It was after a screening at Malaysian Shorts that I met Bahir Yeusuff some time ago. Some days before that, I had caught the film, ‘The Joshua Tapes’, and was enthusiastic about it despite its rough edges. As is the case at such screenings, I met a number of old acquaintances, one of whom was speaking with Bahir as I caught up with them. That was how I found out he was the producer for the film, and we exchanged contact details in the hope of doing an interview for this blog.
So, fast forward 18 months, and another independent feature, ‘Relationship Status’, caught my attention. Turns out that Bahir produced the film as well, and so I got in touch with him again. Thankfully, he is still keen on doing the interview, so do find below one of the most informative, entertaining, intercontinental (he wasn’t in the country) interviews I’ve done.
Hi Bahir. Let’s get started from the beginning. How did you get started in filmmaking?
Well I got into it purely to help a friend out. One of my best friends from high school Arivind Abraham, had gone to the UK to do his degree in writing and directing and had wanted to do his first feature after he had graduated. He had always had a passion for it having done short films ever since he was in primary school and we all knew that that was something he was pursuing seriously. So anyway, after we graduated, he asked if I’d be interested in helping him out, purely on a line producer/production manager capacity. This basically meant that I was to not be involved in the any creative decisions and that I was on board purely to manage logistics and the money. But as we went on, I got more and more involved, and id like to think that he saw some merit in my comments to him regarding story, dialogue, etc. Towards the end of the shoot, I was hooked. It was such an adrenaline rush and had all the things I loved doing and I felt that I had a knack for it. This was ‘S’kali’ and almost 7 years ago and I’ve been doing it ever since. On the last day of that shoot, we did the scenes with the late Yasmin Ahmad and as we wrapped, she turned to me and said something I’d never forget. She told me that filmmaking is the most fun you can have with your clothes on, and I would have to agree.
Why film and filmmaking?
I think I fell into it purely by accident really. I realised that I loved telling stories, and I loved working with people towards a single unified goal. Arivind Abraham taught me a lesson early on, that there, generally, two types of filmmakers: the ones that are the “auteur”, where it is entirely director, where he is essentially god on a set. Then there is the collaborative filmmaker, which looks to his, cast and crew, and will consider any and all good ideas. Arivind was that latter director and it made life on set, where you work hard for 12 plus hours a day, much more bearable and a lot more fun. I don’t believe one way is better than the other, but I feel that I prefer that second option. I also think that this line of work suits me due to how easily I get bored. Working at a desk, doing the same tasks day in day out for years will just kill me. This industry let me work on a particular project, for whatever length of time depending on the gig, then move on to something else. Which is a big plus for me.
But on a personal level, I do enjoy the job. The ability to tell stories, whether it be long form (features) or short (shorts, ads) it still to me is storytelling, and I just love that. That conveying of an emotion, of a message, or just to purely entertain, I think is inspiring. Not to get too high and mighty, but I feel it is a noble effort. To be tasked with to entertain an audience for a certain period of time, for the audience to trust you for their enjoyment, is pretty cool. I just hope I haven’t let them down yet.
Was there a particular film or filmmaker who inspired you?
Pre-working in film, I wasn’t a very educated audience. I’d watch what was coming out and rated it as bad or good depending on how I personally felt it was. So before I worked in the industry I didn’t really consider a movie for more than just entertainment. Since becoming a filmmaker myself, I have realised that the filmmakers that truly inspire me, haven’t been the directors, but mainly the writers. I love great writing. Aaron Sorkin is a personal idol of mine; a year doesn’t go by without an Aaron Sorkin marathon (the 2 seasons of ‘Sports Night’, 7 seasons of the ‘West Wing’, and the single season of ‘Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip’). But the films that make me want to make films are, in no particular order, ‘The Godfather 1 & 2’, ‘Wizard of Oz’, ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Citizen Kane’. Every year I’ll do the Aaron Sorkin marathon, then those movies. It sorta reminds me what I want to do and why I love doing it.
But if I ever do direct, I think it would fashion myself very much after Wes Anderson and his movies. Those wide shots, simple camera work, quirky characters, I just love it. From ‘The Life Aquatic’, to ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ and the ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’, his use of imagery to convey emotion is brilliant. I just love the simplicity of it.
Another director that I admire for his use of imagery is Tarsem Singh. I love his little-known film ‘The Fall’. Gorgeous. Just stunning use of location and set design. His latest film, ‘Immortals’, also used some really intricate and gorgeous set design.
Were there other experiences in your life that proved to be especially useful when it comes to making your films?
