In 1992, 20-year-old Sandi Tan went out with two friends (Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique) to make Singapore’s greatest cult classic. The movie, which they shot on 16mm, never saw the light of day. Why? Because their enigmatic American collaborator, and Sandi’s film tutor, stole the reels and disappeared. Over two decades later, Tan has managed to get back that footage and has turned into a documentary about herself, her movie and her quest to uncover the mystery of what happened. The result is Shirkers, a unique, fascinating, visually stunning meta-documentary. After premiering in Sundance this year, it was announced that Netflix had acquired the rights to the film. As it arrives online worldwide this weekend, we caught up with Sandi to talk about her unusual personal odyssey.
It’s not often you see a making-of documentary about a film that doesn’t exist. “Yes!” laughs Sandi, as she recalls the process of making the movie at such a young age. Writing, directing and starring in it, was it a stressful undertaking? Is it a happy memory?
“I think it was a happy memory,” she begins. “When we were going though, I don’t know, it was less happy for my friends, who were doing a lot of the hard work. They say I was oblivious. I don’t think I was oblivious, but I was… I just wanted the show to keep going and for us to keep doing it. I remember mainly being extremely hot and sweaty and disgusted with myself and the horrible outfit I was wearing and the horrible lines i wrote for myself!”
They shot the first draft of Sandi’s script, which she laughs now as being “insane”, but even the practicalities of making a film in Singapore posed their own challenge.
“The mosquitoes, the heat, that’s what I mainly remember. But also, like, the sense of waiting – Singapore, it’s equatorial, it’s on the equator, and the light is incredibly ugly and we’re shooting on location, about 100 locations, which nobody had done before, and the problem with shooting outside in the daytime is everything is pitch black and ugly, so we had to only shoot at magic hour. Magic hour in the topics lasts only 15 minutes a day! So you prepare every day for one sliver of time, then you shoot, so everyday was scrambling to have the film ready, and available to shoot for that evening’s shot, it was a logistical nightmare! We shot for like two and half months, which is incredibly long for a crazy little film like that.”
“I had to get back to myself as a teenager… It made me realise this is what I want to do.”
Sandi hoovered up movies as a teenager, on old, battered tapes, and that inspired her to tell her own stories. When writing about ideas for films, she and Jasmine referred to themselves as the “Coen Sisters”. Looking back now, does she still have that same youthful enthusiasm for filmmaking?
“The thing about making this film is I had to get back to myself as a teenager, how manic I was, because I had to capture what it was like to be 18 then. In the process of doing that, in making this film, I rediscovered what it was like. I relived my excitement as a grown-up, in the 21st century where you can make a film in your garage, which is how I edited his film – in my garage.”
It’s easier now to make a film in a garage, though, than it was decades ago.
“There’s so much more available,” she notes. “I worked with a composer from Israel through Skype – that’s possible now! With the tools of the modern world, I rediscovered the excitement and just had a ball! It made me realise this is what I want to do, and keep on doing.”
That personal journey and creative rediscovery are what make Shirkers so a powerful watch: it’s an exorcism, an inspirational story and a bizarre mystery all wrapped into one. Was making the film, and unearthing her voice, a conscious act of catharsis? Or just the end result of such an unusually personal project?
“At first, it was just having the story of making this film, which is like, recapturing what it was like to be a super-excitable teenager, and then the more grown-up second half where I become a detective to solve this mystery. But the process of making the film and all its parts, I did rediscover my voice… it’s a moving history of documenting my research, my confidence in filmmaking.”
In the film, she notes that she tried to do this before in book form, but it never came together. What was it about film that proved a better fit?
“I was approached when I was 21 to write a memoir,” she recalls, then chuckles. “I think that’s a little young to be writing a memoir! I didn’t think I was ready, I didn’t try. I was just not interested enough. It would’ve been a disastrous, childish thing, just me at 21 and my friends… we weren’t grown-up yet, it was not going to be a good story.”
