Text & Photos: Joanna Goh
Video: Teng Siew Eng
Things are heating up in Singapore’s filmmaking industry of late, with the influx of Hollywood and Asian productions set or based on this little red dot and the number of global or Asian movie premieres held here for the past few months.
It represents an exciting phase – especially for local filmmakers – and marks the start of something new, agreed Kelvin Tong, during his interview with xinmsn at the press conference for his upcoming horror film, The Faith of Anna Waters, yesterday.
The local auteur, who has helmed a diverse range of projects, from horror and thriller to nostalgia films, like The Maid, Kidnapper and It’s A Great Great World, is buzzed with excitement for his biggest movie production to date. Its modest budget of US$5 million (S$6.25m), although may seem paltry when compared to films in the big boys league such as Guardians of the Galaxy (US$170m), is considered very generous in the context of local films. On top of its American investors, we were told that the film has also received additional funding from the Media Development Authority of Singapore.
Set and filmed entirely in Singapore, The Faith of Anna Waters, which is produced by Boku Films, also boasts of an international cast, starring Hollywood faces like Mad Men actress Elizabeth Rice, Band of Brothers and Gossip Girl actor Matthew Settle, local actors Adrian Pang and Jaymee Ong, and Australian artistes Colin Borgonon and Adina Herz.
Lead actor Matthew, who is excited to catch some Formula One action in Singapore – if time permits, said this opportunity to work with Kelvin was like “kismet”. “It’s gonna be a rigourous shoot and we’re gonna have to dig deep into ourselves to make it work. I have a lot of faith in Kelvin and his vision.”
The story follows the main character, an American crime journalist (Elizabeth), who while investigating her sister’s mysterious death in Singapore, has a few encounters with the supernatural. While little was divulged of the movie’s plot, here’s what we learned so far from its tightlipped cast: there’d be a little exorcism done in the film (Adrian plays a priest – an item off his bucket list, he says) and there’d be a “visual of evil” seen in the movie - going by the prosthetic work done in pre-production phase.
While the problems encountered in this film aren’t “unique” by filmmaking standards, Kelvin admits that it is everything times 10 – because it’s a “much bigger” film and cast and thus equates to a much bigger headache. And he had spent 1.5 years in total labouring over his biggest headache (or horror) of them all – coming up with the script and approaching the done-to-death horror trope with fresh perspectives.
How does he, an experienced filmmaker, overcome falling into the cliché trap?
Kelvin replied, matter-of-factly, “The truthful answer is you just sit in front of your computer, write a lot of rubbish, be very hard on yourself and NOT congratulate yourself when you’ve written 10 pages of horror segments. When you read it again tomorrow morning, you’d say it’s rubbish, and you do it again, repeat, repeat, repeat, and 1.5 years later, you might have a proper screenplay.”
Sure sounds like what Kelvin went through with The Faith.
Read on as Kelvin shares his take on the ideal horror film and explains why a horror movie set is the “un-scariest place” on earth.
xinmsn: Is this film going to be in-your-face scary or subtly scary?
Kelvin: I’m personally very attracted to the entire spectrum of horror. I can like something that’s very quiet like The Conjuring, which is very well done, but I can like something as crazy as The Saw franchise. I appreciate both. But personally, as a filmmaker, I prefer to make films that are close to psychological horror. Of course there’s scary moments, but if the whole film is made up of jump scares, it becomes too much of a theme park ride. I think ultimately what’s important to me is the horror in the film is embedded in the idea, the drama. For this type of films, I think when the curtain draws and when you dump your popcorn in the trash, you’re still tingly [with goosebumps]. That’s something I hope to make.
As a horror filmmaker, what sends chills down your spine?
What scares me are what I call ‘affairs of the heart’. I think human betrayal, anguish, loss – those are very human things that are often times, the scariest. Am I scared of ghost? No. Do I believe in ghosts? Yes. But I think beyond those supernatural scares, what often is the most effective - as seen in The Shining, is that Jack Nicholson’s character was going mad. And that is very scary. Humans as audience can relate to this in a very strong way.
