Cine Cynic: An Interview with Lai Weijie

LAI WEIJIE claims to be one of the biggest grouch in the industry, but it’s an allegation that holds no water. Armed with a constant wardrobe of v-necks in every hues and a sharp, sardonic wit, it is easy to miss the talent that lurks beneath a Cheshire cat’s grin. 

One who doesn’t suffer fools kindly, LAI WEIJIE is the rare breed of producer that one hardly sees nowadays: a producer that allows their work to consume them because to not do so is an affront to their artistry.

In an age where branding and surface work reigns supreme, it is more important than ever to acknowledge the behind-the-scenes hard work that goes to make great works of art happen.

Here, SINdie’s own ALFONSE CHIU sits down with WEIJIE for some honest talks on the realities of filmmaking.

It is interesting to note that you started off as philosophy graduate before you decided to do film. Why this transition?

I was interested in painting before doing my undergrad, but my parents being the ever-pragmatic Singaporeans that they were curbed that wish at that point in time. Smart people. I matriculated at NUS and then because I knew I definitely was not interested in pursuing engineering and the sciences at all, I enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, with my parents assuming that I was going to pursue economics or something vaguely useful. But there was no way in hell that I am going to do that, so I went in, saw the courses on offer, and promptly picked Philosophy because it seemed the most interesting.

Since there was no Film Studies minor at that time, I took every single film module that I could access to fill my credits. I could recall there being a Philosophy in Film module, where I first met my girlfriend, Liz, and Japanese Studies having a fair bit of film classes. Literature too had a lot of film classes in it.

It was also at NUS that I met Kirsten, because we were both in this film society called nuSTUDIOS. For those who do not know, nuSTUDIOS is this film society that the school runs, which gives the society money each semester to make films. Realizing that one got to make films there with other people's money, I definitely wanted to be a part of that. That was how I put my portfolio for my eventual application to Tisch together.

In terms of how Tisch happened, it was pretty much by accident: I was trying to figure out what the hell to do with my life after I graduated from philosophy, and then around the same time that I was graduating, Tisch decided to open a campus in Singapore.

After they announced it, I thought that it sounded interesting and since the timing worked out quite nicely and I did not have the money to go to New York, I might just as well go for it, and save on accommodation and the likes. My pragmatic Singaporean intuition told me that I had a high chance of getting in, because, if they were opening a campus here, they had to accept locals. Besides that, I also made the assumption that because it was supported by both the MDA and the EDB, MDA would definitely give me a scholarship if I got in or I would have at least a very high chance of getting a scholarship, because it would not make sense to support the school coming down but not the locals that got in.

So, I applied, got the scholarship, and got in.

How and when did you come to find your passion for film?

It was really cultivated during my National Service. I was a military police, and as you know, there are always occasions during NS where everyone is doing absolutely nothing for hours on end. For me, instead of being a sensible person and picking up proper life-skills like learning to drive and other ‘practical’ things, I watched movies, from this huge stash of pirated movies that we accumulated.

And what do you do when you have to stay overnight in camps?

Watch films lor.

Most of them were terrible, terrible films, but you just keep on watching. Slowly, as you went through them, you started to see that some were actually pretty great, and some not so much, and you just get this thought: 'I can definitely do better than this.' because some of them were really bad.

Later on, when I was in NUS and nuSTUDIOS, I made a couple short films and realized that: ‘Shit, it’s actually quite hard to make even a shitty film.’

It was basically because I had too much free time as an NSF. If I wasn’t playing the PlayStation, I would be watching films. I watched all sorts of nonsense, and it wasn’t until undergrad and I took film classes, that I started to curate my taste.

How do you feel the focus in your practices and attention have changed as you went to graduate school?

When I applied to NYU, it was partly because I did not want to work yet though I had offers for sensible jobs, and partly because I felt that if I wanted to work in the film industry in Singapore, Singapore being Singapore, I would never be able to get the opportunity to work in a role that is above the line. Which is probably quite fair I guess.

