Lights, camera, honesty

One is more likely to get genuine responses from actors on film sets than on a promotional tour

Press tours of film sets are always awkward affairs. After all, how would you like it if your work day was interrupted by a bunch of gawkers, eager to drag you away from your multi-million-dollar project to ask you a bunch of silly questions?

Bizarre as it sounds, they are part of film culture.

Crews might hate them, but I am glad the tours exist because they provide a window to what it means to manage sprawling, wildly expensive projects that take years to show results.

I thought about all this on Thursday night as my group walked through Gardens by the Bay. This was the set of Crazy Rich Asians, the movie based on the best-selling 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan.

As the poor actors and director Jon Chu were dragged one by one in front of the journalist firing squad, I felt a bit guilty as I always do when I break the focus of the artists struggling to stay in character.

It was the same in Sydney last year when the press horde invaded the set of Alien Covenant (2017) to see director Ridley Scott and cast; or a few years ago, when I dropped into Singapore director Eric Khoo's sex drama In The Room (2015) while it was being made.

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

On a film set, you see the sweat - metaphorical and actual. At 1am on Thursday night, it was still 30 deg C in the Supertree Grove. Director Chu put actors Michelle Yeoh, Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Lisa Lu through an emotional scene as the make-up team did its best to keep the tide of perspiration to a mild glow.

In between, there is that overriding constant of all film shoots: Waiting. Ten minutes here, 15 minutes there - it all adds up. The pauses were for the camera, lights, sound and other technical people to set up.

There was no doubt that director Chu was in charge - all the crew's eyes were on him, waiting to hear what he wants to do. And at this stage of the production, from the trouble he was taking with finding the right emotions, it was clear that he was concerned about performance - he wanted the best from his actors and, from what I could see, they wanted to give him their best.

The leadership of the director should not be taken for granted.

At the press event for The Mummy two months ago in Taipei, cast members gushed about how amazing, awesome and incredible Tom Cruise was. About how his presence was all over the set, how he was a real action hero and how the director's job, as Alex Kurtzman himself seemed to say, was to let Cruise be Cruise.

In hindsight, these were red flags. The movie was middling to poor and it has since been reported that massive rewrites were undertaken to make the movie less about the monster (the mummy, played by Sofia Boutella) and more about Cruise's hero character.

Director Scott, in contrast, was in absolute control on the set of Alien Covenant. Everyone we spoke to, from set design to wardrobe, talked about him as a benign autocrat, a captain on whose ship they would happily sail into the worst storm.

That autocratic style resulted in a fairly good movie, one that bore the stamp of its maker, Scott, compared with The Mummy, which was as muddled as its leadership on set.

Also, the difference between talking to actors when a film is being made and long after it has wrapped, is that you are catching them when they are emotionally vulnerable.

There is the "summer camp" effect when actors have bonded and developed a fierce affection for one another. Or they might also be extremely bored and looking for mischief, especially if they are not emotionally invested in the film. There is another more mundane reason - some might have starved to look good on camera and are light-headed.

This results in unpredictable reactions when journalists come knocking.

One actor cried talking about what the movie and the new friendships meant to her. Some over-compensate and put their guard up, appearing snappish or cold. Others, their minds fogged by boredom or the lack of coffee or nicotine, babble.

Whatever their reactions, they feel a lot more genuine than the manufactured, trained responses they give after they go on the road to promote the finished product.

While set visits can be a huge pain - the weird hours, bad weather, long waits take a toll - they are a ray of honesty in a business filled with smoke and mirrors.

And, sometimes, the catering is actually good.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline 'Lights, camera, honesty'. Print Edition | Subscribe