FILMMAKING THE HARD WAY
An interview with Jonathan Foo
by Adrian Sim
At first sight, Jonathan Foo will not strike you as a typical film honcho with his slouching posture, cherubic features and unassuming disposition.
For the record, the 31-year-old has directed the first Singaporean film that was co-produced with an overseas country, Vietnam.
Song of The Stork, which premiered in Singapore at the 16th Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) on April 24, is Foos directorial debut. It won the Best Feature Film award at the Milano Film Festival in September 2002. It has received accolades at 10 international film festivals including the prestigious Paris Film Festival, where it is currently in competition.
Although he was trained in broadcasting and television in the US, filmmaking was self-taught for Foo, who left MTV Asia three years ago to start his own film and television production company, Mega Media. He started to learn to make films when he was in Secondary Three.
He recounts the "exciting" days when he was a member of the drama club in Whitley Secondary School where he "wrote and performed strange adaptations of Shakespeares works" and was first introduced to video cameras.
He remembers once when he and his friends decided to make a film on Shakespeares 12th Night while they were adapting the play.
"You cannot take home a theater performance," Foo says. "So we decided to capture the performance on video."
His teacher-in-charge borrowed two video cameras from the Ministry of Education for a few weeks during the school holidays.
"Video cameras were uncommon in those days and nobody knew how to use them," Foo says. "We had to figure out how to operate them by referring to the operators manuals."
He adds zealously, "I was bitten by the filmmaking bug after that experience. Shortly later, I saved up for my first video camera and it has become my career since."
It was only in 1993 after returning home from the US that Foo started to dabble in serious filmmaking. He set out to make his first 16mm feature film that was cut into a 45-minute short film called Wasteland. The short was submitted to the SIFF for competition. It was shortlisted as a short film finalist.
Foo has come a long way from making films that were "the kind where money is spent and mistakes are made" to helming television commercials and high profile features like The Teenage Textbook and Song of The Stork.
Marking the first collaborative film effort between two emerging film industries, Song of The Stork is the first Singapore co-production that makes use of talents from two countries. The film is based on the experiences of Foos Vietnamese friends and their families during the 1968 Vietnam-American War.
"I shot this film from the point of view of the Vietnamese that has never been shared to the world before," he says matter-of-factly. "The American films based on the Vietnam War so far havent been wonderfully accurate."
He adds pensively, "It is not a political film but a film about the human spirit. The film shows that despite war, there is still time for friendship and adventure."
On the daunting aspect of overseeing a big-budget production like Song of The Stork, which took three years to make, Foo thinks any budget is always not enough and it boils down to how one makes the best of the budget creatively.
On Song of the Storks epic scale set, Foo learned how to coordinate a war scene and how to film in difficult terrains like jungles with the limited budget.
According to Foo, the films US$1 million budget is low by the Hollywood film industrys standards but high by independent film production standards.
"In Hollywood, a low budget film costs around US$5 million," he says. "On an epic scale production like Song, US$1 million is a comparatively smaller budget."
Due to the limited budget and resources for independent films like Song of the Stork, Foo says the director will inevitably "end up doing a lot more" than what he is supposed to, from producing to menial tasks like buying food for the cast.
"Joy for me is the process of assembling a good team, getting a good script and executing it," he admits. "I get a big kick out of that process. As such, I dont really enjoy directing per say."
He adds candidly, "If I were to be given an US$5 million film to direct and not do anything else, that would be wonderful."
It does not matter to Foo what role he undertakes in the filmmaking process as he gets the same sense of satisfaction taking up any role in filmmaking.
"I get no particular kick out of directing as I also get the same kick out of producing because I get to fire directors," he chuckles and confesses impishly.
In Song of The Stork, Foo adopted the traditional European filming style although fast cuts were employed in the editing process to "jazz up the film."
"We combined the classical style of filming and the Hollywood kind of editing," he says. "There was no conscious emulation of a certain filmmaking style though."
Segments of black-and-white documentary footage and old photographs shot during the war were also used in Song of The Stork.
"We wanted to string the stories together and capture the reality of war by using these footages," he says. "You may call it realist although the film is really a mixture of fiction and reality."
The filmmaking process in Vietnam was so memorable for Foo that he keeps mementos from the production set. Multitudes of black-and-white photographs taken on the set of Song of The Stork adorn the walls of his film studio in neat rows.
Foo has fond memories of his favorite scene, which he calls the "Hanoi on fire" scene. A whole street was built and then burnt while filming this scene. He recalls an occasion when a middle-aged wheelchair-bound Vietnamese man came to the set with his war medals while they were shooting the scene one night.
"The man was obviously a war veteran injured during the war," he says. "He told us something drew him to our filming location. He then hung around the set while we filmed the scene."
As the crew shot the scene, the fire started getting bigger amidst "all the screaming and blood." Foo says the crew started to "freak out as the scene looked very real for that moment."
"We were shouting Cut! Cut! Cut! but nobody could hear us over the noise," he recalls. "At that moment, the man on the wheelchair burst out crying. He told us the scene he was looking at was exactly how it was during the war and the memories that were brought back to him at that point were just unbelievable."
Foo adds with a smirk, "That was cool and nice because our efforts to stage the war scene paid off."
On the film set, Foo also forged new friendships with the Vietnamese.
"The friends and favors I made on the set is the budget that is unrecorded," he says with childlike glee. "Its a million-dollar film but two million dollars worth of friendship lah."