I would have to start, much like a lot of friends, at the very bottom of the food chain sweeping the floor and buying coffee. Then, I would slowly have to work my way up to whatever position the powers that be decide to throw my way.

Knowing my temperament, I knew that I did not have the patience or tolerance for that. So, I looked at film school as a kind of shortcut. I mean, of course you still have to go through some hazing and initiation rituals and all that, but I thought NYU was a way to fast track a little bit and get the chance to work in more key positions. In a film school, you get to touch the camera, you get to touch the editing console—you get to practice. While I do not believe that you necessarily become a better filmmaker in film school, what is guaranteed is that you get to participate in the actual motion of things rather than be on the sidelines.

If I had been a PA on a terrible TV series in Singapore, I wouldn’t have learned anything positive and there is literally no way that I would be within 10 meters of the camera, for example. I would never get those kinds of opportunities, or the opportunity to meet cool people, had I not joined NYU.

After NYU, it was time to go back into the real world. Would you mind elaborating on your time after graduate school?

I was actually really lucky.

As you know, being a film enthusiast in Singapore means attending a lot of film events, and when you attend film events, you meet people pretty quickly, because it is always the same few people at all the same events.

After a while, I asked a couple of people that I met through those events about what I should do, and they just asked me about what I want to do, then I asked them what they see as lacking in the industry.

When I went to Tisch, about ninety nine percent of the cohort, went in wanting to be a director, but I realized very quickly after working with my classmates that I didn't have that creative drive or temperament of a director in me, and that my tendencies were more towards producing, whether by accident or not.

After a couple of people like Juan Foo said that there were not many good producers in Singapore—there were actually very few producers in Singapore full stop, because being a producer in Singapore generally sucks balls and nobody wants to do it—and that maybe it was something to consider, becoming a producer suddenly seemed a likelier route for me.

Two years into my three-year Masters programme, I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do after I graduate, and prospects seemed dire. Then, just the semester before I was about to graduate, a prominent Singapore producer, Daniel Yun, came to give a talk at Tisch.

As you know, Daniel was one of the key figures of the industry during the 90's to 2000's. He used to run Raintree Pictures at Mediacorp, and when he came to my school, he had just left.

He had started a new company called Homerun Asia, and he came to Tisch to talk, ostensibly, about producing. We spoke briefly after his talk, and he asked me what I was up to after I graduated, and I basically answered ‘Hell, if I know.’

He left it at that, then, about a month later, he invited me to dinner. After we met a few more times, he asked me whether I was interested in joining his company as a producer and I agreed almost immediately. So, when I graduated I joined his company, Homerun Asia, and again the timing worked out really nicely, because the company opened officially just as I joined, so the office and everything was new, and they just happened to have a film that was about to be green lit.

Within a month of me graduating, I was already producing my first feature, a Chinese New Year film called Homecoming (笑着回家) that just happened to be directed by my mentor at nuSTUDIOS, Lee Thean-jeen.

It was an experience and a good one at that, because though people may say that commercial films are crap and all that, it takes real discipline to make one; they don't fuck around, whereas in independent films, things always seem very malleable. Neither is necessarily right or wrong.

What I liked about doing commercial films was that if the budget is this, the budget is this. I do not care how much you scream or shout at me, the budget stays put because it is a commercial undertaking. This is the figure that we are working with, and you are supposed to figure out how to spend the money within the allotment, so you would know not to fuck around.

Later on, when I started to do independent films, you are always moving funds from here to there—like: ‘Shit, the art department has gone over-budget! What can I do? OK, I think I can take money from the equipment or casting department which is under-budget.’ You are moving funds around all the time from all the different departments; this is not an option in a commercial film like Homecoming.

It was nice to see how that worked, especially after being in film school, where you work twenty hours a day and totally disregard safety, the work environment is neater, and when you shoot, everyone is more-or-less organized. There is a shot list that people actually adhere to; when the AD comes up with the call sheet, people actually follow the call sheet, because everyone is there to do a job.

