LUNCHBOX #13 : Royston Tan, back with a New Hat Trick

Royston Tan never fails to make headlines at different points of his career, being one of the most illustrious Singapore directors in our times. In his early 20s, he burst into the scene with the inimitable '15' and TIME magazine named him one of the Top 20 Asian Heroes in 2004. Nobody could forget that trademark rabbit suit of his(see picture below). He went on to travel the film festival circuit flying the Singapore flag high. In his early 30s, he made getai fashionable and achieved box office success with '881'. In his mid-30s, he became the poster boy for nostalgia, championing the preservation of old places and capturing them in film. Now approaching 40, he is back with a new feature film after a hiatus of 8 years. What's in his mind right now? SINdie invited him to LUNCHBOX last month to talk honestly about his life, his films, his friends and of course '3688'.

Jeremy (SINdie): What’s a typical day the life of Royston Tan these days?

Royston: I had 4 projects overlapping each other. It’s like getting out of character from one project and changing into another for another project. And I have been falling ill as well.
J: Oh dear.
R: Today marks the first time I officially have some time to breathe.
J: Give me an example of what one day, any day, feels like.
R: Morning I wake up, I have my coffee and stone for half an hour. After that, I would have my breakfast and then go straight to work. Last Saturday I spent the whole day doing audio post for 3688. This takes me till evening time at which I would steal some time in between to grab a drink. Then I go back to my work. (pause, then laughs) And then more drinks!
J: What time was it by the time you finished your drinks?
R: Well, after that and reaching home, it was 10 plus at night. I would take my shower, then unwind myself by going to some naughty website, and that’s when I will sleep. (laughs)
A round of giggles.
J: How many emails do you get in a day?
R: About….actually not a lot of emails, cos my partners all know I don’t like to type. So, they would whatsapp me.
J: How many uniquely different people whatsapp you in a day?
R: At least 20 different parties.
J: All work related?
R: Yes.
J: I know you’ve had a very busy year. How’s it been like so far?
R: Towards the end of last year, when January was about to start, I started to panic a little. At Chuan Pictures, we told ourselves that we would only do 3 projects in a year. But because of SG50 and several events, we exceeded our quota and took on 8 projects! And the timing overlapped each other. So it’s been crazy, very exciting but I was also very happy that I had a chance to work with the 6 other directors from ‘7 Letters’.
J: When was ‘7 Letters’ shot?
R: I was the first to shoot and I shot my segment in December last year.
J: Did you have to supervise the other segment shoots?
R: I didn’t need to go on set but I had to ensure a consistent shooting format, monitor deadlines, talk to MDA and many other things.
J: Which project made you the most anxious?
R: 3688, because I have not made my own feature film for 8 years. (pause) I really lost 10 kgs from the shoot. Even my friend asked me if I had cancer! Or if I took drugs. I asked why, he said I looked like I was very ill (laughs) During the shoot, I only got to rest one day after every 8 days. (beat) There were 38 days of filming in total with 14-hour shooting days. (beat) I had to deal with a lot of heart attacks because we were shooting during the rainy season… 拍到我真的是精神分裂!(shot till my mind went berserk!)
J: Oh dear! What were the biggest challenges making the film?
R: I think it is myself. After 7-8 years of not making a feature film, you have forgotten how it feels like. I called Eric (Khoo) every 2-3 days and he just told me ‘It gets better.’ I really think it is the physical exhaustion. (pause) One thing that made me very happy about the shoot was that I found back the ‘881’ feeling when doing ‘3688’, mainly the closeness of the production ‘family’, the fun, the team spirit, people brought their own cakes and all, which made everyone feel less stressed….. (pause) even though I was very stressed!

