Double Takes: An Interview with Daniel Yam

Filmmaker Daniel Yam’s biggest claim to fame are his viral short films like ‘Gift’ and ‘Ripple’ which have been seen by millions around the world. Poignant and message-laden, his stories are often perfectly ringfenced in a karmic world where good intentions will always find good outcomes. While Dick Lee’s story in his upcoming biopic Wonder Boy is not exactly the ‘moral textbook’ world of Daniel’s films, it has a follow-your-dream arc that is right up Daniel’s alley. This made Daniel a natural choice for co-director on Wonder Boy. Lines were nicely drawn in this Dick-Daniels collaboration, with Dick focussed on the acting and emotions and Daniel focussed on translating everything happening on set for the camera. While a bystander to Dick’s story, he was certainly no bystander to the work of recreating that world the story inhabits. Here is what another pair of eyes saw at the film set on Wonder Boy.
Has Dick watched your short films before you got together?

mm2 (Entertainment) has sent some of my works to him, but we have actually worked together in an earlier project called ‘The Future of Us’ for Gardens By The Bay.

What did Dick say after watching your films?

He liked the sensibility of how I approached my films. So we met, together with mm2, and started to explore from there.

When you came on board and read the script, what did you find interesting about it?

I'm always drawn to characters with strong motivations to do positive things. This story is about a teenager who was making music at a time when nobody believed in him and even the government  was clamping down on pop music. Something that's always prevalent in my stories is someone who wants something, doesn't get it in the end but instead gets a lesson which he needs. So there is a little bit of this transformation arc there in Wonder Boy.

I know this is Dick’s story, but who developed the script?

When I first came in, there was already an initial draft of the script written by another writer. However, I felt it could not decide whether it wanted to be a drama or comedy. So we got together with the mm2 team a few times to talk about the script, until one day, Dick decided to take over the script development. After all, he's written musicals before so he is not new to scriptwriting.

It’s two chairs in front of the monitor on set, what do you look out for in the monitor?

So I'm in charge of everything you see on screen, the mise-en-scene and how to position the camera relative to the blocking. It’s looking at the whole language of cinema, calculating how one shot was going to cut to the other.

Do you ever play his devil's advocate?

Like clashing on set? No, things were very amicable. (pause) There were certain moments I felt an actor could have done it in a certain way but Dick felt it was okay and that the actor has hit the right spot, I let it be his call.

How did you try to make this different from your other productions? Did you go for certain looks or styles?

I guess it is a very intimate story of a person's life. So, we tried to make the camera more subjective. There was a scene in which Dick, as played by Benjamin Kheng, lost something very dear to his life. For this scene, we used hand-held camera and also smeared the camera lenses a little. (pause) So, sometimes we dramatise and at other times, we clarify. All by using the camera differently, and creative editing as well. In a way, it was also a good chance for me to practice my craft.

Were there many technically challenging scenes that required extensive grip work or even drones? I mean, it would have looked appropriate for the musical moments.

We went for a very realistic treatment. The film is not a musical in which characters suddenly break into song and dance. But you will see moments of them practising their music or performing on stage.

Penang must have been a great place for shooting with its many interesting locations and old buildings?

(laughs) Here is a story. We went up to Penang to recee twice before starting production. The second time we were there, we started identifying actual shooting spots and angles and I got so excited with what I saw. I was like ‘Oh look at that road, we can shoot 35mm from this angle with the sunset coming from the other side.’ or ‘Look at this building! It is so much like Middle Road in the 60s!’ or ‘Hey, that's exactly how the Centerpoint building looked like in the past!’

When it came down to the actual day of the shoot, we suddenly realised ‘Oh shoot, there's that airport at the back, there is a factory behind the building, there is a neon ‘Money Changer’ sign that we can’t avoid!’

In the end, some of our shots became tighter and tighter as a result.

Couldn’t you remove it in post-production?

Due to our limited budget, the producer said if you can cover it in practical, do it instead of covering in post. Moral of the story: we see what we want to see.

Having said that, Penang is still a beautiful place and I definitely want to shoot here again. In Singapore, everywhere you turn, you see a fast food chain sign or a shopping centre. In Penang, you feel transported back into 70s Singapore. So it was a very good experience for the talents as well as the shooting crew.

What was the biggest challenge on the set?

I think time was the biggest challenge. This is especially so when we have to move from location to location. Each move was about two hours. And in Penang, when they say ‘Oh it's a short drive’, it's not like in Singapore. A short drive in Penang can be one hour. What’s more, the traffic could be unpredictable. During the production, we made some very difficult decisions, for example, we had to cancel shooting a scene the props department spent a whole day preparing for!

Is Wonder Boy more comedy or drama?

I would call this a very charming film. (pause) And I have to say Benjamin Kheng did a fantastic job as the lead. He is very professional in what he does and he does his homework. I have worked other actors with more experience and some of them come on set unprepared. A lot of the younger actors, when we say cut, they get out of their characters quickly and like to joke and laugh around on set. But Benjamin would just go quietly to a corner and continue to remember his lines and practice. In all my years of working, the people I have seen remaining in character and doing all that are mostly the older veteran actors.

Finally, I have mentioned this to you before. You know all your films have a this angelic halo above them. Would you ever do something dark like David Fincher’s Gone Girl?

That’s a very difficult question to answer for now. It doesn't interest me but that is not to say it wouldn't in future. (pause) I started doing all these feel-good videos about five years ago when I was surfing the internet a lot. In the course of my surfing, I noticed there were many prankster videos online and I began to wonder if my daughter was going to watch all these when she grows up. I hope there is space on the internet for a kinder type of videos.

Who knows? Maybe as she gets older, I may have the opportunity to do something darker. I have always liked thrillers when I was young and I like a dark comedy. I don’t really don't like gore. I still have the notion that I should feel great after watching a movie, and not depressed. It doesn’t have to be a happy movie but it has to give some hope.
Wonder Boy is out in cinemas on 3 August 2017.

Interview by Jeremy Sing

Read our interview with Dick Lee here.

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