Connect with us

Retro IONCINEMA.com

Sundance 2008 Interview: Kenneth Bi (The Drummer)

Even though I grew watching my parents make films on film sets, it didn’t impact me until I was in university and studied theatre. I focused on theatre because it’s a much more universal and ancient practice and need for us. The emotions, idea

[IONCINEMA.com is proud to feature the rookie and veteran filmmakers showcased and nurtured at the 2008 edition of the Sundance Film Festival. This is part of collection of emailer interviews conducted prior to the festival – we would like to thank the filmmakers for their time and the hardworking publicists for making this possible.]

Kenneth Bi

Kenneth Bi The Drummer

You pretty much grew up on film sets…when did you understand you wanted to be behind the camera?
Even though I grew watching my parents make films on film sets, it didn’t impact me until I was in university and studied theatre. I focused on theatre because it’s a much more universal and ancient practice and need for us. The emotions, ideas and the wealth of material about being human were liberating. So when I finally decided to immerse myself in filmmaking at the end of 1992 (25 years old) I came into it with the express interest in exploring human conditions in film and always as a writer/director.

With a background in kind of “humanitites” I wanted to learn about various types of filmmaking, philosophical, commercial an technical. Really to find my way of telling stories. There are so many ways one can tell a story.

I learnt about many different kinds of techniques and in many areas so that when I make my own film, I knew what to ask for and what not to ask for. In general, the experience gave me appreciation of the different areas of film from production design to photography, to lighting and music.

The Drummer Image 1

After the critical success of Rice Rhapsody, how was The Drummer received by audiences and critics alike?
The Drummer has been very well received and is reaching more people around the world. It has a very universal appeal. The traditional Chinese drums, presented in this Zen way, the gangster kid and the universal mythological journey of a young man transforming to a man is an archetype that has no boundaries. At Locarno’s Piazza Grande (the world premiere) where almost 8000 people saw it at the outdoor screening, Derek Elley, the Variety reviewer saw it and gave it a good review. He is famous for being tough on films.

Also, almost all the reviews I have read by professional reviewers and audiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

Can you discuss the genesis of this project – how did the initial idea come about or how did this become a story you wanted to tell?
I’ll draw from my blog for this answer…One day near the end of 2000, my wife suggested we go and see a drumming performance by a group from Taiwan. The style is traditional Chinese, using the big red drums. Drumming, I thought, who doesn’t like to watch and listen to drumming? I said yes immediately. At the performance, I saw something more than drumming, as did the entire of the audience, I’m sure. The special something was the drummers themselves. During the performance, they didn’t say one single word yet I felt as if they had spoken tons to me. The act of drumming was the tip of the iceberg of their art. It was apparent that they were more than musicians. I was mesmerized, hypnotized, pulverized, as was the majority of the audience, as they all stayed for the Question and Answer session afterwards. It was their commitment and concentration that affected us in the audience. I soon learned that their pure, unadorned performance was the result of years of training on a mountaintop, in the discipline of drumming, meditation and martial arts.

A week later, I found myself visiting the drummers of U Theatre on their mountain on the outskirts of Taipei. They didn’t know who I was or what I wanted but were kind enough to meet with me. It was cold and misty when I arrived on the mountain. They were practicing Tai chi in Chinese monkish outfits. The sight was amazing. It was like visiting the Shaolin Temple or stepping into ancient China.

They were generous in their reception when I proposed to them the idea of making a film of and about them. “A documentary?” they asked. “No,” I said, “a feature film, featuring all the drummers.” Ms. Liu Ruo-yu, the founder and Artistic Director of the theatre group offered herself and her group to me as research subjects. I asked them about their daily routines, their own personal motivations and their trials of tribulations of being in this extraordinary group. What emerged from my months of research was a touching, mythical yet real-life martial arts story. For instance, there was no electricity on the mountain and they took turns cooking everyday. When they built their wooden structures on the peak they had to carry the lumber up the mountain themselves. In doing so, their bodies and minds were exposed to more than pure training for their arts. They were forming character.

I set about creating a fictional story. To contrast their somewhat traditional Chinese ways, I created a story about a corrupt cop from Hong Kong in his thirties, breaking down emotionally and morally, who gets rescued by the drum troupe. In the end, they save not only his life but also his soul. The screenplay was good but upon reflection, a man in his thirties going through major transformations and reevaluation of his life is a common occurrence. It happens everyday. It lacked the difficulty of a person changing his life when he is not due to change.

I threw out the screenplay and shifted the protagonist’s age to early twenties and to contrast the drummers even more, I decided to set the young man in the world of the triads. In the end, the story revolves around a rebellious and angry young man from Hong Kong who meets this group of Zen drummers in Taiwan. In the process, everything that he knew is thrown into question when he is surrounded by this austere group of drummers. The process is a realistic existential quest for the self.

Like the Zen master who strikes his students with a soft stick on the head to clear their heads, the striking of a drum and its reverberation can metaphorically and literally wake up a person’s soul.

The Drummer Image 2

Can you elaborate on what kind of work went into the pre-production process (how long you’ve been working on this project prior to pre-production and what specifically you did to prepare, and were there specific people involved in this process that are worth signaling out?
I’ve been working on this project on and off since 2001. We were invited into Paris Projects in the 2003 Paris Film Festival where they selected 6 projects to present to producers from France and around the world. At that time, I got the money for Rice Rhapsody and that took a year to make so I put The Drummer on the backburner and when I came back to The Drummer, I rewrote a lot of the script based on what I learnt from making Rice Rhapsody.

Over the years, I’ve been in contact with the drummers, I would visit them every time I go to Taiwan, watch their new performances and research with them. When I was in Paris for Paris Projects, they were going to perform at the Palais. So I hung out with them. One night, I had dinner with the drummers and it started to rain. One of them asked whether they had covered the Holy Drum (the huge drum) because the performance was to be open air. Once the skin of the drum gets soaked, it’s ruined. It’ll tear and never sound right again.

Somebody remember covering it. So they went back to eating but everyone was secretly worried. After a minute or two, they looked at each other and they just go up. I ran down those winding Paris streets in the rain with these monkish looking guys to the Palais. Sure enough the drum was not covered. It was being drenched in the rain and I helped them move the drum down from its stand and covered it. I was touched by the love these drummers had for the drums.

So a lot of the philosophies and perspectives are from the drummers themselves. Those things worked themselves into the script.

Another thing I had to have prepared is the actors’ understanding of the drummers. Since they’re actors, they might think of it as an acting job but my actors were so good in getting to know about these drummers. That this is not just movie. It’s life because it stemmed from life. So the actors’ understanding and appreciation of the drummers were important.

The way I shot the film was another thing that I prepared for along time and spent a lot of time on. Again, I draw from my blog for this… Framing the film. As the writer, I create the arc and flow of the story, while as the director, my job is to visualize the film and break the script down to filmable elements. These elements will be the film’s own language. For me, the most important part of directing is the word “direction,” i.e. where the film is going and what is the approach to telling the story. It is setting up the world the film inhabits. The word the “world” may be too conceptual. Does it mean the world the characters inhabit or the world the director creates through his/her fantasies? If the film takes place in a middle class household in the U.S., isn’t the “world” already taken care of? Yes and no. The world of the middle-class can be light and warm (as in The Holiday), underneath the niceties lurk dark secrets and thoughts (The Ice Storm, Blue Velvet), or even encompass a “world” perspective such as Babel.

The Drummer in particular is a film about worlds. These different worlds are part of the unspoken elements of the story. My film begins in the city and then moves into an austere mountain setting and I had to determine how to maneuver between these two worlds. It was not just a matter of aesthetics but also a matter of how to tell the story. The way I chose to do it was to focus on the main character, Sid. We (the camera) move according to how he feels. At the beginning, with turmoil in the city, Sid’s rebelliousness, betrayals, violence, etc., the camera is handheld, documentary like…

Then Sid enters the beautiful and extraordinary mountain world of the Zen drummers. The conventional way of shooting this mountain setting would be beautiful and composed framing with stylish track shots. But as I had decided that the camera would reflect the protagonist’s emotions, handheld was again used to follow this emotionally unstable young man from his gangster world into his initial contact with the mystical drummers. It allows a greater sense of reality and gives the drummers authenticity. They were allowed to be themselves and behave naturally. This technique borders on a documentary feel where we almost seem to be peering into their world. Since we do not often encounter people like them in real life I wanted the audience to feel, through the use of this technique, that these are credible people and not fantasies of some ancient Chinese culture.

With passing time and story development, the camera emotes Sid’s shifting internal state and imperceptibly becomes stable. The framing becomes more and more composed as the character matures and sees the world with a wider and a more sober perspective.

This proved to be a great challenge during the shoot. For the first two weeks of the shoot in Taiwan we could only get our hands on an Arri 535A. The camera is very heavy, weighing around 45 lbs (20.5 Kg). Later we did get hold of a slightly lighter Arri 535B (35 lbs, 15.8 kg).

