14 Aug 06 - Moviexclusive.com (mX) was fortunate to have caught up with local director Leonard Lai (LL) after the press screening of his first feature film, The High Cost of Living. Truth be told, the movie burst into the local scene, that all of a sudden we have another local film to be added to a busy 2006. Surely it's a sign of good things to come in a fledging industry?
mX: Hi Leonard, perhaps we can start off with a brief introduction of yourself?
LL: I graduated in civil engineering from NUS, and had spent 5 years as a professional in the industry, before deciding to switch to film. I'm lucky to have been able to direct my first feature film after being in the industry for 4 years.
mX: How did you decide you wanted to start making films?
LL: It was a difficult decision, having to give up a well paying job for an uncertain future, with questions on how much you will earn, and how long this industry will sustain. I have always been interested in film, and I remember the days back in campus where I would spend my holidays watching films at the Central Library. I made the decision after some serious consideration of about 1 year, realizing that engineering is not for me.
It was a challenge as I did not have any formal training in film schools, except for a 3 months course in 16mm film making. Most of my learning came from books, as well as practical learning.
mX: What have you been doing for the last 4 years in film?
LL: I did some short films, and one had won a merit prize in a local short film competition, which provided me encouragement. I also served as a continuity and script supervisor in the industry, working on Perth, Rice Rhapsody (continuity), S11 (for sound), and on other local films like The Best Bet and an MTV series titled Rouge. However, I didn't do any television commercials or worked in Mediacorp. Working on the set of these movies provided me an opportunity to learn from the different directors, and helped in the building of my experience and knowledge.
mX: Could you share with us some of the production details of The High Cost of Living?
LL: The film was made under the Film Incubator Programme (FIP) for first time feature film directors. It's an ultra low budget of S$50K in cash, and S$50K equipment in kind - things like lights, cameras and editing facilities. The cost of the special effects that you see in the movie, was not budgeted in this S$100K.
Tony Chow, who served as executive producer, got a script, at that time titled "Life in the Garden City", an action film. I was inspired and liked certain elements, the struggles of the characters, the choices they make and the price they have to pay for making those choices. So I signed on to direct, and took on the job with Jeremy Chia to develop the story further. I guess it's pretty much different from some of the local films where the director is also the sole writer of the story. For one and a half months, we weeded out certain story elements which couldn't be filmed because of the budget, and I suppressed a lot of the humour as I wanted it to be more serious in tone and grounded in realism.
It took 3 months of preparation, and I had to tap on numerous contacts I have built up over the years. We had a number of professionals coming onto the production in the last one month, like the 1st Assistant Director coming in late. Production was in April to May 2005, taking up 22 days.
mX: Are there any interesting incidents that took place during production?
LL: Sure there are plenty. In a particular night scene where we had to smash the windscreen of a car, one of the actors was too into character, and got cut when he smashed at the windscreen 3 times. He was sent to the hospital, but the scene had to carry on, so we had to use a stand in for him.
Also, the deal was just to smash the windscreen, and not the whole car. However, as you can see from the film, at the end of the day we had to compensate the owner for the entire car.
Everyday involved problem solving, and we had used a lot of shots and outdoor locations.
mX: We noticed the different styles, tone and camera work used in different segments of the movie...
LL: Yes, After discussions with the DP (director of photography), we had decided to use 2 cameras and have them handheld for that energetic style, and a sense of agitation. The style was developed primarily from reasons of practicality.
mX: You have an interesting mix of cast from television, and relative newcomers to the scene. How did you find them?
LL: We conducted an audition, and it was through an audition session that we discovered Jean Low, who plays Christine in the movie. The feel was right, as she was not confident about herself, which was similar to the character. We were also able to convince her to do the sex scene, and we did it in one take, with her character exhibiting that feeling of not wanting to do it, yet felt that she had to in order to hang on to her boyfriend Aloysius. We had to tone down the nudity to obtain an M18 rating for the movie though.
We knew both Roy (Ngerng) and Timothy (Nga) through their work, and Yeo Yann Yan was discovered through a normal casting call from Fly Entertainment. We had numerous natural surprises, like Joseph Quek who played the traditional Chinese gangster, who had a lot of angst in him, which we had to suppress.
mX: We understand the the film was selected for the 14th Annual International Film Festival "Festival of Festivals" 2006 in Saint Petersburg, Russia?
LL: Yes, the movie was completed in June 2006, but what we submitted was a rough cut. They had a section for projects that are on-going.
mX: One last question which we usually ask all directors we interview. Do you have any upcoming projects that you are working on right now?
LL: I'm currently developing another feature length script, and got a grant from the Singapore Film Commission. It's basically a story about 3 very different persons in Singapore - a factory worker, a little girl who's a reluctant medium, and an Indonesian maid from Batam.
movieXclusive.com is eagerly awaiting that project to take shape, but in the meantime, The High Cost of Living premieres exclusively at The Picturehouse from August 17.
You can read the review of the movie “The High Cost of Living” here.