The painful path to the perfect first feature — Hong Khaou talks Lilting.
I sat down with Hong Khaou, the Cambodian-British director of Lilting (2014), an exquisite, understated drama about memory, grief and cross-cultural connections. Over lattes (and loud music) in a Hackney café, we chatted about transitioning from distribution to production, making movies later in life, and the often painful path to a first feature.
Simran Hans: You studied film at Farnham University. Did you start making films immediately after you graduated?
Hong Khaou: I worked on a film in Singapore as a director’s assistant. I was a shadow scriptwriter, and after that I was a runner at Ridley’s Scott’s company, Black Dog, just running on pop videos and some ads. Then I quickly realised — and this is way before the Internet, that’s how long ago it was — how hard it is when you’re young to get anyone to give you money to make a film, even a short film.
Were you writing your own scripts?
Yeah. I decided to join a young writers’ scheme — a lot of theatres had schemes for writers under 21 or 26. Royal Court had one, there was a theatre company called Mulan (they don’t exist anymore), Bush Theatre had one, and so I did that as a way of kind of learning to write, because you couldn’t really make films as easily as you can nowadays, what with the kind of cheap cameras available now. I did that for a while, and then I fell into film distribution. I was working for Peccadillo Pictures and I was there for over seven years.
Did that give you an insight into how the release strategy would work for your own film?
I think what it did give me was an idea of what type of films were selling in certain places.
Do you think that affected the writing of Lilting at all?
No, I don’t think so because Lilting was a play I wrote a long, long time ago. It came out of one of these young writers’ workshops, and it had about three or four readings but it never got staged, so it was a piece that had been hanging around for a while.
You’d written it originally as a play?
Yeah, I wrote it as a play, and then I made a short film at Peccadillo in my holiday. I would then apply for short film competitions and I got funding to make a short film, Spring, from Film London, and it went to Sundance. Before that, I made Summer, which went to Berlin. I got my boss Tom [Abell, founder of Peccadillo Pictures] to be my producer — it was the only way to do it because I was so busy at Peccadillo. I just asked him and he said yes, so we made it. We made it over a weekend.
What was the budget for Spring?
I can’t remember, it was for the Hackney Film Fund, which no longer exists, but I think it was £3,000. We didn’t pay for the crew — we used it for hiring the equipment and just fed the crew.
To return to how Lilting got made — you’d written it as a play, you already had a relationship with Film London from making that first short...
I knew some of them. I’m so crap at networking, so it was just through applying [to these schemes] really, and I remember going to one of those events, and you feel like Billy No Mates standing there. I come from the distribution end of the industry, not the production end.
What was your experience of self-producing like, compared with working with other producers?
It was so different. When it came to Lilting, I really had to find somebody who had the background and the experience and the contacts. That was the first time I had really worked with a proper, proper producer. The kind of stuff I was doing on the short was more like logistical stuff. When it comes to a feature, there’s that element, but it’s also the networking, it’s the schmoozing, it’s about getting financers together and meeting the people who have the money, and knowing who has the money. It’s a whole different world.
Dom [Buchanan], who was the producer on Lilting, used to work at the Weinstein Company so he had an understanding of distribution, and I was still at Peccadillo. I think we had a good understanding of what type of films were showing at what type of film festivals. When you have a very small film — it really needs a big festival to really announce it in the right way.
Where did Lilting have its premiere?
Sundance. Insane, right? We couldn’t believe it. And it was really fitting because Sundance is all independent films and low-budget films.
I remember when I made my short Spring, which also went to Sundance. I nearly didn’t go, but my friend wanted to go, so I maxed out on two of my credit cards. It was so expensive. Hotels were something stupid like $300-$400 for a shitty two star hotel. For an indie festival, the prices weren’t indie! But we went, and it was the most exhilarating festival because you meet all these filmmakers who are grasping for something. You’d meet them on the bus, and then the next day you’d hear that their premiere went really well, and you’d read the reviews, and it was really inspiring in that sense that you didn’t and don’t have to have millions [to be successful] — which was my narrow perspective then.
