Film-making families tell of joys and pains of working together

Couples and siblings share the joys and challenges of making movies together

Joel and Ethan Coen - as well as Andy and Lana Wachowski - do it in Hollywood. So did James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, before they divorced.

Keep film-making together in the family, that is.

Be it by conscious design, organic process or natural inclination, some film-makers work with those who are nearest and dearest to them.

In Singapore, director Kelvin Tong helms production house Boku Films with his younger brother Leon.

Married couple Wee Li Lin and Charles Lim provide support for and offer affirmation to each other on their respective projects.

Husband-and-wife team Green Zeng and June Chua label their output as GreenJune films and took their debut feature, The Return, to the Venice Film Festival last year.

They tell The Straits Times about the joys and challenges of family-style movie-making.

Kelvin Tong says one of the pros of working together is that, unlike other siblings who drift apart, they spend a lot of time together.

One of the cons is "sensitivities and emotions getting in the way", says Wee.


Almost broke up over work


Married couple Charles Lim (left) and Wee Li Lin not only help each other on their films, but also shape each other's tastes. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Who: Wee Li Lin, 42, and Charles Lim, 42

What: Bobbing Buoy Films

Movies: All The Lines Flow Out (2011, Lim as writer-director-editor and Wee as producer); Forever (2011, Wee as director and Lim as art director) It was film that brought Wee and Lim together in the first place.

It is tricky to work with someone you are so close to and you love and care for because every small thing he or she says has greater impact.

DIRECTOR WEE LI LIN, who set up Bobbing Buoy Films with her husband Charles Lim

She had cast her cousin's good friend, Harold Kwa, in her first short film, Norman On The Air (1997), which won her a Best Director award at the 1997 Singapore International Film Festival. And Kwa was close to Lim as they were on the national sailing team together.

Wee and Lim would bond over a shared interest in the medium and she recalls an early date at the now-defunct Museum of the Moving Image in London. This was around 1998, when he was studying at Central Saint Martins College Of Art And Design in the British capital.

They married in 2005 and when her first feature film, contemporary drama Gone Shopping, came out, Lim says: "I was just following her to all these festivals. I was the husband of the film director and I really enjoyed the role."

His path to making movies himself has been more circuitous. He started out painting and a camera gift from Wee in 2000 nudged him towards photography, eventually leading to experiments in film.

In 2011, his artful short film exploration of Singapore's drains and canals, All The Lines Flow Out, received a special mention at the 2011 Venice Film Festival.

His other hat is that of visual artist and his maritime-themed project, Sea State, was at the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year.

Informally, they would help each other on their projects; just as importantly, they also shaped each other's tastes. He introduced her to American auteur Terrence Malick and China arthouse heavyweight Jia Zhangke while she shared with him titles by American directors Jim Jarmusch and John Hughes.

Their collaboration was formalised when they set up Bobbing Buoy Films in 2008.

He served as art director on Wee's romance comedy Forever, while she produced his award-winning short film, All The Lines Flow Out.

But working together has not exactly been smooth-sailing.

She says frankly: "It is tricky to work with someone you are so close to and you love and care for because every small thing he or she says has greater impact. And Charles is extremely honest, very forthright and has very high standards."

That combustible combination has led to arguments "to the point where we almost break up", he adds, as Wee chuckles.

Later on, he admits he could be more tactful: "My EQ (referring to emotional intelligence) is very low."

She says with a laugh: "You can print that, I beg you to print that. Having said that, I do confess I'm quite sensitive, as all directors are."

The couple, who have no children, have since learnt to try to give each other space when they work together. She says: "I offer production support and I would give my opinion only if he asks for it."

They are also trying to draw a line between work and rest spaces and are looking for a studio. Currently, their bedroom is upstairs of their working area at the spacious home compound of Wee's parents in the Holland Road area.

They are developing a short film together and, when it comes to the process, Wee says: "I would still say that it's a work in progress."

For all the clashes they might have had, it is also clear that they are huge admirers and avid supporters of each other's work.

