Production Talk with Lee Thean-jeen on 'Everybody's Business'

Everybody's Business, the latest commercial film to hit Singapore cinemas is like a reunion of some of Singapore's best comedic talents - Mark Lee, Henry Thia, Liu Ling Ling, Wang Lei, Kumar, Marcus Chin, Muthu and so many more, certainly something many have been waiting for. It is also director Lee Thean-jeen's second feature film-directing attempt having successfully made Homecoming in 2011 where Jack Neo cross-dressed as Karen Neo. And there are also many other brains involved in this, including Jack Neo himself who co-wrote the script. Basically the best cooks in town are laying their hands in this very strong-smelling pot - a film about shit. 

In short the film is a light-hearted satire on the Singapore life and reflects the ways in which the common people interact with the authorities, with toilet matters as the issue that brings both parties together. The toilet hygiene standards leaves much to be desired and yet everyone is pushing the blame to each other. A Ministry of Toilets is started to solve this problem but to ridiculous effect. It all culminates in a national plumbing disaster where shit hits back at everyone nobody escapes shit.

Enough said. We catch up with director Lee Thean-jeen (below in grey T-shirt) dig deep into the making of this film.

With a topic like shit, there are so many ways to make it wacky and funny, how did you go about developing the story?

To begin with, I doubt any of us involved in the development of the story saw this as a movie about shit.  Personally, I got interested in this film because it was a story about how Singaporeans from different layers of society - from the authorities to the people on the ground - react to a national crisis.  It was the satire about bureaucracy and societal mores (grandiose as it sounds in light of what the final movie appears to be!) that was the compelling aspect of taking on this film for me.

Besides, the film's original concept came from Jack Sim, Chairman of the World Toilet Organization, whose efforts to promote the cause of public hygiene locally and internationally provided the basis of certain storylines.  So, shit was inevitable, to put it bluntly.

But when it came to developing the story, our main thrust was to delve into the human aspects of the situation.  I dare say if you go beyond the jokes and look at some of the things the characters say and do in this movie and how people are reacting in real life to certain current events, you might find some interesting parallels.  After all, whether it's comedy or tragedy, human nature is human nature, right?

The film also seemed to be a commentary on how government departments and ministries operate, could you elaborate on this?

Calling it a commentary is giving us too much credit :).  I feel the observations (my choice of word) on the ins and outs of government departments and ministries evolved as a function of the film's premise - to look at how different sectors of Singaporean society react to a hypothetical national crisis.  There was no agenda to judge or criticize any one party and frankly, in a mainstream comedy with a broad scope like this, there is little room to be overly dialectical.  

Granted, we did do a fair bit of research by talking to actual hygiene inspectors as well as learning about Singapore's waste water management system (even for a mainstream comedy).   But at the end of the day, the aim was to try and look at the ways different people reacted to and handled the same issue.  And when we talk about government departments and ministries, we also wanted to look at people like Gurmit Singh's character - people who are on the ground, trying to deal with the situation.  

I know people who work in the civil service or government departments, and much like Gurmit's character says in his speech at the end (which I'll take the blame or credit for, depending on whether you liked or hated it), they are people (some with families) who work very hard at their jobs and who are really trying to help.  I just thought we should try and recognise a bit of that with this film.

The film is like a reunion of all the veteran comedy stars, how did you convince them to be part of the movie? Was it difficult?

I think credit has to go to the producers - Jack (Neo), Chan Pui Yin and Chan Yan Yan among others - for getting this ensemble on board.  It must've been a nightmare scheduling them in.  

It's a fact of commercial filmmaking in Asia (and even Hollywood is not exempt) that popular actors and actresses are often working on more than one project at the same time.  So delicate juggling is often involved to bring a cast like this under the same roof (or in front of the same camera lens).

For example, all of the Ministry of Toilet (and Ministry of National Environment) conference room scenes had to be shot in an entire 19-hour day because of the schedules of the cast involved - Mark, Gurmit, Kumar, and Enlai.  That's pretty much a quarter of the film shot in a single day.

