DO YOU BELIEVE IN FAERYTALES?
F*** chats exclusively with Lyon Sim, star of Faeryville
By Jedd Jong
Lyon Sim may play a Nobody in dystopian teen drama Faeryville, but he’s well on his way to becoming a somebody. The actor has worked in Singaporean theatre and short films and is making his feature debut with Faeryville. In the film, which takes place in an alternate reality, he plays the protagonist Poe, a student at the eponymous college. Poe is the leader of a clique called the “Nobodies”, who embrace being outcasts and hero worship a school shooter. Poe’s status as the leader of his little gang is challenged when transfer student Laer enters Faeryville and takes the Nobodies’ ideology to new, dangerous heights.
Sim worked with Faeryville director Tzang Merwyn Tong on the “techno-fairy tale” short film V1K1, in which he played the fairy Donkey. It was a heavily physical performance since the character had no lines. “I couldn’t see anything because there were no eye holes in the donkey mask,” he recalled. Sim’s credits also include the short films Cubik, Tadpoles and Don’t Hang Up, My Love. He most recently acted in the second season of Singaporean thriller TV series Zero Calling.
An edgy independent feature containing themes not often found in local films, Faeryvilletook eight years to make and had its debut in Los Angeles in January this year. Now, the film is being screened in Singapore for a limited engagement at Filmgarde Bugis+. Speaking exclusively to F***, Sim discussed the various logistical challenges faced by the cast and crew during production, the dynamics he cultivated with his cast-mates on the set, his experience being a part of the film’s premiere in L.A. and his hopes for independent cinema in Singapore going forward.
It’s very challenging getting an independent film made in Singapore. What has your experience as an actor active in that community been like?
I started in theatre, then I moved on to screen. I don’t know if I’m being active…when I was, it is invigorating to just cause for auditions and get roles and be able to do something you enjoy doing – acting – as compared to having restrictions in a sense, when it comes to mainstream screen work. When people are doing advertisements or even on TV, when you have a gig, it’s there to cater to a certain market. I don’t consider myself mainstream I guess, so it feels good to have a medium to get work.
Tell us about the world that Faeryville takes place in.
It’s actually not in any specific location. It’s a Singapore movie, but it’s not [set] in Singapore, it’s not in L.A. where we premiered, but on a different plane. It’s a world where all teenagers live in their minds, it’s a surreal world, but it’s not “unreal”. It’s very much what their lives are projected to be, what they imagine, a heightened sense of the world.
There’s the metaphor of the school being the entire existence…
Exactly, that’s true. Faeryville is not just the world, it’s also the name of the college where all the different teenage cliques live.
Did you often feel like an outcast or misfit growing up, and if so, what was your way of dealing with that?
I don’t know if I’ve dealt with it, but I guess that’s a “yes” [laughs]. I think friends, the people that you choose as your family, I think it’s really important to have that conversational outlet or just having people who believe in you, who share what you’re going through or support you in one way or another, I think that’s key for me. I’m not good with being alone [laughs] and on that note, to me, no individual person’s success belongs to just that person.
Tzang has said that over the eight years he was working on the film, some actors had to be recast because of several false starts in production and the scheduling conflicts that arose from that. How were you affected by that and what impact did it have on the dynamic of the cast?
I was one of the three people who didn’t get re-cast.
May I ask who the other two were?
Sure. The Nobodies, Farid [Assalam] and Jae [Leung], [who play] Taurus and C.K. respectively. The three of us were not re-cast for reasons that we don’t look too much older or that our schedules were okay. It didn’t really affect us that much I guess, because the three of us were not re-cast, we had camaraderie for a couple of years. It was 3 years later that we shot Faeryville after [making] the trailer. We had a bond. The rest of them who were re-cast or even characters who were not in the trailer, we didn’t have too much to do with them in the first place, so that was a bonus.
In a way it worked out because the Nobodies are a unit by themselves and all the other characters are external to them.
You’re right. Even Laer, who comes in after, it would have been great even to have Laer not re-cast but it didn’t make much of a difference because he’s a newcomer and to have a new person on board, that was exact to what Faeryvillewas about.
In the film, we see something of a power struggle between Poe and Laer. Did you and Aaron Samuel Yong work on getting that dynamic right?