J: How do you feel now that that is done?
R: The moment I finished shoot, I went for a bottle of whisky and finished it straightaway! (laughs)
J: Any funny incidents during the shoot?
R: Because we used long lenses to shoot many of the scenes, which means our camera was well-hidden, whenever our ‘saman’ aunties (parking wardens) appeared, there would be no problems with people traffic. People naturally disappeared when they saw them!
J: They thought they were the real ‘saman’ aunties!
R: Yes, all literally just ran.
J: That’s why they call them pontianaks. (female ghosts)
Fong Fei Fei translated - lyrics prompter in Hanyu Pinyin for the cast on set

J: By the way, pre-production for 3688 started last year?
R: Yes. In fact, I have been leading a very disciplined life. I exercised and avoided drinking. I didn’t alcohol at all during the whole production period.
J: When was your script written?
R: It was actually co-written with Wei Lim and we started in 2012.
J: I see.
R: Actually, all credit should be given to him cos all I did was tear away his script hahaha! (beat) But really, the visual conceptualization of the script, or rather translating his script to visual was challenging to me because I never worked with co-writer before. And I really respected what he does.
J: ‘881’ was entirely written by you?
R: Ya… So this time was different and I really had to respect him for doing this. This was also a reason why making ‘3688’ was more stressful because if I wrote it myself, I would not feel so stress. If it falls flat, it’s just my fault and I would take the blame. But this is another person’s script! I had a greater responsibility.
J: But why so stressed? He is your working partner, not your boss.
R: But because I respect him. He put a lot of dedication into writing this, so I didn’t want his efforts to be in vain. (beat) The funny thing is when I brought him to the set, he was even more ruthless than me in killing his own written scenes. He just said ‘Cut! Cut! Cut!’ ‘I can’t believe I wrote this, cut it away!’
J: Why did you select him to be your writer?
R: I think it was all fate. (pause) When I heard Fong Fei Fei (凤飞飞)(also known as the queen of hats) passed away, I was in London. I was having my tour, trying to see the Northern Lights but never see. (giggles) Then I finally regained my network when I reached London. That was when I realized Whitney Houston passed away. (beat) After that, Fong Fei Fei also passed away. And I wondered ‘what’s going on?!’ (pause) When I came back to Singapore I was really very badly jetlagged, so I could not sleep at night. I was actually very affected by Fong Fei Fei’s death. At the same time, I saw Wei Lim posting something on facebook about Fong Fei Fei non-stop. It was almost one song every hour to commemorate her!
J: You and Wei Lim were friends already then?
R: Yes, but we lost contact for a while because he was doing his things and I was doing mine. So when I saw him post, I asked him why he kept posting these things because these were songs that I quite liked. He replied that Fong Fei Fei meant a lot to him. And I told him she meant a lot to me as well! I think we should meet up for a chat. And that’s when it started. (pause) When I met him, I said I want to do a story about Fong Fei Fei, but mine would be the Singapore Fong Fei Fei (aka carpark warden who issue fines) So he was quite interested and he started drafting something. After 8 drafts, the story took shape.
J: So this story started developing since 2012 I guess?
R: Yes. The year she passed away.
J: By the way, do the relatives of Fong Fei Fei know you are making this film?
R: I think they know. At the same time, I know in Taiwan, they are also making a film about her called 好好愛我. I think they are very curious to find out more about the Southeast Asian version of the Fong Fei Fei story and how her songs have made an impact in Southeast Asia. They were quite surprised that Fong Fei Fei is such a popular figure in Singapore as well. So they are looking forward to the movie.
J: So none of the relatives contacted you?
R: None. So the only ways we got connected with her was through the record companies and also fans who are very close to her. These fans gave us a lot of information and pointers. Both Singaporean and Taiwanese fans. (beat) You would be amazed that Singapore has a lot of hardcore fans!
J: How big is the fan club in Singapore?
R: I am not sure but I managed to get in touch with a major fan of hers who knew her schedules and could tell me how to sing like her and dance like her on stage.
J: Just to share, I am a big Fong Fei Fei fan too as my first partner introduced her to me.
R: I see… Do you know after her last concert in Singapore, I took it for granted that she would come back and perform again. I could have brought my parents to watch her at the indoor stadium. They have never been to the indoor stadium before. So I promised my parents that I would bring them to watch her the next time she was here. Then of course, when I heard the news that she passed away, I felt a sense of guilt. And my parents are fans of her as well. And if I have one regret in life, it is that I never got to see Fong Fei Fei live.
J: You mean your parents or you?
R: Both. Yes, I have never seen her live. And I know all her trademark lines she used on stage.  I know them by heart. (laughs) And what is so amazing about her is that 在她的脆弱中能看得到她的坚强 (you can witness her strength in her moments of vulnerability). She does not have to pretend to be strong and I think that’s the spirit of Fong Fei Fei. Even my hair is standing as I say this!
J: Yes, her spirit is sitting next to us right now! (pause) What’s your favourite Fong Fei Fei song?
R: There is a lot, but one of them has to be…….. (in thought) maybe because of the community that we are in, I can relate a lot to 我是一片云 (‘I am a cloud’) (see video below for an old snippet of Fong Fei Fei performing a rendition of this song)

