PUSH­ING FRON­TIERS

RE­FORMED PARTY BOY, FILM PRO­DUCER AND NOW MOVIE DIREC­TOR, MIKE WILUAN IS ON THE WILDEST BUCK­ING BRONCO RIDE OF HIS LIFE.

The Peak (Singapore) - - Contents - TEXT KAREN TEE PHO­TOG­RA­PHY VEE CHIN ART DI­REC­TION FAZLIE HASHIM STYLING DOL­PHIN YEO

Re­formed party boy and now movie direc­tor Mike Wiluan is on the wildest buck­ing bronco ride of his life.

MMike Wiluan is in be­tween fixes. For the bet­ter part of the last few years, he has been liv­ing in a 19th-cen­tury In­done­sian town where the heroes ride buf­faloes, hurl kris dag­gers at ad­ver­saries and res­cue damsels from das­tardly colo­nial op­pres­sors. It is a world he dreamt up for the movie Buf­falo Boys as well as Grisse, an eight-episode HBO se­ries that is set in the same uni­verse.

“You go through many months of two or three hours of sleep daily; fight­ing, lov­ing and cry­ing every day. You go through these ups and downs and the project fin­ishes and though it was a night­mare of a project, it was ex­hil­a­rat­ing,” says Wiluan, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of me­dia com­pany In­fi­nite Stu­dios, which op­er­ates film stu­dios in Sin­ga­pore and Batam. He wrote, pro­duced and di­rected both back-to-back projects.

Right now, he is back in limbo, the real world, as he awaits the green light to start an­other film. “There’s with­drawal symp­toms. You wake up and eat ce­real and you think, ‘I should have had four hours of drama by now, I wish I was back on set.’ You get hooked on it and that be­comes your way of life and you can’t go back to nor­mal life.”

Which is why he is here sip­ping a dram of whisky in the makeup chair at this mag­a­zine’s photo stu­dio, right af­ter hop­ping off the ferry from Batam where one of the com­pany’s stu­dios is lo­cated, as the styling and pho­tog­ra­phy teams bus­tle around him in prepa­ra­tion for this cover shoot.

Not that the 42-year-old Sin­ga­pore per­ma­nent res­i­dent needs much help get­ting photo-ready. With a per­fectly groomed goa­tee, a body full of tat­toos – he proudly shows off the elab­o­rate ink on his forearms – and a crisp Bri­tish ac­cent from years of ed­u­ca­tion in the United King­dom, he pos­sesses buck­ets of mag­netic Hol­ly­wood bad-boy charm, a la Robert Downey Jr.

NASI GORENG WESTERN

But, while Wiluan lights up the cam­era, his happy place is in fact be­hind it. His di­rec­to­rial de­but this year Buf­falo Boys, which he de­scribes as a “western in the colo­nial his­tor­i­cal con­text of In­done­sia”, is Sin­ga­pore’s sub­mis­sion to this year’s Academy Awards in the For­eign Lan­guage Film cat­e­gory. Cre­ated with a bud­get of un­der US$3 mil­lion (S$4.1 mil­lion), it is the story of two broth­ers who grew up in Amer­ica, be­fore re­turn­ing to Dutch-oc­cu­pied Java to seek re­venge for the death of their par­ents.

“Peo­ple don’t make west­erns in this part of the world. I wanted to see how I can make an in­ter­est­ing story that makes sense so I used In­done­sian his­tory and filled it with in­ter­est­ing facts about colo­nial­ism,” he says.

As ar­guably Sin­ga­pore’s most high­pro­file movie pro­ducer – he was the lo­cal co-pro­ducer for last year’s sur­prise hit Crazy

Rich Asians – he is used to pulling out the stops to make things hap­pen. Once, he re­calls, he had to pre­tend to be a sul­tan, com­plete with an en­tourage in tow, to get a re­cal­ci­trant Hol­ly­wood ac­tor to toe the line on set. “It was the only way to get him to be­have,” says Wiluan, with a shrug and a grin.

