Till Death: the star and creators of She’s a Terrorist and I Love Her talk the dark comedy series

For F*** Magazine

Munah Bhagarib, Caitanya Tan, Noah Yap and Haresh Tilani in She’s a Terrorist and I Love Her

With its wanton swearing, sexual situations, sometimes-graphic violence and yes, depictions of terrorism, She’s a Terrorist and I Love Her doesn’t sound like a typical Singapore-made comedy series. That’s exactly why its makers are hoping it will shake things up.

The series is the first Singaporean show to be picked up by the streaming service Hooq. She’s a Terrorist and I Love Her was the winner of the second annual Hooq Filmmakers Guild and because it is hosted on the platform, it is not bound by the typical constraints that govern Singaporean TV series. The premium video-on-demand service is a joint venture between Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers and Singtel and is available in Asian countries including Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and India.

She’s a Terrorist and I Love Her revolves around extremists Zeta (Munah Bhagarib) and Lang (Caitanya Tan) who aim to blow up key landmarks in Singapore. They are members of the anti-capitalist Children of the Harvest terror network, led by the fanatical Kong (Benjamin Kheng). To infiltrate Singaporean society, Zeta and Lang enter sham marriages with sex shop technician Hayden (Noah Yap) and recently-divorced Jo (Haresh Tilani) respectively, both heavily indebted to a brutal loan shark. Under the guise of marrying these Singaporean men, Zeta and Lang will be able to carry out their deadly mission – but what happens when the terrorists and the men they’ve essentially taken hostage start to develop real feelings for each other?

She’s a Terrorist and I Love Her is the brainchild of Terence Chia and Haresh Tilani, who are behind the YouTube comedy channel Ministry of Funny. The first three episodes of the eight-episode series are available to watch for free on Hooq and MeWatch (formerly Toggle).

Terence Chia, Jordan Nalpon and Haresh Tilani on the set of She’s a Terrorist and I Love Her

In this in-depth, no-holds-barred interview conducted at Ministry of Funny’s office, F*** speaks to Terence, Haresh and their producer Jordan Nalpon about everything that went into making the series. They discuss how they hope the series will pave the way for Singapore-made content going forward, their experience working with Hooq, the genesis and development of the concept, the demanding production schedule, the social issues addressed in the series and what the dynamic between the cast was like – plus the vital matter of Noah Yap putting dildos in his mouth.

F***: I’m interested in stuff that comes out of Singapore, especially English-language stuff and stuff that has a genre bent, that’s a little bit towards action, sci-fi or horror. I’ve always felt like in Singapore, there exists a spectrum where the stuff that plays to the heartland uncles and aunties is on one end, and the stuff that goes to Cannes is on the other end, and there’s nothing in the middle. That’s frustrated me to no end. I feel like this a step towards filling that void?

HARESH TILANI: We’ve used that analogy quite a lot.

TERENCE CHIA: You’ve described the entire Singapore industry in one sentence.

HARESH: And what we’re trying to do, and hopefully did with this show.

I started out wanting to write things and make things and gave up on that after a while. I feel like everybody faces that – how did you overcome that hump, how did you get from “Cannot” to “Can”?

HARESH: A lot of trying. We started off on YouTube – the beauty of YouTube is that if you make stuff that people like, you can grow. It doesn’t matter whether you went to film school. That is a value that you see in Youtubers, but when I talk to people who come from the traditional path, it’s not as apparent. It’s almost like the internet trains you. It also teaches you that you can have a s***-ass video, but the next video might go viral. During that pitching process, we got rejected a f***-ton of times by people we were pitching to. We need to maintain our own voice, our own brand and not compromise that, and someone will say yes.

TERENCE: Comedy itself, we’ve been chipping away at it for eight years, starting from short-form, small YouTube videos, trying all kinds of different formats because social media changes every day, then finally getting to apply everything we learnt to a long-form show. In our minds, comedy was the ultimate destination we wanted to get to, to make people laugh. Whatever format it is, we will do what it takes to get there, and this was the biggest challenge so far.

HARESH: I think one thing that helps is reading biographies or stories of people that I admire or respect a lot. Anyone in the creative or media industry who has done anything that is worth mentioning, they had their own long-ass path to get there.

What was the genesis of She’s a Terrorist and I Love Her, and how did the pieces of the concept snap into place?

TERENCE: Through our YouTube [channel] and everything, we’ve been involved in recent years in some counterterrorism, making videos that are PSAs about [terrorism] – telling people to be alert about their surroundings but also to understand where terrorism originates from. Oftentimes, it originates from people who are very disgruntled with society. A lot of times, they’re left on the fringes. A concept like this is really examining people on the fringes and how they slowly fall on the wrong side of the tracks.