Aaron did such a great job. Every time I watch the film, I watch his performance and I’m in awe. I don’t remember speaking with him much about the power struggle, we didn’t talk about it. I guess the way Aaron and I worked it out was that we didn’t talk about it. There’s a scene in Faeryville where Poe asks Taurus if he feels that there’s something up with Laer and I guess that’s the similarity with me not talking to Aaron, Poe not talking to Laer. It helps, not breaking out of character too often. I was going through a lull period during production and I don’t know if it was just me subconsciously putting myself in there so it works better for Poe or just coincidental, but things like that do happen. Not talking to Aaron that much in the beginning when we were shooting, him being new to us and then later on when Poe and Laer get comfortable with each other and have a conversation, that was when I became comfortable being with him on set.
So it was mostly shot in sequence?
I’m trying to recall. [Pauses] Actually it was, come to think about it. Mostly.
With regards to the lull period you had during production, do you feel that acting is therapeutic and helps you work things out sometimes?
I do. Many people ask what the difference between theatre acting and screen acting is and there are so many differences, but whenever I hear that question, I feel like people don’t see the similarities. One of the similarities is that acting can be therapeutic, can be cathartic based on the circumstance or it can hurt you if you take it the wrong way. That’s why I don’t believe in…the Method, if it works for people, great, and there are people who do such amazing jobs with the Method that works for them. Especially if the story ends on a good note, if it was shot chronologically, then at the end of the day, you feel good about yourself.
You can go on a journey with that character.
Yeah. You leave on a good note, especially so if it’s about something bad, say the death of someone, and you’re using a real instance, then it ends well. Exactly like you said, you go on that journey, and it’s therapeutic.
With the cult of personality depicted, the film seems influenced in part by events like school shootings and bombings, events like the Columbine High shooting. What sort of research did you do to play Poe and was that a conscious thing you had in mind?
Hmm. I don’t think it was conscious for me, especially because I don’t think Poe would be consciously thinking about that. But because there is that struggle between going with the flow of being bullied or standing up to your adversities, taking a stand, I guess that’s why Laer comes in. Poe is happy with who he is, he’s not trying to be what he’s not, so when there was that conflict, that scene where Laer gets the Nobodies to stand up for themselves, that’s when I was asked to realise that maybe there’s a different way to go about things, to rebel.
Did you devise a backstory for Poe in preparing for the role?
No, I didn’t. Tzang and I talked a lot, time and again, it wasn’t like one sitting. 3 years before, 3 years later, in between, there were different dynamics to characters that might have an impact on what the Nobodies would be like. The actors he had cast, the new ones, we talked about Poe’s back-story again and again. There are certain things that would always be there, we know he loves his friends and he’s happy being who he is, comfortable, even if he gets pushed around. That’s what I would try to use and that’s why I didn’t want to plan too much and go back.
The Mother Saint statue is a very striking image. Did Tzang speak with the cast about how that came to be?
No, but he did mention how…I might be wrong, but the book is “law”, and the gun is like…putting a gun to your head. There is a scene in the film where Poe tries to explain what the statue is about and he talks about how the people who are power are the ones afraid of losing control.
The female leads in the film, Jade Griffin and Tanya Graham, are first time actors. What was it like working with them?
Tanya was pretty easy-going. “Oh, you need to get this done? Sure, let’s do it.” One time, she gets pushed on the ground, insinuating a rape was about to happen. And I think she was under-aged then, 17 or 18, and of course Tzang had to consult her parents. Once that was done, they watched the film too. She was cool. Jade…[chuckles]…Jade was mostly herself, a high-class model. [Laughs] It was okay I mean…yeah, I’d rather not go on [laughs]. I think now they’re full-time models, I don’t know, I haven’t been in touch.
Tanya’s character in the film is very mysterious and she has this former life she wants to leave behind. What was that like when you were interacting with her in between takes?
That’s the thing for me – I might just be on the less sociable side, I don’t talk that much in between takes, and/or because she’s mysterious, I try to keep it that way. I made it a point not to talk to Tanya or Aaron that much off-takes. But with Farid and Jae, if they wanted to play wrestling in-between takes or run around the blocks and do silly things [we would], but not with Tanya or Aaron. Having said that, with Jade, even though Poe and Chloe are supposed to be good friends, we didn’t talk that much. She’s a high-class model you know? [Laughs] Totally understandable, she has her own [circle].
Were there moments making the film when it seemed like it would not see the light of day? What kept everyone persevering on?
