@SGIFF2015: Production Talk with Eric Khoo on 'In The Room'

The curtains have risen at the 26th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). Kicking off our SGIFF 2015 series of stories is one of the most well-known film makers in Singapore, Eric Khoo. The film that launched his film career, Mee Pok Man, will be screening at this year's SGIFF.  But he also brings with him something new this year. His latest steamy portrait of life and relationships within the walls of a long standing hotel room is part of this year’s SGIFF.


One of the most transitory lived spaces, the hotel room, becomes the vehicle that transposes a sprawling tapestry of stories in Eric Khoo’s vision of the history of Singapore. The film is anchored as a posthumous tribute to Singapore writer-musician Damien Sin, also the scriptwriter for Khoo’s first feature Mee Pok Man.

Starting off from the advent of Singapore’s occupation in 1942, two men meet for the last time in the hotel room before the Japanese arrive. In the ‘70s, a band celebrates New Year’s Eve fiercely in an orgiastic drug fueled party. Decades pass as stories unfold within the same hotel room. Reflecting Singapore’s history as an entrepĂ´t, characters of diverse backgrounds and nationalities find themselves in the hotel room, as a spirit watches on, drawn to the suffering and tragedies expressed within it.

In the Room contains all the hallmarks of Eric Khoo’s oeuvre – a distilled nod towards his love for horror, an empathetic approach towards cruelty, and the constant search for the transitory moments of human tenderness. It is perhaps his most ambitious and personal feature film, and the perfect bookend to a year of jubilee celebrations.

Check out the film's synopsis and screening/Q&A session details at the SGIFF site here.

We sat down with Eric to hear his journey in making 'In The Room'.

Why sex?

When you are in a nice private place, when you are in a hotel room right, the most intimate thing that can go on there right, because you feel safest, because of the space. 
Actually, together with Jonathan, who was my writer, and Andrew Hook. We thought that it would be really nice to do a tribute to the Twilight Zone, like an anthology with little episodes and an interesting ending. 

And we thought using sex as a consistent motif running throughout the film was...well, interesting. Whether it is love, yearning, or the act of it, there is something a little bit more structured in a sense. 

As I was saying, as I wanted to do all the stories as different as I could, in a tonal way, so it’s almost like the 40s would be almost like film noir and how the camera works/rolls and how the actors perform. Then the 50s would be a bit more vivacious, even in terms of the look that, the colour. We try to achieve the technicolour look and with the 60s, it is something else. And…

So a lot of planning actually went into the construction of this film, and um, one of my key guys is Arthur Chua, my production designer. He basically sat with me for hours – doing designs for the room. 

And I was thinking that if we were going to do this all in one room, it will be so wonderful to be able to construct the room and construct it in such a way that the ceilings can be removed, the walls can be removed so we can get different vantage points right. So the camera can float and play around. 

So after a while, Arthur came up with two beautiful mirror rooms and as we were filming one decade, Arthur will set up the next one. And then because my actors are all from Asia, they will come in blocks you know. 

My first lot was Josie Ho and the Malaysian girls, and that is two days. Then the next lot would come and we shift rooms. 

Another very crucial person was my director of photography, Brian Gothong Tan. Brian is incredible because he is an artist, he does sculptures and he is also a technician, he can strip a camera. And he directs theatre plays, he directs commercials for our company and he’s got a great eye. And so he has a theatre background as well. I think Brian knows the script better than I do. So he can help me with all the shots and stuff right. 

And Meredith, our fashion coordinator, was also very good. I spent a lot of time with her going through the different wardrobes. So in the 50s I wanted cheong sam, so all these different girls, different bra size, everything had to be tailored. Right down to their underwear. Like those days you have the steel rings right, she had to build them. 
So we were very very specific. 

And then of course, for me, it was the music. The music is important. Different types of music belong to different decades right. So my son Christopher composed the main theme and then… 

And Christine Sham who does a lot of my movies, she also came up with a couple of melodies and arranged the whole score with real strings. 

My son Christopher, he has composed as far back as My Magic. When he was ten years old. 

And my second son James actually composed a song for me called In This Room and it is a pop song. And in the 60s it is a band with a pop song called Desker five. It is my take on The Quest and Vernon Cornelius has a cameo in the film. As the band’s manager. 

So we created all this characters. I didn’t know at the time who was gonna be my actors. A lot of my films in Singapore, I work with non-actors so I spend a lot of the time getting them into character. But this time, the foreigners I was gonna pull in, I needed people to act because I don’t have the luxury of spending time with them. 

Actually I just see them for two hours and then the next day we are shooting. Off they go, right? So Nansun Shi, she’s my producer, she contacted Josie Ho. And I am a big fan of Josie Ho because she is in one of my favourite films called My Dream Home. It’s a horror film. A slasher film. And so we sent Josie the script.

In fact, all the actors only got their story so they don’t know what’s going on in the other stories.  So they will just come in and just concentrate. 

And how I met the Thais was really through Skype. Meet them, say hello hello, what do you think of the material, do you like it… And then the next skype call is running through the lines. Just to know how they sound like and that’s pretty much it. 

