Grace Interviews: Russell Wong and Pamelyn Chee


Russell Wong and Pamelyn Chee, stars of HBO Asia’s horror drama mini-series Grace, sat down with F*** to talk the opportunities presented by Asian content in English, stereotyping in Hollywood, how actors sometimes “worry too much” and how Russell Wong is pretty much a cross between a human and an alien. Pamelyn Chee’s words, not ours!

Russell, you were very memorably drawn and quartered at the beginning of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Is there anything particularly painful, without giving too much away, that happens to anyone in Grace?

Wong: Yes. [Everyone laughs]

Okay, cool!
You were in Serangoon Road earlier, what drew you back to HBO Asia and to Singapore as well?

Wong: What drew me back is the Asian content in English. The production’s shot in English with Asian stories; that appealed to me, more authentic Asian stories.

Is the horror element new to you?

Wong: It is new, having not done any horror before this. There are a couple of horror films that I like, The Ring, there’s also American Horror Story with Jessica Lange.

Were you aware of just how popular horror movies are in Asia?

Wong: I am aware of it, more aware of it.

How will Gracemeet the expectations of viewers who love horror?

Wong: I think Grace will meet a lot of the expectations, especially at the finish of the story because you’ve got to watch all four parts. The first two build it up at a slow pace, quiet with a lot of information, but it finishes a little stronger. Pamelyn’s character and mine go through a little bit more.

Pamelyn, we have some indication that your character is a femme fatale. What preparation did you undertake for the role and were there any reference points?

Chee: You mean, besides being myself? [Laughs] I think the clothes make you look like a femme fatale, the makeup does, the role does, the lines do and I don’t I feel like I have to do much work but just trust in the material and I think maybe, sometimes actors worry too much. They’re like “oh, I can’t do this, I can’t do that, this role is not for me,” but I think if you just trust in yourselves…Russell and I always have this conversation, right? It’s about trusting and being in the moment. It will be an authentic experience if you let it.

Russell, how would you compare working in Singapore with a Singaporean crew to working on a Hollywood film?

Wong: There are a lot of similarities, basically you’re making a film or a TV show. A lot of times, the difference is the budget, or maybe the personalities or whatever, but pretty much, you’re making a movie. Everyone was very professional, very efficient in their work.

Did you get to create some back-story for your character beyond what was in the script?

Wong: I came up with some of my own back-story, some dynamics in our relationship, added a few lines here or some adjustments there.

You play a guy whose mistake brings a curse upon his family. What is it about this character that you like?

Wong: That I like…even though he does…steps outside of his marriage, he’s staying truthful to himself, he knows what he did is wrong. His humanity, I like his humanity. He’s trying to make it right, or he wants to make it right, but things just spiral out of his control.

You described the series as being “Fatal Attraction meets The Shining”, which makes me really want to watch it. In The Shining, the hotel is very much a character. What was it like working on the set of the Egress Hotel in this series?

Wong: We shot a lot in the studio and we built a set that looks like part of the Egress Hotel. I think [director] Tony [Tilse] and the art department, they really achieved kind of a nice, creepy fourth floor…we were kind of limited in the budget with what we could do and I think they did a great job with what they had.

What was it like working with Tony?

Wong: It was good. He knows what he wants, he knows what he needs. Because he has experience, it makes it feel safe, he makes you feel comfortable. “Okay, you’re in good hands.” If he wants a certain shot or a certain emotion, he won’t hit you over the head with it but he’ll let you suggest it.

Were there any challenging scenes for you in this series?

Wong: In the beginning for me, it was just kind of finding the character. You come in and play with the other actors and actresses and you have your idea of where you want to come from with the character but when you actually get on set, we didn’t have time to rehearse, a little bit of time, then it’s usually trying to get to the relationships, what you hope it will be. The initial part was the challenging part, making a connection with the other actors and finding your character through your relationships with them.

Pamelyn, you’re playing the mistress and Constance Song is playing the wife. What was the dynamic like?

