Heavily influenced by classic European romances and stoic Asian and European crime dramas, Chinese Canadian filmmaker Michael Suan didn’t initially set out to make his debut feature AKP Job 27 (in Toronto area theatres this weekend) a modern silent, but it ended up that way anyway almost by necessity. Well, maybe it really was the way he wanted it after all.
His tale (which still utilizes sound and music in the absence of dialogue) of a Japanese hitman (played by Tyce Phillip Phangosa) coming to Toronto to complete his 27th job only to strike up a close kinship with a prostitute (Roxanne Prentice) that reminds him of his past, was initially thought of as a nearly wordless, Thailand set drama. But with the constraints of independent film financing and logistics, the film lost all of its dialogue upon its retooling to take place in a new location.
Suan, thankfully, wasn’t silent when we caught up with him last week via Skype to talk about his love of stoic cinema, how the film lost the dialogue that was created to bring more investors in, trying to find leads for a type of film that rarely gets made anymore, and the importance of locations that feel authentic in silent filmmaking.
Dork Shelf: I know from reading a bit about you as a filmmaker was stoic cinema, and there are a lot of flashes of that and French New Wave and Seijun Suziki in this film. But what kinds of films influenced you when you decided you wanted to try to make a modern silent film?
Michael Suan: Well I was always a big fan of someone like Jean-Pierre Melville, especially with regards to Le Cercle Rouge, and particularly for this film with regards to Alain Delon’s performance in Le Samourai. There’s definitely a lot of Wong Kar Wai in there, too.
DS: I also read that at a certain point you had written this film as a script that had dialogue in it to try and bring investors on board. At what point did you decide to just go without dialogue or title cards?
MS: Well, personally I would have loved for it to have always been silent if I was going to have my way with the film. But really one of the biggest reasons for the change is because when it was actually written, the script was designed to bet set and filmed in Thailand. At a certain point it became apparent that it wouldn’t be entirely possible to shoot and craft the entire film in Thailand because we just never would have been able to afford it. (laughs)
So when we finally decided to bring the film back to Toronto, we figured out that script just doesn’t work anymore. It was written with dialogue that was crafted towards the film specifically being set in Thailand, with lots of references to actual places and locations and stuff like that. When we had to take it back to Toronto, we had really no choice anymore but to do it my way. That was kind of the final straw on that end.
But I really did always want to do that. Even the script when it did have dialogue was always very minimal.
DS: Is it hard to make that decision to change the entire location of your film and not try to go ahead and mask it in some way or find a way around that?
MS: Yes, because I had originally written all those locations that would have really, really helped with the character against this backdrop of an art film. If you’re making an film that leans closer towards art house, then the locations and the setting become characters, as well. In the original script I wrote a lot of locations that could only ever exist in Thailand and really nowhere else. One of these scenes that was supposed to take place was set in one of those fish markets where the main characters are supposed to cross paths. Here, we updated it so it could be set and filmed in Kensington Market here in Toronto, but that was a good example of how we changed it from this scene that was supposed to take place at a night time fish market in Thailand. Everything really changed around it because it was originally written one way.
And the original main location, which was this kind of seedy, run down hotel, is something that you see a lot of in Thailand, but in Toronto there are very few. We managed to land on The Waverly Hotel here, which kind of embodied that aspect, but of course everything else changed progressively around it. Even if we did find a main location that worked pretty well. (laughs) The challenge for us when coming back to Toronto was to find locations that kind of echoed that noir-ish vibe, and that was somewhat difficult.
DS: I could also imagine that when you have no dialogue it really means you have to have a more rigidly controlled sense of production design to go along with that. Sometimes when you go into a location, no matter how well you scouted it, you still have to remember that any changes in the setting could change your story if you don’t have any words to fall back on. Were there ever any situations where for the sake of your story you had to change the overall writing of it on the fly?
MS: (laughs) Yes. There definitely were. Of course a lot of locations out ahead of time and plotted out how we could film there, but there was stuff and things in the film where one location that we thought was going to work ultimately ended up not working out and we had to move to another location.
A good example of that would be the strip club scenes in the film. We had a completely different location in mind and that we had picked out, and when we finally got there we realized that it just didn’t feel authentic. In order for the scene to work and to keep from rewriting too much of what we had set out with already, the scene needed to take place in a strip club environment. So we actually ended up driving up to a real strip club, paid the owner some money, and just locked down that location at the last possible minute. He essentially said “Just don’t disturb our clients. Get your crew in there, and just shoot the movie.” We hired real strippers from the club and just paid them to be in the scene with our hitman.