J: Is this song in the movie?
R: Yes. And there is also a character that personifies this song in the movie, like a passing cloud…
J: Interesting….
R: This character comes and goes without motivation but yet it makes you hold it as something very important. I think there are many people in our lives who are like that. The reason why they are in our lives is not very clear but yet through time, we realize that they matter to us so much, especially when they are gone.
J: Just make you don’t treat your loved ones as that passing cloud.

R: Yes. And in the song, the passing cloud does not have a home, it drifts from one point to another, however much we want it to stay. So this is actually a simple song (from its simple lyrics) whose meaning is far deeper than it appears. And when Fong Fei Fei sang this old song again 20 years later, the resonance was different and evoked new feelings. (pause) So I spoke to some hardcore Fong Fei Fei fans and this is what they told me: for this movie, you can miss out on any song, but you must have this song in the movie because it is so important! (pause) So Joi (the lead actress) really did a lot of research into the song before she performed it.
J: Did Joi feel pressure playing this role?
R: I think she adapted well. First and foremost, she knows she is not playing Fong Fei Fei. But I also told her to sing Fong Fei Fei’s songs in a way to reflect how she feels currently in the stage of her own personal life. So that’s when she really delivered it. (pause) I am not asking for a perfect pitch delivery, I wanted a honest, sincere delivery. So in fact, some of her off-takes are the ones that I picked. Some of them were a little airy, off-key but I liked them because the emotions were real.
J: Is Joi a Fong Fei Fei fan?
R: Not really, but some of the songs resonate with her, like 掌声响起 (a Fong Fei Fei classic). The song articulates what any artistes go through. Behind every glorious moment, all that glitter is years of hard work and lots of scars! (looking dramatic) The scars of time.

Dramatic pause. We take a moment to breathe and ponder….

J: Over the years, many people were eagerly waiting for you to come back with a feature film. There were many rumours over the years. I even remember one which said you were going to make a horror film. But of course, that didn’t happen. So what made you really come back this time (with a feature film)
R: As I mentioned, Fong Fei Fei’s death really meant something to me. At the same time, another person I want to mention is director Chai Yee Wei. If he did not drag me one morning out to meet Melvin Ang of mm2 Entertainment and to talk about this project, I would have just hidden in my comfort zone and continued doing the things I was doing. (pause) Over the last 7-8 years, I found myself being very occupied attending to more immediate things (that were close to my heart) like capturing vanishing Singapore. I know many people said I was being overly nostalgic and self-indulgent. But I didn’t care because I saw a sense of urgency there. I felt a part of Singapore was disappearing so I wanted to do all I could. And this kept on going until her death hit me and finally inspired me in a big way.
J: I can understand that very much. I guess as filmmakers, you cannot schedule yourself to make films at a certain time. When the inspiration hits you, nothing can stop you.
R: Exactly. When it comes, everything falls into place and starts happening, naturally. I took time off and even went to visit Fong Fei Fei’s birthplace in Taiwan…. Visiting Taoyuan in Taiwan where she spent bits of her life… locking myself up in a room to storyboard the film using the script that was already written.
J: So when you met Melvin, was the script almost done or half done?
R: It was the 5th revision. (pause) So Melvin said this project seems interesting… but promise it is not a musical! So I told him yes it is not a musical. It is just a film with a lot of songs!
J: Hahahah!
R: He said he really liked the story very much. He came on board as producer and gave me 100% creative freedom to do what I wanted. But must promise him, cannot suddenly break out into a song!!! 