Chee: You mean besides the fact that I hate her? [Laughs] You know, we don’t actually meet in the show. So it’s always this big looming cloud at the back of my head that she’s married to him and he’s still married to this woman and that really drives me crazy! We’re friends off-camera, but we don’t ever meet as characters in the show.

How did you build the conflict between those two characters?

Chee: I think it’s not really hard if the person you love the most is married to somebody else! Imagine that! Mine, always! [Laughs]
To come back to the Fatal Attraction comparison, is there anything like the bunny boiling scene in Grace?

Chee: Bunny boiling? There’s things that are worsethan the bunny boiling. We don’t boil animals [laughs].

There are supernatural elements and Asian traditions explored in the show. Are you familiar with these traditions?

Wong: I’m from the US, so obviously not as familiar as Pamelyn, but coming to Hong Kong years ago I was introduced to the traditions and festivals, things like that, and you hear stories about the ancestors, superstitions.

What are your personal beliefs with regards to the supernatural?

Wong: My impression is that there are spirits, different realms. We’re all in transition, we’re vibrational beings, we go to a different vibration, maybe some spirits are attached to the earth, some of them had tragic deaths and they want to hang on, to what end, I don’t know. But I definitely believe that are spirits that are happy and that are not happy and you can’t take it likely because there is energy, vibration.

After Grace, are you interested in doing further work in the horror genre?

Wong: I’m interested in good writing. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, if the writing is good, the material is good, I’m all in! I’d love to be a part of it, good writing is basically where it’s at and the horror genre’s fun, it’s interesting, what you can do visually, with the camera and with makeup.

Would you like to play supernatural beings, be it vampires, ghosts, witches or demons in future projects?

Wong: That’ll be interesting, yeah.

Chee: [to Wong] You’d make a good witch, I think!

Wong: Warlock. I’d like to be [a creature that’s] between an alien and a human or something.

Chee: A bit like yourself! [All laugh]

Wong: Thank you Pamelyn [laughs].

Besides the horror genre, I would think the action genre is one that crosses boundaries very well. Do you think there’s the potential for a home-grown action series on the level of Grace?

Wong: Yeah, I mean action and horror do travel and Asian horror is unique and also this is in English. With those elements, this is a great vehicle for HBO and for all of us to showcase Asian stories that can be told internationally. Because of the genre, it’s easier for people to digest and be entertained.

During the press conference, you said that you would want to do less martial arts-heavy roles now.  Is it something that you would still do if there’s a good story?

Wong: A good story, I would do it. When I started out as an actor, I was afraid of being stereotyped into just that, but fortunately when I was younger I was pretty athletic and I could handle the action but not like a world-class martial artist, a lot of the [other] guys are really good. I wanted to focus on just being an actor. But as far as well-written material, if it were something like Taken

You could be an Asian Liam Neeson.

Wong: [Laughs] That’s funny, Tony [Tilse] said the same thing!

What was the vibe like on the set? We heard that there were almost no outtakes, so was it a very intense vibe or did you guys get to chill out? How was it like in-between filming?

Wong: I loved the vibe on the set, it was just chill. I wouldn’t say it was intense, but it was focused.

Chee: Very focused, yeah.

Wong: Everyone was very focused on what they wanted to do, pretty enthusiastic, working with HBO on an original thing, it was a great opportunity for all of us and everyone came to work ready to go.

Chee: I actually made an effort not to hang around his [on-screen] family, the only person that I would talk to was Russell so I had only friend throughout the entire production [laughs].

So that was a little “method”.

Chee: Yeah. I think it helps both for them and for me.

You worked together on Serangoon Road. How was the experience making Grace compared to that of making Serangoon Road?

Wong: For me, I was coming in as kind of a guest star but the set was pretty focused and relaxed. For Grace, I was the lead male so I felt very welcome and kind of taken care of in that regard so I was very comfortable. Not much difference, really, but I guess it make work easy and was something to look forward to.
Chee: I think Grace is much edgier, don’t you think? The material and the style and the way Tony handled it, we’re not trapped by the whole “1960s Singapore” [setting] and the historical element of that genre. It was very liberating being on Grace, I have to say, it was a completely different experience.