As silly as this may sound, I think my having been an assistant prefect in high school helped. I was a pretty shy kid in high school, and still am, but having been given that post, I was able to get out of my shell and was able to learn the ways of dealing with and managing people. I feel that is still my primary role on any job. The director and writer needs to concentrate on their jobs, and I feel that it is my job to take away certain headaches, like logistics and finances, and the accounts. At times I feel it is also my job to take the bullet for the team, from exec producers or from clients. I guess working with annoying teachers and helped with that.
As a part of Perantauan Pictures, you’ve made quite a number of feature films, almost straight off the bat. Many filmmakers would prefer to work with short films before making such a jump. Why did you take that approach?
Again, it wasn’t a calculated decision. The first director I worked with, Arivind, had done shorts in his past so he had had the experience. It was the same with Benji Lim and Khai M. Bahar. It just so happened that my first filmmaking effort was the feature film ‘S’kali’. Many people are surprised when I tell them that my first short film ever was ‘Meter’. At that time I had already done 3 feature length films, 5 online ads, and produced and managed the production of an RTM magazine show. So it wasn’t an “approach” per se, as more how the cookie had crumbled.
As a result of that, you’ve been a part of productions like ‘Skali’, ‘5:13’ and ‘The Joshua Tapes’. What were the receptions to these films like?
The reception had always been mixed. Audience numbers are always small (minute even!), but those that do go see it tend to come back to us with very positive reviews. Of course with the budgets that we are forced to work in, we would only be able to afford a certain level in production value and marketing reach, but even with that, the comments of those that do go and watch any of the stuff ive worked on have been generally very positive. And that’s nice. It gives the team and me some consolation. It is also worth noting that ‘5:13’ never had a cinematic release. It was always envisaged as a TV movie/video on demand (VOD) thing that we had wanted to try for the European and American markets. It has had some interest and we are actually working on a US iTunes and US and UK Netflix release for it so fingers crossed.
For ‘The Joshua Tapes’, I read that you’re also one of the writers. I wonder how your experience as a producer affected your writing and storytelling. Do you, for example, start to think about how expensive a story would be almost as you put it down on paper?
I actually do not have a writer’s credit, but I do have a “story by” credit. Basically we were given a certain budget by an executive producer who wanted to support our filmmaking endeavor, so we worked backwards from the budget and looked at stories that we could tell and make compelling with that amount of money. The partners at Perantauan Pictures all pitched a story each, and by some fluke the exec picked mine. At which point Benji Lim and Priya Kulasagaran wrote the script.
I have only ever truly written one script (or tried to, at least!) and the producer that never really bothered me. Although when I am working on a new project, I tend to try and let the creative guys (writer and director) get on with writing the best material that they can, before I come in and impose financial constraints on it! So I like to think that we start with the best material, then look to pare it down to a midway point from the budget and the writing to get the best of both. Although with an ad, you are given the budget prior to starting, so I’d look at it with the team and work out where we can squeeze ringgits to allocate to other things that we may want.
You’ve served largely as a producer in many of your films. Why is that?
Because I can’t write! I have said that I’d like to try writing and directing a short film; I have been working on a script for a while now so we’ll see. I’m not against it, but I’ve surrounded myself with some talented directors and writers so the job of producer seems to always be the only one available. If not I won’t have an excuse to be around these guys and join the fun!
Do you ever have the creative desire as a producer to intervene in a creative decision?
Oh totally, all the time! To the credit of the guys I work with, they have been nice enough to involve me in the story discussions, and I do get involved in script developments from an early stage. I like storytelling and I believe I have a knack for commenting on the direction of scripts, from commenting on dialogue or character development. I just feel that that is the kind of producer that I want to be, the kind that gets involved in developing the story along, and not just take the script at the end. I think I’m okay at that, mostly because the writers keep coming back for my comments so yeah! But I do have a very strict personal on set policy where I will always leave the directing to the director. If I had a comment I’d make it quietly to the side out of earshot of the cast and crew, which I feel allows the director the time to consider it and implement it if the director wants to. Also mostly I feel it doesn’t run the risk of undermining the director on set.
For ‘Meter’, you did officially co-direct the film with Benji Lim. What was it like for you, directing a film? Is there a particular preference for one role over the other?
I didn’t direct it. I just think Pete Teo didn’t want to put me down as the producer of that piece so he had me down as director instead. So I won’t take any credit for that, it was all down to Benji Lim and our friend Keith Leong who helped with the storyline. I do enjoy producing, although at times it is a painful and very disheartening job, I just don’t have the discipline to write, or the confidence (yet, I hope!) to direct. I think I’m good at what I do and I take comfort in the fact that the directors (and crews!) that I have worked with in the past always want to work with me again.
