Five Questions for Shirkers Director Sandi Tan
With Sandi Tan’s beautifully cinephilic autobiographical documentary Shirkers arriving in theaters and on Netflix this Friday, October 26, we’re reposting our interview with Tan out of Sundance, 2018.
As I wrote earlier in the festival, “Sandi Tan’s debut feature Shirkers is the 26-years-later compromise-of-necessity incarnation of a film that almost was. Shot in 1992, when Tan was in college, from a proudly illogical script of her own devising, Shirkers was meant to be a rare, hopefully transformative Singaporean independent film in a country without much history of those. Directed by Tan’s ambivalently-motivated mentor Georges Cardona — who subsequently absconded with 70 reels of unedited material– Shirkers is partially reconstructed alongside a personal memoir and decades-later investigation. No spoiler here: seeing vibrant footage with celluloid-specific colors from the get-go, it’s clear that Shirkers was relocated and exists in one form or another. The question is how and why it got away in the first place; not all answers will be provided.” Tan — whose official fest bio notes that she “also wrote the doorstop/novel The Black Isle” — was a natural for an email interview on restoring the colors of her abandoned film, her time as a film critic at Singapore’s largest paper and working on the film’s many graphics.
Filmmaker: I was struck by how inherently gorgeous the footage from Shirkers proper was — the colors and vibrance speak to a lot of medium-specific properties of film. When you got the 70 reels, were they in the shape that you present them in? What kind of post-production work did you do to get them in that shape?
Tan: This is one of the craziest things: the 70 reels of Kodak 16mm were in pristine condition — even after being lugged halfway across the globe, with multiple stops along the way. Georges had wrapped every reel in black plastic inside their cans and always kept them in a cool, dark place, as if they were a gorgeous, beloved cadaver!
In early 2015, after the cans of film had been sitting in my living room for three and a half years, I tried to find a post-house in LA that understood the intricacies of 16mm as well as the specific retro palette we had created for the film. After months, I found Modern VideoFilm, a post-house in Burbank that had worked on a handful of Douglas Sirk movies for Criterion Blu-Ray and also on The Grand Budapest Hotel, films which I felt were on the Shirkers spectrum. So I did my 2K transfer there and had my dailies colored by Gregg Garvin, who worked on the Sirk films. He and his colleagues at Modern were astonished that the Shirkers reels were in such great condition, with the colors just popping like candy. We didn’t have to do much to the dailies at all — they were what they were. Our art direction back in 1992 was very primary color-intensive. When I did my final grade at Light Iron with Steve Bodner in NY and Ethan Schwartz in LA, we found ourselves pulling back some of the original colors on the 2K transfer because they were so vibrant they looked fake. But they weren’t fake.
It should be said that back in 1992, Georges and I were obsessed with Nestor Almendros and the way he shot Days of Heaven for Terrence Malick. Inspired by him, we shot most of the original Shirkers exteriors during magic hour, which in equatorial Singapore lasts only 15 minutes. That’s why the shoot took two and a half months, but also why it looks pretty fab.
Filmmaker: Did you ever toy with the idea of cutting the film together, if only out of curiosity at how an approximated version would play?
Tan: I thought about it…and I remain cautiously curious. For years, I had been filled with existential dread at seeing my own ridiculously inert performance in the leading role. Playing the teenage killer S. back in 1992, I saw myself as a kind of Bruno S. — that deranged non-actor in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, a movie I loved, loved, loved. But, um, I’m not exactly sure that came across… Now years later, I’m more ready to let the old Shirkers find its own life, to set it free. When I was attending the IFP Documentary Lab last year, Milton Tabbot mentioned the idea of maybe letting The Edit Center (IFP’s neighbor in the Made In NY Center) have some fun with it. I thought that was a splendid idea too but I haven’t pursued any leads yet, as my priority had been to get this Shirkers monster completed.
Filmmaker: Have you always held on to your correspondence? You draw upon an amazing paper archive. How did you go about re-examining that? Was everything more or less in one place?
