Production Talk with Ler Jiyuan and Lee Thean-jeen on 'Gone Case'


Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Dave Chua (winner of the Singapore Literature Prize Commendation Award), Gone Case is a heartfelt, coming-of-age story that revolves around twelve-year-old Yong, who struggles to cope with the tumultuous events that take place in his life as he approaches his PSLE exams - the death of his grandmother, the decaying relationship of his parents, the rigorous demands of school, run-ins with a neighborhood gang, his first crush and taste of heartache, and the tensions between him and his dysfunctional best friend, Liang. Like the HDB estate that the main characters reside in, Gone Case features a myriad of characters that weave in and out of Yong’s life, forming a poignant mosaic of Singapore heartlands in the 90s.   

Directed by Ler Jiyuan and produced and adapted for television by Lee Thean-Jeen, SINdie's Thong Kay Wee took the opportunity to chat with them about their thoughts on taking on one of Singapore's acclaimed literary novels, right before its premiere on the small screens. 

Q: Why take on Dave Chua's 'Gone Case'? What is it about the novel and project that attracted you? 

I got my start in TV/Film adapting works by local authors to the screen with AlterAsians (2000 & 2001) and The Singapore Short Story Project (2003, 2004, 2007).  Quite frankly, I'm surprised it didn't occur to me to adapt Gone Case much earlier.  But it was Ler who suggested the book one day over coffee. Coincidentally, I had adapted another work of Dave's - The Drowning - not for screen, but for stage, a couple of years back and in the process had the opportunity to reconnect with him. So I messaged him and told him we were interested in adapting his book. His response was, go ahead and good luck!

What immediately attracted me was the "realness" of Gone Case. This novel was not a caricature of what it was like growing up in the 90s. It was a very authentic portrayal of the life and times of that era. And it is a great story. 

I grew up in the 90s, and under very similar socio-economic circumstances as Yong, the protagonist: three-room flat, living with my grandmother, studying in a neighborhood school, the devil-discipline master, an absent father.
I really connected with whatever was happening in the book, and I hope many people will too. Many of us would know how it feels to lose a grandmother, get bullied by the neighborhood Ah Beng, the pangs of first love, lose a best friend, bear witness to bickering parents.

The book has it all. Like Yong, I even climbed to the rooftop of HDB blocks with my friends, smoking and drinking E33s.  When I read Gone Case I thought …this shit is so real.  The only difference was, most of us possibly had these experiences over a period of time as we grew up, but Yong had to experience all this in the span of one year, and during his PSLE year!

It was a tough journey for Yong, and I really felt for him and wanted to tell his story. So when the call-for-proposals came along [the telemovie is funded under MDA's Contestable Funds Scheme], I brought the idea to TJ.  We had previously worked together on several other projects (The Pupil, Code of Law, Zero Calling) and enjoyed very good chemistry. I am in awe of his screenwriting ability. 

Q: How did you negotiate the difficulties and go about adapting a novel to a screenplay, considering the pressures of the book's success and the challenges plaguing ink-to-screen adaptations usually? 

I think the main challenge of adapting Gone Case the novel into a telemovie was its episodic structure.  It's a tapestry of people and events that weave in and out of the protagonist's life over the course of one year.  So I had to focus on one throughline - in the end, it was Yong's relationship with Liang (his dysfunctional best friend) - and then try and weave in the other threads (the deteriorating relationship of his parents, Yong's crush on Liang's sister, the boys' interaction with Gao the neighbourhood ganglord) as organically as possible.

As for the pressures of the book's success, sometimes when you transform a work from one medium into another (and a mainstream one like television), you have to try and start with a blank slate.  For every person who has read the book and will be looking out for his favourite moments in our adaptation, there will be someone coming into Gone Case with fresh eyes.  It's a fine line to walk on, but it can be quite liberating as well.

One remarkable aspect of the novel is its simplicity and honesty in the way it tells the story of Yong. It's very observational, and lucidly so. That's one aspect I tried to bring across in the adaptation.  

Q: How big an influence was the graphic novel adaptation (illustrated by Koh Hong Teng) on this project visually, or can the audience expect a new visual perspective in your screen adaptation? 

I believe it will be a new visual interpretation. Film also combines different disciplines and elements: spoken word, performance, cinematography, music, sound design, and so on.  Each element impacts and works in tandem with the others, stewing in the same pot and resulting in the final film.  The universe we are creating is very different from that of the Graphic Novel, which has its own rules of storytelling and aesthetics. 

