“Fikri!” Vicky practically screamed, if not at the top of his lungs, then near it. “Macam mana lu nak buat? This is your biggest challenge, man!”
As much as I didn’t want it to be the case, it would eventually be proven so. People say never to work with animals or children. I’d argue that there’s a little animal hidden deep inside all of us, peeking its head into the big wide world once in a while. By the same token we also have a little kid inside of us, but they don’t quite peek out as often, I suppose.
Pity, that. I sure could have used some insight by now.
We are shooting at the beach. By now, the child actors are all bunched up together near the edge of the water, playing at the place that I had earlier indicated to them. One of their mothers is with them, trying to get both of them closer together and be familiar enough with each other. They are, after all, supposed to portray brothers; a little intimacy would help. Having said that, though, the script calls for them to somehow ignore each other at the same time as well. Confused? Perhaps when viewed through the prism of my film, all will be clear.
For now, however, it is something of a headache. A headache, because they are actually drifting away further and further away from the spot that I had designated. Further and further away from beyond the zoom lens Tony had positioned. “Whenever I am not sure, I’d just go for the zoom lens,” he would tell me later. “I know that when I have set things up, and you’d want to get closer, it’ll be a lot easier and saves more time.” That is true. I tend to give him a framework (unlike other productions, we never really got down to discussing the size of the lens for each shot. Perhaps in the future we should do that, but that would also mean extensive testing of the different lenses, the results of which would be different under different conditions). For now, at least, despite the fact that the zoom lens is screwed on tight, the problem is that the children is veering away too far from the intended spot that any further adjustments would result in almost-unacceptable changes to the intended mise-en-scene. It’s a big word meaning ‘things you see on screen’, but it is a big word that is appropriate in this situation.
I have to get them back into position. Going towards them would be pointless. There are actually three of them; I only needed two, but since the sister of one of them came along as well, she is in some of the scenes as well. I don’t have the heart to say no initially, but once we’ve shot enough of her, which might come in handy anyway, we’ll get both of the boys. The mother is close enough to guide them. The communication method we have established is threefold: me to Wong Jang, producer, who’ll relay the message to the mother. The kids are not very communicative with me. Hey, they’re kids after all, and I’m not the most common of faces you’re likely to see this side of Incheon (and I do mean this side of Incheon; it houses the country’s foremost international airport, but this side of the island, with its agriculture and natural scenery, is not very international). Thus, I have to talk to my producer (scream all across the wind, more like), and he’d get close to the mother and tell her my wishes: “To the left! Hyeong! 더 왼쪽으로!”
Adding to the pressure is the time; I chose to shoot at sunset on the beach. It is important, in terms of the storyline, as well as the emotional tone of the character’s journey. Unfortunately, what that means is that we have little more than an hour or so, in total, of usable sunset. At least, that’s what we have estimated. Being able to estimate and gauge the weather is as important an ability as knowing how to load rolls of film into the magazine; a few minutes can change the colour tone, disrupting the continuity, and potentially affecting the mood of the actors as well. For my part, it is not a particularly big consideration, but it is for Tony. This is his graduation project as well, after all, and so I tend to let him get his way with such matters.
Time is short, though. We need to get moving. It seems as if the children are ready. They are getting on well enough for the mother and the sister to slowly and literally slip out of the picture. Tony later admitted that he wasn’t entirely sure how the picture would cut together; I assured him that it would, and that would stand to be true. Under the circumstances, we did a good job.
Not that it is finished yet, though. I turn to my main actor, Tae-hwan. He is some distance away from the bunch of people surrounding the camera. I motion him over, and ask him arguably one of the most important questions of the film: “Are you good with children?”
Everyone is buzzing around. We had deferred the morning shoot to another day. The set, which was supposed to have been ready by yesterday, was…well, not. I call it a set, but it’s someone else’s room in someone else’s house. I had eventually settled on the house for several different reasons, namely because it is close to the sea, has a healthy amount of rural aesthetics surrounding it, but also because it ‘fits’ with what I have in mind.
