Bradley Liew was in the sound studio tweaking the final audio for his first feature film Singing In Graveyards, recently. The film is making its world premiere at the Venice International Film Critics’ Week which will be held from Aug 31 to Sept 10.
This event is an independent section of Italy’s Venice International Film Festival meant as a platform for first-time directors’ full-length films.
Once Liew’s Singing In Graveyard premieres, the 26-year-old filmmaker will join the likes of Mike Leigh (High Hope, 1988), Bryan Singer (Public Access, 1993) and Singaporean Royston Tan (15, 2003) who had showcased their films during the Critics’ Week.
Liew, from Petaling Jaya, Selangor, is currently based in Manila, the Philippines. He found inspiration for Singing In Graveyards when he was hired to shoot a behind-the-scenes video for the 2014 film Above The Clouds by director Pepe Diokno, and starring Filipino rocker Pepe Smith.
Singing In Graveyards, a Malaysian-Filipino venture, stars Smith in a dual role – as a 68-year-old impersonator of a Filipino rock legend and a real rock star.
It focuses on the impersonator getting a chance to open for the rock legend, but the snag is the setlist requires an original love song – and neither one has written a love song before.
In an e-mail interview, Liew shared: “The story started with me, 23 at that time and had just arrived in Manila, meeting and getting to know Filipino rock legend Pepe Smith with no prior knowledge of his cultural significance. So, I knew him first as Pepe the elderly musician with an incredible heart and sense of humour rather than Pepe Smith, the rock icon.
“He told me that he had never written a love song in his life because he felt that he needed to relate to the things he writes and as long as his songs made people happy, there was no need to write a love song. I then wondered could it be that this 66-year-old rock star who has lived such a colourful life, has never truly fallen in love?”
The writing process took three years, with Liew and producer Bianca Balbuena thoroughly developing the character and storyline. Liew recalled that he’d pitched the idea to Smith as “a rockstar who’s never written a love song” to which Smith replied to Liew: “Rock and roll! Let’s do it!”
According to Liew, working with Smith was like hanging out with a friend, grandfather and mentor, all at the same time. “He’s always ready with a corny joke to liven up our spirits when we least expect it. There’s a lot of laughter on set.
“Because Pepe Smith is not a trained actor, I had to mould the film including the entire shooting process around him. With him, I decided from the beginning that there would be no wrong way of acting and it was more of giving him an indication of how the scene would start and end. With these two points, he would then fill in the spaces in ways that only he would know how. It was an extremely organic process,” said Liew.
Although Singing In Graveyard is Liew’s first feature film, he is no stranger to filmmaking; he did his first short when he was 16. “It was just my friends and I messing around, doing lip sync music videos. I guess I wouldn’t call that a serious short!”
At that age, too, Liew joined his school’s theatre productions and started to direct plays. Although he pursued a degree in Business and Commerce (with a double major in International Business and Economics with a minor in Management), he opted to intern with a cinematographer where he learned the basic knowledge of production. The internship confirmed that filmmaking was the path for him.
Since 2013, Liew has made three short films plus a couple of producing and cinematography gigs. In that short period of time, he has amassed an impressive resume including participating in Short Shorts Tokyo, Busan International Film Festival, Singapore Film Festival and Fribourg Film Festival.
Liew has also attended international-held workshops like 2015 Berlinale Talents, 2015 Locarno Filmmakers Academy and the 2012 Asian Film Academy.
Now that he has graduated to a feature-length film, Liew finds the biggest challenge is the financial pressure that comes with producing project. “The question of how do we fund the film? How do we return the investor’s money? Do we have enough to pay people properly and feed them?
“For me that was the main difference between making a short and a feature. In terms of process, I remember confiding my fears to my mum and she said, ‘Why are you stressed? It’s like a short film. But many shorts!’ I laughed but she was right. All the other pressures are self-inflicted. You just need to block it all out and just tell your story as honest as you can,” he said.
Liew revealed that Singing In Graveyards has been selected for at least three more other festivals. As for whether Malaysians will get to see the film, Liew said: “My dream as a Malaysian filmmaker is to have this film play in Malaysian cinemas.
“It is an incredible and immense source of pride and honour being able to represent my country at Venice and I want nothing more than to share this film with my fellow countrymen. I hope that any Malaysian distributor who’s reading this would take into consideration in distributing our film.”