A scene from Mike Wiluan's "Buffalo Boys"

Interview: Mike Wiluan on Putting a Southeast Asian Spin on the Wild, Wild West in “Buffalo Boys”

When Mike William set out to transport audiences in his native Southeast Asia to a world they had never been to before with “Buffalo Boys,” he did perhaps too good a job.

“Unfortunately, the Western genre is still unrecognized [in Southeast Asia] and it’s not something people grow up with, so it did well, but I I think a lot of people expected it to do much better,” said Wiluan, on the eve of the film’s North American release. “We analyzed it afterwards and basically, there was like a disconnect between how they saw Indonesians as real cowboys, they just couldn’t understand how that could happen, even though I set it in a parallel universe.”

Although the film is well on its way to finding a new lease on life as it hits home video and cable in Southeast Asia as the kind of compulsively watchable action flick that can become a classic on cable, maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “Buffalo Boys” will strike audiences elsewhere in the world as being fresh for just how much of Indonesian culture it infuses into the bones of a Western. Set against the backdrop of Dutch colonialism of Indonesia during the 1800s, Wiluan begins his adventure in the States where Arana (Tio Pakusadewo) and his two nephews Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) have been working on the railroads after their father sacrificed himself back in Java so they could escape. However, they find themselves no longer welcome there either, retreating back across the Pacific to find that things have only gotten worse at home where the Dutch have been burning rice crops to grow opium, not only enslaving the current generation of villagers, but essentially dooming them for generations to come. Still, the villagers are resourceful in other ways, drawing on ancient traditions of riding buffalo and developing inventive weaponry for protection and while the Dutch Captain Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker) rules over them with an iron fist, Arana, Jamar and Suwo join forces with Kiona (Pevita Pearce), a bow-and-arrow wielding warrior, to take back control of their destiny.

Although Wiluan offers a rousing empowerment tale on screen, he has been authoring one off-screen as the founder of Infinite Studios, which has been breaking ground in Indonesia and Singapore for filmmakers to make top-flight productions in a part of the world that often doesn’t see themselves on screen. While his family comes from the oil business, Wiluan went to film school and has since established the infrastructure for films ranging from Timo Tjahjanto’s down-and-dirty thrillers “Headshot” and “The Night Comes for Us” to big Hollywood productions like “Crazy Rich Asians” to film in Southeast Asia and proves with “Buffalo Boys,” with its epic scope and well-choreographed action sequences, that there is considerable unearthed potential, both in locations and local talent, that just explodes onto the screen. With the film now hitting U.S. theaters and VOD, Wiluan spoke about how the moment had finally arrived for him to make his feature directorial debut, reinventing the Western for both contemporary times and a culture that hadn’t experienced it before, and why he’ll know better next time than to refer to an animal in the title of his film.

A scene from Mike Wiluan's "Buffalo Boys"Had you been wanting to direct for a while?

I went to film school and my love of making films really extends all the way back to a long, long time ago, but I really just didn’t have the opportunity because the industry was really at its infancy [in Southeast Asia]. There was a very strong and vibrant independent arts scene, and I ended up producing a lot of other people’s films with Eric Khoo, who also became a producer on this film. I kind of promised myself before I die, which you know these days could be any time, [that I’d direct] and I said it’d better be right now, so I did it. [laughs]

We built Indonesia and Singapore’s first soundstages and the company that I got involved with over 15 years ago has grown in its business and that’s why I stuck on the business end of things and the producing because there was also a company to run and a studio to run and that kept me very busy, but I just knew if we worked to be able to make different films, especially films in this genre, we needed some kind of infrastructure that would make our lives easier. Shooting on location, shooting CGI or anything that is a parallel universe [as we have on “Buffalo Boys”] is very, very challenging, especially in countries that are developing, but just we happened to have that planned for a while and we had the support of the governments here to build the stages.

How did a western come to mind?

I’d been a big fan of westerns and my dad was [in the video distribution business] in the 1980s in Jakarta, so we had VHS and Beta tapes at home because we couldn’t store them in any other facilities. My job with my brothers was to make sure that before every movie was rented, it had to be rewound and you had these rewind machines for Beta and VHS tapes, so I was watching film at a really, really early age. There were westerns and everything that had Clint Eastwood I would love and I began to really understand the films that John Ford was making, [then] Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah and “Yojimbo” from Akira Kurosawa.