Therein lies a bit of a problem; I have an image in mind of the kind of house that I want, but I also am open, very open to changes. Unlike a lot of other people, I believe that any location can be shot in an engaging and interesting way. It depends on the angles, the blocking of the actors, the colour and the type of art direction, of course, but ultimately, the location, for the most part, is an accessory, rather than a player in the bigger scheme of things. Of course, this is not the golden rule with regards to locations, and Tony himself disagrees with me. He believes that locations can be important characters, significant game-makers and -changers. “Think back to our film, ‘Bound’,” he had said. “What made the film quite special is because it is well-designed. Look at the walls, the paint, the colours, the props, the whole environment. It is important in creating the atmosphere.” It is true, and the excellent work done for ‘Bound’ by Shirley Wong and Chungpo Tsering should not be ignored.
With regards to this film, however, I don’t particularly want a very, very special room. I don’t want a very special house. What I do want, however, is a house that portrayed a countryside house perfectly. I wanted to capture a little bit of the Korean essence, so that it will be grounded in some reality. Preferably, this should be a beautiful reality, one that is pleasant and has enough character to be put on film. I think this house achieves the objectives, but Tony didn’t quite share the same enthusiasm. He acceded to my ideas in this case, though; unlike many other cinematographers, he is more closely aligned to the director’s mind. He himself describes him as a director-cinematographer, rather than…well, a cinematographer-cinematographer.
I move my hands quicker amongst the different peels of double-sided tape. My art director, Srimontha Teravatanachai (known more popularly as Kung), have come on board the production rather late, but she did a good job under the difficult circumstances. More time would have helped, but as it stands, I like the job she did. It meant that we had to cover the original wallpaper with a different colour, in order to inspire a different feeling within the shot itself. It now appears more rustic, more wooden, but in a positive way. The job, however, does get pretty mindless. By now, the rest have taken breaks, and are outside, undoubtedly smoking their lungs away. Only Vicky and I remain; Kung herself is away from the set, looking for more of the floorboards to cover the floor. By the time we have finished with the decorations, the old lady living there liked it so much she wanted us to keep things the way they are. I was more than happy to comply.
However, that is jumping the gun a bit, even if this part I am about to write is something involving the old lady. As I silently peel the tapes away, along with Vicky (who probably didn’t sign up for this particular role), I have my eyes kept on her, making sure that she is OK. She reminds me of my grandmother, and for some reason, that has been the case for the past few weeks or so. Every other old lady I meet or come across in the street reminds me of my grandmother. Her name is Minah, and she is my maternal grandmother. When I was younger, since my mom also called her Mak, I had assumed that is her name, and proceed to call her precisely that. Everyone else soon followed suit. In fact, I would have the distinction of pretty much naming everyone in my family; I have an older brother, but given his disability, I became the de-facto namer of the family. I couldn’t pronounce Suraya properly, so I ended up calling her Yaya. Syahirah seemed a little complex, so Adik will just have to do.
This lady then does something totally unexpected. She flicks her glance over to the dresser, a low table set next to the television set. Her face is now more clearly bathed in the warm sunlight, adding shadows to the creases and lines already in her face. Her white hair seems to glow a small halo. She looks even more like my grandmother, my Mak. Even though she is my grandmother, Mak is not entirely inappropriate. It is short for Emak, which means mother in the Malaysian language; in the context of both of my parents being working professionals, she did her fair share of raising me and my siblings. I thought of Mak as she reaches for a photo frame.
It is the picture of three younger children, two boys and one girl. They are young, innocent, and carefree, but the age of the photo has yellowed them away. There is a small tape by the end of one edge of the frame, holding it all together. She lifts her index finger, and caresses the glass covering the photo. She didn’t do this slowly, but it is vigorous in nature. Then she brought it close to her cheeks, rubbing it along her cheekbones, moving away the sands of time to bring her closer to…her children? Her grandchildren? I’m inclined to say her immediate offspring, for the love I saw in that moment, that one moment, is pure, genuine, sincere.
And so is the longing.
