This year’s intake of Talents Tokyo (November 20-25, 2017) featured 15 participants from East and Southeast Asia. Several of them previously attended Berlinale Talents. We caught up with Nicole Midori Woodford and Bradley Liew to find out how the experiences in Berlin and Tokyo compared and how talent development labs have helped their careers.
Connecting on the Filmmaking Journey
Nicole Midori Woodford is a film director, writer and editor based in Singapore who attended Berlinale Talents in 2010. Her short film “For We Are Strangers,” about a prison counsellor who confronts her assailant, screened at the Busan International Film Festival in 2015. She is currently working on her first feature, “You Are There,” a supernatural coming-of-age film in which a 13-year-old girl searches for her mother on a road trip after having a premonition of impending death.
What were some of your highlights of Berlinale Talents in 2010 and of Talents Tokyo in 2017?
In Berlin, it was meeting other filmmakers from all over the world, attending the master classes and getting to check out the European Film Market. In Tokyo, it was heartening to hear from 14 other filmmakers presenting their work. I grew close to all of them and already miss them dearly. It was also an honour to present my project to a Japanese audience at the Open Pitch. I learned a lot from the mentors and experts who guided us during the week in Talents Tokyo, it was invaluable.
Your short “For We Are Strangers” screened in Busan in 2015. What was the reception like?
It was an amazing experience. The audience in Busan is very passionate about cinema and it’s always a great learning experience for me as a director to watch the reactions of audiences from different parts of the world. It helps to show me what resonates with other people and how to improve that in my next work.
You’re currently working on your debut feature, “You Are There,” with producer Jeremy Chua, who is also from Singapore and attended our Talent Project Market in 2017. How did the two of you meet?
Jeremy runs his own production company, Potocol, and co-produced K. Rajagopal’s “A Yellow Bird” and Lav Diaz’s “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery.” We met about ten years ago on a friend’s film set and became close friends, sharing similar approaches to filmmaking and taste in cinema. It was only a couple of years ago that we decided to work together on my first feature and so far it has been an exciting journey for us both.
You developed the script for “You Are There” at the Southeast Asia Fiction Film Lab (SEAFIC). Another participant was Pham Ngoc Lan, who also attended Talents Tokyo this year. Has your participation in such labs and workshops led to any lasting connections or collaborations?
My time at SEAFIC was very intense and rewarding. I was very fortunate to be selected as one of five projects at their script lab and to work for eight months with script consultant Franz Rodenkirchen, who is a long-time mentor at the Berlinale Script Station. Not only has my script progressed a lot from the first to the current draft under his watch, I’ve learned a lot from the four other directors, including Pham Ngoc Lan. Talents Tokyo is actually the third lab Lan and I have attended together, and we’ve been helping each other develop our debut features. I got him to watch a rough cut of my latest short film to get his feedback, and he has shared ideas about his new feature project with me. It helps me as a film director to feel less alone on the journey of making one’s first feature film.
Finally, you teach film at your alma mater, Nanyang Technological University. What’s the best piece of advice you remember receiving as a student yourself? To trust my instincts — which were already there as a film student. Those instincts have grown tremendously since then, about whom to trust and work with, or how to collaborate with the right actors and crew. I always encourage my students to listen to that voice deep down inside. A big part of filmmaking is working with the intangible to express emotions and ideas within us. Sometimes we have to truly understand that within ourselves first before communicating that to others.
Expanding the Limits of Cinema
Bradley Liew is a Malaysian-born filmmaker based in the Philippines who works as a director, producer and cinematographer in both countries. He attended Berlinale Talents in 2015 and is an alumnus of the Asian Film Academy, NAFF Fantastic Film School, Locarno Filmmakers Academy and EAVE Ties That Bind. His first feature, “Singing in Graveyards,” premiered in Venice. He’s currently developing the script for his second film, “Motel Acacia.”What are your favourite memories from Berlinale Talents in 2015 and from Talents Tokyo in 2017? I very fondly remember the Global Speed Matching session in Berlinale which forced you to get out of your comfort zone and just meet people equally as awkward! For Talents Tokyo, it had to be our group sessions where our fellow participants just genuinely helped each other out without ego or self-interest.
You work as a director, producer and cinematographer — a pretty eclectic mix. How did that come about? I started in the industry working as a camera assistant, so my first love is really the technical and nitty-gritty life of the camera team. Directing my own films takes a very long time as I’m a notoriously slow writer, so I produce, along with Bianca Balbuena (Berlinale Talents 2012), for both young debuting directors as well as for established masters like Lav Diaz.
Your short “Xing” premiered in Busan in 2014, and your debut feature “Singing in Graveyards” screened in competition at the 2016 Venice Film Critics’ Week. How did the two festival experiences compare? I think both were equally important as Busan started my cinema career with its Asian Film Academy in 2012, so going back was kind of like a homecoming. Going to Venice with my first film had to probably be the highlight of my career thus far. Since “Singing In Graveyards” was a tribute to Philippine rock legend Pepe Smith, being with him in Venice to present the film was very special.
You’re currently developing your second feature, “Motel Acacia.” Did you gain useful input on it at Talents Tokyo? “Motel Acacia” is currently in its third year of development. I think Talents Tokyo really gave it that last push, fine-tuning and motivation to head into probably the final draft of the script with a view towards shooting next year.
How has your attendance at various talent development labs and workshops impacted your work? I cannot emphasise enough the importance of these labs and workshops, especially for young filmmakers, since they develop not only the projects but us as artists. I believe that meeting like-minded fellow participants in these labs and workshops really expands your mind and the limits of imagination to what’s possible in cinema.
Interview by Marion Schnelle