The original location we had in mind that we were going to create ourselves was something where when we put the actors in the scene, it just didn’t ever feel like an authentic strip club. But there were a lot of locations where we had to do things on the fly to make it work better.
DS: When you go to make a film that’s silent, I’m sure the casting process becomes a lot harder since you have to hire people who have to relate an entire story with their face and their expressions and body language and movement. What was it like going through a casting process that a lot of people don’t necessarily have to go through?
MS: It was definitely difficult because actors really want to act externally, but when casting for this film I realized that there aren’t too many actors in Canada that have a great internal presence. When I say “great internal presence,” I mean there are actors out there in the world who can do that – obviously someone like Ryan Gosling in Drive is a great example, and Alain Delon in his Melville films, and people like Tony Leung who can just tell an entire story with these soulful eyes. Trying to look for the Canadian equivalent of that was very difficult to say the least. We ended up using a female actress from South Africa because she had the best internal acting capability of all the actors that I had seen for the film, so it was very difficult.
DS: There’s also a physicality that one needs to begin with to play characters like a hitman and a call girl that have to be kept in mind, as well. What’s it like trying to strike that balance between what you have written and the actor that you have in front of you when it comes to creating these kinds of characters in this environment?
MS: Well, you write characters based on what you imagine what they would be in the most ideal situation. For me, I am a fan of European art house romances; you know, like Antonioni and things like that where there are these really charismatic, bigger than life looking leads. When I wrote the script I envisioned that the male part would be kind of like Alain Delon or a younger Tony Leung, and that the female character would kind of be like one of the characters you would see in one of those romances. Going out and trying to mold actors into that kind of character was certainly difficult.
Our main character here is played by an actor who isn’t a stoic at all. He’s a really happy-go-lucky, very external kind of actor. So I had to tell him to watch a lot of the films that influenced me and asked him to try and find that kind of stoic persona within him. With our female lead, I would say in order to mold her into that character was a bit more difficult because she was less familiar with the films that had influenced me, and I remember telling her to watch those kinds of films and find that kind of charisma that female leads had back in that era and in those romances. It was a lot of work on all our parts because neither actor was really at all close in real life to the characters I had written.
DS: When you go to finally sit down and edit a modern silent, that doesn’t mean that the film is devoid of all sound. I’m sure you pick up a lot of sound on location, but I’m sure you also have a lot of consideration that you have to give to what kinds of sound you need to drive the story. What’s that process like?
MS: (laughs) That was probably the most difficult thing. I remember spending a lot of time in the sound editing process because we shot live sound, but of course none of that sound sounded at all like what I wanted the film to sound like. As any filmmaker would know, the ADR process is pivotal to making a great sounding film, and in this case I would say that everything in this film was ADR. So more or less, everything you hear is fake. (laughs)
The reason being is that if you are on the street and filming in the city of Toronto, there are car sounds and ambient, but none of it really ends up sounding like the kinds of ambience and car sounds that I really wanted. So we then had to go to these places where there would be like these soulful winds or poignant rains. (laughs) Even the ambience had to be replaced and toned down to suit the nature of the film.
For example, The Waverly Hotel was extremely noisy all the time, and in order for The Waverly to sound the way we needed it to, we had to throw out all of the wild sound and replace it all with ADR. And that’s a hard thing to do when you have to throw out everything. I think “Samurai wind” was what we finally ended up saying we were looking for. I always knew that it had to be kind of this melodramatic, soulful kind of tone, and I would go back and watch old Japanese samurai films just to find those kinds of wind effects. We would have to find stuff like that and try to place it in there. I still don’t think to this day that we quite found the right sound effects, but we did the best that we could do. (laughs)
DS: Did you source most of your sound effects or did you ever at any point try to create some of your own?
MS: We had a really big sound library to work with, thank God. (laughs) We had literally over just 1,000 wind sounds, so it was really just a matter of going in and finding what worked. We did record some of the stuff ADR within a studio environment, like the sounds of breathing and touching. Some of that had to be created and recorded with the actors. Some of the sounds don’t even belong to the actors, especially our female lead. (laughs) She finished shooting the film and went back to South Africa, so we didn’t have access to her at all during the post-production. We look in our live recordings and try to find everything we can to match it, so we just got different people to come in and match those sounds. We had to do whatever it takes. (laughs)