Home is calling: Invisible Stories set visit

For inSing

HOME IS CALLING: INVISIBLE STORIES SET VISIT

inSing meets the director and actors of HBO Asia’s new original series on location 

By Jedd Jong

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

HBO Asia has begun principal photography for its latest original series Invisible Stories, which is being shot on location in Singapore. The six-episode half-hour drama series revolves around the lives of everyday people living in the fictional housing estate of Sungei Merah.

The series is created by Singaporean writer-director Ler Jiyuan, who worked with a team of local writers to realise Invisible Stories. Ler has directed episodes of local TV series and TV films including Zero Calling, Code of Law and Gone Case, and recently wrote and directed episodes of Grisse for HBO Asia.

Invisible Stories is produced by Singapore-based company Birdmandog as part of HBO Asia’s partnership with Singapore’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).

Showrunner and director Ler Jiyuan. Photo credit: HBO Asia

“80% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats. I myself grew up in an HDB flat in the 90s, a three-room flat back when there were still gangsters,” Ler told the press during a break on the set. “My father was a taxi driver. Invisible Stories is the universe I came out from as a child,” he revealed, adding “I feel that it will be interesting for international audiences to see this side of Singapore, the non-crazy rich side.”

The stories being told in the series include that of a taxi driver who moonlights as a spiritual medium by night, and a banker who is a family man but lives a secret double life by night. The series features a regional cast comprising actors from Singapore, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

inSing was on set at a coffeeshop or ‘kopitiam’ in Chong Pang, a quintessentially Singapore location. This is the partial setting for the first episode, starring Yeo Yann Yann. Malaysian actress Yeo has starred in notable Singaporean films including 881, Singapore Dreaming and Ilo Ilo. In Invisible Stories, Yeo plays Lian, a single mother working at the drinks stall in a coffee shop to support her autistic teenage son.

Ler wrote the role of Lian with Yeo in mind. She was initially hesitant to take on the role, for fear of it being too emotionally taxing, but later accepted. “The first thing I felt is that it would be very heavy for me. As a mother, I am also struggling with my child and my work,” Yeo confessed. “I’m juggling between taking care of my child and my work, I was trying to avoid something that was so heavy for myself. I was scared, because once you’re in it, you have to dig [into] the pain. Of course, there’s joy, but the pain is so much deeper.”

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Yeo said she was inspired by an interview she watched in which actress Meryl Streep said she felt a responsibility to take on roles that would give voice to the voiceless. Yeo said of participating in a project that will represent Singapore on a global stage, “I’m proud of it, and I’m proud of giving voices to the unheard.”

Photo credit: HBO Asia

Yeo was sporting bruises, including bite-marks, that she assured us were mostly makeup. Yeo had shot a scene the previous day in which Lian’s son Brian had a meltdown. “A meltdown for an autistic child is when they don’t feel right. You take something away from them, they have a meltdown,” Yeo explained. The cast worked closely with a special education teacher to ensure that the life of an autistic person and their caregiver were portrayed sensitively and accurately. “Many things that we perform were approved by the advisor. The advisor was very happy that we didn’t over-exaggerate it or under-represent it,” Yeo said.

Director Ler Jiyuan. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

The issue of caring for an autistic child hits close to home for director Ler, who has two cousins with non-verbal autism. “I put myself in the shoes of a caretaker, Ler said, adding that “for them, it’s a really hardcore commitment. It’s emotionally draining, financially draining, especially for those of the lower rungs of society.” He emphasised that “the story is a very painful one, but one I still feel is necessary for us to see.”

Devin Pan on the set of Invisible Stories. Photo credit: HBO Asia

Taiwanese actor Devin Pan plays Brian, Lian’s son. Speaking in Mandarin, Pan called the meltdown scene the “most challenging scene” he has ever filmed. “You need to be very physically and mentally strong to make it through scenes like that,” he said.

Yeo Yann Yann and Devin Pan. Photo credit: HBO Asia

Yeo and Pan worked during rehearsals to form the mother-son bond their characters must share, and it carried over into the interviews with Pan holding Yeo’s hand when he felt nervous about being surrounded by the media. Speaking about working with Yeo, Pan said “I think this is the most fortunate thing that’s happened to me since I’ve left Taiwan to take on this job.” Both Yeo and Pan have a theatre background and he commented that they have similar personalities, saying “We’re both relatively carefree and easy-going but we focus on the performance, so we find it easy to play off each other when we’re acting.”

The series was born out of a desire to tell the stories of people whom we pass by on the street everyday in Singapore and wouldn’t necessarily give a second glance. “Every coffeeshop has a drinks stall aunty, but you never really think about who she is,” Ler explained. “That’s what I’m trying to do, to tell a story about people like that whom you’d walk by and never really notice; in regular dramas they’d just be extras,” he remarked.

