If you attended the first Singapore Literature Festival in New York in 2014, you might have heard Haresh Sharma read from his fearless and moving plays, works that are based on social research and written in collaboration with his actors. The first non-American to be named Goldberg Master Playwright by NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, he was honored at the festival with a staged reading of his play Fundamentally Happy at CUNY’s Martin E. Segal Theater Center.
The play, about child sexual abuse, has been adapted into a film by a pair of intrepid Singapore directors Tan Bee Thiam and Lei Yuan Bin. After premiering at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in 2015, last month it opened a local film showcase organized by The Projector, an indie film center in Singapore. The on-going showcase highlights the works of a film collective known as 13 Little Pictures, of which Tan and Lei are members.
SP caught up with the two busy directors, who spoke about the making of Fundamentally Happy (the film) and the process of making films as a collective.
SP. Why did you choose to adapt Haresh Sharma’s play “Fundamentally Happy” into film?
TBT and LYB: Because it’s a very good script that Haresh and Alvin Tan, as well as Aidli “Alin” Mosbit and Chua En Lai (the original actors) had devised! It was the script that made Christopher Doyle [Editor: the cinematographer] say, “Ok I am going to come and spend my Christmas Eve and New Year with you to make this.” We have not seen another work that addresses the important issue of abuse so eloquently and compassionately.
We have always admired The Necessary Stage’s independent spirit, social commitment, and intellectual rigour. We have not seen Fundamentally Happy (the play) as it was always sold out when it was staged and re-staged but thanks to the Trilogy publication, we were able to read the play. We were immediately drawn in by the artistic vision of the work. It reminded us of the chamber films by filmmakers like Bergman, who straddled theatre and cinema. Therefore, we thought it would be a great work for us to try and explore the intersection of two mediums. By adapting it, we hope to multiply the impact of this work so it reaches out to more people in Singapore and beyond.
SP. What filmic possibilities were you interested in exploring through this adaptation?
TBT and LYB: Not many people believe a film with only two characters in a house is enough of a premise to hold the attention of a cinema audience for the duration of a feature-length film. Should we insert flashbacks or cutaways, should we edit the film to give it a quick tempo, should we provide pile-up details in the art direction and sound design to provide clues for the audience to piece things together – what other filmic devices can we tap on to make it more ‘cinematic’? To make it more palatable to the audience.
We think that’s not a very critical way of thinking about cinema. Without theatre, there’s no cinema. So much of what we know of cinema today – performance, storytelling through space, light and sound design, has its roots in the many kinds of theatre that precede cinema and are still innovating today. We imagine a cinema that embraces the theatricality and that distills the essence of an original text. That this is also cinema – that is the possibility that we are after, as we adapt a work that already has a very strong and clear vision: two persons trapped in a house of their memories, two persons having a conversation after not seeing each other for 20 years, their recollections the mirror image of the other’s – images of the same thing but from laterally opposite perspectives.
One of the first things we decided was to keep the dialogue verbatim. Haresh has the rare gift of capturing the way Singaporeans speak. His use of rhythm, grammar, syntax, and speech pattern to distinguish the two characters is integral to the work. It enabled us to imagine a film that is not just heard but listened to. In fact, we would always encourage our curators to present the film without subtitles so the audience will listen carefully to the way the actors speak.
For a film with only two people talking, there is very little shot-reverse-shot. We are interested to make a film about the portraits of Eric and Habiba. Faces are mysterious and truthful at the same time. When you look at someone long enough, you can see their stories. We seldom put both characters in the same frame – you see a person and hear the other offscreen. You do not know if they are talking to each other or to themselves. Did Eric really confess to Habiba? Did Habiba really hurl those unkind accusations at Eric? It is our interpretation of the text – for the film to have such offscreen spaces to hold their years of anger, betrayal, fears, and longing.
Working with a real two-storey terrace house, we wanted to bring the audience around the house of their memories and in particular, we used the perspective of the staircase to create the gaze of Uncle Ismail who haunted the two characters (low angle); and the gaze at Uncle Ismail whom both characters longed for (high angle). So it was a haunting and a longing from the perspective of the staircase. With that, we situated the main action around the staircase. The kitchen was where Habiba always retreated to. But it was also where she would prepare food and drinks for her guest – Eric. This would also be the site where Eric was first abused by his ‘uncle’. The spaces on the second floor were darker, untidier, more abstract, a private space – where only family members were allowed to enter, where family secrets stayed within the confines of the rusty grilles of the house. Because we were also adapting the film to a real space, these new possibilities surfaced.
As is obvious from what we’ve said about the sound, image, and space, we were ultimately interested in the idea of Uncle Ismail for Eric and Habiba through the almost dissymmetry of Eric’s and Habiba’s recollections. And once each of them found his or her own peace, the final shot from the staircase would invert laterally.
SP. What were the most interesting audience responses to your film?
