Gold For the Bold: Director ANTHONY CHEN on Honest Filmmaking and Winning the First Camera d’Or for Singapore

ilo-ilo poster 2

An intimate family drama, ILO ILO is the debut feature of director ANTHONY CHEN  and the first Singaporean feature film to win a major award at the CANNES FILM FESTIVAL (Camera d’Or, 2013). Since the standing ovation in Cannes, this charming film won as many hearts as prizes, among which the much-coveted Sutherland Award for the most original and imaginative feature debut at the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.

Set during the beginning of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, ILO ILO tells the tale of a Filipino maid who comes to Singapore in search of a better life and her impact on the family whose 10-year old troublesome son she’s looking after.

This interview was taken on October 11, 2013 at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.

Dana: This is your first feature film, please tell me about the experience of making a feature film for the first time? Did it help to make a lot of shorts before?

Anthony: Yes I did a lot of shorts before, I made 9 shorts before making this feature film. I spent three years making this film, I wrote and directed the film, I did most of the producing as well. I do feel that there is a huge learning curve, it is a huge step up from making shorts, I can say right now that I know how to make a good short film because I made so many now and I know the format very well but even though I made my first feature and yes, it was quite successful, I’m not sure if I can say I know how to make another feature film.

Dana: I find that hard to believe.

Anthony: I find that hard to believe myself! But it is that hard. I do feel that making features will not get easier, it will only get harder and tougher…

Dana: Is it because with every film you’re raising the bar a little bit?

Anthony: I think it’s because with each film, it just gives you more confidence to make the next film but you’re not remaking the path of the last film. With each film you get more ambitious, with each film you deal with a different subject matter, you work with a different cast and crew, you will have a new set of challenges[…]. It doesn’t get easier, you’re always figuring it out, you’re going into new unchartered waters all the time. I hope the second one won’t be so painful but filmmaking is always painful…

Dana: But you certainly enjoy making films, don’t you?

Anthony: I do enjoy making films but I think a lot of filmmakers get a lot of satisfaction from the pain that they go through when making a film…

Anthony's camera d'or

Director ANTHONY CHEN – definitely not resting on his laurels despite what the photo might suggest

Dana: Is filmmaking a masochistic activity?

Anthony: I think so, yes. Filmmakers love pain. I can’t understand why anyone would want to make films, it’s such a massive struggle, financially you usually start off very very poor, you always have to go around and ask for stuff,  the process itself drains you, it drains your heart, your mind. Even when I was making shorts, I would make one and get through a lot of hardship to get it finished and I would say “Okay, this might be the last one” but a few months later I’m itching again for that pain, to go through that hell again. And of course filmmaking is an obsession, with my shorts and my features I’m usually obsessed with a certain character, a certain location, or certain theme. And this obsession just drives you into that frame of mind, obsession drives filmmakers…

Dana: Did you expect to have such a huge success with this film?

Anthony: No…I think I’m quite astounded and I’m very grateful for the whole journey I made with this film. The film was made with very pure intentions. I just wanted to make a very honest and very sincere film. That was it. I wasn’t making it to get into festivals, to win awards. It wasn’t a packaged product either, I wasn’t aiming for the box-office or anything like that. Getting into Cannes was huge for me, and the fact that the film won the Camera d’Or, that it’s doing well at the box-office in Singapore and France, all that has importance but I didn’t set out to achieve all that.

Dana: And this is when it happens, probably, when the intentions are innocent.

Anthony: I think so yes, which is why I think honesty is very important. And I hope I will preserve the same honesty and integrity going from film to film, because it’s very hard. You see a lot of big filmmakers that you admire and you sometimes wonder why they are making what they are making, why they made such great films and all of a sudden, they have all this money, all this budget, but […] a lot of their work becomes more like luster, it gets compromised.

Dana: If you were to go back and shoot the film again, would you make any changes?

Anthony: I wouldn’t. Because this films is sitting comfortably with me right now but perhaps in six months or one year I might start going: “I need to change this, or that…”. But I think the film sits quite comfortably with me now, not because of what people say but because I don’t like to judge all my previous work, I think every piece of film, be it a short or a feature, represents a stage of your growth, your maturity and you wouldn’t be able to move forward if you haven’t got that part of your history. So it’s not about “Oh I wish I could erase that film from my cinematography, or I wish I didn’t make that film”. Because that film led to the next film…

Dana: And talking about the next film, do you have something lined up already?

Anthony: I wish I knew. Like I said filmmaking is an obsession, and I’m looking for the next obsession. I hope it comes sooner rather than later. I spent three years making my first feature, hopefully it won’t be another three years, I don’t know what it will be but it will most probably be an English-language film.

Dana: For how long have you lived in the UK?

Anthony: Four or five years, I’m actually based in London. I went to the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, I did a two-year masters degree in film directing. So the fact that the film screens at the London Film Festival is personally quite special for me, London is like my second home so it’s a bit like a home-coming.

Dana: And do you think you are as astutely aware of the nuances in the society and class-system here as you are of the culture in which you grew up?

Anthony: It’s interesting, I made a graduation film at the film school, a short film called Lighthouse, and that was a real challenge for me because that was the first full-on English language, very British film that I made with a full English cast. And I think that went quite well, I now want to see if I can make a feature film here. At the same time, one of my heroes […] is Ang Lee, and what I appreciate about him is that he can go in and out of different periods, different cultures, different eras, but there is always the same respect and humility for the human condition, for his characters. And I believe that is the power of cinema, it’s one of the mediums that cuts across and transcends language, it transcends cultures. If you’re honest about looking at people, looking at humanity, language and culture become a lesser problem, because we are obviously connected in the same way, by the same humanity.

Dana: How did the screenwriting process go? As far as dialogue is concerned, did you try to keep it to a minimum?

Anthony:  It was interesting because I refuse for my actors to change any single word.

Dana: That’s surprising as the film has a certain fluidity to it, was there no improvisation?

Anthony: No, a lot of people thought that the film was improvised. But no…In the editing I did cut down some of the scenes when they got too long and two or three scenes were dropped in the cutting room but apart from that I refuse to let them change a single word, a single line, I was so dogmatic about it.

Ilo_Ilo_shower scene

Famous Filipino actress Angeli Bayani playing the character of the maid in ILO ILO

Dana: And why is that?

Anthony: Because when I write there is a certain flow, a certain nuance and a certain rhythm that I felt work. And I don’t want to change that.

Dana: And I suppose the actors felt it worked as well.

Anthony: Not really! Which is why when it doesn’t work I have to do multiple takes to get it to flow.

Dana: Did you have any disagreements on the set concerning certain scenes?

Anthony: No, we didn’t have fights on the set.

Dana: Did you know the actors before you cast them?

Anthony: Apart from one of the lead actors in the film who was in one of my short films, I didn’t work with the rest of them. The lead in the film, the 10-year old boy, was cast out of a long casting process, we spent 10 months going to 20 schools, we saw thousands of children before we locked him down. Out of the 8,000 children, I shortlisted 150 of them and then I did six months of workshops, every weekend, before I locked him down…

boy in ILO ILO

Koh Jia Ler, the 10-year old star of ILO ILO

Dana: What was the quality you were looking for in your child lead, you were obviously looking for something very specific?

Anthony: I think in most films, especially Hollywood films, most filmmakers would easily go for the prettiest kid, the cutest kid. But I wanted something that was real, that was raw. For me there was something about his face, there’s a fragility, there’s a vulnerability that I found was very interesting. There is something that isn’t quite right about him, but what is it, you don’t know. And that worked for me in this film. He was very good material for me to work with as a director.

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