VIFF '09 Interview - 1999 director Lenin M. Sivam
By Jason Whyte
Posted 10/13/09 18:54:41
“Through the eyes of three young Tamil men, 1999 tries to explore the challenges and opportunities faced by the first generation Canadian Tamils in the 1990s. It focuses on the youths, who were trying to adjust to a new life in Canada while trying to put the bitter memories of the devastating civil war they escaped. Fairly insulated from the mainstream, they faced culture shock and isolation. Emotional, insightful and eye-opening, the movie provides a behind-the-scenes look at the immigrant experience, which was full of challenges and opportunities.” Director Lenin M. Sivam on the film “1999” which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.
Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend VIFF for the screenings?
This is my first feature film and my first time at VIFF. In addition, this is my first festival experience. I am very excited about this invitation and I will be attending both screenings, along with other members of the cast and crew. I would not miss this opportunity to meet the audience and share with them my life-altering experience of working on this project.
Could you give me a little look into your and what led you to the desire to want to make film?
I have always wanted to make films because I enjoy watching movies a lot. In addition, my father was a writer, actor and director of movies and plays, and he always encouraged me to pursue my dreams, not matter how impossible they seem. I always learn from great directors and through self-learning. I spent a lot of time experimenting with new ideas and technology. I started a commercial production company Bagavan Productions to support my projects. I have a number of short films to my credit. 1999 is my first full feature film.
Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “What do you want to be when you grow up?
A filmmaker. I do not remember what I wanted to be when I was young - probably changed a lot. However, when I got older, I always had a clear idea. I wanted to be a filmmaker. Films have always fascinated me. Films are a powerful medium to tell a story and convey your vision. They can be magical. The desire to be part of this magic is what made me want to pursue filmmaking.
How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.
After equipping myself with numerous courses and self-learning in filmmaking, and experimentation with a number of shorts, I was ready to make a feature film. I needed a story. I first started working on a script called God. God is a Hitchcock-style thriller with a philosophical twist. After spending about 4 years trying to turn God into a film, I realized that I was not going anywhere. Therefore, I changed my strategy. I had some serious thinking about how to break into the industry. During that process, I realized that I was not alone in this journey. There are literally millions of other talented writers and directors waiting for a lucky break. And, how do I differentiate myself from the rest of the pack? What is so unique about me? While trying to find the answers to these questions, I realized that being a Tamil was unique. Being a first generation Tamil immigrant in Canada was unique. Escaping the brutal civil war in Sri Lanka was unique. The question became how I turn such uniqueness to my advantage. Then it all made sense. I had to make a movie about the Tamil experience in Canada. This can be educational and help others understand some of the unique challenges immigrants face.
Growing up in Toronto, I experienced many challenges as a first generation Tamil immigrant. I decided to focus on youth violence, as it was very personal, important and was not unique to the Tamil community. There was misinformation about the root causes of the Tamil youth violence that I wanted to dispel. Working with ex-gang members and youth workers, I spent two years researching and writing the script for the movie. Inspired by some real events that took place in the late 90s in Toronto, I decided to call the movie “1999.” The script went through at least a dozen edits. I wanted the script to capture the nuances of theses youths’ experiences and remain true to the story and the characters. It was non-negotiable. Armed with the script, I approached the local media outlets to attract passionate, like-minded people who wanted to tell a story that was worth telling, without any expectation of financial gain. I was overwhelmed by the response I got. I was able to assemble a stellar team of 50 – all volunteers. With the help of the community and some generous business partners, we were able to successfully complete 1999, on time within budget.
What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production?
Since members of the cast and crew, including myself, had their daytime jobs, we had to shoot 1999 in the weekends. We planned to shoot the movie in 12 weeks, as our shoestring budget did not allow any wiggle room. Our biggest challenge was to finish the shooting within budget and on schedule, while juggling the schedules around people’s commitments.
Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.
The cinematographer is very talented Sabesan Jeyarajasingam, who is also the executive producer. I had heard about Sabesan’s skills and his interest in making a movie that can make a difference. I approached him with the script and he came on board as soon as he had a chance to read the script. We shot the entire movie on HD 720p with a Panasonic HVX 200 DVC PRO hd camera. We used this medium, as it was economical and flexible. In addition, this format represented the look I wanted for the movie.
Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with the film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?
I did several private screenings of the movie and received consistently great feedback. People often stayed long after the screening and commented enthusiastically on the movie. They talked about the important details that were captured in the movie, including the uniqueness of the music score, the fast pace of the movie, the suspense of the plot, the interesting end, the multi-strand narrative style of the movie, and the powerful message it delivers. They also talked about the stellar performance of the cast. The screenings are always a wonderful experience. It is very heart-warming to see people are totally tuned into your vision.
Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?
No one directly inspired my work in 1999. I had my own vision of the story and the way I wanted to direct it. However, the works of many phenomenal directors, including Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Coen brothers, always inspire me. In addition, I admire the great works of Mani Ratnam from India.
If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?
Journalism. I am not in this profession yet. I currently work as a software architect. My hope is to become a fulltime filmmaker, and I am confident that 1999 is giant step towards this end.
Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.
I’d love to work with Coen brothers. I like their talent and creativity. I just want to stand aside and watch how they bring their stories to life. It is my dream to cast Edward Norton in my next project, The God, for which the script is complete. I think Edward Norton is one of the most talented actors in Hollywood today.
How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?
Critical media response is extremely important to a film as it serves the important function of introducing a film to its consumers as well as helping to elevate the quality of the movies. You could have the best film in the world, without media coverage, the movie will go nowhere. I think it is important for the film industry to partner with the media to bring much needed critical response to new films. This is particularly more important for smaller, independent movies such as ours.
If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?
All of them.
What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?
When you go to the latest blockbuster, you have a higher chance of seeing something similar to what you have already seen. It is statistically true. With 1999, you are guaranteed to see something unique with a strong message. You can also witness how much you can accomplish with a barebones budget and volunteered time, when you have a powerful story to tell and a lot of passion for moviemaking.
No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?
I don’t know if I am in a position to give them lot of advice, as I still have a long way to go. Nevertheless, I certainly have some advantage now that 1999 has made it this far. Here is my advice. You have to have passion for moviemaking and storytelling. Do not go into moviemaking to make money. There are many other relatively easier means to making money. Do not quit your day job. Be prepared to work very hard. Experiment with ideas and continue to learn from great directors and through self-learning. The single most important thing about moviemaking is a good script. Everything else is secondary and do not settle for a weaker script. Be passionate about the story you want to tell. Be creative and have a vision about how you want to direct the movie. Do not overlook any details. Play with the technology. Be true to yourself and the story you are trying to tell. Making a good movie is only a small part of your journey. You need to be very creative about breaking into the industry and selling your ideas to producers and distributors. Finally yet importantly, do not miss movies like 1999. You can learn a lot about avoiding million dollar shots and yet keeping the audience engaged throughout the movie. Quit wasting time and start shooting, if you really want to make movies! It is a long, hard journey, but is definitely worth it.
And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?
Shawshank Redemption. I just love that movie so much that I have watched it at least a 20 times. It is nothing short of brilliant in every aspect - outstanding script, great cinematography, superb direction, captivating music and brilliant acting. It's undoubtedly Tim Robbins' best performance, and the role of Red Redding fits Morgan Freeman so well. This is the only movie I've ever seen which is better than the book it is based on. The prison is meant to be real, and taken as it is. The story was about hope. I still remember the concluding words from character Red. “Hope is a good thing. May be the best of things. No good thing ever dies.”
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This is one of the many films playing at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the film’s screenings, showtimes and update information, point your browser to viff.org. – Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com