Entornointeligente.com / Hollywood’s biggest night is just a few weeks away, and it looks like the show will go on— without a host . That’s not all: amidst a swath of controversy and unexpected wins at and after this year’s Golden Globes, the Oscars are looking more unpredictable than ever.
The race this year is full of dark horses and fan favorites, from the oft-divisive Green Book to chart-topper A Star Is Born. Yorgos Lanthimos’s zany British dramedy The Favourite could end up being a surprise front-runner, while the race for best-supporting actress once seemed set in stone—but by now has proved to be one of the most unpredictable categories of the year. Regina King got the Globe and a passel of other prizes, but has also missed out on a few key nominations. Can she beat out awards veteran Amy Adams, who transformed alongside co-star Christian Bale for the sharp-tongued Adam McKay film Vice ? And at the end of the day, will this year wind up rewarding actors-turned-directors, or indie darlings? Only time will tell.
In this week’s Little Gold Men, Richard Lawson, Mike Hogan, and Joanna Robinson gather to talk about the state of the Oscar race so far. And later in the episode, Vanity Fair film critic K. Austin Collins sits down with director Sandi Tan, whose documentary Shirkers takes viewers to Singapore in the 90s. The film is exceedingly personal: “Characters were relatives, and we invaded everybody’s homes to shoot in. I mean, we shot in like 100 different locations, which is a lot for kids,” said Tan, whose intimate film is taking Netflix by storm.
Listen to this week’s episode above, and find Little Gold Men on Apple Podcasts, where you can leave a rating and a review.
Vanity Fair: This is K. Austin Collins, film critic for Vanity Fair, and I am on the phone with the wonderful director of the new Netflix documentary, Shirkers, which is one of the best documentaries that I think Netflix has released, so we’re really excited to be speaking with you, Sandi, from L.A.
Sandi Tan: Hi. Glad to be here.
I just want to jump right into this movie, because I think one thing that I’ve had a lot of fun talking to people who haven’t seen it yet about is just how to prepare them for what it’s even about without revealing . . . Without revealing, because, it’s like, you know, there are a lot of things happening in this film, and I don’t want to kind of reveal things that I think need to be revealed in the course of watching it, but, maybe you could give us a rundown that, as the director, maybe you have a keen sense of what not to reveal.
I’m likely to do too many spoilers, but it’s really funny how . . . No, and I’m not going to do them, but on Facebook and everything, I have, like, so many people, strangers who have seen this and just say, “Just see it. I can’t describe it, just see it.” But, I will try to describe it. Basically, Shirkers is about, back in the 90s, me and my teenage friends, we were teenagers in Singapore trying to make the first independent road movie, which I wrote, and I played the lead in, and it was called Shirkers, and nobody was making films at the time in Singapore, this is 1992, and we worked with my mentor, this mysterious man named Georges Cardona, who was ostensibly an American, and after shooting wrapped, he vanished with the footage. And, we had shot this on 16mm, so there were no copies, no prints, no video, and he vanished. And, for 20 years, I’d been searching for this missing thing in my life, this missing, you know, this traumatic episode I’d been trying to deal with, and then it re-enters my life, and as a grown-up, I am a novelist. I mean, I became a novelist. I moved to L.A., and I go on the detective search and hunt to piece together the largest jigsaw-puzzle mystery of my life, I guess.
Right. Yeah, I mean, even just in the way that you’re describing it just then, I think part of the reason that anyone who wants to tell their friends to watch the movie struggles is because there’s so many components to this, and I think, you know, there’s partially just like the coming-of-age story, coming of age in Singapore, and there’s also like the movie within the movie, like, you showing clips of the film that you’ve recovered within this documentary, and then there’s like this mystery of you tracking down the film, and of Georges, this mysterious man.
Yeah, and can I also add, a second coming-of-age story, which is the coming of age of me, so many years later, feeling like, you know, I hadn’t quite grown up because of this episode in my life when I was a teenager, you know, kind of keeping me suspended in a state of suspended youth or something of unresolved-ness. And, I feel like, making this film, I finally can grow up. It’s a very belated coming of age story in which I reclaim my voice and my own story.