Maybe they do not really like the film, but everyone is there for a reason, and that is to get it done. This was something that I learned very quickly after graduating.

Even as you started your first foray into the industry, you already had experience making an independent film, and immediately after that you worked on commercial sets. After these experiences, did you decide to pursue commercial films or did you decide that you are more into independent fare?

After Homecoming, I left Homerun Asia because the environment was difficult, Daniel was a really important figure to me but the company had a slate of projects that I was helping to develop that I was really just not very interested in. It’s a bit spoilt of me I suppose. It got to be a little demoralizing, so I decided to leave.

I felt that by then I had built up enough of a contact pool that I could figure out how to survive outside the security of a company. It was pretty rough, but I had really nice people like Wee Li Lin and Charles Lim who took me under their wing and helped tide me through. I did a couple of things with them, and then I met, by accident while on an MDA funded networking trip, Melvin Ang, who was the head of MM2 Entertainment.

 And again similar to my encounter with Daniel:

'What are you up to now?'

'I also don’t know lah.'


'I happen to be prepping this film, and the director (Chai Yee-Wei) says he knows you, do you want to work on it?’

It was funny the way me and Yee Wei met—we were part of a test audience for a Jack Neo film, and we had loosely kept in touch ever since. He had been writing That Girl in Pinafore for the longest time, and he asked if I am interested to work on it for pre-pre-production. At that time, it was not ready to go into pre-production yet, so for maybe 2 months, Yee-Wei and I worked together on the film, just doing the initial preparations, and then I ended up being one of the producers for it as well since I was there early on.

And since the money was not so great from film, I started to teach as an adjunct and also doing other projects like writing corporate videos. I did a couple of telemovies too, and working on them was just about as demoralizing as the corporate videos gigs.

I remember at one point while I was in the middle of a telemovie shoot, I thought: ‘What the fuck am I doing? I get no financial security out of doing film, I am not doing projects that I like, and I am using up all my favors with friends on things I don’t even believe in. Why am I doing film? I am getting nothing out of it.’

I have always been a naturally pretty unhappy person, but to reach this level of unhappiness really meant something was wrong. I recall thinking that after the shoot, I am going to reevaluate and figure out what the hell to do with my life AGAIN.

What ended up happening was that Kirsten Tan, whom I had kind of kept in touch with on and off since NUS, messaged me on Facebook around the time I was about to wrap that shoot, saying: 'Hey, what are you up to?'

Then, it is jialat because whenever people start to text you with that kind of opening, you know they are going to ask you for something.

So, I texted back: ' What’s up?’

And she said: ‘I am going to make my thesis film, and I want to make it back in Singapore, but I haven’t been back in for a long time, and you are one of the few people I know who is not a director, would you be interested in producing my thesis film?'

I said, 'Sure.' and that marked a key transition in my film life.

That thesis film in question was Kirsten’s Dahdi. Then, around the time I was doing it, the Singapore International Film Festival called and asked if I want to work in the festival for its relaunch after it stopped for a number of years.

After that, a lot of things started to happen: Dahdi was finished and started to travel the festival circuit, winning a bunch of awards in the process; Pop Aye was in development at that time, winning a bunch of awards too; and in between the development of Pop Aye, Distance happened.

I was finally gaining some momentum after doing a lot of shit stuff for a long time, hoping that there was something a little more substantial that would finally come along. It just took a long while.

Do you mind sharing about how one finance a film, and how it differs from your experience making a graduate film and producing someone else's thesis film to being on a commercial set and now independent cinema?

I feel like in general, based on what I have done, every film has been financed differently depending on what it is. Things will always be like that and you just have to deal with it.

For example, for my thesis film—the low budget feature in Cambodia—we had to be realistic about it, because we knew that no one is going to give money to us nobodies, so we kind of worked backwards. We looked at our ideal budget based on asking how much equipment rental was, how much accommodation was in Cambodia, location fees, etc.…it was all about finding out what the hard numbers were to derive how much it would cost to get this film made, and then crossing out the stuff that you manage to negotiate or get for free.

