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Interview with director Arnold Tam

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

I liked to wander on streets when I was very young, and I always wanted to have a way record what I saw and what I felt back then. So it was photography that came to me first, and then I started to feel maybe a little music could add a bit mood to the photos, then maybe a few photos together, then maybe a few lines from myself, and then they all add up and become what we call now, a film.

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

I don’t think it’s necessary, but it definitely helps. Coming from a non-film school background, I always find it not easy to learn or produce films on your own. Not that one couldn’t learn the skills from making films or working at a studio, but there are certain elements that come very handy if you have the support from a film school, for example the network, the standard protocols, the career paths, etc.

  • Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

Keep going. Getting things started requires momentum, but keeping things going requires consistent commitments. I think for a lot of filmmakers, or even artists, the most horrible things is the continuous self doubt that one has to conquer. We always ask ourselves, “Am I doing well?”, “Are we on the right track?”, “Will this be good?”, etc. There is no answer to these questions, so it’s up to us to find that confidence and courage from ourselves to keep us going. I think this is the hardest part.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

The most important lesson I learnt was back in 2017, when Ervan and I were making Glitched Dreams. We were trying to catch the deadline of the Hong Kong Sundance Short Film Competition, so we were quite short in time, and we didn’t plan things well. It turns out a complete disaster. We missed some schedules so we had to cut a scene, and since we were rushing everything, a lot of mistakes were make in terms of directing and cinematography. It took us lots of time in the editing room to resolve those problems. This was then referred as the “Glitched Dream incident” by us, and served as a constant, yet painful reminder to plan things as detailed as we could before shooting.

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

The budget! As indie filmmakers, we always make films with low-no budget, so it comes down to how we use creativity to overcome budget limitations. When we were making The Last Call in 2018 for a horror short competition, we recognise the lack of budget, time, locations, crew and casts, so we limited our whole story to one night at one phone booth with just two characters and a phone call. It turns out to be a surprisingly concise and strong straight-to-the-point horror short. So I think sometimes it’s the limits we have that foster creativity.

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

The hardest artistic choice is when you have to cut out shots that you love, i.e. kill your darings. In film productions, it is inevitable to have extra shots, or even scenes to cut out no matter how precisely you  storyboarded it. In Seduction, we shot an entire sequence street chasing which turned out to be in the wrong mood. Our DP, actors, and the whole production department spent endless effort to create those particular shots. As director, you have to choose between keeping the shots you love, or to keep the story and mood more intact. It’s always a hard decision.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

I started making films with an almost 0 budget, self-taught experimental project, so almost all members of our crew were friends, with little or even no experience in film production. We all came together to make films not hoping that it could launch us somewhere, but to have fun. So that become the core value of our team which later helps us bring together a group of different talented people to form Dudes With Attitude (DWA), the production company we have now. Ervan Luk is the producer of most projects in DWA, we started making short films together since we were in secondary school. Caleb Wong, Louis Lo, Wilfred Sung and Adrain Kok, are some of my best friends, who naturally become the usual actors in DWA’s films, including Monday Blues, these people became the core group of our team member. Then as we work on bigger projects, we started to know more industry professionals, including Iris Wang, our Art Director, Wilfred Au, our photographer, Kwok Tin Ching, our stylist. We all have a passion for our work, and doing projects that allow each other to shine in each of our field is what keeps us together.

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

I don’t usually start from what my audiences want. I start from what I want, to tell stories that resonates me most. I think at this stage of filmmaking, as an independent filmmaker, worrying too much about what our audience want doesn’t really help because there isn’t a big audience base anyways. So instead of thinking what would be popular, I tend to focus on what I want to say, and how to convey them better, because if that story resonates me, it should have the ability to resonate others who share similar thoughts with me, and that’s enough for now.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

Film festivals play a crucial role in the career of an independent filmmaker. It’s a precious opportunity to both get known and know others for future collaborations. It’s amazing to get featured at a festivals, needless to say, but it’s also fascinating to attend one. Seeing what everybody is doing, watching something that don’t get screened all the time can really inspire me.

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

I don’t speak for other filmmakers of course, but for me, I think filmmaking is about telling stories you want to say, making people feel, capturing reality, and above all, to have fun. So I prefer to be less formulated and make films in a way that speaks to my heart.