This probably applies more to the writers and to Tony [Tilse], but was there some research you had to do into the traditions and customs to get into character?

Wong: Not for me.

Chee: I thought that the research writers at HBO did a wonderful job with the Asian customs in general because sometimes I feel like that gets lost in a western production. They put on what they think an Asian person should [act like]…but I think they made a very conscious effort to keep it very authentic.

Tony [Tilse] and Erika [North] were saying that Grace is set in a generic Asian city and not explicitly Singapore to try and make it accessible. What was that like knowing you could not overtly make reference to the city in which the story was set? Did it have a lot of bearing on playing the characters?

Wong: It didn’t have a lot of bearing on me, it could have been Hong Kong, originally we were talking about Hong Kong but spending time in Hong Kong, spending time in Singapore, obviously they have their similarities and their differences so given that, we focused more on the relationship of the family than the place per se, not a whole lot of emphasis placed on that.

What other projects can we look forward to from the both of you?

Chee: I’m doing a TV series for Channel 5 and also I’m doing Kelvin Tong’s film, so that’s what keeping me busy for the next month.

Wong: I’m meeting with a director in Beijing this week and there are a couple of projects I’m waiting to hear about back in the States.

What is the situation like in Hollywood with regards to stereotypes and the portrayal of Asians in media?

Wong: I think there’s some progress made in certain diverse casting and yet some kind of remain stereotypical. It honestly doesn’t excite me [chuckles]. I love the potential of where HBO can go or may go. I definitely love being a part of this because it’s unique in that it’s Asian content in English that’s done internationally. I just feel like it’s a good fit. I know they’re taking baby steps and that kind of thing.

What do you think it will take for American audiences to accept a TV series headlined by an Asian actor or actress, and do you think something like Grace would travel well to the States?

Wong: It could travel well to the States. What it will take is good writing, same as any film takes. Good writing, good performances, good scripts and good direction, just the whole production. And it doesn’t have to be a huge budget, the quality has to be there, the material has to be there. There are great stories here in Asia that need to be told that with a good writer, it will travel. This is a good story, you want to watch it, doesn’t matter where it’s from. A good story is a good story. We can execute this as well as anybody. The DPs (Directors of Photography), the sound, the lighting, everything. It’s good execution and content.

How do you think the mini-series format works for this story? Is four episodes enough?

Chee: If it’s bad material, four episodes is four episodes too many [laughs].

Wong: For my tastes, it’s a little slow, but for some people, they need to get all the information. I’m like “skip to it, skip to it!” But maybe people want to see all the details and Tony does that, all the details about this character and about that character, you pay attention to what’s happening here so there’s a build-up and it builds quite slowly but at the end there’s a strong finish.

Chee: But don’t you think it’s skewed because you are in the film so you know the story? [Laughs]

Wong: I’m not biased [laughs].

Chee: No you are, totally biased! [Laughs]

Wong: Yes I am. The whole time we shot this, I kept thinking to myself “this is going to be good!” It’s not just another job, I’m part of something that’s going to make some noise.

Chee: When was the last time you felt that?

Wong: Romeo Must Die.

The approach in this series seems to not be about the gore and the in-your-face horror elements but there’s the power of suggestion, atmospherics, nothing is scarier than what you can’t see. What was it like on the set and what are some of the techniques used to keep the tension at a slow burn?

Wong: I think that’s done with camera angles and what he’s shooting and how he’s shooting it, and the editing and the sound. There’s obviously a lot of parameters they have to work within, you can’t be too gory and there are different cultures, you don’t want to step on any toes, that kind of thing. There are a lot of parameters to work with and in doing that, it creates something that’s almost more disturbing, it messes with your mind a little bit which I think is great horror, like The Ring. Watching it, there’s cameras coming through the kitchen and you hear a sound and it’s like “this is disturbing!” [Laughs]. I think Tony was able to achieve some of that, it’s great.

