Interview: “Geeking” out with Sandi Tan, director of Shirkers
Shirkers follows Sandi Tan as an adult as she attempts to resolve the biggest mystery of her past—What happened to Shirkers, the indie thriller she made (and starred in) as a teen? Through DIY aesthetics and interviews with her childhood friends, Tan revisits the making of her movie and the subsequent theft of the footage by the film’s director. Her poignant film touches on what it means to have your dreams stolen from you—and how to move on.
You had quite an unconventional film career path. First you made a film at 19, then you became a film critic at 22, and afterwards you attended film school at Columbia University. Do you think that unconventional path informed your work in any way?
I think so. I like good beginnings, middles, and ends, but not necessarily in that order. I think it frees you from feeling like you need to go to film school first. I shouldn’t have—well, film school wasn’t all that. I never thought of it as [being an unconventional path]; it was what was available to me at that point. When I was 18, an internship opened up to write about movies, so I got the job. Before that, it was that the opportunity to make Shirkers opened up, and you do what is available to you. If I had all the choices then, I might have gone to film school first, and that would have maybe been a mistake. I think its always interesting to move things around, [to experiment with] different orders. It frees you from thinking you need to do things a certain way.
That informed the way I made the film too, because we made it backwards. Most documentary filmmakers go story first, and I was horrifying all my documentary editor friends—who are pros—by doing it backwards. Me and Lucas, my editor, we sat and just listened to music, looked at graphics, and looked at all the visual material. We came up with mood first, because I am a big proponent of emotions as a narrative driver. I think you can go much farther, in a more unusual and unexpected way, than just the conventional, traditional structure of beginning, middle, end. Emotions can take you in unusual directions, and you’re taking people on a personal journey. It’s more important that you hit the right intense [emotions]. Emotional truth is so much more important. You can take [the audience] in different directions that may not seem like the usual structured approach, and yet they’re on the journey with you for the same ninety minutes. In fact, [it feels] like it might be more meaningful to them because it’s new—it strikes them in a more authentic way.
Emotional truth is often neglected by filmmakers, and in place they often stick to a conventional beginning, middle, end. We all love beginnings, middles, and ends, but there is a way of doing it [with more nuance]. So we went at it backwards starting from graphics—when most people usually start it with story in a very rigid way. Mostly when people are assembling documentary films, at first it looks really shitty, just badly put together blocks, and then they send everything off to a graphics genius, who puts in the music and the color and the life—they bring it back to life, in some ways. I feel like we could not proceed without having established the aesthetic look and the emotional [backbone]. It’s a journey that requires you to be there for it emotionally from the get-go, so we had to get the audience along for the ride with the correct color, the correct images, the correct music, and the correct sound.
I think sound design is a hugely neglected accomplice in any journey, in docs especially. People think of it as an afterthought, and they throw the project [to a sound designer last minute]. My sound designer, Lawrence Everson—he’s the best guy at doing sound in docs in the US—he still feels like people often throw work at him only one month before the deadline. It’s so disrespectful, because he’s an artist and he [creates these works] with love. We talked for a year before he started working on it, and we had the luxury of that because it wasn’t a time sensitive project. A lot of people have these news-y things [that are time sensitive], but mine wasn’t. We had a year to talk about ideas, regarding time and place and things moving through time and place. How you add reverb to a sound, and it creates a different mood—and things become alive. There are so many opportunities to do that in film that most people don’t think about. I think this is why this film somehow really speaks to a lot of people on a personal level. It’s a film that can be an “earbuds movie,” a film that you can watch on your phone, and you still feel like it’s talking to you, because we are so conscious of making sure the sound was such a huge part of it.
The film also has a great DIY, zine-y vibe that I absolutely loved. That kind of teenager aesthetic felt so personal and really resonated emotionally with me. Was it your intent to capture that essential feeling of teenagerdom and childhood in the film? What was the process like, to rediscover your teenage self?
It was me digging into my archives and reading all these letters I wrote to my friends—I wrote so many letters, because this was before mail, before you were born. They kept all the letters and returned them to me when I was researching how to do this film. I went through them and just remembered how crazy I was. If I had the internet then, I would have lost everything to the ether, and it would have been dispersed and I would not have these thoughts again I think, in my minds. Reading those letters, I was reminded of what I was like emotionally, my [old] aspirations… Suddenly I turned myself back into a teenager; it was like method acting—I was a method director. I became this crazy teenager for a few months as I was starting to build this film.
