Ah Boys to Men carved a new box office milestone by collecting more than SGD1.5million within 4 days of islandwide screening.

It’s been 14 years since Money No Enough took Singapore by storm and Jack is still the only filmmaker who has consistently made money on his movies. Beyond just catering for the heartlander masses, I (Jeremy Sing) felt there was more to the ‘Jack Neo school of filmmaking’ that churned out profitable films, one after the other. I took a big step and joined this ‘school’ this year. I became part of the team behind Ah Boys to Men. Having survived 70 days of shooting, I hope I have taken home not just a nice tan, but some valuable lessons too. 

Me (Jeremy Sing) at the prayer ceremony which signalled the start of the 70-day production
The Phone Call

Amidst some overhanging frustration on my day job, I received a call from a filmmaker friend Leonard Lai one day about working on Jack’s new movie about the army. Leonard said it was no ordinary Jack Neo film, it was a $3million dollar Jack Neo film, the highest in Singapore’s history. I thought to myself: I wanted to be part of history.

History on my shoulders (on the Shenton Way 'war' set)

Interns Make the Movie

On day 1 of work, I walked into an office with no one but interns. There were 3 girls and a big guy sitting along a stretch of working tables discretely checking their facebook feeds and responding to comments, while occasionally attending to word documents full of Chinese characters (something I had to get used to).

The office looked newly occupied as props from his previous movie were occupying part of the office space like a make-shift props room. There was not a single employee of a more senior level seen. Surely after more than 10 years of movie-making, you’d expect to walk into a office of seasoned hands and recognisable faces. But no.

A young team (okay not all were young)

A look at the crew nominal roll revealed a demographic imbalance. So it was beginning to look like ‘Ah Boys to Men’ was going to become a school of hard knocks, a nursery for students who want a break in the industry, myself included.  2 large groups of interns were amassed into the project, one from Republic Polytechnic and the other from ITE. The only experienced ones were the heads of department. Even the producer himself, Leonard Lai was a first-timer at producing a movie of this scale. So inevitably, the production team was at the receiving end of a fair amount of skepticism.

A serious bunch of interns about to start their 70-day journey at the prayer ceremony

In exchange for all these newbie jitters, we were really cheap.  I was hired as 3rd Assistant Director at intern level pay. And the real interns themselves were hired for, let’s just say, very little.

A bus load of interns. It was only day 2 of production and I guess the picture says it all

 I think somehow, we were all lured into the project by Jack’s name.

Feature-length Propaganda?

There were 2 very important people attached to the Ah Boys to Men film production right from the preparation stage. The tireless and methodical ‘walking-textbook’, Major Audrey Kon and the jolly and accommodating ‘I’ll try to get it for you’ Captain Danny Tong.

Major Audrey is the one in yellow seated on the left, working alongside the team like she was one of us

The crew looks to them like saviours. Can’t tell the difference between an M-16 rifle and a SAR-21 rifle? Call Major Audrey. Where to get an extra man in camouflage to stand in for the scene at the eleventh hour? Call Captain Danny. Sometimes, when the director is in a bad mood, they serve a purpose too – they make good conversations at the monitor, enough to ease all signs of tension.

Somewhere deep in Pulau Tekong and deep into the night

Recreating history in the soon-to-be demolished BCTC camp at Pasir Laba

Not every military-themed production in Singapore has the privilege of having people from the SAF attached full time to the project. Ah Boys to Men had that privilege. And that is just manpower. If I counted the number of weapons, gears, tanks, trucks and bullet blanks (there must have been thousands of them!) granted to the production, then the authorities in the SAF must have decided that investing in this Jack Neo movie is as worthwhile as investing in a the annual glossy ‘join-the-army’ TV commercials.

Screaming and shouting were recognisable motifs in Ah Boys to Men

Real NSFs (seen here) were roped in as actors as well

Transforming night into day with the help of lighting

Jack posing with his stellar cameo cast - a strange mix of getai veterans and local entrepreneurs (I guess it all works in a Jack Neo sort of world)

It was not difficult to see why the SAF would support this. Anyone’s who’s read the script can tell that the movie is out there to say ‘NS is NOT a waste of time, don’t ‘Keng’ (malinger).’

At the end of the day, in movie-making, perhaps compromising is not always bowing to pressure. It is like finding a symbiotic relationship so that more doors will be open. The experience reminds me what I read of the experience of filmmakers James Leong and Lynn Lee of ‘The Great North Korean Picture Show’. Toe the line and they will show you more in Pyongyang (in Pulau Tekong in the case of Ah Boys to Men).

Is it still propaganda? I think it is, except that propaganda aside, Jack does not forget what he does best – human drama and comedy.

'Tiger Hong' as Jack recounts during an imaging discussion, was a legendary Regimental Sergeant Major in the 70s who ruled the camps like no other

Bloggers, the new celebrities

Even before I signed on the dotted line to be part of the team, some publicity about ‘Ah Boys to Men’ had already been generated through an open call to the public and bloggers to star in a new ‘ground-breaking’ movie by Jack Neo. From Jack’s last outing ‘We Not Naughty’, one might have observed a different crop of actors appearing in his film, taking over the customary Henry Thia and Mark Lee. This time, Jack goes one step further to cast total newcomers from open-call auditions. A considerably big step from his previous outing where there were stars like Hong Kong actor Daniel Chan and singer Eric Moo who anchored the film.

One can say that this surely is a gamble. I remember the first script rehearsal with the boys and Jack. The casting directors were telling me how talented and how great the fan-ship of some of these young actors were but all I saw was a group of na├»ve-looking young boys who arrived looking more like they were part of a secondary school play. Jack had to personally demonstrate how he wanted each actor to act, something some directors would frown upon doing. Also, in the midst of shooting Ah Boys to Men, my friends have asked me ‘So who are the stars in Ah Boys to Men?’ Irene Ang aside, I found it difficult to list other names.
Irene Ang in military gear was a photo hard to resist

'Look! We still had had our hair on!' (at the prayer ceremony preceding the production)

You may think they are saying 'Huat Ah' but its actually 'Steady Lah', the unofficial slogan of the production

But as time went by and I began to learn more about these actors beyond their youthful, unblemished faces, I started to change my mind.

I learnt that Noah Yap was actually already an internet star who could get 5-digit number of hits for telling the whole world things like rude people he saw in a day. I learnt

I learnt that Tosh, from Tosh Zhang, who played the platoon sergeant, was somewhat already a buzz word on the internet.

I learnt that Rovin, one of the 12 section boys, had a decent online presence with a cool name like ‘Rovination’.

Bloggers aside, I learnt that Weiliang who played the handphone Ah Beng ‘Lo Bang’ was already a rising star in the getai scene. I also learnt beneath Maxi Lim’s geeky appearance in his role as ‘Wayang King’, he was already a seasoned stuntman and freelance actor.

Posing with actors Joshua Tan and Aizzudin

But the real test was really at the box-office. Will these online stars bring in the numbers? I think this is where, despite all that you hate about a Jack Neo movie, you need to take your hat off to him(or his producer) for yet again, knowing how to pull in the crowds and possibly even winning newer and younger audiences, and most importantly with a brand new formula.

(to be continued…)

Water, the one and only thing on everyone's minds when the going got tough 
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