I actually read Koh Hong Teng's Graphic Novel before the book. In fact the graphic novel was what made me interested to read Dave's book. It's really great stuff. Koh Hong Teng captured the soul of Dave's book in the graphic novel medium so well. 

However, I didn't actively refer to the graphic novel when I was approaching Gone Case. My inspiration for the visuals I finally developed were Dave's book and TJ's screenplay. There were some kickass frames in Koh's graphic novel, like those of the boys at the rooftop and it was raining like mad. I wish I could have replicated those, but we didn't have the time and resources to do so. Another distinct difference was how Yong wore glasses in our telemovie and not in Koh's graphic novel. It was only mentioned briefly in Dave’s novel, but since Chu Yeang wore glasses, we thought, why not stick to that.  

Q: Did Dave Chua, the original author, give you guys any advice or suggestions before the start of production? 

We sat down once with Dave before we started the production, just to pick his brains. But he was very cognizant about how different mediums - novels, film, television, even graphic novels - have their own way of telling the same story.  So he effectively gave us his blessing and a free hand. In the end, however, we ended up sticking very closely to the novel!

Dave was pretty chill about it. He knew TJ from way back and trusted him to do a good job. Dave didn't know me then, but I guess he trusted TJ's trust in me, haha. TJ is an amazing director and writer who is in many ways also my 'shi fu' (master). So I guess Dave felt pretty safe to let us do whatever we wanted. 

One thing I remember though....Dave said not to make the telemovie too happy because, well, it's not a happy story. And I was like, hell yeah. I know exactly what he's talking about.

I liked him immediately. 

Q: With the trend of notable local films like 12 Storeys, Singapore Dreaming and most recently, Ilo Ilo, depicting a realistic portrait of Singaporean HDB heartland living, how do you think Gone Case as a project compares and what do you think it has to offer?

Each of the films you mentioned depict a different aspect of Singaporean HDB living in the 90s, and each filmmaker brings their own perspective to the table, even when the subject matter might seem similar.  80% of Singaporeans live in HDBs, so naturally there are many stories to be told, and from different eras.  These stories form part of the collective memory of who we are.

I think Gone Case is ultimately a story about what it meant to be an average twelve-year-old kid, living in an average HDB flat in an average HDB estate in the 90s.

Gone Case is a telemovie, while the rest were films made for the big screen. The craft involved is same same but different

For Gone Case, we had to work within the parameters of TV. Resources were more limited than if it was a big screen production.  The way it plays out on screen is different as well, because of the  commercial breaks.  We had to streamline the story due to time constraints.  We also had to be aware of the pacing because in television, viewers can switch you off the minute they get bored.  There were also several moments in the story that I felt would have been more authentic in Singlish, or even dialect, but that is not permitted on Singapore television.
However, all things being said, I look at it this way: the parameters you work with are part and parcel of our job as storytellers. We work with the medium and the genre. Our job is to tell the story and express it in the most truthful, most awesome way possible, within the framework of the medium we inherit. And for Gone Case, our challenge was to keep the heart of the story intact, despite the challenges of the medium. I believe we have done so.

With Gone Case, we had a special story to tell, and we had our own way of telling it. We really tried hard to close the divide between film and with this one, I hope people will like what we've done.   

Q: How was it like working with acclaimed local musical talents like Joe Ng and Leslie Low (from The Observatory)? How did you convince them to come on board this telemovie project and what did you feel they bring to your work? 

AWESOME. Joe is a very good, personal friend of mine. We used to play in the same band together. So, it was easy to court him to do this job. We just bought him a pint at Harry's and he was on!

Joking aside, Joe is a very seasoned film composer whom I deeply respect. I learned a lot from him. We were most fortunate to have him compose the music and sound design for Gone Case. His score elevated the story to new emotional heights which I didn't even foresee.  I took his lead when it came to music. His dedication was also amazing.  
Me and a few other buddies privately call Leslie Low "The " (The God). We've been huge fans of his since his Humpback Oak days.  I also did a couple of experimental videos for his band The Observatory. Till today, we still play his songs on the guitar during house parties. "West Coast" is a heartfelt song that recounts Leslie's younger days, the times he spent in the West Coast, where his grandmother stayed until she passed away. The lyrics are beautifully simple and share similar themes with the story we were telling. So, it was a natural choice to marry the two. 

