For three-and-a-half years, seven boxes of film reels sat in Sandi Tan’s house, “stacked like a vertical sarcophagus,” she recalls, which some guests may have mistaken for a year-around Halloween decoration as spiders began spinning cobwebs around them to the point that it scared her cats.
“My cats were freaked out, so I had to get rid of them,” says Tan, who had little interest in looking into the actual physical manifestation of where her dreams of becoming a filmmaker had gone to die when she was younger. “But at some point, you just have to face the chasm. I opened them up and I knew I would be sucked into a vortex of maybe no return, but I did. I looked into the dark hole and was sucked in.”
If Tan’s cats had even been slightly less timid, then we might not have one of the most singular documentaries of this year or any other with “Shirkers,” which is as engrossing for audiences as it had been for Tan, minus all the painful memories she had to navigate to restore her footage to its rightful place on the big screen. Revisiting her early twenties during the 1990s when she was a David Lynch obsessive with a penchant for making handmade zines to get the word out about all the pop culture that had been otherwise restricted from public view in her native Singapore, Tan fearlessly recalls the production of what was to be her debut feature “Shirkers,” made with fellow film students Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique Harvey under the tutelage of one of their teachers George Cardona, an American ex-pat who would serve as the film’s cinematographer.
A rare independent production in the movie-mad country, “Shirkers” had become heavily anticipated as a rare reflection of the culture, complete with hundreds of extras and imagery that was surreal not only in taking inspiration from masters of light such as “Days of Heaven” director of photography Nestor Almendros and Lynch and Jim Jarmusch collaborator Frederick Elmes with footage only captured at magic hour before sunset, but since so little had actually been filmed in the country before. However, “Shirkers” was never completed for reasons that Tan spends the documentary of the same name getting to the bottom of nearly 25 years later.
While the rebellious streak that led Tan to make the ambitious “Shirkers” against all odds in the first place never went away, the film charts the heartbreaking loss of confidence she suffered as a result of losing control over her footage through no fault of her own while demonstrating what her wildly creative mind is capable of as she pieces together exactly what happened. Instead of becoming a tale of loss, Tan rechristened “Shirkers” as a thrill ride in the present day, exhilarating as a mystery in which you never know where it’ll go next but truly electrifying to see its star reach her full potential as a filmmaker decades after she thought such a dream wouldn’t come true. Now, as dreamlike as what Tan captured continues to be, the film is a reality, available for all to see on Netflix and in theaters, and to mark the occasion, the director spoke about reviving the spirit of her original production with a new group of collaborators to tell this unmaking-of story, getting the most out of the tools available to her to bring the old footage to life, and finally experiencing acclaim for a film she never thought she’d get to finish.
I’ve been following the film since its Sundance premiere and the screening I was most jealous of happened in Sheffield where I heard the film was shown with a live score. What was that like?
That was great. It wasn’t an orchestra [during the screening], but after, I brought over Waish, the singer I found in Singapore, to Sheffield and I did the back projection of a half-an-hour of excess footage [I had]. She live looped four songs at my request, two of which were in the film, and she builds the song up herself. I found her through the internet [for the film], she was a schoolteacher and I got her to Sundance for our premiere and after she saw “Shirkers,” she was inspired to quit her job and just dive in and now she’s a musician full-time now, so I feel slightly responsible towards her. We also just showed the film in Singapore at this grand old theater called the Capitol and we had Waish open and then at the close of it, I had Ben Harrison [who was originally conscripted to] do the score live as well, so that was great. It’s been a whirlwind.
Having this dream deferred, is this putting a film out what you thought it would be?
It’s great to be able to have had the opportunity to put together this giant jigsaw puzzle of my life of the last 25 years after everything had vanished into a black hole. Making this film charted a new journey for me, like rekindling my confidence and my passion in filmmaking, just in the way that I made this film, discovering in the 21st century that you can work with a singer in Singapore, a composer in Israel via Skype and then a sound designer in L.A. and edit this gargantuan thing in my own garage with an editor who actually had no previous experience, but was a skateboarder/barista. This ragtag team pulled this through and it’s like “Shirkers” all over again. It’s the remake of a film that was never made in the spirit of the original film.