Right, absolutely. And maybe we can actually even sort of start from the end in that way. How did you finally land the footage of your movie?
Well, you know, around . . . Well, September 11, 2011, which is the 10th anniversary of this traumatic event for the nation, I got this email from a person who is related to the man who stole the film, and they asked if I, you know, they found this footage, 70 cans, 70 cans of 16mm film totaling 700 minutes, and they asked was I interested in getting them back. So, this opened this, I don’t know, this, like, rabbit hole for me that I knew I’d be sucked into and consumed by for years. So, this person began sending me boxes of the footage, as well as all the paperwork related to Shirkers that was taken away from me 20 years ago, and it took me three years before I could kind of open up those boxes. They sat in my house for three years.
Before I just had the courage, and, I don’t know, the financial fortitude to deal with this kind of crazy thing. It’s like reopening this huge wound and having to get in touch with the other people whose lives were affected by this debacle, as well, so, it took me three years, and that’s how the whole journey began.
It’s wild to hear you say it took you three years to open the canisters, because, my prevailing sense from watching the film is just that so much of this film is about what happened to your friendships, like, the other young women that you made this film with, Jasmine and Sophia, and your collaborators. So much of this film is about what this event did to all of you, and what it did, how it fractured your ties to each other. It seems to be a really big part of that. But, you reunited with these other women for the making of this new version.
Yeah, it was a difficult thing. I mean, you know, like, it’s still a very sore point, and when we talk about, when Sophie, Jasmine and me, and we all live in different cities in the world, I live in L.A., Sophie lives in New York and Jasmine still lives in Singapore, and the three of us are united forever and bound by Shirkers, for better or for worse, and it’s just something that, when you bring up, it’s like such a toxic subject that we revert to being teenagers arguing about things as if they happened yesterday, even though this was 25 years ago now. So, it’s a complicated thing, but they are the only people who kind of have experienced as keenly and as deeply as I have. Like, there were other people on the project, because we were all teenagers, so, like on the crew, it was like our friends from high school providing their free labor, and some of them, having just seen this version of Shirkers, like, my film, they had no idea all this was going on, and they realized that I was shielding them, that we were protecting the rest of them from all of this darkness that was going on underneath the surface.
Right. I mean, my impression from the documentary, and correct me if I’m wrong, but your film became kind of mythological at some point. It seems like other people were aware of this project, that it disappeared, that even if people hadn’t seen it, people were aware of it, that it was this huge question mark, this absence in Singapore’s cultural history, this thing that everyone knows exists, but no one can see.
Yeah. And, also, like, nobody knew what it looked like, and nobody knew, like, when you’ve talked about, like, having shot at 100 locations with 100 extras, and getting the largest dog in the world, and largest dog in Singapore, and, you know, all these fantastical locations and characters, nobody would quite believe you, because there’s no proof, so, therefore, it would seem like you were making it up, you know? So, that was hugely frustrating, because I realized I sounded like a loony person. I had to learn to kind of tone it down or shut up about it, and that’s what I did. And, I just repressed the whole episode, because I realized there was no way that I could actually prove that this actually happened, that we actually accomplished this monumental feat, until the rediscovery of this footage.
Right. And maybe it’s worth rewinding a little bit. Can you tell us a bit about Singapore in the 90s, because I think one thing that’s really striking for me, when I was watching this, was for you to say that in the early 90s, you would have made the first independent film, and that’s like, that’s just mind-blowing to hear. Can you tell us a little bit about the scene at that moment, and how it could be that you, in the 90s, could be . . . What was the film industry like? Was there one? Were there other filmmakers?
