“Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”
― Ingmar Bergman
Anyone who knows me or have been reading ROJAK will probably know that I live and breathe films. I have always said that film isn’t just something that entertains me but is rather something that transcends my soul. It inspires me, it keeps me going. Film is the finest form of art, and is my passion and my drug. Basically, I just fucking love film!
A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to interview a brilliant filmmaker and businessman, Gary Chong. What happens when a film critique meets a filmmaker? Check out the two part interview on business and film making below.
Part 1: Business
Give us a brief description about all your business ventures.
Well, besides the production house and lecturing, I have a music centre, but right now we’re in the midst of selling it. Because once again, businesses are about profit right? But, the music centre is an interesting modal. I think one thing about the businesses that I do is that, we don’t want to just follow the mould. I’ll give you an example. If you think of music centres, you’ll probably think of people coming to learn or to buy instruments, and we make money from there, but for us it’s different. We go to international schools and we tell them, “Hey, we know that you have a music program and it’s very hard to find teachers.” We tell them, whatever you’re gonna pay your music teachers, you put in a pile and give to us, and we’ll handle the rest. Then, we give opportunities to young music teachers to teach at these international schools. They will like it, cause imagine if they tell their folks, “Hey, I’m teaching at Sri KDU International School.” That’s one thing, and I’m also venturing into a few other financial products. I can’t disclose it as of now, but there’s a diversity of modals and everything is based upon the new trend of consumers which is basically those people that use new media as their daily driver.
Okay, let’s talk about Gary Chong Studios. You mentioned that you don’t want to just follow the mould, so what’s unique about Gary Chong Studios?
My clients always ask me, you know, “Gary, you charge pretty expensive, so why should we choose you instead of others?” At the end of the day, we’re not just a production house, we’re a one-stop-solution. But hey, everybody says that right? So, I’m gonna tell you what I tell them. We understand the box. Every business, every production house, will say, “Hey, we think outside the box,” but the reason why I’m still lecturing is to study that box in detail on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. So I can tell my clients, “Hey, this is what the box is,” and the box is always evolving. Only if I understand the box, can I think outside the box. The value proposition of Gary Chong Studios is, we tailor make the message that is most relevant to the mass audience. So, when our clients look at it they go, “Hey, that’s fresh!” But is it really? In a world where there’s no more creativity and everything is innovation, people take an apple and an orange, combine it and call it Arange? And that’s sorta what we do. We analyse trends and adapt it to make it our own. Which is what Steve Jobs did with the iPad. We specialise in making videos that are trendy, yet still sleek and professional and it will wow the audience. We serve some pretty big clients such as Berjaya, Eco World, Alliance Bank and DiGi, and at the end of the day, we don’t wanna just make another video. We try to make it playful and most importantly, cinematic. And above that, those videos can be submitted for an award and even win one or two.
I picked up on something you said earlier on being cinematic. So, my question then is this: why go into the corporate side of things instead of producing short films like many YouTubers do?
It’s a chicken and egg situation, isn’t it? We could have gone down the short film route but okay, I’ll share a little bit of history lah. How Gary Chong Studios actually started was, when I was in university, my lecturer said, “Hey, you got a little bit of talent, why don’t you just do short films?” So I did, and for two years I whacked short films for awards, festivals and whatnot. And in two years, I won 18 awards. At that time, it was still a transition. We didn’t have platforms like Berjaya Youth Short Film Competition and at that time, based on the quality of the work, you could tell which are students’ work and which are professionals’. And so, what I did, based on my academic background, was to analyse why some worked and some didn’t. To be honest, I wanted to continue making short films, but I realised that the money is in corporate. Now, am I a sellout? No, I don’t think so. The whole point of Gary Chong Studios is to create a company where we are so financially stable that we can shoot our own feature film without caring about grants or money so everything is just on our own accord. If you look at Malaysia right, there are loads of artists and filmmakers struggling, not because they’re not good, they’re great to be honest, but because nobody knows about them. So, at the end of the day, the reason why I entered corporate is because it helps build the brand.
Would you say that starting your own business is always a risk as compared to working for someone else where you can guarantee 2 to 5k coming in every month?