Did that clash of cultures and an editor who may not have been inclined to give the film a professional polish actually help get the quality you wanted?
I knew the story I wanted. My friends who are professionals and greatly respected in the business were so afraid for me. They [were] like, “How can you do this?” But the only person that can tell the story is me, so I had to have a person who was not sufficiently experienced so that they would take these risks with me that seemed at the time cockamamie, crazy and just completely too risky. We did everything backwards. For example, I spent weeks with [editor] Lucas Celler listening to music, just laughing our asses off, looking at collages, looking at my archive and just playing with graphics on the screen, working with After Effects and Photoshop and creating these massive montage sequences, recreating the mood of what it was like to be an 18-year-old with your head just bursting with ideas all the time. That’s what we had to recreate before we could get into the story, before we could get into structure, before I could get into recreating what “Shirkers” was. I had to get into the mind of what I was as an 18-year-old.
When you’ve got these reels of footage and the archival in general, is that telling you a different story than the one that may have been in your memory?
Yeah, the layers peeled off and I suddenly remembered what it was like to be me, the real me, the teenage me with all cylinders to be firing at once. You know you’re basically a superhero at 18, right? And this was me rediscovering my secret identity as that, having repressed that whole side of me when this whole episode happened. You become a grownup and you become someone else because time makes you forget. So just the act of reading all these letters that I wrote when I was a teenager in my journals and looking at photos and video and seeing the footage we shot for “Shirkers,” seeing what we actually caught [by making the film] made me realize I was a completely different person, but also I was completely fearless and my friends came along on this journey with me. It was a remarkable endeavor and remembering it just rekindled something in me.
You wrote a novel in between making the initial version of “Shirkers” and this version. Did that experience a help you structure your story as a film or think about it in a different way?
Yeah, I became a novelist because the stories I wanted to tell just were far too gargantuan I thought than could be put in film form at that time, so it was a way of making sense of the world. I could not have made up the experiences that we go through in “Shirkers.” It actually happened. I had tried at one point to put it into words when somebody asked me to write a fictionalized memoir of this whole thing, but at age 21, I was too young to write it and over the years, I thought about how to process this. Having written a novel and other things like screenplays, you realize the power of the narrative in trying to tell an incredible story and how to structure it [because] when you go through something in your life that’s really stranger than fiction in your life and you couldn’t make this up, words actually fail you. I think I could only have told the story this way at this point in my life.
How much of the film did you have in your head before talking to others involved?
I thought I could do this about everybody else. I began this not wanting to be in it and I didn’t want to see the footage of myself. I didn’t want to hear myself. I didn’t want to be on camera. But as we went along, I had a friend Enat Sidi, who cut “The Wolfpack” and “One of Us, who told me “Sandi, don’t you realize this movie is about you!” She insisted that I had to go and make a video diary and tell my story. I refused to do any of that, but I knew she was right once I dived into my archive and I realized there’s no way I can tell this story without telling my story. So I would shoot these interviews, realizing that I was not just shooting an interview as an impartial participant. They were very, very personal, personally directed at me and the relationships I had with these people were seeping into the frame and what they were saying to me, including calling me names. [laughs]
This is a silly question about the original footage, but in the original “Shirkers,” did you actually shut down a highway for the opening shot where you’re walking alone down an empty thoroughfare?
I will never say! But we were very, very resourceful. And we caught Singapore at this very crucial juncture in 1992. It was a very conscious decision where I never wanted to have a single skyscraper in the film. You never see any of the things you see in tourist brochures in the film. it was a very curated view of Singapore — this was the Singapore I had in my head, and I’d sit on railway tracks, nearly getting hit by a train at one point, or we sat in the middle of highways. This is why you should do things and not tell your parents or your families when you’re young. I think kids now are too close to their parents and everybody needs the approval of grownups. Fuck it, you should just do stuff, man. Take risks.
Were you ever able to look at the footage without the weight of everything that happened?