Photo credit: HBO Asia

Yeo gained a new appreciation for what it’s like to work at a drinks stall in a coffeeshop. “Even just staying there for five minutes is not an easy thing, it’s very hot inside, it’s really not easy,” she said.

Yeo also took her seven-year-old daughter onto the HDB flat set the previous night. “She saw us struggling, melting down, fighting,” Yeo said. “I asked her ‘are you afraid of it?’ and she said ‘no, it’s fake!’” Yeo said her daughter does have some interest in acting, but that her dream job is an art teacher.

Ler Jiyuan, Yeo Yann Yann and Devin Pan on the set of Invisible Stories. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Invisible Stories is set to premiere later this year on HBO Asia’s on-air, online and on-demand platforms.

 

Positively Preposterous Prosperity: Crazy Rich Asians set visit

POSITIVELY PREPOSTEROUS PROSPERITY

inSing witnesses the wealth and wackiness first-hand on the set of Crazy Rich Asians

By Jedd Jong

Sprawling mansions, multi-million-dollar weddings, a bachelor party on a converted container ship, private jets, limited edition supercars – oh, to live as the top 0.1% does. inSing got a whiff of that rarefied air when we visited the set of Crazy Rich Asians in Singapore. Besides taking in the luxury, we learned that, yes, rich people have their problems too. Please contain your outpourings of sympathy.

Crazy Rich Asians is based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel of the same name. Kwan was born in Singapore, and his family relocated to the United States when he was 11. The story’s protagonist is Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor at New York University. Rachel falls in love with Nick Young (Henry Golding), who hails from Singapore. Nick takes Rachel back to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) to Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno). It is only then that Rachel realises that Nick belongs to one of the wealthiest families in Asia, and as the girlfriend of an extremely eligible bachelor, she draws the ire of scores of Nick’s would-be suitors.

Rachel also butts heads with Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who disapproves of her son’s choice. Rachel finds herself drawn into an intricate family drama, with players including Nick’s beautiful cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan); Astrid’s unfaithful husband Michael (Pierre Png); Peik Lin (Nora “Awkwafina” Lum), Rachel’s best friend in Singapore, rowdy groomsman Bernard Tai (Jimmy O. Yang); social-climbing Hong Kong soap opera starlet Kitty Pong (Fiona Xie); and various other colourful characters.

When we visited the set along with other members of the press, it was the penultimate day of filming in Singapore. It was a night shoot, which tends to be arduous on the cast and crew. The scene being shot that night was set after the wedding reception at the Gardens by the Bay in Marina Bay Sands. In the shadow of the towering Supertrees was a cluster of banquet tables, each with a roasted pig as its centrepiece. Food stylists would occasionally spritz the pig with oil to keep its skin glistening. A stage sat towards the front of the garden, with an ornate fan-like backdrop and a bandstand on it. The laminated dance floor before the stage was kept covered with a grey carpet. The scene of the dinner itself was shot the night before.

Observing from a distance through a bank of monitors, we watched a heated confrontation between Nick, Rachel and Eleanor, with Nick’s grandmother (Lisa Lu) witnessing the argument. In between takes, director Jon M. Chu rushed over to speak to us. While he was perspiring heavily from the muggy Equatorial weather, Chu appeared to be in good spirits. To keep the cast looking picture-perfect while shooting outdoors, Chu told us that the makeup department alone was 30 strong. “That’s the biggest makeup crew I’ve ever had, and I’ve done bigger movies,” he remarked, quipping “sometimes dressing nice to a wedding takes more effort that being ninjas on the side of a mountain” – referencing his earlier film, G.I. JOE: Retaliation.

Chu’s credits also include two Justin Bieber concert films, two films in the Step-Up series of dance movies, Jem and the Holograms and Now You See Me 2. He explained that after helming several sequels, he was ready for a change of pace and sought out material that would be more personal to him. “I grew up in a Chinese restaurant with my dad and mum who came over – my Mum is from Taiwan, and my Dad is from [Mainland] China,” Chu said. “There’s that side of me, the traditional part of it, but I also grew up in California, as a California boy my whole life, so I have this other side.”

It was the director’s sister who introduced him to the novel, which struck a chord with Chu. “It says everything that I feel, but in the most fun way, not so dark and deep or trying too hard,” Chu observed. He added that he was excited to showcase Singapore in his film, proclaiming that “The world has not seen this world on the big screen in a big American movie.”

