'Shirkers': How a Filmmaker Reclaimed her Lost Work and Turned It into a Sundance-Winning Doc
A filmmaker's search for a lost film gives way to an invigorating new one.
An investigative, pop-infused doc about a stolen film that was never completed, Sandi Tan's Shirkers is a film onto itself. It's important to note that there are two movie titled Shirkers: 1.) the 1992, first-ever Singaporean road-trip flick directed by a teenage Sani Tan and Georges Cardona (an enigmatic American mentor twice her age) and 2.) the 2018 documentary focusing on the original film that was never completed due to Georges running off with the footage and robbing Tan of her most personal work. All she was left with were analog memories of a celluloid dream.
The documentary seeks less to question why the footage was stolen—Georges' motives aren't entirely clear nor sane— than to shift the power back to the young filmmaking team, now living across the globe, who made it. While the subject matter sounds dire, the documentary embodies the voice and outlook of Tan; it's surprisingly good-humored and optimistic.
Winner of the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at Sundance last week, the filmmaker spoke with No Film School about her unique relationship with cinema, the contrasts between 16mm and digital video, the striking similarities between Shirkers and work from other popular auteurs, and a few secrets she chose not to reveal in the finished film.
No Film School: Your relationship with cinema progressed in a rather unusual way: you went from being a filmmaker to a film critic, and then a film student to a filmmaker again. Now with your debut feature premiering at Sundance, could you speak about your unconventional rise through the world of obsessive film fandom?
Sandi Tan: Oh, I just did everything backward. It's funny how things never seem to happen in the order you think that they should. Sometimes the best things are the most unexpected, backward things. I actually made this film in a backward way too, which is that, rather than work on the graphics last, I started with them first (for the editors to work with). My editing friends were bewildered that I was starting with graphics first rather than building the story.
I was a teenager in Singapore—a very unusual teenage film geek girl—and I was reading American Film and Film Comment and whatever film things I could get ahold of in the pre-internet age. I would visit libraries and spend my allowance on these magazines about films that I was perhaps never going to see, and so I imagined the films. I had a conversation with Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho about this. He told me how he grew up imagining movies, reading but never seeing them because they were so hard to get ahold of. By the time you'd get to see it, 10 months or a year later, it was often a letdown. Beginning at the age of nine, I'd buy Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide religiously every year as a Christmas present to myself. That was my bible, and I memorized how many stars a film received, which year it came out, who directed it, who was in it, etc. Without having seen any of his films yet, for example, Hal Ashby became one of my great heroes. I'd just know the credits, and I'd know all these things by heart.
When I was around 11 or so, I realized that you could actually take a train to this Malaysian border town to purchase pirated VHS tapes of American films. And that's where I would find things like Mystery Train and other things that would never play in Singapore in a million years. I also had my cousin Vicki (my cousin in Florida who I mention in the film) who was this hapless, conventional teenager. She was my pen-pal and I would share these lists of films I wanted to see. Of course, there would be "guilty things" like Blue Velvet, because I was a kid and I wasn't supposed to see that. I would hide that in between all of these Rob Lowe movies, like Square Dance, and then have her go to Blockbuster to get a bunch of movies for me. The other one that I wanted to see was Angel Heart...
NFS: The De Niro one....
Tan: Yeah, It's not a great movie, but I read so much about it that I had to see it. So I would have her go to the video store and rent these strange assortments of films, like a few conventional ones and then these real ones where they're thinking, "kids shouldn't be watching these things!" But they would record them on VHS, these 180 minute or 120 minute tapes—you could actually record them on fast speed or slow speed—and you could record three movies on one VHS tape.
NFS: Oh yeah, you could set it up to record up to two hours, four hours, or even six depending on if you were willing to accept a drop in image and sound quality.
Tan: Well, that's how I got to see Blue Velvet! We had the PAL system in Singapore and were using the NTSC format. I had to get an NTSC player in order to play these movies, and of course, I'd tell my family, "I'm just watching a little Winona Ryder film or something," but really I was using it for Blue Velvet and Angel Heart. Watching them on tape was a really fuzzy experience, and there was a mythical, almost religious aspect to seeing these fuzzy things.
NFS: Even then, were you thinking "I want to eventually go into production?"
Tan: I didn't know what production was! I just wanted to make movies, which I thought meant you write them, you direct them, and if you have to, you act in them. I didn't know what production was in terms of carrying stuff and renting equipment and all that. Before Shirkers got off the ground in 1992, I was the intern film critic at the national newspaper, and I was substituting for when people weren't working; they'd bring me in. It was crazy because you had to be 21 to get into these kinds of things. I would be writing for them and had ways of making money by also writing horoscopes for magazines. That provided money to travel with, which is how I could go on the road with Georges and do all this stuff. And people would ask, "were you a rich kid?" No, I was working for my own cash!
