GRACE INTERVIEWS: TONY TILSE AND ERIKA NORTH
Director Tony Tilse and HBO Asia Head of Programming and Production Erika North sat down with F*** for an in-depth chat about the making of Grace. Tilse, a veteran director in the Australian television industry, directed episodes 6-10 of HBO Asia’s Serangoon Road and has also helmed episodes of the cult science fiction series Farscape. Tilse and North discuss working within the content boundaries of Asian television, why Grace isn’t exactly set in Singapore, making the story accessible to a wide range of viewers, the appeal of the horror genre in Asia and the possibility of a Singaporean science fiction series someday.
This doesn’t look like a straightforward horror series, it’s only in the second trailer that you hear the screaming.
Tilse: Yeah, that’s what everyone’s talking about, that family drama element to it, it’s not straight horror-horror.
North: I think that was part of the idea behind Grace, from a network perspective. It was about creating a show, as [HBO Asia CEO] Jonathan [Spink] mentioned during the press conference, it was our first opportunity we had to fully control and fully conceive, develop and produce something out of Asia. And we wanted to create something that would be a really interesting counterpoint to Serangoon Road; we wanted to move in a completely opposite direction so our starting point was “genre”, it was “horror”. But within that, we didn’t want it to be vacuous, either vacuous or over-gory horror. A, it’s not really what we’re about but [B,] it’s not necessarily that interesting or that different. So we wanted to approach it differently, didn’t we?
Tilse: Yeah, I think it’s also new in the genre to do it [in] four episodes. We’re trying to tell a complex story, it is about family dynamics and the trials and tribulations of a family. The horror element is kind of a second layer to it, it’s not the essence of it. I’ve always felt it was kind of a family drama, one choice that one makes can affect a family. Now, whether that affects in an emotional sense or in a horror sense, that’s how it works.
North: Exactly, and I think for us really, how it’s structured, it is very much like a Greek tragedy with horror. It’s the hubris of the father, the father’s mistake which then spirals out of control. Tony said at its core, you have to care about the characters. In traditional horror movies, you care about the characters enough until something horrible happens to them and that won’t work across episodes. That won’t bring people back week on week, so you’ve got to find a way to balance that investment in the emotion.
Tilse: That’s exactly right. It’s quite a delicate balancing act to get those elements right and what’s exciting about it is that it’s unique in its own sort of form in that sense.
North: There’s obviously the Asian horror canon, it’s obviously so diverse and so mature and so well-defined. It’s a wonderful kind of palette to start with so we wanted to create something that could fit into that but that could also hopefully be an interesting counterpoint because I don’t think there’s been an Asian horror mini-series that’s come out of Asia before.
Tilse: That’s what attracted me to the project, its originality. It wasn’t trying to be a copy of something else. We weren’t trying to do a cheap copy of an American show. It’s called “HBO Original” for a reason. It’s trying to take an original concept that’s, you know, still in the genre, but we’re actually trying to give it that twist, that’s an important part of it.
North: Tony brought up an interesting and important point that we talked about a lot which is when we’re thinking about what we’re producing out of HBO Asia, I mean Jonathan [Spink] touched upon it earlier. It’s difficult because we have certain censorship restrictions that we must respect, but within that, it’s not a constrictive creative environment. You’re almost more creative when you know where your guardrails are. You really can explore and really delve deeper in and for us, as HBO Asia, we want to make sure we’re making shows that aren’t, as Tony said, cheap versions of something that’s been done in the US. They’re stories and concepts that you can only make in Asia and that’s the most important thing to us. But that’s really important because people will come to us with ideas and they’ll say “oh, we’re going to be the Asian version of this HBO show”, “the Asian version of that HBO show” – all well and good, but we’re trying to build a premium Asian TV brand, we want to be doing things our way. And of course it does mean that we have to fit into certain constraints in terms of business models, like we don’t have the budget to create huge epics – yet! Yet, there is always hope! But that’s always important, that element.
Tilse: I think the production challenges that we did have because of budgets and the story, what we can and cannot do, I found it really great because we had to attack the problem with creative, different ideas. So, sometimes with a bigger budget you can string money up to make big explosions or whatever – for us, we had to find a different way of doing it and that makes it an interesting way of telling a story, that’s the interesting part about it.
North: It was a very creative process, very collaborative. We were kind of all fully vested, all trying to work on creating the best story and telling the best story and everyone within HBO production department, there’s a group of us and they’ve all done such immense work on the show, so it’s not just…it’s so many of us creating the show.
Tilse: It was a big team effort.
How did you feel working in the Asian horror genre coming from Australia, seeing how horror is different in each country?
Tilse: It is very different. That’s a very good question because there is a different sensibility, there’s a cultural difference, there are different meanings in Western culture than here, there are loads of elements to it all. I’ve been a fan of the genre here because all the best horror has come out of Asia anyway and gets remade by the Americans – badly- anyway! So to come here and do that was exciting for me and again, coming from Australia and having a slightly different sensibility, it was important for me to be part of a team and use the team around me to throw out ideas and bounce some stuff around so I could get a bit of perspective as well. That was the great part about it, the joy of that really, so it was a great experience of learning for me.