It’s a risk, but it’s a risk you must take. Not should take or maybe take but must take. At the end of the day you don’t wanna wake up with the safety net of 2k or 3k and think what if? What if, what if? The worst thing you can live with is regret. If there are students reading this out there, I would strongly encourage them, even during their study life, to start a business. Do something you’re passionate about. Yes, your parents might say, “It’s too early, you should finish your studies first,” or whatever. No! Start your business first. You know why? If your business fails, you’ll still have the safety net of your degree and your university life. If it succeeds then drop out of college and become and billionaire. It’s just better to do it. You’ve heard the expression, jack of all trades, master of none. My philosophy of life is this: be a jack of all trades and then the master of one. You can’t be a filmmaker unless you’ve tried it. You can’t be a businessman unless you’ve tried it. If you enter into corporate, you’re not your own leader, you’re not your own boss. Your ideas, yeah sure, every corporation will say, “Oh we value your ideas,” but to be honest, you don’t own it. You’re just chasing other people’s dreams. If it’s your own dream, if it fails, at least you tried.
Many students have ideas but most do not have the courage. So, my question is, if a person has an idea, should they go all out?
Two answers. One, seriously, just do it! It boils down to your ego and your own self. An egotistical businessman will never go far. It needs to come to a point where you’re so sold on your idea that you know, beyond anything, it will work and all you need to do is actually push it. Let’s look at Instagram for example. Isn’t it a very stupid idea? Imagine someone telling you, “Eh bro, why don’t we create this social media network thingy where people post pictures and hashtags.” If that is being said for the first time, you’ll go like, “What? Are there any articles? No. Can people communicate through it? Err, through the hashtags and comments maybe. Huh?? Can they find news on it? Nope. Advertisers?? Erm, product placement perhaps.” So tell me, how is that going to be a successful pitch? But, whoever invented Instagram believed without a doubt that this is the next wave! And then, it became a culture. Now, almost everyone has Instagram. The world doesn’t revolve around money, it revolves around ideas. If you have an idea, you win. ALWAYS focus on the idea and the money will come. Don’t focus on the money and try to come up with ideas. I know a lot of entrepreneurs who are like, “Eh, I wanna make money lah, so what app can I create to make money?” Wrong. It should be like, “Omg! I have this brilliant idea for an app! It’s my dream, it’s awesome. I asked 10 people and everyone said they would use it.” Was there any mention of money here? No. Coming back to the situation, you’re a student and if you’re wondering if you should put in one thousand ringgit? No, I think you should put two. Regardless of what anyone says, don’t not do it. Listen to voice of reason, adjust your parameters to reduce risk, but don’t not do it. Only through failure can you actually grow.
What are the basic steps to starting a business, as far as the media and arts are concerned?
Idea, business modal, partners, passion. First you have the idea, but you can’t do it alone because you will burn out. Also, your brain is only limited. You might be a visionary but you might not be an execution person. Vice versa, you may be very structured and whatnot but you might not be visionary, so you’ll never go far enough. Or, you may have some ideas, but you can’t speak or pitch them. You can’t go far either. So every business needs the visionary, the structured person and the good speaker. Next is the business modal. How do you make money? This is very important because you may have the best, most talented people, but if you don’t have a business modal, you’re not gonna make money. Like, if I make the best movie on earth but I don’t know how to get the movie out there, will I make money? No. Take the likes of Jinny Boy for example. They make videos and put in on YouTube, do the audience pay them? No. But when you look at the views, it’s millions and that’s their business modal. I applaud them for their business modal.
Part 2: Films, film making, film analysing and everything in between
You put a lot of emphasis on passion so would you say that you’ve always been passionate about film making?
Yeah, you could say that. I was exposed to a lot of movies since I was a kid. Every Tuesday, my dad used to take me to the cinema. I watched everything, from horrors to thrillers, even romance. These movies formed my worldview. I asked myself, why is it that when I watch a film, especially romance films, I feel so sad when a character dies, even though I know it’s fake? And that planted this idea in me: Film is the most powerful tool in the world. Film can preach anything and not seem forced. It can tell you that two gay people loving each other is beautiful. If somebody comes to you and tells you, “Homosexual love is good okay!” You might be like, “Okay, you’re coming a bit strong here.” But when it is portrayed on screen, it feels different. It’s so powerful. Any ideological message can be decimated through film. That’s number one. Number two, when I was younger, when I watched film, I thought to myself, “You know what? That’s how my mind works.” Students have to remember this, it’s not about which course gives you more money. Every course can give you a lot of money. But, what’s important is which course actually resonates with the voice in your head. How your mind works, that’s the thing to consider.
