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Interview: K. Rajagopal, Director of Films ‘Yellow Bird’ and ‘Lizard on the Wall’

K. Rajagopal, one of Singapore’s most prominent filmmakers, is set to shoot his second feature film Lizard on the Wall as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2017. Festival participants who buy SIFA’s O.P.E.N Pass will be able to come on 30 June, 1 July or 2 July to an undisclosed location where they will be extras in the movie, which will then premiere on 9 September 2017 at The Projector.

Last year, Rajagopal’s first feature film A Yellow Bird was selected for the Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics’ Week, and received worldwide acclaim.

We asked him a few questions about his latest interactive movie-making venture, dealing with difficult actors, and racism in our local Singapore media.

Congratulations on the success of Yellow Bird! Would you tell us what doors that film has opened up for you, and what you’ve been up to since Cannes?

Thank you! The film came at a time when I least expected it. I never thought that any of this would happen.  It was my first feature film and it has been a very good journey. The film has taken me to so many countries and film festivals and has gotten a great response from audiences all around.

Since then, I have been commissioned to make new short films and now Keng Sen (Director of SIFA 2017) has asked me to work on Lizard On The Wall which is a SIFA project.

You were an actor before you became a director. Could you please name a few notable movies or TV shows you acted in? Also, does your past as an actor influence how you direct, or the movies you choose to make? 

I did stage acting under many notable and distinguished directors like William Teo, Kuo Pao Kun, Ong Keng Sen, Krishen Jit and Ariffin Noer.  The plays I was in were Medea, Lao Jiu, Private Parts, Exiles, Scorpion Orchid and Ozone. All of this was in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

These directors have definitely influenced me as a director especially in the way they work with actors. That became my training ground as I never had any other formal theatre or film training or education. These directors were great storytellers with a lot of heart and were honest in the work they did which was what they imbued in me a long time ago. They kept it simple and truthful, without the frills and fanciness.

My films are very realistic and natural in approach and perhaps only surreal if need be. So my acting experience has helped me tremendously in my filmmaking, especially to help actors connect to their characters emotionally and physically.

You took a 10-11 year hiatus between your last short film and Yellow Bird. Why the break? What did you do during all that time?

I took the break because I thought it was too grand an idea to do a feature, although I had a retrospective of my shorts at the museum and received an honorary award from the substation. I felt that was it, until Fran Borgia came along and convinced me to work on a feature. He was very persistent and it was very encouraging when we received the SFC new talent feature film grant. I gained confidence to do it! If not for Fran, I would have continued teaching.

Are you a very technical director, meaning that you plan each and every shot and storyboard every scene before you shoot? Or are you more of a director who goes with the flow and on instinct and makes decisions on the spot whilst shooting?

I am both. I work both ways depending on the type of film and of course it depends on the genre and the luxury of time I am given. I am more exacting when it comes to short films or commercials, and the process is more drawn out in terms of acting improvisations and writing or filming for a feature film – unless the producers need to keep the cost down.

I’m sure doing this for so long, you’ve had to deal with actors who haven’t been easy to work with. What’s your mantra or rule when it comes to dealing with such people?

I always listen first even when the actors are ranting or throwing a tantrum. I am not reactionary. I listen and often solve the problem amicably when necessary.

Having said that, very few actors have been difficult. Most of them are approachable and easy to talk to. I always create a good channel of communication during rehearsals and while filming.

If you could do only one thing – act or write or direct – which one would give you the most joy and fulfillment?

I would direct, although I like writing too. The other aspect of filmmaking I like is the cinematography. I think you have to be both emotional and technical to work on the visuals.

What made you devise Lizard on the Wall, which incorporates a ‘live’ group of non-actors who will play parts? Any worries about this novel way of making a film?

It was a new challenge and I decided to take it on because it incorporates both theatre and film which I enjoy. I am sure it is not going to be easy so I am preparing everything in detail so the non-actors will have a good time.

What do you hope participants will gain from being a part of Lizard on the Wall?

An experience like no other! I hope that it will encourage them to perhaps take up acting, or be involved in theatre or filmmaking. It would also help them understand and gain insight into the creative process of making both theatre and films.

You’ve said you are also a massive movie fan. What are your top five favourite movies ?

Most of the films by the Dardenne brothers from Belgium, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Nuri Ceylan.

I trust you’ve heard or read about the Shrey Bhargava issue and how that has led to conversations about minorities in our media. Any thoughts about this issue, as a Minority working in the media yourself?

I only heard about this after I cast Shrey in Lizard on the Wall as I wasn’t in Singapore when the incident broke. I think it was a misunderstanding on both sides and it was not intentional on the side of the film organisers, as even I have asked actors to put on Chinese or colloquial accents to sound more crude or more local. It is OK to disagree and have a discussion about it in a mature way. It should not escalate to something uncalled for and we should not start name calling or start the blaming game.

What was the casting process like for Lizard on the Wall?

In casting for Lizard On The Wall, my selection was based on how best they can portray the characters. No doubt in speaking with Balli Kaur Jaswal, I am given license to interpret the scenes and the characters. Nonetheless even with this freedom, I am aware that it is important to retain the essence of how these characters are as they are depicted in the book. This means their ethnicity, their lived experiences, their background. That cannot be compromised. For instance, I auditioned actors who not only fit the role in terms of performance but also ability to speak the language. So you have to honour what Balli has written and at the same time juggle that with your own interpretation.

Lastly, if budget and distribution were no issue, what is the one movie you are dying to make?

I really don’t know! Wow! I would have to really think about this one. Perhaps God of Small Things (by Arundhati Roy, winner of 1997’s Booker Prize)!

About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.

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