‘Meter’ was a part of the ‘15Malaysia’ project. Tell us a little bit about how that came about.
That project was one of those nice little stories. The magazine show that I was working on for RTM had Pete Teo on as a guest and one day I met up with him to return some tapes of his music videos when he asked what else I did. I suspect it was probably because Ben and I didn’t strike him as the typical crew for an RTM shoot. At any rate, I pulled my trusty iPhone and showed him a clip of The Joshua Tapes and we left it as that. Then one day, out of the blue, he called and asked if we would be interested in doing this thing with him and the rest is history I guess.
Your short film featured probably the most star-studded collection of actors. What was it like working with a wide range of fairly established people in their own right, from politicians to models? Did you have to alter your approach slightly to each person?
Not at all. We made a list of all the famous names that we knew that we thought we could get in touch with somehow and we just asked. Everyone were total professionals and they knew what they had to do. We did try to be as loose as possible with the supporting cast, by not giving too many strict directions or dialogues. We also had to schedule all the primary shooting in one day simple because Khairy Jamaluddin could only give us that one full day so we had to ensure that we got all the actors in within a strict tight window and just move. So all the dialogue scenes shot inside the car were done in one day. That was a bit of a headache but no one shouted at us, so that’s always a good indicator that we did something right!
‘15Malaysia’ was then screened at the Pusan International Film Festival. In a rare move, all the directors and filmmakers were invited together. What was that experience like?
That truly was insane. We were treated like superstars. 5 star hotel, flight, food, parties. It was mental. It still seems like a dream sometimes looking back at the photos of us at the red carpet! I did personally feel thought that it would be all downhill for me from then on! But it was magic, to have walked down that red carpet and have our faces on posters all over Pusan.
Now, to ‘Relationship Status’. How did your involvement in this film come about?
At Pusan a lot of the less famous filmmakers had gotten close, myself, Ben, Khai and Jordan [Suleiman], and we had since started working with and helping each other out. Then one day Khai turned to me and told me of this thing that he had been working on and I was very intrigued. Aside from the fact that Khai is a brilliant writer, it was also a very interesting idea. I felt that it was a very contemporary love story and only truly relevant to our generation. I initially started out just helping him on it and I just got sucked in more and more, before eventually coming on officially to the project. My only reservation was that I was due to leave for the UK to do my Masters and I didn’t want to get too involved to the point where I’d leave Khai in a lurch when I left. But we managed and I’m very happy with how it turned out.
I hear that this film was filmed on the lowest budget possible. I’m sure this made filming very difficult. Which one area suffered the most as a result of this?
As a writer/director Khai may have a different view but as the producer I felt that had we had the money, I’d have loved to be able to do more promo for it. Just to truly give it that fighting chance. But alas. We made due with what we had available to us and tried to use social media to promote it more, as well as pulling favors from friends in the media that we had made. So personally as the producer of the feature, I still feel that had we had some money for proper promotion I think the response could have been better. Although from experience that isn’t always true.
You also had to deal with a huge number of actors and actresses in the making of this movie. What was the scheduling of this film like, then?
It was crazy. There’s a photo that we took of the production schedule, and by some freak miracle we were able to get everyone into a schedule that would allow the crew to shoot for almost 2 weeks straight. As in most feature shoots, you’d want to lock down all the cast and crew for a period and shoot right through without having to take days off due to outside commitments. But since for ‘Relationship Status’, the cast and crew worked as a favour and essentially for food, we couldn’t disrupt their other commitments, so we had to work around the schedule of the cast. In fact, the sheer number of cast members we had, actually in a way helped as we were able to jigsaw puzzle everyone’s schedules and it just worked out. Also, aside from Gavin Yap and Davina Goh and I think maybe Susan Lankester, most of everyone else’s scenes were done in a total of 2 or 3 days, so me and Khai spent close to a week getting everyone’s schedules and then we broke the script down into scenes and who would be working with who and when those two cast members had an available day that matched up. And we got it, amazingly enough.
This film were sponsored by both Canon and TGV Cinemas. What did they bring to the table and how did these deals come about?
It was really one of those “if you don’t ask you don’t know” kind of thing. We just out of the blue approached Canon and asked if they’d be interested. In almost all of our recent productions, Khai and myself had separately and together worked using the Canon 5D cameras and we just love the result. So we initially approached them for assistance with equipment, such as loaning second cameras and some lenses. However, due to the Tokyo quake that had happened, they weren’t able to get any cameras loaned to us. They did however give the production a HD camcorder that we then used in the film, as well as using it to shoot all the behind the scenes stuff that we released on YouTube. It was unfortunate that Canon weren’t able to help more, but as a producer I feel it was a good first attempt at building a relationship and I hope we get to work together more in the future.
