STOP10 Nov 2017: 'Diamond Dogs' by Gavin Lim

Making its world premiere at the upcoming 28th Singapore International Film Festival is Gavin Lim's (Fighting Spiders, Tanglin) first feature film, provocatively titled Diamond Dogs. Provocative because of the similarly titled David Bowie album in 1974, which was a marriage of George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-four and Bowie's own glam-tinged version of a post-apocalyptic world.

Diamond Dogs is a high stakes, exhilarating action-thriller where man faces off against his own nature. A stage three cancer diagnosis leaves deaf and mute Johnny with little to lose when he is lured into a deadly underground social experiment. Funded by the uber rich, it pits fighters against one another in a test of animalistic aggression and adrenaline. Johnny's fight to the top is brutal, fuelled by the sole desire to exact revenge on the man who caged him in.

SINdie caught up with Gavin Lim to talk about working on Diamond Dogs.
Congrats on your first feature! In 2005 you won the Best Director Award in SGIFF’s Singapore Short Film category for 'Subtitle', and now your first feature, Diamond Dogs, is premiering at the same festival. How does it feel? 

I owe everything to the festival because of the encouragement from the unexpected win at the 2005 SGIFF and the welcoming fraternity of Singapore filmmakers then. 

The late Leslie, Swee Leng, Philip Cheah and yes even Mr Malone, were formidable catalysts of Singapore cinema during a time when we were at our lowest in inspiration and output. Maybe stupidly, I made my switch to my second career after that - after a decade and a half in advertising. And I had a fulfilling time of TV directing and producing over the last nine years. 

It’s important for my first film to premiere in SGIFF, instead of every SG filmmakers’ strategy of going international first, losing that world premiere cherry elsewhere and then coming back to SGIFF after garnering some accolades elsewhere. I think it’s important to cultivate Singapore audiences to love our own first rather than seek validation of our own from others. 

Maybe it is foolhardy and stupid, but I think premiering in SGIFF is important to SG filmmakers. But that’s my IMHO. Also I hope one day a SG film can open or close the festival-like Ken Kwek’s Unlucky Plaza in 2014. 

How big was the jump to go from writing and directing short films and TV serials to a feature film? Did you face any challenges? 

I didn’t do shorts for nearly 8 years. I just did one last month and it felt like coming home. Films and TV do exist on different plains of reality. The way they are going to be consumed may be the key here. So the old Netflix vs Theatre argument again. 

While shooting Diamond Dogs, I tried to remember to employ non TV visual language like there’s rarely ECUs or V angled OTS or locked shots, exposing to the right, crossing line commandments. Operative word is ‘tried to remember’. Every day of the 13-day shoot was just surviving and making sure no one was hurt. 

One thing the nine years of TV production had done for me was making the business of directing a second nature. Directing TV on a typical sixteen scenes call sheets daily becomes second nature. Managing a set becomes second nature. Things not working out also becomes second nature. 

We did 95 scenes in 13 days. I thought I should get a prize for that.

What are some of the filmic inspirations for this gritty action-thriller revenge flick? 

Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy was quite the ten year series as the inspiration of Diamond Dogs. Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive series, and his early catalogue were also seared into my brains for its daring spirit and with so much swagger. 

I also love Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s works--this perversion came from earlier editions of SGIFF. And strangely, Diamond Dogs was inspired very loosely by Tsai Ming-Liang’s 不散 spirit. I couldn’t discern whether the director was making fun of the audience, or he was actually having fun and invited the audience to laugh with him, or he was seriously making a point. 

Featuring a deaf and mute protagonist is very interesting, how did this affect the editing and sound of the film? 

There were scenes which were not shot at all – they didn’t even make the master breakdown. We ran out of resources for them, hence we knew we can’t do big scenes, or I have to combine them with other scenes. 

I always knew this is going to be part of Sunny Pang’s body of work and I wanted it to be special. So I made him deaf and mute to make him sweat, acting wise. This sort of ‘joke’ turned into reality very fast on set when he found himself without his main tool of communication and acting. He started gesturing and shrugging but learned very quickly to survive with less and I think he did wonderfully. 

In fact, it is some of the most nuanced acting I’ve seen coming from Sunny Pang, who is an action Superstar, and very alike Clint Eastwood.

Was anything censored in the final product? Like removed at ideation or script or production or editing stage? Why? Share some of the original wild ideas you had. 

But truly you can never shoot enough to feel safe. There was one fight scene that went out of the window that very day we were supposed to shoot it because the actress dislocated her shoulder the day before (not on set!). 

Editing; there were loads stripped off. Some which you thought were killer scenes but after I checked in with the two persons, whom I respected much, and realised that they didn’t respond to the scenes, I knew that I was just delusional. 

There are still many self-indulgent moments but I guess I tried to keep it to a minimal. There were chunks of surreal stand-up comedy segments that didn’t survive and a scene with Anri Okita that didn’t make the cut – imagine the money I could have saved! 

Some of the original wild ideas include:
a. Original opening - Police cars and Motorbikes Night chase scene in Shenton Way alleys. Probably would be about the entire cost of the film. 
b. An obscure left of centre WWII opening selling UNIT 731.
c. More CU practical gore effects 
d. More nudity scenes. At least one more. 
e. Wildest idea--a more decent shooting schedule?

Images courtesy of the 28th SGIFF

Catch Diamond Dogs as part of Singapore Panorama at the 28th SGIFF.

28 Nov, Tue, 9.30 PM
National Museum of Singapore
World Premiere
Singapore, 2017, 108 min
English, Mandarin 
Gavin Lim will be in attendance

Ticketing details here

Interview by Jacqueline Lee

For the full list of November 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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