In Hollywood, there has been a tradition of domestic, family-set horror films like Poltergeist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby – did you draw inspiration from those in addition to Asian horror?
Tilse: Look, as a director you get influenced by all that stuff, I think yes – there’s that kind of family element like [in] Poltergeistor Rosemary’s Baby – Rosemary’s Baby is a good one as well. I think all those elements do affect you both consciously and subconsciously, some stuff you may not understand why you’re doing and then you sort of go “yeah, [I remember]” so there was that kind of process. But I think the idea for us is that we’re taking a little twist on our story and I think even from the concept when we were planning it and working on the script, I think that journey from there to the screen has been a kind of journey, we didn’t know where we were going to end up. I mean, we knew where we were going to go, but the story evolved from its concept into something else and that’s just part of the process of being here and just the shooting process. That’s what I found exciting, that yes, we knew where we were going, but the journey was quite an unusual one. I hope it’s reflected in the episodes. There are four episodes and funnily enough, each of them have their own unique feel and style because we’re dealing with different characters each episode, so they do have their own unique style. That’s what I found quite fascinating actually making it, I didn’t expect that.
North: I also found that as you mentioned in the press conference, it’s genuinely [such that] once you’ve seen all four episodes, you really understand the essence of the story that we’re trying to tell. That’s really important for us as well, to create something where you need to see all four episodes to understand. And you do go back and view it again with different eyes and hopefully that will be quite an enriching experience.
Tilse: That’s the hope. It’s always interesting with any kind of storytelling, you can try and spoon-feed people and say “look, this is what you’re supposed to think here, this is what you’re supposed to think at this moment here” and you can tell the audience what to think and that’s okay, but also we were trying to say “look, interpret this the way you want to interpret this.” There’ll be a conclusion at the end, but at some point you’re going to go “I’m not quite sure how to interpret this” and that’s why a second viewing is good too, because you go back and look at it a different way.”
Is that the beauty of the horror genre, that you want to give it a second look?
Tilse: Yeah, that’s the beauty of the genre, because it is a bit of a detective story in a weird kind of way too. There’s elements about “what’s actually going on?” There’s a mystery to this and there’s clues laid throughout the series to work out what’s going on, so there’s that element to it as well. I think that’s what’s exciting about it.
Is Grace set in Singapore, or is it an “unspecified Asian city”?
Tilse: “Unspecified Asian city,” yeah. We’re trying to keep an unknown feel to it, and also because the setting…the city was not important to the story. It was actually about the family so the key elements were the hotel where the wedding was and the family apartments. Those were the key elements to our story and that can be anywhere, anywhere in the world.
North: That was a very deliberate decision on our part because it’s about family, which means then hopefully that the story will travel. We know that the genre works in our region and our regional footprint is quite wide, it’s a number of territories and they all have different tastes and they all have different sensibilities, and we’ve got different age groups that watch the channel at different times…it’s a huge challenge when we’re thinking of what to create because we’re not going to make the magic bullet, right? We try to do the best we can within that and tell a story in a way that’s original.
When you said that you wanted viewers to come to their own conclusion, does this mean that the series might have a cliff-hanger ending?
Tilse: No no, there’s an absolute, definite conclusion, it’s a very strong emotional conclusion. What I’m saying is that on the journey, you’re not sure…there’s some points you’re going to go “I’m not sure who’s the bad guy, who’s the good guy,” there are those elements to it, to keep it much more interpretive in that way.
Does this mean there won’t be a sequel?
Tilse: [Laughs] we’d always love a sequel! Possibly, I’d love a sequel, [but] how you’d do one, I don’t know. It’s sort of, um, who knows. If it’s a huge hit, of course there’ll be a sequel!
What was the research into Asian traditions and customs like for this series? In the clips, we saw the creepy confinement nanny which is brilliant and something we haven’t seen before.
Tilse: Look, fantastic! When I was doing Serangoon Road, I had an episode that was set during Hungry Ghost Month. So during that series, I did a lot of research on those customs and those superstitions and all that kind of stuff. So I kind of had that background briefing already, so when I came here, it was great having to expand, to talk about stuff. We talked about certain elements, certain traditions, you have to watch some stuff, you read some stuff, talk to people and you start to absorb it and that’s the exciting part about my job, I get access to worlds that I’ve never ever had access to. So when you find out about the confinement nannies and stuff and see how they work, you get into that tradition, you just research that and try to get the truth as much as you can.
North: And again, to allow the show to travel and cater to the wide audience that we’ve got, we tried to tread the balance between these Asian traditions and also creating a mythology that was totally fictional. So we have a mythology within the show that doesn’t offend any sensibilities, it’s original, it’s unique, so you’re watching the show and you’re buying into the world, and that’s what you’re doing with this, you’re buying into the world of Grace. That’s why it’s not in a particular place…
Tilse:…I think that’s a very good point. We were very careful not to go into certain rituals and traditions that would be disrespectful to anybody, so for us we wanted to set up our own universe, our own values, our own world. And I think that feeds, in a sense, into the “generic city” feel to it. We really wanted our own world, yeah.
