Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa/Norman Abdul Halim

Hikayart Merong Mahawangsa is the most anticipated local movie this year. So I am highlighting an interview with Norman Abdul Halim of KRU Studios who is producing the movie. The interview appeared in the sun newspaper last thursday (Feb 17, 2011)

Suggested Headline ; A Cut Above The Rest

Epic movie Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, based loosely on myth, legend and history, will open in cinemas on March 10. Norman Abdul Halim, the executive president of KRU Studios, talks to BISSME S about his RM8 million film and his international aspirations.

Tell us what we can expect from Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (HMM)?

We started shooting in June 2009. It took us 52 days to complete our shoot. But our research and preparation took more than a year. We read many versions of this epic, interviewed people from the Kedah palace and talked to historians. In some versions Merong Mahawangsa is a demigod while in others he hails from Rome. We took some creative licence.
We make the story more believable rather than fantasy driven. You will not see a giant bird (Garuda) or him meeting the Prophet Solomon. We wanted the story to have a little integrity and logic. On the creative side we linked his mother to Kedah. That provides a reasonable explanation to why he is so familiar with the shores here. The script was revised 17 times.
For the action scenes, we imported swords and bows from the United States and China. There was a lot of paper work and red tape involved as we had to seek permission from the home minister. We need to destroy these weapons once we are done with them. We hired 10 stuntmen from Hongkong who had worked with Jacky Chan. These stuntmen also worked in Hollywood productions such as Hellboy 2. For three months, these stuntmen trained our actors for the action scene. The movie highlights our rich culture and heritage, and Islam in the 11th century when the ruler of Kedah converted to Islam. At the same time Hinduism and Buddhism were also practised.

Some purists are likely to say your film is bastardizing the epic. Are you ready to face them?

When we first expressed a desire to make this film, we got a few protest letters. This was before the camera began rolling and we had not chosen our cast. There are some religious associations which wanted us to highlight the religious aspect of that era. But we are keeping religion and politics out of this movie.
What we hear about this warrior is an oral history. And in oral history, it is hard to prove what is real and what is fiction. So we had the options on what information we want to retain for the movie. For example, we decided to retain the claims that he was a descendant of Alexander the Great because it will appeal to the global audience.
People have to understand we are not making a documentary. The idea of making this film is to trigger an interest among Malaysians to learn more about Merong Mahawangsa. There are so many heroes in our culture we have not heard about.
When I watched Ip Man (a biopic on the man who teaches martial art to Bruce Lee) I enjoyed the movie very much. The next thing I knew I was on the Internet learning more about Ip Man. One must understand a movie is an entertainment platform.
We are hoping after this movie, Malaysians will log on to the Internet to learn more about Merong Mahawangsa. We even produced a 45-minute documentary and a coffee table book to create more awareness about the epic and a better understanding of the film.

HMM will be shown overseas. Tell us more about the overseas market?

We have managed to sell the film to 72 countries including the US, Russia, Canada, France, China, Australia and New Zealand. Never has a Malaysian film been so widely distributed.
We started our marketing strategy in 2009. We have done four different trailers to entice the international distributors.
Action movies like ours always stand a good chance to get foreign distributors. The Thai action film Ong Bak also had wide distribution outside Thailand. Another pull factor: the movie talks about the Roman and Chinese empires. It is not only about the history of Kedah.
I know some people are trying to discredit us by saying some of the international deals are only for DVD’s and television releases. They believe if the movie does not have theatrical releases overseas then it is not a big deal. Well I have only one thing to say: "Can you do what we have done?" I consider it is still an achievement and a step up for the Malaysian film industry. We are going beyond Malaysia.
This movie is only the beginning of our journey going outside Malaysia. We have plans to work with companies overseas and produce films for the international market. We want to export our content. But first, we need to import talent. We do not have the expertise in certain areas and we need to bring in foreign expertise. We need to collaborate with foreigners.

