Saturday, February 23, 2019

In Front Behind The Scenes: Conversations about Pierre Rissient in Singapore (Introduction)

Image from tribute to Pierre at Telluride, 2018, photo by Eric Khoo

When Pierre Rissient died last May, the loss was felt in film communities across the world. Pierre was an inveterate traveler and arch-networker who’d built up friendships with a multitude of ‘film people’ across the globe. He was amused and proud to be known in Asia as “The French Connection”. Even if we just look at Singapore as a case study, one can see how profound his influence was, particularly on the steady stream of Asian filmmakers heading off to European festivals each year. 

Rissient was the quintessential ‘behind-the-scenes’ figure, so deeply embedded into the less illuminated recesses of the global film-industrial-complex (press wrangling, festival advising, production consulting) that even a budding UK cinephile such as myself had never heard or read his name until I came to Singapore/Asia in the early 2000s. Here, the name “Rissient” had a quasi-mythical resonance. He was known to have the power to make and possibly break a career, and was the subject of innumerable anecdotes on the film festival circuit, many based around his notoriously short fuse.

Researching Kinda Hot, my book on the making of Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack, I began a dialogue with the French producer Pierre Cottrell, a close friend of Rissient. When it was published Cottrell sent him a copy and the next time he was in Singapore, mid-2007, he requested (demanded) to see me. Cottrell gave me firm instructions to meet Rissient at his usual resting place in Singapore, the Goodwood Park Hotel (owned by the Khoo family who had hosted the Saint Jack crew in ‘78), where he was in and out of meetings with filmmaker Eric Khoo and sundry Singaporean film folk. We had a very memorable lunch (a story for another time), and thus began my membership among the coterie of film lovers and film makers (“Friends of Pierre”) that Rissient would enjoy spending time with whenever we were in the same country.

Over the summer and latter part of 2018 I decided to revisit my memories of Pierre with some conversations (and some accompanying videos and images) with a few other Friends of Pierre from Singapore. For those interested, these dialogues also form a ‘shadow history’ of serious Singaporean cinephilia (certain key names will recur), and I hope, that for those who didn’t know Pierre, or are unclear about his influence and distinctive personality, they offer a flavour of an unforgettable, important presence. He was, as he said to me of Lino Brocka the first time we met, “a formidable man”. 

(Click below for the conversations)

Part One: Chew Tze Chuan
Part Two: Boo Junfeng and Panuksmi Hardjowirogo & Michel Cayla
Part Three: Eric Khoo
Part Four: Warren Sin

Merci beaucoup to all the interviewees, plus Philip Cheah and Nick Palevsky for additional conversations.

In Front Behind The Scenes: Conversations about Pierre Rissient in Singapore (Part Four)

(For Part One go herePart Two go here, and Part Three go here)

Part Four: Warren Sin

“Pedro Costa doesn’t love cinema!”

Last but not least, one of Singapore’s most dedicated and knowledgeable cinephiles, Warren Sin was a natural ally for Rissient in Singapore. During a much-missed period where Warren and Zhang Wenjie were the powerhouse programming team for the National Museum of Singapore’s now-defunct Cinémathèque (created by then-Museum Director Lee Chor Lin), they invited Pierre to Singapore in 2011 for an incredibly rare screening of one of two films he directed, Cinq et la Peau/Five and the Skin (1982) but not before a fateful meeting with him in Paris, facilitated by Pierre Cottrell.

Warren Sin: So we got to meet the man. Of course I got the feeling that he’s a guy who either likes you, or not – that’s it. We went to a nice restaurant. For some reason he ordered oysters, so it was an expensive lunch. After that he liked us enough that we continued to hang out. We went to watch a movie, Montparnesse 19 (1958) at one of those small theatres, where he was obviously a regular. And that’s where we experienced the majesty of Rissient. It was a small room, we were seated close to the back. Behind us there was a mother and a teenage daughter. Before the film started Pierre sat down and got comfortable and loosened his belt, and then he decides to ask them to give up their seat because he wanted to sit where they were. And the woman says ‘No’, and then he went into this tirade in French, and he keeps shouting at them. And because he loosened his trousers and he’s trying to get up (to address the woman), his pants are dropping off, and Cottrell was nudging us (to look at this spectacle). Rissient wanted the perfect view for this movie, and he didn’t get his way, but once the film started – then he stopped. It was a good intro. 

