Sandi Tan’s story is wild and amazing. As a teenager, Tan was living in Singapore, a budding filmmaker who wanted to shoot a movie called Shirkers. A road trip movie. Except, Tan never finished shooting the film. As the the road to Shirkers ended, the documentary about her journey begins.
Tan is a revelation to speak to. Discussing her trip down memory lane, revisiting her past, the adventure of visiting it and how she sat on film reels for three years after they reappeared. It’s compelling, it’s wild, and it’s thoroughly mysterious.
I caught up with Tan about the filming of Shirkers — the film and the documentary.
The film screened at Sundance and we’re still talking about it, how has it been for you?
It’s been amazing. Even at Sundance, our first screening was at the Egyptian Theater on a Sunday afternoon. Sex, Lies, and Videotape had it’s premiere there, and so many other films had screenings there, and it turned out to be so magical. Somehow, the magic was just right. We were very lucky. It actually had the potential to be very stressful because Jasmine, Sophie and I had not been in the same room for at least twenty years and that moment. I was so stressed, but it turned out really well.
Ever since then, it’s been a really busy ride. We did fewer festivals than people wanted, but I tried to do what I could. We also went to Sheffield and that was great. It was our UK premiere when we had Weish who does the voice throughout Shirkers.
She’s a teacher in Singapore and I found her on the internet and after Sundance, she had to quit her job because the movie was going to explode. Now, she’s a full-time musician. So, she came to Sheffield and we did a live looping session after the movie with some extra footage from the film playing behind her and that was a great event. People were just sitting there and it was almost like a concert.
Showing it at college towns too has been really amazing. We showed it in Columbia, Missouri and thought they wouldn’t get it, but these are the people who get it. When I was growing up in Singapore, I was thinking of kids in Columbia, Missouri because you’re not in LA or New York. You’re not having access to arthouse or great media. You’re away from the cultural center so you’re making your own fun. People in small towns really responded to Shirkers. We also showed the film at special screenings such as at a cemetery in New York on rooftops. You realize it’s speaking to the youth.
People who watch documentaries tend to be older, and I was getting young people telling me they’d seen it 3 or 4 times following class festivals. Now that it’s on Netflix, people can just hit play. The fact that we had people who had seen it many times because it spoke to them about being brave and creative – something I never thought I was doing for other people – that’s so nice to hear that I had that impact. I wish someone had made that for me when I was a teenager. I get messages every day from around the world and people sending me fan art. If you look at my Instagram, you’ll see the posts I’ve shared.
You talk about seeing Sophie and Jasmine for the first time. Talk about that relationship since and before.
They are very much what they are in the film. We caught them being true to who they are. My crew met them for the first time and felt they knew them already. I took great pains to capture them in their native habitats behaving as they would. I had to be true to them and represent them as they are. All the prickliness you see in the film exists in real life. It comes from the fact that we’re all bound by this foundational traumatic event that for better or worse links us forever really closely even though we don’t talk every day and we hadn’t been in the same room for over 20 years. It’s still something that whenever we bring it up, the feelings and wounds are still so fresh. I think a lot of women have those friends that are exactly like that and I think that’s why a lot of people feel this real kinship to the film because it captures the troublesome friendships over the year. It’s very truthful about it. I don’t necessarily agree with some of the things that Jasmine says about me, but I let her say it because it’s her point of view and I wanted to represent that.
We are as if we hadn’t quite grown up. But, having made the film I’m much more in touch with both of them than I had been in the last 20 years. It’s almost as if I made this film as an excuse to say hi. It’s such an awkward subject to broach with your friends, so you make this grand gesture in order to get in touch again and reopen the wounds. That was difficult, talking about that again. It was something repressed for a long time.
Everything happens for a reason. You find the reels, what state were they in and revisiting that for you?
This is what surprises people about it, the boxes came back to me. The film sat in those boxes for three years before I had the courage to open it up and look inside. I didn’t want to deal with my performance and that it wasn’t how I remembered it. I was fearful that the film I had would be better than the film that was actually in existence and it would bring forth financial ruin and take me down this rabbit hole of obsession and insanity. So, it took me three years before I could look inside.
When I did, I took them to this post house in Burbank called Modern Video Film. I did a lot of research about what they knew about 16mm. This place did a lot of the Criterion transfer and knew a lot about color. So, I took the cans to them and every single reel of film was wrapped in black trash bags and was in pristine condition.
