Is Filmmaking for a normal person like me?

17 02 2009

Haven’t been blogging for quite a while. Was going through a rough patch. I have been making films for about 5 years now, going into my 6th year in 2009, with little results to show. I will be 36 years old in 2009, how many more years do I have?

I don’t know whether other filmmakers go through periods like this; when I am thinking that I must be crazy to even try to make films in Singapore, let alone films that are not commercialize, little films that means much maybe only to me. It doesn’t help when family doesn’t support you. When one tells you often enough that you don’t have what it takes, slowly your will and determination starts to erode, starts to decay. You will start to waver and believe it. I once gave an interview and said that to do filmmaking in Singapore, passion is only the beginning, more important: you must have perseverance. When the road gets hard and narrow, when you don’t even know whether there will be a light at the end, will you go ahead or turn back?

I don’t know. I don’t think I will ever know. I remember an essay I wrote some time ago, for a submission into a programme in korea. I will take heart and remember why I wrote these words:

“Making films are not for normal people like us.” My dad will always tell me as he points towards an article in the newspapers about filmmaking or when he sees a television report about films. My mum will add, “it take millions to make a film, our family will never be able to have this kind of money.” I understand perfectly the sentiments and concerns that they have. Sometimes in moment of weakness, these uncertainties still sneak up on me. Is filmmaking really not for a normal person like me?

To answer this question, I think the best way is to relate how I become a filmmaker. My journey and love for film began when I was just a child, but I didn’t realize then that it would be a 30 years road to realize this dream. When I was in primary school, my family lives in a rented two room flat.  Privacy is non-existent as I share a room with my older sister and younger brother.  I would sleep on a mattress on a foldable bed while my sister and brother shares a double-decker.  We used to a play a game of story telling when my younger brother would asked me to tell him stories.

My escape from such a claustrophobic environment comes when my grandfather would come and visit us. It is always very special because my grandfather would bring us to a nearby cinema to watch late 1970’s and early 80’s melodrama films. These were magical moments of escape and fantasy.

As I grew up and mature, my interests expanded into other forms of story telling like literature and history.  My thought processes have also started to change, maybe as a result of the English oriented educational system in Singapore. Here, English is designated to be the first language. This is the result of the “The Bilingual Policy” adopted in 1966, where one of its primary objectives is to promote English as the common (and neutral) language among the diverse ethnic groups in Singapore.

I began to think and rationalize in English instead of Mandarin Chinese, which is my mother tongue and the first language of expression I grew up speaking and learning.  I guess I do not realize it back then but this change has also started to present certain views to me, that the arts is an elective pursuit and that emphasis should be towards the engineering sciences. However, I still love story telling very much and had done well in subjects related to it with less effort.

When it was time to choose my majors during my Junior College, I did not have the courage to challenge this view and had chose to pursue the engineering sciences.  I had continued along this path and graduated with a Degree in Civil Engineering from the National University of Singapore.  Still, I continued to mature in the kind of films I watched and had often buried myself in the University’s Resource Library with its vast collection of videotapes. It was also during this time that the possibility of being a filmmaker slowly seem possible, with the starting of Singapore independent filmmaking scene by Eric Khoo with “Mee Pok Man” in 1995, after an absence of Singapore films for about 20 years.

After my graduation, I have practiced as an engineer and had progressed to the position of Project Quality Assurance Manager in my company when I was 30 years old. However during this period of time, I have come to accept this nagging realization; Engineering is not my calling.  My mind is able to rationalize and carry out the job and do it well due to my training, but my heart and spirit in not fully devoted to the engineering pursuit.  I have always returned back to the pursuit of film to define myself.  After this long journey, I have decided to realize my long-term desire to commit to a career in filmmaking when I am 30 years old, a turning point in my life.  Is it too late?  The thought is of course always constantly on my mind. To devote myself to the craft at this stage in life, there would be no turning back.  The decision I have made is after much deliberation within myself and also after much planning.  I am clear about the direction that I want to strive towards.

