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

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