“I had my doubts about ever seeing the finished thing.”
Did she ever expect to get back the footage of Shirkers, even then?
“Erm, not really. Because when he took it away, I thought he might put it together, but he had no follow-through: this is a man who had never finished anything in his life. I don’t think he was capable of putting the movie together by himself, because it was a gargantuan effort just deciphering the notes and log sheets, and Jasmine’s handwriting! Just piecing this thing together was not something he could do himself. I’m not sure he knew how to do anything except shoot pictures. He’s a really good photographer, but I had my doubts about ever seeing the finished thing. Again, it’s like a huge effort. I think that the footage lives its best life in its current form in this film.”
Is there anything left of the original film that isn’t in Shirkers?
“There’s so much more,” she reveals, and that excitement audibly starts to pick up again. “It’d be interesting some day to piece it together… a silent film or some other thing. The missing bits might be animated or the grown-ups acting out their bits in costume, you know, something creative like that. But nobody would want to see it! It’d be like an eccentric DVD extra.”
The movie is a knowingly niche tale, but that intimate quality only makes it more compelling. After the movie proved a hit at Sundance, was Netflix coming on board to distribute the project a surprise?
“Netflix were very aware of the project early on and they were tracking it,” she explains. “We were playing cat and mouse, I guess! They’d been very interested and I was not showing them anything except a tiny bit of a trailer, which made them even more intrigued. We were talking about it before Sundance, so the mystique around the film grew.”
Netflix, though, turned out to be a natural home for the film.
“What’s interesting about this is when they were about to acquire it and they asked how important it was or me to have a theatrical release. Of course, the movie is in its best form seen on the big screen, because there’s so much flying graphics and the sound design is pretty intense, but the thing is we are having this theatrical release and it’s playing in a few places, but what I really want is to reach kids who aren’t living in these lucky areas where you have access, people who live in small towns like I did, and dreaming about doing something. I think it’s also an earbuds movie, it’s very personal to the viewer watching it, whether you’re watching on your phone or your device, I think it works in the same way.”
“What I really want is to reach kids who aren’t living in these lucky areas where you have access [to cinemas].”
Before the movie has even started to stream worldwide, it’s already showing signs of building up a cult following.
“I’ve had very strangely a lot of young people who saw the movie on Sundance, got obsessed, and have been following the film and showing up at different festivals around the world, seeing it repeatedly!” Sandi notes, with a cheerful surprise. “So I think Netflix is the perfect home for it, because people can watch it multiple times. Some younger people think it’s, if you’re depressed is slightly discouraged, this film kind of gives you a jolt of energy or inspiration or something. So it’s nice thing for it to be shown on that kind of scale.”
Inspiring a generation of younger creatives feels like an apt end point for Shirkers, which began with a teenage filmmaker watching tapes in her living room. In the modern age, though, getting hold of Shirkers is as easy as connecting to the Internet.
“That’s the scary thing about documentaries and indie films playing now theatrically in the US,” reflects Sandi. “Very few people show up for movies. They show up for tentpole movies, but, you know, art cinemas, a lot of them aren’t doing so well. I’m pretty pragmatic about it. I didn’t want to contend with that world and I wanted this to be seen by the largest audience possible.”
Sandi is already at work on a number of projects in the early stages of development. While her creative drive is certainly back at full speed, she can’t yet say what film she’ll be making next. If that means it’s back to catching up with things in her living room, what’s currently on her streaming watchlist?
“I was trying to catch up with Maniac [on Netflix],” says Sandi. “My producer Jess Levin, she produced Maniac as well. I’ve been so busy I’ve only seen 4 episodes, because Maniac came out when I was already travelling with this movie. And then, yeah, I haven’t been watching that much. I’m very, very behind on my BoJack Horseman! I’m on Season 1 still. But I did go to the Netflix office in New York and steal a few of their buttons…”
Shirkers is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.