The Making of “Gift”
It was quarter to eleven at night, but the team and I were still toiling to tie up final paperwork and arrangements before the shoot commenced the next day. Call sheets were sent out, and phone calls were made, we had to make sure everything was in place for D-day.
The road that led to this day was turbulent and wild. With over ten rewrites of our short film, every version meant a late night of intense discussion in school and a cliff-hanging suspense for its approval and with each proposal rejected, the morale of the team only sank while our stresses grew. The team was made up of 8 members including myself, and I couldn’t have asked for a better team to journey with for the final months of my time in film school. With each day our script was still a work in progress, we had no way of being certain we had a shoot going on and with the imminent deadline I could see Seha’s, my producer’s face grow less enthusiastic by the hour. Every pre-planned set design had to be scrapped and redone with the latest version of the script, and required cast members would change along with the story’s needs. We were way behind compared to the other teams who got their stories approved right from the pitch, and that was messing with our heads real bad. But we didn’t give up, we couldn’t.
When the story was finally approved, it was more a sigh of relief than cheers for celebration. Hopes were brought up again, and it seemed like nothing else was in our way. Moving on, we had to confirm the locations we would use. We had spoken to a couple locations and some of them were quite promising, a verbal understanding was also made to confirm our permission to use the space. We couldn’t be more excited to see things finally coming together. It was a few days before the shoot when we received news that one of our locations backed out on us. This set us back, short on a location for an important scene. It was a fault on our part for not securing the deal with a written agreement, but granted the opportunity, Murphy’s law loves to rear its ugly head. Desperation really hit us hard, Seha started to negotiate with the person in charge while Clarissa, my assistant director took on cold calls to potential locations in slight hopes that just one would be happy to receive an amateur student production on their premises. It was chaos, the morale and energy of the team were in a valley. After much back and forth and a little begging, Dover Park Hospice was kind enough to let out a room for our usage. Limited area to work with, but what choice did we have? We had to make it work.
Back on the eve of shoot, we made it a point to let everyone off much earlier than normal, it was apparent we all needed to catch our Zs, so after all the important calls had been made, we called it a day and went home for our much needed sleep. Though I’m not sure whether everyone got the hours they needed. At this point it was just too much at stake to make mistakes, adrenaline was keeping our eyes open.
Day 1 on set. Dressed comfortable to work, no one had makeup on and boy the number of drooping panda eyes was astounding, but everyone was still on the ball focused. Setups done fast, shots called quickly, everything was moving. Unfortunately, regardless we still overran. We couldn’t complete the pre-planned number of scenes we were supposed to shoot on that day. This wasn’t an easy pill to swallow, especially for Seha. After we wrapped for the day, the team gathered by the sidewalk to finally have the takeout dinner that went cold because none of us had time to eat. She couldn’t take it anymore. All her worries and frustrations came pouring out, and the elephant in the room followed: what would become of the shoot when we barely had enough time for it in Dover Park? It came across more like a boss reprimanding her subordinates— but that was fine because it was her job to keep the project running. However to have classmates criticising each other just shows how seriously we took the project. After she was done, we spoke up one by one each sharing the stress we’ve had to deal with and while explaining the circumstance to Seha from different points of views, we affirmed each other of the work that we had done so far. What seemingly was a blame game session suddenly turned into a time of affirmation and support. After weeks of stressful pre-production work, this moment was something powerful and liberating. Almost everyone got emotional with tears and started to just release a bit of what pressure we had built up. I got to share a little of what I felt at the helm of the ship and I never regretted telling my teammates how proud I was of them. That moment was something else, it was special. At the end of it we left refreshed and it was as if a new surge of energy filled us, we were ready for whatever the rest of the shoot had for us.
Some of the most fun we’ve had as a team was the pickup shoot. After we were through the rough cut of the edit, we realised there was a shot we must have, to tie the entire short down, it was the brief glimpse into Rajit’s past with Divya as a little girl. So we took it to a real lalang field (Cogon grass field) and since it was a pickup shoot, we hadn’t got a proper location recce done. A few things took us by surprise. First, the field was on top of a small hill which we had to hike with our heavy equipment. Once we got to the top, we were greeted by a few stray dogs and it seemed that we may have entered their territory unwelcome, snarling and all. Thank God none of them got any closer and we carried on with the shoot. Not long into it, thunders roared and the rain came in intermittent showers. The filmmaker instincts in us went to shelter the camera and equipment first before even thinking about our own comfort. It must have been quite a sight, about 6 of us were huddled together with 2 umbrellas and everyone trying to get a little bit of the cover from the shower. While we protected the camera with dear life, I heard someone exclaim that there was dog shit somewhere pretty close to us— why was I not surprised. Alas, this is how we artists live: huddled together, protecting our equipment with our lives, while assailed by cold rain and dog shit. Artists indeed. What fun!
It was all worth it though, the shot we got from our pickup shoot became one of my personal favourites.
Directors of films get too much credit for something that is entirely team effort. I wouldn’t have made it without my team. Having been through all this, I can safely say that my greatest gain through this project is not the film or credits but the relationships I have made along the way.
My team was made up of 8 members including myself.
Seha Saifuddin was my producer, from the on-start we knew and communicated that if team dynamics didn’t work, it was the relationship between director and producer that had paramount importance. We needed to criticise each other and make sure
the other was on track. She turned out to be the most dedicated member who would stop at nothing to make things work.
Daniela Trasporto took up the role of Cinematographer with reluctance, in fear that she wasn’t proficient enough for the job. She proved herself wrong with shot designs that communicated more emotion than any description could ever give. She became a trusted friend who would hear ideas with an open mind and someone whom I can share with, deeply.
Joshua Long pieced the footages together in editing with meticulous detail and intricacy. He also doubled as Art Director who took care of the look of everything on set. His incredible work ethics and dedication ensured that the project kept moving even on rocky terrain. Ideation was always fun with this guy because he always had a way of seeing things from a new perspective.
Clarissa Tan was the Assistant Director who didn’t take failure as an option. She persisted through much and gave valuable insight in every situation. The turbulent climate of changes in production did not leave her fazed as she kept a momentum that carried the team through it all.
Zarinah Azman is incredibly talented and determined. She assisted Daniela with the role of camera assistant but was vital to the team besides pulling focus and setting up camera. She was on a mission to keep improving herself regardless the circumstance and brought key pointers in our discussions. Zarinah came to be someone I have great respect for.
Katherine Goh gave all she had, in every way she could. Officially, the sound mixer and co-writer of the story, but she contributed way more than her job scope. She would be the one to give constructive suggestions with each obstacle we faced and put in the physical effort to see the problems solved.
Eskay was my Casting Director and Production Manager. She brought a unique skillset to the table when speaking to people especially when recruiting potential cast members. Order was also maintained from the on-set chaos under her watch, she operates with decisiveness like a front-of-house manager at a restaurant.
Each of us worked with the interest of the film as priority, and had disputes for the betterment of the project, not for personal gain or ego. These were the dynamics I had in my team and each of our qualities not only complemented another, it created an environment of trust and synergy. Healthy relationships are attractive, and it wasn’t long before we had another honorary member in our team. Xu Hearn who lent a hand at everything from pre-production to post. This wonderful individual also became our colourist in the final stages of editing.