Let’s talk about Malaysian films. Essentially, what’s wrong with them?
When you say good films, what’s generally considered a good film industry? Hollywood, right? So, my question is this: Why are Malaysians still stuck on trying to create a Malaysian identity? If you look at South Korean films, it’s very Hollywood.
I have to agree with you there. If you look at the Korean film industry, they don’t go, “Oh, I want to make a very Korean-ish movie.” It’s just about making good movies. But when you look at a Malaysian movie, you’ll definitely go, “Oh, this movie is so Malaysian.”
Exactly! That’s my exact point. Why do we keep going in that direction? Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of traditional Korean films that people outside of Korea wouldn’t understand, but if you look at those films that are commercially successful, they follow the Hollywood mould. Same thing with Hong Kong films, same thing with Bollywood and Kollywood films, same thing with French films. So why then in Malaysia do people still go, “Oh we need to put multiculturalism bla bla bla.” We need movies that are Hollywood centric. The problem here in Malaysia is that there is not one movie that can actually push the envelope. Are we there yet? No, I don’t think so. First, people need to understand economics. Hollywood films do not make most of their money in the US, they make it internationally. Do Malaysians have international distributors? No. Nobody will pick it up. From a business point of view, it’s going to fail. The problem is this, will Malaysian films have a global appeal? No. Because, if you talk about Bollywood and Kollywood films, they’re celebrity star system centric. If you have a movie with Amitabh Bachchan or a movie with Rajnikanth, that’s it. Hashtag is #winliaolor, right? Everyone watches their films. Doesn’t matter if you’re Chinese, Indian or Malay, you watch it because it’s Rajnikanth. But in Malaysia, do we have a celebrity system? Hollywood has a celebrity star system. Korea has a celebrity star system. Hong Kong, too. In Malaysia, how many people know Aaron Aziz? But celebrity star system aside, are the stories strong enough? They aren’t. You watch Old Boy, it’s not just about the violence, it’s about the message! A universal message. Malaysian films are so jaguh kampung. If you’re not from Malaysia, you wont understand it. If you look at local Tamil films, you’ll only understand it if you’re from the Tamil community. If you’re an English speaking person with an English speaking background, chances are, you won’t understand it. But if you look at Kollywood/Bollywood films, they have a universal message that everyone will understand, regardless of race. You may not understand the language, but with subtitles you’ll understand just fine. Malaysian films do not have a universal message. It just has the tendency to shove down moral virtues. So, we’re definitely not at the point to be internationally recognised.
Let’s put business aside and focus specifically on film making. A lot of people can videograph, but what does it take to be a director?
We have to look at a few different things. First being the idea itself. You have to know how you want your film to look and feel like. Next is developing the idea. If you want it to be like a Christopher Nolan film, then you have to understand what elements Christopher Nolan use to make it a Christopher Nolan film. Signature styles are always based on homages. A good director doesn’t pull a style out of thin air. That’s a bad director. A syiok sendiri director. It’s about adapting, combing and making it your own. Thirdly, talent direction. I always believe, as a director, you have to help the talents realise their potential.
What would you say is your signature style?
My signature style would be, number 1, talent direction. I like to keep it raw. Number 2, my style is more to sci-fi. I also love the wide shot, because the wide shot encapsulates the detail of the world in a few seconds. I also believe in the four second rule. Every shot should only be 4 seconds, not longer. I also love symmetry. I like Wes Anderson. We’re similar in the sense that we love symmetry. The symmetrical wide-shot is definitely my style. I don’t like hand held shakes.
Who is your favourite director?
I have a lot of directors I look up to, but Edgar Wright is probably my favourite because of his visual cuts. I love his story telling method. We’re doing a PSA for DiGi, where we’ll be implementing this style, the visual quick cuts. I also like the works of Roger Deakins, the cinematographer of Skyfall. He uses a lot of silhouettes. I like it because it adds the layer of mystery.
Okay, one last question before we wrap up. What are your 3 favourite films of all time?
Firstly, Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright). Secondly, Terminator 2 (James Cameron). And lastly… this is damn tough bro, I like a lot of movies. Okay, let me think. Hmmm, okay, let’s go local. KIL (Nik Amir Mustapha).
Do check out some of Gary Chong’s work on his social media accounts as follows: