An Interview with Joko Anwar and Tara Basro on 'Pengabdi Setan (Satan's Slaves)'

Director of 'Satan's Slaves' Joko Anwar

Since Joko Anwar's break out film Janji Joni (Joni's Promise), a romantic comedy which won "Best Film" at the 2005 Indonesian Film Festival, his reputation has spread far beyond Indonesia with several critically successful movies in disparate genres like comedies and psychological thrillers. He also directed a dark fantasy television series Halfworlds for HBO Asia. Although Joko's films often contain elements of horror, his latest film Pengabdi Setan (Satan's Slaves)(2017) is his first full-fledged horror film. It is a reboot of the classic 1982 Indonesian horror hit of the same name directed by Sisworo Gautama Putra.

Satan's Slaves (2017) is a haunted house ride into the dark secret of a family curse that threatens to tear them apart. It is unrelenting in its scares, with suspense building scene by scene, and the cherry on top of this blood-and-guts cake is how everything is set against a remarkably creepy interior of  an old house. Together with characters that audiences will care about, and a big twist to make your skin crawl, Joko's love for all types of horror film--from the very good to the very bad--pays off in this gut-twisting horror and will likely gain Pengabdi Setan a new generation of fans.

Rini (Tara Basro) lives in an old house on the outskirts of Jakarta with her grandmother Rahma Saidah (Elly D. Luthan), mother, Mawarni Suwono (Ayu Laksmi), father (Bront Palarae), and three younger brothers, Tony (Endy Arfian), Bondi (Nasar Annuz), and Ian (Muhammad Adhiyat). When the mother Mawarni dies of a strange illness, Rini’s father goes to a different town for work leaving Rini in charge. Terror begins when the mother’s spirit returns to the old house to haunt her former family. But this is only the beginning of the horror as the family’s dark history unravels.

SINdie had the opportunity to sit down with director Joko Anwar and lead actress Tara Basro in a group interview.

My first question is for you, Joko. You've wanted to make this film for a long time. How did you encounter the original film and what’s the impression it left on you?
Joko: I grew up in Medan, Sumatra. At that time, there was no Playstation. My peers either went to jail or got married. Crazy.

I escaped those horrible lives by going to the cinemas. Most movies they played in the cinemas were horror. And there was this one movie they played when I was six years old, I still remember very vividly how it was so scary. It was called Pengabdi Setan.

I wanted to become a film director. I wanted to create something that would give audiences the same satisfaction I felt watching it the first time. So that’s the reason.

As Satan's Slaves is a reboot of the 1982 film, I notice a lot of the sets used are very authentic. What were the challenges in remaking such an old film?
Joko: First we had to find a house. We spent three months looking for a house and found one in Jakarta. It was very old and abandoned.

Searching for the props was not very easy as we had to go from West Java to East Java to find the little things. Maybe chairs and tables you can find easily, but little things like the medicine you had to do some serious hunting. For example some of the oil ointment. 

So those kind of things, even the little cups and the plates. The pan, the stove. (Gestures to Tara) We found also an old actress from the 80s.

Tara: Am I a vampire?! Haha.

I really like the house that you used. How much did you have to change about the house? I really like the well in the basement.
Joko: The bathroom was modelled after my bathroom in my parents' house. Back then we only had one place where we put the water. We used a pump. But sometimes when the electricity is off, we used a pail to take water from the well.

We dug that. We made the well. (pause) How much we changed when we entered the house? Not much, I found the perfect house.

Besides getting the props, what other techniques do you use to recreate the feel of the film? 
Joko: Tara and the actors, they went through extensive workshops to learn the dialect from the 80s. If you are from Indonesia, you will know that they speak like people in the 80s.

Tara: Every day, I have to text my little brothers something, like a quote or a sentence, with the 80s accent. We had to call each other and also one of the best things was that we shot everything in order. In chronological order. Usually in a production, you jump scenes, this one was shot from the beginning till the end.

Lead actress of 'Satan's Slaves' Tara Basro

And then along the way, me and my dad were like, oh my god, it’s getting more and more intense! And I am like, of course, we are nearing the end of the film. Usually we don’t get to experience that. We have to imagine it on our own. We have to imagine like what happened before, even if you have not shot the scene before or after you have to play along with it.