On coffee-shop days, the shooting day would usually start at 5 in the morning and end at 5 in the evening because production occurred during the Seventh Month, which meant that after completing our shoot, cast members like Ling Ling and Wang Lei would have to go off and do their getai rounds.

How is it like working with so many comic talents, each with their own unique sense of humour?

I wish I could've filmed the rehearsals and made them the final film!  There was so much raw energy on set, one of my biggest challenges was trying to maintain that level of intensity when the cameras were rolling.  Gurmit isn't just a great improvisational comedian - he can come into a scene with five different ways to do it.  Plus he has a really good story sense.  Likewise with Mark's adlibs, which are hilarious in English, Mandarin or Hokkien.   Ling Ling and Wang Lei had amazing chemistry.  And Kumar ... well, I can't put most of his improvisations into a PG film.

If lightning strikes twice and I had the opportunity to work with this ensemble again, I'd probably work in a less-structured style and have them adlib their way through half the movie.

What were some of the funniest things that happened on the set?

Shooting this comedy turned out to be pretty serious business (pun fully intended).  We had an 18-day shoot and a huge ensemble cast, and (for me at least), I didn't exactly walk onto set every morning prepared to have my funnybone tickled.  But one source of amusement for me early on in pre-production was seeing the various kinds of poop the art department was creating - after all, what's a movie about shit without shit?  They really did their research - some of this crap looked so real, you'd be forgiven for losing your appetite if you walked into the production office and saw it.  And they had all these different kinds - soft, hard, long, short - all sitting on a long table in the art department room.  Sadly, we couldn't put them into the film.  We were already quite ... erm ... full of shit.

What were some of the challenges you faced directing this film?

On a purely logistical level, time.  As I mentioned above, we had to shoot this movie in 18-days.  I shot "Homecoming" in pretty much the same time frame, but this film had days with hundreds of extras - like the Toilet Campaign Event Day - and days when we spent hours trying to make our "waste water" spray, gurgle or swirl out of a toilet bowl properly.  It's really to the credit of the production and directing team (and my First AD Jan Ho) that we actually made it within that timeframe.

On another level, it was simply trying to keep an even keel on the story, with all the different characters and story threads.

Unlike Ah Boys to Men 2, there was no graphic display of 'shit' in this movie, why was this so?

I don't know why - we made the shit; we just didn't use it in the end!  I guess it just didn't figure into the story as much as we thought it would.  We really wanted to try and tell as much of the human story as we could.    

If given a bigger budget, what would you have done to make the sewage disaster portion at the end more dramatic?

Chances are it would've been longer, with a more massive nationwide waste water invasion.  
The Merlion ... spewing waste water! 
Waste-water-logged Singapore Flyer capsules! 
Floods in Orchard Road!  Oh wait, that's already happened for real ...

Does the success and acclaim of Ilo Ilo encourage you to want to make award-winning films rather than the more commercial types ?

What's "Ilo Ilo"?  (Just kidding). Firstly, I've never made my filmmaking decisions based on how much money I hope the film will make or how many awards it can win.  If it's an intriguing premise or an opportunity to do something interesting or collaborate with interesting people, it's a good enough reason for me.  As far as I'm concerned, it's a self-defeating exercise for filmmakers to be imposing labels like "arthouse", "indie", "mainstream", or God forbid, "commercial arthouse" (really?) on themselves.  There are only the films you make, and the films you don't.

Secondly, I've been exorcising my angst on the unsuspecting Singapore free-to-air audience over the last twelve years with shows like "AlterAsians", "The Singapore Short Story Project", "The Pupil", "Code Of Law" and next year, a thriller about vigilantism "Zero Calling."  So, oddly enough, my more serious, award-winning (if you count TV awards) side has ended up on your small screens. 

Read SINdie's review of Everybody's Business here.
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