“Mahal tu,” said Vicky, but I have to disagree in a small, inconsequential way. It is not expensive, it is priceless. You would not have been able to make that moment up, and to see it happen before my very eyes was a privilege. For the rest of the peeling session, I think about the people in the picture. Who are they? What do they do? Where are they now? Why aren’t they here? We all leave and fly the coop sooner rather than later, but lest we forget, there are others who always love and miss us regardless.
I end up putting that photo inside my film.
“What should we do now, Mr Director?” Tony comes in, comfortably dressed in his grey sweat pants and white t-shirt, the viewfinder hanging around his neck. I had seen Francis Ford Coppola use it extensively in the documentary, ‘Hearts of Darkness’, about the time when he made the film ‘Apocalypse Now’. I had thought about buying one, but upon testing it to see how useful it might be, I realise that for me it would a symbolic gesture more than anything else. It hangs around the neck, and it looks good, but how good is it? It gives an idea about the kind of lens to be used. In some ways, what it does is to encroach on the territory of the cinematography team; to know it is good, but while I do, in theory, get final decision on a lot of things, I feel comfortable enough to let Tony and his team do the work. To be honest, perhaps a little more knowledge in that area wouldn’t kill me. I decided, however, that having the viewfinder adds an extra layer of responsibility that I’m not quite ready for.
I take Tony through the paces. I have written before that I don’t usually do storyboards. I do my best, however, to try to explain what the scene is and should be about, and how I want things to look. I do explain things, the angles, size of the shots, and the action that would happen in the scene. Together, in that moment, we would visualise things together. He’d nod, and then I’d move on to the next cut. When we’re finished, he would set the lights up exactly the way he’d want them to be.
However, it is not a foolproof method. There are some scenes that weren’t as adequately explained as I thought. It may be a delayed scene that we had to push back because of the schedule, or the weather, or the simple fact that the set itself might not be ready. And so we’d do that, but with the explanations already dished out beforehand, I sit back and enjoy. Or at least I thought I would do that. On this particular occasion, Tony ask to be reminded of the exact size, shot, and subsequent cuts. I explain. This time, he shakes his head. No good. What is the alternative, then? He gives a suggestion, I take it under consideration, and I roll with it if I think it may indeed be better. Nevertheless, I could feel his frustration; perhaps the lack of time had not made for the best of situations to work in.
By that point, we are near the end of the shoot, but the previous night’s scenes had taken a lot of toll on everyone. I was keen to push on, but everything had to be stopped.
“Fikri, look at the old lady,” my producer would nudge at me. That’s what I liked about Won-jang. He’s always cool and calm under pressure, though that is not to say that he doesn’t get frustrated with me. What I am saying is that he is always thinking of solutions, never dwelling on the problems any longer than necessary. He got a lot of things done for me, and it made me feel safe in many ways. There’s always enough space to work in, but when there isn’t…he’d give me a reminder without necessarily screaming or shouting at the top of his lungs. Having said that, with the exception of one particular project, I did not have any problems with any of my producers. They’ve all been as supportive as supportive can be, but from Won-jang, I feel as if I am learning a little more than I did the night before.
“Look at the old lady,” he continued, not ceasing his slight jabs. While smiling, of course. I refused to, smiling back in return, and concentrated on trying to finish the scene as fast as I can. His assistant, Seo-nyung, hovered in the background. She was very helpful with my production, despite the fact that I met her only on the second day of production. One of Won-jang’s classmates had badgered him into acting in a small role for her film. In return, he badgered her into helping out for my film; after all, at the time, Won-jang and I was just about to leave the school to continue our location scouting. She had insisted, and Won-jang made her promise.
However, she dropped out beforehand, and so we have Seo-nyung. As it turns out, she is a known theatre actress, who have a wonderful voice. Everyday, as we’d make our way from the minbak (a house we rented for the crew during the production) to the set, she’d be singing her heart out, serenading the nature, it seems, singing in tandem with the few birds that do fly by the area. Wide, open spaces are the playground of her voice. As an assistant, she is the ultimate professional, too, despite admitting to tagging along for the ride “to see what a film production is like.”
