Boot Camp Memories ... of 'Ah Boys to Men' : Part 2

Bak Kwa and actors make strange bedfellows in a Jack Neo movie

(continued from a previous post)

Sponsors, love them, hate them

It seems no Jack Neo movie is complete without Bee Cheng Hiang Bak Kwa ambushed somewhere in the movie. Other than Ah Bengs, Ah Longs and people owing money, product placements have become a feature of Jack’s films. Not that Hollywood movies don’t do product placements but in Jack’s films, they tend to occupy rather narratively inconvenient spots, often sabotaging his own story flow.

There is no easy answer to this. Having a sponsor to your movie is never a bad thing for they are the reason the movie can start to crawl. No filmmaker rejects a sponsor unless the sponsor wants to call the shots and change the direction of the movie. But finding the right balance in scratching the sponsor’s back is never rocket science. Some directors will want to retain their artistic integrity and not have too much to do with the sponsors. In Jack’s case, sponsors play an important partnering role and when they come to the set, they share the director’s dining table and viewing tent. Not that they come to put their fingers into directing the movie, they are actually discrete in their ways but the businessman in Jack knows too well that every sponsor needs to feel important and reciprocated towards. 

This has paid off in the most amazing ways. There were free meals, free snacks, free production-wrap dinners, and a free 500-strong contingent of taichi practitioners who performed for the camera for the movie’s prologue. When the movie was released, I began to realize the wisdom behind being a bosom buddy to your sponsor. If publicity appearances by the cast is such an important part of the movie’s marketing drive, then having proper venues to appear in are instrumental. The team has very cleverly gone where the crowds go - eating and drinking. Food Republic, Toast Box are among the sponsors so these provide convenient and extremely visible venues for the cast to make appearances in. And just about every food and drink-related sponsor is coming up with an Ah Boys to Men promotion. It’s really one big back-scratching exchange that gives both the movie-maker and the sponsors the last laugh.

The boys from 'Ah Boys to Men' spread a little happiness and grease at a sponsor's outlet

There are extras and there are ‘extras’

Jack Neo has an interesting way of measuring the production value of a movie. Every 50 passers-by in the background gives you a couple of thousand dollars more in production value. It does not matter whether they were hired or not hired. As long as they were walking in the background and behaving like what it says on the script. How do you then make an army movie without having the budget to hire an entire battalion?

Real soldiers on their first book after 2 weeks of confinement in Pulau Tekong

The fact is you can have the entire battalion in your movie, you just need to get your actors to mimic what they do and blend in. Not sure if that’s how they shoot blockbusters with a cast of thousands but having a second camera helps capture those moments of real soldiers in action. These footages are then intercut with the staged scenes. Sometimes, a second shooting unit is used to go capture soldiers training in action with a less sophisticated camera. Sometimes, even a prosumer camera like the Canon 5D Mark II is being used. The most anal of DOPs will tell you the images will not fit as the resolution is different. 

But the interesting observation here is, Singapore’s king of commercial films is as ‘indie’ as anyone. Ideas and spontaneity overrule technicality.

Real soldiers receiving their rifles for the first time

The K.Kopter

The K.Kopter is a machine that can fly on propellers and be controlled remotely. If you mount a camera on it, you can simply imagine the breathtaking aerial visuals it can record. Yet, it looks like a toy meant for a hobby. This toy’s turned out to be a life-saver for the movie and the crew who’s been working so hard. With the K.Kopter, we didn’t need to go where no man had never gone before.  We just needed to press the button. How else could we have ‘risen’ above the the 3 towers of Marina Bay Sands or seen Pulau Tekong from God’s point of view?

By the way, K.Kopter is a Singaporean invention. Kopter as you can guess refers to the mechanism of the device. K stands for Kenny, the name of the inventor Kenny Chua. Good find J Team!

Kenny and his faithful Kopter. She never leaves him, he knows all her right buttons.

The Art of Dying

Learning the art of creating ‘dead people’ on the set is typically not part of the Jack Neo school of filmmaking, simply because not many have ‘perished’ in his previous films. But with ‘Ah Boys to Men’, we spent a great deal of time pinning extras to the ground and spreading their limbs out in various poses of death. Here are some of my proudest creations (pictures courtesy of SengKang Babies)

We like our bodies with toppings

Death by overwork in Shenton Way

You know what they say about people who keep their eyes open when they die.....

OMG! I see someone's pay cheque.

This is the last time I am coming to a Jack Neo set!

Being an extra on the set of ‘Ah Boys to Men’ must be one of the worst deals for extras in the extras job market in Singapore. Many of them seemed to have never ‘died before’. On several days, we faced the challenge of convincing the extras to ‘die’. The daily crop of extras look like the cast of a show likely to be named ‘Jobs nobody wants to take’ – a mixture of foreign nationals and senior citizens. While many of them were trying their best and being extremely brave, one could not help but feel sorry for some of the ‘uncles and aunties’ who grit their teeth as they baked under the sun. Some of them had minor cuts but continued acting along.

My lesson from working with them? Treat the ‘dying’ well on the set. If not, at least pay them enough to ‘die’ for you.

Why Hokkien is the best language at work if you are shooting a local Chinese movie

I have to think very hard which local director can connect with people comfortably in Hokkien. Seemingly not Eric Khoo. Not Wee Li Lin. Kelvin Tong? Possible. Glen Goei – are you kidding me? Royston Tan? Maybe, bet he will speak to you in Hokkien Poetry too.

I discovered the magic of Hokkien on the set of ‘Ah Boys to Men’. Hokkien gets you the hearts of veteran Channel 8 actors and getai performers. Understanding it gets you into the frequency of many heartlanders, allowing you to create jokes that will sing in their ears. It’s hard to find mature faces for supporting roles these days. We need to engage them while they are still around and actively playing your uncles, aunties, daddies and mommies. A little Hokkien a day keeps the boredom on the set away. 

Mai Kua La (Don't look la)

Ler Gong si mi (What talk you?)

Wa meng ti, wa meng ti...... (I ask heaven I ask heaven... taken from the theme song of popular Taiwanese drama, 'Love')

Ler Kwa simi? (What you looking at?)

Lastly, speaking good Hokkien earns a little respect from the crew. Filming sets are usually rough and loud. You need a language equally crude to deal with the daily disturbances, like Hokkien. As a filmmaker, speaking it is like wearing a badge that says ‘I can create the best and most kick-ass Ah Bengs and gangsters on screen!’

Do note that the information above is entirely subjective and born out of a frivolous fancy to want to speak Hokkien well. Jack Neo speaks a combination of Mandarin, Hokkien, English and Cantonese on the set and in descending order of fluency. 

Last Words

Finally, in my 4-month stint with ‘Ah Boys to Men’, many people asked me what my biggest takeaway from working with Jack Neo was. While I was not the first assistant director, I had my fair share of working very closely with him. So is it picking up his sense of humour? Not quite, for I believe good comic sense is unique and is difficult to emulate. Is it learning to direct? While that’s a no-brainer, it is still not the most important. For sure, Jack was a good director in his brand of humour and sensibilities and he is able to direct and mentally edit the film at the same time as well! My biggest lesson from him is related to the fact that he can be such a pain on the set occasionally. While he was not prone to yelling frequently, he was often a pest in demanding for certain things to be in the film. ‘If you want to make films, don’t take no for an answer’, he said once to me. For that, he got what he asked for – Shenton Way blown up and turned into a war zone.

So here you go. Fierce advice that can risk you losing a friend or two. Apply it with care and you can go make $5million in the cinema box-office!

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