Bridging Ability and Ambition – Yohann Ian

Having seen ‘Guilt of the Dreamer’ at a recent film award ceremony, we decided that a chat with the film’s director, Yohann Ian, is in order.

Hi Yohann! Thanks for taking the time to have a chat with us about your career thus far. For those who may not know you, how would you describe yourself in a sentence?
Someone who is passionate about storytelling, film, acting and entertainment.

Let’s start at the start. What caught your interest in terms of films and filmmaking? Was there a particular film or moment that inspired you specifically to pursue a career in this field?
I did it by watching a lot of movies. Something that really stood out was The Lord of the Rings series, as did Star Wars. Those films took me to the world of the imagination. Movies are experiences, not merely moving images.

I actually started off by acting, because I wanted to live in those places and I had a knack for the limelight.  As I grew older, I knew the only way to turn fantasy to reality (at least on screen) was by putting it down onto the page and (where applicable) turning it into films.

In doing so, what sort of films or filmmakers do you look up to and why?
I’d say James Cameron, for the scale and execution of his directorial vision. Robert Rodriguez as well, for convincing me independent filmmaking takes no excuses.  Of course, Peter Jackson brought me the aforementioned The Lord of the Rings films. As for films, in addition to the ones mentioned, I’d say Avatar, The Godfather, Inception, Gladiator and El Mariachi, to name a few.

We notice that you studied engineering at Monash University Malaysia. While there have been a number of filmmakers who did graduate from the same university (such as Bradley Liew), few would have done so by majoring in engineering (Bradley majored in business). What was that experience like, and how much do your studies correlate with or apply to your filmmaking efforts?
I’d like to say the engineering “calculate all risks and methodologically plan everything” kind of mindset is a parallel to how I make films. There are so many things that can and will go wrong on set, and you need a contingency for as many things as possible; the more you pre-plan, the better.

I didn’t draw this philosophy from Alfred Hitchcock, but I’m aware he uses the same principles. Every shot is planned out before shooting. When you get on set, you know at least 80% of what to do.

Would that kind of remove the element of happenstance, which can be important as well?
I do this because the indie film conditions necessitates it. You need to hit the shots today, because the actors and crew aren’t coming back tomorrow. This isn’t their day job.

Fair enough. We’re conducting this interview because your film, Guilt of the Dreamer, was awarded in the Best Digital Editing at the 2017 Malaysian Digital Film Awards (MDfA). Talk to us about the experience of winning it. Was it something you expected?
No it wasn’t something I was expecting.  I didn’t make the film with the goal “to win” in mind. I just thought it would be good to toss it into a competition and see how it fared, for the heck of it.

How did it feel?
It’s an honour, really, to be nominated and to win, a pleasant surprise I can bring home to my editor Sam. We worked hard on it, trying to observe good practices of the craft. A monetary reward would’ve been good for the pockets as well, but the recognition is equally gratifying! At the risk of sounding vain, I’d say the recognition motivates me to continue the art.

You’re speaking of Samuel Goh, of course, the cinematographer and editor of the film. What was the process like for you, working with him, in crafting the story on screen? You wrote, directed and acted in the film, so we feel like your idea of the story was probably fairly fixed in your mind, and we wonder whether Samuel’s interpretation of the film (both as its cinematographer and editor) differed from yours.
Sam’s vision enhanced it, actually. His input made it possible to practically translate my vision on to the screen. I’m not a cinematographer or editor by skillset. There are certain details to those crafts which he has a firmer grasp with than I do. We had our differences, but to collaborate we balanced between what I wanted for the film and what was good for it. From his perspective, he saw certain things I cannot, and I had to respect that. At the same time, he was very respectful of my vision for the film. We didn’t get into fights, if that’s what you’re asking!

No, it wasn’t, but it’s good to know all the same! If you are to introduce Guilt of the Dreamer to those who have not seen it, what would you say to attract their attention?
It’s a film that explores the culpability of a person who does questionable things in his mind. Are we responsible for the things we do in our dreams where the feelings are real? If so, what does that say about that person? I reckon it would reach out to the morally conscious folks.

Tell us a bit about the origins of this story and how it developed to become the short film it is.
I had a bad dream! In it, I was accused of something so outlandish. So I spun something out of it, bearing in mind the “let’s film it in two locations” limitation.  I really liked the monsoon drain, and I thought, “Hey, it would be really cool to film something here”. Combining all of that, I came up with this film.

As an aside, where did you film it, and why is there a two-location limit in place?
Somewhere in Putra Heights, there’s a monsoon canal my friends and I visited as 14-year olds. I was fascinated by it enough that I told myself we had to shoot scene there. 10 years later, I did! The interrogation scene was filmed at a friend’s place.

I kept it to two locations because having previously planned a more ambitious film, I realised logistics can be a nightmare; from a producer’s standpoint, I thought, “How about we get one little film off the ground first? How about we do something in that drain I’ve always remembered? With the pain of running all over the place out of the way, we could focus on actually making the film.