I’ve also seen in my own family and friends people trying to marry foreigners. The whole process is intricate and at certain points, almost comedic. Some of the things they’re made to do – they get a lot of mistrust not only from the state but from other family members or friends of the bride or groom, depending on which side is the foreigner. When you hear about the struggles that these people go through to get married to a Singaporean and you think about some guys who get into sham marriages for a few hundred dollars, you think “What could possibly push a man to sell his singlehood to get into all this trouble?” That was the seed of it.

HARESH: My background is I’m Indian, so I’ve seen a lot of my cousins get forced into arranged marriages, even cousins who are only a few years older than me. In some ways, [the scenario in the show] is a forced marriage, a loveless marriage and [perhaps] love can develop somehow.

One thing that’s tricky about tackling the subject matter in a comedy was the tone. In the writing and shooting process, did you find yourselves second-guessing how funny or serious a given moment might be? Were there points when you went “nope, too much” or “too little, we can push this more”?

TERENCE: I’ll speak for the writing process – we were very cognisant to run it as collaboratively as possible and try to not just pay lip service by having a two week-long writers’ room, which is a rarity as far as I know. TV shows in Singapore, it’s usually one-two writers max. We had a team of writers and Jordan was in the writers’ room as well. We really hammered out the A-Z of the story, Episode 1-Episode 8, including any jokes that came out in the process. We had index cards over the whole wall. We also made sure our writers’ room was fairly diverse in terms of race and gender, so we had a pretty broad swathe of who finds what funny. In that sense, keeping the tone was, from the very start, ingrained in us.

HARESH: We knew we didn’t want to do a show that had three laughs a page, which is the sitcom standard. We did face some resistance at some point talking to some people, but we were clear that we wanted it to go very dark at some points, but also have moments of laughter. There are shows that do [jokes per minute] very well, I think Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the best example of that – it’s super-funny, it always ends on a nice note. We used a few shows for reference: there’s Barry, which I think is the best reference. Some parts, you can have him strangling somebody to death, and other parts are just laugh-out-loud funny. Even in our writers’ room, there were a few jokes that ruffled some feathers, but if it’s just one out of six, chances are we’ll go with it.

We were very cognisant of the fact that this show involves terrorism, so we didn’t want to open ourselves to unnecessary backlash. We wanted to flip stereotypes: typically the stereotype of a terrorist is a bearded dark-skinned man. We initially wanted an all-female cult, but then we thought there was a lot more to talk about with the power dynamics between male and female, so we made it a point to make them all light-skinned, we never tied them to a religion or ethnicity or culture, we made them anti-capitalists. We were thinking, if a terrorist wanted to attack Singapore, why would they? We’re still more secular than other countries. One thing Singapore is known for is capitalism.

TERENCE: On the production side, we were very collaborative with the actors with improvising lines, even though there was a script there. We knew the general tone of what we were looking for, but a bit more intelligent comedy, a bit darker. We tried to make it like that through the whole production. Once you get into production, you don’t have time to workshop stuff at all.

HARESH: One thing that helps is that we had an online editor to do an initial cut, but the final offline edit was handled by Terence and I, so we knew the tone we were looking for. You can do a lot to shape the tone in editing.

It sounds like Hooq gave you a lot of control.

TERENCE: Working with them was a joyful experience. They even came in and sat in on our writers’ room for a while to give us ideas. They told us to really push the limits in terms of vulgarity, sex, violence and anything.

HARESH: In fact, at certain points they pushed us to certain places we didn’t think of going. We got a lot of notes from them, they were pushing us, but it was always motivated by telling a good story, which is not what I’ve heard other people talk about when they work with Singapore networks. Other networks are a bit more constrained by censorship, where the notes they give you really harm the story, but you have to work within those constraints.

JORDAN NALPON: During the development stage, there was a lot of self-censorship going on, because would say “oh, you can’t do this in Singapore, the show needs to travel.” A lot of time for us, it was “no, we have to push this.”

TERENCE: It was very refreshing working with Hooq and hearing from them “just push it in whatever direction you want.”

The series speaks to a lot of anxieties that Singaporeans, especially millennial Singaporeans, face. The series addresses elitism and the veneer of meritocracy, workplace sexual harassment and racism. Was this something that you set out to do, or did that kind of organically grow out of the story?