Chu was effusive about his cast, saying “they’re hilarious, they’re amazing, they’re talented, they’re fresh, they’re excited to tell a great story.” Over the course of the night, we would consistently hear about the actors’ camaraderie on and off the set. “Our cast gets along better than any other cast. They go for karaoke every night,” Chu said, adding jokingly “Almost too much, I think it might be a problem.” He added that he wished he could hang out with them more, but alas, a director’s work is never done. As if to demonstrate this point, Chu was whisked back to work and away from the media, returning to direct another take.

Crew members were stationed across the Gardens by the Bay complex, with personnel shuttled to and fro on buggies and golf carts. A function room had been converted into a green room, where we would meet several cast and crew members when they weren’t needed on set. Producer Nina Jacobson ducked behind the partition curtain in the green room where we were waiting. Outlining the film’s appeal, Jacobson described Crazy Rich Asians as “a universal story but told in a way we haven’t seen, in a place we haven’t seen.” Jacobson co-produced the blockbuster Hunger Games franchise, so she knows cinematic potential in a book when she sees it. “When I first read the book, I couldn’t put it down,” Jacobson recalled, adding “I very much identify with Rachel, but I was also fascinated by this world.”

According to Jacobson, the film examines cultural attitudes in a way that hasn’t yet been seen on the big screen. Jacobson said one of the themes in the story is “Tension between family and duty and happiness and love,” and the film deals with negotiating those tensions in a global economy in which “increasingly, people have a foot in two worlds.” Jacobson credited Malaysian-born co-screenwriter Adele Lim with providing “insights into generational conflict,” and assured us that there would be nuance to the conflict presented in the film. “It’s not just everyone being mean to the American girl,” Jacobson clarified.

According to Jacobson, Constance Wu was the first choice for Rachel. Jacobson described her leading lady as “funny, smart, casual” and “a breath of fresh air”. Wu actively pursued the part, and didn’t even have to audition. Similarly, Michelle Yeoh was the top pick to play Eleanor.

Jacobson insisted that the filmmakers were “mindful about people’s heritage,” and were aiming to accurately represent the characters as written in the book. This led to the elephant in the room: leading man Henry Golding, born to an English father and a mother from the Iban tribe in Sarawak, Malaysia, plays Nick Young. The character is ethnic Chinese and is described in the book as resembling “Cantopop idols”. The casting received its share of backlash, with critics decrying the film as committing ‘partial whitewashing’. This seemed hypocritical, given that star Constance Wu has been an outspoken opponent of whitewashing in media.

Jacobson called Golding “by far the best person for the part,” adding that “he felt like how we always imagined Nick.” Jacobson justified the casting by pointing to how “Singapore is a very multicultural place.” Clearly prepared for the topic to be broached, Jacobson said “There are many people whose families have mixed backgrounds and we could get away with it here, especially with Michelle as his mother, who has a Malaysian background as well.” The producer explained that due diligence had been done, and that author Kwan and Warner Bros.’ international partners had all been consulted about Golding’s casting and given their approval. “He had to be both the kind of guy a girl wishes she could be with, and a guy wants to have a beer with,” Jacobson reasoned, saying that Golding struck that balance.

While Crazy Rich Asians can be loosely classified as a romantic comedy, Jacobson insisted that there is dramatic heft to the story too. “Oftentimes in romantic comedies, there’s a major contrivance or misunderstanding,” Jacobson said. “To me, a movie is as romantic as the conflict between the characters is great.” Jacobson broke down the components of the film, saying “There’s the comedy of manners, there’s the romantic comedy, but at the heart of it, there’s a real dramatic conflict.”

Production designer Nelson Coates gave us a sense of the logistical undertaking that making Crazy Rich Asians was. Principal production lasted a mere 40 days, with shooting taking place in three cities in Malaysia and in Singapore. Despite the stressful schedule and the daunting task of re-creating staggering opulence on a limited budget, Coates was easy-going and friendly. He described working with a crew from 18 different countries, saying “you have to tune your ear to different kinds of English.” He remarked on some of the challenges of working in an unfamiliar environment, saying “Singapore does a funny thing in that they blend metric and Imperial. You might get a 4’ by 8’ sheet of plywood, but it’s 16 mm thick.” Coates seemed to take it in his stride.

To create Tyersall Park, the Young family mansion, Coates turned to the Carcosa Seri Negara, formerly a luxury hotel in KL. The historic complex had been abandoned for some time, and the production team gave it a makeover to turn it into the stately home befitting the wealthiest of the wealthy. “There were bats and hornets and feral dogs, we had to do major cleans,” Coates recalled. Some movie magic was required to make multiple locations feel like they were part of the same mansion. Coates built the Tyersall Park kitchen in the Kuala Lumpur Craft Museum, earning the approval of one key cast member. “Michelle Yeoh walks in and she goes ‘how did you know?! How did you know about all the food?!’ She was so excited to see it,” Coates beamed. The gates were built near Champion’s Public Golf Course in Singapore, in a stretch that the production nicknamed “monkey road”.

Coates’ eyes lit up as he described a central set piece – a container ship that had been converted into a party yacht to host the bachelor party. “When you get in, you come down the stairs from where the helicopter’s landed, and there is the basketball court, and the pit that you can dive and do stunts into, and the cars that have been cut and turned into pool tables on the top, and a climbing wall, and a series of Ducati motorbikes in front of a huge electronic wall that has all the streets of Singapore going past you as fast as they can, so it looks like you’re in the ultimate videogame. Then there’s the gambling area, and the arcade area, and a stage where all the beauty queens from all over the world come out and do a little dance.” All this was built in a parking lot in Kuala Lumpur.

While striving for a fidelity to the source material, certain changes had to be made to accommodate filming. For example, a scene that takes place in the Lau Pa Sat hawker centre in the book is relocated to Newton Circus for the film. “I know it’s not the one that’s in the book, but we chose it because it’s triangular,” Coates said. “Everywhere you look, you see vendors. We wanted that full explosion of foods.” Coates became a big fan of Singaporean food, and was fond of one particular snack, exclaiming “I love those ice cream sandwiches!”

When actress/rapper Nora “Awkwafina” Lum swung by, the room lit up. Energetic and personable, Lum quickly put everyone at ease. Rocking a necklace shaped like an avocado, it was clear that while some characters in the film were bound by strict decorum, Lum’s Peik Lin was a little on the wacky side. “She’s fashionable, but not classy,” Lum said of her character, adding “she wears bunnies all the time”. It was easy for Lum to relate to the character. “She’s a little bit of myself – I’m crazy, I’m very eccentric, and I’m a different kind of Asian female for people to digest,” she proclaimed. “She’s not a stereotypical character – she’s not the brooding mother-in-law, she’s not the classic beauty, she’s just a little crazy – so I feel like I connect with that a lot.”

Lum’s onscreen dad is played by Ken Jeong, whom she was thrilled to work with. However, filming scenes with him was challenging in its own way. “He’s so funny that when we run takes, I can’t keep a straight face. I break character every time,” Lum laughed. “In America, we have a very limited icon list, and he’s one of the most famous prominent Asian-American entertainers that we have,” she said of Jeong. “He literally called Jon and was like ‘I don’t care if I get paid, I just want to be in this movie,” Lum revealed, adding “it’s that important for our community back home.”

The actress considers it a privilege to be part of the first Hollywood studio film in 25 years with a predominantly Asian cast. “It’s something I didn’t think I’d see in my lifetime, and definitely not something I thought I’d be a part of,” she admitted. Lum stated that it was “important for the next generation to understand that this is possible,” hoping it sets a precedent in the American entertainment industry. “I look at the cast and realise that we’ve all, at some point in our lives, been the minority on a set full of white people,” Lum said, turning vulnerable for a moment. “We’ve been ‘that Asian’ on set. And now, that dynamic doesn’t exist.”

Stay tuned for more of our coverage of Crazy Rich Asians! Up next – interviews with stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh.

Tanks for the Memories: Ah Boys to Men 4 set visit

For inSing

Tanks for the memories: on the set of Ah Boys to Men 4

A tank flattens a car as Jack Neo takes us through the mayhem

By Jedd Jong

On a sweltering September afternoon, this writer walked past overturned cars in an open-air parking lot full of debris. There were open flames and smoke, as a bloodied extra covered in dust shuffled by. Bricks were scattered about, as egg crates were being burned to create smoke, the smell of cordite hanging in the air.

Hiding in the distance behind some trees, almost as if waiting the wings of a theatre, was a Leopard 2SG main battle tank.

inSing was on the set of Ah Boys to Men 4, the latest instalment in Jack Neo’s highly popular series of comedy films, which follow a group of Singapore Armed Forces recruits through their National Service.

In this film, our heroes are serving their reservist duty in the Armour Unit, operating tanks and armoured fighting vehicles. The scene that was being filmed that day involved a Singaporean tank pursuing an enemy armoured vehicle.

The film stars Tosh Zhang, Wang Weiliang, Joshua Tan and Maxi Lim, reprising their roles as Sergeant Ong, Lobang, Ken Chow and Aloysius “Wayang King” Jin respectively. New additions to the cast include Apple Chan, Jai Kishan, Ryan Lian and Hafiz Aziz. None of the principal actors were present during the set visit, because the interior scenes with the actors had already been shot earlier. Actual soldiers from Headquarters, Armour were operating the vehicles on the set, with Major Audrey Kon keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings.