Why do you want to tap the global market?

It is out of necessity that we are tapping the global market. If we only depend on the Malaysian market, we will forever be in a vicious cycle of producing the same old thing. Only when we tap the global market, will we have a bigger budget to create something different. We will be on our toes to create something different because we want to take our product outside Malaysia. We are on par with competitors out there.
Malaysian companies who have established themselves abroad such AirAsia and Petronas have also inspired us. In media and entertainment, there are not many Malaysian companies on the international platform. We would like to change that. We hope in the next five years KRU Studios will be a strong name, at least in Southeast Asia .

What are the biggest obstacles KRU Studios faced in penetrating the international film scene?

Funding. The banks here are only willing to give you a loan of RM5 million to make a movie. That is small if you want to make a movie for the international market. Even for this film, we got funds from the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry. Of course we cannot depend entirely on loans. We need to have investors too. There are not enough investors who want to develop the local film industry for the international market. We have a lot of producers who are willing to produce movies on a budget of RM1.5 million with the intention of getting the local audience. Right now, we are identifying several key partners.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in making HMM?

In some of our scenes, especially the battle scenes, we needed at least 300 to 500 extras. Ninety per cent of the movie was shot in Terengganu. It was difficult to get non-Malays such as Chinese, Indians and Caucasians to be extras in Terengganu. There are very few non-Malays in Terengganu.
A lot of people think RM8 million is a lot of money to put into a film. But if you consider the scale of our production, we are really working on a shoe string budget. Some of our international distributors were impressed that we could have a high production value with our small budget.
They estimated the movie was made with budget of US$10-20 million. We only built four ships that cost more than RM350,000. With help of CGI (computer-generated imagery), we managed to turn the four ships into 60-80 ships for the battle scenes. We also had to craft the film in a way that it would appeal to the domestic as well as the international market. Malaysians who watch local movies always go for simple comedies and horror films. They always look for enjoyment. There is a lot substance in the movie. But there is a lot of action to draw the local audience. We also made sure the movie was under two hours. We learned that Malaysians do not like watching movies that are too long.

There are high expectations for HMM. Are you afraid of the expectations?

I do not mind the expectation. But do not compare our film to Lord of The Rings and Gladiator. The budget they worked on is more than US$100 million. We are just a Malaysian movie targeting the global market. But there are elements in the movie that can make you proud to be Malaysian.
We cannot depend on the Malaysian box office to cover our cost. That is why we are finding an overseas market for our film. I am happy if we can get RM5-6 million at the Malaysian box office. I am not expecting HMM to beat Ngangkung’s box-office record (Ngangkung got more than RM8 million at the box office and became the highest grossing local film). It is a fact that many urban Malays and non-Malays do not watch Malaysian movies. There is a stigma among them that Malaysian movies are brainless. I hope the urban Malays and non-Malays give this movie a chance.
I’d like to see this stigma disappear. Not all Malaysian movies are bad and not all Hollywood movies are great. I am just asking them to be a little open minded about Malaysian movies.

Are you saying those who enjoyed Ngangkung are brainless?

I am not discrediting movies like Ngangkung. We should learn to make films like Ngangkung that appeal to the mass market. Each of us has different hopes and expectations when we watch a movie. Some people watch movies because they want to laugh and be entertained. Some like to watch inspirational movies while others watch movies for the beautiful dialogue. There are some who looked at production values from the set to the costumes. We have to respect everyone’s choice.
I can appreciate movies of all kinds. I just do not like when people start comparing one movie with another. Every movie has its strengths and weaknesses. At the end of day we have to appreciate the movie for its content, for its presentation, for its uniqueness and for the market it is made for. Nobody spends their time and energy purposely making a bad film. People should go to the cinema, free of all expectations.
If you ask me, is HMM grander than an average Malaysian movie then I would say yes. If you ask me if the plot is better than an average Malaysian movie I would say I think so. There is some memorable dialogue and there are memorable performances. It is a movie where we learned more about ourselves as Malaysians and for the world to know about Malaysia .