TERENCE: I think just looking at our YouTube videos, a lot of them [already] deal with these themes and these topics. I don’t wake up and say “I’m going to fight racism today”, we’re not social justice warriors, but these themes run through our day-to-day thinking and some of it comes through in our writing as well.

HARESH: Some of it also grew organically. When we talked about the Michelle (Tiffy G) character in the office, we knew we wanted to have a workplace to talk about bureaucracy, then when we decided the character would be female, we said “if it’s a female in a corporate workplace, sexual harassment [might happen]”. We had certain high-level things: the main question the series wanted to ask was “are you willing to sacrifice your life for what you believe in?” Once you distil it, it can be sacrificing your career for what you believe in.

When you introduce the character of Jo’s daughter, that becomes a factor, that raises the stakes.

HARESH: The way this happened was we made the pilot first, so when we got [picked up] to series, we wanted to expand the world, and that’s when we brought it Kong and the daughter, just to give a bit more depth to [the world].

I’ll preface this question by saying that comedy is subjective. One thing that a lot of content creators fear is that their work will be deemed “cringey”. Leaving aside that that’s not the right way to put it – it should be “cringe-inducing” or “cringe-worthy” – how do content creators mitigate a fear of making stuff that’s cringe-inducing, and how do you avoid comedy that could be cringe-inducing?

JORDAN: I would say confidence plays a part in the whole thing, like I mentioned just now about self-censorship. I think ‘cringeyness’ is when you see people holding back in their performances and it gets to that awkward position. We got the freedom – it was “guys, go full on, ch**b**, k**i*a, just whack.” When you say things in full confidence, you don’t give a s*** about whether it’ll be cringe-worthy, that’s how it becomes not cringe-worthy.

TERENCE: That’s the thing about comedy – if you don’t go all the way with confidence, then it becomes flaccid, it becomes lame, it becomes cringe-inducing. If you go all the way and people don’t find it funny, just move on. If you run with the joke it won’t fail.

HARESH: What you’re saying is from the perspective of an actor performing it, but even in the editing process, we try to make it as rigorous as possible such that there’ll be one person editing it for that episode, but everyone gives as honest feedback as possible – even down the second: “this one goes two beats too long”. We have that internal kind of check, but I would say that I showed it to a few of my friends and I was so anxious through the whole thing, asking them “do they find this funny?” “Do they find that funny?” And I don’t think it will ever go away, which is why I finally understand why directors and filmmakers say they don’t watch their stuff, because I don’t think there will come a time when we can say “that was definitely funny”.

What was the dynamic like between the four leads, Haresh, Munah, Caitanya and Noah, on the set? Who is most different in real life from their characters in the series – in other words, who has to do the most acting?

HARESH: I would say because it was an intense shoot, quite a lot was demanded of every character. On set, the professionalism was all there, but then the off-set personas needed a bit more time to gel. At the end of the day, everyone was on the same page and wanted to do something kick-ass. I would say we got along very well. The nice thing I felt as an actor was that there was a lot of room to feed off each other. It helped that we were both the writers and directors, as opposed to other sets where the writers are not on the same. We knew that if certain lines change or if they something that is not per script but doesn’t affect the story, we can run with it. I would say between the actors and supporting actors, everyone enjoyed the possibility of not having to filter what they say.

TERENCE: Building on from that, they had a very good dynamic, so even for a first-time director like myself, a lot of times I left them to their own devices to work the lines out, then I made sure the tone of the show was maintained – nothing too slapstick, nothing too raw. These guys are all very talented; they really shocked me at certain points where I was struggling to give them directions. If we do a watch-through, I can tell you which parts were improvised. Who would you say is the most different from their characters?

HARESH: Cait and Munah. In the show, their characters are serious and are the fiercest, but when the camera cuts, they’ll run off to a corner to sing. Cait and Munah, in person they’re very friendly, very energetic, very outgoing, but in character they’re like “no, for the mission, we must do this.”

TERENCE: I would say Haresh is the most different from Jo. Jo is someone who doesn’t plan and doesn’t think ahead, but by virtue of being the showrunner as well, [Haresh] was always thinking ahead of where his and the other characters were. On set, we’d be having discussions as showrunners, then the next second he has to jump into “Jo the joker” mode, so kudos to him.

HARESH: Would you say Noah is almost himself?

TERENCE: I think he’s very different.

HARESH: It’s good that we’re having this debate that all are so different, because I was going to say Noah. Noah in real life is like “eh, f*** lah!”

JORDAN: I thought Cait and Munah would be the most different.

HARESH: I guess everyone is different, which is a good thing.

