Father & Daughter Film Report
ASIAN vs. AMERICAN FILM MAKING:
PERSPECTIVES from FILM MAKER LEE CHEE TIAN
We met film maker Lee Chee Tian at the Family Film Festival in Hollywood inside the beautiful Raleigh Studio's Charlie Chaplin screening room after the showing of his wonderfully profound film ANCHOVIES, who flew all the way from Singapore to discuss his film.
We're so glad he did.
Not only did we learn
some wonderful background to the story, but also received some wonderful
insight in the conceptual differences between making & showing a film in
Asia compared to doing so here in the USA.
What stage of your life did you become interested in working with films?
I first started out getting interested in drama, and got myself involved in school performances on stage, in various capacities including acting, directing, scriptwriting, stagehand etc. After a while, it occurred to me that having put in so much time and effort into each production, it was to last for that one staging only, and it started to not make very much sense. At the same time, I realized that the shows on TV, which basically were like the drama pieces that I was producing, could be repeated every now and then, so it seemed like a medium that can make the type of work that I'm creating to be around a lot more longer, and that appealed to me. I guess I'm more of a storyteller than a performing artist, and so whichever form that can better preserve my work (the story) that I create, I will switch to it as my medium of storytelling. Thus sparked my interest in film and TV.
What gave you the idea or what event led you to making films?
The first short film that I made was with a couple of university friends who were my fellow drama group members. None of us were trained in filmmaking. We naively thought that we just needed to do what we used to do in stage drama, and capture the performance with the video camera placed at different positions to give a variety of shots. As you can imagine, the product wasn't very compelling as a film and felt rather stagey and technically-flawed. The film didn't get us recognized as filmmakers, and we did not manage to get our break into the filmmaking circle. Subsequently, we did not attempt any new films for several years after that.
Yet, my interest in telling stories through film never died
out completely. Some years later, I jumped on the chance to attend a
screenwriting course conducted by a professional TV and film scriptwriter
(prior to this, I thought it was no different from the stage playwriting that I
was already doing), and in that class, one of my classmates was a TV director,
who was the first professional screen content creator that I've ever met in my
life up to then.
We hit it off quite well, and after the course, came together
to make the short film "Colours" (which is the C-titled film in the
ABC Junior Films that I gave to you). This time, with the professional input
from my classmate, and with a professional film crew on board, the film that we
made turned out to be much more polished and professional-looking. I submitted
it to film festivals, and it ended up in more than 40 festivals across 20+
countries, winning some international awards in some of them.
That was a really
big encouragement, and gave me a bit of affirmation that I might have the
capability to produce films that can potentially be recognized globally.
In a way, that paved the path of my entry into the world of filmmaking.
I initially faced difficulty due to my lack of technical know-how as I never went to film school, but over the years, through collaborations with people who are skilled in their various areas in filmmaking, I have gradually established a reliable network of crew professionals who I can turn to for film production.
Among them, my most frequent collaborator is cinematographer Lim Beng Huat, who has helmed the cinematography work of all 3 ABC Junior Films. Financing is one challenge that all filmmakers face, and I'm not spared from this worry. Luckily we have a Media Development Authority (MDA) in Singapore which is a governmental body that supports filmmakers like me with production fundings, but usually this only covers the costs partially, and I still have to try to find money to pay for the balance.
And films are real expensive to make, I have to say. So many people and so many items billed to each production. A lot of times, I have to beg for people's goodwill to lower or lift their charges, especially for short film projects that have limited commercial returns. Hopefully, in future, by accumulating a portfolio of films that have received accolades and wide recognition to prove my capability, I would be able to obtain financing more easily to fund my future productions.
Kai Hsu, director of the film "Pressure Man", director Lee Chee Tian, & Zul Salleh, owner & director of Zero3Studio
Now that I've worked with people who are skilled in the various departments,
I've discovered that I'm better off retaining just 2 of those: writer-producer.
In fact, if I can find someone who displays the same beliefs as me in producing my films, I'd gladly just reduce to the writer role. I found that what I truly want is to tell a compelling story through the medium of film. As the writer, I've already fulfilled that desire. I just need to find the right people to translate what I've written into actual film. I don't have to be involved in all areas to prove that I'm a filmmaker.
There are others more qualified than me in those areas, and I can entrust them to do what they're best at. And for me, what I'm best at is to come up with the story from which they make the film.
What advice can you give others who wish to make a film?
Filmmaking is really a collaborative activity, with many different departments contributing to form the final product. If you can identify people who are good at those various areas that the film can benefit from, don't hesitate to rope them in, and work constructively with them. Don't try to take on all roles by yourself. Be open to suggestions by those whom you have brought on board. While maintaining your own vision, take others' into consideration too, and decide what's best for the film. Lastly, and most importantly, when making a film, don't just think of gratifying yourself as the maker of the film, but more of how the audience will be gratified by watching that completed film. Earn the respect of the audience by respecting them first.
I think the worldwide population provides a very diversified audience pool for filmmakers. This can be an opportunity or a challenge. On one hand, the internet technology allows films to be easily distributed to a wide number of people regardless of geography, but on the other hand, people have more freedom and ability to access content specific to their tastes only.
The key to success would be to find the niche that your film appeals to. Perhaps you may even need to shape your film during the making phase with the targeted niche in mind. With the audience so informed by the use of technology, you can't cast a wide generic net and hope to bring in a big lump catch anymore. You have to know specifically who you're aiming at, and go all out to lure them one-to-one. I think technology has made the world easier to reach, yet individuals harder to convince, and we have to act accordingly to push our content to the right audience.
Cast and crew for ANCHOVIES
One observable difference would be that the USA audience enjoyed the film not just for the story alone, but also because it carried a novelty element of a setting in a Southeast Asian fishing village which appears exotic to their eyes. Meanwhile, for the Asian audience, they enjoyed it for its familiarity, because the language, settings, relationships etc are what we see commonly around us, so they watch it as though it's a story of someone close that they know, like their neighbor or their nephew.
We're glad you didn't either Lee Chee Tain, the result of using anchovies appeared to actually have more of an impact, at least in our book....!