The cinematographer, Sam Koa, who doubled as the camera operator (common in Asia) always had to wear a back brace. Even without movement, just standing in place with the camera on his shoulder was a tiring and trying undertaking. With movement added to it, his back had to endure even more work. Early on in the shoot, we had a shot where the camera followed the feet of an actor down a corridor and as he opens the door, the camera rises up to his hip level and continues to follow him into the room with pans and tilts. Everyone on the set could sense the cinematographer’s pain as we repeated this long and laborious shot over and over again. Sam had to bend his back to hold the camera and walk backwards with it, then pick it up to the hip level and change angles steadily. In the midst of all this movement he also had to look into the viewfinder to see the shot.

Before the shoot began Sam had prepared a contraption that became very useful. The rig was specifically designed to take the weight off of the operator while maintaining the handheld effect. It proved to be most valuable when the camera was loaded with heavy long lenses. The rubber bands attached to the camera allowed the camera to move and bounce as if it were being handheld. It would have been nearly impossible to carry the camera and the long lenses on one’s shoulder. This way we were able to achieve our documentary look relatively easily and painlessly.

We had specific designs on when the camera would be handheld and when it would be set on a tripod. I was very happy that the concept worked. The life of the camera changed gradually and imperceptibly from tumultuous and unsettling to calm and composed.

When Tony Leung Ka Fai walks onto the set for the first day of filming…were you intimidated?
I was not intimidated by Tony Leung KF because he’s a professional and a very nice guy. The major difference between me and another new-ish director who’s never shot him before is that I had rehearsals. During the rehearsals which I conduct my own way, Tony Leung got a sense of how capable I was. Once he was comfortable with me, he was great on set.

How did you get him onboard the project? 
Again, from my blog..TLKF: The key element of The Drummer was to have the real drummers from U Theatre play themselves or a fictional version of themselves in the film, because no one else can play them. The second biggest challenge was to find actors who fit the characters I have written and can bring them to life. I studied and practiced theatre and am fascinated with morally and emotionally ambiguous characters such as the characters of Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams and David Mamet. Being an admirer of those works is one thing but writing and drawing things from my life into my work and creating characters that demand the viewers’ attention are a different matter.

I have found that there are vivid, strong, morally and emotionally ambiguous people all around me. They’re compelling to watch and their actions, provocative. Such is the character of ‘Kwan’ in The Drummer. He’s a triad boss and the father of the lead character, ‘Sid.’ To me, he’s the most complete animal: full of instincts, violence, egotism, self-loathing and love that he is not ashamed of.

How does a ruthless gangster boss treat his own son who loves and imitates him?

Such a complex role demands a great actor. My first choice for this key role was Tony Leung Ka Fai (Election, The Lover) who has enjoyed an accomplished and rewarding career (five-time Best Actor winner at the Hong Kong Film Awards). I always envisioned him in the role of ‘Kwan.’

To get such a great star in his prime to play the role of a father is tricky. On top of it, he had just finished Johnnie To’s Election as a wild-out-of-control gangster. With two strikes against me, we contacted him nevertheless.

Tony responded right away. He was most interested in the Zen drumming part of the project. U Theatre’s style of drumming is an invention of their own and was the product of many years of evolution, which Tony has been aware of for some time. He’s heard of U Theatre and greatly admired them after reading literature on their philosophies and training. We then set a time to meet.

On a February day Tony arrived early for our meeting. My wife/producer, Rosa, and I were surprised to find him waiting for us. “He’s early,” a good sign, we thought.

Tony was, however, not so keen to play another gangster. He felt he hadn’t had enough time to step out of the character from Election to create another persona for a triad boss (he was, of course, being extremely modest). Instead, he wanted to play one of the drummers. He explained how he chooses the projects he does and playing a Zen drummer would be of great interest to him at this point in his career. I also explained that the real Zen drummers play themselves in the film because they are so specific and special. Their characters have been chiseled out from years of living on the mountain. If I created another drummer character for him, I would have Tony Leung in my film but I would still have no one as strong as him to play ‘Kwan.’

Compounding the problem, Tony was involved in a stage production which he had to rehearse extensively and then travel to North America and China for performances. He would not be able to shoot my film for several months even if he’d agreed to do it. Dejected, Rosa decided to use the same trick she used on Sylvia Chang when we went to talk to her about starring in Rice Rhapsody three years prior, and added “I won’t take ‘no’ for answer.” Tony looked stunned for a second and then graciously said he would think about it.

There’s an unspoken rule in the Hong Kong film industry regarding paying for drinks at these meetings. The ‘rule’ is that if an actor/actress is not interested to star in your film, he or she would then insist on paying for the drinks. On the other hand, if they are keen to be in your film, then they’d let the producer or director treat. At this point Tony and Rosa were both fighting for the check. As luck would have it, Tony had left his wallet in his car by accident, so we got to treat him. Another good sign, we thought.