With TGV, it just came about that the man who championed the 15 Malaysia idea within P1 (who were the sponsor of the project) had moved on to TGV. He had thrown an event for TGV subsequently and had invited Pete Teo and the 15 Malaysia filmmakers just to hang out and catch up, so we just mentioned that we had had this thing that we were working on and he immediately lit up. It is worth noting that he wasn’t doing us a favor by having us on. We still had to go in, pitch the idea, pitch the script and cast and essentially ‘get’ them to come on board. Had the project we pitched been a bad one, he’d have laughed us out of the room anyway. So as much as contacts are important, the work still needs to work.
What approach did you take in promoting this film?
Due to the practically non-existent budget we had, we decided to go online and use social media as the main point of promotion for ‘Relationship Status’. Because we were the Facebook generation, and also in part due to the fact that the film is based around it, we tried to use Facebook heavily as well. As we already had a script, we started off by shooting a teaser, mainly to show both TGV and Canon what we could do, but also to show the cast and crew the kind of tone and emotions that we were going for. As we had already decided on Gavin and Davina for their respective roles, Khai spent a day to just shoot that short teaser. We got really good responses off of that teaser and we knew that we may be sitting on something interesting. From there, we tried to leverage our combined connections and what little fame we had got from our previous work to get the ball rolling. We first announced ‘Relationship Status’ and screened the teaser to a small crowd during a special screening of Khai’s previous works at the Actor’s Studio Lot 10. From there we kept pushing it online by setting up an official page for ‘Relationship Status’, a production blog on Tumblr, an official ‘Relationship Status’ Facebook page and Twitter account and just tried to get the word out that way. We got a lot of help from supportive friends who would always retweet or share the updates from those sites. Finally when it was time for release, with the cast that we had, we got some media attention. Of course with a cast list that included Susan Lankester, Tony Eusoff, Daphne Iking, and Baki Zainal, who were big names in their own right, did help. This, coupled with the theatre following of Gavin, Davina and Ruzana Ibrahim, we got a lot of buzz.
What was the reception to this film like?
This is the thing that I have had to learn the hard way. Buzz doesn’t always relate to ticket sales. Just because someone is talking about your film, doesn’t mean that they will spend the ringgit to go and watch it. The ticket sales weren’t great by feature film standards. It was pretty much on average what a local Malaysian independent film would make, which is very little. But it was comparative to everything else we’d done so it sorta proved to me that there is a small minority who would come out to watch and support a Malaysian indie film, as the ticket sales are always very close to each of my other films. But again, despite the mediocre ticket sales, we did get a lot of love from those that watched it, which is always the case. A comment that I got a lot during the release of ‘The Joshua Tapes’ was, “I was surprised at how good that was!” It’s the kind of comment that is both great and infuriating to hear. We were always convinced that audiences would enjoy the movie, it was just getting them to buy the ticket and into the seat in the first place that is something I haven’t yet been able to figure out how to do. Maybe it’s in TV.
I ask that question, because for this film and your previous films, they have been very contemporary in nature. They star your peers, in storylines dealing with fairly relevant themes in a fairly straightforward manner. I say this because many other such filmmakers would take a different, perhaps even more abstract approach. Why do you consistently touch upon similar issues with a similar group of people and/or characters?
Well I’d love to do a tent-pole, summer blockbuster type movie. With explosions and car chases and old men jumping off helicopters and gunfights with dinosaurs. But I can’t. I just feel that these are the stories that we can tell, and have them told in a way we know how. Would I do an abstract, quiet movie with long shots of flying plastic bags? No. I like to use this line from the Sorkin show ‘Studio 60’. When Amanda Peet’s character, who is an executive producer at a TV station is asked about her choices in selecting shows, she talks about how her criteria is based on whether she would watch it, if her parents would watch it, and if she had kids, would she want her kids to watch it. I’ve realised that I’ve done the same. Whenever someone comes to me with an idea, I first see if it is something that I would watch as an audience, if my parents (or my family) would watch it, and finally, if my peers (cousins, friends, those within my age group) would watch it. I tend to use those around me as good indicators to the types of scripts I end up doing. I have a big family (6 of us including me) and a huge kampung of cousins of varying ages, and I think if I can interest them, I’ve got a good slice of the population pie. The short I’ve been writing I had always envisioned it to be done in a very Wes Anderson sort of way. Simple use of camera, simple story.
Have you considered, then, making something more ‘artistic’ or more ‘abstract’, then?
