Benjamin Kheng, Dick Lee and Daniel Yam
After turning down mm2 Entertainment CEO Melvin Ang’s suggestion of turning his life into an onscreen autobiography (twice), Dick Lee is finally ready to take the plunge and tell the story of his pre-fame years on film – with himself and award-winning filmmaker Daniel Yam at the helm as directors.
The movie, titled Wonder Boy, chronicles three years of the celebrated songwriter’s life leading up to the release of his debut album Life Story in 1974, and will star The Sam Willows’ Benjamin Kheng in the lead role as Dick (referred to as his full name Richard in the synopsis). Filming is expected to begin in Penang in October with a budget of $1.3 million – Daniel expects that figure to climb as production develops – and the picture is slated for release in the third quarter of 2017. Other cast members include Julie Tan as Benjamin's onscreen love interest, Constance Song as his onscreen mother, and Chen Yi Xi, Ryan Ang and Zachary Ibrahim as his band mates in The Wonder Boys.
In a roundtable interview with Daniel and Benjamin yesterday (July 29), Dick told local media that they debated between making the picture into a biopic or an “inspired by” story, and ended up going with the latter. “The most important thing is to depict the era correctly and truthfully – a lot of dramatisations are sugar-coated and made cleaner, but it was much more raw, gritty and dangerous,” shared the musical multi-hyphenate, who turns 60 next month. “(Reliving my teenage years) is like baring my soul – it’s a bit scary but I realise that they shaped me and made me what I am today, so I’m proud of it.”
Another reason Dick was not so keen to agree to the project was because he did not want to “do a fake thing”. “I present a certain kind of image – I write National Day songs – but what I actually went through was completely different, it was dark, and I wasn’t keen to do it,” he said. When the script for another movie called Sunshine Girls didn’t work out, he came back to Wonder Boy with a new mind-set: “If we’re going to do this, I want to tell it as it is without worrying about the outcome.”
Something else viewers can look forward to is hearing unreleased material from Dick for the first time. “It was a period of great rejection – I wrote a lot of songs but there was no interest in them,” he said. “All will be told in the story, and there are going to be songs that people have never heard before.”
The Wonder Boys: Zachary Ibrahim, Ryan Ang, Chen Yi Xi, Benjamin Kheng (Photo: mm2 Entertainment)
Wonder Boy won’t be the first time Benjamin portrays Dick. In 2012’s National Broadway Company, a musical where actors/singers portrayed various veterans in the local theatre scene, the 25-year-old took on the role of the prolific ‘Home’ composer. “That was my first encounter with (Benjamin) and I was very impressed,” Dick said. “At that time I was about to do a play where the third part was like Wonder Boy, so of course he was my first choice.”
After quipping that Benjamin looks exactly like him when he was younger, Dick let on that finding a real musician was important when casting for the film. “His voice is a thousand times better than mine [Benjamin modestly goes, “No…”] and hearing him sing one of my songs that was written over 40 years ago today gave me goosebumps; I think he has this spiritual thing that will embody my character.”
To get ready for his role, Benjamin met up with Dick three days ago, where they spent four to five hours just talking about their lives, their parallels as musicians, as well as the music scene back then versus the music scene now. “You can find out a lot about Dick from the internet and from other people, but this is about everything that’s unseen; it’s about a man trying to create a voice for himself and for his band, and I can relate to that in so many ways,” shared Benjamin. “So I’m spending as much time with him as possible, but I also want to try and bring my experience, how I’m going through a lot of the same things, to the character.”
He continued, “Dick’s story is so close to my heart, just the difficulties of being a musician no matter what time frame you’re in – the struggle, the doubts and everything else in-between is so surreal for me, so I really want to do a good job telling this story.”
Dick Lee and Benjamin Kheng performed a song together at the press conference
(Left) Chen Yi Xi at his graduation with parents Edmund Chen and Xiang Yun, and younger sister Yi Xin (Photo credit: Xiang Yun/Instagram)
Chen Yi Xi: I will do my best and enjoy the process
Four years after his acting debut in xinmsn web drama i.Rock, the 25-year-old is back in front of the camera as Sammy, one of the members of The Wonder Boys. According to the Nanyang Technological University graduate, he nabbed the role by going for auditions when Mediacorp’s The Celebrity Agency, whom he submitted his portfolio to, alerted him of the opening. “I was nervous, but I went there and did what I felt was my best,” he told us.
With established veteran actors Xiang Yun and Edmund Chen as mum and dad, does Yi Xi feel stressed to perform up to a certain standard? “I would be lying if I said no,” he said with a chuckle. “But I will just do my best and enjoy the process; something my parents taught me is that there will always be pressures in life, but take everything as part of a learning experience.”
While it looks like Yi Xi is all set to follow his famous folks’ footsteps into showbiz, the aspiring artist actually has a full-time job with a locally-based Japanese animation studio, and will have to discuss with his company about working something out to balance both his creative career ventures. When asked which path he’s keener to focus on (acting or animating), he said, “Right now I’m at a starting point for both, so it’d be unfair to cut off either one of them (so early), I’m still learning along the way."
(Left) Julie Tan with Dick Lee; (Right) Julie poses in front of the famous Flatiron Building in NYC (Photos: Julie Tan/Instagram)
Julie Tan cut short her studies in NYC to take on her role
The 23-year-old actress, who recently headed to New York to attend acting school, reduced her six-month study period down to three in order to be able to make it back on time for filming. “Actually, my course is only three months long, I intended to use the extra time to take on additional classes on my own,” she explained to us in a phone interview from the States.
When asked if making the compromise was a tough decision, Julie said, “When I asked my managers for advice, they told me that I can always find time for self-improvement and learning, while movie roles don’t always come by when you want them to.” She added that she really liked the character, who is Richard’s love interest, and, “I’m a workaholic anyway! (laughs)”
According to Julie, she originally auditioned for another character, but Dick felt that the role of Linda was more suitable and let her try out for that part instead. “Linda is a bit of a rebel, and Dick felt that the tone of my voice is like someone who knows what she wants,” she said.
Although she has yet to get to know him personally, Julie shared that when she first did her audition alongside Benjamin, it made her look forward to working with him. “I find it very attractive when men do things very sincerely,” she gushed. “But as for whether we have that spark on screen, we’ll have to wait until later to find out! (laughs)”
Last night, Julie shared a picture of herself with Dick on her Instagram, along with her statement on being involved in Wonder Boy: “It almost feels like a dream come true, extremely grateful for this opportunity to be working with @dickleeparadise - someone I've looked up to since young. I am already looking forward to the filming of the movie where I'll be playing Linda, @benjaminkheng love interest… On another note, really excited to be applying what I've learnt here! (sic)”
The cast and directors of 'Wonder Boy'
Wonder Boy is presented by mm2 Entertainment and Bert Pictures with the support of Singapore Film Commission, in partnership with Dick Lee’s newly formed entertainment company Dick Lee Asia, a joint venture with mm2. It is targeted for theatrical release in the third quarter of 2017.