The guy thought I was punking them and didn’t believe that it was over 27 years old. At most, they thought it was two years old. Georges was a crazy person and carried it around with him and stashed them in storage lockers and they were perfect. So, that says something about his psychology and he was playing games. He was living the novel of his own games in his action. The fact I got this back was both a curse and a gift because now I have this film. It’s an adventure, you open the box and you make the film. If I hadn’t opened it, there’s another path and I may not have done anything. If you take the call and you do engage and you spend three years of your life making the film, you would hopefully be rewarded for your efforts and I feel very fortunate that other people are watching it and feeling that kinship with it.
I like that you don’t portray Georges as a villain when that could’ve easily been done. What was it like for you to hear his voice and revisit that path and avoid that trap fall of “there’s a villain?” Instead, you simply don’t do that.
He’s not a villain. He’s so much more complicated. You have to respect your nemesis to make a fair portrayal and make a compelling one at that. If you dismiss them as a villain, you’re doing the disservice not just to him but to the story and yourself. I wasn’t an idiot even then being his friend. I knew he wasn’t the conventional mentor/teacher character, but it was part of the package. We wanted to do something and the rules didn’t apply. It’s much less interesting to think of him as a villain who victimized us, innocent kids. It’s not as simple or as black and white as that.
I was feeling like I was solving a mystery because it left me with so many clues and as a detective of my own life, as you solve them that have been left behind by your nemesis, it’s almost like a Sherlock and Moriarty kind of play. Even after his death, as I was editing the film, we felt like he was there, talking to us and giving us clues. I think you have to be engaged with your nemesis to create a compelling narrative.
I loved seeing the correspondent letters and related to that.
Things vanish so quickly. When something as dramatic as having your film be taken away from you, you tend to want to keep everything sacred. When I was trying to research this film and put it together, I was asking Jasmine if she had any of my old letters. She was accusing me of being a hoarder. She said Georges was a hoarder. It turns out that Jasmine was the biggest hoarder of us all, she gave me two huge sacks of letters that I had written. That’s the thing about Jasmine, she’d say all these things and then she comes up and gave me the letters I wrote. She kept more than I did. I feel like Jasmine and Sophie were both traumatized by this whole thing but they don’t express things in the same way I do. I had the benefit of making this film to work through all my complicated emotions. For me, returning Sophie’s notebook to her was the biggest thing. That was the biggest thing, to return this notebook to her that she had written when she was 19. Somehow, she feels that’s the kernel of her entire career because she’s a film academic and this is where it all began for her.
I loved the black hole aspect of it. Seeing how you go on this journey.
It was almost like following my thought path in real time. I was solving the mystery of my life and taking you along on this journey as we solve it together. I began with the coming-of-age and what it was like to be 18 with ideas. As the movie, grows up, I try to capture the cadences of growing up and coming to terms with things. When the footage is stolen, we no longer see it in the film. We hear rumors, we don’t see the footage again until it’s rediscovered. I wanted to go through the life process of what it felt like to go through that entire thing of what it felt like when you no longer have access to the footage. Just memories and lousy video. To have it earned and to come back as a detective. In the active solving of it, the film begins to come back to us, you feel, as a viewer, I think you feel implicated in the journey and alive, but also aware of what it was that I was going through because I was trying to explain to people after all these years what I had gone through.
I was so amazed by your sound design in the documentary.
I’m obsessed with the score and sound design. I started looking about a year before we started working. I found Ishai Adar on the internet and we started working over Skype because he lives in Israel. With the music, she lives in Singapore so I had him sample her voice and we talked about it. We were in constant contact. Lawrence Everson did the sound design, he lives in LA and he’s sought after. I’d send him clips and talked to him about what I wanted. We don’t have a lot of footage of Georges, but we had to be creative. We needed him to be static. When we see the film reels, we had to feel them, they had to feel radioactive. How do you create that sound of radioactivity? We were building a time machine and Lawrence knew that. Utilizing that language, he was having these ideas percolate in his head and that is such a luxury and so important when you’re working with people to let them have space and think rather than dump them with last-minute tasks and expect them to perform miracles. It was such a fun collaboration. When I was editing the film, I’d put in sound effects and sounds, and Lawrence came in and just oomphed it up. I’d leave him breadcrumbs and he’d bake a cake.