As I was watching the episodes, I thought “there are so many night shoots!” What was the schedule like?

TERENCE: (Laughs) It was insane!

JORDAN: We had 30 days of shooting, because we had a lot of night shoots. We shot in a lot of complex locations – we shot in an actual sex shop, we shot in an actual HDB [flat] and there were a lot of night shoots there as well, we shot at the Merlion, Sentosa…we had 12 hours of 30 days, a lot of overnights. A lot of kudos to the team for powering through. We shot overnight then the call time would be 6 pm the next day. There was a lot of juggling the main talents’ schedules, we had to juggle the location schedules – it was a nightmare, but somehow, we pulled it off.

HARESH: We heard that the benchmark of the number of pages you [shoot] a day in Singapore is six-seven, and in Hollywood it’s one-two – we were pushing 10-11.

JORDAN: 10-12

HARESH: If you think about when we started writing this show to when it launched, it was a super short period. We started writing in June, then in February, the whole show was out. We didn’t have as much time to plan as we would have liked and also, we wanted the story to be as big as possible but there are constraints. We decided the story first and had to fit it into 30 days, which was intense.

HARESH: That’s where it also helped that Terence and I were showrunners, because on set, if we needed to cut a scene, we would immediately know the impact of the scene on a future episode, as opposed to being on set where the writer is not even there.

What do you think Singaporeans who want to pursue a career in filmmaking or in the arts can do to combat the very understandable disillusionment that they might face?

HARESH: One thing is to understand that it’s going to be a long-ass process. Now with social media, the notion is that you can get famous in a short time. Even when I started, I thought “within one year, I can gauge what this going to be,” but it’s a long f***ing process. If you’re not willing to think long-term, it will be hard.

TERENCE: Patience is underrated in this industry. Social media gives people this expectation of overnight success, but for us, through YouTube, when we wanted to do long-form stuff, people would say “What qualifications do you have to shoot something longer-term or write or direct?” We just had to slowly build up our war chest over time. When the time comes and all the cards are in place, you just activate everyone. By then, you have built up enough networks, enough cred, to get people to want to work with you. Even thought it might be your first time doing something so big, which is what happened to us, we said “one day we want to work on something big together”. Like the AD (Assistant Director) for example – he started off as a PA on one of our one-day shoots somewhere in town.

HARESH: And now he’s one of the finalists for this year’s Hooq Filmmakers Guild, he’s writing and directing.

TERENCE: We’re not taking credit for his hard work, but [you build] working relationships and then you learn to trust each other, later when the bigger projects come along, suddenly you realise “hey, I have this team of people.” Everybody wants to see you succeed.

HARESH: To build on that, doing it in a group, not just on a project-by-project basis, helps a lot. If I were doing this alone, I’d be f***ed. Having Terence and Jordan to work with helps a lot, because if you feel like s***, then other people can prop you up. It’s the same advice given to start-up founders: if you do a business yourself, it’s going to be f***ing shag (fatiguing), you need people to support you. Two other things I try to do are think of ways to perk yourself up. I actually have a list of videos that I watch or articles that I read whenever I feel like s***.

You have a self-care playlist.

HARESH: Yeah, I do. Just listening to people that I respect and hearing their stories, it does help. Also, what I tell everyone who feels a sense of jadedness is just go to Hollywood for a week, find some way to go to Hollywood. I’m not saying move there, but just go there, because it’s a breath of fresh air and suddenly things seem possible again. The last thing is to know that for every person you find who questions you and who is jaded, there’s also somebody who wants to create something epic, that helps a lot. We’re not young, but we’re still doing this. On set, we had a lot of people who had not done a long-form [project] of this intensity before, but we valued this hunger and attitude over experience.

How did you put the crew together?

TERENCE: A big part of our job is selling, and to assemble the crew at the very start, we had to sell them the idea, the possibilities of the script. When the art director Matt came on board, we were totally not expecting someone of his experience and calibre to agree so quickly to a project like that. He read the script, he said it feels like it’s exciting and something he wants to do, and on the spot, he said “I’ll do it”. It was like a shock to us – when you have a script that can really sell the idea well, that’s when people jump on it.

JORDAN: The people who are on board are very keen on the idea that this is a project where we can just go to the extremes, we’ve got a lot of creative freedom, we can do a lot of stuff that doesn’t normally appear in other local productions.

TERENCE: Like what ah?

JORDAN: We have the sex shop, bare ass, dildo in the mouth…

Whose bare ass?

JORDAN: You carry on watching.

