An interview with ‘Repossession’ directors Goh Ming Siu and Scott C. Hillyard
Singapore filmmakers Goh Ming Siu and Scott C. Hillyard seem like unlikely collaborators, but when you see how the two create separately, it’s no surprise they teamed up. The duo most recently came together for the horror feature Repossession, looking to scare audiences half to death.
As Repossession begins its film festival circuit, both Ming Siu and Scott are already moving forward writing their next project, refusing to let COVID-19 stop their filmmaking plans.
We spoke with both Ming Siu and Hillyard about Repossession and their filmmaking journeys.
Tell us about your journey into film. What did you two do before becoming filmmakers?
Ming Siu: I worked full time at the national broadcaster in Singapore as a writer and director; then I went freelance, pretty much doing the same thing, and still do. So I guess maybe I’ve never not been a filmmaker in my working life, it’s just in different playing fields.
Scott: I started acting when I was nine years old, and gradually became interested in production work, so I studied Mass Media Management in school. We began making Repossession when I graduated, but I had to serve my compulsory military service before we began principal photography, and was in active service throughout the rest of the process of making this film.
Is there any particular movie or TV show that inspired you both to become filmmakers?
Ming Siu: Not really. I wanted to be in theatre at one point. I went to film school instead because I thought it would be a more sustainable career in Singapore. But in my first film class, I had an epiphany, and realised I was exactly where I was meant to be.
Scott: I wasn’t inspired by any movie or TV show in particular, but having been in so many productions since young, what happened behind the camera always seemed so mysterious. Being a filmmaker allows you to spark conversations, to enable the audience to see things from new perspectives, to see themselves on screen and identify with the characters, and perhaps give them insight into themselves.
Who are your current influences?
We watch a lot of different films and TV shows in all genres, so it’s hard to say who’s a current influence. It’s probably easier to identify the influences in Repossession, because we definitely talked about some during the process.
Audition by Miike Takashi – for the unconventional story structure
Kurosawa Kiyoshi – for mood/tone
Edward Yang – for compositions/framing/staging
European arthouse cinema in general – for the handheld camerawork and editing style
February / The Blackcoat’s Daughter by Oz Perkins- for mood/tone and how the possessions should feel
Christopher Nolan – for the intricacies of plotting, setups and payoffs, layeredness
That being said, our next film, should we be so lucky as to get to make it, will have very different influences, including Michael Mann and Park Chan Wook.
Is there any particular part of filmmaking you prefer over the rest?
Ming Siu: Probably the post-production process, where you get to distil and shape all the raw material you’ve gotten into the actual film, often making new discoveries along the way. Editing truly is the final rewrite.
Scott: Most likely post-production as well. After putting in so much effort in development and shooting, it’s nice to have something tangible that you can see on the editing monitor. And the finishing touches like color grading, sound design, and music also have a huge impact on the final film, so you have to be very careful when making these decisions.
Do you consider yourselves indie filmmakers? If so, do you think you’ll ever stop being indie filmmakers?
Scott: It depends on how one defines “indie”, because there’s such a huge range. Ideally, we’d like to have the creative freedom that comes with being supposedly indie, but at the same time, it would be fantastic to have production partners and financiers on board too, so that we can get more ambitious projects off the ground. Repossession is completely indie, but we’re definitely open to opportunities.
Walk us through your creative process.
Scott: The bare-bones foundation has to be really strong to start with, then we start to fill it out and build the story and characters layer by layer. When it gets to a point where we’re happy with a story in treatment form, we’ll get feedback from others and adjust accordingly, or set it aside and return to it after some time.
Because of our different work and life experiences, we each bring something different to the table. Ming Siu is more about plot and logic, and Scott is very much about the emotional journey and the truth of that. We complement each other well, and challenge each other to up our game. So the final result is always stronger from our collaboration, even if it wasn’t easy to get there.
We also believe very much in targeted workshopping once we’ve cast our main actors, having them be collaborators with us in creating fully rounded characters.
Do either of you listen to music to help you create?
Ming Siu: Not usually, but sometimes when writing a screenplay, I’ll listen to soundtracks that fit the genre of whatever it is I’m working on, to get into the mood. It has to be instrumental though; anything with words disrupts my ability to come up with my own, unless it’s in a language I don’t understand.
Scott: Not really music. But when I want to really focus and think or write, I sometimes play the “Deep Focus” playlist on Spotify. Lol
Do you have any experience with mentors? Would you recommend them for up and coming filmmakers?
Ming Siu: Not specifically, though I have had teachers and supervisors that have been influential along the way, either in terms of practical skills learnt or soft skills like managing people. I think mentors would be tremendously helpful for a newcomer, but somewhere along the way, you’ve got to learn to fly on your own, or you’ll forever be in their shadow.
Scott: Not exactly. I think it’s important to learn from everyone, in general. It’s useful to have someone like a mentor to guide you in certain aspects as well. However, it’s also important to have your own voice, and not let it be clouded by the opinions or influence of others. You have to remember to stay true to who you are.
What were the first projects you both worked on? What was that experience like?
Ming Siu: Assistant directing for a TV series in Singapore. It was a huge culture shock, because everything was done very indie micro-budget style. I did learn a lot though, especially in terms of adaptability and resourcefulness. You lost your location? Too bad, no one cares, you figure out some way to shoot it, no matter what.
Scott: The first project I was involved in behind the scenes from start to finish was a student-produced infotainment episode meant for public broadcast. It was a rather messy process, and what I learnt from the experience is that it’s vital for the entire team to communicate clearly and be on the same page.
How did you two meet, and when did you decide to collaborate on a project together?