Personally I have. I’ve been working on another idea for a short that is a little bit more abstract, although I feel that if I need to explain what just happened to the audience after they’ve watched the film, I haven’t really done my job as a storyteller. I’m still mulling that script over and I have yet to decide if it will ever see the light of day.
What was the most memorable moment about the making of this film?
For me, it’s still looking at the cast list. The range of talent that we were able to get to come work for us, for free, still boggles my mind. I think it is an indication of how good Khai’s script was that the cast all came on board after reading it, knowing that they’d be volunteering their time for this. As I wasn’t around for the majority of the shoot, or the premiere, I missed out on that, which still burns, but I know that everyone had a whale of a time and that is some consolation.
What’s next for the ‘Relationship Status’? Will this film be available on DVD?
We are looking to do a DVD release, but itll most likely be an unofficial release. The ticket sales at the cinema wasn’t great so many of the official distributors in KL wouldn’t really want to consider printing and pushing it through the shops. The distributors in Malaysia would not want to run the risk of printing a minimum batch that is required by both the printers of the DVD and the DVD shops (Speedy Video, etc) and risk the loss. It isn’t anything sinister, and as a producer and a business, I understand the economies of scale and supply and demand.
We are also looking at the possibility of an online VOD release for ‘Relationship Status’, with audiences buying it directly from VOD services online. At some point we will also look to selling the film to the satellite and terrestrial channels in Malaysia, and also the new UniFi TV channel that had picked up ‘The Joshua Tapes’ and also ‘5:13’ last year. So hopefully there will still be ways for audiences to catch ‘Relationship Status’ in some form or other. Or you could always bribe me and buy me and Khai dinner at Chilli’s, and we’ll burn you a copy. We’re both quite flexible.
Food for thought. I’ll do it if I get the rest of the Perantauan Pictures films as well. I’m quite keen to check them out, and I’m sure others would be, too.
We at Perantauan are very open to sharing the work. At this point, several years removed from the releases of those films, I think we look at sharing the work as a way of increasing the profile of the team behind those films and hopefully if we ever were to release another film, people would go watch it, knowing of the other films that we had done. So if there are any of your readers who may be interested in any of the titles produced by Perantauan Enterprise, do try and get in touch. If there is a decent enough response (and by decent I mean 10 or more!) I can look into getting it printed. Maybe even with a DVD box and cover and everything. And for dinner I’d even sign the DVD and if you’re an attractive female I’d even take a photo with you.
You think I’m kidding but I’m not really.
Funny you mention about sharing the work, because I think back to a film like ‘Man From Earth’, a film that became widely downloaded some years back with the expressed approval of its makers. I wonder whether you would consider sanctioning something like that? You’d lose money, of course, but these films weren’t necessarily meant to solely make money, was it? Surely the increase in awareness would be helpful as well?
Personally, outside my role as a producer of the films that I’ve worked on, I’m not against it. I look at it as a way of increasing the profile of the filmmakers and getting some acknowledgement of the work we have done. Also, after a few years, I think the statute of limitations is passed in terms of the different avenues and options open to us to make more money from them. I don’t think ‘Relationship Status’ will go down that road, but who knows? Maybe in 3 or 4 years we may “donate” it to the Internet and hope someone will find it and enjoy it and maybe even learn from it.
What’s in store for you for the future?
I’m currently finishing up my Master’s course in the UK and will be back in the land of nasi lemak at the end of the year. What happens after that, I don’t yet know. I’ve done the indie route and now at the tender age of 29 I might try and go legitimate and head into TV. See if I can try and get some TV shows that I’d watch made on Malaysian TV. I love what I do and am very proud of what I have been able to achieve and this is definitely something I will keep doing, in some capacity or another.
What are you doing your master’s in and why?
I had always wanted to study overseas but I had never gotten the chance when I was doing my undergraduate degree. My parents had always wanted us all to have a postgraduate level degree, so when the opportunity came up I decided to just head on over to good old Britain and just do it. So I’ve been studying for my Masters in Marketing at the Oxford Brookes University for the past several months. Am currently (supposed to be!) working on my dissertation and will be back in KL by the end of the year. I was just fortunate enough to get the chance to come here, and it was also a nice break from the work. I had been slogging it as an indie producer for the better part 6 years and i just thought that a change of pace, of scenery, of environment would do me good.
OK, back to the future time. If there was one thing you know now that you wished you had known back then…
This job is great for the soul and the spirit, but terrible on the wallet! But hey, you’re only young once and when else should you go chasing your dream? My mother taught me that. I don’t know if she regrets it now and wish I had just stayed in IT.
Featured image credit: Medical Media Training