Coming back to the story, I find it interesting because of the focus on the story itself, as well as character; at the risk of generalising, it feels like practically every other Malaysian short film we watched is trying to say something significant about elements in society (like race or religion). Without trivialising that either, in this case it feels good to watch a film largely as a film. How much would you agree with this assessment? Did we happen to miss a more layered, political reading of the story?
I agree with you and thank you for that! This film is unrelated to matters of race and religion. The argument it depicts is with regards to the human mind and the concept of guilt, more from a moral standpoint. A political extension of this would be in the vein of Minority Report, whereby the authorities convict people preemptively simply for having the mental capacity to carry out crimes.  However, Guilt of the Dreamer leaned more towards the theme of human guilt than “How criminals should be persecuted in an ideal state” sort of argument.

In making this film, were there any other films or filmmakers you specifically looked at as a form of inspiration for its production? Perhaps another short film or director who did similar work, maybe.
It’s funny because the genres are very different, but in ‘X-Men: First Class’, there is a scene where Charles is screaming while Erik pushes the coin into Shaw’s head. It was my inspiration for the moment in which the character of Clint screams as someone gets killed. The rest of the film didn’t draw directly from any title I can consciously name right now.

You also chose to act in the film that you’re directing. Personal experience tells us that this is not an easy act to balance. Tell us a bit more about why you decided to act, and the sort of challenges you faced in being both in front of and behind the camera.
I acted because it was convenient; I couldn’t find anyone else to play my character! The major challenge is switching between being the character and director. To me, acting is being in the moment, while directing is monitoring it, making sure it goes according to what we’ve envisioned. And because I don’t have a set manager, I’ve also got to make orders. This mental back and forth can be discombobulating.

What can be equally discombobulating, at least as an audience member, is the performance of Haikhal Eiman as Clint. In judging the film for MDfA, his performance was the one that made us think, “We probably should have acting performance categories”. What was it like working with him for the film? His was an intense portrayal, not commonly seen in Malaysian short films like yours. Did it come from him, or was it more of something that you helped to refine?
It’d be amazing if you guys did have a category for that! Haikhal is an incredible actor. He knew the script inside out, followed instructions properly and brought his own magic to the table. If we’re doing an emotionally charged scene, he’d come in with an authentic state of mind – one we know not to trivialise or waste, because the actor pays a psychological cost for it.

What did you do to assist him in this?
I gave him the basic elements of the character and he created the rest. From behind the camera, I directed certain parts of the performance, but everything is mostly him. His dedication and abilities are unquestionable.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?
The hostility of that monsoon drain we filmed in!

Hostility?!
The fickle weather, inconsistent sunlight, the interior of the drain no one wants to touch! That, and keeping to a tight schedule to get all the shots and performances we need, so we won’t have to go back there again.

What was that like for the actors?
I picked three of the toughest actors I know for that sequence: Tan Eong Wei, Haikhal and  Gaviota Nair, because I had the very real fear that anyone else would have been squeamish and reluctant to perform given the conditions.

Another challenge would’ve been finding the location for the interrogation room scene, had it not been for Kow Kay Jun, my fellow filmmaker friend who had been a tremendous help on set.

Of course, there must have also been some sweet moments you experienced in making this film. Paint us that picture, then: the most memorable or pleasurable moment you had in making Guilt of the Dreamer.
Goofing around in and out of character in the “Interrogation Room” during breaks and after we wrapped the scene.  Being harmlessly silly for the sake of fun always finds its way on set.

Agreed! Screening it for the first time, then, what was the reaction like from people outside of the production process, like your friends or family members?
I was elated. It really got people! I’ve heard praise for its quality and keeping watchers at the edge of their seats. Gaviota’s mom was proudly showing it to relatives of “how her daughter died on screen!” It felt gratifying, but I felt worried at the same time, because I didn’t know how the ‘parents, uncles and aunties’ were going to take it. They said it was really good, apparently, so I’m happy.

If there is one thing you wish for people to take away from your film, what would it be and why?
It would be my hope that the filmmakers here in Malaysia delve into adventurous content, characters and stories.

In terms of lessons, what is it that you learned from making this film that others could bear in mind in the making of their own film?
Exercise your filmmaking. I’ve always seen my creative endeavours to be great forays into the world of art and storytelling that something absolutely enduring had to be achieved of it. I’ve come to realise that I need practice. The films I make have to be an exercise to learn, experiment, and expand my capacity as a filmmaker, actor and writer. Though I will aspire for my next film to become my next magnum opus, I remind myself that it’s also an exercise for me to close the gap between ability and ambition.

What’s next for you?
I’m making a short film about a ragtag crew of misfits trying to make their movie. It’s going to be a comedy drama, something I haven’t done in a while. It’s currently in pre-production at the time of this interview, with some screenplay tweaks coming underway. I’m excited because it’ll feature an ensemble cast, instead of just having two actors talking at a table!

Well, it was an interesting talk, as this has been as well. Thanks Yohann!
You’re welcome.

We review ‘Guilt of the Dreamer’ here. The film was nominated at the 2017 Malaysian Digital Film Awards in the categories of Best Direction, Best Digital Editing and Best Digital Sound Design, winning the award for Best Digital Editing.

Featured image credit: Medical Media Training

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