It seems that the series has a contemporary Asian feel, but there’s been a strong tradition of domestic horror films in Hollywood, things like Poltergeist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen. Were those influences, whether consciously or subconsciously, on the family dynamics in Grace?

Chee: Definitely not. I think the sensibility is sodifferent that to even borrow that would be wrong.

Are you also a very superstitious person?

Chee: Definitely very superstitious [laughs], like all Asian people, you guys must know!

Was there anyone in your family who told you “don’t do this because it’s a horror project”?

Chee: Yeah! But you know, I’m not the kind of person who listens to what everybody tells me [laughs]. 

Grace Interviews: George Young and Constance Song


George Young and Constance Song, supporting players in HBO Asia’s horror drama mini-series Grace, sat down with F*** to talk about how horror projects aren’t so scary once you get a peek behind the scenes, the differences between acting in this and a Channel 8 drama, real-life spooky experiences (those unnerved by elevators, look away now) and an imaginary slap fight which George Young supposedly caught on tape.
What drew you to this project?
Song: [Whispers] because it’s HBO!
Young: Yeah, look at the quality they do…
Song: [Whispers] They produce good show!
Young: [Whispers] we should do the whole interview whispering [laughs]. [Speaking regularly] first of all, it’s HBO themselves. I grew up watching shows like The Wire, Deadwood, Entourage, The Sopranos, and then with HBO Asia, they’re coming up with great original series, Serangoon Road, Dead Mine and now, this is something that’s a mini-series and it’s something exciting, in a brand new studio we were filming in, Infinite Studios, those are great, high-quality shows, you can’t say no to it. Can’t say no to HBO [laughs].
What were some of the challenges on this show?
Song: This one I say for the fourth time already [laughs]. Because I’m used to do a lot of Chinese drama, English, only like a few. This time round, everyone is quite international, Russell’s from States and he’s [George Young] from UK and the director is Australian and I’m Singaporean and then some are from New Zealand. The biggest challenge is first of all, I have to speak properly, good English, perfect English and then I have to gel in with everyone’s speaking, accents and the way it’s delivered, the way it’s shot. Chinese drama is a totally different kind of acting. English is very different, movie is very different, TV is very different, this is like a combination of everything so I have to adjust for everything. Different style.
Young: What was great about it is that even though we all had a different rhythm and everything, we came in and gelled quite quickly and that was a testament to the casting, getting us compatible with each other, but also Tony, directing us with all those different rhythms, different energies, different ways of doing things, he composed it in a way that it all worked and I can’t wait for you guys to see the result.
Tony was saying that you didn’t have much time to rehearse. When you got together as a cast, did you work things out before the filming process, get to know each other and stuff like that?
Song: I think we gelled in quite quickly and fortunately, Russell did not have any airs. He’s really nice and humble.
Young: No ego whatsoever.
Song: It’s so funny, he’s got his own resting [green] room. So we have another one that we share, he always bring his food, “can I join you all?”
Young: Yeah, he wants to hang out.
Song: So it was very good, very lovely of him, so at least he break the ice, we don’t feel so pressure, so that was a very great way of bonding.
Young: In terms of me and Jean [Toh], she plays my wife in the series, we did some scene work beforehand. Just before [shooting], we’d go through the scenes, what we would do, sometimes we’d have suggestions that we’d pose to Tony – “hey Tony, I don’t think Charles, my character would do this” or “Jean’s character wouldn’t want to that, can we try this?” and he’d be open to it which is very rare, because usually you’d have to go to the script supervisor and you’d have to do all that sort of stuff.
Song: There was a lot of room for us to try different way[s] of acting. He’s very flexible. “Okay, okay, maybe here you do this…” he’s open to communication.
Young: It was the rhythm of it…
Song: And everyone works so well with each other.
As an experienced actress on Singaporean television, how did you use that to fit into the cast?
