Thursday, July 15, 2010

A morning of insight

Saw Teong Hin, 48, is a man with many 'flaws'. By his own admission, his greatest flaw would be his dogged, almost tireless determination - but that, indeed, is what led him to direct Puteri Gunung Ledang, widely acclaimed as one of the most lavish and successful local movies of our time.
Despite struggling for years in pursuit of his dream to direct a movie, sheer perseverance (and just a little bit of luck) pushed him through to emerge as one of our country's most recognized and respected directors. Malaysian Today steals some of his time during the launch of the Georgetown Festival, a month-long arts festival in Penang in which he will be directing his first theatre debut: The classic Emily of Emerald Hill.

By Pauline Wong

Malaysian Today: Share with us a little bit about your background.
Saw Teong Hin: I actually started in a completely different field. In Singapore, I was reading Double Physics and Math in university. When I returned to KL to look for a job, I started to question what I really wanted to do. Flipping through the Yellow Pages for some inspiration, I landed on 'A' for Advertising - and I thought 'Ah, I could do that.' So I began cold-calling advertising agencies, asking for vacancies, but nobody would even meet me. Not until Ogilvy and Mater, where Faridah Merican (who is now on the Board of Directors at O&M) met me and she liked me! She told me that she didn't have any vacancies, but she knew someone who did: Joe Hasham. So I joined his production company, as a production crew in 1986.

Q: What was that like?
A: In those days it was not specialized, so it was 'one-leg kick'. I carried lights, swept floors, did wardrobe and even locations, casting... I did everything. On hindsight it was fantastic - I learnt a lot very quickly. Joe was very kind to me, and within nine months, he made me a producer. My very first job was a huge shoot for American Express. From there on, I joined various advertising agencies, worked for Video Headquarters and started my own production company in the end, working on commercials for Astro and such. But all this while I was always a producer, and I got bored. (laugh) I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do, but all I did know how to do was film production! Until somebody suggested I try my hand at directing, saying "Well, you love telling people what to do!" (laughs). My first directing job was the 'Fanatic' video for KRU, and it won many awards and launched my career, in a sense. That was around 1996.

Q: Take us through to the point where you directed Puteri Gunung Ledang (PGL).
A: My burning ambition was to direct a movie, and at some point the video music/TV commercial work got distracting for me. Sure it was good to have work, but it takes time and tender loving care to make a movie and it got in the way of me doing that. So I stopped to devote myself to directing a movie, and it took me another two years to land PGL.

Q: And what was that like?
A: It was phenomenal. I always say this: It was like winning the lottery. There I was, struggling for two years to get a chance to direct a movie, and I was on the verge of giving up and going back to TV commercials when it happened for me - a series of great coincidences that just happened. I dare to say that I am very fortunate and I was very lucky. It was never a grand plan or anything.

Q: But what kept you going for those two years?
A: Dogged determination! I must say it's a flaw of my character! I never give up easily, and once I want to do something I see it to the end to the best of my ability. No matter what.

Q: How do you decide what films or commercials you make? What is your vision?
A: The most important thing to me is the material. It has to have some resonance with me. If I respond to it then I will develop it. Otherwise, no, because the process is long and painstaking. A film takes a minimum of two to three years of your life, so do you want to spend it on something you don't believe in? It is very idealistic of me, but I suppose that is my other big flaw.

Q: What would you say is the challenge for film directors in our local film industry?
A: Well, I dare be presumptuous by saying that the biggest problem is raising the money. The next is finding brave producers or investors who will be interested in doing something different. In the end of the day, it is a business proposition. So if the market shows that a certain type of movie works, then it is nobody's fault that those films keep getting made. But at the same time I feel, as a film maker and producer, we have a responsibility to grow or develop the market. In time, I feel the market would prove that there is space for mainstream and marginal films, and not just one type of film. I'm not saying that one type of movie is better than the other, but diversity in our film industry is lacking right now. This, in turn, leads to some local directors who have achieved acclaim elsewhere but are virtually unknown in our country, as well as directors who have great commercial success locally but are unfairly maligned! It is the nature of the industry.

Q: What makes you tick - what makes you wake up and want to get behind the camera?
A: (pause) I think, the first thing that gets me going is that with every project I take on, I learn something new about myself. I am of a certain age, and I dare say I know myself pretty well, but when you work with the material, you'd be surprised at how little you know about yourself and life. This discovery process for me is wonderful. It continuously surprises me what I discover about myself, the world and different points of view. Many a time I've worked with actors, cameramen and such and I find that everyone brings their own sensibilities to it. Everyone has a different idea of something. Everyone has something different to bring to the table and I've often found myself thinking: Wow, I've never thought of it that way.

Q: When did it hit you that you've achieved what you wanted to do?
A: I remember the first day of shooting for PGL, when we went to Lake Kenyir by motorboat (it took over an hour). It was early in the morning, and as we approached the location, I saw so many barges with cranes on them and a whole department of people. And it hit me: Oh my god, I am directing all this! I felt like a kid in a toy store!

Q: So what would you tell an aspiring young director?
A: The involvement of the young in the arts and such has increased, and so many more youth are interested in it. But as with the arts, it is always very idealistic - but the reality is harsh. Very harsh. It is challenging, the rewards and remuneration is low, and it an incredible amount of work. And if you're looking for love, look elsewhere! (laugh) Unless it is love for the arts - it all boils down to love, or else one would give up easily. Ask anyone in the industry. It is hard. All I can tell them is to persevere. Use your time productively. Hone your skills, travel more, learn more and live more. Life is the best teacher so practise your craft as often as you can in any capacity.

This is a piece of interview which I really like. I have seen Pauline (the writer) personally and think that she did an awesome piece with the director. After reading this, there's fire ignited in me. I feel like Wow, maybe this is what I really want to do! Those ambitions that I filled in the blue cards our school teachers used to give us, journalist is one of them. At this stage and this age, I have done not too many things but there are things that really makes me reflect. I can't be everyone, but I can be someone. I still believe I can be anyone I want to be. (I'm never a believer of limitations and I like to screw people who tell me in my face that I can't be doing so many things and must only choose one). At least, writing is not something that I would give up.

I'm glad that now I actually get the chance to liaise with media. I get closer and enjoy more of media from a different perspective. Despite the fact that I didn't take up Mass Communication in the first place, I still arrive at a very grateful state that I pick up different values and develop into a better person in a different way.

I guess this is the declaration of my day: I'm very grateful of who I've become and will continue to strive for betterment!


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