In our case, we managed to get a lot of locations for free, the entire wardrobe was sponsored, and we took budget airlines. After this, all that was left to do was to cross cross cross, and you just try to cross out as many things as possible, and pare it down to the skeleton—the sum that you need to pay no matter what.

Then, I looked at my dismal bank account and Liz, looked down at her less dismal bank account, and we asked ourselves, how much can we put in ourselves? There is no point to talking so much when you yourself have no stake in it. So, we put whatever we could afford into it, and the rest we got from our family, them knowing that they would probably never see a cent of it back. By then, after we had stripped away everything, it was not too much; it was like a low five figure amount. Not very little, but it was the lowest we could have brought it to at that point in time.

While for big local commercial films, a lot of it is financed through sponsorships. For Homecoming, we had five production companies involved I think, and each of them put in a bit, then you have the usual suspects that came in as sponsors.

The brands sponsor films because they know that they are going to spend that money on making really cheesy commercials anyway, so it makes more sense that they will get more eyes and more undivided attention in the cinema if they do really blatant product placement in a film and they pay the same amount as making a commercial for it. 

The more sponsorship money you get, the less you have to make back to break even.

What happens when a big distributor acquires your film, the way Pop Aye was acquired by Kino Lorber, does your budget get covered? What does it mean to be picked up or bought by a big distributor?

In the case of Kino Lorber it was not enough to cover the costs.

One needs to be realistic—no matter how talented she is or how promising she is billed to be, Kirsten's film in the wider context is a low budget independent Thai language film by pretty much a nobody, starring nobodies, so it is not going to fetch the same asking price as, for example, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Little Miss Sunshine.

What we got from the deal was alright, but what it does to have a reputable company like Kino Lorber pick up your film is that, it makes other distributors in other countries pay attention to the film. Just like film festivals: 'Oh, Kino Lorber endorses this film; they are willing to buy the North American distribution rights. This must mean that this film must be half decent at least.'

As Kino Lorber have a pretty strong library, them willing to pick it up signify that there must be something to the film to others. Then, other distributors in other territories like France or Germany will come take a look at it, and when they buy it, it will signal to other territories, that it must be worth getting too.

It's a snowballing effect in terms of viewership, but in terms of the money that they give, the prices are not high at all. The idea is that hopefully all these small sums pooled together will become something significant.

Given this financial reality you have mentioned, how do filmmakers get paid and survive from one project to the next?

Directors survive differently from producers, and different directors survive very differently—some survive by making commercials in between features, while others take up jury duties, or develop a number of projects at one time and live off of retainers.

For crew, they actually get paid more than the directors and producers and writers. We all get paid less than the crew, because they generally get paid daily rates, whereas we get paid by the project. If a project takes five years to make, our pay remains the same, whereas if you shoot for five years—which will never happen unless you are Wong Kar-wai or Terence Malick—the crew will be super happy, because they are on a daily rate.

In terms of the way I survived, I taught as an adjunct for a couple of years in film schools, and also did a couple of projects on a freelance basis, telemovies, corporate videos etc. Then, when I transitioned to doing the film festival, I did not really have as much time to teach, so my festival salary sustained me. Thankfully, Giraffe Pictures, was able to pay me a retainer as well, so I survived on that and my salary from the festival. It's not a whole lot, but its enough. Then, for each project I do, I get a fee that comes way at the end, because producers always get paid last.

How did Pop Aye get produced? Do you mind sharing how your involvement started, and how you moved forward from that point?

While Kirsten and I were making Dahdi, she was writing Pop Aye as a distraction from the stress. I knew that she had this idea for a long time—Pop Aye was supposed to be her thesis film originally, not Dahdi. It was a short film that ended up becoming this monster of a feature.

Basically, she was just fleshing out an idea of a story that she had for a while to remove herself from the stress of prepping Dahdi I assume, and then she submitted it and it got into Berlinale Talents.