WATCH: Kelvin can't wait to "hang the actors" and "slam them around the room"
Do you get chills when you write your own horror movie script?
I get chills when I wrote my first draft ‘cos I’m approaching a lot of new things. I’m sitting down in front of my computer and working on a blank page and sort of in this meditative zone. And I get shocked by my own ideas sometimes. I tend to have a lot of nightmares when I’m writing my first draft – because my mind’s thinking up what’s scary. And when I’m asleep, it scares me. But as I move beyond the first draft, it becomes a little like you won’t be as scared, as if you saw the same horror film twice (…) at the end of pre-pro and completing my list of shots, I’d have seen my movie 90 times now. I go on to shoot it – 91 times, and maybe another 30 times in the editing room.
What about when directing? Have you ever gotten spooked out on set?
Never while filming [and] simply because if you’ve been to a horror film set, I guess it’s the un-scariest place on earth. There’s 50 people, giant lights and not a single dark corner in the room. And the actor who plays the ghost is squatting there eating char siew rice. The actual look of it is comedic lah. It’s very fun. A lot of people think just cos we’re shooting a scary movie it is scary, but the set is not scary.
On the topic of horror films, do you have a favourite “scream queen”?
Not so much a favourite scream queen but I think one of my all-time favourite actress in a horror film – which is technically not a horror, but a Sci-Fi film - Sigourney Weaver in Alien. She really embodies what I’d like to see – the archetypal women being portrayed in a horror film. There are so many horror films where the main lead is blonde, dumb and goes round screaming.
How hard is it to avoid clichés in horror movies since they can be quite predictable at times?
The unique challenges for a writer of horror screenplays is while you want to avoid the cliché, you must be aware of genre conventions. When an audience goes in to watch a horror film, there’s something the audience expects to see (…) you have to come up with a fresh way of approaching the same conventions. That’s the biggest challenge.
In a 2010 interview, you once said that going to Hollywood, and I quote direct – “is too much a leap of an imagination. But if something I wrote gets me to Hollywood, I die of content.” What do you have to say on that now that you’re going to Hollywood?
I’m dying of excitement right now. (Laughs) When the film is done and it’s a good film and I see it in the screens in L.A., I’ll die of contentment then. But right now, I’m dying of excitement. It’s miraculous actually, I still stand by what I said in 2010 - I don’t actively think of how I can get to Hollywood… it just so happens that I’ve been living in Hong Kong for the last two years, and I was writing this. And I just told myself ‘just write anything you want to write’. I’d have been perfectly happy just to cast a local PR who looks like an American, and I’d have made it a Singapore film (…) so like that (crosses fingers) for now.
A lot more film producers and large-scale productions have been filmed or based in Singapore, what do you think this means for the future of filmmaking in Singapore?
Yay! High time! I didn’t think I’d see it in my lifetime – and I don’t wanna sound very old. In Singapore, things like culture and arts take time to mature and grow. And I think I’d be content if all Singapore had was a few more Jack Neos, even more Eric Khoos, Royston Tans and Anthony Chens. I thought that’d have been the ultimate endgame in my life – you know, with Anthony who’s winning Cannes and huge productions coming here and my own little film with American involvement – I’m a little bit shocked but I’m very happy. I wouldn’t be surprised if more filmmakers started doing more and more here. It can be the start of something and I’m very excited.
And what do you think got Singapore on the global map?
One simple thing: English. The fact that we are effectively bilingual and can speak English and Mandarin (I think a lot of Chinese productions are gonna come too) makes Singapore an easy place for foreigners to feel welcome – there’s no language barrier. You want steak? Go ahead. You want satay? Also got. I think Singapore is perfect in that sense, that’s why as a filmmaker and producer, you’d find it so attractive (…) And if you want Chinese shophouses, a business district or something space-age like Marina Bay Sands? We have [them all] and it’s all within 10 minutes of driving. It’s very efficient in a filmmaking point of view.
The Faith of Anna Waters is scheduled for an early 2015 release.
Scene in Singapore