North: And I think that’s what hopefully people will feel when they’re watching the show, that it’s a familiar-enough environment but that it’s also unfamiliar.
Tilse: That’s right. There’ll be certain sets of traditions and rituals that’s our own mythology. That’s what I said about [that] we don’t explain it. We don’t sit down and say “this is supposed to be this, this and this,” we just do it. You may not understand what’s going on here, but that’s our ritual, whatever we may be.
What do you think is the appeal of horror in Asia, what makes it so popular?
North: That’s a good question. I think when we air horror movies on HBO across the region, generally they’re very well-received. It’s popular as a genre, I think ultimately people like to be scared! There’s a range of belief systems across the region that people kind of buy into – or not, and that feeds and fuels kind of the fright factor. I think ultimately, for people when they engage with HBO, they engage with content that transports them to another place. And I think the horror genre really kind of cocoons you in that way. It’s fun, but also what’s interesting about Grace or what we’re hoping it will do is that it will appeal to the viewers of HBO who like horror but also to viewers who maybe would consider themselves non-horror fans. So we’ve cut a number of different types of promos that you’ll see on air, so they’re not all spooky. As Tony said, the show is several different components, we want the widest audience possible to watch this show, to experience it and to engage with it. We don’t want people out of hand to say “I don’t like horror, I can’t watch it,” you know, or “I’m going to watch it with the mute button on.” That’s the hope, that it really cuts across a wide audience base. Serangoon Road performed really well for us, last year across the region, which for us was our maiden effort. And we’re hoping that Grace will reach out to an even wider audience base; it’s potentially younger-skewing than Serangoon Road and we’re hoping with the cast variety that it will help us tap into that.
Tony, is this the first time you’re working with horror?
Tilse: It’s the first time I’m working on television of this level of horror, it’s something that I’d love to have a go at, fantastic I had a chance to do it. I think for me, it was fantastic being able to work with, not only in that area but the cast, the story.
As a film-maker, do you find horror difficult to work with, particularly given the restrictions of how scary something can be?
Tilse: Look, I think like all the genres, horror is a tough one because it’s all about timing and scares and all that kind of stuff and also, we were very clear about…we knew the sensitive issues that we have here. There’s no point doing gory, graphic stuff, there’s no point actually doing that because it’s going to get cut out. And in a way, the gory, graphic stuff is easy…it’s a cheap scare. What we’re trying to do is through atmosphere and suggestion. We show very little as much as we could. There’s this particular scene, someone was saying “you never saw anything but your imagination makes it up for you.” You’re not even seeing it, but you’re scared. That’s the risk because you’re going “have I brought the tension high enough for it to qualify as horror?” And I think that’s the big challenge of this genre, to build that tension, to build the atmosphere, so you do get scares and tension without a cheap jump scare. Jump scares are great, we’ve still got jump scares there, but it’s trying to get all that layering without that cheap blood and gore.
Do you personally believe in the supernatural?
Tilse: For me personally, I was a little bit of a sceptic until I came to this country. [Laughs] No, talking about the research, you kind of start of to talk to people and get into it, so all of a sudden you’re just going…it does seep into your consciousness.
North: Tony’s very immersed into Asia and Singapore. The thing we thought was really great about Tony and one of the many reasons I wanted to work with him again is his way of collaborating with the crew and the production team. He’s almost intuitively Asian in the way he would communicate with the crew and that contributed to a very good environment on the set. You love it here.
Tilse: Absolutely, it sort of seeps into your body.
Speaking about different genres, do you think there’s the potential for something like an Asian Farscape somewhere down the line?
Tilse: Look, it’s not…we haven’t talked about it, [but] I think sci-fi is really interesting, especially good science fiction, but it’s really tough. I’ve found that it’s a tough sell, in the sense that it’s a much narrower audience. It’s actually getting people to broaden that out. Having done the Farscape thing, Farscape was an interesting one too because we did that in Australia. In Australian television terms, it didn’t work on its television network there, but it works on a cult level. In America where they have the SyFy Channel, those people, massive fans. Look, I’d love to have a crack at a sci-fi here, absolutely! That would be fantastic. Just got to work out where that story sits, you know? What is it going to be, that sci-fi. It’s not like we haven’t been thrashing out ideas, but I would agree, yeah yeah. I think that’s kind of an interesting thing here, the potential now for…what we’ve experimented on with Grace, if this works, there’s more potential to explore various genres. That’s what’s exciting about what’s happening in this part of the world. Although having said that, just as a side-note too: in Australia, we have the same kind of “cultural cringe”. I remember doing Farscape and I heard the Australian accent in outer space and I went “NO! An Australian accent in outer space?! What is that?!” [Laughs] And I think you guys have the same thing here, “a Singaporean accent in outer space?!” and I think that’s what we’ve all got to overcome.