'It was the story of my secret superhero identity': An Interview with Sandi Tan

Shirkers comes to shore tomorrow evening (20 Oct) at the Capitol Theatre. Sandi Tan’s documentary follows the aftermath of a movie (also titled Shirkers) she’d shot together with classmates Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique fresh out of junior college in 1992. The original Shirkers was never completed. As soon as filming wrapped, Sandi’s mentor and director of the film, Georges Cardona, disappeared with all 70 cans of footage.     

In an email interview with SINdie, Tan shares about the process of creating Shirkers and how she got involved in making films at a time when hardly anybody did in Singapore. 

You recovered the footage for the original Shirkers back in 2011.  What were the main impulses for working on Shirkers the documentary?  

ST: This was a story that I left buried for years, even decades, and when the boxes of materials were returned to me in 2011-2012, I was reluctant to re-open this Pandora’s box of long suppressed heartbreak. Also I was about to publish my novel The Black Isle (Hachette USA, 2012) and was busy preparing its launch, and didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with it. I knew that once I opened these boxes, it would consume my life and become a strange quest that would suck me into a black hole for years. I wasn’t wrong! So I stacked the boxes as they arrived into one neat vertical stack in my living room, to be dealt with later…someday. It took three years before I had the courage and the time to open these Pandora’s boxes up, and I was right: I was consumed immediately.

It was the story of my secret superhero identity. And my secret superhero identity was my 18 year old self. How could I resist??

Can you tell us about the research and preparation involved in making Shirkers?

ST: I see Shirkers (2018) as a kind of a remake of a film that was never made: I constructed this current film in pretty much the same spirit in which the original was made--I assembled my tribe, handpicked from around the world, including live-looping Singaporean singer Weish, whose voice was sampled by our Israeli composer Ishai Adar, to create his mesmeric score for the film, Los Angeles sound designer Lawrence Everson and Canadian cinematographer Iris Ng (who also shot the Netflix series Making a Murderer and Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell). And in bare-bones fashion, I edited the film in my garage with Lucas Celler, a young skateboarder-barista with very little experience, but he had the right can-do spirit and he understood the DIY punk aesthetic of the project, and it's a testament to the magic of cinema--and to filmmaking--that a new tribe of Shirkers was forged, as crazily committed and as brave as the original bunch of Shirkers. The entire team finally met for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

At what point did you decide that the film was completed?

ST: My gut told me it was right, that all the elements were in the right place. I’m a painstaking perfectionist and I edited for about nine months in my garage—indeed it was like a birthing—working with two different editors with different skill-sets, Lucas Celler with whom I worked side-by-side for most of those months, and then Kimberley Hassett who came in for the final polish. I was concurrently working with my composer Ishai Adar in Israel via Skype (who was sampling the voice of Singapore live-looper Weish for our original score) and my sound designer Lawrence Everson, who I’d been having an ongoing conversation about sound for almost a year before we began working together in the Fall of 2017. Ultimately, deadlines like the Sundance deadline helps—or one might edit forever. I feel we got to a happy state well before the deadline and we weren’t in a rush to the finish line, which was a great luxury. As an independent filmmaker, I really believe in the value of planning ahead, nitpicking, and careful, tireless micromanaging (you may be a pain but it’ll be worth it to know what’s going on with your own film). The most important thing is to select the right co-conspirators and have faith in their talents. Give everyone room to grow as you grow, and it’ll all feel like a terrific playground. I’m enormously proud of my team. 

Have there been any particularly memorable reactions from the audience so far?   

ST: We have repeat viewers—brand new Shirkers! I have been running into young Americans who have followed the film across multiple festivals (on different continents, different states!) to see it again and again. This is extremely rare for a film, let alone a documentary about a forgotten episode in Singapore. At a full-house outdoor screening at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery last month, I met a sweet young couple who loved the film and told me they were Russian hackers. I haven’t heard from them since—but then they are probably already living inside my computer!

What inspires the aesthetics of the film?

ST: In the original Shirkers in 1992, I was obsessed with showing the secret facets of Singapore that few people noticed (the mannequin shops of Outram Park, the timeless suburban stupor of Siglap, the family farms of Sembawang) and making them as mythic as the landscapes seen in an iconic road movies such as Badlands or Paris, Texas. It was a perverse challenge but I could see that these places were going to vanish before our eyes if nobody paid attention (and nobody was—all the glory was going to the skyscrapers and the new secondary school buildings and mall that looked like giant bathtubs or pencil-sharpeners). I was hugely influenced by American independent cinema—my heroes were the Coen brothers, David Lynch and early Tim Burton, as well as the freewheeling feel of the French New Wave. And I liked the bright palette of Jane Campion’s earlier films, and in terms of Asian cinema—I loved Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild (still my favorite of his films) and the way he reinvented the tropics. Georges brought along his obsessions: Paris, Texas and the cinematography of Nestor Almendros (Days of Heaven).

When did your interest in filmmaking begin?

ST: Since I was nine. But I wanted to make elaborate TV sagas, I think, with multiple ongoing storylines, like anybody who spent too much time (into their teens) playing with dollhouses! I always loved movies but never thought it was a possibility for myself to get involved in filmmaking until I saw the notice for Georges Cardona’s 16mm filmmaking class at the Substation, the first of its kind in Singapore. It was the natural thing to do in the gap months between finishing my ‘A’ Levels at Victoria Junior College where I did Theatre Studies & Drama, alongside Jasmine Ng and many other original Shirkers and going to study abroad. My day job then was as an intern at the Straits Times.  

What tips do you have for aspiring filmmakers in Singapore today?

ST: Be brave, grow a thick hide because the road won’t be easy. (And if you think it’s easy, you’re probably not very good.) Above all, persevere, and be patient. Patience is hugely underrated in Singapore. I think it would also help to have a sense of humor, also hugely underrated in Singapore!

Sandi Tan was awarded Best Director in the World Cinema Documentary section of this year’s Sundance Film Festival for Shirkers. The Singapore Premiere of Shirkers happens tomorrow (20 Oct) as part of Singapore Film Society’s 60th Anniversary celebrations. The film will launch on Netflix on 26 Oct.

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