Tan: Yes! I was forced to be a packrat because such an intense part of my youth was sucked into a void with the disappearance of Shirkers. I felt compelled to collect and store away everything else I could. Moving from Singapore to the US in my 20s, I succumbed to some shedding but I kept almost all of the mail I got for Exploding Cat, the zine I ran when I was 16 — from a lonesome poet in Ohio, an Israeli experimental musician, several men serving life sentences in California state prisons. Also, back in the pre-Internet, I wrote an insane amount of letters and postcards — sometimes two a day to the same friend, mailed in the AM and in the PM, constituting an ongoing real-time diary of the whirling, frenzied off-kilter triple-axels that were going on in my teenage head (mostly thoughts about movies and French guys). Two of my teenage correspondents (who, unbeknownst to me, had kept all of my letters to them) were kind enough to share them with me. They number in the hundreds. I hated keeping a diary — I had no discipline for that regimented daily shit and I lived on the adrenaline of having a flesh-and-blood audience, even if they rarely wrote back. I am eternally grateful Livejournal or Facbook did not exist when I was a teen or my entire being would have been scattered into meaningless electronic shards, never to be made real again.
Filmmaker: You describe your film criticism as terrible (!). Was it your prose, your judgment or some other factor? Did you take away anything from time that’s still useful to you?
Tan: I was the best film critic they had back then — hah! Back then, in the mid-to-late 90s, Singapore had the highest rate of movie-going, per capita, in the world — everybody went to the movies and everybody cared about movie stars. I wrote as well as I could when reviews had to be pounded out in under an hour, with no imdb for fact-checking, and all of this battling for mental bandwidth with my own bustling romantic and creative life. My judgment, however, was always true to myself — I championed the Coen brothers and Jane Campion in those pages, and made unlikely films like Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners a big hit. I also had the paper fly me to Cannes to watch movies and interview Wong Kar-Wai, the Coens and Ang Lee. The price to pay was I also had to cover Con Air. The editor was constantly pleading with me to be “kinder”; film distributors were threatening to bar me from junkets and exclusives with people like Arnold Schwarzennegger because I wrote the truth about movies like Jingle All The Way. I knew it was time to leave when the paper began buckling under these threats. There would always be others who were “kinder” than I.
I started writing for the national daily when I was 18, and was hired full-time as the film critic when I was 22. My biggest fans were always 12-year-olds. Maybe because I was an irreverent kid myself, most of my fan mail came from kids, including a persistent 16-year-old boy who kept wanting to buy me dinner. I don’t think adults knew what to make of me because I would do things like call visiting dignitaries like Marcel Marceau a “fossil” (I also reviewed theatre) after he shamelessly phoned in his one-man-mime performance. I was told Marceau saw my review, got so mad he canceled his next show, flapped his arms, turned into a gull and flew out of town…leaving his beret on the floor.
Filmmaker: At what point did you start working on graphics and how did you go about it? There’s a lot going on.
Tan: I started with the graphics first — and this fact would always bewilder every serious documentary filmmaker I talked to since that’s what is most commonly tackled last. But I knew it wouldn’t work if I started tackling the plot using only footage (16mm, digital, Super8, etc.). My youth was so consumed with writing, drawing and collage that to recapture that freewheeling DIY energy, I had to tap these primary materials. To do this, I needed an editor who knew how to make these images fly. But trouble is, even the best in the field didn’t.
In mid-2016, my friend Paul Cullum told me his pal, the director Jeff Feuerzeig, might have a lead. Jeff offered up the person he called his “secret weapon” (officially: assistant editor) on Author: the J.T. LeRoy Story — a gangly skateboarder named Lucas Celler. This kid knew his Photoshop! Lucas and I had pretty much the same taste in music and he understood the punk DIY aesthetic that I wanted for the film. So for weeks, even months, we sat together every day, listening to music and putting the first quarter of the film together using graphics, learning the film’s own rhythms as we went along. I only discovered that Lucas didn’t actually know how to use After Effects when we began trying to animate stuff, though as a fantastic bullshitter, he claimed to me that he did. But during our edit, he taught himself how to use it (he refused to look at manuals) and emerged quite a jedi of After Effects. (He’s also credited on Shirkers for Motion Design.) The story of how he fell in with Jeff Feuerzeig was similarly scrappy — he was working as a barista at Starbucks when Jeff needed someone to build a simple website for him; Lucas saw his chance, claiming he knew how (he didn’t), then spent his nights and weekends learning to code in order to build Jeff a website. That got him hired on Author as an assistant editor. Though Lucas and my methods have been called unorthodox, with us doing many things backwards and learning how to fly on the fly, I believe we made this film in the only way it could have been made. And the usual adage applies — if it’s not difficult, it’s probably no fun!