“I think there’s no secret formula to the success of Malaysian films,” mused Bea Tanaka.
“We just have to portray our stories in a way that is formatted or structured, with a story that everybody can understand.”
The Daily Seni was at 42nd Pictures to catch up with the Nota team and talk about the film’s prospects as well as their experience creating it. The film, due on the 13th of August, stars Maya Karin, Hans Isaac and Ramli Hassan and it has been gaining traction on the internet – exciting times lie ahead for the entire team!
As Nota‘s producer, Bea isn’t holding her breath when it comes to their chances at the box office – 42nd Pictures has chosen to remain realistic with the prospects of releasing a film in the current cinematic climate. However, we still detected a dash of optimism in her voice when she claimed that local viewers are intelligent enough to receive a film like Nota.
Despite boasting big names, the psychological thriller is done in a rather different style; it’s a movie laden with more details than the average blockbuster and it’s also not very dialogue-driven. With Nota, director Yasu Tanaka has gone with a more visual approach that requires some amount of brainpower from audiences.
Finding and catering to markets
Bea initially faced an uphill battle in trying to get international sales agents interested in Nota.
“The first thing I’m asked is, what language is your film? You say it’s not in English and that’s strike one,” she began.
“Then they ask if you have international stars in the film – strike two.”
“A lot of people told us that the production value of the film was great but because it’s not in English and it doesn’t have globally-recognized stars, it took us almost a year before we got someone interested in Nota.”
In the end, New York-based sales agent and distributor Striped Entertainment picked up the international version of the film. It’s now slated for a summer release in the US.
Interestingly, the international version of Nota comes with a different ending in order to appeal to overseas audiences. The version airing locally was made with the Film Censorship Board (LPF) in mind, but Yasu Tanaka’s original intent wasn’t far off.
“This was the ending I had originally envisioned for the Malaysian version,” revealed Yasu, whose favourite directors include David Fincher (for visual style) and Alexander Payne (for writing).
“It was our international sales agent who recommended we changed the ending for overseas distribution.”
The alternate ending didn’t require any reshoots – director of photography, Finnish-American Maximilian Schmige, managed to change the outcome of the story by reshuffling several scenes.
Figuring out local cinema
Although this is Yasu’s first Malaysian feature film, the American citizen has been teaching scriptwriting and script analysis at the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS). He explains that his lessons may illustrate the building blocks of writing an effective story, but there’s no guarantee that these scripts will end up becoming top-grossing movies.
“What I teach is the basics of scriptwriting, that there is a formula to writing a story… But this doesn’t mean you’ll definitely end up with something that is going to be successful or manages to please everybody,” he stated.
“In writing my own work, I tend to break the rules – Nota is not a film that follows formulas on the dot. My classes are focused on basic scriptwriting, it’s a skill that everyone in the industry should know.”
To Yasu, the ability to write a properly structured script is an integral part of the filmmaking process. He believes that once our filmmakers have a solid foundation in scriptwriting, they can start taking chances and exploring ideas.
“Before one breaks any rule, one must first know the rules,” noted Yasu wisely.
It took a while before Yasu Tanaka began directing films in Malaysia. His exposure to Malaysian cinema only began after his encounter with Bea, who would send DVDs of local films all the way to Japan so Yasu could look into them.
“Once I decided to teach in FINAS, I started to do my homework. Cicakman, Cuci… Bea would send me these films so I can study them because I tried to analyze Malaysian films for my class.”
“That’s when I picked up Cuci to analyze as it was properly formatted – there’s a clear distinction between the acts in the film,” Yasu revealed.
Cuci was the 2008 comedy film directed by Harith Iskandar and Hans Isaac which starred Afdlin Shauki, Awie and Hans himself. In order to get Cuci into his class, Yasu first needed permission from Hans and that’s how they both made contact.
Bea recalls the first time they organised their script analysis class; among their students were renowned performers Sofia Jane, Vanidah Imran and Soffi Jikan.
“I was kind of starstruck.” she reminisced.
“Around the same time, we interviewed Hans on Cuci and even got to meet Yasmin Ahmad too!”
Putting together a Malaysian film
On the subject of Hans, Bea noted that the script called for an actor who could speak fluent English. In Nota, Hans plays Kamal, a doctor and a philandering husband who harbours secrets from his wife.
Casting for the film took almost a year and the team went through a whole slew of actors and actresses before deciding on Maya and Hans.
“The main criteria was for our actors to be physically fit. 80% of our shoot is done outdoors, so we didn’t want to hear complaints,” Bea told us, half in jest.
In fact, the characters in Nota are rarely ever seen lounging comfortably. The story, set in Kuala Lumpur and Bako National Park in Sarawak, sees unhappy couple Kamal and Erin finding their way through unpleasant situations and generally remaining in a state of distress for much of the film.