BS: … to his character

WS: To a facet of it. But then we got to know him more.

BS: You invited him to Singapore to present Five and the Skin.

WS: Now it’s restored but at that time there was only one print with English subtitles left at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York), and they didn’t want to lend it out. Rissient was very helpful, he wrote to them (and they did lend it). During the time at the Cinémathèque (at the National Museum) I had to handle the ‘difficult people’, and I wrote his synopsis, and it was a very hectic time, doing the ‘Asia Through French Eyes’ programme, and he said it was one of the best and I totally got his film, and that film is very hard to get. (He said) “That’s it, that’s what I was trying to do, you’re one of the few people.”

BS: What did you write?

WS: It was less about plot.

BS: There is no plot! They had the tribute to Pierre in Cannes last year and afterwards showed the restored film, and I couldn’t find a single comment about it on social media. I’m not sure it holds up well in the #metoo era.

WS: But that film encapsulated what we wanted to do. For all its flaws – it’s out of narrative bounds, it’s half an essay-film, half a journal - this dream-life of a guy meeting all these people and then the references, Lino Brocka, clips from old Hollywood films.

BS: I did get to see One Night Stand (AKA AlibisPierre’s earlier feature from 1977); and it’s a more conventional version of Five and the Skin - there’s a Western protagonist having a series of relationships with women in Hong Kong, but it’s much less memorable. I wonder if he’d have liked to make more films.

WS: He was so into film and cinema, and he started off writing and being Assistant Director on Breathless (1960) and while doing all this if there was a chance to make a film he would take it, but I think he found his true Rissient-ness in doing what he did.

BS: Being the behind-the-scenes guy?

WS: But he’s so in front as a behind-the-scenes guy. He’s the only guy who can wear a T-shirt to a Cannes evening screening, and the connections he had to his ‘chosen’ ones, whether it’s Clint Eastwood, Eric, the Filipinos… and the ‘unchosen’ are also interesting.

(When he was in Singapore) We went to a restaurant with some Singaporean filmmakers and we started to talk about film. Rissient asked them what they were watching, and someone said Pedro Costa. Wrong choice! “Pedro Costa doesn’t love cinema!” Yes he does!

BS: You became good friends.

WS: He was encouraging in a certain way, if you’re within that wavelength and on top of that, my dedication and love of old Hollywood helped, and every meeting with him led to stories about Raoul Walsh, Allan Dwan, Ford, Hawks, you name it. And these are people who really matter. And there were a few movies that he kept impressing on me. Gentleman Jim (1942) is the one to watch. Whenever I would go (to Paris) he would hold court. His legs didn’t get any better so we had to go to him. In 2014, SGIFF invited him in as a guest.

BS: Do you remember that we went to see him off at the airport? He was so appreciative that we'd taken the time to do that, saying, “You are good boys, no one else would do this.”

WS: Yes! I did spend a lot of time with him because he was always at the Museum (during the festival). He was less lively then, more mellow and quiet. The last time I saw him was 2017 in Busan. I was there for the film market, and it was ‘Singapore Night’, and it was held at a restaurant that was up some stairs, so he couldn’t go up and he was sitting in a car that was parked in front, talking to people. I’m glad I managed to see him. Pierre was still holding court, in a car.  

Pierre and Warren, Busan 2017, photo courtesy of Warren Sin

(To return to the Introduction go here)

In Front Behind The Scenes: Conversations about Pierre Rissient in Singapore (Part Three)

(For Part One go here and for Part Two go here)

Four: Eric Khoo

Barbet, Eric & Pierre, Cannes, 2017, photo courtesy of Eric Khoo

“The dead shot.”