Yeah. It was like a bunch of . . . I mean, a few of people were doing, I guess, different films, and I guess I would be very careful about calling it . . . I guess I should be careful about calling it the first independent film. I would call it maybe the first independent road movie, or the first independent film of that sort, you know, shot on location. Because, you know, there’s a lot of undocumented stuff that was going on, and stuff in different languages. Not many. I’m talking about a handful of people that might be offended because their film looked like a studio film, but they made it independently. You know, like, films that cost much more than ours, and that had grown-ups attached to them. This was a film made by kids who were just going out on the street and shooting a movie based off a first draft, written by a crazy 19-year-old like myself, and, so, it was the first of its kind. And, in Singapore, you know, in the 1990s, it was really hard to see movies. It was a different world. The Internet did not exist, there were very few of us who were interested in movies of the kind I was interested in. I can count on one hand the number of people who were interested in David Lynch and the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch, who were my heroes, and, you know, we would go seeking out their work. I developed a clandestine videotaping network with my cousin in Florida, who had parents who had an account at Blockbuster, so I could get her to kind of rent Blue Velvet and Raising Arizona, films I’d read about only in magazines but could never see, and had her tape them on VHS tapes and mail them over to me in Singapore. And this is how I watched a lot of those films. I mean, this is how you had to get hold of contraband in the most creative way you could, just because you wanted to be inspired, you wanted to see something else that wasn’t just, like, I don’t know, like some Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone shark movie or something, because that’s all that played in Singapore.
Right. Yeah, I mean, and that was what was partially so interesting for me to learn about within the context of a documentary, because you force us to really think about just these cultural imports and exports, and how they land in your hands, and then how you sort of develop your own kind of style when you’re making your own movie, but that you’re combining, you know, what you have in Lynch and the Coen brothers with your own experiences and your own imagination, and making something just new.
Yeah, because I really wanted to, you know, like, Singapore’s the smallest country in the world, as far as I know, and you can cross the country in 40 minutes from one end to the other. I mean, that’s how small it is. It’s like one-fifth the size of Rhode Island, and I thought, why not make a movie, like a road movie, a heroic road movie that would make it seem as rich as the biggest country in the world? Just go on this Quixotic mission of just doing this very surreal, curated version of Singapore, because everybody knows Singapore as being this very staid place where everything’s gray and everyone’s well-behaved, and I just wanted to show a different version, a version that was in my head, you know, in the way that the Coen brothers show a different version of America than is true in real life, and David Lynch, as well. And, I just thought, why don’t I just . . . was desperate to show my version of Singapore in that kind of spirit.
Yeah. And, I think I found this especially moving as we were revisiting some of the footage from the original Shirkers, you are also good about pointing out things that have changed in Singapore, and something that was really striking to me was just that, you know, in your footage, what’s also being recovered are these things that were lost, things about Singapore that were lost, places that have changed.
Yeah, because, like, one of my impetus for doing it is that these buildings were just getting torn down every day. These places were just going to go missing. I mean, like, the fact that there were so many . . . there’s a disproportionately large number of mannequin shops in the center of town, which I found extremely surreal and amusing, and I thought, you know, like, you have to capture them, they’re not gonna stay there forever, for example. And, then, like, and then characters like all these kind of interesting-looking people, and then my grandmother, who I knew wasn’t going to be around forever, let me just put her on film. So, there was a lot of, like, this hurry. I just felt this great compulsion to kind of capture and record all these people, you know, as a documentarian back then, even, like, before I knew what it was like to be a documentarian. I wanted to kind of collect and capture and record these things that would soon be disappearing before our eyes. And, actually, the old footage of Shirkers is very much a kind of a, like a documentation of a Singapore that once was. So, a very specific kind of Singapore where I refused to show a single skyscraper. It was a very curated version of it, but then, what documentary isn’t, you know?
Right, absolutely. Yeah, and maybe we should talk a bit about just even how one goes about making a movie when you were, I mean, how old, you were late teenagers, right, like 18, 19? At that age, and this is maybe how we can start talking about Georges, because it seems like he was actually pretty fundamental to getting you guys together, and helping in some way, before disappearing with the movie, it seems like. He was actually a useful person to have around, until he . . .
