What is filmmaker Kirsten Tan’s creative process like? We go behind-the-scenes of her first feature film, Pop Aye, to find out.
BY PAMELA HO
Published on 25 January 2017
BY PAMELA HO
Directing a full-grown elephant in your first feature film? On hindsight, New York-based Singaporean filmmaker Kirsten Tan jokes that if she could turn back time, she would probably start with an easier film. “Pop Aye was written without any consideration for practicality!” she says with a chuckle.
The seemingly impossible film (by Giraffe Pictures) – which traces the journey of a disillusioned architect and his long-lost elephant across Thailand in search of the farm they grew up on – has already won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Screenwriting at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival at Park City, Utah; as well as the VPRO Big Screen Award at the 2017 International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands. And we’re pretty sure it’s not done yet…
So how did Tan do it? The award-winning writer/director shares her creative process.
“I was living in Thailand for a year-and-a-half, and was filming Sink (2009) by the beach one day when our filming had to stop because a group of village kids was pulling an elephant and trying to bathe him in the sea,” Tan recounts. “That image stayed with me, and through the years, I tried to write about that scene. I guess it somehow evolved. So you can say Pop Aye has been brewing in my head for 10 years before I started writing it about three years ago.”
“Before I start to write, I create a playlist. Music gives the tone of the film, the rhythm of the film; even the way it’s cut – whether it’s going to be long takes, cross fades or hard cuts,” reveals Tan. “The sound I subconsciously associate with Pop Aye is very surf guitar. Creating a playlist from existing songs helps me see what the film is, and gives the visual language a backbone. At the end, when I’m talking to my musician, it’s easier because I just send him all the music I have.”
Tan wrote Pop Aye while writing Dadhi – her 2014 short film about an elderly widow who finds an asylum-seeking girl in her home. “In a way, it was a reaction to Dahdi, which was serious and weighty,” she says. “Pop Aye was extremely easy to write. I wrote it in two-and-a-half weeks!”
But affirmation for her script came fast and furious: In 2014, it was selected to participate in the Berlinale Talents Script Station and to compete in the Torino Film Lab Framework Program, where it won the top prize of 65,000€. By the time it was invited to the 2015 Cannes L’Atelier (a project lab to match directors/producers with potential partners), there was no turning back.
“I’m the sort of writer who needs to see the entire film in my head, which may not be a good thing because in the course of filming, it’s inevitable that things change as a result of the actors you cast, certain locations you can or cannot get, or the weather that day,” reasons Tan. “While I was trying to stay true to my vision while filming, I also let the film grow into what it wants to be. It’s like raising children: they’re all different.”
Pop Aye is produced by Giraffe Pictures, with award-winning director Anthony Chen as its Executive Producer. Tan reveals that Chen was very helpful in her creative process. “The good thing about my brain is that it comes up with a lot of ideas – often very randomly and illogically – so it’s good that I work with Anthony because his brain is very logical. He helps with exploring motivations and causality, which is how one thing affects the next.”
Making films is a process that has no Pause button. “When I see something, I’m unconsciously framing; or when people tell me something about their lives, I’ll be taking notes in my brain,” Tan reveals. “Even when terrible things are happening to me – like someone wants to break up with me or I have a fight with my parents – at the back of my head, I’m telling myself, ‘OK Kirsten, remember how you’re feeling right now’. It’s a bit scary how it takes over you, but I do it on a subconscious level. Film has become so much a part of me that it’s just a natural thing.”