And I read that you managed to do this entire film on a budget of $800, 000. That’s very low. 


How did you manage to do it? 

Because I come from the school of budget film making. I think back now, Mee Pok Man, 20th anniversary and all that right, I think I only spent $20,000 on Mee Pok Man. 

The great thing about In The Room is that everything was shot in one space, we didn’t have to travel. We shot everything in ten days. So they will come, they go. The actors. 

And I think a lot of the actors enjoyed my previous films so they wanted to do this. And uh, so they didn’t charge alarming prices. And sometimes I also feel that with the labour of love projects, you can do it in a way to keep the budget down. 

So with the script, what was it like working with two different script writers?

Okay, essentially Andrew Hook only wrote one story, which is about the Japanese housewife falling in love with a local. And that is set in the 80s. When we had about 40,000 Japanese in Singapore. 

And the other stories I worked with Jonathan. And uh, sometimes even with the actors. Because sometimes Jonathan will write scenes that are really good but too long and at the end we really need to condense it, make it tight. I didn’t want anything with an excess of two hours. 

What was it like working with Jonathan? 

I have known him for a very long time. Ever since I did a tv horror series for media works, when they were still around. And I like his 'Chestnuts'. I think he has a lot of great ideas. 
And I need dialogue for my characters. If they are in a room together and they don’t talk, it is going to be damn boring. So Jonathan to me, was the best bet. And he’s very fast.

You got a great pool of collaborators. How did you manage to get them to work with you?

Nansun and I, we always meet up at film festivals. And I liked her because she always knew where to go to get free booze. Yea, the beer and the whiskey right. And uh, we have always joked about it you know, that we would do something together. And uh, you know, it was probably three years ago in Hong Kong when we were just drinking champagne and it was really nice and I said, actually those movies like Emmanuel, early 70s, soft- not really  porn la, just sensual films. I kind of want to attempt something like that and she goes, why not. 

So she was here, and end of 2013 I kind of had a structure of this thing and she said let’s do it, so we shot it last year and then, yea. 

And Josie Ho was Nansun's contact. 

The Korean guy was through my other friend. Because I liked him on this series called The Rooftop Prince. So I thought it would look kind of nice. He looks slightly effeminate, soft. And the Korean lady, I met through Thomas Nam at a horror film fest, the Puchon film fest. 
The Thais… I have never met them before. But it was through my friend who is a talent agent there. 

So will you say like, the actors were casted according to the script or was it both ways, like actors inspired characters as well?

You know, writing the characters, I saw them a certain way but I didn’t know the faces at that point. An exception was Sho Nishino, a very big star in Japan, an AV star who has been in the business for about ten years. She has also branched out into doing television and film. So I was keen and I got her from my Japanese contact. 

So there are six stories in the film right? Any particular story you are especially drawn to? 

The one that I feel that I most like, after having to watch it so many times, is the Korean shot. The Korean story, I can say is uh, the most I can relate to la. The others are fun. 
In the room is also a chronicle of the time in Singapore.

Yes, because in the 40s you have the Japanese right? Then the 70s we have the Thai story and one character goes through a sex change operation. Singapore was the first country in Asia that performs sex change operations. See, nobody knows that. It was done by this guy called Ratnam. It was done in 1971. And you know, it’s almost like, if we look at the backdrop, it’s almost something like it is happening in Singapore. 

I mean, you look at the 60s version, we had bands that could beat The Beatles from number one. And it was nice to think of. And of course, we had Rose Chan, a stripper that’s very big in the 50s. 

What’s the most contemporary story out of all six? 

It is the 90s story. It will be the Koreans. Because that’s when we have Koreans in Singapore. More.  You hear a lot of construction. We had a lot of construction works in the 1990s. The loud noises. And you know, you have one character giving his take on Singapore in a bit. 

What were some of the interesting things or challenges that came up from doing the sex? I mean, in directing the scenes. 

Nothing much. It was more like, is it in focus. Hahaha. 

Has this film received any ratings? 

No, it is screening in the film festival uncut. But for general release, I don’t know yet. I am hoping for uncut with R21. Really, there’s nothing to cut if it is under R21. But if I want to be greedy and push it down to R18 then yea, some things need to be cut. But I am really hoping that it will pass through R21 without cuts. If cuts are needed, then maybe we won’t release it. 

We read reviews from foreign media and they were saying that they are not confident of In The Room being released in Singapore uncut. 

Yea. But we have sold the distribution so it will be released in France early next year and they renamed it as Hotel Singapura. In Hong Kong as well. And they are not going to cut it. As long as it is screened uncut, I am happy. 

Interview by Dawn Teo and Jeremy Sing


A review of 'In the Room' from Le Monde, which was written based on a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, called it one of the most beautiful movies screened at the festival and commented on Singapore censorship as well:

'National Service is compulsory in Singapore from the age of 18 for men. Legal majority is fixed at 16 years, just like sexual consent for girls.  Sexual consent for boys is 17. But to view Eric Khoo’s online trailer, one of the most beautiful movies shown in Toronto, you must be 21. This level of censorship that targets violence and sexual movies is the highest in the world. '
Check out the film trailer here: 
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