What about the censorship board?

The audience is getting wiser. They understand what happens in a movie only happens in a movie. Some years ago, the censorship board was not keen about local film makers making horror movies.
I believe it is good to make horror movies because they always showcase evil and devils. When there is evil and devils, there is also a belief in God. Most horror movies instilled a stronger belief in God. We have a tendency to blame media and films for anything that goes wrong in our society. There are people saying the incidence of rape cases is going up because the media loves to highlight rape stories.
These people claim that when readers read these kinds of articles, they get curious and commit rape. I think that is ridiculous. You cannot stop media from reporting what is taking place. You cannot stop people from having access to information. Parents should monitor what their children watch. The rating system in censorship was implemented to help parents.
I think the censorship board is becoming more open. Unfortunately, there is always a small minority who are constantly complaining and sometimes, under pressure, the censorship board listens to this minority.
Members of the censorship board should realise they cannot satisfy everyone. 1f you want to listen to people all the time, then you cannot have anything done. It is about time the minority grows up and acts maturely. If we want to be a developed nation in 2020 then our mentality needs to change.

Do you think Finas is doing enough for the film industry? Do you think Finas should privatised?

Finas should be privatised. When this happens, there will be less red tape and less government procedures. Decisions can be made more quickly and efficiently. When you have to raise your own funds, you will be creative and efficient. But then again the government may have its own valid reason for not privatising Finas. I would like to see Finas taking more initiative to get foreign companies to shoot their films here and get these companies to work with the local production houses. There will be transfer of technology.

Do you think the media is doing enough to develop the local film industry?

Some play favourites. They go all out to criticise a producer’s film. But when it comes to a certain producer, they hesitate to criticise his film. I wonder why? Some journalists purposely look for flaws and write negative reviews. You cannot deny negative reviews attract more readers than positive reviews. For the film industry to thrive, the media needs to be fair.


More on Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa

Storyline: An arranged marriage between a prince from Rome and a princess from China is supposed to take place in Langkasuka in northern Malaysia. Before the marriage vows can be exchanged, pirates kidnap the princess and hold her for ransom. Enter the brave warrior Merong Mahawangsa to rescue the princess.
Director: Yusry Abdul Halim
Executive producers: Norman Abdul Halim, Yusry Abdul Halim and Edry Abdul Halim Cast: Stephen Rahman Hughes, Ummi Nazeera, Rahim Razali, Jehan Miskin and Khir Rah

Friday, February 18, 2011

U- Wei Saari

I interview the talented director U- Wei who talks about his movie Hanyut. The story appears in the sun on Wednesday Feb 16. The story had a longer version on line compare to the print version.

Firm handle on life
Director U-Wei Saari believes in making movies that force viewers to think and ask questions

"I cannot forget." The lead character uttered those words in the last scene of the movie Hanyut/Almayer's Folly. And sufficient to say those words describe my feelings about Hanyut.
I simply cannot forget Hanyut. Some scenes from Hanyut linger in my mind days after watching the film. Subtly, they have haunted me, persuading me to watch Hanyut, again. But it'll have to wait as Hanyut will officially hit the cinemas only at the end of the year.
theSun was one of the few media that were invited to watch the rough cut of Hanyut from the beginning till the end.
Hanyut has one of the best opening and closing scenes I have seen in local movies in the last 20 years.
The movie starts with a hysterical woman running along the river and then plunging into the river, swimming towards a big ship. A small boat appears and a white man grabs her hair.
Based on Joseph Conrad's first novel, the story centres around a Dutch trader Kaspar Almayer in Borneo in the 19th century. His ultimate dream is finding a mystical mountain that is filled with gold. He has dedicated his life to realise this dream but he soon learned that some dreams can be dangerous. They can consume you. They can destroy you.
The cast comprises Peter O Brien, Sofia Jane, Adi Putra, Khalid Salleh and Alex Komang.
While Hanyut can be a tad long with some redundant scenes, it compensates those shortcomings with excellent cinematography and a powerful storyline. After watching Hanyut, I asked the director U-Wei Haji Saari :