As I progressed through the different genres, I fell in love with again the way that westerns were constantly being reinvented and I always thought if I had to do a film, I’d love to do a western in Southeast Asia and how could I do it that was as a potentially parallel universe that this could’ve happened in the same era as the country was colonized. I’ve never really seen a film about Dutch colonialism in such a way, so maybe I could use it in a way to let them have a taste of Western medicine, right? And this time coming from the Wild West itself, so just mashing it up and trying to make it work, that curiosity made it come together.

You’re also making a period film that feels modern. What was it like getting that mix right?

There were a couple [areas of the genre] I didn’t want to go into. I didn’t want to get into this whole idea of steampunk western, like “Wild Wild West” or where it becomes like a more sci-fi universe like “Westworld.” It had to be a Western that was obviously a parallel universe a la Quentin Tarantino in “Inglourious Basterds” or “Django” where at the root of it is a revenge story, but [there’s] a historical backdrop that obviously had a lot of tragedy in its history, but [you could] have a bit of fun with it. With the kind of market that we have of watching superheroes, watching them suit up and get ready for battle is the best thing [about] watching these films — preparing to go to war is just as good as watching the war itself, so for me, it was like let’s play with this a little bit more. Let’s play with the fact that they did have some odd weaponry in those days, so they’re going to have these crazy quadruple barrel shotguns and little grenade launchers or they often had some kind of body armor, because I knew fans would enjoy that. That’s where I pushed this a little bit more than anything else [while keeping] within the same historical realm.

Did producing Timo’s films familiarize you with how to shoot action?

Yeah, definitely. When we were working on “Headshot” or “Night Comes For Us,” it definitely gave me an appreciation for how action needs time and a lot of coordination, working with the right people who have the same philosophy towards showing the action and having a camera team that is able to capture the very best of what you need to achieve. It’s a really long drawn-out process, and it’s in your mind, but you need the team to read your mind in knowing how to operate. And [when] you’re doing action with explosives, with stunt guys, things might not go according to plan. Originally, you budget for seven days, but everything’s slow in a production and you [may] only have three days to do it. You have to innovate, you have to still deliver something that would be worthy to satisfy people and obviously do something original, so as a producer you’re trying to juggle those elements all of the time and work with the people who are able to bring the film on time and on budget but still deliver the goods.

When it came to directing, it was so easy for me to want to bury my head in a hole and say I don’t care about time, I don’t care about money — I [actually] do care about time. That’s the only thing I want, but I’m not going to be one of those directors who says get me what I want and being a child, so the experience of working on other shows greatly helped.

A scene from Mike Wiluan's "Buffalo Boys"Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?

I told one interviewer who asked a very similar question, what’s the most difficult thing and I think my answer now is that I’ll never make a film with the title of an animal in it. Working with the buffalo is the most difficult part of the film because I couldn’t film it without the buffalo. If I said, “Oh we’re just going to ride horses,” [with] no reference to the Buffalo Boys in the title, then it would be very strange indeed. [laughs] And within Asian culture, the water buffalo is incredibly ingrained in agriculture, but they don’t have stunt animals [in Southeast Asia]. There’s no stunt buffalo or Hollywood trained buffalo that can line up and you can tell what to do. They have a mind of their own. We had a couple of issues riding the buffalo and they wouldn’t run in the way we wanted them to run and we had a couple of days to shoot those sequences, so that was the most nailbiting moment. It’s not like afterward you go up to a buffalo, look at him in the eye and say, “Dude, you’ve got to get this right.” They say don’t work with animals or children, and I had a scene with two young small children in one instance, so I’ll tell you [it’s the] animals, I agree. Don’t work with them.

It seems like you had a pretty remarkable 2018 between your directorial debut, “The Night Comes for Us,” and your involvement with “Crazy Rich Asians.” Was it as gratifying as it looks from afar?

Yeah, it was a crazy year. We finished “Headshot” the year before and we were moving into “Night Comes for Us” and we talked to Netflix about following up with another show and then I did “Buffalo,” so right after “Buffalo,” HBO approached me to do kind of a spin-off series of the same universe. So I created a TV series called “Grisse,” which I took from audience’s reactions to not fulfilling Fiona’s role as the badass she was set up to be [in “Buffalo Boys”]. There were many reasons for it, but I was determined that we set that straight and create a show that’s basically the same world as “Buffalo Boys,” but in another town, like while the Buffalo Boys were establishing themselves, there’s another group of people in this town who are trying to set themselves free. It was crazy that right after I was on post-production on “Buffalo,” I was writing eight episodes and showrunning it, directing some of them and that just finished its run last Christmas. It should be out on HBO Go in North America pretty soon – so it was a lot of projects in 2018 and I might be stuck with westerns for quite a while if we do a second season.

“Buffalo Boys” is now in theaters and available on demand and on digital.

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