Towards the end of audio post, Joe suddenly came up with an idea to add additional string arrangements to the song. I was like ... yes! I secretly wanted to do this Miss Misery thing all along. The results were so cinematic. 

Q: How does this telemovie project differ from your normal television work in terms of the approach taken? 

This telemovie took almost a year to produce!  From the time we sat down with Dave to tell him we were doing it till just last week, when we were just putting the finishing touches on it.  Granted, it was not a year's worth of continuous work, but I think the novel struck a chord with all of us working on it, and I believe we worked very hard to try and retain its essence.

TV or not TV, my personal approach to storytelling is always the same: it's about bringing out the heart of each story. This always helps me focus when I get lost in the whirlwind of production. So  in that respect, my storytelling approach towards Gone Case didn’t differ much from other projects.

The main difference, compared to my other TV work, was the amount of attention to detail we gave this project. I believe this was a special project for many of us, including our Producer Wenn, my longtime AD Tiffany Ng, Sound Recordist Jenn Hui, Production Manager Cecilia Koh and Editor Andy Tseng. All of them were very passionate about this project and gave it an important energy.

TJ and I were pretty much on the same page when we started. Dave’s story guided us on how it needed to be shot and treated. We went for naturalistic performances and a grittier style of camerawork, predominantly handheld. Glenn Chan, who also shot Code of Law, was our DOP and he added so much to it.   For him, the shots had to mean something, and was always asking me what I wanted to say with each shot. This process disciplined me to shoot in a more meaningful way for Gone Case as well. I was grateful to have him on board.

Our editor, Andy Tseng, also deserves a big mention for meticulously putting Gone Case together. A lot of people don't realize it, but the editor spends a lot more time with a project than most people, and is probably the only member of the team who knows every single frame of the show. Andy insisted on watching the edit again and again - I told him I was going to vomit if I saw it one more time. Like Joe, he is a meticulous man (same star sign in fact), who cuts with his 'fewling'.

Q: How was the experience like working with seasoned actors Yvonne Lim, Zheng Ge Ping and Sunny Pang and then a new kid actor like Lim Chu Yeang? 

To be honest, I do not like directing kids. I did one kid’s drama very early in my career and I swore I wouldn’t do another one ever again! So when Gone Case came along, I was secretly terrified. 

I decided we had to have a number of rehearsals with the kids before we started shoot. As a result I also grew close to them. This made directing them on set a lot easier. In the end, I am satisfied with their performances. I am especially thankful for Chu Yeang, who was a really unique kid. He has a maturity way beyond his years, which made things a lot easier. He could understand the deeper and darker themes we were trying to express, although in his own special way.  

With Yvonne and Ge Ping Da Ger, it was a breeze. There were no airs to them. Like all great seasoned actors, they slipped into their roles and the genre of the film effortlessly. They acted naturally, with subtlety and sophistication. I really respected them and their professionalism, as well as their ability to evolve and adapt based on each story.

Sunny had a small scene in this show, playing Yong’s uncle. His role was originally bigger, but as TJ wrote the script we realized this was a story thread we couldn’t indulge in. Working with Sunny was, of course, easy. We worked together in two seasons of Code of Law! This guy is one of my favorite actors to work with and a friend who looks after you. 

Q: What do you think of such cross platform collaborations between the local literary and cinematic / television scenes? Could that be a direction local television and films can consider taking more? 

There is so much published work by local authors, I'm actually quite amazed that we don't see more of this.  Perhaps it's the challenge of doing an adaptation.  Or maybe filmmakers here just want to do their own thing.  But it's very rewarding to find a book or short story that you can really connect with and transform it into another medium, like with Gone Case.  

Personally, I really dig adaptations for one reason: the characters are deeper and more multi-dimensional.

A novelist, in all likelihood, does not face the same time constraints that TV, or even film, writers face.  You can take years to write a novel, but for mediums like the big and small screen, you are always working to a deadline if you are a professional writer.  Gone Case the novel came to us already populated with rich characters, possessing individual quirks, histories, dreams, aspirations. Bringing it to the screen was made more efficient in the process. We were in a position to enhance, breathe life into and bring meaning to what was already good. So should we do more adaptations? Hell yeah! 

Catch Gone Case on Feb 2 (Part One) and Feb 9 (Part Two), 10pm, on MediaCorp Channel 5.

Trailer for Gone Case (Part One) 

By Thong Kay Wee

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