He was. No, he really was. I mean, the thing is, like, you know, when you’re, like three 19-year-old girls, you know, like, Kodak’s not gonna give you free footage. Sophie and Jasmine went into Kodak to ask them for free film to play with, and Kodak gave us free 16mm film, and the film equipment houses, too, but the thing is, if they hadn’t known that we had a mentor, I mean, we needed Georges as a figurehead, like, as the responsible party that is signing off on all this, that we’re working with a grown man, like, in his 40s, from America, who is gonna direct this film, otherwise, these companies are not gonna trust us with their equipment. But, Georges was really useful in that respect. He may not know how to operate a lot of things, or he may not know how to direct a movie, but, he was very useful to us as the grown-up that we needed to kind of front the project, you know what I mean? He was also a great storyteller, and he was a great . . . Even for other kids, like, these kids would not come and work on this project for free if it was just going to be kids. It would have been like Bugsy Malone, you know, kids running around playing at grown-ups. But, to have this one grown-up there, especially a place as conservative as Singapore, where people respect authority. You know, parents would let their children out of school to be in a film if there was a grown-up in charge, and so, Georges was a person in a position of responsibility. Of course, he did stuff that was completely wrong at the end, but, yeah, he was very useful to us.
And how did you divvy out responsibility, because this is something that becomes clear when people watch the documentary, but, at least as like, you know, someone who’s not 18 or 19, I was still deeply impressed by how enterprising you all were. Can you tell us about your various responsibilities? You wrote and starred in Shirkers, it was your idea. What about Jasmine and Sophia? They were also fundamental.
Yeah, I mean, and then I kind of wanted them, I was kind of dictating what I wanted from production design and locations, as well, and then we deployed a whole team of location scouts who went around the country taking videos and doing pictures and sending them back, and then we decided on the locations. Jasmine was kind of like the assistant director, so, she was just taking care of the logs when we shot. Sophie was really the producer of the project, so, she would call the bus companies and try to secure us buses that eventually we, you know, we got a few buses to shoot off. . . . And then, I guess she was, like, writing letters, hoping to get funding for this film. Of course, none of that panned out, but she was the one doing the kind of grown-up job of writing these grown-up letters and signing them off, you know, as Sophie Wu. Of course, people would be horrified to realize it was just this 19-year-old girl writing as an EP, but, yeah, so that was how we did it, and it was everybody pooling their resources together. You know, props came from our homes. Characters were relatives, and we invaded everybody’s homes to shoot in. I mean, we shot in like 100 different locations, which is a lot for kids.
That’s a lot.
Yeah, that’s a lot. It was because my script was the first draft, and there was nobody vetting it to say this was impractical, so we did it, and Georges was saying to me many times that, you know, you wrote a Fellini film, it was like way too many characters and way too many locations, but, I’m like, “Yeah, but you said just go ahead and we’re shooting it off the first draft.” But, you know, there is a certain freshness, I guess, like, I was ashamed of it for a long time, but, looking at the script now, I’m like, “O.K., I can see why he went for it.” There was a certain kind of lack of fear, you know, there was a certain kind of innocence. And, I think it was mainly that, like, the thing that made us feel everything was possible was that nobody else was doing it, and nobody else was saying no. And we were just these gung-ho kids who, you know, just thought . . . I mean, especially Jasmine and me, who had just come from this drama school where we were in this kind of pilot program for theater and theater studies and drama, and we just felt like we were doing so much at school, and really ambitious plays, but, we just didn’t feel like coming out of high school, it was gonna be any different, that we could just keep going and just keep doing impossible things. And no one’s telling us no, so why not just go for it?
Yeah, what it really clarifies, and this is something that absolutely comes through in Shirkers, the documentary, really clarifies that, when Georges leaves with the footage, it isn’t, you know, it’s not just a movie. This was, like, a huge creative act. This was something . . . You can tell. I mean, anyone who’s not 19 is watching this and thinking, I remember being 19 and just feeling this creative freedom, and not knowing what the limits were, and not knowing that there were things I shouldn’t be doing creatively.