Director Neo assured us that unlike the war scene glimpsed in the first Ah Boys to Men film, this was not a video game, and the film would depict Singapore actually at war. Where the invading troops hail from, he wouldn’t say. “We are not going to say where. Enemy can be anywhere,” Neo told the visiting media.

Speaking to inSing in Mandarin, Neo laid out the scene for us “These HDB blocks in Dover have been sold en bloc, so we’re able to take over this area and turn it into our war zone,” he said. “In around a month’s time, the whole thing will be taken down. Nobody’s staying here anymore, so it’s safe for us to do our explosions. We’ve spent a lot of time and money converting this into our war zone. As you can see, there’s lots of debris, as well as real cars that we’ve wrecked.”

“There are so many crew members required, we need lots of coordination,” Neo remarked, gesturing to the people around him. “We’re working with machines, and sometimes machines will throw tantrums. They’ll go ‘oh, I’m malfunctioning now, too bad for you,’ and you have to sort that out.” When asked if humans throw tantrums too, Neo replied, “occasionally”.

Two main action beats were on the agenda: the Leopard tank was set to roll over and completely flatten a car, and there was a major explosion planned for later that day. We waited around for hours, and Neo explained why things weren’t moving at a breakneck pace. “It’s very troublesome to shoot,” he said. “Once there’s a mistake, you have to reset everything to zero, to check that everything is safe, so the process is very, very slow. But slow is good, to make sure everyone is safe.”

After several hours of making sure everything was just right, it was time for the big event. The tank trundled along, gaining speed, crushing the Chevrolet beneath its treads. After the sequence was complete, Neo happily posed next to the flattened automobile.

After another two hours, it was time to film the next big sequence. An unassuming bespectacled elderly man in a red polo shirt and navy-blue shorts set up an explosive charge in front of the enemy armoured fighting vehicle. This is Jimmy Low, founder of The Stunt Production and the go-to guy for pyrotechnic stunts in local film and TV productions.

After making sure everyone was at a safe distance, that the debris was arranged to hide the explosive charge from the camera, and with a drone positioned overhead to get an aerial shot, it was time to blow stuff up. Even with earplugs in, the explosion was deafening and the shockwave palpable.

The film is being released the same year that the Singapore Armed Forces celebrates its 50th anniversary. Why should audiences return to cinemas for a fourth go-round? “Just from listening about the personal experiences of the men in your family who’ve undergone National Service, you might not get a full understanding of what it’s like,” Neo commented, adding that the Ah Boys to Men films “bring you inside the units, and convey why National Service is important to our nation, especially in times like these.”

Ah Boys to Men 4 opens in Singapore on 9 November 2017

Hit ’em High – On the set of Hitman: Agent 47 in Singapore

As published in Issue #66 of F*** Magazine

Text:
HIT ‘EM HIGH
F*** is on the set of Hitman: Agent 47 in Singapore
By Jedd Jong
The bald head, the barcode tattooed on the back of it, the red tie, and the black overcoat: the figure of Agent 47 is immediately recognisable to gamers everywhere. Developed by IO Interactive and published by Eidos Interactive and later Square Enix, the successful Hitman video game series spawned a loose feature film adaptation in 2007. The iconic gun for hire is being given a new lease of life on the screen with Hitman: Agent 47, starring Rupert Friend in the title role, and F*** was on the set for an exclusive look behind the scenes.

In the video game series, Agent 47’s missions have taken him around the world, to countries including Romania, China, Hungary, Russia, Chile and Malaysia. Hitman: Agent 47 was shot in two major locations: Germany and Singapore. 12 days out of the 48 day shooting schedule were set aside for filming in the South-East Asian nation, the crew’s stint in Singapore making it the first major Hollywood production to shoot there. Various locations were used, including tourist spots such as the Marina Bay Sands hotel and the Gardens by the Bay. Production was based in the newly-opened Infinite Studios soundstages at Mediapolis, which was where we were brought to that day.

Unit publicist Michael Umble greeted our group of journalists, explaining the scene we were about to witness. Agent 47 had captured and tied up the main female character in the film, named Katia and played by Hannah Ware. He had suspended her in front of a giant jet engine which would “Cuisinart” Katia, as Umble put it, if she couldn’t escape. It sounded like a modern-day variation of tying the girl to the train tracks. Now, what was the “hero” of the film doing what sounded like typical bad guy business? An oft-repeated phrase used by various personnel when describing the film was “not is all as it seems”, and that the moral landscape of Hitman was indeed an ambiguous one.

We were given our first hint of the teething problems the first major Hollywood production to film in Singapore would inevitably face when Umble somewhat apologetically explained that the scene was originally to be shot in an actual jet engine factory, Pratt & Whitney’s Singapore manufacturing plant. Unfortunately, the crew was denied permission to film there at the last minute, and what we would see instead was markedly less spectacular, with the scene being shot against a green screen on the soundstage.