"Most people would think, 'We have nothing.' I was like, 'No, we have treasures.'"
NFS: At the Q&A following the premiere, you called your film a “dialogue with cinema.” You’re obviously a huge cinephile, but how did you actively want to get that across in the documentary?
Tan: The truth is that when I watched Wes Anderson's Rushmore for the first time, I really jumped, and it was like, "Oh my god, this is what I'm talking about, how is it possible that this is my film?" There's no way I could explain it to anyone around me, because I had no proof that my film ever existed or that there were any shared similarities. And then there was that Spike Jonze short film, How They Get There, where this girl and this boy are crossing on the opposite sides of a street and doing this little dance with each other, and then the boy gets hit by a car.
NFS: And in your film, a boy gets hit by a bus in very much the same way.
Tan: Yeah, and how in the world does that happen? Is it the collective unconscious or what? These people in different parts of the world come up with the same idea, and it's uncanny! I didn't include the Jonze comparison in my documentary because I didn't have time for it, but that is fucking bizarre. There are all these weird coincidences in life, and since cinema is such a big part of my mine, I couldn't make this story without intertwining cinema with its history. It had to be according to my voyage through cinema.
NFS: Am I correct in noting that the original 1992 Shirkers was to be one of the first feature-length productions made in Singapore? You even had free Kodak film stock supplied to your team throughout the entire shoot.
Tan: It's so tricky to say exactly what it was because we were definitely the first bonafide indie DIY, non-studio production from Singapore, but it becomes very tricky when I say first, and so I say the first road movie from Singapore. That way, people don't come after me and argue that Cleopatra Wong was the first. That film was earlier than mine, and it actually starred my stepmom.
NFS: It did?!
Tan: I'm telling you something I haven't told anyone. My stepmom is the actress who played Cleopatra Wong. She's my former stepmom and she's become a director that no one really knows. She's just making her second feature and she's trying to be a director too. Her name is Marrie Lee and Quentin Tarantino is obsessed with her. He had a portrait of her from Cleopatra Wong in his kitchen for years. Supposedly Kill Bill was slightly based on her.
NFS: Can you remember what it was like to shoot on 16mm in 1992 for Shirkers? Both Georges and yourself were obsessed with Néstor Almendros' cinematography on Days of Heaven and used that as inspiration for this project.
Tan: Thank God you know who Néstor is. I've talked to people that asked, "Who?"
NFS: I mean, Almendros did win an Oscar for his work on it...
Tan: We speak the same language, I'm just so happy to be talking to another nerd.
"Georges had wrapped every single roll up in black plastic before putting them back into the cans, and so they still looked like they were shot yesterday."
NFS: Shooting on 16mm was rather common in the early 1990s, and at least personally, seeing that footage in 2018 provides a completely different experience. The images really pop in a way that maybe they wouldn't have 25 years ago, because it appears uniquely unfamiliar and alien now.
Tan: It does, and it's so strange. When the film was recovered and I took it to this lab in Burbank, they opened the cans and the reels were pristine, in perfect condition. Georges had wrapped every single roll up in black plastic before putting them back into the cans, and so they still looked like they were shot yesterday. They were preserved in the quality they were shot in. When you look at it now, it seems so strange to look at those colors. We didn't actually do much to them. We didn't amp them up, and in fact, we took some out because it just seemed so fake, like we had amped up the colors. The warmth and the color palette were so warm that it makes digital video look like shit. It was so strange to be watching my 16mm Shirkers for the first time in 2015. It really looked like the indie films made in the U.S. during the same time period, like from 1992. It's so strange that we were all tapping into this strange energy in different parts of the world. Jane Campion's Sweetie was shot in I think '88 or '89, and that has a similar palette and taste, and that production was happening in Australia! Somehow, even though we weren't communicating, it was like we were.
NFS: Your narration compliments the old footage and brings something new to it, i.e. the boy on his small bike who turns to the camera after your narration mentions him outright. It’s a funny moment, and while the aftermath of the shoot may have proven tragic, you look for the comedy in previously considered dark moments. What was it like toggling between the old and new footage?
Tan: It was both a choice and not a choice, as we're reliant on technology and how things have progressed. When a film like mine is shot in 16mm, Super8, and grainy SD video, things are going to look really different. My DP Iris Ng also shot some of Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell—shooting the 8mm recreation sequences— with her own Super8 camera. She shot the "present day" stuff in Polley's film and then shot the family stuff from the 1970s. Part of the reason I hired Iris was because she understood the interplay between different film/video formats. For Shirkers, Iris primarily shot with both the Sony FS7 (for the contemporary stuff) and the same Canon Super8 she used on Stories We Tell.
NFS: As your film makes clear, the only thing you personally retained were VHS tapes of on-set, "behind the scenes" footage of Shirkers. Ironically, you possessed analog memories of a beautiful 16MM film! It's a literal metaphor for your fuzzy memory.
Tan: That's all I was left with! I had no evidence of anything. This thing I created was stolen from me. What Georges took weren't just my memories, but also my [truth]. He made me a liar. He made it seem like I was telling lies and making up stories about an imaginary film I shot with my friends that didn't exist. There was no proof of it existing.
NFS: And the film opens with that beautifully pink saturated camera negative, bookended with footage of a car going in reverse (that by film's end will eventually move forward). How did you find other ways to repurpose old footage?
Tan: I was watching stuff that people would throw away, and my film is the stories people throw away. I really love to collect things, and I guess I'm a "collage person" as a result of doing fanzines. I'm not the kind of person who throws those kinds of things away. I love looking at leader tapes to find all the stuff that's really there. I want to find magical mysteries— secret clues— within the footprints and fingerprints. When we were watching the 700 minutes of 16mm footage, my editor and I would become entranced. We didn't know what we were going to see! We'd take notes and make folders in Adobe Premiere. We made a long, several-hour string of these collected flying bits and cut and paste the bits we liked.
NFS: What was the experience like of going back to the locations in Singapore for a third-act revisit? Did you always envision your film coming full circle like that?
Tan: It's irresistible to compare how a place looked then and now, and so we did the before/after shot-matches thing. Singapore is so different from what it was 25 years ago. It's like a different country, a whole different generation, and a completely different place. It's a moving, constantly changing, evolving metropolis. It's like a lot of places in the world, like London, where it's constantly moving and seeing an influx in population. Historical buildings are being torn down every minute in Singapore and they're being replaced by shopping mall and hideous, expensive architecture. One of the interviewees in my film said that it's all about the people, not just the places! It's about people.
NFS: When you revisited the 1992 material, were you meticulously searching for Georges "hiding" within the footage? There are moments where we catch him for half-of-a-second, in the background, or in photographs...
Tan: He hated being photographed, so there's so little footage of him.
"There was so little footage of him, and his widow didn't want to give us anything, so we had to be very creative with what we already had."
NFS: When you were going through everything, did it catch you by surprise to notice "oh wait, he's to the left-hand side of the frame here after all."
Tan: It did, yeah, because I was playing that footage slowly and it was almost like a short blip. He's in part of a roll that lasts less than half a second, 1/10 of a second. Because I was watching everything, replaying things over and over like some crazy nerd at a computer, I looked to see if perhaps he ever leaned in to change a lens or something. How could I find him? We eventually found some footage of him changing the lens a few times and so we used it. There was so little footage of him, and his widow didn't want to give us anything, so we had to be very creative with what we already had.
NFS: The collage aspect of your documentary allows for some creative license. In one scene, Georges' head is cut-and-pasted peering out of a moving train, and there are other moments where you repurpose old material to fit seamlessly into the story you're currently telling.
Tan: That's the advantage I have of being somebody who loves leftovers, who loves the things that are thrown away. And then we can be very creative with these things in the documentary; the leftovers are one of the last bastions of experimental film. Most people would think, "We have nothing." I was like, "No, we have treasures." I was searching for fun treasures and experiencing the glee and enjoyment of finding treasures within those little bits. It's remix art.
NFS: While you're an accomplished author as well, are you still interested in working on other personal work behind (and in front of) the camera?
Tan: On film? Definitely. I'm looking to adapt my novel into a series, with my producer Jessica Levin, who is actually actively producing work—she did the Netflix series, Godless—and she's Cary Fukanaga's "person." The story of Shirkers has so many weird angles. For example, I'm just going to lay this out there: Georges' best friend in high school was David Duke. Seriously. There's stuff [we didn't cover in the film] that can be spun off into the film world, whether it's a nonfiction or fiction project. The man who made the poster for my film approached me recently to collaborate on a graphic novel, so there are many projects I'm interested in doing.
NFS: It's great that you've turned this into a positive experience. Like you say in your documentary, in a way you're glad that you weren't the only person wronged by Georges.
Tan: It makes the whole thing less lonesome, and I'm hoping more people will band together if they're experiencing something like this. They're not alone, they're not crazy, and we're proud Shirkers. I'm so glad you're a Shirker too.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.