What You Don't See: An Interview with James Page

We often forget the individuals who have poured countless hours into achieving what we see on screen. Beyond the visuals, the writing, and the performances is the world the characters inhabit. Individuals like James Page are essential to constructing these worlds.

As a production designer, Page helps determine every prop and location we see on screen. As Page puts it, “It can range from the houses or rooms down to the choice of pencil”. That said, it is never enough to say that production design dictates the “look” of a film. How a fictional world is dressed can reflect upon a film’s characters, and how the characters reflect upon it. This gives us the ability to immerse ourselves in these fictional realities. All this exemplifies how important a role production designers such as Page play.

Even if you are unfamiliar with what his line of work encompasses, you will most likely be familiar with his work. As a frequent collaborator with local filmmakers, the likes of which include Boo Junfeng, K Rajagopal, Nicole Midori Woodford and Yeo Siew Hua, he has designed for various acclaimed features and shorts in and around Singapore. In 2010 and 2016, he designed for Boo’s films, Sandcastle and Apprentice, respectively. Also in 2016, he designed for Rajagopal in his debut feature, A Yellow Bird. All 3 films mentioned were screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Page most recently designed for Yeo on A Land Imagined, which won the the Locarno Film Festival’s top prize, the Golden Leopard, last year. He has also collaborated with acclaimed video artists like Ho Tzu Nyen on projects such as The Cloud of Unknowing, which was Singapore’s entry for the Venice Biennale in 2011.

James in deep waters on the set of 'The Cloud of Unknowing'

A Yellow Bird

These projects are only a few of many which make up Page’s prolific career in production design. He is currently designing for director Wong Chen-Hsi on her upcoming film, City of Small Blessings, which is currently in production.

Amidst his hectic shoot, SINdie was fortunate enough to sit down with him to discuss his roots in theatre, his love for the craft, and the future of filmmaking in Singapore.

SINdie: How did you get started?

James: I’d say I started in Theatre. When I studied I was more based in Theatre in the UK. I came to Singapore and started interning with TheatreWorks. I also met Fran Borgia. This was back in 2008, 2009. He was working with Ho Tzu Nyen and they were going to do a King Lear project. At the same time, I was also interning on a film called Untold Beauty. That opened quite a few doors. As time went on, I found myself naturally doing more and more film work, and less and less theatre.

I’m guessing your time in theatre proved useful when it came to designing for film.

What was very useful for me was this emphasis on reading a script and really understanding who the characters are and what their worlds should be. Also, as a student in the UK, I was very used to doing DIY low budget kind of stuff. In film when you want to see an elephant, you see an elephant, but in theatre, when you want to see an elephant, it could be a metaphor. You see things not so literally when you’re starting with that theatrical side because sets are rarely super realistic in a theatre. It’s not so often done. Normally its more about metaphorical, symbolic presence. An entire house can be substituted by a chair and a light. I like that a part of my brain still thinks that way.

What’s the first film that comes to mind when you think of incredible production design?

(laughs) Here’s the thing, a lot of people might think of the original Star Wars. But as a kid, I never really liked sci-fi. I used to like the brutal realism of 1970s New York, those kind of films, like The French Connection, or Dog Day Afternoon. In the UK it was films like Get Carter. They were the films I loved as a kid. They have this kind of realism that is quite brutal –– quite location heavy. When I go back to the films that really moved me, it was things like Get Carter, which was set in Newcastle in the 70s. It depicted this beauty in ugliness. I think something can be so gritty that it becomes beautiful, and that has always been something that I always liked. There are astonishing films like Star Wars with mind blowing production design and I completely respect them, but for me that has never been my love.

Is there a reason why you are drawn to gritty realism?

You have to be realistic. We’re in Singapore, and we’re in a film industry that cannot and will not pay to create another 2001: A Space Odyssey––the budgets aren’t there. In the end you’re going to top yourself if you think you’re going to achieve those hopes and dreams of completely building towns and cities or huge sets from scratch. In a way I don’t have any issue with that. Gritty realism to me is like being pragmatic. How can we make films which can still be beautiful, relevant, and really interesting? A Land Imagined, A Yellow Bird, I mean, all of them are up there. Visually, they’re really interesting, but it doesn’t require a huge amount of money. What it does require is a kind of eye––spotting how you’re going to get bang for your buck, and how does this look great without having to spend millions of dollars on building. It’s a bit of a sad question with a sad answer.

A Land Imagined


What’s your favourite part of the process?

I think my favourite is always the start, actually. I really love the start when you first read the script. You begin to chart what the director envisions for the characters. Then the research stage, where you begin to see what their world would be. Quite often it’s for your own personal satisfaction. No one may get it, but it’s just knowing that you’re getting those little snippets of the characters in for the benefit of those seeing it. With Apprentice for example, that was very heavy on its research and constrained by information restrictions. It’s almost like a game––like, how much information can you get, and how close can you get to reality?