Pierre’s closest friend in Singapore was Eric Khoo. Eric’s second feature 12 Storeys was selected for Un Certain Regard in 1997, in large part because of Pierre’s enthusiasm, making him the first Singaporean filmmaker to be selected for Cannes, paving the way for many more. Thus began a long and enduring friendship between the two. Eric became a conduit for Rissient to meet filmmakers in Singapore, and Rissient remained passionately supportive of Eric’s films. When I first decided to have these conversations I emailed Eric, and received the following:

Pierre Rissient adored cinema and he was all about PASSION PASSION PASSION. I loved watching him eat and hearing his delicious voice - I LOVE the guy! Without him I may not be directing anymore - he taught me about the dead shot and he’ll always be my Yoda.”

It took several more emails and a month or two before we were able to sit down, face to face, over happy hour drinks in Holland Village, Singapore, to have a conversation about Rissient.

Eric Khoo: The last time I saw him was when I was on a jury in Cannes last year and we had a meal together and he introduced me to Barbet Schroeder, and I thought I was going to see him again. Because, this guy was always unwell, but he always came back, I don’t know how he did it…

Ben Slater: Do you remember how you first met?

EK: Through Philip Cheah. Mee Pok Man (1996) was launched here (in Singapore), and then festivals started writing to us, and it went to Berlin and Venice, and over 30 festivals, and I was really happy because it put Singapore in the spotlight. I think Pierre had heard about it and was interested to see my sophomore film. A lot of these (film festival) scouts go to Australia, he discovered Jane Campion there, and it was on one of those trips to Australia that he stopped off here to see what was happening. I was at post-production stage on 12 Storeys, mixing the sound. He said, “I really like what I’m seeing, when it’s finished can you send me a copy?” Which I did, on VHS. And he tells me he’s going to leave it at the front door of Gilles Jacob, who was artistic director of Cannes at that time, and (he says) “I’ll let you know when you call me tomorrow.” So the next day I called him and he said, “Your film is in Cannes.” 

BS: And this became a friendship.

EK: I would see him everywhere. At festivals, in Paris, whenever he’s in town. He was really part of my life. He’s always there, chasing me. Asking me about my films. Pierre opened so many doors for me, and it was just through his love for cinema. If he liked the product he would champion it. I remember in Telluride when I was there with him, every day he would wear the Be With Me T-shirt. He was always looking out for smaller films. And he wanted to meet filmmakers. I introduced him to everyone (in Singapore). I even introduced him to Jack Neo (Singapore’ most successful director of local comedies). He was always happy and eager to meet filmmakers. He would ask me to send him VCDs, DVDs, of their work so I used to send to him. He lived for it.

BS: He would help guide filmmakers into Cannes.

EK: He had his way of doing things. He would say to the directors of Cannes, “Hey Thierry (Frémaux), you have to watch this.” He would call me up and say "We have to fight for the best slot (in the festival).” Thierry had a lot of respect for him. Before Pierre passed away, it was the day before Cannes and he was still running around trying to find a distributor for Burning. And then he went. That’s the best way to go. He didn’t suffer.

BS: But he’d suffered before that.

EK: You know, whenever you’d see him, whether he’s on crutches or wheelchair, he loved travelling, he loved cinema. He loved to eat. If you don’t want (the food), he’ll take it from you, and if you don’t finish the drink, he’ll drink from you. What a guy! And he would always ask me, “How is Philip Cheah? And how is Wenjie?” He was very sweet.

BS: Did he ever read scripts for your films?

EK: (Shakes head emphatically) He’d wait and he’d watch it, and then at the rough cut stage he’d say “Try this, try that.” For him it’s the baby and we have to nurture it. And we have to give it life. Good life.

BS: How involved did he get?