Me and Lucas, my editor who [at the time was] 27 and a skateboarder, with no experience in editing. We just had no rules, because we are both inexperienced in the usual way. We were very DIY and very punk in that way. I was going for the mood and he understood that, because he had no rules as well. All the conventional editors I spoke to, they were horrified by my method because that’s so not what you do. It seems so crazy—all my friends were like “What!?” But they really were encouraging me to dig into my archive and recover what it felt like [to be a teenager]. I knew that once I could recover that headspace, I could tackle the film, and that’s how it came about it.
Was that the first time you had sifted through all that childhood memorabilia?
Yeah. And that’s why we started with all the letters. We scanned all the letters and the photos. We tried to make them part of the story, like the first part of the film which is very much childhood and teenage spirit, before it changes halfway—and the music changes, and the style changes—and it’s like, you’ve grown up now, and you’re going to investigate what happened to your life.
A lot of people were surprised by that, because it’s so unconventional. But I think it works. I think it speaks to everyone because everyone was young, and everybody was that person once.
Especially with Weish’s [vocal loop artist featured on Shirkers soundtrack] vocals, it is like an echo of the past coming through to the future.
The composer, Ishai Adar, who sampled her vocals for the soundtrack, he’s so talented. He’s like a superstar in Israel. He’s nominated for like six academy awards in Israel. I worked with him on Skype, I didn’t meet him until we went to Sundance for the premiere, and he flew over and I met him in the flesh for the first time. We’d been working so closely for months, and it’s really detailed with the cues [and everything]. Most people don’t have time or the luxury of doing that, but I’m like a soundtrack geek, so I had to make sure this [sound] hit that action at the right time, and he was also a geek, so we [were able] to do all that. He worked with Weish’s vocals and really played with them, gave them that haunting quality. I think her vocals are great anyway, just by themselves, and they’re touring right now. I hope somebody hears them and invites them to the US, because they really should be discovered.
The film felt very healing to me, extremely emotional and therapeutic to watch. Was the process of making the movie healing for you to go through? Or was it like re-opening an old wound?
It was great. No, it didn’t open any wounds. The wounds were so long ago. The whole process, that I was actively doing something about it was so cathartic in some ways. I was involving other people, so it wasn’t just a burden for me to bear by myself, which for years it was. I would talk about this thing and nobody would believe me. One of my friends who showed up, she remembered me talking about this film, and she remembered how everyone thought I was lying. For her to see that it exists, and for me to see that it exists… it was like every step of the way, everything I was doing in making this film, was vindication. It was all good. I just had to make it a good film to share with everybody. I want everybody who was involved in it to have their talent showcased as well.
The woman who played the nurse, I think she was really talented. She could have been an actress. That was taken away from her, because this [film] vanished. It wasn’t just about me; it was that all these other people had their talent stolen from them.
In the film, you mentioned seeing reverberations of Shirkers’ style in American films from Wes Anderson and other directors. Do you feel like your film could have been something big, if it hadn’t been taken from you?
Especially in a place where people did not care for this sort of thing, if this movie had come out as a finished product in Singapore at that point, people wouldn’t know what to make of it. They would have laughed at us. It made no sense. It’s not the conventional heroine. They would have just laughed us out of town, and all our classmates who hated us would have hated us even more. I think that’s what would have happened. In a way, we were spared.
The original Shirkers is also untouched, in a way. Had it been completed, maybe some of the mystery and beauty of it all would have been lost.
Yeah, that’s true. And it kept us all dreaming of movies as a possibility. Sophie [Sophia Harvey] is a professor at Vassar. Jasmine [Ng] is making films—she won’t say what, but I think she is making short documentaries. And I’m doing this. I guess we all had this happy, open wound—if it was an open would, it was a happy one. It left us all dreaming and still wanting to make things.
Do you think having Shirkers taken from you made you more driven? Were you striving to fill that void or make something better to replace it?
Now, I think, having done this… having proof that I can make this—that I can take my own story back, take my own narrative back—I am much more eager and impatient to move on and do more projects. That’s been good. It’s been good for everybody who has been involved in this whole thing. Even the crew, everyone is just moving onto great things right now.
Yeah, and the movie ends on such a hopeful tone. Especially with the use of the recovered footage in the film, it makes everything feel so much more vibrant and special.
The thing is, I want people to be brave and to do stuff, because what’s the worst thing that can happen to you? The worst that can happen is that you have your art stolen from you, like we did—for years! And yet, you’re not broken. You’re still alive. You can do stuff. I think every day that you are alive is like gravy, you know? I just want people to remember that. It’s so easy to forget that sometimes.