Screen play

Playwright Huzir Sulaiman recently completed a feature film adaptation of the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Garden Of Evening Mists.
Playwright Huzir Sulaiman recently completed a feature film adaptation of the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Garden Of Evening Mists.PHOTO: CHECKPOINT THEATRE
Actress Oon Shu An (left) will be working with theatre director Samantha Scott-Blackhall on her new series of films.
Actress Oon Shu An (left) will be working with theatre director Samantha Scott-Blackhall on her new series of films. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Writer-director Shiv Tandan is in Mumbai doing research for a film about the idea of success.
Writer-director Shiv Tandan is in Mumbai doing research for a film about the idea of success.PHOTO: SHIV TANDAN

More theatre practitioners are creating and directing films as well as writing screenplays

More theatre practitioners are making the leap from stage to screen, taking up directorial and screenwriting duties.

Theatre director and playwright Irfan Kasban and actress Oon Shu An are creating their first short films. Playwright and director Shiv Tandan is writing his first screenplay for a commercial feature film, which he is also directing.

Three of Singapore's most established theatre practitioners also have film projects in the pipeline. With several screen forays behind him, playwright Huzir Sulaiman recently completed a feature film adaptation of Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng's Man Booker Prizeshortlisted 2012 novel, The Garden Of Evening Mists. The movie is produced by Malaysian film production company Astro Shaw and HBO Asia.

Playwright Chong Tze Chien is working on his sophomore screenplay for a horror film about a karang guni (rag-and-bone) man. The film is produced by Singapore's Blue River Pictures and is slated for production later this year.

Then there is theatre director Samantha Scott-Blackhall, who is directing two of Oon's upcoming short films and does regular work for television commercials and short films.

While crossing over from stage to screen and back is not new - in 1996, Singapore International Festival of Arts director Ong Keng Sen assumed the director's chair for the film remake of the play Army Daze - the film medium is now more accessible and attractive in this age of speedy YouTube uploads.

And if making a film is much more expensive than mounting a stage production, there is now more funding available through crowdfunding and government grants.

For young theatre practitioners such as Irfan and Oon, the theatre companies they are attached to have been crucial sources of support.

Irfan's short film, Genap 40, is backed by Teater Ekamatra, which is giving him $7,000 as well as lending support in the form of staff, props and even administrative, distribution and marketing efforts. Irfan, 27, is the company's associate artist and his film is an adaptation of a play he staged with the company in 2007.

This is Ekamatra's first foray into film and it is hoping that it will be well-received.

Says its artistic director, Fared Jainal, 42: "Exploring different elements and art forms has always been something that we champion. We may be predominantly a theatre company, but the learning process covers much ground and we want to look continuously for inspiration."

Oon, 29, is an associate artist of Checkpoint Theatre, which has commissioned her upcoming series of short films, which is tentatively titled #UnicornMoment2. She would say only that it is funded by a "modest budget and a lot of love".

The transition from theatre to film is a natural one, similar to yet different from what they are used to, theatre practitioners say.

Says Huzir, 42, Checkpoint's co-artistic director: "You use different parts of the brain. For a film, you have to be more of an artisan and less of an artist because you're ultimately in the service of the director. In a play, you can be more of an artist."

He was unable to give more details on his screenplay for The Garden Of Evening Mists, but his previous film projects include Malaysian director Dain Said's horror film Dukun (2007).

Chong, 40, director of The Finger Players, a theatre and puppetry company, says many stage practitioners are comfortable with the film medium. "Any form of writing is good exercise for a writer. You get to apply the craft in both disciplines and distil the principles of storytelling," he says.

Crossovers appear to be rarer in the other direction, though film director Kelvin Tong wrote a stage play in 2008, Brunch, as part of a trilogy directed by actress Tan Kheng Hua.

Film-maker Boo Junfeng has done video work for theatre directors such as Ong and Ivan Heng, but has never attempted theatre before.

Says the 31-year-old selfprofessed theatre lover: "I would love to challenge myself one day by directing for the stage, but I'll have a lot I'll need to learn."

As for the theatre practitioners, it looks like film is just a brief affair and that they remain loyal to their first love.

Irfan will be presenting a new 20-minute play as part of Ekamatra's monologue festival Projek Suitcase from Sept 30 to Oct 4, while Tandan will be directing a revival of his 2011 play The Good, The Bad And The Sholay at the Esplanade in November.

Says Chong of film-making: "It's like taking a vacation. Theatre is life, film or TV is the holiday. The holiday takes you to different places, but essentially you need to come back home."

Reworking a play into a picture

Playwright and director Irfan Kasban brings some stage wizardry with him onto the set of his new short film, Genap 40.

In the premises of Teater Ekamatra at Aliwal Arts Centre, he and the crew are trying to figure out how to adjust the lighting for actress Masturah Ahmad, who is sitting on the floor in a Muslim prayer garment. The film, about a woman who is visited by an angel, began life as a play in 2007.

Irfan says: "I want that light above her, like a halo."

The light source is an overhead projector with a bowl of water on it. Water slowly drips into the bowl from a block of ice suspended from the ceiling. A ripple charges through the light, creating an otherworldly effect.

Playwright and director Irfan Kasban (far left) on the set of his short film, Genap 40. PHOTO: ERFENDI DHAHLAN

The 27-year-old used a similar set-up in the stage version of Genap 40, produced by Ekamatra. This time, though, audiences watching the film will not see the block of ice, but experience it indirectly through the lighting effect.

Says Irfan: "I like how it was staged and I don't want to discount the fact that it is a theatrical piece."

The 20-minute short film is produced by Teater Ekamatra, which has put up $7,000 for it. The company is hoping for donations to fund the rest of the film's budget, which amounts to about $10,000.