By the time we got to the editing phase of Dahdi, she had gone over to Berlin for the Script Station where consultants would give feedback to your script, and while she was there she met one of the selectors of TorinoFilmLab.

At that time, TorinoFilmLab did not take Southeast Asian project submissions—you could not apply from SEA, they had to invite you. I guess because the idea was strange and bizarre and really out of this world, they invited the film to apply; but to participate you need a producer, and since we were kind of already talking a little and we had gone through Dahdi relatively unscathed, she asked me if I wanted to work on this too.

Since it meant trips to Mexico and Italy, I said yes of course.  When we went to Turin, we met the head of Cannes L’atelier, and we spent time trying to get him to consider our film. We were trying to pitch it to him but his response was non-committal. As the Cannes L’atelier is invitation only too, he has to invite you to apply, and even if he invites you to apply, you might not get in. It was only after we won at TorinoFilmLab that he invited us to submit to L’atelier.

By the time we won Torino, a lot of things basically started to happen: Anthony Chen and Giraffe Pictures formally came on board. I recall him nagging us that Kirsten’s first feature should be in our home country, because it is just more manageable. To him, it was completely irrational to want to do something like this—complete with animals and water and children.

Us winning Torino was a turning point though—he came on board the project, which made things a lot easier in terms of pitching to MDA and Cannes. He gave a lot of really great script and producing advice. Things got a lot easier, and everything else just fell into place quite easily in terms of getting the film made. That’s how that journey started.

How was the production process like on the ground in Thailand? Do you mind sharing an example of what you did in Thailand that you can never do here?

It was a real eye opener. It is always interesting to see what the workflow is like in different countries, and I think because everyone has a different way of working, so to be there collaborating is a real learning process.

The producer we worked with in Thailand was a really, really great guy called Soros Sukhum, and he is probably the biggest independent Thai producer currently. He worked on the earlier works of Apichatpong and also produced the films of Aditya Assarat, Anocha Suwichakornpong, and Kongdej Jaturanrasamee, really important modern Thai filmmakers.

A very simple example of what we did in Thailand that is impossible in Singapore would be like the scene in the film where the elephant walks into the house. There is no fucking way we would be able to get permission from anyone in Singapore to do that, it was already fucking difficult in Thailand but we found a homeowner who was willing to loan us their house and let an elephant walk into it. It was fucking amazing and there is no way that you could get the chance to do that in Singapore.

On top of that, since the elephant would not fit through the door, the owner was even willing to let us tear down the front door and the front panel of his house to rebuilt a panel and door that was tall enough for the elephant to come in. For that scene, we tore down the original paneling, rebuilt one that fit the elephant, shot the scenes, then tore the modified panel down again, and built it back to its original state.

This is pretty ridiculous on its own, but the fact that we even had this option is pretty amazing 

How long did post-production take?

It was tricky because we worked with an editor that is super in demand—Lee Chatametikool. He edited all of Apichatpong's work except his first, he edits a lot of independent Thai films, he edits a lot of commercial projects—he cut Shutter, for example—and he's the boss of a post-production company, White Light Post. As you can see, he is really busy, so you do not get to just ask him whether he wants to edit your film. He has to be interested in it first before you get the chance to ask him.

I guess Pop Aye lived a charmed life, so it worked out: he was interested, just like Cannes and Torino.

Based on his schedule, he would cut it for a while, then he would have to stop to do something else, then he would get back to it. Editing started in July and we cut until the end of October, but there were breaks in between.

After the picture was locked, our sound designer Lim Ting Li at Mocha Chai took over as the supervising sound editor, and when she finished, we went back to Thailand to do the color grading.  We finished the film on Boxing Day. 

What do you hope for next?

Now that Pop Aye is finished, I just hope that the people who watch it enjoy it and not feel like we’ve stiffed them of their money. For other projects, I do not really think of them very much – things just kinda happen I feel if they are made by sincere people; I just want to spend more time with my girlfriend and my family. This is what I hope for more than anything else.

Work might be work, but living life—that is something we’ve all got to do beyond just through cinema.     
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