Without definite commitments from the stars, we pushed ahead with pre-production anyway because we couldn’t keep the crew (Production Manager, Production Designer, Costume Designer, etc) waiting and most important, we had to finish filming U Theatre by mid July at the latest, otherwise they would not be available for another eight months. Meanwhile we toyed with the idea of getting another actor to play ‘Kwan.’ However, as with most of the top actors in Hong Kong, availability is always an issue. It would eventually take us over three months to assemble 80% of the main cast.
By that time Tony had finished his stage performances and was about to start a new film in China. Realizing that he was the only one I wanted for the role, I called him again. Everything fell into place very quickly. He agreed to star in The Drummer if we could wait for him to finish his film in China. Knowing that Tony had originally wanted to learn to drum and play a Zen drummer, I designed a scene where he would have the opportunity to do so. In the end it became an emotionally significant scene in the film.

Tony started his drum training and rehearsals with Jaycee before leaving for China. Ms. Liu Ruo-yu, artistic director of U Theatre, came to Hong Kong to train the both of them. Tony arrived an hour and half before his appointment to watch Jaycee learn. He couldn’t resist and joined in on the lesson. It was great to witness such commitment and enthusiasm from a seasoned actor.

I devised some rehearsal exercises for Tony and Jaycee to build their complex father-and-son relationship. I was happy to see they were discovering things about themselves, each other and their characters throughout the process.

When Tony put on the costumes of ‘Kwan’ he became the character. He even chose a new hair style for the role. I couldn’t be more delighted that such a great star took such initiatives and care in creating his character’s look by personally selecting his wardrobe and accessories. He even brought in his own shoes and clothes that were hard to find in the shops now. We were so glad we waited for him because no one else could have played the part better.

What aesthetic decisions did you make prior to shooting?

In addition to the answer above about the photography, I really wanted to avoid have just “pretty” pictures with “interesting” framing. I didn’t want any of that to distract the audience from the heart of the film.

If you could name just one – what stands out as your most favorite experience you had during filming?
The most impressive thing about the making this film is that life imitated art here. The film is about a urban young man going through the rites of passage into a man. No amount of explaining from me can change the actors and make the actors’ “understand.” Even if they “understand” it doesn’t necessarily mean they can portray the Zen way of life for the drummers. Their performances have to have some basis of real life in it.

I engineered it so that the actors, Jaycee and Sinje Lee had to spend a lot of time with the drummers, in social situations and in training. U Theatre helped me train them.

After about 3 to 4 weeks of shooting, it came the day to shave Jaycee’s hair. That day was momentous because as the drummers say, when you leave your hair behind on the floor, you’re leaving your past behind. We saw it in Jaycee. The actor was going through what the character was going through. All that training and being with the drummers had subtly changed Jaycee. He became a different person. He became an even purer person.

It was very touching for me to see that it worked and it’s possible for anyone to change.

Anatomy of a scene: What was the most difficult sequence during production?
The most difficult scene to shoot was the scene where Sinje Lee slaps Jaycee Chan in the middle of the film. What had been boiling between the two characters came to a head here. Emotions were high. The balance between how much they verbalize and how much is manifested through action took a long time to strike. The scene was shot in one take without cutting. Because Sinje has to slap Jaycee for real, it was very difficult to get everything right. For most of the takes, after the long build up to the slaps, Jaycee would be so disoriented by the slaps in his face that it was hard for him to remember the lines.

Actually, he said that on Take 2 Sinje had already knocked his jaw out a bit but he didn’t tell her so she wouldn’t hold back her force for the subsequent takes. He was so selfless about it. She really gave her fullest in slapping him every take. Poor Jaycee.

What was the most challenging aspect of the production?
The drummers, all the drums, the drumming, the actors drumming. It was very hard on the production. Every time we changed angles, we had to move so many drums and seeing the actors trying to perfect the drumming was difficult. I really felt for them. It looks easy to do but really isn’t. They practiced constantly.

Getting all the actors to fit our schedule was a challenge. The drummers are booked up one year ahead. They had to cancel a lot of performances to shoot our film.

Locarno was planned but at what part in the timeline did you consider submitting the film to Sundance?
Actually, the Sundance programmer saw the film at Locarno. I’m so grateful to him that he liked it so much and that he remembered it and selected it for competition after seeing so many hundred of films in 2007. It’s a great honour.

The Drummer is part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
You may also like...

Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

Click to comment

More in Retro IONCINEMA.com

To Top