We were taken into one of the smaller stages where craft services was setting up for lunch later. In the corner of the room sat a gleaming new red Audi RS7, partially hidden beneath a tarp. A series of large production stills taken on set in Berlin and some pieces of concept art were put up on the wall. These images offered a clear look at Rupert Friend as Agent 47 – his iteration was not completely bald and the barcode on the back of his head was much subtler, design changes made in the name of having the assassin blend in a little better with the crowd. The stills also featured Zachary Quinto and Hannah Ware, Quinto guarding Ware in one photo and shooting at 47 in a Berlin Metro station in another. A conceptual rendering featured the familiar Singapore skyline with one addition – a computer-generated citadel sitting on the Bay. We were told that this building was the headquarters for sinister multinational corporation Syndicate International, headed up by a character called Le Clerq (Thomas Kretschmann).

After a good deal of waiting around, we were finally ushered on to the set where the scene in question was being filmed. We walked past a partial set of Le Clerq’s office; apparently most of the scenes set there had already been completed in Berlin. We arrived before a large green screen set up where Ware, in a black long-sleeved shirt and black trousers, was being rigged by the stunt team and having her makeup touched up. She was hoisted into position, suspended by orange ropes. Director Aleksander Bach was seated behind some monitors with producer Alex Young next to him. Rupert Friend was just off-camera, feeding Ware his own lines. In this scene Agent 47, would be in the control room of the engine factory and those parts of the scene would be shot separately.

As the scene began, a camera on a technocrane pulled up, capturing Katia awaking and realising the nature of her predicament.

“The more you struggle, the tighter it will get,” Agent 47 warned Katia ominously.

“I’d beg but somehow I know it wouldn’t help,” Katia answered.

“It wouldn’t.”

“I’m tired, so f*** you,” she retorted.

We saw several takes of the same scene, Ware tripping up on the line “…the cell phone, they knew the system would identify my voice and track the signal.” We’d probably forget a couple of lines if we were suspended in mid-air for a whole day too.

After lunch, production designer Sebastian T. Krawinkel came by to talk about the locations featured in Hitman: Agent 47, showing us a slideshow of conceptual images as he talked. Krawinkel’s credits include Inglorious Basterds, V for Vendetta and Speed Racer. He explained that they had considered using Reflections at Keppel Bay, designed by architect Daniel Liebeskind, as the headquarters for Syndicate International, but “of course the restrictions in Singapore are very tight. When they heard we wanted to crash a CG helicopter into the building, nobody was interested to give us the building. So, the only way to achieve that was basically to build the building ourselves in CG and make it a CG gag.”
Krawinkel was visibly distraught about the change in location of the engine factory scene. “It occurred to us that a word given didn’t mean anything and at the last minute you couldn’t get the locations,” he sighed. He referred to the situation as a “disaster” and added “I’ve enjoyed being here and the architecture is amazing, but it’s just not, um, not been very easy to proceed.” A believer in using contrasting environments to create a distinct flavour, Krawinkel said of the famously clean Singapore “I must admit that I was disappointed that everything is so slick and clean that I wanted to cheat a little bit, and when we shot in Chinatown we did some shots through some steaming pots and I deliberately put some dirt on the road which wasn’t there just to give a bit of contrast that not everything is like slick and boringly clean.”
Krawinkel spoke about shooting on location in Berlin, in the Metro station in Alexanderplatz. The production had also converted a German university into a U.S. embassy. In Singapore, the crew filmed at locations such as the Parkroyal hotel on Pickering and the Star Vista at One-North. We were shown concept art of a car chase scene which would be shot on McCallum Street. Despite being disappointed at some of the locations falling through, Krawinkel spoke very positively of the 15 young attachés from Singapore who travelled to Berlin as part of an attachment program, two attachés being assigned to each department. “We had two girls who worked with us in Berlin and they’re here as well, and that was very nice because obviously familiar faces make it easier to come to a foreign country and generally I can only speak very highly of the crew here because what they have missing in experience, they make up for with character and enthusiasm,” he said.
Next, actor Zachary Quinto, who plays “John Smith”, came to speak to us. Described as an “adversary” rather than a “villain”, Quinto said “I think my character is really driven by a need to prove his value and his worth and he is maybe to a fault ambitious and needs other people to recognise his power. He’s unwilling to relinquish that power and I think that is something that is a major flaw of his,” describing the moral landscape of the film as “blurry”. He spoke about his training regimen for the film, which included training in the martial art Silat. He added that he was relieved to get away from the paparazzi, saying “like in Berlin for example where we’ve been for the last couple of months, people there are not really that interested in celebrity and there is no paparazzi there and it’s really nice to be in an environment where people aren’t following you down the street or waiting outside my house or whatever the case may be. It just keeps me at peace, I don’t have to be outside of myself.”