He faced a whole new world of un­usual ob­sta­cles to over­come when he filmed

Buf­falo Boys on lo­ca­tion in In­done­sia, where be­wil­dered lo­cals knew zilch about the film in­dus­try. For in­stance, he had to con­stantly re­mind the ex­tras who played the vil­lagers not to stare at the cam­era while it was rolling.

Then, there was the po­ten­tially dis­as­trous sit­u­a­tion when he re­alised the lo­cal fix­ers had brought him tame, bu­colic cows for the film. “I wanted wa­ter buf­faloes with the horns,”

he says. He even­tu­ally got what he wanted but the buf­faloes turned out to be “the most stub­born an­i­mals I have ever dealt with”.

“I’m never go­ing to make an­other film with an an­i­mal in the ti­tle,” he says.

Still, it is all par for the course when break­ing new ground. “I don’t want to fol­low the path that’s been trod­den on. The in­dus­try in South-east Asia is grow­ing. It doesn’t have the his­tory of Hol­ly­wood or the vol­ume yet but, as one of the largest emerg­ing mar­kets glob­ally, it has the po­ten­tial to do both soon,” he says. “And we are shoot­ing in jaw-drop­pingly beau­ti­ful lo­ca­tions with wa­ter­falls and deserts. It is enough to make your heart stop.”

MAK­ING AN EN­TRANCE

In a way, Wiluan has al­ways been cre­at­ing fan­tasy dream­scapes for au­di­ences. His an­nual birth­day bashes in Batam, where his fam­ily owns a re­sort, were the stuff of leg­end. Once one of the most an­tic­i­pated events on Sin­ga­pore’s so­cial cal­en­dar, those events would see so­ci­ety’s finest hop­ping on the ferry at Tanah Merah to travel to the In­done­sian is­land to im­merse them­selves in cin­e­matic deca­dence. Pre­vi­ous themes were Tarzan and In­di­ana Jones. The high­light of those nights was in­vari­ably his grand en­trance, of­ten in the most out­landish man­ner pos­si­ble, whether by fly­ing fox or as a hu­man can­non­ball – against the back­drop of a lav­ish fire­works dis­play. “I’d be half drunk by then,” he says. “We would choose themes like Clash of the Ti­tans, cre­ate sets and peo­ple would come and be­lieve they were in this world.”

But about five years ago, the fa­ther of three – twin daugh­ters and a son, now 10 and 3, re­spec­tively – put an end those shindigs as he had come to feel that they were “very in­dul­gent”. “One party was the cost of nearly a film,” he says, although he de­clines to re­veal ex­act fig­ures. At the time, he or­gan­ised them as a way to show­case the tech­ni­cal wiz­ardry his pro­duc­tion stu­dio was ca­pa­ble of. “Batam has al­ways been un­der­es­ti­mated and over­looked. It wasn’t about os­ten­ta­tious­ness but cre­at­ing this crazy world you live in for a night,” he says. “That’s what we do in the films – the ac­tors get in char­ac­ter for their roles and in­habit this uni­verse.”

Still, those bashes do ex­ist to­day, al­beit in a slightly dif­fer­ent form. “We call them wrap par­ties.”

“I should have had four hours of drama by now, I wish I was back on set.” Mike Wiluan, on the with­drawal symp­toms be­tween films

I LOVE MY VHS

Wiluan can trace his love for movie magic to his child­hood. Back then, his fa­ther, Kris Tae­nar Wiluan, chair­man of con­glom­er­ate Citra­mas, also owned a video distri­bu­tion busi­ness. The young Wiluan, to­gether with his younger brother Richard, was tasked to rewind the VHS tapes that cus­tomers had re­turned. He be­came en­thralled by the ma­cho clas­sics. “The western for­mat has al­ways in­ter­ested me,” he says. “Clint East­wood was the quin­tes­sen­tial hero with a mys­te­ri­ous, men­ac­ing per­sona. I also watched John Wayne films and spaghetti west­erns by Ser­gio Leone.”

Although his fam­ily busi­ness is pre­dom­i­nantly in the oil and gas in­dus­try, his par­ents had no qualms al­low­ing their mid­dle son ( he has an older sis­ter, An­ge­line) to fol­low his dreams. He went to film school in Kent Univer­sity in the United King­dom, where he grad­u­ated with a Bach­e­lor of Arts in film and tele­vi­sion, be­fore go­ing on to dab­ble in act­ing and mod­el­ling in Sin­ga­pore.

In 2004, with an in­vest­ment from his fa­ther and some part­ners, he bought over a small pro­duc­tion house in Batam and grew it into In­fi­nite Stu­dios, an award-win­ning pro­duc­tion com­pany. A decade later, In­fi­nite Stu­dios opened Sin­ga­pore’s first two sta­teof-the-art sound stages at Me­di­apo­lis that fea­ture dig­i­tal pro­duc­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties and ser­vices such as post-pro­duc­tion, vis­ual ef­fects and an­i­ma­tion. Hol­ly­wood films such as Equals and Agent 47 were filmed in the Sin­ga­pore fa­cil­i­ties.

At the same time, he also threw his weight be­hind lo­cal pro­duc­tions; he was ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer for no­table films in­clud­ing Boo Jun­feng’s Sand­cas­tle and Roys­ton Tan’s 881. Wiluan and writer-direc­tor Eric Khoo also op­er­ate a joint ven­ture, Go­ry­lah Pic­tures, to pro­duce genre fea­tures.

Khoo, who first worked with Wiluan on Khoo’s 2005 film Be With Me, says: “When I first met Mike ages ago, I thought, ‘ What a dandy guy! I’ve got to have him cameo on my film.’” That op­por­tu­nity came when Khoo needed a Romeo-type to make an ad­vance on a char­ac­ter in Be With Me. “Mike turned on the charm and nailed the scene.”

It was Khoo who gave him a nudge in the right di­rec­tion af­ter read­ing the script for

Buf­falo Boys. He says: “I vis­ited him on set – he’s got a good vi­sion, pac­ing and tone. He’s also a very hard worker and was sweat­ing it out on the ground with ev­ery­body else. I don’t think I could have lasted.”

ALL IN THE FAM­ILY

That hard slog has paid off. An en­ter­tain­ing romp through a semi-fic­tion­alised ver­sion of In­done­sian his­tory, Buf­falo Boys is, Wiluan be­lieves, right­fully Sin­ga­pore’s en­try for this year’s Academy Awards. “It’s about pro­duc­ing con­tent glob­ally with Sin­ga­porean tal­ents. In­fi­nite Stu­dios is a Sin­ga­pore com­pany, Sin­ga­pore­ans worked on its pro­duc­tion and the en­tire post-pro­duc­tion was man­aged here,” he says.

It has taken Wiluan al­most 20 years in show­busi­ness be­fore he fi­nally re­alised his child­hood am­bi­tion of be­com­ing a movie direc­tor. But that long route was nec­es­sary for him to mel­low. He says: “When I was younger, I was less pa­tient; when you are less pa­tient, you don’t de­serve as much. You don’t take time to di­gest the am­bi­ence and at­mos­phere, you just want to rush to­wards an ideal that comes with the in­ex­pe­ri­ence of youth.”

His par­ents, while al­ways sup­port­ive, started view­ing his work in a new light only af­ter they flew to New York where they saw him do­ing in­ter­view rounds of Buf­falo Boys and at­tend­ing the open­ing. He says: “They’ve be­gun to re­alise that this is its own prod­uct. I’ve been in the lime­light so much for so many dif­fer­ent things but this is the one thing that is more soulful to me, be­cause this is what I want to do.”

It is some val­i­da­tion for this for­mer wild child. While he does have a pool of in­vestors, his fam­ily some­times in­vests in his films as well. He says: “We need to put our money where our mouth is but we can’t fi­nance ev­ery­thing. Ul­ti­mately, my work and ca­pa­bil­ity need to stand on its own feet.” Mean­while, the western has come to South-east Asia.

“When I was younger, I was less pa­tient; when you are less pa­tient, you don’t de­serve as much. You rush to­wards an ideal that comes with the in­ex­pe­ri­ence of youth.”

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