It will be released late this year and will be submitted to different theatre and film festivals.

Irfan is an associate artist with Ekamatra. Genap 40 is one of his first plays with the company.

For his first foray into film, he is thankful for the help of his crew, including director and fellow associate artist Eric Lee, who gave him suggestions on how to frame the shots, for example.

"It's been a lovely collaborative process. Before this, some people might have said I have an iron grip over the play. I'm more open to ideas now ," he says with a smile.

Filming for Genap 40 was completed over one weekend late last month. Irfan is now in the editing stage and has to decide which shots to include or cut.

"It's so pretty on film," he gushes, pointing out a scene that was filmed at Changi Beach.

"In theatre, you can see only so much."

But he thinks theatre is still the more difficult medium. "In theatre, you cannot run away if there is a mistake. You can't yell 'cut!' and you can't do another take."

Helming a series of short films

Fresh-faced actress Oon Shu An is used to being in front of the camera and onstage.

She appeared in recent local movies Rubbers (2014) and Our Sister Mambo (2015), can be seen in Netflix period drama series Marco Polo and helms her own beauty series Tried And Tested on online television network clicknetwork.

The difference with her latest screen outing is that she is in the driver's seat. Her series of nine new short films is made together with creatives from different industries here, including theatre director Samantha Scott-Blackhall, choreographer Ryan Tan and music duo Ferry x Cherie.

"I've never been on this side of the camera before," Oon, 29, says.

The films will last between four and seven minutes each and will be posted on YouTube. They will explore issues such as loneliness and depression, expressed in an artistic manner.

The first film will be launched in November during an immersive overnight programme, What I Love About You Is Your Attitude Problem, presented by Checkpoint Theatre as part of the Singapore Writers Festival. After that, Oon hopes to release one film a week online.

"The series is designed to resemble a YouTube session on a lonely night," she explains. "These are heavier topics that we're exploring, compared with some of the videos on YouTube."

Commissioned by Checkpoint Theatre for an undisclosed sum, the new series is tentatively titled #UnicornMoment2. Oon, an associate artist of the company, had staged a successful play last year titled #UnicornMoment, a candid take on her life experiences. As part of the play, a related video weblog series was released prior to the production.

Once again, she will be acting in the videos. She has also roped in collaborators who will direct and be involved in other aspects, such as the choreography and music. While some of the films will be written by her, other writers include playwright Joel Tan. For one of the films, she saw text about Internet culture and bullying on a Tumblr page and got permission from the writer, who goes by the name Herrsassyfras, to use it.

"I love doing collaborations and devised work. It's something I picked up in Lasalle and with TheatreStrays," she says, referring to the physical theatre collective she helped found. Oon is a graduate of Lasalle College of the Arts' acting course. It was there that she met Scott-Blackhall, 36, who taught a course on self-devised monologues.

Scott-Blackhall will be directing two of the short films. One, titled Shadow Friend, is about how even strangers can make a difference in others' lives, while the other is still in the planning stages.

The artistic director of Blank Space Theatre started off doing theatre. She now does regular work for TV commercials and films after making her film debut in 2007 with a short, titled Turning Ten, with local company Salt Films.

"Film resides next to theatre, yet is very different. It's about directing people's eyes through visuals and telling your story that way," says Scott-Blackhall.

Oon agrees, saying: "Ultimately, the choice of medium is all about how best to tell the story you want to tell."

Exploring ideas for a feature film

The worlds of theatre and film are familiar territories to writer-director Shiv Tandan.

The 24-year-old is an associate artist of Checkpoint Theatre and co-founder of the four-year-old film production company The Film Guys.

He is now in Mumbai doing research and exploring ideas for a feature film that he will be working on later this year.

It is early days yet, but Tandan reveals that the film is about the "idea of success and how people decide whether their lives have been well-lived".

His involvement in theatre began as president of the National University of Singapore drama club NUS Stage. During that time, he learnt playwriting from Checkpoint's co-artistic director Huzir Sulaiman.

With The Film Guys, Tandan has made commercial short films as well as a 50-minute feature film. He also worked as an assistant director on a 2014 feature film, titled Remittance, about the struggles of a migrant worker in Singapore. It is being submitted to film festivals.

It was Huzir who suggested his protege try doing film in 2011. This was hot on the heels of the success of Tandan's first full-length play, The Good, The Bad And The Sholay, which was staged during the NUS Arts Festival.

The play, which crossed a Bollywood bandit film with a coming-of-age tale about a young Indian man, was a hit with audiences and picked up nods for Production of the Year, Best Director and Best Original Script at the 2012 Life Theatre Awards.

"Huzir took me out for dinner at the cheese prata shop near NUS and said, 'You should try writing for film', because Sholay was not set in one place and moved from one time frame to another," Tandan recounts .

Taking his mentor's advice to heart, he set up The Film Guys with three friends.

He remembers his first screenplay for his 50-minute film Gauri, which was made on a shoestring budget. It was about a university student searching for meaning in life. It was released on YouTube and had a private screening.

"We didn't have any money, we had to beg, borrow and steal everything. We even set it in one location - a Prince George's Park hostel room - to save costs," he says.

All self-taught film-makers, the novices learnt the ropes by reading books on film-making and watching movies by directors they admired.

For his new feature film, Tandan will be looking for a producer and hopes to fund it through crowdfunding and grants.

Looking back, he recalls having "to deal with uncertainty a lot".

"Everything you see might look like s*** right till the very end, but you just have to ride it out," he says with a laugh.

These days, he looks for opportunities to merge his film experience with theatre projects.

He says: "I'm trying to find ways to bring theatre into film and film into theatre. These new possibilities are very exciting."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2015, with the headline 'Screen play'. Print Edition | Subscribe