If she had thought planned (and unplanned) chaos is what she had in mind, she wasn’t far wrong.
Communication is important. “Mr Director, how about if we do it this way?”
That was my actor, Tae-hwan. We are getting ready to shoot the night scene, the scene when his character, Ji-sung, would be sleeping before being disturbed by the elder brother. He is unsure about his positioning. I start to explain to him again. “I want you to be placed slightly in this direction,” I begin by waving the rolled up script I had in my hand at the time (for some reason, I keep on misplacing my script when I am on set. I ended up having two different working scripts with a variety of notations on each). “Yeah, but you have mentioned that you wanted the light to fall on my head in this way. Wouldn’t it be better if I am positioned in this way?” It is true, and I have explained it to him earlier that I wanted the light to fall on his head as the brother opens the door. It adds a nice aesthetic touch to the proceedings. However, that was some time ago, before I had actually realised that the door opens outwardly, and the light wouldn’t fall in the same way. Thus, it wouldn’t have worked in that way, unless I place him in a rather unnatural-looking position. Naturality (the WordPress spellchecker tagged this word, but I like it, so I’m keeping it) is a subjective issue, but that’s what it felt like.
“What would be the comfortable way for you, then?” I ask, canvassing his opinion. Many directors would have baulked at this; in other situations, I myself wouldn’t quite recommend it. For me, though, a big part of directing is to be able to tap into other people’s input. I like my cast and crew to give suggestions, perhaps to even go against me. It’s not because I don’t have any ideas, but because I need to test my ideas against those of other people. In moments like this, the last thing I want is for my actor to be uncomfortable and feel unnatural. Acting, of course, by its very nature, is the act of pretending to be in a different state of mind, to portray someone other than yourself. Yet at the same time, the aim of such a portrayal is naturality. This is best achieved when elements from the actor’s real life can be used for added effect. As such, I tend to canvas their opinions for the benefit of the film, all the while bearing in mind that the real power lies with me.
Of course, that’s the illusion that every director fools themselves into thinking. The real power lies with the people who are doing it in that very moment. Take, for example, the camerawork. A cinematographer friend confided in me that many times, he would disagree with a director he is working with. He doesn’t like the angle, or the cut wouldn’t work, or the lighting is not good enough to bring to bear. Deliberately, he may just tinker with the plan slightly; in some moments, his fingers might slip somewhere along the focus ring, or the camera movement might be slightly off-field. These are things that the director might not pick up on, but others trained in the cinematography way of thinking would. The director would walk away happy; after all, on the set, a miniscule monitor doesn’t do justice to the size of the film being shot. However, he’d be without the knowledge that that particular shot could have been filmed in a more effective way. It is a fact only the cinematographer would know.
The same applies to actors. An actor may well try to force the director’s hand into doing something he wants rather than what the director wants. I have read Edward Dmytryk’s ‘On Directing’, and he touched on this issue extensively. Tae-hwan, in this case, had requested for something that was what I had originally wanted, but eventually changed. He is in an interesting position as an actor. He asks for a lot of instructions, a lot of guidance, and many of it I was happy to give him. The character is based on me myself, so I would know. In fact, I find it interesting that Yong-hak, the actor playing the elder brother, didn’t quite ask for as much or gave as many ideas as Tae-hwan does.
Yong-hak is a rather experienced theatre actor, and someone I met through my editor. The minute I met him, I knew he was the perfect one. He had the look, and his casting may well have been the only one I’ve done so far based on looks. His role was more difficult, because I couldn’t give him the kind of insight that I have on Ji-sung. Ji-woon, as a character, is a blank slate, just as my own brother Fazly is (to me at least). I could explain what he does, how he screams and shouts, but I couldn’t give the exact motivations for him to do that. I couldn’t explain what he should or shouldn’t be thinking about. “This is why I have to ask you to bring a lot to the table,” I explained to him in one of my first meetings. It was actually during Ramadhan at the time, and he had brought me a can of coffee as an offering. As a general rule, the actors tend to bring something nice to the table when they want a role. It’s a matter of courtesy to the director. It’s not something that makes much of a difference, but for once, I have to admit that it’s the one time I didn’t quite mind so much Korea’s heavy emphasis on hierarchy.