Scott: We’ve been collaborating (kind of) on and off for over ten years, in our roles as creator and actor. At some point, early in 2017, we thought it’d be fun to make something together, since we have somewhat overlapping tastes. It was going to be a short film, but at some point, we thought, how is that any different from all the TV episodes we’ve been doing all these years? How hard could it be to make a movie? Little did we know…
What inspired you guys to write Repossession?
Scott: The situation that Jim finds himself in was inspired by several high-profile cases of mass retrenchment in Singapore while we were conceptualizing the film. It’s a very real issue that that generation faces now. They bought into the notion of the Singapore Dream and a particular route to that dream, only to be discarded once they weren’t useful.
However, it isn’t just specific to Singapore. Especially with the economic fallout from this pandemic, this is taking place all over the world.
Singapore independent film is known for small, intimate human dramas. We decided to go a different route because we wanted to carve out a niche for ourselves.
What were your experiences like working on Repossession?
Scott: A very steep learning curve. Being new to the independent film game, and to producing, we never expected the actual making of the film to be the easiest part. All the thought that went into the details, the debates we had, all those were so simple compared to the financing of the film and what to do with it after it was made.
Ming Siu: That being said, despite having directed for over 10 years, I was so anxious the day before the shoot started that I threw up all day, and had to take anti-nausea medication on set.
You both like to wear multiple hats while on set. How do you juggle all your jobs?
Ming Siu: By focusing on one thing at a time. For example, even in writing, we can do separate drafts while wearing different hats. The first draft of a treatment is purely in “writer mode”, getting the story out. Then for a rewrite, we may look at it through a producer’s eyes, and rewrite it in a way that makes it more appealing to potential investors or project markets, while not necessarily changing the actual plot.
The sequence of “hat-wearing” that we do is probably alternating between Writer and Producer during development, then switching to Director, and then when the film is close to being done, switching back to Producer.
While on set, it helps to surround ourselves with a good team so we can focus purely on getting the best performance from our actors.
Where do you see yourselves in five years?
Ming Siu: Hopefully further along in our careers! There’s a lot more to learn, for sure!
Could we see any episodic TV from the two of you soon?
Ming Siu: I’ve done over a hundred episodes, though all are in Singapore. I don’t really have any interest in making a TV project in Singapore, because that’s kind of like my “day job”, but internationally… it’s something to think about, for sure.
Scott: I’ve never written, produced or directed any episodic TV. I’ve always been in front of the camera. But miniseries like Black Mirror and Peaky Blinders do interest me, so never say never? It all depends on the idea, really.
Some are only good enough for a short. Others have more potential to be developed further into a feature, and some have the potential to become a much larger and more complex TV series.
Ming Siu: That being said, even if we did, it would probably be a limited series with an endgame already planned right from the beginning. I really don’t see the point of dragging something out for 10, 20 seasons. I’d probably get sick of it.
What’s next up on the docket for the both of you?
Ming Siu: We’re writing the screenplay, and trying to find production and financing partners for our next feature project, The River Always Flows. It was part of the Network for Asian Fantastic Films’ (NAFF) It Project Market this past July, held at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) in South Korea. It’s a serial-killer psychological thriller that also explores themes like gender, social class, and race issues.
We’re also working on a historical mystery “jungle noir” set in British Malaya during the 1950s. We also have a horror-comedy road trip movie, which is really fun, but we’re not sure if that’s what we necessarily want to do right now, even though we both have pretty solid comedy experience as well.
If any director could direct the story of your lives, who would you choose and why?
Ming Siu: Koreeda Hirokazu. He’ll make you feel all the feels without ever going into melodrama.
Scott: No idea.
Who composes the soundtrack of your lives?
Ming Siu: I have no answer for that.
Scott: Easy. Our composer, Teo Wei Yong. Not over the top (mostly), but says a lot.
What have been your biggest successes and failures so far?
Ming Siu: Success: Making this film… no, wait, check in with me when we finally sell it, then I’ll talk about success. Failure: Not taking this leap into independent filmmaking earlier. I was 37 when we first started writing it.
Scott: Going through with this film and actually getting it out there. So far.
Do you have any advice for up and coming filmmakers?
Ming Siu: If you’re new to producing, try your best to find out how producers in your country raise funds for their films. They are part of the ecosystem, and it is easier for you to figure out the ins and outs of your own ecosystem before you decide whether you want to play in it or not.
This ecosystem differs so hugely from country to country that it’s almost useless to look at another country’s examples. For instance, indie producers from Mexico tell me they can get 80% of their financing from government grants, whereas perhaps for the US, that option isn’t available at all. Or crowdfunding may work in a large country like the US, but not necessarily if you’re living somewhere where that culture just doesn’t exist.
Scott: Get to know people who are willing to share their experiences. If you’re a director, try to find a good producer. What Ming Siu said is very true too. You need to know how things work in your environment, wherever that is. These are just some of the lessons that we learnt along the way.
If you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what would you both choose and why?
Ming Siu: I may be drawn to genre, but in this hypothetical scenario, it’d have to be something that could fit any mood I’m in. So I’m going with something from Pixar, like Wall-E or Coco.
Scott: Skyfall? Great performances, action and story. And of course, because the story takes place in many different parts of the world.
Are there any indie filmmakers we should be keeping on our radar?
Scott: Since we’re from Singapore, we’ll just talk about Singapore ones. Tan Pin Pin is a renowned documentary filmmaker whose films have played all over the world. Her works are carefully layered and many explore just what it means to be Singaporean.
One of her recent films, To Singapore, With Love was banned by the authorities, and ironically, it’s the one that shows the most love for the country, through telling the stories of those in political exile. Kirsten Tan, writer-director of the Sundance screenplay award-winner Pop Eye, has a wonderfully unique way of looking at the world that is equal parts whimsical and deeply moving.