How A Student Film Made Me Appreciate the Kindness of Strangers — The Student Film Series
Good dramatic short films are brief, but exciting chronicles of the journeys of their main characters. A good short film idea is one that’s wrapped around a character flaw, something that’s crippled or broken in the character’s attitude. Acknowledging that flaw, and taking the first small step towards redemption, is where all the labor of writing goes.
In 2018, a student pitched this.
A boy with Down syndrome must learn to become independent or fail to make his dying mother proud before she leaves the world for good.
When I heard this idea, I knew it was gold for three reasons.
The story was real and relatable. The student had a Down Syndrome brother and she often wondered how her brother would take care of himself if she was not around. I knew the story, being based on real life incidents, would have details that audience would find credible. Once they do, a door to their hearts would open, and emotions derived from the story can freely enter.
The stakes were high and clear. This is something storytellers should take heed when considering the merits of any idea. Stakes must be life or death. Audience will not get up from bed to listen to you for anything less. The Down syndrome boy must learn to be independent and cut off the apron strings that tie him to his mother. He has a huge flaw to surmount.
The ending was foreshadowed and clearly emotional. Now you just have to find the right cast and create the world of Sleep Well Mother.
CREATING THE WORLD OF “SLEEP WELL MOTHER”
It was hard to find a flat with the right furnishings and wall colour that would complement the characters. We should not forget that in a short film, even the space surrounding the characters is a character in itself. Colours do matter in conveying subtly to the audience the personalities of the people in the film. The students decided to rent a flat in Bedok for three months. An empty flat. They then proceeded to paint all the walls. If you’d watch the film, you would notice how lived-in the flat feels and looks, and that was because the students slept, ate, and rehearsed in the flat for many weeks. They also managed to secure sponsorship for every item of furniture in the flat. This was a testament to student resourcefulness. The production designer, Danial, mentioned that after the shoot ended, and workers came to collect the furniture, he felt as if the workers were carting away pieces of his soul. Despite the hardship, he had grown to love the work. An emptiness began to sink in when he realized that it was truly over.
Finding the coffee shop proved to be tricky. The students had found one they liked. Unfortunately, they could only shoot in the afternoons, which meant they could only shoot half days. The lecturer in charge tried to persuade them to look for other coffee shops but the students were adamant. They liked the aesthetics. They were going to use this shop. They would eventually finish the shoot in twenty-seven days. I can’t say if this was a right or wrong decision. I can only admire the lengths the students would go to preserve their artistic vision. Once the students secured both locations, it was time to work with the lead character, Damien.
PREPPING A KEY SCENE
The team decided to get the student’s actual Down Syndrome brother, Su Yuan, to play the role of Damien in the film. In one key scene, he had to rattle off a series of drink orders to prove to the coffee shop uncle that he was more than capable of taking orders from customers. It was an impressive feat of memory. To make sure Su Yuan nail the delivery, the team rehearsed that scene with him for six months. Six months!
I’ve seen the short film many times and each time I watch it, I marvel at how natural the lines trips off the actor’s tongue. It was an incredible performance made the more remarkable because it came from someone who had no experience in acting at all.
If only they had similar luck with the coffee shop uncle.
It was clear from the dallies that he wasn’t giving the right performance. Some of the students in the team felt he was dragging the film down. They approached the lecturer in charge for advice. The lecturer saw the dallies and knew right away, the team had to cut their losses. I remember accompanying the lecturer in charge to the flat at 3 am in the morning after they had finished their shoot. They were at this point, four days into the production and had shot about one third of the story. But this coffee shop uncle was putting a blight on the film. A blight that would eventually destroy the film if something was not done. We met with the kids. They looked haggard and worn out as only student film makers can look at 3 in the morning after a day’s shoot. We laid out the plan. Take a short break to recast. And recharge. It’s still not too late. We knew the team was tired. We knew it would be easy to continue the shoot. We knew it was a decision the student team had to make on their own. To the team’s credit, they listened. They managed to find a new coffee shop uncle. If you were to watch the film, you’d notice that he gave as good a performance as Su Yuan. Totally natural. Very realistic. The students had made the right decision. It brought home to me the importance of getting every cast right for a film. Once you get the right cast attached to a good script, you’re pretty much on track to a good film.
THE ART OF THE PITCH VIDEO
Every year, the Singapore Discovery Centre would give a grant of 10k to three DFT films. Eight groups would pitch their ideas to the Discovery Centre team, and three would be picked. The students would also shoot, and present, a one minute plus pitch video. It was not a trailer. It was a visualization of the story concept. It’s supposed to capture the essence of the idea, and the tone of the eventual film. More importantly, it showed the capabilities of the students. I’ve seen dozens of pitch videos ever since the practice was implemented in the course and the pitch video for Sleep Well Mother is the only one that impacted hugely on the investors. It lingered on their minds so much that when we showed them the first cut of the film, they kept asking what happened to the pitch video. It turned out they were expecting to view the pitch video scenes in the film itself, even though 99 per cent of the time, the pitch video is a thing separate from the actual film.
Fortunately, the team managed to insert the pitch video as bookends in the film. I’ve to admit, it worked very well. Sometimes it pays to listen to your audience.
Damien reciting a list of drink orders to an incredulous coffee shop uncle. Damien on his knees begging the social workers not to take him away from his mother. The final image of Damien scattering his mother’s ashes over the sea. And the most memorable moment of all: Su Yuan, watching his own performance on screen, and crying.
This film was shown to a co-hort of secondary school students. You could hear quiet sobs in the darkness during the emotional scenes. The team at Singapore Discovery Centre cried as well when they saw the final cut. Sleep Well Mother went on to win Best Film and Best of Show at the 2018 Crowbar Awards. The judges told me later that they cried when they watched the film. It also won Gold, for the first time for a Temasek Poly final year short film, at the New York Festivals. I’m pretty sure the judges there cried too.
We had done many emotional films before because emotional storytelling was what we do, as a course. But Sleep Well Mother was very special. It’s a story that touches every corner of your heart. A tale that makes you grateful for small blessings. A film that makes you cheer for the kindness of strangers.
I’ve always told students, that even though they may make only one short film in their entire lives, let that short film be one for the ages. A piece of art you can look back with pride. And tell your grandchildren, hey I did that!
To the Sleep Well Mother team, you did that. Thank you.