Filming was made possible through a grant from the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia (KKMM), which in turn was managed by FINAS. However, Nota‘s RM1.8 million production budget mostly went towards shipping its crew and equipment to Bako and setting up camp there, which is not exactly the easiest place to film a movie.
The team spent a long time in pre-production under the guidance of Yasu (who Bea describes as “meticulous”) who did a substantial amount of research before they started putting things in place.
One of the trickier parts of creating Nota was dealing with the tides in the Bako region, which also plays a huge part in the film. Based on our knowledge, the effects of the tides in the region are extreme in places where the river meets the ocean, and a dangerously low tide can result in a boat being stuck in the middle of the ocean.
“We studied the tide for a few months before attempting to shoot there. We have to take note of the times we could work with, and as a result our shooting schedule is based on this cycle,” informed Bea.
For those curious about what exactly went on behind-the-scenes, make sure to check out the beautifully done Making Of Nota segments on Youtube, narrated by Bea herself.
Building a home in the industry
Although all eyes and ears are on Nota at the moment, 42nd Pictures has been busy working on future projects. Yasu was kind enough to show us stories he’s been working on, all of them on a wall looking neat and organised.
From what we remember, work-in-progress The Transit is an interracial love story for youths, while Kina-Boleh, set in Sabah, revolves around the sport of ice-skating, something Yasu himself is familiar with.
Taking a step back and mulling over the slate of projects keeping 42nd Pictures busy, we notice something quite beautiful: these guys have some diversely quirky projects – Yasu’s offbeat concepts and ideas showcase multiple ethnicities and beautiful locations – and it’s all very Malaysian.
We find it endearing that the director sees Malaysia for what it is and tries to bring out its character through film. This is something Bea attributes to a simple case of “foreigner’s eyes” as she relates to us a story.
“When Yasu and I went to Cameron Highlands together for the first time, he made a number of observations that opened my eyes up to his perception,” she began.
“We’d drive up the hills and through the forests, and he’d look at them and say that us Malaysians have our very own Jurassic Park. He’d see all these things we see everyday, for example a kampung or a freeway, but from a foreign point of view.”
One day however, Yasu asked a question that stumped Bea during his round of observations. After noticing interactions between his wife and her diverse set of friends, Yasu wanted to know why he doesn’t see this remarkable aspect of our country represented in film.
In fact, this made us think a fair bit and we noticed that actual, multi-ethnic Malaysian society is rarely ever depicted in commercial films.
Last year’s Cuak was an anomaly; it was a critically-acclaimed piece composed of five segments by different directors utilising a mixed-race cast and multiple languages. In any case, despite underperforming at the box office, we’re glad that the film is back in the limelight thanks to its nominations at the Festival Filem Malaysia (FFM) this year.
“Having the chance to visit Los Angeles and Japan, I realized that Malaysia doesn’t have a clear identity in the film market,” Bea explained.
“Hence, we’re trying to push local culture and locations in our films – like our depiction of Sarawak in Nota, for example.”
Making the most out of Boleh-land
The couple acknowledge that the relaxed nature of operations at FINAS gives them plenty of time to prepare and plan projects as well as work on other ventures. According to Yasu, things happen “twice as fast in Japan” when it comes to administration of the film industry.
It’s a blessing in disguise; even if the slow pace might mean longer wait times in getting his films produced, it also gives the couple enough space from the feature film industry to help out with the Short Shorts Film Festival.
Both Yasu and Bea are entrusted by the festival’s organisers in Japan with the task of handling festival operations in Malaysia.
“Even if it’s just a small event, it’s not easy. We were hired to be in charge of the festival here in Malaysia and maintain a certain standard that has been established by the organisers,” revealed Bea.
“The festival has been running for around 19 years. In fact, the Grand Prix winner of Short Shorts is also eligible for submission to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.”
The couple has been doing this for five years, hosting the first three editions of the festival at FINAS before moving to Lim Kok Wing University for the most recent two. Every year, Short Shorts get between 4000 to 4500 submissions from all around the world, of which only a 100 will be shortlisted for the main competition. From this shortlist, Yasu and Bea pick 20 t0 25 films to showcase in Malaysia.
“We want to show locals some really good quality films – this we can guarantee because they’re already shortlisted entries,” Bea explained.
“We believe that watching good international-quality short films will grow our industry.”
Last year’s festival was held on the 21st and 22nd of October, but it’s still early for the team to announce details on the 2015 edition (though they promise to keep us informed).
With that, we thanked the team and made our leave. For now, we’d like to say thank you to Yasu and Bea for giving us their time, and we wish them all the best for when Nota opens this week.
We’d also like to ask all skeptics and fans of the movies to give this one a chance.
Don’t just wait for a cinematic experience like this to appear on Astro First. Nota is not a film made for TV; watch it in a proper cinema or miss out on a potential chance to erase whatever prejudice you may have had towards the Malaysian film industry.