Anthony Chen: “If I cannot persuade myself, I cannot persuade my audience.”

The homecoming of Anthony Chen is in many ways one of the most highly anticipated events in the Singapore film landscape. Being the first Singaporean to clinch a Golden Horse and a Cannes Camera d'Or, all with one of the most stunning debut in Asian film history, it is almost impossible to imagine that Chen did it all in his twenties.

Now back with his sophomore that is set to open the 30th Edition of the Singapore International Film Festival alongside a slate of nominations at the Golden Horse again, Chen sits down for a quick chat with editor Alfonse Chiu to talk more about having a perfectionist streak, screenwriting, and ways of wrangling actors.

What was the writing process like for Wet Season?

It was long. It took me three years to write. Ilo Ilo only took two; at this rate I might not write all my films going forward because it just takes too long. I write from a very personal place too, which makes it even longer, and I cannot even tell you how many drafts I went through because that is not the way I work.

In a way, I write very chaotically and erratically—I just have this sense of the journey would unfold; where the film will start, and where it will end. In fact, I always have the last scene in mind, and then I try to find what else happens because almost everything drop in bits and pieces. For the last two to three years, my team sort of knew the idea I was working on but whenever they say “Please, can you send us the script?” I will tell them I could not. I had complete scenes here and there but they do not make sense when put together.  To me, the writing process is a journey of trying to join these dots together. I cannot keep count of how many drafts I go through but when it is done, it is done, and I usually make very little changes to the final script. As a producer I may edit the writings of other directors, such as Kirsten Tan, but as a writer, I am very private about the work. 

How did you come up with the story?

It always starts with an idea that comes into my head and then I just start to obsess about it. I knew Ilo Ilo was going to be a story about a boy and his Filipino maid the same way that I knew Wet Season is about a 40-year old woman who is having a mid-life crisis and struggling through her family life and her work life, who needs to learn how to walk out of it all.

I knew what I wanted. I would hold on to these characters and relationships, and then I would be so compulsively obsessed with them until I figured it out. It is a whole journey of figuring out how they got to where they are, and that is when all the other parts will start filling up. I cannot go into a set without a full understanding of everything about my characters. If I cannot persuade myself, I cannot persuade my audiences. I dare say that when I go into production, I can play every single character in the film—if I was a woman, I can play Yeo Yann Yann’s character. I can hear the pauses, the tone, the emotions, so if it is wrong, I know it immediately. For me, precision and clarity is a very big part of my work, and there are usually very little excess fat. If it takes two lines to say something, I would not say it in one or three. When I am shooting, I do not shoot shots that I will not use. I am very economical this way.

What is the production process like once you finished your writing? 

While things were precise on the script, things became a complete nightmare once we started production. I started with casting the boy. I was looking for a 16-year old teenager, and I told Koo Chia Meng, our casting director that we are going to find a fresh face. For Ilo Ilo, we went to eight schools and saw thousands of children. For Wet Season, we went to a lot of secondary schools, and saw hundreds of boys. We shortlisted some, they came into our workshops and we spent almost 8 months in workshops, just to find that boy. In the end though, we could not find the one and I chanced upon Koh Jia Ler again on Instagram. I saw his face and told my team, that this teenager has quite a good face, and then I realised it was Jia Ler! We brought him in to go through all of the improvisation, and very soon, we knew we were going to cast him. 

After the boy, we had to go and find the teacher too. We were looking for someone in their late 30s or early 40s, and we went through almost the same process—we looked at many actors in Singapore, from theatre to TV, film actors, and even ex-TV actors. We also went to Kuala Lumpur to search, but we could not quite find it. It was then that I rang Yeo Yann Yann, and gave her the script. I did not want to cast Yann Yann again, after casting Jia Ler. Many people are likely to make this assumption that I wanted to bring my Ilo Ilo stars back, but it was not like that. Every one of the actors I casted had to go through a whole process, even Christopher Lee.

When we went into production, the nightmare on this film became the rain. It is called Wet Season, and it was just so hard to create rain on screen, but we did it anyway. We even explored visual effects—we went to post-production houses in Singapore, across Asia, in Europe and it was all too expensive because liquid effects are very hard to do. Even in Marvel films or The Shape of Water, the rains look fake, but they work because the world is so stylised and you sort of just buy it. However, my films are so naturalistic, that I could not buy it if the rain starts to jump out at you. I am very thankful that we had a very good art team who were in charge of the rain. We had a lot of complex rain scenes, some even done on the road with one take, so we had to do a lot of tests and fabricate special rain equipment.

How do you work with your actors?

I tend to be a very tough taskmaster. On this film in particular, I have done so many more takes than Ilo Ilo, that the average was like 15 and upwards. In fact, I broke my own record. I did 33 takes for the very last shot of Wet Season. My editor was so shocked, but she went to watch every single take and told me that everything did start to come to life at take 30. It was a close-up, and while you may think it is easy, some of the static shots were actually the hardest shots to do because this character is so complex. There is a lot going on but the emotions are never one-note or one-layer.

Even for my team and my crew, the degree of precision and detail I was after was almost too much, because I have grown as a filmmaker and I felt that we cannot keep making things at a certain level. I was so obsessed with everything—I could remember a scene that we were shooting near the end, where the Director of Photography thought it was going to be a bit bright, and pumped so much smoke into the scene that everything looked romantic. I got so angry because the look was just wrong. The technical team had to come in and wave all that smoke away and got everything out. We only started to shoot when it looked right. I remember my Assistant Director telling me to compromise, but I could not. I have grown so much, and once you see things a certain way, you cannot un-see them.

You became a father while making Wet Season, which mirrored the journey of the female character in a way, how did it feel?

I have come to believe that all the work that I get involved in gets personal in the end. Somehow, the work I do and my personal life just cross in a certain way, and I cannot unravel them. It is the same as my relationship with cinema. Some of my Taiwanese friends would ask me why I take everything so seriously, but I cannot treat what I do as a job no matter what. I care so much that it almost feels like my fate is tied in a certain way.

In my films, a lot of the emotions could feel very raw and naked, and that is partly because it is me stripping myself and putting my soul into it. I wish it does not need to be that painful and I am worried that it would get worse. When I was making this film, I finally understood why Hou Hsiao-hsien reshot Goodbye South, Goodbye thrice, why Wong Kar-wai can reshot a scene for three days, why he would do 100 takes.

How do you feel about Wet Season’s Golden Horse nominations?

To be honest, I was actually quite surprised, because a lot of the things in this film are so much more relatable if you are Singaporean or Malaysian. This is also partly why I care the most about how the audiences in Singapore and Malaysia, who can understand all the details and layers, will react to the film. Even during its Toronto premiere, many of the audience members saw the film at face value—while they did enjoy the film, there were many nuances they could not catch, whether it was the socio-political nuances of it or the dialects. There were many layers that they could not get, I was not sure if the jury would get it. In a way, I was relieved when I learnt of the nomination because it is as if the film has spoken. For me, it is always satisfying when people not familiar with the culture see the film and get the film, the value in the film. This, for me, is more gratifying than anything else.

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