Even during Ramadhan.
Tae-hwan, however, is different. He hasn’t been acting for long. In fact, he is actually a certified accountant in the United States, and that lead him to hosting a business-based programme on the Arirang TV. Seeking a new challenge, he left to find something new, and my short film is actually his first real, proper acting job. He is under some pressure, though; he shares the same manager as Choi Min-sik, the lead actor of the film ‘Oldboy’. Min-sik is a renowed actor in his own right, and he has been serving as something of a mentor for Tae-hwan. As such, my film is a litmus test, and he feels as nervous about it as I do, hoping that he does enough with it to impress his mentor. The hierarchy system.
Meeting him in itself was an interesting experience. My producer set me up a meeting with him, and I liaised with him personally. I contacted him myself, and spoke in Korean with him. We met up eventually, and continued to talk in Korean, as I tried my level best to explain my film as best as I can. I asked how he met my producer, and he mentioned something about a church meeting or event. What struck me was the word church itself, and how it was pronounced. He didn’t say ‘chaw-cher’ as many other native Koreans normally would, breaking down that single syllable into two. He had actually said ‘church’. “I’m sorry, this might sound weird,” I interjected, “but can you speak English?” A pause, and then, in one of the sweetest words any of my actors have said to me, “Actually, I’m from Canada.”
He did indeed spend many years in Canada and the United States, although, mutual respect for Russell Peters aside, that didn’t stop a lot of our communication from being in Korean on the set. Having said that, my set is quite multinational in its own way. Apart from the Malaysian director, the camera assistants are both from Malaysia, while the art direction team and costume designer come from Thailand. Sophea, from Cambodia, holds the boom mic; on one of the earlier days, that was the job of another Cambodian, Sotithya. The slate was passed around between some Koreans, a Malaysian and a Filipina. In fact, the only Korean personnel on set was my gaffer and my producing team. And of course, my actors. So to keep everyone in the loop, the majority of the conversations were in Korean, although one on one with various people, I could easily switch to English (or Bahasa Malaysia), for which I am grateful. I could communicate more easily and directly in the English language; my Korean still leaves a lot to be desired for.
Wouldn’t want to miscommunicate things now, would we?
Tony flicks off the switch on the camera. The dolly track remains still; they stopped some time before the shot ended. The wailing that came from Yong-hak comes to a merciful end; he did a superb job. Tae-hwan flicks a glance over to me. In fact, with that one monosyllable direction, everyone looks at me or, being obstructed by the camera, in my direction. Everyone had only one thing on their mind.
“Playback.” I rewound the tape on the camera that was used to record the recording. We didn’t have a monitor, and so I ended up using a Sony PD-150 camera to record what the film camera was recording. Since we are shooting on film, we couldn’t just rewind and play the actual footage that was shot, and so this is the best alternative. The screen is small, but it didn’t really matter. I rarely rely on monitors, actually. On many production sets I have been to, the director lives by the monitor. It was something I used to practise myself, but after reading about how Christopher Nolan standing by the camera during his own shoots, preferring to see things with his own eyes, I decided to try it for one particular shoot a long time ago. I loved it. You remove a layer away from the process, and you see a more holistic picture. Since that point on, it was an easy decision to use the monitor mainly to review the action, rather than to view the action that first time. I say that it didn’t matter in this case, because even before reviewing the action, I had known.
Can you hear relief? Can you hear the feeling of being relieved? Maybe not, but in this particular case, you could definitely hear representations of it. It feels like everyone let their breath out at the same time, and almost immediately, everyone, having been so still just a moment ago, started moving again. Including me, making my way out.
I go to the edge of the wheat field, and take a deep breath. I need that; I know it was a good take because it made me feel so emotional. As I have mentioned before, ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ is a very personal project telling a very personal story. Having said that, it is probably more accurate to describe the story as being based on reality, because I had just filmed something that reflects more of my own wishes, rather than my own reality. Reality, in a way, is not so exciting.