EK: The only film he helped me to edit was Be With Me. We had made it with the digital camera, and the tapes were so cheap - I shot a lot of footage. And at the editing stage there were so many different permutations of how I could edit the film. But I still felt something was amiss. There were three stories, and one was her (Theresa Chan’s) life and they were going simultaneously, and it didn’t quite work, and some of the stories went backwards. The editor didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to do, my writer didn’t know. So, I called Pierre, and I said, “I’ve just done this film and it’s a unique film.” So, he says “Send it to me.” He was staying with Clint (Eastwood) at the time in LA, so he called me up at midnight, and said “I just watched it. You have something so special with this film, but I cannot talk to you (on the phone), you have to come to Paris and I will sit down with you.”

So we went to Paris with all the rushes. We had a cut on VHS and we watched it, and we’d look at the sections and he’d say, “Why don’t we try something, let’s look at the rushes.” This was in my nephew’s apartment, with just a VHS machine, it was low-fi. We’d write down the time-codes. Pierre would come in the morning, at 8:30, I would go and buy some food and cook it – I cooked Bak Kut Teh (Pork Rib Soup) - and then Benjamin Illos was there as well. And we just tried this and that for three mornings, and then when I came back to Singapore, I strung it all together and it worked a lot better. But there were things he wanted to remove and I said, “No way.” One was the ghost mother (a bereaved character sees his deceased wife), he thought the Western audience would have a problem. But he taught me a lot just sitting there. He’d say, “That’s a dead shot.” And it made a lot of sense. He was able to give me the right amount of suggestions that made it a much better edit. It was all about the pacing.

BS: Where did he learn this?

EK: Watching cinema.

BS: He had a reputation for being difficult.

EK: Be With Me was the opening night film in the Directors Fortnight, so before we premiered he calls me up and says, “Eric, do you realise that before Be With Me plays, they are going to programme a 20 minute African film (A Bras Le Corps, made in Abidjan), and tonight at a certain time they are going to show a (restored) Ozu film, so that means you’re going to have people walking out of your cinema to watch the Ozu film.” And I said, “What can I do?” And he said, “You tell them they can’t do that.” And I’m like, “How can I do that?”, so he tells Olivier Père (the Artistic Director of Directors Fortnight at the time) to tell his boss not to play that (short) film. So, we are at the venue, and the film was going to play in the next ten minutes. And Pierre was screaming. And it was scary. When he gets mad, he explodes. But it was all about the work, he was so passionate. In the end the (short) film played, and I can’t remember anyone walking out. Actually, when I think back, I can’t fault him, he just wanted the best for the film.

BS: He must have been furious at the screening.

EK: He didn’t go to the screening! He didn’t even go to the party. The following day he had calmed down and then he congratulated me. He was so happy with the reviews.

BS: Did he ask for any credit for advising on the editing?

EK: Never. I always had him under ‘special thanks’. When he liked something he just wanted to push it, he didn’t care if he’s part of it or not.

Eric's last meal with Pierre, 2017, photo by Eric Khoo

(For Part Four go here)

In Front Behind The Scenes: Conversations about Pierre Rissient in Singapore (Part Two)

(For Part One go here)

Two: Boo Junfeng 

“Image makers not filmmakers.”

I met Boo Junfeng and Pierre on the same day in 2007 at the Goodwood Park Hotel, Singapore, where Eric Khoo was introducing Rissient to various film people. Junfeng was already known for his short films. Today he’s the writer-director of two renowned feature films, Sandcastle and Apprentice, both selected for Cannes (Critics Week 2010 and Un Certain Regard 2016, respectively). I wanted to talk to Junfeng about Pierre partly because he’d participated in a TV interview (Signature Conversations) with him in 2012 which closely approximates the experience of spending an afternoon with Rissient talking about films, and also his own relationship to Pierre, which was exemplary of how Pierre mentored/supported young filmmakers who crossed his path. 

Ben Slater: I’d gone out for this crazy lunch with Pierre, and we came back to the Goodwood, and Eric wanted to introduce him to filmmakers and Pierre asked me to hang around. And you and Sun Koh (Singaporean filmmaker) came in, and I’d not met you before.