Sandi Tan: Yeah, because when I was making this film as an editor, I’m very good at compartmentalizing, so I was looking at it as a filmmaker. It wasn’t me seeing me anymore. The vanity and the self-consciousness is stripped away and I was looking at it purely as an editor watching the footage and thinking, “This is pretty remarkable stuff,” just knowing we had gone through to shoot at over a hundred locations, including the highway and the railway tracks with no grownup supervision and with a hundred actors, stealing old people out of old folks’ home and stealing kids out of school and sneaking them back in. The amazing logistics of this enterprise were mindboggling, so I had to be able to convey that as a filmmaker because to put what went into making this footage that looked so amazing into context was very important to me.
You’ve said the sound design was particularly important in the case of this film since there was no other audio to rely upon to bring the old footage of Singapore to life. What was it like figuring that out?
Because we didn’t have a lot of footage of George or of ourselves, we’re basically working with scraps. And luckily because I came from a zine background, I know what to do with scraps. We had to really expand and maximize the potential of scraps and one of the ways you can do that as a filmmaker is to really utilize every single technical [element] available to you. That’s sound, that’s music, that’s editing — and I’ve always been very obsessed by sound design in movies. Recently when I watched the new Denis Villenueve “Blade Runner,” I was weeping because the sound design was so beautiful. So I worked with Lawrence Everson, one of the great sound designers, and [we had] the luxury really of talking about sound a year before we began working together or the film was being edited. [We had] this ongoing conversation, planting ideas in his head with words, as he would say, where I just gave him a few rough trailers and bits and pieces of what the story was and photos.
For example, I said, “You can play things forwards and backwards and at different speeds because that’s how memory works,” and we talked about assigning [sounds to specific characters], say, George, I [said I] need to make him static personified, so we developed static for him as a sound and then those film canisters you saw, I said they need to be radioactive. They need to be giving off pulses even as they’re stolen away from me and when they’re kept in a room. It has to feel as if it was a person that was held captive. So we did that with sound. [Then] I found Waish, the Singaporean live looper, and composer Ishai Adar in Israel, and I asked him to sample her voice and take us along on this journey because she was going to be my stand-in, like a siren taking us along on this journey because it’s going to be such a complex layered [film] that we needed a guide. So she was in Singapore, and [Ishai] took her songs in Israel and I was editing this film in my garage in L.A. and I was working with sound designer Lawrence Everson in L.A. and we made this whole soundscape, along with sound effects into a seamless whole. Basically, we had to build a time machine through sound and image and editing and that was the most gratifying because doing that, you realize filmmaking is the peak, man. There’s nothing better than that.
What was it like showing this to your friends Jasmine and Sophie who you made the film with for the first time?
At Sundance, that was the first time that Sophie, me and Jasmine had been in the same room in 20 years, and that was complicated by the fact that we had the “Shirkers” crew from the current film, so it was a very strange reunion of a family that had never met before and didn’t know they were related, except through me. But it was an instantaneous family connection, including the yelling parts. [laughs] Lawrence [Everson] saw me and Jasmine and Sophie and met them for the first time, but because he knew them through the movie, seeing them in real life [felt like] if they had crawled out of the screen because it was exactly how they were presented and that was so important to me.
Both Sophie and Jasmine are proud of the film because they’re traveling along with it and promoting it with me, and [at Sundance] Sophie was thrilled and weeping and took some time to process – maybe she’s still processing it – and Jasmine… is Jasmine. It’s a prickly thing. She’s completely accurately presented because her family [told me], “You got her exactly!” But because I did capture her completely, she will not give me the pleasure of knowing that she’s proud of it. She spent the whole time at Sundance not talking to me. She would go off to RuPaul events because that’s her hero and when she’d come back, she’s like, “You’ve been such a dick to me!” And she wouldn’t talk to me, but [I’d hear] from everybody else that was there, she was having a ball of a time. She was being mobbed on the streets of Sundance. People were running to her, running lines from this film at her and I’m sure she enjoyed that. I know for a fact she did because I was told by witnesses! But I know her enough to know that [while] she enjoyed that, she would not give me the satisfaction, but it was enough for me to know that she had a good time.