The homegrown director urged young filmmakers to take their time.
Take time to experience life.
That’s Boo Junfeng’s advice for young, aspiring filmmakers.
The acclaimed director of Sandcastle (2010) and Apprentice (now showing) recently met students from Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Film and Media Studies, where he graduated from in 2003. The 32-year-old shared about his filmmaking journey, and urged students to allow time for themselves to grow up, both professionally and personally.
“You may think you understand many things in life but actually you don’t really yet, not yet at least,” said Boo as he reflected on his own journey, adding that he had made many mistakes in his earlier years and they’re just parts and parcel of the journey.
The homegrown director, however, is one who’s evidently wise beyond his years. At 18 years old, he’s already directed an award-winning short film, A Family Portrait, which centers on a boy’s sexual awakening process and touches on the topics of polyamory and polysexuality. At 26 years old, his first feature length film Sandcastle hones in on the issue of national identity in Singapore, and questions if the country has become blind to its past in its quest for unity and harmony.
His sophomore film Apprentice is no less contentious. The psychological drama, which follows the relationship between veteran hangman Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su) and a young correctional officer Aiman (Firdaus Rahman), brings forth the difficult topic of Singapore’s death penalty system. The poignant narrative has made the multiple-country co-production a critic’s darling. The film also received a standing ovation after its premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
Boo took 5 years to make Apprentice. The soft-spoken director said it was important for him to take his time as “there’s so much to learn”. A big part of his pre-production research involved speaking to a retired hangman as well as family members of death row convicts.
While his serious efforts are admirable, how did Boo pay his bills during the five-year break between Sandcastle and Apprentice? How did he stay motivated during the long production process?
UrbanWire finds out more from Boo in this exclusive interview.
UrbanWire: In an interview with The Straits Times, you mentioned that you’re “wary of having Apprentice seen as an issues movie”. So how would you like them to see this film?
Boo Junfeng: For me I’ve always believed that through storytelling in a film, we are able to humanize something and possibly something that used to be very taboo and difficult. I think through a story, we are able to see it more as a human experience and we are able to empathize a lot more with the subject matter or the people involved in the subject matter. So I’m not really looking for a controversy because the issue of death penalty is something that I’ve always been concerned about and I wanted to be able to humanize it and put it in a human story.
UrbanWire: You had to work with a different language (Malay), one that you don’t speak in. What were some of the struggles you personally had?
Boo Junfeng: The interesting thing is I’ve come to realize that even though I don’t understand the vocabulary very much, because I wrote the script, because I speak Singlish and in my daily life I do encounter Malay words here and there, it wasn’t very difficult for me to grasp what the actors were saying. I think a large part of language or understanding a language has a lot to do with context. You know like sometimes when you sit with people who are speaking Spanish or French and you don’t understand what they’re saying, but you understand the context of what is being said or where they’re coming from, sometimes through body language and through different ways of expression, you can kind of get what they’re saying. I think what I realized when I was directing the film is that I don’t need a lot of help. Of course there were certain words or certain things where I was wondering, “Did he say that right?” or “Is it the right way of saying it?” I had a translator with me to make sure that all these things were accurate. But I think the general gist of things, the nuances, those are things I could, more or less, grasp.
UrbanWire: What was the most important lesson you’ve learned during the research?
Boo Junfeng: I remember when I first interview the first hangman that I spoke with, five minutes into the conversation, I forgot he was a hangman. I thought he was such a funny, lovable sort of a grandfather kind of character. And I realize that the character I’ve written by that time, pretty much was just a caricature. It was a one-dimensional character that I imagined him to be. And that to me was a big lesson because I realize I really needed to humanize that character in order for the film to work, in order for the relationships to work. That was very important to me.
UrbanWire: Which character was the most difficult to develop when you write the story?
Boo Junfeng: The character of Aiman is also a very challenging character to write because he basically embodies both someone who needs to rise to the occasions to do his duties as a prison officer. But at the same time he is, in many ways, a casualty of capital punishment. His father was hanged and how is he able to reconcile these two roles that he plays is quite central to what the film is about. And so as the result, the conflict was very internal and therefore, he was a very difficult character to write.
UrbanWire: What was the most challenging thing about the production?
Boo Junfeng: One of the biggest challenges was probably needing to shoot parts of the film in Australia, because we couldn’t find a favorable location in Singapore for the prison scenes. So a lot of the prison scenes like the yard and the cells, those were all shot in two prisons in New South Wale. And having to bring a lot of the crew from Singapore down to Sydney to be able to shoot those scenes, those were logistically quite challenging.
UrbanWire: This film took a long time to produce – during the 5 years of production, how do you keep yourself motivated?
Boo Junfeng: I suppose a lot of it have to do with the fact that I care about the characters and I care about the subject matter. And I was in many ways living as Aiman actually, in writing his story, in trying to understand him and putting myself in his shoes. So that kept me going. That made me want to tell the story that was coherent, that was compelling and I was working towards being able to do that. I knew all along that it’s a story that was important, that I felt society should be encountering, should be experiencing. And that kept me going.
UrbanWire: Did you have any struggles, being both the writer and director for Apprentice?
Boo Junfeng: I suppose the biggest writer/ director challenge was you know sometimes when you are writing and you are like, “Oh you know that detail maybe later I’ll deal with it or I’ll think about it later”. And it’s not like you can hand it over to the director who will solve it for you. You have to solve it yourself because you are also the director. So that to me when I’m writing I’m thinking, “Ok this little detail, later on I can think about it or later on I can solve.” But then it always comes back to haunt me like, “Ok, damn it now I have to think of how I need to resolve this.” Yeah so that’s one of the biggest challenge.
UrbanWire: How do you strike a balance between making your own films and directing commissioned works, e.g. the Singtel ad? (Which pays the bill for you?)
Boo Junfeng: Yeah I mean commercial works, they pay the bills and they’re are stuff that I need to do in order to survive as a filmmaker. I’m glad to be able to do it in a way that allows me to still use my craft to make a living. I suppose with commercial jobs like that, a lot of it is understanding what the client wants. If the client appreciates and respects what you do, your client will also seek your advice and how you feel your work can reach a bigger potential. And that’s what I tend to get, so I often put in a lot of my own input to help taking the work into a different level. And that’s how I find some gratification in doing what I do in the commercial realm of things.
UrbanWire: Comparing to your previous works, how have you grown/ changed as a filmmaker?
Boo Junfeng: I think the five years of working on Apprentice have been very much a life lesson. I’ve learned a lot, not just as a filmmaker but as a person, meeting people I thought I would never meet, hearing stories I thought I would never hear from a first person account, and also just understanding humanity a little bit more. I hope that has enriched the film on its own. I hope to continue to be able to learn through my work and through creating. That’s one of the biggest pleasures I have found in making Apprentice.