Boo Junfeng: Sun asked me to go, and back then I didn’t even know Eric very well. At that time I’d made my first film, A Family Portrait, I was probably just out of the army.

BS: You were very quiet. 

BJF: I was very nervous, and I was so fresh. The idea of Cannes was so out of reach, the idea of even making my next short film was so out of reach. I didn’t see it at as “I need to know this guy.” I only got to know Pierre better after Sandcastle

BS: I saw him just before he watched it.

BJF: The second run was at The Arts House (an arts centre in Singapore with a screening room), Pierre was there, with a public audience and afterwards we had a very long dinner. Just me and him and one of my Assistant Directors at the time, because I felt better with some company. I think Pierre saw something in the film, because when the DVD was coming out I asked him for a quote and he gave me a very nice quote, not about the film, but about mine being an interesting voice and wanting to hear more from me. He saw the future of a younger filmmaker and wanted to give that support. He knew what to focus on.

BS: And so the next time you met him was when you did the conversation with him for TV? 

BJF: They planned it so it was all quite real. He was sitting there and I was entering as I was arriving (to meet him)… I knew that a lot of the focus would be on Asian Cinema and the kinds of films and filmmakers I was drawn to, and I knew he would be an expert on most of them. He was just responding to the people I was inspired by, and he knew many of them personally. I remember talking about Lee Chang-dong because I had a deep appreciation for his works and Pierre knew him very well. I remember him saying that there are film-makers who are very quiet and when you talk to them you can sense a vulnerability and that’s reflected in the films they make. That stayed with me, because you do have to be a real person, at least for the kinds of films that I want to make. 

After that I only saw him again once or twice, and I remember sending him an early cut of Apprentice, and I don’t think he was too fond of it. He didn’t say much. He said how he felt it could be better and what was missing and what were the weaker parts of the film, and that gave me a lot to think about. And then I was in Paris and I met him for coffee and we talked, and then we went back to edit the film further.

BS: Can you remember anything he said that struck home?

BJF: Some things about certain performances. Which made me feel like I shouldn’t be too precious about certain moments, and I should just cut them out because they weren’t working. 

BS: Did you see him in Cannes that year?

BJF: I heard from other people he wasn’t there. So as I was leaving at Nice Airport I texted him and immediately he called me and said he’d heard good things about the new cut, and he looked forward to seeing it and apologized for not being there. He was a gentleman, the way he spoke. The last time I saw him was last year at Fribourg, which turns out to be one of his favourite festivals, and I remember having breakfast with him, and Apprentice won the Grand Prix. I don’t know if he saw it. 

BS: He was generous with his time.

BJF: It was one of those things that I deeply appreciated. He really didn’t have to. Of course he probably enjoyed company, and to have people to listen to him, talking about films. But as a film-maker I felt always quite honoured in his presence that he’d give me that time to discuss films and my films. Sometimes when you meet people at festivals they will look over your shoulder to see if there’s anyone else, but with him he was always so dedicated and so one-on-one and so genuine. He’s known to be honest, brutally so sometimes.

BS: In the interview he says he didn’t think much of your short films! 

BJF: He talked about other filmmakers, and he said some are “image makers” not filmmakers, and there’s not a real understanding of cinema. He knew what he liked and what he didn’t like. 

BS: I once asked him what he really liked and he said he wanted things to be stripped-back and simple and he didn’t enjoy excess, at the heart of what he liked was a very stark, spare cinema.

BJF: He liked films whereby the truth of that reality or story and the human condition is right there. You could see the author and the sincerity and the truth. 

Three: Panuksmi Hardjowirogo & Michel Cayla

“You discover it in reverse.”

Full disclosure, I have worked with Panuksmi Hardjowirogo and Michel Cayla of MGO Films quite a bit. Prolific producers of media content based in Singapore/Asia, including a great deal of work for museums and television, they frequently work with filmmakers. Among many projects, they co-produced the feature film HERE, directed by Ho Tzu Nyen which was in the Directors Fortnight in 2009, and produced a TV series Signature Conversations for Singaporean news network ChannelNewsAsia, which included the aforementioned interview/conversation between Pierre Rissient and Boo Junfeng, filmed in 2011, broadcast in 2012, produced by Panuksmi and directed by Michel.

