Tombstone Blues: An Interview with Bradley Liew

It is easy to get caught up with Bradley Liew’s enthusiasm. When he talks, you listen. He has this schoolboy excitement that sucks you in and gets you smiling without noticing—whether it is analyzing the result of some incidental people-watching or talking the pitfalls of screenwriting, it is relentlessly fascinating processing the ways he processes the world.

It is even easier to not realize just how young he is: at age 27, Bradley’s has had been through the film festival grinder, and came out all the brighter for it. With his stunning debut, Singing in Graveyards, premiering in the Venice International Film Critics’ Week to rave reviews, it is clear that here is a young director on his way to finding a voice that will be remembered.

Ahead of the Singapore premiere of Singing in Graveyards, Alfonse Chiu talks to Bradley about personal histories, and giving a film about identities its own inimitable flair.

What was your family like as you were growing up?

My father was a seaman—which meant he would be away for months on end—while my mother was a housewife, so I grew up in a kitchen of women. My entire childhood as I remembered was in the kitchen, with my mother, my aunts, and the other women of the family. Art was never something pushed: my mother would ask me whether I wanted to take up painting, and I would say ‘Yes’ and do some painting, but the whole family was never really artistic per se. I do recall, however, that my father had a collection of about a thousand films on VHS, Laser Discs, VCDs and DVDs. Every time he returned from the ship, we would go to this DVD place and pick around ten films to watch for the period he was back. This was in the days when DVD was insanely popular. In a way, I guess it was my father that cultivated my interest in film.

Have you always felt that you have a propensity for making art?

Painting was never an obsession to me; it was just something I did on the weekend to pass the time. It was not until high school that, for some reason, I found myself in theatre, directing plays. That was actually very strange looking back, because in a Malaysian secondary school, it was not what one would normally do outside of curriculum—one was expected to do athletics or music or more studies, not drama. Our school was fortunate enough to have a group of English teachers that did theatre, who got us young ones all curious and excited over it. The pieces we did were written by us ourselves and we’d stay back after school to practice for competition events. Through the year, there would be something like a football league, but for theater, if you may; it was all very strange but wonderful. I directed around two to three plays in high school, and then I started making really bad short films.

In your high school years, or?

Yes, I actually started then. A while back, I met some friends from high school and we talked about the first film we ever made. It was a class project that we shot on a Betacam. We had to do a storytelling project and we made a horror film in my house. That was the first short film I ever did, and it was hilarious! We got the whole class together, and we casted the shyest guy in class as the killer. We had good fun, but…..the footage was lost!

I started making short films more seriously when I went to college. What really drove me was that I could not relate to Malaysian independent films at the time. Back then for me, going to the cinema meant you would see either mainstream Malaysian cinema, or Hollywood, or independent new wave cinema that I couldn't relate to because it was in Mandarin. Maybe it was due to my background growing up: I am ethnically Chinese but I could not speak Mandarin. At that time, I knew more Malay than I know Mandarin. Now, I know more Tagalog than I know Mandarin. Looking back now, I know that you don’t need to master a language to relate to films. But that is because I was very lucky to have been able to be exposed to different kinds of cinema world cinema. Now I can really appreciate those films. Back then, I had a terrible attention span.

I guess making films for me at that time was a search for identity. Trail and error. More error than success.

How would you describe film culture in Malaysia and how it has changed?

I am not sure if it has changed so much. I just saw the latest box office takings and it proves that we still go to the cinemas. Back then, it was more hit-and-miss than anything. One would just go to the cinema and watch a Malaysian film and hope for the best. I think the first independent Malaysian film I watched was Yeo Joon Han’s Sell Out, which was a musical that also went to Venice Critics Week. It was intentionally badly sung, a what-if of if everyday people decide to make a musical. It was hilarious.

When I was starting out, it was hard to find support because there’s no overflowing film community as we have a small number of independent filmmakers. Now I think the numbers are increasing and the old guard of the Malaysian New Wave have been opening up, starting incubator programs for the next generation which is fantastic. I guess the issue now is really the exposure of the young filmmakers. They need to be exposed to world cinema. To see the other kinds of styles and films and realize that the possibilities are vast. Not to copy but to be inspired.

It is really interesting that you asked me earlier about style, visual style and direction; I think the fact that I found it difficult to connect to local films—visually or otherwise—influenced my making of Singing in Graveyards, because now that I know what I can’t do, it helps refining what it is that I want do, which is to show human nature that is above the boundary of location. People are saying that Singing in Graveyards does not look Malaysian or Filipino at all, and it has its own unique and distinct voice, for which I am very grateful.

How do you feel that themes and focuses have changed throughout the years in Malaysian cinema and in your own works?

What I really liked about the Malaysian new wave cinema was that they are very personal and character driven—there are always feelings that they want to convey. It is not so much about the plot, but intense sense of nostalgia that they want to bring across that makes one feel something. That is how we express our culture—feelings are the flesh of culture, and the bones are human connections.

What has changed in my work I feel is the shift of focus from visual style to more on the honesty of what I want to say. Back then, I was so concerned with how to mount the shot. How to shoot it? What camera movement? Today, these questions are still important but it takes a back seat to- what is the intention of this scene? What do we want to say by moving the camera? What are we trying to convey to the audience?

How have short films evolved these past few years in both Malaysia and the Philippines?

I don’t know much about the history of Filipino short films. But the shorts I’ve seen are quite amazing with huge amounts being made every year. There is this sense of freedom and artistic expression that is not present in Malaysia, probably due to the fact that they have no censorship in the Philippines. The same artistic expressions and scope of things is not present here in Malaysia maybe because of the self-censorship of the filmmakers themselves. They assume that they shouldn’t or can’t talk about “sensitive issues” so they don’t even bother even at script stage.