Some Royston trivia
Most popular film
Hock Hiap Leong

Most surprising audience reaction
Ghosts of Capitol Theatre
'because people thought an Ang Moh made it'

Most satisfying
Ghosts of Capitol Theatre
'We spent a long time making this and kept about 20-30 chairs from the old theatre'

Most fun
Bunga Sayang

Most vulgarities

Most expensive
After the Rain
'we shot on 35mm'

Most cheap

Most well-travelled

Most difficult to make
'never been to a mass orgy before, so had to rely on second accounts, lol'

J: ‘881’ was your first commercially released film. How was the feeling then compared to right now when you are about to release your first commercial film after such a long time? I mean before ‘881’, you were doing a lot of independent arthouse films and you were travelling the film festival circuit and all that. Then, in the last 8 years before ‘3688’, you have also been doing a lot, but a very different set of things and experiencing new things, meeting new people etc. (pause) So how is Royston version 2015 compared to Royston then?
R: I think when I was doing ‘881’, my personality was more competitive and I liked to prove things to people. In fact, ‘881’ was sparked off by a comment from a filmmaker who said that I can only make films to satisfy myself but I can never make a commercially successful film. But after these 7 or 8 years, I think I have become a calmer person. I think my crew can attest to that. I did not at once lose my temper during production this time.
J: Were you prone to losing your temper previously?
R: Yes. And often without realizing. I tended to be very intense once I went into my work mode. I remember my poor sound man James who had to change headphones often on set. Whenever it did not sound right, I would just throw the headphones and talk to the person myself. It was very sub-conscious but I think it frightened him a bit! However, this time I was much calmer. It seems like I am able to be more relaxed about many things as I got older. I don’t care so much about winning or losing now. I feel like half of my life is already complete. I think I probably have another 20 years more only, don’t think I would hit 80 (laughs) so it’s important to be level-headed and more relaxed about things. (pause) I really feel like I have gone through love, happiness, sadness, betrayal, anger and many more in these 7 years.  I do feel I have grown up.
J: Maybe after ‘7 Letters’, you should make ‘7 Years’! Each centred around one emotion!
R: Yes, I definitely feel more emotionally stable and able to deal with things better now.
J: Who are the people you feel were very important to you or made a difference in the last 7-8 years?
R: One of them has to be my producer Karen Khoo. She came in in the last four years.
J: Wait, wasn’t she New York Girl? (‘New York Girl’ was an early short film by Royston Tan)
R: I always knew her but she was just my stylist at that point of time. She is basically a mad woman who is driven by passion to do what is right. She has been my pillar of strength. And also my gatekeeper. Like for a ten-second shot, I am willing to get a crane and go to the forest but she will control me, while at the same time sharing my vision. So she is like a wonderful soulmate. (pause) So when a challenging project like ‘7 Letters’ came in, she stood by my side. It was really not an easy project. She said we will do it together.
J: What was her role in ‘7 Letters’?
R: She coordinated the production teams of the respective segments. If you see the rolling credits, Chuan Pictures has only four names under it, and it is us four managing the entire production!
J: So it’s Karen, you,….
R: My two interns. (pause) She has always believed in the cause of whatever I do. Recently she asked if I really wanted to take down the gates. By the way, I am doing a new project which involves us taking down gates from Tanglin Halt, first generation gates, to save it from demolition.
J: Real gates?
R: Yes, I am going to save them.
J: Put where?
R: No sure yet. In fact I still have the old chairs from Capitol Theatre. (pause) So, she believes in my madness, and she somehow holds me back if I go to the extreme. (beat) So she is a friend, a producer and a very sound mind to me. She will challenge me.
J: She is your business partner in Chuan Pictures?
R: No, she is my producer.
J: Anybody else?
R: Actually, to be honest, the Chinese media. (beat) They will keep calling me to remind me that they have not forgotten about me and ask me when I am going to make my next film or ‘how is everything?’. Which is why I really must specially thank the Chinese media at the upcoming premiere of ‘3688’. (pause) They really know I have experienced a lot in the last 7 years.
J: What were the most difficult moments in the last 7-8 years?
R: The year after finishing ’12 Lotus’ was a traumatizing year for me because one of the investors disappeared, and I had chicken pox which affected hearing. I could no longer gauge whether my voice was loud or soft. So I stopped talking for 6 months and the doctor said I might lose my sense of hearing. That was when my mother said, too bad you were in this situation, you just have to face it.
J: Finally, this is a question we ask at every LUNCHBOX interview, would you starve for the sake of art?
R: If it is something I really believe in, I would do it. Life is really too short. What other people say don’t matter to me anymore, it’s all noise.

Interview by Jeremy Sing (far left)Photograpohy by Mohan Deitrich (far right)

'3688' opens 17 Sep islandwide, be sure to catch it!
Here is the trailer:
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