Making the film wasn’t just about the shooting. I don’t know if I can quote one specific time, but a few times, there’s just so much to making an independent film, that’s why I say no one person’s success truly belongs to one person. The whole team of people persevering and even now, promoting the film, having F*** Magazine help with that, now that it’s in cinemas, it’s not over but I guess there’s a sigh of relief…
Like you’ve seen it come to fruition?
Thank you, yeah. Before that, we had to drop a couple of crew members because things weren’t happening with that team. I remember sitting on the train with Tzang on our way back from the shoot one day because he needed to have this conversation with someone and we were talking about what’s next – should we drop that team, are we going to be able to continue making the film if we did? He made a bold decision and I think it was the correct one to try and get a new team. And that it rained on a certain day, and when we had to transport the statue [laughs] there was a tow truck and everything. And then cost – Faeryville was made for way less than what Tzang planned. Having that truck bring the statue to the location and having the extras come down, a whole group of 30-40 people, and then it had to rain that day [laughs]! Wanting to reshoot the scene or not…there were many things that happened over the eight years. Tzang has two boys now.
It’s like over the course of making the film, everyone’s lives went through a lot of changes.
Yeah. People flying back and forth or not coming back, so the story had to change. Jae is from Hong Kong, Galen Watts from Canada, from all over! Everyone’s from everywhere. Kris [Moller], [who played] the Principal – he’s coming back from the premiere
He’s from South Africa, I read in the production notes that he had been in a bombing during Apartheid.
Wow – he’s a man with a lot of life experience. Very intelligent man, wise man.
Did you shoot the film on a working campus and did you have to shoot around real students in an active school?
Now that you mention it, I think the production team did a good job in shielding us from that side. We didn’t see the problems because it was a live location, an active school. We had a lot of delays, perhaps it was because people were using certain rooms. An actor’s job is to come and just bring the character out. Tzang didn’t want to impose these [logistical] things on 30 different people. It’s a huge group, not all of the time, but that’s why he probably needed that chat with me on the train.
What was it like premiering the film in Los Angeles?
It was eye-opening, it was something different. I’ve done minimal work overseas – not because I don’t want to [laughs]. That was an experience for me. They could with resound with what the film’s talking about and I saw live examples of what the Nobodies from L.A. might be. It was very heartwarming to see people who appreciate and were accepting of independent films.
Like they didn’t come to it from a judgmental stance or with preconceived notions of what the film would be like?
Judgmental I guess would be fine for me. I think a film should always pose more questions than answers. We had people who really understood and felt the same.
Have there been any particularly memorable moments while conducting Q and A sessions after screenings?
[Laughs] Jeez, it has to be this one, it tops it all. A week ago at *SCAPE, Farid was all over the place! Not in terms of speech or anything – there were 2 sofas and we were sitting down, and all of a sudden he just stands up and walks off – he just leaves to the restroom. He comes back, he goes behind the couch, starts kneeling down then he stands up again [laughs]. He was all around and I had to try to keep a straight face while I was in the chair. That was the most memorable to me. Other times, you talk about the film and we do it all the time in every Q and A segment. It’s good to have thoughtful questions, I was very heartfelt to see people relate to it closely, but I never expected this, especially not from our side of the Q and A [laughs].
Did you ask him about it later?
[Shakes head] I didn’t want to put myself in awkward position to ask him “hey, what was that all about? Were you high?” [Laughs]
What are your hopes and dreams for the development of Singaporean cinema going forward?
This is a really tough one because there are a few things of the top of my head that I want to say but I’m not sure if I feel that way anymore. Recently, I read a quote on a friend’s Facebook page. He was talking about how everyone’s saying “support local cinema because it’s local cinema” and he said “shouldn’t we be way past that? Shouldn’t people support art because they like it?” I understand that, but at the same time at the back of my head, I have this conflict. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I don’t know enough, but in Japan and Korea, all these pop singers get recognition from their country first. We live in a small country, Singapore, with a decent population size. I really think support goes a long way. Bringing the film to L.A. and if that had anything to do with Singaporeans being more accepting to the film, says a lot just because “Los Angeles” is being quoted. I guess things happen in their own time. I hope people won’t be biased towards or against independent cinema, local or not, and for filmmakers to make thoughtful, bold and meaningful stories.
Faeryville opens at Filmgarde Bugis+ on May 26.