Song: I guess it’s the years of experience that gives me the courage, gives me the confidence.
Young: Because at 28 years old now [all laugh] I would guess you know what you’re doing. I can imagine, I can imagine.
Have you been involved in any horror projects before?
Song: This is the first. It’s not that scary after all. Whenever we watch,wah, damn scary right, but when you’re filming it it’s more like fun, comedy, you don’t really feel the horrifying…people who are watching it, they feel more scary, but when you’re filming it, it’s not that [bad].
Pamelyn told us that in between filming, she tried to keep away from the actors who were playing the family and she was only in contact with Russell to stay in character because she’s the mistress. So was there anything you did in between filming to preserve the character when the cameras were off?
Young: Constance and Pamelyn shouting at each other all the time, “stay away from him!” [All laugh] drama off-set.
Song: Whenever I was on the set, she would walk away [laughs].
Young: “Sure, you walk away!”
Was there an epic slap fight?
Young: I caught it on camera, I’ll send it to you guys [laughs].
Song: Cannot, cannot! I was sending this very strong vibes to her, and then she’d [makes tiptoeing sounds] go away.
She said that her character doesn’t come into contact with your character. How did you generate the tension in your character when the both of you don’t actually meet?
Song: I guess we already build from the start. Not seeing each other much, in fact she’s avoiding, the family sit down to have dinner, she don’t even join us! Dinner break. She’s already doing it, so…after all actors, actress we are very sensitive, so I know what she’s trying to do and she also know what I’m trying to do, so kind of like it build from the start, already, so it build from the start.
Young: I think in real life, you don’t really encounter the person…if someone’s cheating on you, you don’t necessarily meet them but you hate them anyway. There’s this animosity that’s felt even if you might not physically meet.
Constance, what was it like playing the matriarch of a family?
Song: It was easy for me. Why? Reason being, I am also the eldest in the family in my own life, yeah. So I’m kind of like the breadwinner so I’m so used to looking out for my family, so this one is really like Angela [her character].
Is she a very serious character?
Song: Yeah, very serious. Very powerful, strong woman.
Is it similar to how you are in real life?
Song: I can be quite serious, but I can be quite…it depends, everyone is acting all the time. Like if I go home, I have to play a role, being the eldest daughter. If I go out with my friends, I have to play the role of [a friend]. So everybody is constantly acting in different role.
For this series, most of it was filmed on stage, the Egress Hotel was a set that was built. What was it like working in that environment and what is the impact of that location?
Young: I think the set design was fantastic. We filmed in a new studio, Infinite Studios in Singapore. And that’s a testament to how much Singapore has come in terms of doing international [productions] that can compete globally, that sort of production. When I went on the first day into that hotel and the sets, the way it was set up, the rooms and the hotel corridors and everything, just amazing what they’ve done with it in that space. For me it was just exciting to witness that in Singapore, in Asia, to get to do that, to get a global-quality experience on the production.
One of the things that I found interesting was the creepy confinement nanny. What elements of culture or tradition that were incorporated into the series did you find the most interesting? Tony was also talking about trying to make it accessible to viewers who might be unfamiliar with the culture but also authentic.
Young: For me, I have an Asian dad, a Greek mum but I grew up in England and have only been in Singapore for three years so I think it’s a good litmus test for me to experience what I read and what I saw, the confinement nanny, the different sorts of Asian themes and the ghost stories you hear, and as that sort of outsider to it but with a little connection to it, I could relate to it, I could understand it easily so that I think will relate to the audience members, so audiences members who may not be as familiar with it as [those] in Singapore and the rest of Asia. It translates equally as well to the other hemisphere, so I think I was a good litmus test, that sort of canary [in the coal mine] experience to experiment on.