What we wish for, what we want and desire, that’s infinitely more intoxicating. What I had filmed was probably something that will never be. In a way, I had witnessed reality being played around with. More to the point, I have just seen my own wish and dream realised…only to know that it is just…a film.
That makes me feel both sad and happy at the same time.
I feel a tear coming down my cheek. “Oh, bloody hell,” I think to myself and wipe it away. Here I am, looking out at this beautiful location, with the wind softly caressing everything it touches, moving the field ever so slightly. The sun is setting, and although the magic hour is long gone, it still lends a strong atmosphere to the whole place. The sky is still somewhat blue, and for nearly all of the horizon of my own eyes, cloudless. And yet here I am, getting rather emotional.
“Fikri!” I turn, although I knew who it was before I did so. Bou Jeong approached me. How appropriate it was that on the last day of my last shoot here in Korea, she would be present. She was present on the first day of the first shoot as well. Out of all the people who have helped me, she was the one who have helped me the most. She was mainly known as an art director, and was a part of the art direction team for ‘Taegukki’ many years ago. She even went to England to study art direction, and came back after two years deciding to turn to directing. As a result of her English sojourn, her English is very good, so it helped to make communication a lot easier. More to the point, she remembers what it’s like to be a foreigner in a foreign country with no support whatsoever. She knows the feeling, the feeling that I felt when I first came here. She helped me out a lot in my early days, and here she is again.
She comes closer and gives me a hug. She knows, and I know she knows, what this all means to me. She helped to work on my translations for the script, before she had a chuckle, threw it all out, and started on her own translation. That was…goodness, that was a year ago. More than. At that moment, I realise that from the moment I put my idea down on the metaphorical paper, I have actually been working on the film for a very, very long time. Years and years. The tears starts coming again.
She pulls away, probably mindful not to get her shirt wet. She talked about how personal her own films had been, and it’s true. Making films that are personal to you is difficult. It’s difficult to detach yourself from the story, even when you have a responsibility to do exactly that. I have gotten involved, and the process, as a result of that, took a lot more out of me than I have imagined. It may well explain the sleepless and restless nights I’ve had. Despite the fact that it is only a five-day shoot, I couldn’t recall when I was last so tired not just physically (that was probably helping out on my Brazilian friend Paula’s production two years back), but emotionally and spiritually as well.
Tony comes out to look for me. As he gets closer, I realise how odd it was that he is wearing grey sweatpants. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen cinematographers wear such sweatpants to work. At the risk of sounding like a grizzled old veteran, in all the productions I have attended or worked on, I’ve never seen cinematographers with sweatpants. He manages to carry it well, though. I can’t think of anyone else who could under the circumstances.
Those were the thoughts that came to mind. He was also the cinematographer of my second ‘first’ film here (I had two starts in Korea, thank God). We work well together, and I find it odd how I always refer to him as my cinematographer. It’s not untrue, but it felt like he was a pet, when he is an established professional in his own right. By hook or by crook, we will work together again in the future.
He pulls away slightly when he saw that my eyes were more than just a little red. Ken-sole also comes out, and reacts similarly. They commiserate with me, and Ken-sole offers me a cigarette. Tony say that, all things considered, we still have enough time for one more shot. I had mentioned earlier that I wanted a close up of Tae-hwan’s face. He said that it will depend on the lighting conditions after we got the most difficult shot out of the way. After the tracking shot, however, I feel that it was enough to portray what I want. And with that, I realise that it is all over. Not just this film, but this particular stage of my career. There’s still a long way to go, for I have only just started, but this phase is over for now.
I will never shoot a film more personal than this, and I can’t wait.
“It’s a wrap.”
Fikri actually calls Tae-hwan by his English name, Jeremy, but he doesn’t really like that. “I don’t even know why I chose that name.” He wrote about his pre-production process here, and the third part covers the post-production stage. ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ is his graduation film. You can see more pictures from its making here.
Featured image credit: Best Wallpaper