TBT and LYB: An audience member compared Fundamentally Happy with Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013). But of course Gravity is a US$100 million blockbuster starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. We think that comparison was a nod to the excellent performance by our two lead actors – Joshua Lim and Adibah Noor.
Another perceptive audience member compared Fundamentally Happy to Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011), an adaptation of God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza. It’s also a film that is set primarily in a house as the parents of two teenage boys come together to sort things out.
One of the most touching responses we got was in Tallinn. A mother of two boys told us that she was initially uncertain whether to watch our film as she knew it was heavy going. But after seeing the film, she told us it was a film she would love to show her boys so she could talk to them about the issues the film explores with such depth and compassion.
SP. What other Singaporean plays and stories are intriguing possibilities for film adaptation?
TBT and LYB: Fundamentally Happy is part of a trilogy of two-hander plays that include Good People and Gemuk Girls. We know there are some filmmakers who are keen to adapt the other two plays so we are hoping they will muster the resources to do so soon. When we were developing Fundamentally Happy (the film), we also explored the possibility of pairing it with Alfian Sa’at’s two-hander The Optic Trilogy, in an almost Chungking Express structure. It’s another work which we love.
Liao Jiekai and Daniel Hui, our fellow 13 Little Pictures filmmakers, have been working on the adapted screenplay of Yeng Pway Ngon’s Art Studio.
We just think that we have very good Singaporean writers and theatre makers who are telling important stories about Singapore and Singaporeans, stories that have made me laugh, that have touched and inspired me. They write far better than we do and we try as much as we can to read and watch these works and when we can, to collaborate with these people to make films together.
SP. You belong to a film collective called 13 Little Pictures. How did the collective get together?
TBT and LYB: We are cinephiles who met through film screenings and then we started hanging out at post-screening supper and drink sessions, sharing our thoughts on films, our ideas about cinema and life. And when we got closer and it became less embarrassing to ask for favours, we started working on each other’s films. The Local Film Showcase organised by The Projector features the collective works of Tan Bee Thiam, Lei Yuan Bin, Yeo Siew Hua, Liao Jiekai and Daniel Hui. Other 13 Little Pictures members include Sherman Ong and Wesley Leon Aroozoo.
SP. Does the collective share common thematic or aesthetic concerns? Or a working philosophy?
TBT and LYB: We work really like we are in a Film School but with no lecturer or bureaucrat to tell us what we can or cannot do. We are guided only by the Indie Spirit. In the collective, we dare each contributing filmmaker to take risk and develop a unique directorial vision so we will always be making something new and different from one another. We are collegial and gung-ho. We help each other develop our projects during script stage – Yuan Bin and I co-wrote his upcoming project; Daniel is working with Jiekai on a new adapted screenplay. We share our resources (equipment, et al), we lend our muscles to carry equipment. Daniel (Hui) acted in Yuan Bin’s White Days and Siew Hua’s In the House of Straw. Yuan Bin shot Jiekai’s Red Dragonflies and As You Were, which I co-produced and co-edited. Siew Hua was art director for one half of As You Were too. We help one another make the films we need to make. Knowing there’s such a group of gung-ho filmmakers we can count on for inspiration and support emboldens us. That’s the magic of independent filmmaking – making films with friends who challenge, inspire, and support you.
Unlike other production outfits, we are a director-centric collective. We produce and direct our works. Our directors own the works we make. Taking ownership of one’s work makes us think about the work more critically and we ultimately have to defend what we put out.
SP. What are you working on right now?
TBT and LYB: Bee Thiam and Siew Hua’s new projects won the MDA New Talent Feature Grants. Bee Thiam’s Tiong Bahru Social Club is a retro sci-fi absurdist comedy about a singles village in Tiong Bahru. Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined is a thriller film set in a city of the sleepless. Yuan Bin is working on Tuition, a drama about the relationship of a 50-year-old female tuition teacher and her 16-year-old student. It won the Asian Cinema Fund for script development and was an official selection in the Asian Project Market in Busan International Film Festival last year. Daniel’s A Short Film About the Dead is an absurd investigation into the unusual events that led to a man’s incarceration for erecting a ‘subversive tombstone’. It won the FIDLab – Akademie Schloss Solitude 2016 prize at FIDMarseille in France just last month. Jiekai just completed The Drawing Room, a video installation at the Esplanade, which is part of a larger work he’s working on, an adaptation of Yeng Pway Ngon’s Art Studio. Sherman is working on Lucy & I, a Norwegian-Danish-Singapore film. Wesley is working on I Want To Go Home, a Singapore-Japan documentary that won the Next Master Support prize at Tokyo Talents organised by Tokyo Filmex.
SP: Wow! You guys sure keep busy. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. Our very best wishes to all your projects.
The Projector’s Local Film Showcase, featuring the 13 Little Pictures film collective, ends with Lei Yuan Bin’s documentary 03-Flats today, and with Daniel Hui’s dream documentary Snakeskin, on Saturday, August 13.