Panuksmi Hardjowirogo: I met Pierre in Paris with (Zhang) Wenjie and Warren (Sin), they were working at the Cinémathèque of Singapore (at the National Museum of Singapore) and I went along to be a translator and to meet people at the Cinémathèque in Paris. We met up with (Saint Jack producer) Pierre Cottrell who introduced me to Pierre Rissient at a lunch for the five of us. 

Ben Slater: So how did the TV show come about?

PH: Michel had this concept for a TV series called Signature Conversations which was about peers interviewing peers. So we had Boo Junfeng as the Singapore filmmaker interviewing a film person from overseas, and we knew from Wenjie and Warren that Pierre was coming into town.

BS: He came to the National Museum to show Five & the Skin (1982)… Had you heard of him before Cannes in 2009?

Michel Cayla: No. He was under the radar. But knowing where he came from, researching a bit more, I got a better picture of the fellow. He starts in Paris at the Cine-Club. His generation loved cinema, wanted to watch movies, so you get friends and you realise you can organize your own Cine-Club, which I did in Montreal, and through that you meet distributors and you find out how film works. But you discover it in reverse: you start projecting films, and then you meet distributors of film, and then understand marketing and finally how they are made. 

BS: How did the idea come about for putting him in the series?

PH: We thought he could open a door into Asian cinema, but we wanted someone who was coherent and not just about Hollywood. 

BS: You knew what he was like?

PH: I knew him through drinking and eating, and when I met him he wasn’t in very good shape, he’d just had an operation and was on crutches. 

BS: He was off crutches when you filmed.

MC: The original concept was to have him walk into the studio with Junfeng, and to sit together and to be continuing a conversation, but he didn’t want to be seen walking on camera. So it starts with him sitting in the studio waiting for Junfeng to arrive. We had to improvise.

PH: We wanted to show the contrast between this young Asian filmmaker in his early 30s and this older French guy in his 70s. 

MC: That pairing would never happen in any other context.

PH: He also wanted to find out the ideas of young film-makers and what the film culture here was like here in terms of film history.

BS: There were so many films mentioned by Pierre, you had to find clips and stills. There’s a clip of an Edward Yang film…

PH: We got that from the family. Pierre also helped us get the contacts, through Benjamin (Illos), for a lot of those clips. 

BS: One of the things about Pierre that makes him hard to interview is that he drops names all the time. And drops them with the certainty that you know who he’s talking about.

MC: He mentioned this old French silent movie that he loved, L’Assommoir (1908). Completely out of the box. 

BS: How long did you film him for?

PH: We were two hours in the studio.

MC: But he took a break, it wasn’t two hours straight. These guys know what they want to talk about, and what they don’t want to talk about. They are very coherent, quite focused. They don’t need to see the questions.

BS: After that did you see Pierre again?

PH: The last time I saw him was in France at the premiere of Ilo Ilo (in Cannes in 2013). He looked happy.

(For Part Three go here)

In Front Behind The Scenes: Conversations about Pierre Rissient in Singapore (Part One)

(For the Introduction go here)

One: Chew Tze Chuan

“You have to be more vigorous!” 

To understand Chew Tze Chuan’s unlikely collaboration with Pierre Rissient, you must first know of Toh Hai Leong, the fiercely outspoken film critic, writer, archivist and ubiquitous figure at film screenings and festivals in Singapore throughout the 90s and into the early 2000s. Always armed with bags full of paperbacks, VHS tapes, newspaper cuttings and other cultural ephemera, Toh was Singapore’s most relentless and passionate cinephile and had over the years crossed paths with Rissient, introduced by film programmer Philip Cheah (who can take the credit/blame for many such introductions). In 2004, Chew, then a fledgling filmmaker collaborated (as editor and co-producer) with veteran Singaporean director Eric Khoo on Zombie Dogs, featuring Toh playing himself, a scabrous, hilarious fake-documentary that celebrated Toh’s wildly funny monologues on women, sex, violence, porn and life in Singapore. Not long after that, Toh was diagnosed with diabetes, and was trying to manage his failing health while living a life close to poverty. Chew himself had his own struggles, and this is where the story begins.