Tell us more about Hanyut?
The film is so un-Hollywood. It is ridiculous to see a failed white doctor trying to save Calcutta (In City Of Joy) and a white widow teaching the king of Siam (The King And I). Like one of the character says in the movie 'what do they (the whites) know about us and this country?'
Human are supposed to forget (and get on with life). The meaning of 'insan' (human) in Arabic means "to forget". If you cannot forget, then you will be damned.
It has taken me 10 years to make Hanyut a reality. I do not want Hanyut to my folly. I do not want Hanyut to pull me down (he hinted he does not want to end up like his lead character Kaspar Almayer where his dreams consumed him and in the end, destroyed him).
Hanyut is a prayer and every prayer has many obstacles. It also came to my realisation that every project takes its own time to become a reality.

In the last 10 years did you ever once give up your dream of making Hanyut?
I will quote what the lead character of Hanyut said in the end of the movie: 'I cannot forget.' I cannot forget Hanyut.

Why did you choose to turn Joseph Conrad's novel, Almayer's Folly, into a film?
I read the novel more than 20 years ago. I love Conrad's works. He is one of the few who writes about Malaya that is not condescending. He never patronised the locals. When Mat Salleh (white men) write about us (Asians), we always became the curtain of the window. It is his first novel. It was difficult to translate it into a script.

When novels are adapted into movies, there are bound to be changes. How faithful did you remain to the novel?
If I were to meet Mr Conrad now, I would probably say something like this: 'Mr Conrad I am very sorry but your story has become my story now.' Of course there are changes. I think that is what adaptation is all about. I tried to be faithful to the intention of the novel.

Your movies from Hanyut to your first film Perempuan, Isteri Dan ....always deal with similar themes – alienation, bad relationships, misplacement and identity. Why? Do these themes have any reflection to your life?
A filmmaker has only one film to make in his life time and the rest of his films are just variations. I can't help noticing these thematic stuff happening around me. Sometimes I can feel alienated. But I have more sad relationships than bad relationships.

Do you ever questioned about your identity of being Malay? What does being a Malay means to you?
Malay is not a colour. Malay is not even a language. Being a Malay is a state of mind. Even if you lived somewhere else but you have a strong attachment to Tanah Melayu, then you are still a Malay.

Your movie's budget so far is RM13 million. Don't you think the budget is lavish for a Malaysian film? (Most Malaysian filmmakers spent less RM2 million on their films).
I want make a good film. I want people who look at Hanyut and not say "Ah, untuk filem Malaysia bolehlah" (Ah, for a Malaysian film, can do-lah). I am giving the film as much money as it needs. Whatever it takes my kid to grow up, I will have to put in the money. My film needs more money. I have to get another RM5 million to complete it.
When I first did my first film (Prempuan Isteri Dan…), producers in Malaysia were making movies at a budget RM250,000. But I told my producer that my film will cost RM1 million to make. These days, it is normal for Malaysian films to have budgets of more than RM1 million.
Money is not the only answer to make a good film but it is a big factor that to make it look good. Films are for our eyes first. Once your eyes are satisfied with the visual, your soul will say ‘now it is my time to feel for the film.’

You have a reputation of spending a lot of money in making a film. Many producers are afraid to hire you. What is your comment?
Then, they are not ready to hire me. Most producers here do not believe in investing more money in their films. They stick to their safety zone. They believe all Malaysian films should be made with RM1.2 million.
It is a funny way of doing things. It is like saying everyone should be wearing RM3 shirt. Some project needs more money than others. They never come from film school. They came as business person. A lot of them put profit first. They neglect the craft of filmmaking. But I put my film first. I am a filmmaker who wants to make films.