When asked what would set Hitman: Agent 47 apart from other video game movies that have gone before, Quinto said “I think there’s a lot of attention to detail in this film, I think that there’s a lot of attention to character, I think Rupert and I are both actors that operate in similar ways and come from similar backgrounds and try to bring some element of depth and multi-dimensional reality to our characters. I think that we’re trying to come at this movie from a different point of view and make it substantial as an action film can be.” When comparing the action and stunt work on this film to that on the Star Trek movies, he observed “we had a lot more time to do it on Star Trek, we had a lot more money so we were accomplishing a lot here with less resources and less time and I think that everybody involved has done a very impressive job of working with what they have to make it look really incredible.”

Reflecting on where he was in his life, Quinto said “I feel like I’m at a real crossroads right now, I’ve been working pretty consistently for the past two years and I’m ready to take some time to let all the lessons that I’ve learned through the last Star Trek movie through American Horror Story through The Glass Menagerie through this to just settle and these other movies that I’m going to do this summer are quiet enough so I’ll have some time between them. I think it’s a real period of re-evaluation for me and I’m excited by that, I’m really kind of like looking forward to taking time for myself to figure out what my steps will be for the longer range. I’m so grateful for the experiences that I’ve had and I’ve accomplished so many of the goals that I set out for myself when I was younger, I feel in a way like I’m really asking myself ‘now what, what’s next?’ I’m shifting into this larger phase in my life where I really feel like I’m not a kid anymore and I’m entering into my late 30s and I’m really asking myself ‘what do I want to accomplish in a larger sense in a larger scale, in my business life, in my creative life and in my personal life?’ and those are three things that I really want to examine and figure out, so we’ll see where it all takes me.”