What do you think a director looks for in a production designer?

They’ve (production designers) got to listen. It’s really important that they read the script, and respect the fact that scripts in Singapore are quite often written by the Director as well. Don’t promise things that you can’t give because that’s a dangerous route to go on. I would say it’s a combination of someone who is pragmatically capable of creating what is required and yet, at the same time, inventive enough to think out of the box and think of how you’re going to achieve something different within a restrictive environment. It’s not a “money’s no object” world. It has to fit within a budget and a time frame. It has to fit within the capability of everyone. At the end of the day, the number one is communication –– the ability to work with the DP, Gaffer, Director, and the Soundman.

Let me flip the question on its head––what do you think a production designer looks for in a director?

Ideally it’s a director with a clear vision and the ability to not compromise but to be open to input from the heads of department. They have their script, they have their vision––everyone’s working to achieve it. But quite often, the DP may say, “Actually, if we shoot it this way, we can create something far better”, or the production designer may say, “We can’t find this location, but actually, this character with this location, may add something to the film, can we adapt the script to accommodate that?”. If they (directors) don’t like them, so be it, but at least be open to them. And research. It’s really important that a director does their homework.

It’s such a tough job being a director, and I think a lot of people underestimate how unbelievably stressful it can be, because at the end of the day, you (the director) are the captain of the ship. When things begin to go a little bit wrong, everyone will be looking to the director for guidance.

How do you think Singapore’s film industry has progressed?

If you look back 10 years ago, there was Eric Khoo and Royston Tan, but you now have Kirsten Tan, Chris Yeo, Raja, Junfeng, I could keep on going. There’s definite progress. I have faith. I think the exposure in Singapore is so great. I think my question is –– in terms of business, in terms of market, how do you help a director who’s gotten to a certain stage, to go on to the next stage without having to leave their country? Because this industry probably won’t be able to sustain the next step. So you start losing your talent, and that would be a shame. They want to push themselves to the max, and if they simply cannot do it here, then you cannot expect them not to move on. I hate to say it, but how do you monetise? How do you sustain it? Because it has to be done. It’s tough.

James (second from right) and the team from 'A Land Imagined' at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival

Speaking of which, is there anything that has not seen as much progress?

I think where we are now as an industry compared to 10 years ago, there has been progress in terms of films that are being released and produced. But has there been progress in terms of scale and size? Maybe not as much. There are films that are done incredibly well, but they are still done on incredibly low budgets. And personally I find that every year the budget doesn’t go up. I feel that every year the budget either stays the same or in some cases, goes down. In that sense, there is a problem, but I don’t know how to fix that, I’m just a production designer (laughs).

You mentioned how the industry struggles to sustain local talent. Evidently that’s becoming an issue amongst aspiring artists as more and more youth are opting to travel overseas to practise and/or study. What would you say to those thinking of doing so?

It would be wrong for me to say “do it”, but it would also be wrong for me to say “don’t do it”. I think everyone needs to take their own journey. Even in England, people wanted to go to Hollywood. In Indonesia there are those who want to film in China. Everyone wants to push further, further and further. I think it’s more of a question of what producers, the industry and maybe the government can do now to retain talents who may progress. How do you get them to come back? I think it’s more of a question for them than the directors themselves. Actually, they (the directors) should be pushing themselves to go as far as they can, and everyone else should be thinking "How can we bring our levels up to them?"

Sounds tricky.

It is tricky. The industry is tricky. They’re pumping out so many kids into the industry, but is there enough work? I see maybe 20% new faces, and the rest are people I’ve seen for years. Change is not going to be that fast.

Any last words of advice for aspiring local filmmakers?

I’d say that it’s important for students to expose themselves to as many environments as possible. I hate to say it, but here it can be quite a controlled environment. I was very fortunate, or unfortunate, when I was 16 or so. I would work in factories, in production lines. I would lay tarmac on roads while I was a student. Whenever I wasn’t at school, I was working. I would work with ex convicts when moving houses. Not only was it different factories, different houses, but different people as well. And actually in production design you have to remember –– “that house is dressed like this because of the person in it”. Everything comes back to the characters. They’re the King of their world. Every King has their tastes and therefore their world will be as such. So the more people you meet, the wider range of society you expose yourselves to.

Everyone may say “travel”. You can’t always afford that, but you can still see things. Just take a walk. When I first came to Singapore, all I used to do was ride buses around and learn the city like that. I wasn’t going on tours or anything like that, I was just sitting on Bus 16 riding all the way through the neighbourhood. Or I would take a train, all the way, East to West, the entire line, just to see what Clementi looks like, or Joo Koon. That will help.

The interview has been edited for clarity

Interview by Charlie Chua.

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