HARESH: One of the older guys in the production.

TERENCE: There’s a sex scene.

There is a sex scene.

TERENCE: Male orgasm.

HARESH: Normally a sex scene is the male gaze, but we flip it and focus on the male.

TERENCE: There is a very big sex scene that will make people who thought Last Madame was the s*** blush.

JORDAN: When we tell this to everyone on our team and tell them that this is what the project will be like, they say “we want in”.

That’s attractive to people because when things have felt stagnant for so long, and not for lack of talent or lack of creativity but because of the structure that’s in place, something that breaks the structure is attractive to people.

HARESH: I think it also helps that we had a pilot and it beat out hundreds of entries from around Asia, so it was like this is something that’s been validated.

So, what’s next, what do you have cooking?

HARESH: We have a slate of long-form ideas in various stages of development. Some are just at the logline stage, and some have a full treatment. That’s where this show has opened doors to check with a lot of people about the possibility about these projects. Also, reviving our Facebook and YouTube presences.

TERENCE: Back to what you said about being in between the heartland-aimed movies and the prestige festival movies, with this one we feel like we’ve made our mark in Singapore in trying to do something in the middle.

And to travel, as well.

TERENCE: Making something regional is our next target, something the region as a whole can hang their hat on, like Shutter, which for Southeast Asia was very big thing, something for Southeast Asians to say “this is from our region”. It can be in English and not make people cringe.

HARESH: Like what you said, in Singapore there’s definitely talent: for crew, for cast, for everything. It’s just finding a story that is not just applicable to Singapore, but global.

A lot of people will start off with ambitions and ideas, and after a certain point decide that there isn’t a point to it anymore, so I think it’s showing that there still is a point, and things are able to break through that and say “hey, this works”.

JORDAN: I agree with Terence on the whole thing of being between Jack Neo and Eric Khoo, because we need to cater to the masses, the common audience. I grew up in film school on all these foreign films. I went to National Service and talked to my friends over that who have no film background, and I asked them what they thought the best film was. They thought the best film was Transformers 2, they considered that the best film. It dawned on me that it’s them that we need to cater [to], it’s for people who want to come home, sit down, turn on the TV and watch something. I don’t think we need to do super arthouse – I don’t think people want to come home and destress by watching super arthouse stuff.

You want to destress by watching Noah Yap fixing a vibrator.

JORDAN: I think we need to head to that direction, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

It’s not that there’s no artistic merit to Brooklyn Nine-Nine. A lot of people love it and it’s still good.

HARESH: It’s a great show.

Haresh and Terence, both of you met at UPenn in Wharton. What you’ve done is basically every Asian parent’s nightmare – you’ve left the business world for the world of the arts, but it has of course worked out very well for you. What has that journey been like?

TERENCE: It’s not worked out that well [laughs]. We’re still working on it. There’s never a point where you actually feel like you’ve “made it”, whether it’s the first viral video or the first time you get paid to do something you love. Obviously over the years, I’ve developed a much thicker skin. You go to meet family and they look at you like you could have been the pride of the family and now, look at you, you’re vermin. Over time, especially the cousins and the people in our generation, they’re much more open to people pursuing their passions. You learn to celebrate the small victories, which is how you stay sane. I feel very proud of how far we’ve all come. Each of us has our own individual stories of the challenges before we got to this point. The whole series is something we’re proud of.

HARESH: I was working for an airline. I have an older brother and it’s the same thing, my family would say “it would be nice if you could stay in the corporate world,” but there’s also something that I think is worth sacrificing that stuff for this. The reason why we’re so open in saying “we haven’t made it yet” is I don’t want to portray it such that people think we’ve made it.

What helped me cope with being down is knowing that everyone you respect went through s*** times. If we were to say “we’ve made it,” it’s not fair to people who might read this and say “f***, they made it from zero to this in five years”. It’s always going to be a struggle. Even if you listen to people in Hollywood, some actors I respect, they say the anxiety never leaves you. You can be in a movie, then the next six months, you get nothing. That’s the nature of the industry. Over the years, you learn to deal with it.

JORDAN: For me, it’s the definition of “making it”. I’ve had this conversation with others as well, “making it” is an ongoing battle for your whole life. If you say you’ve “made it,” you stop pursuing this career. It’s a matter of “you’ve done this, what is next?” We did a TV series, so what is next for us? If you say you’ve made it, then you’re done, you do something else, but I’ll say we’ve never made it and we carry on the fight.

All eight episodes of She’s a Terrorist and I Love Her can be viewed here. The first three episodes are available for free.

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