Chew Tze Chuan: I was at the bottom of a pit and felt very depressed and Mrs Chew was freaking out and she called Eric  and said, “Please save my husband.” This is 2005. So, Eric brought me the clipping of Toh Hai Leong in The Straits Times, with sunken cheeks and depressed, and we were equally depressed, and Eric said, “Chew, why don’t we do something for Hai Leong?” 

Ben Slater: You’d already done one film about Hai Leong.

CTC: Yes, Zombie Dogs. So now we were going to do a documentary “to encourage him”, quoting Pierre Rissient, “to live life again.” That was the mission. Some time in the latter part of 2005 we started to shoot for 40 days, and then Eric showed it to Pierre. 

BS: Did you know about Pierre before?

CTC: He had seen Zombie Dogs and gave Eric advice to restructure the whole thing (which they didn’t take), but I didn’t really know who he was. The first time I met him I was still shooting (the documentary). There was one scene at the Goodwood Park Hotel, they were sitting down together beside the pool (Pierre talks with Hai Leong about Korean cinema).

BS: And Pierre set up the phone call between Kang Soo-youn (the iconic star of Im Kwon-taek films) and Hai Leong, that’s in the film.

CTC: So generous of him. He called me and said, “Chew, I’ll call you in two hours and please be there.” And was really intense as usual. I had my old Nokia with the speaker and there we were, talking with Kang Soo-youn. Pierre really appreciated what we were doing… So he watched the documentary, and Eric says, “Pierre loves it.” Eventually, he told me to visit him in France, because Pierre couldn’t make it to Singapore, and we could edit together. 

BS: So you went to Paris.

CTC: With the hard-discs and my laptop. We went to Benjamin Illos’s place (Pierre’s long-standing assistant). Benjamin was there, which is why he’s in the credits as one of the editors (Benjamin is credited as providing “friendly special assistance”, Pierre does not take a credit). The first cut was two hours, and then it went to 90 minutes, and the one that Pierre saw was about 67 minutes. I was quite happy with it.

BS: How was it working with Pierre?

CTC: Benjamin was beside me, Pierre sat behind. Half the time he was yelling, or talking with a very stern voice. I wouldn’t call him a dictator but he was very concerned, and one of the main motives there was – “If you do it like this the Parisian audience will never get it!” I realized why he related to Hai Leong’s journey. He himself was taking insulin jabs, and by 4pm, despite the coffee he’d be dozing off, and then he’d get up and say “Chew, where are we?” He was maxing himself out. 

BS: What did he yell at you about?

CTC: Anything that was too technical, like I would manipulate the frame-rate, using slow-motion to emphasise a gesture, he thought it was fake, contrived. He could see it was a bag of tricks. There are scenes he took out, like when my son had a fever and we were giving him paracetamol by syringe, and he refused, and I parallel cut with Hai Leong refusing the medication and bitching about it. I could see Pierre smiling, but he wanted me to cut it. It’s in the Singapore cut, but not in the Locarno (film festival) version, A Friend Like None (the Singapore title for the film was simply F), which was 45 minutes. On the last day of editing he was quite happy and we had wine and he said “What shall we call this?” Pierre was a gentleman for coming up with that name.

BS: He didn’t like F as a title?

CTC: It was a bit ambiguous for him. He also said to me, “Chew, you have to be more vigorous!” 

BS: Make it faster and shorter?

CTC: Exactly. One scene was really zestful. Kang Soo-youn was talking about seeing Hai Leong in Busan, and then there’s a straight cut, and we hear a screech and we see Hai Leong walking very briskly to the screening of a film. I thank Benjamin and Pierre for that.