Perhaps another factor is the rise of YouTube and YouTube shorts in Malaysia. Sometimes these films all feel similar, carbon copies in terms of subject matter and visual style. But this could be because they’re doing it are doing it as a career, creating online content, making money from YouTube subscriptions and views. So these guys know what works and what the audience want. There’s no problem with that but there’s a pressure to churn out films every week to please your subscribers. I personally believe that we need to take our time, to really think about what we want to make and say with our films.

Maybe a solution could be an established Malaysian international film festival that is free of censorship. I think that's the key; you need to show and expose the people to world cinema.

Having won the SEA film lab in 2014 with Singing in Graveyards, was it something that you have incubated since long before the film lab, or an idea that happened to gain substance during it?

The idea occurred to me a year and a half before the lab. When I first went to Manila, the first film set I worked on was Pepe Diokno's Above the Clouds, which played at SGIFF in 2014, and starred Pepe Smith. He was the first Filipino actor I met, except he wasn't really an actor. He was a singer who acted.

I originally knew him as just an old man on set, and as I got to know him, one day he told me: "Brad, I have never written a love song." I asked him what he meant by that, and he just said that as long as his music makes people happy, he does not need to write a love song. This got me thinking about his life, and whether he has ever really fallen in love.

That turned out to be the seed of the film, the idea of this rock star that never wrote a love song. And it progressed many, many different drafts from there; but the lab was especially important as we really hit a dead end with the story, because it was so incredibly clichéd at that time. Talk about a rock star trying to make a comeback, and you would immediately think Aronofsky's The Wrestler. We could not find a good resolution or even a unique angle, because we were so fixated on this idea of a rock star that has never written a love song.

I would not say that the lab opened up a million ideas, but what it really did was to get us to start talking about the film. Lab mentors Fran Borgia and Tan Chui Mui were great at that. By winning, it reassured us that we had something really special, not something to throw away, and acknowledgment that now we needed to push on and find the key to unlock the door to next part of the script.

How did you unlock that next door and how long did it take?

Another year and a half! So the entire process took about three and a half years since the initial ideas.

After the lab, I was really excited as I was accepted to the Berlinale Talents. I thought I would go and hear amazing talks by master directors, get inspired and immediately finish the script. It didn’t happen. It was naïve and foolish to think that. For one reason or another I could not get inspired. The talks did not spark anything. I had more inspirations just being on a train in Berlin, just hanging out with my family—I have an aunt and a cousin there—gave me a greater sense of freedom. For some reason, nothing clicked there. I was really frustrated with myself.

Later that year, I got into the Locarno Filmmakers Academy, and that was a very important workshop for me. It taught me to think more as an artist rather than a person trying to write a film. Just to relax and start breathing. Free your mind, you know. But it still did not help with the script but it recharged me mentally.

It was not until one random night in Manila, when my producer Bianca and I were just discussing the different layers of the film that we hit a goldmine of possibilities: What if he was an impersonator? What if he was not really human? What if he was just this creature in the forest that gave up his immortality to be a rock star in the 70s? We were adding all these crazy elements to a script that was just bones…then suddenly, you get this really obese script, and it is fantastic, and you love it so so much.

Then, two months before went into production, Pepe Smith had a stroke.

It affected his speech and his energy. He not could shoot beyond six to eight hours a day. He would just fall asleep from exhaustion. You could also see that he had problems with recalling dialogue due to this fatigue. That was the biggest issue. We had to cut and slice this obese script down to whatever Pepe could handle that day. From there, more layers were removed until all that was left in the end was just his soul on the pages.

Turns out, after three and a half year writing this perfect script, the key to making it work was just our willingness to go on set and adapt to Pepe and the environment around us. To be organic and not try to impose our ideas on him.

What decisions went into the casting of the other actors like Lav Diaz and Mercedes Cabral?

Everyone casted in the film was intentional.

While Pepe’s character spent his whole life trying to be someone else, Mercedes’s character plays a struggling actress who physically resembles a famous R- rated actress. To get the meaning of this particular casting, one needs to know who Mercedes Cabral is in real life: she is a wonderful and talented actress who has done a lot of international award winning films, but is known as the actress who is always naked on screen. It is disheartening to know that one can appear in so many acclaimed films, and still be recognized for something as inconsequential as nudity. Thus, by casting her as an anti-Pepe, someone who is trying to avoid that limelight of being infamous and to be taken seriously as an actress, it was our way of satirizing a culture that is hypocritical in its appraisal of actresses.

While for Lav Diaz, we just wanted to cast him as an Anti-Lav Diaz; to get him to play this greedy, hustling manager that he definitely is not in real life. Everyone in this film plays his or her total opposites in reality, like Bernardo Bernardo, who played this straight old pervert, when he is really this gay old pervert (laughs). It was partly social commentary and partly just us having fun with all the inside jokes.

Did you draw from any personal histories when you made Singing in Graveyards?

Many scenes of how Pepe tries to connect with people, or rather, is disconnected from people, were constructed from my memories with my own grandfather.

The scene where Pepe goes to his son’s house and his grandson does not want to talk to him, where his son ignores him, while he is just there trying to fit into this family that wants no part of him—that was one. I mean, you gave life to them and that is supposed to mean something. You have this blood connection and you are supposed to have this immediate link, but you do not, and it is all because of the attitude of the young for the old.

In a way, the many scenes of neglect in this film were reflections of me watching how my own grandfather was neglected, and of me neglecting him in the same situation. It is hard to describe, but when one spends time with one’s grandfather, one would realize that all they talk about is the past. They do not have much of a future, and yet they still try to progress to connect with you—it is sad how we are often so caught up in our futures that we overlook our histories.

text / photography - alfonse chiu

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