Kirsten Tan is a talented director and writer. She grew up in Singapore, but has lived in many different places such as Korea and Thailand, and her current home in Brooklyn. It was during her travels in Thailand where she found inspiration for her current feature, Pop Aye.
Lindsy M. Bissonnette (LMB): What’s it like being at Film Forum for your own film?
Kirsten Tan (KT): It’s really surreal for me to have a film play here. I used to be a student at NYU and I would come here all the time to watch films and to have my debut… its mind boggling.
(LMB): What, if any, are the difficulties of being a female director?
(KT): For me the difficulty is the rarity of female filmmakers. I don’t think anyone comes in with obvious discrimination or obvious prejudice but in some ways I feel lucky that I’ve had the chance to work in Asia, America, [and] Europe. Consistently working throughout, being a bit of an anomaly, it takes a while for people to assess me. It’s so different if I’m a white male filmmaker walking onto set. Immediately people are used to seeing that. You sense that they’re being polite but it takes 2-3 days before they see past my gender and my color, before we really start working.
Obviously with people I’m used to working with it’s fine, I’m just Kirsten, but with people who are unfamiliar often I have this group of male crew on set, and I’m the only female director I will just sit back and look at all these conversations happening without me. But after a few days people get used to it and then I become a part of the team. Another of the difficulties is that during those initial first few days there’s doubt. People [struggle] to see me as a director without my gender coming into play.
In those initial few days you’re just working against stereotypes of female filmmakers but at the same time I’m so used to being a minority and having to prove myself first before my words and work gets taken seriously. It’s just how the world works for now, I hope change will come, change WILL come when there are more minorities and more females around. We have to work towards that.
It is so often that I’m the only female filmmaker and more often than that I’m the only Asian film maker [at festivals]. It’s mind boggling to me. I look to all these festival programmers and they all belong to really liberal segments of society so I don’t think they are the ones who are the gateway to these films being programmed but I think its in terms of just the amount of films that get made by females. I think that’s the issue and sometimes I wonder why and I think its because I don’t think we always have the confidence to say “I want to make tis film happen help me” in many ways girls we have to instill confidence at a very early young age that says you can do whatever you want to do you can be whoever you want to be.
(LMB): What was the inspiration behind this story?
(KT): This film is set in Thailand about a man and his elephant. A lot of it came from when I lived in Thailand for several years. I lived there during my formative years in my early twenties. Thailand is very different from Singapore; it’s very special in that anything you want to do you can do there. Singapore, as a society, is super structured and controlling and set in its ways, where Thailand is a semi-anarchic paradise. I found a lot of freedom and liberation and a lot of things that happened there –a lot of experiences with people– really stayed with me in my memory. When time came for me to write a feature film all these memories started coming back.
I actually wrote the film here in New York. I live in Brooklyn and I’ve been here for nine years, but before New York I lived in Thailand. I think partly because of who I am as a human being I travel a lot. I was born and raised in Singapore, but I’ve lived in Korea, I’ve lived in Thailand and now I live in New York. This idea of travel and exploration has always been a part of who I am, so I feel it was inevitable that my first film would be a road movie.
(LMB): What were the difficulties of working with elephants?
(KT): It was difficult because no one knew how to work with an elephant or what it entailed. I wrote this story that was nice and charming, but it happened in a conceptual realm until we went to Thailand. then it [it all happened] really really quickly and [we didn’t] know if the elephant would be able to do really really simple things like walk a distance, come to a stop and be able to turn and maintain an eye-line. Of course we’re so used to working with human beings that we think its all so simple, but when it comes to an animal no one really knew [what would happen].
We had an extensive directing workshop with the elephant and we trained him and the handlers for the purpose of creating a shot to see how we could move the elephant and get him to act like he’s listening. Rehearsals were happening with the elephant and the handlers and I would set up simple scenes to have the elephant walks to point A to point B across a field and turn and look at someone. We would set up all these really simple shots to make sure the elephant can maintain an eye-line and we figured it out that it was simple. We just had to frame him up and underneath the frame we would feed him bananas.
So then it was really a matter of seeing what we needed to do to achieve a shot. And then when time came when we cast our main actor, they had to build chemistry. I had them stay with each other for two weeks they would go on long walks in the mornings and evenings and do simple directing exercises together: lie down together, the main actor would touch the elephant , everything to make them physically very comfortable before the time the camera started rolling.
It was pretty insane actually. Before the shoot I would flag key scenes that I thought might be difficult and then we would train the elephant. There were some things that were impossible to do and those we cut from the script. Originally there were more parts where the elephant and the man would lie down, but I found out that my elephant did not like to lie down. It’s just particular to him, other elephants could and would lie down, but he liked standing up. It was having to match what was in the script to what was reality.
We had another elephant for an elephant death scene, because my elephant he would lie down but then after ten seconds he would just get up and that wasn’t enough for the shot so we had an elephant body double. One elephant was for lying down, one elephant was the main elephant, and the third elephant was the baby elephant.
(LMB): What do you hope people take away from the film?
(KT): Thematically it is about time and the inevitable passing of time. What I was trying to say no matter who you are, no matter where you are, we are all, in some way, slaves to time and slaves to relentless development. Its about people cherishing the present and treasuring what we have right now. Its about realizing time and cherishing it.
(LMB): If you could give your younger self one piece of advice what would it be?
(KT): It’s hard because it’s general but it would be to be unafraid of whatever will come because what you have or what I have, is that you [Younger Kirsten] love films and that’s the thing that carries you throughout. It takes you and guides you in your various paths, and there is nothing to be afraid of, just live and experience life and you will be alright.
(LMB): What’s one piece of advice you have for other aspiring directors?
(KT): In this industry sometimes people get competitive. They look around to see what other people are doing, but I think the most important thing is to ignore all of that, and focus on your self and your work and the WORK is the only thing that matters. If the work is good then somehow, in time, it will get noticed. If you’re a good filmmaker and you have something good to say it will get noticed so don’t worry and just focus on what it is you have to tell.
I’ve been on film sets and I feel like I got lucky for my feature I got to work with people I knew, but I’ve been crewing for the past ten years and the kind of stuff you hear really makes your blood boil if a male DP is slow its like “let’s not work with him in the future” but if a girl is slow its like “oh lets not work with female cinematographers” and I’m like WOAH. It’s gonna be a long battle. And we all have to keep going.
For more information about Kirsten Tan you can go to her website at kirstentan.com.
© Lindsy M. Bissonnette FF2 Media (7/8/17)
Top Photograph: One of Kirsten’s publicity shots.
Middle Photograph: A still from Pop Aye.
Bottom Photograph: A still from Pop Aye.
Photo Credits: Kino Lorber