When series with Asian themes are done in the west, there’s sometimes the danger of it being exoticised or there being an Orientalist slant to it, making things mystical and weird. How do you think Grace avoided that and how did you think it tries to be authentic in presenting this?
Song: I think it’s more like…it’s very different from Japanese or Thailand horror movie[s], it’s always that scary look that scares you. But this one, I think it’s more on suspense, thrill, that keeps you hanging there all the time. So I guess this aspect of communication, of keeping the audience watching, is strong enough. It’s not like very Asian any more, it’s like playing with you, psychology.
Young: What’s seen vs. what’s not seen. It’s a nice combination of it. Another thing is that yes, some Asian-themed series may go overboard with the Orientalism as you say, but this was shot here, shot in Singapore and with people who are knowledgeable about it. It’s an HBO Asia production, an HBO Asia original, so of course they’re sensitive to that and not going too extreme. They’re familiar with the territory so they get to play with it whilst understanding being sensitive to that sort of [thing].
Are you superstitious?
Song: Superstitious? I try not to [chuckles] yeah. But I believe in all this, I believe in the supernatural that they exist.
Have you had personal experiences?
Song: Yeah, I was sharing that there was once I encounter in the lift, it’s a lift encounter. Somebody stop somewhere, the door opens, but actually there wasn’t anybody there. So, I close the door, and then when I was about to close, the door open again, about three times. That was my scariest encounter.
With the family drama element, would you say there are aspects of a soap opera to this with the skeletons in the closet?
Young: That’s a good point. What they do, what I’ve found when I read it and we did it is that it connects the audience to this very real family thing which we all have, everyone can relate to a family relationship, the tribulations and trials that happen in a family. And they keep that real, they don’t make it into a soap opera thing with the dialogue or anything. And once they get you with that, the real element that grounds you, they can hit you with whatever else that comes that way. So that family drama is kind of the vehicle that leads you into whatever happens next, that’s how it works. And I don’t think it’s very sensationalised or anything, it’s kind of a real family.
Constance, how would compare the story of Grace to the stories of Channel 8 dramas that you’ve acted in?
Song: Like I say just now, Chinese drama always, the flower is red, we can take four pages to talk about the flower is red. But for English drama is like “okay, just two sentence” can tell everything. The difference is I think the actions is more than the words. They show you there and then what’s happening. But Chinese drama they use a lot of dialogues to deliver “what happened last night?” so that’s the main difference. [To Young] You enjoy Channel 8 right?
Young: Yeah, I want to do more!
After Grace, will you be doing more projects in English?
Song: I’m doing one for Channel 5, this time round it’s a comedy, not horror. I’m looking forward to that, it’s a character that I’ve always wanted to play.
George, what was it like working with the baby?
Young: Uh, the baby…
We see you in the series, you have a baby…
Young: Um, I don’t know how much we can talk about that. It’s something that is…I can’t really say much about it, I guess.
Grace takes place in an unspecified Asian location and Russell was saying that originally, they were thinking of making it take place in Hong Kong. What was it like filming in Singapore but knowing that in the story, it’s not really Singapore?
Young: I think that gives credence to…I mean compliments Singapore in a way that it’s increasingly becoming a scenario where you can film in Singapore for any sort of thing – futuristic, modern, past…you’ve got elements in certain elements in Singapore where you can film the historical side of Asia. I think that’s a good sign, because the fact that you can do that in Asia here gives more flexibility to Singapore and more productions as well. The fact that we can do that, you know that it’s in Asia, it’s got a very Asian feel and what they wanted that to translate not just in Asia, South-East Asia but the world, really this show, it can do that, Singapore can do that, so I think it’s a good thing.
Do you think this can travel well to the west?
Young: Yeah.

