The Generalizations of Directing:
by Anusha Abishegam
Do you have a thing for films that make you think outside the box? Then you’ve probably heard of James Lee, veteran Film Director and Founder of Doghouse 73. We spoke to James about his notable past in feature films, his active present in short films, and what it means to be a Film Director.
When did you get into filmmaking?
In 1993 or 1994, I joined a local TV production since that industry was booming. Prior to that, there was virtually nothing but Malay movies and a couple of Malay dramas. I actually come from a background of theatre, and I took a lot of courses at The Actor’s Studio. So my acting and directing skills come from my past of theatre.
Now there are more feature films out- Chinese films, Tamil films, Malay films and such. Back then (before 1993), it was smaller, not an industry where you could get jobs easily.
You also act in quite a number of your productions. Did you have a trained background in acting?
I didn’t get to delve much into acting, in theatre or TV production, because I was learning all the different aspects in production. I was originally trained as a graphic designer. Back then, there was no film school, no multimedia courses. So I thought the best way to learn was to get into every department: acting, PA… I worked as a technical crewman as well, a gaffer, editor, and eventually I became a DP (Director of Photography).
“So if you want to do something right, you need to understand all the stuff involved.”
It was a learning process- I went into acting on TV and eventually in theatre too. That’s how I learnt what it was like to be an actor, both when you’re onstage, as well as when you’re in front of the camera and you’ve got to imagine your own fictional world. Acting is very complex; it’s not just about memorizing the lines and remembering them. Once you understand acting in theatre, you appreciate that the whole craft is not as simple as you thought.
Why do you make films, and how did you get into it?
Basically, it’s telling a story. Before I went into film, the reason I did graphic design was because I wanted to become a comic artist. I used to be a Marvel and DC fan when I was young, and I liked graphic novels, so that was my main ambition. But the comic industry is worse in Malaysia- nobody buys local comics anymore. I thought filmmaking was interesting because I didn’t understand it back then.
We had no YouTube and no idea how film worked. When I went into graphic design, a component they taught me was “Storyboarding”, and I thought, “wow, it looks like comic panels”, and that was an eye-opener. Once I understood that process, it got me interested in the other processes, like how they write a script, and how they shoot the film. I started watching films and thinking about how they were shot instead of just enjoying them.
Eventually I thought, “I’d love a chance to make a short film”. Back then, chances were slim and film was very expensive, so I ended up in theatre. Then I got a chance to move to TV production when it boomed- but the boom didn’t last for long. It fell apart in 1997 because of our recession, and the whole industry went down. It slowly crept back up during the 2000s.
Is there a particular film genre you like doing?
No. I can watch thriller movies if they’re good, I can enjoy romantic comedies as long as they’re good… basically as a filmmaker, I don’t have a particular preference where I say, “These are the good stuff, and the rest is not”. I listen to all sorts of music, young pop, K-pop, classical music, Bob Dylan. If you want to be a creative person, a writer or whatever, you have to be open to different styles and genres.
You need to keep in-trend and see why these things matter to kids or certain people- just listen to them, you don’t have to like it. If people say something’s good, I’m going to go see why they think so.
Where does your inspiration for your films usually come from?
It comes from other people, from the news… I read a lot. Also I get inspiration from movies, and pictures that I’ve seen, and music. I get asked this a lot, and my answer’s similar to the previous question- I don’t need a particular source, like I need to do a certain thing to get my inspiration. For me, it’s more about being receptive to things around me, seeing what hits me. I have a notebook and I quickly jot down things that come to me. I have about nearly twenty notebooks, I hope one day I can sell them on eBay when I’m famous!
What is your opinion of the filmmaking scene in Malaysia? Do you personally think our standards are anywhere near Hollywood’s standards?
We do have talented people- VFX Artists, DPs, actors. We just don’t have producers or investors who are willing to pump money into projects. Good films cost money and are not cheap; what’s being made a lot more here are cheap stuff done fast with a low budget. Then people hope it becomes a box office hit for no real reason.
There’s no quality in most of our content. FINAS was reconsidering the Skim Wajib Tayang- that is a scheme to protect local films, by enforcing screening of local films for about two weeks. From a cinema’s point of view, they can’t be screening films for two weeks if they can get more money from other films. This screening system has been abused for the past two years as a lot of crappy films have gotten that policy, just because they’re Malaysian films! They were also overcrowded with the number of films, so FINAS is going to restructure the scheme where the policy doesn’t apply to all films, only selected ones.
It’s a tricky thing, but it’s worth it opposed to screening just about any film that qualifies. Because that does kill the industry, and audiences eventually decrease and it affects the revenues of cinema companies.
You’ve directed so many films in such a short span of time- what is the most common challenge you’ve faced?