She says: "I feel fortunate I have Charles to bounce off ideas from because I respect him so much as an artist, his process and his integrity to his work."

He says: "I think it would be impossible for me to make films if not for Lin. She's very well-liked and she makes my projects possible."


Brothers closer than ever


Film-Maker Kelvin Tong (foreground) joking about the downside of working with his brother Leon (background) in Boku Films. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Who: Brothers Kelvin Tong, 43, and Leon Tong, 40

What: Boku Films

Movies: The Faith Of Anna Waters (2016, Kelvin as writer-director, Leon as producer); It's A Great Great World (2011, Kelvin as writer-director, Leon as producer); Kidnapper (2010, Kelvin as writer-director, Leon as producer); Men In White (2007, Kelvin as writer-director, Leon as executive producer)

I can't fire him and he can't fire me.

FILM-MAKER KELVIN TONG joking about the downside of working with his brother Leon in Boku Films

Kelvin was a shipping lawyer and then a movie critic for The Straits Times, while Leon has bachelor's degrees in economics and biology and a master's in marine biology.

So when they decided to make movies together, Kelvin quips of their parents' reaction: "It's the reverse of striking the first and second prizes in the lottery. Not only does the elder son decide to give up lawyering to go into film, but he suddenly drags in his younger brother as well."

They have a younger sister Sherry, 36, who works in logistics.

After completing his first feature, the youth drama Eating Air (1999), Kelvin decided that making films was his true calling. And a corporate entity was necessary to deal with administrative details, from taxation to intellectual property rights.

Describing Leon as the one who is good with money, Kelvin saw in his mind a classic director-producer set-up. And Leon, who had caught the tail-end of that debut movie's production and found it "quite interesting", was excited by the idea.

Multi-Story Complex, founded in 1998 by Kelvin with his Eating Air co-director Jasmine Ng, was renamed Boku Films in 2003, with Leon and producer-director Kat Goh coming on board and Ng exiting. "Boku" means "I" in Japanese.

The triangular core turned out to be a stable set-up.

Kelvin says: "It would be more difficult if Boku Films was just the Tong brothers. We're lucky to have a third person - she is the de facto referee. When we discuss things, usually Leon and I have very strong opinions, so whichever way she drifts is the way Boku is going to drift. It sort of works."

Working with your sibling also means there is complete trust. As Kelvin puts it: "Film has a lot of very grey bits about it, especially when it comes to finances, and my brother's really good at keeping our company afloat. That takes a lot of weight off me as a creative."

While he declines to give figures, Leon says: "We are profitable enough to still be making films since 1998." Their output includes horror flick The Maid (2005, $2.2 million at the local box office), horror comedy Men In White ($500,000), cop horror flick Rule #1 ($2008, $1.1 million), thriller Kidnapper ($440,000) and nostalgia drama It's A Great Great World ($2.5 million).

Next up is a horror flick with Hollywood funding, The Faith Of Anna Waters, starring acclaimed series Mad Men alumna Elizabeth Rice. It is slated for a release here on May 12.

Apart from their mutually beneficial working relationship, Kelvin and Leon say it is also nice for their parents to always see them together because the opposite tends to be true. "Siblings do drift apart because they have their own families and everything. It's inevitable and quite common," says Kelvin, who is married with a daughter. Leon is married with no children.

As for the downside, Kelvin jokes: "I can't fire him and he can't fire me."

The director-producer set-up that he envisioned so many years ago has worked well for them, but there might be changes afoot. Kelvin notes: "I sense there's a film-maker in Leon as well. He's not just the number-cruncher or the guy who claims the GST. When we brainstorm, Leon has very good ideas.

"For so long, Boku Films has been about Kelvin Tong. The big conversation we should be having soon is, should we be looking at other kinds of films? I think this is the first time he's hearing this."

In response, Leon, who is the quieter of the two at this interview, says decisively: "I don't think it's my forte, I've never been interested in that role." He is happy solving problems as a producer and helping to realise Kelvin's cinematic visions.