Producer Alex Young stopped by after Quinto left and was bubbling over with enthusiasm about shooting in Singapore. “It’s such a glorious, incredible city and absolute distinct visuals that you can find nowhere else in the world.” On the opportunity of presenting Singapore as a new location that hadn’t been seen in Hollywood movies, he said “a hard part about making a movie these days is to be fresh and distinct and to give the audience something they’ve never seen before and so many movies are made and so many have huge ambitions that they explore every corner of the world so to find a place that’s as modern and as big as this that hasn’t been shot is one of those…I’ve never experienced it in my career before. All the other big cities, London, Paris, Hong Kong, New York City, Tokyo, San Francisco they’ve all been shot on film extensively before so it’s very rare as a filmmaker that you get the opportunity to come to these places and find something that hasn’t been shot gloriously on film before. You’re not going to shoot Paris in some new way that everything from Gigi to Inception hasn’t done before. You’re not going to shoot New York City better than Martin Scorsese has done before, you’re just not. So to be the first ones to put something on film is just great.”
Young attempted to downplay the difficulties of being denied the use of the factory location, saying “that’s a normal exigency of moviemaking, sometimes locations fall through and you have to go to your backup plan. We always had a plan to do this on green screen just because you have an actress strung up, like the engine part and all that was always going to be visual effects. If you go to one of those test cell rooms, it’s essentially just a big room like this (the soundstage) anyway, and unfortunately we just couldn’t work it out with the company and that just happens, that happens in every city and that happens in every location and some of them fall through, such is life, you just roll with it.” He insisted that for a location as “untested” as Singapore, things have been going well on the whole. “For a first-time experience, it’s been glorious. I’ve had experiences with film commissions that are far more entrenched, that are far more restrictive, so it’s been great.”
Young said the filmmakers were convinced that Rupert Friend would be the ideal candidate to play Agent 47 after seeing his work as Peter Quinn in the TV show Homeland. “47 is not a nice guy,” Young stated bluntly. “He’s never going to be a ‘nice guy’, he’s never going to be in touch with his own feelings and hoping the audience likes him but he’s pure, he has a code he lives by, he has a job, he has a mission, he’s the smartest guy onscreen and I think what we’ve done is we’ve kept it a little bit ambiguous, who we should be rooting for but in every sequence, he really is smart and clever and is the puppet master of the entire movie. That’s what Rupert can play so well, he’s got a soul to him but he’s so smart, he’s the sort of calculating guy and you can really buy into that he’s orchestrated the whole thing.” Movie producers will invariably describe their projects in “X meets Y” terms, and sure enough, Young said “the touchstones of this movie are the very first Terminator and Luc Besson’s The Professional.”
Young mentioned that Chinese star Angela Yeung a.k.a Angelababy would have a pivotal cameo in the film as a character from the games. When asked if Hollywood is ready to see more Asian faces, Young affirmed “not just ready, I think they’re eager to”. “I think Hollywood is desperate to tell more authentic Asian stories,” he said. “Every studio now has multiple projects in development that are Asian-themed or that are international and take place in this part of the world.” He also revealed that the visual effects work for the film will be done by ILM in their facility in Singapore. “It’s not a $200 million movie, it’s a really modest movie, but to have a company like ILM doing the visual effects will make it feel like an even bigger movie because the quality will be so incredible and the facility they have here is truly extraordinary and I believe is as big if not bigger than the one in North America.”
We then got to talk to Agent 47 himself, Rupert Friend, clad in a grey t-shirt. He was charming, unassuming and who referred to the Marina Bay Sands hotel as “that hotel with that sort of boat stranded on the top”. Friend was cast after the untimely death of Paul Walker, who was originally chosen. He stated that he had played all the games, an encouraging sign that he was taking the character seriously. About the game series, he said “the exciting thing for me is that yeah, he’s tough as all s*** and he can beat the hell out of you but if you try to play the game by shooting everything and beating everyone up, you’ll just lose. If you don’t use your brain, you lose, and I thought was a very interesting premise because, as I said, I’m not into just shoot ‘em ups. If I was going to play a game, there has to be an element of strategy, tactics, intelligence, even, dare I say it, soul, because I think those days of that kind of Doom, whatever, I think gamers are smarter than that now.”
On the question of whether or not it was possible that Agent 47 has a soul, Friend said “Absolutely. That’s something that I’ve been very keen on and really insisted on, the guy’s a clone. He’s not a droid, he’s not a cyborg, he’s not a robot, he’s a human.” Friend has not taken many action-oriented parts and said he didn’t want to portray Agent 47 as a mindless, invincible killing machine. “My interest is not, believe it or not, in just looking cool, much as I’d love to,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just those cracks in the surface to let us see the actual man underneath. I love the idea that yeah, he feels things, yeah, he likes music, yeah, he likes spaghetti Bolognese, it’s just that we don’t know that. His job is killing people for money, that’s all you need to know, it’s just that he knows other things.” He said it wasn’t a big deal shaving his head for the part, since acting is about physically and otherwise transforming into the character after all, though he did reveal that it was “f**king cold” in Berlin, his scalp left vulnerable to the low temperatures.
Explaining the significance of that barcode, Friend explained “it’s his birthday, then it’s the series of clone he is, the class of clone he is and the order in which he was cloned. Looks pretty good for being born in 1964, don’t you think?” Justifying the changes made to Agent 47’s appearance, particularly the more discreet barcode, Friend said “have you ever seen a white ink tattoo? Actually, it kind of raises the skin, I love the idea that rather than something overt, the guy’s walking through a crowded metro station. Someone who’s super, super bald, when they actually have hair and you skin the thing like that, is very conspicuous, and he’s wearing like a suit and a red tie, it’s very like ‘you’re supposed to be the covert assassin guy,’ whereas this guy in the crowd over here,” he said pointing to a production still on the wall, “you’re like ‘yeah, he’s a businessman, whatever.’” Another journalist joked that Agent 47 could be mistaken for a Manchester United team manager. “There were ideas about the costume, making it more fancy and a bit more Karl Lagerfeld and I was like ‘no, classic, classic, classic,’” Friend insisted. “This is hand-tailored by a guy out of Madrid to fit me and there’s just ten of them, ten shirts, ten ties, finest cotton, everything’s expensive and well-tailored, then you don’t need bells and whistles and scarves and hats and chains and bracelets. It’s supposed to be blending in and then efficient, you know?”
Before leaving, we went back on set where the second part of the scene in which Katia gets tied up in front of the jet engine was being shot. In this sequence, Katia would try to free herself from her bonds as the engine started up, wind machines simulating the blast of wind. The director instructed Ware to make it look like it was more of a struggle to free herself. After several takes, he came over to speak briefly to us.
A director of television commercials, Hitman: Agent 47 was the first feature film project Aleksander Bach was helming. “How does it feel? Crazy. It’s a crazy honour, but of course, I’m working on this project since two years (ago) now and it took so much time of preparation to make this project really happening,” he said in halting English. He described the character of 47 as “a kind of Terminator in a James Bond suit”. Summing up the title character, Bach said “47 is a killer. You don’t love him, you don’t hate him but you understand him.”
And with that, our tour behind the scenes of Hitman: Agent 47 drew to a close. F*** hopes that the Hollywood film’s visit to our shores will be something of a boost for Singapore’s fledgling industry and who knows, perhaps Tom Cruise will be free-climbing the exterior of the Singapore Flyer in a future Mission: Impossible instalment.
Hitman: Agent 47 hits Singapore theatres on 27 August 2015