I would like to relate an incident that happened recently. I was with some Singapore filmmaker friends chatting after a film screening at the 2008 Singapore International Film Festival. Our conversation slowly shifted from the film we just saw to what we will be doing 20 years from now. One of them wants to retire and open a resort for old people where they are treated like kings. Another wants to do more humanitarian work to help the needy and practice Yoga. When it’s my turn, I said I want to make films until the day I die, the kind of films that I have no regrets making and proud to call a “Leonard Lai Yok Wai Film”.

So, is filmmaking for a normal person like me? “




12 responses

18 02 2009

Hi, I’m not a fan of ‘art films’, dunno who you are, just happened to come across your blog. But wanna tell you, if you’re doing what you love, then do persevere in it – at least you’ll have no regrets later in life.


P.S. perhaps in future would get to see slightly more commercial films from you, reaching out to a much larger audience. just my 2 cents worth from a very average movie-goer. ;P

4 03 2009

Leonard, you have taken the big step out of the ‘safe and well-trodden’ world of engineering, so just forge ahead and don’t look back!!

We all have regrets in life… when you were 30, u looked back and regreted to have chosen Engineering over Filmmaking at that pivotal moment; 6 yrs on, you are looking back and wondering if u should have made the move?!?!? Don’t!

Remember what was it that made you decide to take up filmmaking….

5 03 2009

i think you mean normal as in ordinary… but most pple are ordinary anyway. your dedication and experience will help you transcend the ordinary.

what you’ve done so far is extraordinary already… i’ve seen your trailer. it’s great.

btw have u seen this book – Master Shots: 100 Advanced Camera Techniques to Get an Expensive Look on Your Low-Budget Movie?

It’s seriously good, has great practical techniques.

6 03 2009

Thanks for the encouragement, Soo Hian.

I have not seen the book, but will definitely check it! Thanks for the recommendation.

Hope to see u at the screening for my new short film at the upcoming 22nd SIFF so that I can thank you!

9 03 2009

Hi Leonard,

I remembered a quote that I came across and that has guided me in my various pursuits in life,

“And I would easily trade a hundred losses for a single true love, however fleeting it might be.”

It is easy to know what we don’t want in life. But to know what we want, that is the challenge. You have found what you want and you have taken the first major step towards it. To lead a life with passion, aren’t we suppose to believe blindly but faithfully in the thing we love? No matter how it’ll turn out to be, at least we can look back and say, yes, I’ve loved.

You are awesome, Leonard. If only I have half the courage or knowledge of what I want like you, I’ll be creating a more meaningful existence.

All the best.

9 03 2009

[…] Well worth a read, if only to counterpoint the “I made my first film when I was 8 years old” bios, people think artists are just born without realising that for many, it is a mantle to be taken up. To read more of about his journey, click here. […]

21 03 2009

hey leonard,

i have great respect for your perseverance and tenacity. U r right that passion is merely the beginning, there is much more ahead in the process of filmmaking.

Personally, i think there is no way one can access “success” of each person’s path. Does it mean an award winning film is always a good film?

To me, the most important thing is the process of filmmaking. How much we gained and enriched in the process of making these films. And how much our films have help to shape the thoughts of others.

Continue the good work! Jiayou!

23 03 2009

Thanks Lisan! 🙂

Yeah, since writing that post, I have been thinking in depth why I am making films. Make me realize a few things.

11 04 2009

Hi Leonard,

I’m still young in this area but for what its worth, it’s really not easy staying on the path you have chosen. The process of beating out a path through the wilderness is a process that really can’t be easy.

I admire your courage amongst the other directors and members in the film community who have preserver-ed on to continue in film production and the pursuit of a future of your choosing.

Like Lisan, I’ve long discovered the value of process over destination.

All the best in your next move in!

13 08 2009

Jiayou! Jiayou!

9 02 2013

i realize that i am reading this 4 years after, but how i landed here is that I did a google search “engineer to filmmaker”. im in my final year of studying engineering. hearing your story is very motivating and inspirational =) thanks for sharing.

9 02 2013

Hi tina,

If u need more info, I would be glad to share. My latest project is being the Producer for “Ah Boys to Men 1&2”. 🙂

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