“Roulette City” director, Thomas Lim, is shooting a new film in Macau, starting in April. Originally from Singapore, he has also previously worked as an actor in leading roles in Chinese TV drama series and films.
Now based in Los Angeles, USA, he is temporarily in the territory for a workshop on “Re-Scripting for Hollywood”, taking place at Creative Macau. In an interview with mART, he talks about his new film. It takes place on the fringes of local casinos and it is a psychological drama with three leading characters, one of whom is not really a person. Sally Victoria Benson — from Macau/Australia — and Kieko Suzuki — from Japan — are already confirmed.
By Luciana Leitão
In April, you’re coming back to Macau to shoot a new project. What is it?
I like to base my stories on the background of Macau being a casino city. I know there is a lot more to say in Macau, but the local stories should be told by local filmmakers.
You’ve said previously it is a psychological drama. Does it happen inside a casino?
No. It is a story that happens along the fringes of the casino. There are going to be people that work along the fringes of a casino – for example, hookers, loan sharks, this sort of people will start to appear. I will be here less than one month [in April].
There are three lead characters: one is a Japanese and one is a Macau man. The third character is not a real person. Right now, the whole story is set in Macau. After everything, if I think I need to, maybe I’ll shoot one or two scenes in Japan.
Your first long feature film, “Roulette City”, was also shot here. Why do you keep choosing Macau as a shooting place?
Before I became a director, I was an actor in Mainland China. Then I decided to become a director and I wanted to find the best place I could to make my first film. I didn’t want to be too far away from Mainland China, because I still had opportunities there. At that time, Hong Kong was a lot more expensive, so Macau became the best option. Also, I have theatre friends here, as I used to do theatre.
Very few films are made in Macau, even today. It was a very good chance for me to use Macau to film, because people are curious to see things coming out of here.
Yet, in Macau, there is a lack of soft skills for the cinema industry. Didn’t that prevent you from going ahead?
The soft skills were a problem.
My main cinematographer at the time was my old friend from Australia who lives in Beijing, so he came to help me make the film [“Roulette City”]. I lived here for a year before I started to shoot the film, so there are people who know how to make some things and I just had to work with what I had.
Even this time, when I come back again, there will still be the problem of soft skills. I will bring again my core team to Macau, so my cinematographer this time will be from Japan, as well as one of the lead actors. One of my important producers is actually from Macau – she is a girl that makes commercials.
In Roulette City, I had two local actors. They were not professional actors, but they had the natural talent to do the roles. One of the persons we had in “Roulette City”, his personality is such that he didn’t really care what people thought of him in real life. That really helped, because he is not very self-conscious. But, because he is not a professional actor, the role cannot be too big.
Do you have local actors for the film you’re preparing to shoot in April?
Yes. One of the main characters is a local man. I have yet to find the actor, I’m speaking to people. I would like to work with someone I already know. When a film is not of a high-enough budget, creators want to bring people they know, because they trust these people, not only in terms of skills, but also in terms of attitude.
One thing I demand from the actors is that when they are onset they shouldn’t be high-maintenance. Some people need a lot of different things – they need you to call a taxi for them. The crew is already small because of the small budget, so we don’t have people to call a taxi for you.
On previous interviews, you mentioned that young directors shouldn’t be afraid of doing low budget productions. How can you succeed with such films?
The truth is the world will judge the success of your film based on how many persons it reaches. We have to strategise our film – that is low budget – in other ways.
Another reason why I like shooting in Macau is because it naturally adds value to the film. Many people have not seen a film coming from Macau, be it from a foreign filmmaker or by a local filmmaker. But the name Macau is getting more popular, especially in Asia. Even in America, people know of Macau because they know it’s a casino place. Audiences are curious about films coming out of Macau. The only thing they know about Macau is from the pictures they see on the Internet and they are all about casinos. They might not know there are residents living a normal life in Macau that is not related to casinos.
Why are so few people shooting in the territory?
The soft skills are hard to find. There are Hong Kong filmmakers that like to shoot in Macau. Even some Hollywood films, some scenes are shot in Macau. But for the whole story to be shot in Macau… That is very rare. One of the reasons is mainly because local filmmakers are not making enough projects here.
Usually, making a film – unless you’re making it a top mainstream level – is not a money-making activity, but it takes up so much from you. Filmmaking is a team activity – they need a team and it’s difficult to find; even if a small team – of fully committed people.
Another thing I feel about Macau is that it lacks struggle. Everywhere I go in this world I face people around me that say ‘I don’t want to go to this place, because I want to save some money’. In Macau, I almost never hear that. Comfort is the enemy of trying to get things, because then you have to sacrifice to risk doing something bigger.
With Hong Kong as a neighbouring city, what is lacking in Macau for the industry to develop?
There is a lack of soft skills because of the lack of production. People need practice to become good at anything.
I cannot decide if Hong Kong’s existence is helping or not Macau. For example, when a Hollywood production comes to Macau, people are very excited about it, but actors who are hired from Macau are either playing extras or very small roles. These are roles that cannot help them in their career. Smaller roles do not require good acting skills to perform.
For the crew… Hong Kong is so established, they have so much experience, they speak English very well, they work very fast and a lot of top Asian filmmakers in Hollywood are from there. So, they have their own people in Hong Kong. When they come back to Asia – for example, to Macau – to film, they have the top crewmembers they want. In that sense, the people who want to become crewmembers in Macau don’t have the opportunity.
If Macau had a cinema school, would it help boost the industry?
Having a film school would be a great start.
More importantly, Macau needs producers. There are people who want to write scripts, there are people who want to do the sexy work of being an actor and a director, even being an editor is kind of fun, but being a producer is hard. It sounds kind of sexy too, but then to get the money is hard from anybody anywhere. We need producers, even when we want to apply for government funding, to do the breakdown of the project.
Also, it takes tenacity and a high level of commitment to the craft of filmmaking to help this city to grow. When the filmmakers prove they are worth more attention and money, then the government or the investors will react to that. I don’t think it is productive for filmmakers to say ‘we don’t have support, therefore we cannot make’.
Also, in Macau it’s so easy to sit down for a cup of coffee. People get together and they talk about the scripts they want to write and they spend the whole evening doing that. Unfortunately, when you don’t write a script, you don’t have the script.
You’re also thinking of shooting a horror film here. Why is Macau suitable for this genre?
Singapore is smooth and has this clean kind of feeling, there’s nothing physically dirty about it. Here, I love the way the alleys look, there is so much history going on. There is character on the streets. It is a natural setting for a horror film. If I get my wish, I will try to shoot it next year, but then, more realistically, probably only in 2018.
You’re now in Macau for the third edition of a Hollywood screenwriting workshop that you have been co-organising at Creative Macau. The people who are attending the lessons are wanna-be professionals?
The full class is 15 people. This is the second time it gets full. This time around, at least six or seven have also joined the previous two editions. These that have always joined are older, above 40 and have jobs. Maybe they’ve been thinking of writing a script for a very long time, but didn’t know how to write one. I do not get the feeling they are trying to do this professionally, but because they don’t know how to do it professionally. The other half of the class is coming for the first time. They tend to be a bit younger, one or two have just come out from university. There are people working for commercials in Macau, there is a young guy who makes Youtube videos.
In short, they could have read about this somewhere else. The only thing I can do for them, when we’re in class, is to interact. The challenge for them is really that they have to just write.