What were the main changes that you made when turning Lilting from a play into a screenplay?
The son, in the play, was a daughter. In the adaption I changed it to a son who is gay and hasn’t been able to tell his mother.
It’s really interesting to me that you hadn’t conceived of it as a queer story, because that seems so integral to it, watching it now. How did you cast the leads, Andrew Leung and Ben Whishaw?
When we were green lit, we had to look at actors. I guess again because the film is so small, and not only is it small, but it’s multi-lingual and it’s East Asian, I just felt that nobody would come and watch this film about Chinese people sitting around talking. The only character that we could really cast up was the character of Richard.
Was he your first choice?
Yeah. I was like, can I [really] give it to Ben? And the casting director was like, yeah — what’s the worst that can happen? He’ll just say no and we can move on. We gave him a script, and I wrote a letter just to explain my thinking process and how I arrived at him. Kharmel [Cochrane, the casting director] found Andrew.
So far, from all the pieces of the story that you’ve told me, it seems as though it was a dream experience. You got funding from Film London, your first choice-dream-casting actor went for your script, your film went to Sundance… Was there anything about making this first feature that didn’t go smoothly?
It’s weird when you think back. We got Ben, we got [Cheng] Pei-pei who is fucking amazing — she’s a kung-fu legend, she started acting when she was sixteen and she was the first female to be in a kung-fu film.
But the process of making it was difficult, and more so because it was my first time having to deal with things like waiting for finance to come in. The bureaucracy of the scheme as well!
Did you find that going through a public funding channel meant you had to jump through a lot of hoops?
Yes, there were a lot. But at the same time we were looked after.
The difficulty was shooting the film in seventeen days — it was during the winter and we had less daylight as well, which meant shooting some scenes day for night/night for day. It was so agonising — I’ve really never felt anything like it — there’s no wiggle room when you’re shooting because you have to get everything that’s on the page first.
That must have been frustrating to not be able to play a little bit.
Yeah, it was. What we had before that was two weeks of rehearsal, so I was able to explore certain things. But when you come onto set it’s a whole different thing, because you have the logistics of the furniture or how the camera can move. Waiting for the fucking lights — all that stuff.
In terms of the jump from shorts to features — you only made three shorts before your first feature — did you find that transition easy?
I’m not sure if there’s a difference between making five or ten or fifteen shorts before you make your feature, it’s all about how you feel and what you’ve learned and where you are. You could have made twenty shorts, but when you make that transition into a feature, you still have those fears and anxieties because you’re handling a whole different format. When I made Lilting, I was also at an age — I was 37 or 38 — where I didn’t think another short would’ve made any difference to me, you know? I was very happy with how Summer and Spring turned out, and so I was ready.
Can you explain a little about how the Film London funding worked?
It’s £120,000 and they give you 50% of that and you have to find the other 50% elsewhere.
How did you connect with your producer?
I came back from Sundance, I knew there was this scheme and I wanted to apply but I knew you had to have a producer, and I really didn’t know anybody. So I wrote to Film London, to Josic [Cadoret] who had done all my shorts at Film London, asking if he could introduce me to some producers. He put me onto Tessa [Inkelaar], who was the assistant on the scheme for Microwave and she introduced me to a few producers. I met up with three or four, and I met Dom. I felt that Dom and me worked — he was looking for a project, I was looking for a producer, we met, we got on, we met again and we went into it. I think it’s a gut instinct. I think having had this experience, it’s really important to find a producer that cares about you and what you have to say, because when it goes pear-shaped, you need your producer to be there, and to support you, and to hold everything together.
Do you have any other advice for somebody who’s making their first feature? What lessons did you learn that you could pass on?
You could say all of the right things, but I think each director has to go through the motions themselves. Looking back on Lilting, I think I got so caught up. I got so weighed down by the whole thing, I wish that sometimes I could have just stepped back and enjoyed it.