Playing God to Zombies: An Interview with Jacen Tan

Jacen Tan is no stranger to walking his own path, when others are trudging on the holy grail of cinema. More than 10 years ago when filmmakers were making short films for film festival glory, he made Tak Giu for the internet. This was before YouTube and the film went viral. Since then, he has made several short films in a similar style - pedestrian and casual with a natural dose of wit, mastery of comic timing, and somewhat laddish humour. They all turned out highly entertaining earning Jacen a unique niche in universe of Singapore shorts over the years. This October, he has just launched the first commercial zombie movie in Singapore called Zombiepura. Same brand of humour but much higher production values. After all, he's got mm2 Entertainment Pte Ltd, Clover Films and JAB Films as the co-producers.

Starring Alaric 郑良雄, Benjamin Heng 王智国, Joey Pink 黎格欣 and Haresh Tilani, the film tells the story of Corporal Tan Kayu, who is doing guard duty during his mandatory reservist in an isolated army camp. A mysterious virus breaks out and turns his campmates into rabid zombies. Trapped together, Kayu must team up with his arch-rival, the tough Sergeant Lee Siao On, to survive. Cut off from the outside world, their military training is put to the test and they must find out what it means to be real soldiers. For those who have trouble clearing the SOC in camp, being chased by a horde of zombies might be of some help.

We had kopi with Jacen who took time out of his working Saturday to do this interview.

Did you think that making a zombie movie would be very ambitious?

To be frank, sometimes, the less you know the better. When you know too much about how difficult it is to make certain things, the more you would not do that. So can I call it naivety?

Where did you get that pearl of wisdom from?

Sometimes when you speak to filmmakers and hear all the problems they face, it can overwhelm you. So I had many ideas and one of the ‘naive’ ideas was thinking that I could do a zombie movie because I could get my friends to play the zombie. Or maybe actually 10-20 friends, get them to wear their own clothes, throw some blood and roll the camera. That was my initial ‘innocent’ idea about making a zombie movie.

How did that evolve over time?

I mean I have been a zombie fan for a long time and I liked the works of George Romero such as Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead etc. Then in the 2000s I was watching Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead in the 2000s. And of course 28 Days Later. So it was the classic zombies and the running zombies, popularised by 28 Days Later. When I put these ideas together, Ah Boys to Men and Train to Busan had not been brought to the market yet. I vividly remember my first pitch was along the lines of Army Daze meets 28 Days Later

With films like Ah Boys to Men being synonymous with the army film, didn’t you think you were making a film in a competitive territory?

I think Ah Boys to Men revived the army movie genre in the local context. And we are also greatly differentiated with the zombie factor.

So is the term zom-com invented by you?

I believe the producers of Shaun of the Dead coined the term first. But actually I think Zombiepura is more like a rom-zom-com.

The film’s fundraising took almost seven years. What made you persevere? Did you lose heart along the way?

It is the story and the belief in the idea that kept us going. I thought it would be interesting to see a bunch of Singapore army boys fighting zombies in a camp. In terms of pushing on, it is not like everyday I am pushing this. In between, I had other scripts and projects. Though at the end of the day, it always came back to this.

How did you get Benjamin Heng and Alaric Tay on board the project?

It was my screenplay and I love their work as actors and I thought putting them together as buddies in a story would be very interesting and fun to watch! And when I wrote the script, I did have these two actors in mind. When I approached, I organised a small test shoot at my void deck. And they actually agreed. And after working on that test shoot, they were interested to come in to help me produce this together.

Are they zombie fans as well?

Yes. Yes. Very much.

What does it take to be a zombie in the film?

We had an open casting call and asked people to send in their videos through their mobile phones. So now I have a collection of zombie audition videos and many of them are rather funny. So we shortlisted them and made them come in a few days for a zombie workshop, conducted by none other than Sunny Pang, who was our stunt director. All in all, according to my casting director, we had approximately a total of 100 zombies in the shoot. But there was a core team of 20-30 zombies who came often for the shoot. With this group, we trained them and taught them how to do certain small stunts. From the way they executed these stunts, we selected who plays what. These roles are not fully zombie roles, there are small parts in which they played their original human selves in the beginning.

How did you choreograph the zombie actions? Or who taught them?

I came up with ‘Zombie Handbook’ which has instructions of what they must do in various situations. I passed the handbook to a stunt team called Ronin Action Group and taught them the moves and the team taught it to the rest of the extras. 

Can you share one or two important rules in the ‘bible’ of being a zombie? 

There aren’t any to be frank. But there are stages in zombie behaviour. Firstly, our zombies are infected humans. They are not walking corpses. They are technically still humans, just that they are infected with a virus that makes them go crazy. That’s the ‘science’ behind it. There are female and male zombies with their respective characteristics too. In fact, initially, I was looking more for male zombies because as you know it is an army camp. But some females came for the auditions and it turned out that the females were much fiercer than the male ones, especially when they did running, grabbing and falling stunts, so I thought we definitely had to include them in the film.

When we were planning the shoot, I realised that many scenes involved action. Executing good action scenes was very challenging, given our budget. The stunt team went out of their way to make the zombies, fights and stunts look good. Also, some of these scenes involved many extras on set. 

We were lucky to have very good A.Ds to coordinate everyone. When I saw the massive crane coming on set, I thought, "ok shit's getting real man". There were even some scenes involving rigging and wire-work, hanging our actors a few storeys in the air. It's a miracle we managed to complete the movie. And if you ask me, the real stars of the movie are the stunt team and the zombie extras!

If you are bitten by a zombie? What’s the first thing you would do?

I think I would call my love ones.

But how can you make a call after you are bitten?

Oh, there is a time lag from the point you are bitten to the point of being a zombie.

Was the zombie bible something you wrote or was it something in your head?

The bible is not really a book but some steps. It all comes from the story and the screenplay. There are walking ones, running ones, some that can still move after being sawed into half. So there are these rules of the virus that you will find familiar in World War Z and Train to Busan. What makes mine different from theirs is that mine is a comedy and because you are the creator of your own ‘universe’ in this movie and it is a comedy, you can have some creative license in how you want the zombies to react.

Was it difficult to come up with this bible?

I wouldn’t say it is difficult. The key challenges lies in simplifying it in a way so that when the extras come on set, they get it immediately.

You were known for making Singapore’s first ‘viral’ short film with Tak Giu in 2005. Do you think it is more difficult to make something viral in today’s time?

When Tak Giu came out, there were no such words as viral. It was harder to spread films then. It was pre-YouTube. Some people didn’t even understand what a short film was. To some, to watch a short film, you had to make a trip down to the Substation. Things are different now. It’s harder to become viral but you never know, just like the S-hook lady who suddenly became viral. Is that viral? I don’t know. 

Well, let’s hope Zombiepura will be viral. 

Yes, and the story is about a viral infection after all. 

Interview by Jeremy Sing (seen toasting to Jacen at a coffeeshop in Braddell)

Catch Zombiepura in cinemas islandwide today!

Previous Post Next Post

Contact Form