My most common challenge is probably the actors- I’m not saying they’re hard to work with, but since every project is different, you gotta deal with the actors very differently. Even if they’re the same people you’ve worked with. You have to include the other people into your directing, your vision- whether it’s a play or a movie. You learn to balance and allow the space for actors to put themselves in, and you see some wonderful results. Instead of saying, “no you can’t do that, do this”, you let them have their space to do what they do. The space can’t be too big either, where they just do whatever and it’s not acting anymore.
While directing a kissing scene, for example, those are challenging and I think, “how do I approach it?” The actors have to be able to trust me, and to trust each other, and there’s the question of chemistry. People think directors just get on set, shout at everyone, and yell “Action!” and “Cut!”. But you have to plan each scene, how it’s prepared, how to direct it. Then you need to work with the DP and the actors- so many elements, it’s like being a General of a battalion in the battlefield.
What has changed for you as a director since the first film you made?
I continue to learn, and I try to absorb new, different things. My first feature film that won an award was “The Beautiful Washing Machine”. “Puteri Gunung Ledang” was also nominated- it was our most expensive film back then- and both those two were competing in the same category in Bangkok. The jury awarded the grand prize to “The Beautiful Washing Machine”, and we were quite shocked.
After the celebrations, I consciously made a decision: “This film has won an award, and I think I should stop making films like this”. I could continue to make similar films so that people recognize me in my work, and I’d maybe win more awards. If you looked at Award-winning directors, they’re always doing the same genre, similar themes, and people recognize them. Of course, as you do the same thing, you do become better. As an artist, if you do the same thing multiple times, you get recognizably great at it. But I was very conscious that I didn’t want to be an artist, I wanted to be a filmmaker- I wanted to tell stories, I wanted to do horror or comedy, no stereotypes to get stuck with.
There’s a common denominator in your films- a certain shock factor, a dark humour. Is this your signature?
I wouldn’t say this is a signature move. If you watch a lot of foreign films, a lot of the time they’re very uncomfortable to watch. I think sometimes stories need to be uncomfortable, especially now that I’m on YouTube. Whatever we watch on TV is all very comfortable, it’s supposed to engage you. That’s the beauty of storytelling- you have to shake them out of their comfort zone. How that particular viewer sees it is up to them, as long as that content hits them.
“Sometimes you need to bring a subject matter out and storytelling on social media has the ability to do that.”
People tend to react angrily to things that are provocative, more than anything else (on social media). People are reactive, which can be quite troubling, because human beings have a wider emotional range than just anger. They need to start being more analytical, and not just taking things at first glance and reacting. When I make a film, I know that I need to give them something so they are hit with a different sort of feeling.
Some movies are made to be entertainment and viewers aren’t expected to think too much- which is fair, sometimes I don’t want to think too much either. But you can’t just keep on consuming that same stuff- it’s the saddest thing for a human being to constantly say, “I don’t want to think”.
I noticed you have some tough female characters too. That’s not very common in local cinema.
I think it’s interesting to see women being strong, having that represented in film. The whole stereotype about a male hero is really getting boring. I think I’m uncomfortable with always portraying the man as the strong type, because eventually it does affect the society. It’s a lot of pressure on men to do stuff that they’re expected to do, and its 2016- can we change that so that women can go out and do stuff too?
But yeah, that image is damaging over the years to a lot of people of both sexes. I think media has a big part in that, and sometimes we have to do something different. If we can’t do it in mainstream media, we can do it on YouTube or other forms of media to open people’s minds. How we live our lives is very different from ten or twenty years ago, or the medieval times.
How does casting for your productions go? Do you typecast?
No, I try not to. It’s hard to say; usually I try not to base it on people’s looks at first. For my own productions, I have to see the actors’ work before I even ask them to act in my stuff. For commercials, though, we have to audition people, and the biggest mistake is looking at the person’s appearance.
If you’re ever a casting director, don’t pick based on the look. You’re not casting the look, you’re casting the character. Unless the script needs a guy with a six-pack, you’d have to get a guy like that… but always look at the character first. Can they do the lines and the character on the set? What else could they give me on set, as an actor?
Tell us a little about Doghouse 73.
It’s a production company, and you’ll notice most production companies in Malaysia now churn out content on YouTube- lots of them unsponsored- and we didn’t want the traditional thing of sitting there waiting for clients or funding before producing content. I think that’s too slow, and people won’t see what you can do.
If you don’t wait for funding or clients, how do you fund your productions?
You do it really low-budget with your friends. You just fork out some extra money for what you need- it can’t be too big, of course. It’s not sustainable financially, but it’s good for branding. If you go Google “Doghouse 73”, it can be easily found. That’s good for marketing, and different from the traditional way of doing things.
My inspiration came from the YouTubers- people like Joseph Germani and GRIM FILM; they started out by making stuff first. They started out with low-budget films and look at where they are today.
So we try to churn out short films on a low budget, once a month. Short films are more complex than skits. We need the time to write and plan, rehearse, and then we shoot it and post it up. We’re all freelancers, so when I need to do a project, I recruit people.
Do you also write the scripts?
