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Interview with 'POP-AYE' Producer Weijie Lai

 

Singapore native producer Weijie Lai's latest film 'Pop-Aye' (2017) by Singapore born director Kristen Tan has received international acclaim during its festival circuit, having garnered multiple awards including the Sundance Screenwriting Award, Rotterdam Big Screen Award and the FIPRESCI Jury Award at the Netia Off Camera International Film Festival in Krakow, Poland.

A graduate from NYU Tisch Asia in Singapore, Lai worked on two commercial feature films then went on to produce independent film. 'Pop-Aye' was sold at the 70th Cannes Film Festival Market with international sales held by Cercamon. US domestic distribution has been picked up by Kino Lorber. Lai is already busy on his next film, a Vietnamese/Singapore production called 'Taste' by Vietnamese director Le Bao. 
 
I interviewed Weijie after our time spent at Netia Off Camera Festival and Cannes. Here is what he had to say:

 

You have so far produced two indie features. Was it hard to get into producing in Singapore?

WEIJIE: I actually produced two commercial feature films after graduating from NYU Tisch Asia before moving into independent producing. Thankfully, my transition from film school to producing was relatively seamless. It was a mixture of good luck and good timing! There is/was a real dearth of film producers in Singapore.

 

Did you always know you want to produce films?

WEIJIE: I would say I gradually found myself gravitating towards film producing. Like many, I went into film school thinking I would end up becoming a director. But I realized very quickly that I didn't necessarily possess the skills set needed to be the kind of director I was hoping to become, and instead, my instincts were more of that of a producer - I seemed to meet with a lot more success producing. It became something I really started to enjoy and grow into, the unpredictable nature of the job and having to think on your feet all the time. 

 

Your most recent film 'Pop Aye' has gained a lot of attention worldwide. How did you come across such a unique story?

WEIJIE: POP AYE was very much a continuation of my working relationship with filmmaker Kirsten Tan. We first got to know each other during our undergraduate studies in Singapore, and would only end up working together - on a short film titled Dadhi that also traveled to quite a number of festivals and won a bunch of prizes - almost 10 years after we first met. POP AYE was something Kirsten was writing to take her mind off the stresses of pre-production for Dahdi, fleshing out an idea she had had in her head for the longest time. Basically, one project transitioned to the next and we haven't stopped since! 

 

What was the journey of producing 'Pop Aye' like?

WEIJIE: It really was this roller coaster that we got onto where we had no idea what to expect at any point. I think we were very fortunate with the project in terms of the attention that it received, even during its development stages. In terms of the physical production, it was a very painful experience, we really threw ourselves in the deep end even though we had both done pretty elaborate productions in the past. I think we have learned so so much from it.

 

What have been audience reactions been at festivals?

WEIJIE: POP AYE has been received well by festival audiences, which is a very nice feeling. At all of the festivals we have had the privilege of attending, the screenings have all been sold out. We've enjoyed the different questions we get in each country. All tend to revolve around the elephant though!

 

Was it difficult to get international distribution on the film? And did sales and distribution come during production or during the festival circuit?

WEIJIE: As mentioned before, I think because of the attention the project received even during its development stages, we had a number of offers from international sales agents throughout. Our eventual sales agent, Cercamon, has done really well with the international distribution, selling the film to over 13 territories. I think the film traveling the festival circuit and picking up a few awards definitely helped a bit!

 

The film has won awards at Rotterdam and Sundance. Did you have any idea the film would go so far?

WEIJIE: I think just being selected for festivals such as Rotterdam and Sundance are already such an honor for us. We definitely did not expect to win awards at both, marking the first time a Singapore film has won an award in either! We went into the film with sincerity, hard work, and a wonderful team, it is of course nice to see that pay off.

 

You recently attended Netia Off Camera in Krakow where the film won the Fipresci Award. How was your experience at Off Camera?

WEIJIE: Netia Off Camera was a wonderful experience, and the award was a surprise bonus! The festival team members were so hospitable and they really took care of their guests. I had a lot of fun doing the Q&A - it was probably the longest we've ever done because there were so many questions. I tried to attend as many other screenings as possible, especially in the Polish competition, and also enjoyed exploring Krakow. I would love to have the opportunity to attend again and spend more time in the city.

 

You went to Cannes Film Festival for your new film. Did you have a successful Cannes in terms of its development?

WEIJIE: I was in Atelier with a Vietnamese project titled Taste by a really special filmmaker, Le Bao. Cannes was very intense and was quite an eye-opener I think for both him and his fellow Vietnamese producer Thao. I don't think it is something you can really prepare for! It was probably just as I felt the first time I attended Cannes, also in Atelier with POP AYE. We met many interested potential co-producers and collaborators, and received valuable feedback for the project. For now, we are taking things slow, taking in the feedback and taking the time to slowly develop the project at Torino Film Lab, where we've been selected for the Feature Lab 360. Like POP AYE, we don't want to rush into things until we feel the project is in its best possible state and everyone feels ready - if that's possible.

 

Can you tell us what 'Taste' is about?

WEIJIE: Very briefly, Taste follows Bassley, a Nigerian immigrant plying his trade in the Vietnamese Football League. After he breaks his leg his contract with the football team is terminated and he seeks refuge in the group of working-class Vietnamese women he sleeps with.   

Film stills from 'Pop-Aye'

   

 

Interview conducted and written by Vanessa McMahon

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