Yeah. No, that’s the thing. It’s amazing, I mean, like, you hit it right. He took so much more than just the physical film. It was everything. All our, you know, enthusiasm. I wouldn’t say innocence, I would say energy, optimism, creative freedom, and fearlessness, which is a huge thing. And, like, in making this film, and rediscovering this film and making this documentary, I feel like I’ve actually rediscovered that part of me, and I feel like, on some level, I’m making this film as a duet with my younger self, you know? It’s like I rediscovered my secret superhero identity, and my secret superhero identity was my 19-year-old self, and we’re making this film together. I somehow rediscovered the energy and the fearlessness a little bit, and I just really went for it, in terms of taking risks and telling the story creatively as a filmmaker, in editing, in sound, in taking all these creative leaps I would have done at 19, had the technology been available to me.
Right. And, when you get the movie back, and after three years you open it, what gets your mind going about making this documentary? Like, how do you decide that this is what you’re going to do, that you’re not just gonna, you know, make this movie, because you didn’t have sound for it, right?
No, I did not. But, also, beyond that, I just thought, that’s just . . . the most that can come out of that would be you had this odd little novelty film, maybe, and it may not cut together. I was kind of horrified at seeing my performance, and then, without sound, you have to, you know, put in titles, or you’d have to do something else. But, the story around it, the story is so much more compelling, so much more interesting. It’s such a parable of youth and friendship and loss and rediscovery that, how could you not want to tell that story? I mean, it was always . . . this is a story that’s been playing in my head for 25 years. Like, why would you not tell that story? Because, I feel like the footage now lives its best life in this film. It would live an interesting life as a footnote, as a completed, cut-together film, like, fictional version of the original Shirkers, but, I think it lives its best life and has its most haunting qualities exposed in this version, where you explain the context of this and that, and, you know, we’re now seeing that these locations no longer exist, and the fact that I was doing things like sitting on the middle of a railway track, on an active railway track, or in the middle of a highway. I mean, like, all these things, when you see them in context of seeing it now, rather than in the context of one surreal little film from a faraway place a long time ago, I think it’s much more interesting anyway.
Yeah, because, in the movie, as well, you say that you don’t like your performance in the movie, but I think anyone who’s seeing the footage from the 1992 project is deeply impressed. Like, this is not, I mean, this does not look like the work of teenagers at all. Like, it just really, I think you really pointedly, there’s this great moment in the documentary when you do side-by-sides of things from your Shirkers and things that, you know, Wes Anderson was doing in his early films, in Ghost World, and there’s just this sense of—
Yeah, this kinship, like, the stylistic, energetic beginning of the career youth.
I was, like, so happy to see those films, because, you know, I was happy and sad, because, when I saw Ghost World, and I saw Rushmore, and I recognized the sudden kinship with Trippers, but I couldn’t tell anyone. There was no one to tell it to, because I had no proof that I had tried to do something that was very similar in spirit, and actually in execution, also, maybe. But there was no way I could describe it, so I had to keep it a secret, but, it was a secret smile. Like, it was a secret within myself. Yeah, so it was a painful thing, but it was also gratifying to know we had done . . . and we had friends out there doing the same thing.
Right, so before we go, has this reignited your film career?
Yeah, no, for sure. I am just making up for lost time. I mean, in making this film, as I said, you just rediscover your confidence as a storyteller, as a filmmaker, and you know, you’re sharing it with the world, and people see it. So, yeah, no, I’m kind of like, I’m really going to be quite very busy very soon. I can’t talk about them yet, but, yeah.
That’s really exciting.
It’s very exciting, yeah.
Well, thank you for giving us your time. This is Sandi Tan, and please go watch Shirkers on Netflix. You have no excuse, because I know you have a subscription. It is really wonderful, and, yeah, Sandi, thank you, this was great.
No, thank you so much. This was really good fun.
LINK ORIGINAL: Vanityfair