In describing their shared journey as film-makers, Kelvin tells an anecdote from when he was about 10. Leon had decided that they would sleep in the garden instead of the house and they had built a shelter from discarded cardboard boxes and stuck it out for two weeks.

Kelvin says with a smile: "It was like a camping trip and, so far, Boku has been like a camping trip as well. I don't know how amused our parents are and I've wondered, 'Why are we sleeping in a cardboard box?'

"But at the same time, it's very fun because it's with my brother."

•The Faith Of Anna Waters will be released on May 12.


Always finding common ground


Film-makers Green Zeng (right) and June Chua call their films GreenJune productions. PHOTO: ST FILE

Who: Green Zeng, 43, and June Chua, 47

What: Mirtillo Films

Movies: The Return (2015, Zeng as writer-director, Chua as writer- producer); Blackboard Whiteshoes (2003, GreenJune as writer-director- producer); The Usher (2002, Chua as writer-director-producer and Zeng as art director and assistant director) While some strive to draw a boundary between their professional and personal lives, Green Zeng and June Chua are perfectly happy with having the two intertwined.

There was a natural progression from there because we could work well together and we had similar taste.

FILM-MAKER JUNE CHUA on how she and her husband Green Zeng started working together while they were studying for their advanced diploma

She says: "I think it's seamless. His art and life are all one thing and, when we do our work, it's all kind of mixed up together."

They call their films GreenJune productions, as if they were the output of an inseparable entity.

The Cannes Film Festival screened short film Blackboard Whiteshoes, about two schoolboys plotting to escape punishment for having dirty shoes, and even credits GreenJune for the screenplay, direction and production.

Their debut feature The Return, about a released political detainee, is also tagged "A GreenJune Film". It screened at Venice Film Festival and was directed by Zeng and produced by Chua, with the script attributed to GreenJune.

The couple met while they were studying at Ngee Ann Polytechnic for their advanced diploma in Film Production and started working together then.

Chua says: "There was a natural progression because we could work well together and we had similar taste."

Lest you think they are two peas in a pod, she sets the record straight.

"We are two quite different, thinking people."

Their wide-ranging taste in films converge when it comes to Iran's Abbas Kiarostami, Japan's Akira Kurosawa and Italy's Federico Fellini, but she is also partial to India's Satyajit Ray and Italy's Vittorio De Sica while he admires Greece's Theo Angelopoulos and Sweden's Ingmar Bergman.

They have a comfortable modus operandi which starts with them working on a script together. There is also a logic behind the choice of director. She notes: "If the idea came from him, he will direct. I think it's less confusing for the crew."

Crediting Zeng for the vision on The Return, she adds: "I try to complement it and help him to achieve it."

He interjects: "But the project definitely belongs to both of us. It's not my film, that's why the film is always a GreenJune Film, the way it's been throughout all the films we've done."

The couple, who have been married 11 years and have no children, take the inevitable work disagreements in their stride.

Chua says calmly: "We just have to find common ground. We are focused on wanting to do a good film and to finish it. So we will try to solve the problem, we won't get stuck there and say, 'Oh, we're not going to do it', and throw it away."

While they hope to make another movie, film is merely a means to an end for Zeng. His output includes paintings, photographs and cross- disciplinary works that explore "history, the construction of history and its relationship to our identity".

He adds: "The main thing is the concept and then you find the right medium to express that idea."

So he would either pick up the skills for a new field or even hire someone else to do it.

The Return deals with the idea of time and how someone's time has been taken away. The medium of film allowed him to convey the concepts through "long, unbroken strokes" and the use of fluid dream sequences.

They approached it the way Zeng does his art, as an organic process with the script being constantly fine-tuned, a long search for the right actors and then shooting when money came in.

They declined to reveal the production cost and would only describe the self-financed two- year-plus venture, made under their own set-up Mirtillo Films, as very low-budget.

The couple come across as uncompromising when it comes to realising their artistic vision and they clearly take pride in the final result.

Zeng says of the movie: "I hope it can stand the test of time."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2016, with the headline 'All in the family'. Print Edition | Subscribe