Yes, I actually write most of my stuff. We don’t have many professional scriptwriters in Malaysia.
What moved you to start Doghouse 73? Was it a long time coming, or was it a move triggered by certain events?
It was certain events. In 2012, I realized there wasn’t much progress in the industry. They were stuck in a bubble, they felt too safe. That’s the problem with any business, if you feel safe, you don’t change for the better.
Advertisers are moving their money online, and that shift is happening in Malaysia. Firstly, you look at TV as traditional media and it’s not as reliable an ad space. How can you track the number of people who have seen your ad? It used to work because there was no other choice; it was the only wide-reaching outlet. But now, YouTube offers viewership analytics, and it’s easier to see your numbers. Also the ad is available 24/7, not just at 8.30pm (or when it’s scheduled to play).
Not to mention how much is paid for an ad to be screened- five major digits. But that amount for YouTube advertising is logically more worth it; you can just flood people with your ads until they die, right? [laughs]
So these were the reasons behind your shift to the digital platform?
The dramas that TV produced were factory-made, like it was just a job. They come in, they had to do this and that. I wouldn’t have minded if what they were doing was going to go somewhere else, but they were pretty much headed the same direction as always.
Today, I do short films online and I get a few thousand views, and it’s good because I know people are actually watching. There’s an engagement, and there’s an interaction. I can also directly see how they react to my films. TV and cinema used to be very one-sided, because the audience didn’t get to voice what they think. If you wanted to watch something specific, you had to watch it at a specific time because that was when it was scheduled to play.
“I think now people want to watch whatever they want, wherever they want, and whenever they want.”
Would you say you have a general target audience for your short films? Do you think the films appeal more to a certain audience?
When I first started in 2013, the problem was people online kept telling me nobody watched ‘long-form’ on YouTube. People loved those cat videos and funny videos, and all those skits that YouTubers do. So they told me, don’t do stuff longer than 3 minutes, nobody would watch it. But don’t let people tell you such things- don’t just believe them.
In the next two years, YouTube themselves generated a report in the US- the number of people watching long-form (more than 15-30 minutes) was actually growing. So yeah, you won’t watch a 30-minute video on your mobile because it’s tiring, or on the LRT because you’d prefer the short stuff… but it doesn’t stop you from bookmarking it, and watching it at home on your TV or computer. It’s free anyway.
I don’t have a particular audience that comes in just for comedy. If you look at my channel, it’s very diversified. There’s horror, action, drama, rom-coms. The reason it’s predominantly in the Chinese language now is because when I first started, the short films I uploaded had their biggest audience from Taiwan. That was actually what kept me going at the time; I uploaded one of my short films at the time, and it garnered a pretty big audience. I checked the top five countries of my viewers and the first one was Taiwan. Malaysia was number four or five.
The idea of Taiwanese people watching my films was so impossible ten years ago. Now I think Malaysia is the top audience, and this year we’re trying to expand to Malay and English productions. But it gave me the realization that if your film is good, it travels. The colours and the language is not the problem, though we used to think it was. Unless you want to sell to a particular market, in which case it is.
You’ve been posting about a big joint project – ‘KL24: Zombies’. Tell us about it.
This is a crowd-backed project, so we needed people to pledge to the project. How it works is we get the support before the money is unlocked and then we get the green light to start the project. It’s something like crowd funding but it’s different. It’s under webe, and they’re like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, but unlike those two, the user doesn’t have to back a project with money. They just download an app and vote for the project they choose to get funding. We needed 5000 Malaysians to pledge for us.
[‘KL24: Zombies’ has reached its goal of 5000 pledges on webe, and is currently in production.]
What awaits Doghouse73 in the future?
We want to make feature-length films, we want to invest in it ourselves, and we’d sell it online through ‘vimeo on Demand’. We’re gonna put it up on vimeo and you can download by paying a certain amount. We know it’d be tough to just focus on the Malaysian market, because Malaysians don’t like to pay for stuff. [laughs]
The movie we’d be making would be a genre-based film that appeals to the international audience. Hopefully by this year, we’ll have the means to do that. If that works out, we can become independent and not depend on grants or funds from companies to make films. Then we can make the films we want to make and sustain ourselves.
Any advice to aspiring filmmakers?
First of all- they should start making films. Don’t just think you don’t have this particular camera, or you don’t have that; if you want to shoot, you can do it with your phone and two friends. The good thing about doing it yourself with a small crew is you learn more. You’d have to do more than one role and it’s harder, but you learn faster and learn from your mistakes. So just start filming and open up more to learning new things.
Also remember what you learn on your own is just from one person’s perspective. When you work with other people, you need to be ready to see how other people work, and then you learn different styles in production. The problem is, when you don’t work alone, you don’t learn much you can do by yourself. But if you have a team and you still want them to work like you, you are in danger of becoming an egomaniac. So be versatile.
Always be adaptable- if you don’t have a budget, find a way to shoot without one. You need to always be able to move in and out of these things.