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 BabyRosemary’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. 

Coup de grâce: Grace Press Conference


The stars of Grace dish on HBO Asia’s horror drama mini-series
3/9/14 Jedd Jong

This October, HBO Asia is hoping to add its own dash of spookiness to the usual Halloween festivities with Grace, its original four-part mini-series. F*** was at the Conrad Centennial Hotel Singapore for Tuesday morning’s press conference.
Revolving around what could be any upper-middle class Asian family, Grace shows how one man’s indiscretions doom his family to a series of eerie happenings. Present at the press conference were leading man Russell Wong who plays Roy Chan, Pamelyn Chee who plays Roy’s mistress Ya Yi, Constance Song who plays Roy’s wife Angela and George Young who plays Roy’s son-in-law Charles.

Grace features several alumni from last year’s HBO Asia co-production Serangoon Road, including Wong, Chee and Australian director Tony Tilse. With deejay Maddy Barber moderating the proceedings and everyone seated on couches decorated with HBO throw pillows, Wong jokes that it feels like they’re in for family counselling. The Chinese-American Wong, known for films like The Joy Luck Club and Romeo Must Die, leads a cast that includes many Singapore-based artistes in addition to Taiwanese actress Teresa Daley and New Zealand-based actor Yoson An.

Wong’s reputation as the roguish charmer from The Joy Luck Club precedes him, but it seems he has mellowed somewhat. Mostly shy and laid-back, he says “I had a good time working on Serangoon Road. It’s Asian content in English. Sometimes in the States there’s still a little bit of stereotyping going on and trying to fit into the martial arts genre…at my age it’s not working so well. So this works great!”

Young was the enthusiastic jokester of the group, making a crack about how there was “a lot of sexual tension” between him and Wong. “I wanted to give him some watermelons, ‘xī guā!’” Young says, alluding to The Joy Luck Club. “I gave him a couple, not during the scene though.” He adds sincerely, “Russell being mixed Asian-Caucasian as well, kind of similar to me, I see him and I want to learn from him.” Young describes Graceas a “Greek tragedy with an Asian twist”, adding this is perfect for him given that he is half-Greek and half-Chinese. When the cast is asked if they are superstitious, Young says he practices “touching wood” (get your mind outta the gutter) to avoid jinxing anything.

Pamelyn Chee says her character has no qualms ripping Roy’s ideal family apart. “It could just be my real life,” she jokes. Chee was given the script without being told which actor would play Roy, but she guessed Russell Wong and she was right. When asked if the emotional nature of the role made it challenging, Chee responds “I think emotions are overrated. I don’t feel like it’s about being emotional, that’s an easy sell for an actor, I feel like it’s portraying the different levels and layers that the character has and it doesn’t always has to be emotional, it can be scary, it can be wild and there are so many other layers that are under-explored by actors in general.”

Constance Song, who made her television debut in 1998’s The Return of the Condor Heroes, is a familiar face to fans of Chinese-language drama series on Channel 8. Stepping outside her comfort zone to take on an English-language part, she says that she practised with English-speaking friends and that “actually it’s not so bad after a while”. She called the chance to act alongside Russell Wong “unbelievable”, saying “Russell is always making me so nervous. I think it’s just his presence.”

Ever the gentleman, he said of Song “she has a great restaurant,” referring to the actress’ other venture, a tapas bar.
Song admits that she couldn’t help but crack up when Wong had to deliver some dialogue in Mandarin. When Barber asks the actor how his command of the language is, he replies “mó mó hú hú”, meaning “vauge”. Our expert tells us this isn’t even the right term, but far be it from us to play Chinese grammar police.

When asked if the Singaporean cast members would travel to the States to visit Wong, Young quips “yup, I’m crashing at Russell’s place. Russell didn’t know this, but I’m borrowing his car, he’s got a few, I’ll borrow a couple…” Apparently, the cast has gotten close enough to go out for dinner that evening on their own accord.

A journalist asks about the significance of the series’ name. Director Tony Tilse, sitting in the front row, takes over the microphone to answer. “It all came out of the concept of the story,” he says. “Ultimately Grace is about forgiveness, mercy, elegance, all those things. I think the idea of Grace is that it’s all those things, so in a way it’s about, because of the story we chose, we saw grace as about wanting forgiveness, the whole idea behind it so that’s the whole meaning behind it.”

Grace premieres Friday, October 17 at 10 pm (9 pm Thailand/Jakarta) on HBO and HBO HD.