Are you saying film making is an art and profit doesn't matter to you?
Profit is not my top priority. But profit matters to me. I do not like being poor. I hope my film sells. Art cannot be said art till it sells.

How do you think Malaysians will react to Hanyut? Do you think Hanyut will do well at the local box office?
That is not the question for me. The only position I have is that I wish Malaysian audience can accept my new pizza (both of us were eating pizza then and we laughed).

Your films are a huge success with the critics and international film festivals. But they do not draw in Malaysian audiences and are not local box office hits. Are you angry or sad about this fact?
I am more puzzled than angry and sad.

Despite the poor response from the Malaysian audience, you continue to make films. What motivates you to continue with this passion?
I am a filmmaker. That is my vocation. I have to make films. If I stop making films, I do not exist any more.

Women are always manipulative in most of your films and the same element can be found in Hanyut. Are you a women hater?
James Brown (the singer) said it is a man-man world. Women became manipulative because they have to survive. They are always survivors. Zaleha (actress Sofia Jane in his first film Perempuan Isteri Dan...) becomes manipulative because Amir did something to her (He kills her husband, raped her and sold her to a pimp).
In Hanyut, you will see Sofia Jane is a bidan (midwife) who brings other's people babies into the world but her own child is taken away from her. That is why she becomes manipulative. It is always a painful process to swim against the current.

The ending of all your movies are always dark and depressing. Why is that?
My films are about hope. In Perempuan, Isteri Dan..., the lead character gets killed but death is not the end. Death can be a rebirth. To be martyr you must die. In Kaki Bakar, the son killed his (abusive) father because he wants to move forward. Even in Hanyut, in the end, the character says 'I cannot forget.' It is a hint that perhaps he may do something to revive his dreams.

Do you watch local movies? What do you think of them?
I do but they do not draw me to have a discussion. Film makers here believe they have a formula they have to follow. But there is no formula in filmmaking. A lot of people here neglect their craftsmanship of filmmaking.
Our presentation is not good. So it is difficult for us to penetrate the international market. I respect anybody who can finish a film because filmmaking is very hard. That is why I go and watch local films. But I feel sad when films have no soul.
There are two types of Malay films. One that teaches you to dream and the other that reflects the life that the character leads and asks the audience 'what about your life?'
All art must be political and erotic . But erotic here is not vulgar. Erotic here means sensuous.

What are your inspirations behind your films?
I loved watching films. I still read a little, not as much as I used to. Sometimes, books make me sleepy. There are fine arts I loved. Everything inspires me. Life inspires me.

Here's what producer of Hanyut, Julia Fraser, has to say about the film

Do you think mass Malaysian audience would like Hanyut?
We know U-Wei's audience in Malaysia is small. We knew this when we started raising money for the film, but our market has always been overseas in the West. It took nearly 10 years to raise the money for the film but as a result, we can see that the movie is beautiful, and very much a Malaysian story. I think Malaysians will be proud to have this film as their own and perhaps the audience here will check it out just for that reason.

You have spent RM18 million on the movie. Are you confident that you will be able to cover the cost of the production?
Yes, we will cover the costs plus more. So far, the reaction to the movie from overseas audience has been very strong. Although our costs seem high here, it is still regarded a very low for what we have achieved. We have produced a period piece, where we made sure our overseas technical and creative guests had the best possible support – which is where a lot of the money went. But what a result!

What do you think of U-Wei's direction and the end product?
U-Wei has always been incredibly focused on the story he wanted to tell. I just tried to help him make the film – a film I felt he should make – a quality that would make an international audience want to see the movie. I felt his way of story telling would easily be appreciated overseas, so we wanted to match that with strong production qualities.
The end product is amazing – better than we ever thought possible – as our budget is regarded as shoe-string' in the West, but we have achieved visuals that could easily be compared to a Hollywood film, which means there is a strong market for it there.