BS: Did my scene make the Locarno cut? (In the film I tell a story about the reception to Zombie Dogs when I showed it in a festival)

CTC: Yes, I can’t thank you enough. You chose the place, the kopitiam (coffeeshop) opposite The Substation (an indie Arts Centre). Pierre said, “Who was this guy?” He hadn’t met you yet. After that he got very intrigued. He wanted to know who you were, actually he wanted to validate everyone in the film. 

BS: So the cut that you showed at the Goethe Institute during SIFF (the Singapore International Film Festival, which later became SGIFF) was the longer ‘local cut’?

CTC: The version you saw was based on A Friend Like None. I came back from Paris with 45 minutes and Philip (Cheah) was the one who said, “Actually Chew you don’t have to do everything he says.” Because Philip had watched the Director’s cut and it had been accepted by SIFF. So I scratched my head and took a look at the cuts and chose the best moments, so I kept it at 60 minutes. I was satisfied. It was the best of the best. 

BS: What happened in Locarno?

CTC: Pierre had helped it not only get into Locarno but in a very good slot, during the first three days. (Before the festival) Pierre told me to get the French subtitles ready or at least the transcript. I thought that Benjamin would get back to me, and I let it pass. Then, the doctor seriously discouraged me from bringing Hai Leong to the festival and I thought it wasn’t fair. I was down because after shooting Hai Leong got much worse. I felt I was profiting from his disaster. So it got re-slotted from the first three nights to the last three nights. And there were no French subtitles, so Pierre was furious; fuming. In the end Eric kicked my ass, and said "You better go." So, I went. Pierre was there for the first week and by the time I got there he was gone. I came back with the programme as a souvenir, and Hai Leong was smiling at first and then he was angry, “Why did you go without me?” 


BS: But you saw Pierre again.

CTC: Whenever he was here. I saw him in 2014 during SGIFF.

BS: That’s the last time I saw him.

CTC: I met him for lunch and he was asking about my adventures in Manila and when I mentioned (director’s name redacted) he flipped, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”. (Zhang) Wenjie (then director of programming for SGIFF) was trying to calm him nicely, and Pierre said, “No, don’t talk about this.” I thought maybe he had a certain Euro-centric mindset about art-house or so-called “Good Cinema”, but then I heard him rail against the label “Art House”. I saw that this man has real integrity. He has an ideal about a certain purity in cinema. 

BS: He respected ambition, but if you’re just trying out a style he would see through it very quickly.

CTC: At the end of the day Pierre will know if this person is doing it with his heart, if he sees sincerity in the film-making. 

BS: Once he believed in a film-maker he would stick with them. I would sometimes say of a director, “There’s this one work that I don’t like”, and he’d say, “No, I don’t agree.” But if he thought a director was getting bad advice from someone else who Pierre didn’t like, then he would be very angry…. Did Abdul Nizam meet Pierre in 2014?

CTC: Yes! The night when they showed Breaking the Ice (Nizam's last film) in SGIFF. There were two students (assisting Pierre in Singapore), and Pierre was watching the film and Wenjie said afterwards “Pierre wants to go for prata.” Nizam was busy doing his stuff, so it was Uncle Pierre me, Wenjie, and the students, and they were asking Wenjie, “Why did you programme this?” They felt it was not good enough. Then Rissient said, “It was a promising film, it was just that there were too many elements, and it would have been stronger if he’d just focused on one or two.” In the film there are underwater sequences shot on this cheap Kodak underwater camera, and it was after Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) with its underwater sequences, and I said that if Nizam had a million dollars to shoot those sequences in the neighbourhood swimming pool they would have looked a lot better than Malick’s, and Uncle Pierre laughed, but they didn’t. Nizam had made the film for nothing, just because people believed in him. That was the last time I saw Pierre; a wonderful night.

Note: Toh Hai Leong died in 2015, age 58 and Abdul Nizam died in 2016, age 50.

(For Part Two of the conversations go here)