You had to text your little brothers in the film? 
Tara: Yes the brothers in the film.

I thought that you and your brothers had a very believable chemistry. It was like you were already a family.
Tara: We spent a lot of time together actually. The kids, they are brilliant. They are just young actors and they are fun to be around as well.

Keeping up with their energy was a little hard. Like 2am in the morning they would still be up running around, telling stories while me and the Dad and Mum are like, 'Aren’t you tired?'

They are like ‘No! I don't want to sleep!'. They think it is fun, because usually when they are at school they have to sleep early. When they are on set, they get to stay awake till late. They are so happy about it. So yeah, it is so easy to be close to them.

Did you draw inspiration from any recent horror films before making this film? 
Joko: All those horror films are etched in my head already, even if I am not aware they are there. Horror is my love.

Do you actually prefer Eastern or Western horror films?
Joko: You name it. I watch all horror films. Bad, good, in between, extremely good or extremely bad, I watch them all.

The women in the film have to make difficult decisions to nurture and protect their family. Even the scary evil one, I feel she can be quite sympathetic once you know her backstory. Rini (Tara Basro) is also a strong female character, the investigative force behind the mystery, trying to find out what's happening. What are your thoughts on women in horror films and how they are portrayed?
Joko: Many horror films portray female protagonists because it is a complete character. Women protagonists can convey fragility as well as strength. You get two opposing forces that make the horror film fun to watch.

And I think playing in horror films requires more than just acting talent. You must have that "it" factor to be the lead in a horror film and I think Tara is really good at it. She can convey that fear, concern and make people care about the character and what she does. So that’s not very easy.

Tara: I am very happy with Rini’s character because she does not have to run to some man’s arms and ask him to save her. She can actually take care of the whole family on her own and I think it came so naturally because a lot of women today are used to that.

Joko: Tara is not a fan of horror film. She ran away during the premiere.

Tara: We are such a contrast. He loves it, I hate it. I have a weak heart, I can’t, haha.

So everyone’s watched the full final cut?
Joko: Yes, and she ran away!

Tara: First time, I could not. Second time, I peeked a little, gradually. In the beginning, I didn’t expect it to be like that. I literally ran away because oh my god, I cannot stand watching this. I felt I was going to faint or something and unfortunately, he caught me at the alley and forced me to go back to my seat.

Joko: Go back to your seat I said.

Tara: And then I sat through the whole film and it was actually one of the most fun experiences I had. I never felt that way before with my previous films. It was just surprising how you can get all of these emotions in one film. You can get fear and love and fun as well.

Did the kids watch?
Tara: They loved it! They would be like ‘Joko, can we please watch?!’

Did anything weird or supernatural happen on set when you were filming?
Joko: No lah. We shoot very quick. 16 days. A lot of things going on maybe… But ‘join the set’, I would say.

So the set was very clean?
Joko: No it was not. Haha. There were a lot of voices that were recorded. Even during post-production, there were subtitles that were not supposed to be there. You can ask my producer. He will freak out again.

I read that you are intending to make Chapter 2 of this film.
Joko: We cannot discuss it yet. It is still a secret.

What’s your favourite scene in the entire movie?
Joko: All of them. If I don’t like them I would have cut it out.
Tara: Mine would be…. Probably the one with me praying… and the one when the kids stood in front of the Ibu’s picture.

That’s my favourite too! 
Tara: I didn’t expect that. And we were like ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

I noticed you used many ordinary objects and placed them in a context where they become scary. Like the ringing bell or the mother’s song. How did you come up with the scares in the film? 
Joko: Well, the bell was used by my grandma when she was sick. She will ring the bell when she asked us to come and see her, especially when her condition was becoming worse and worse. That’s why we fixed the bell.

The comb? 

Joko: The comb was my mum’s comb.

Last question. Explain the twitter dare that resulted in you walking naked into a Circle K. 

Joko: Haha. Naked… That was like a long time ago. You will go blind if you see it. Hahaha.

Pengabdi Setan (Satan's Slaves) opens in Cathay cinemas in Singapore on 18th January.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Written by Jacqueline Lee

Jacqueline writes bite-sized reviews encompassing all genres of films on Instagram at @filmage. She was a part of the SGIFF Youth Jury in 2015. She likes cats and Creepypasta.
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