Home  /  Everything Else: Interview  /  [InC-terview] Utter 2017 short filmmaker, Lee Thean-jeen!

[InC-terview] Utter 2017 short filmmaker, Lee Thean-jeen!

By Say Peng  /  28 Sep 2017 (Thursday)

Photo courtesy of Lee Thean-jeen
Lee Thean-jeen, or TJ as he is known by friends, is one of the most prolific writer-directors working in Singapore film and television today. To date, he has adapted over twenty published works by Singapore writers, including Alfian Sa’at, Catherine Lim, Simon Tay, Claire Tham and Gopal Baratham into award-winning television series. As a television showrunner, he is best known for the seminal drama series The Pupil and Code of Law. His feature films have covered a wide range of genres, from comedy to horror, with Bring Back the Dead garnering the Platinum Remi for Best Fantasy/Horror Feature Film at the 49th WorldFest Houston International Film Festival.

InCinemas speaks with veteran TV writer-director Lee Thean-jeen about his short film adaptation of Gregory Nalpon's short story Timepieces for the Singapore Writers Festival film initiative Utter 2017: SingLit Unearthed.

InCinemas: Why did you choose to adapt this particular story?

TJ: Gregory Nalpon’s book, The Wayang At Eight Milestones, was recommended to me by the producers [David Lee and Eternality Tan] for Utter 2017. I read it and Timepieces was one of the short stories that stood out for me, for the way it combined slice-of-life observation with a wry, almost surreal narrative logic. Essentially, the story was about a kindergarten teacher who admonishes one of her six-year-old charges for bringing a dog to school. She later receives a death threat on her desk and is in for more surprises when she visits the girl’s mother at her home to find out the truth.

InCinemas: What were some of the challenges you faced in adapting the story?

TJ: The main creative challenge for me was taking a short story that was two pages - short even by short story standards - and making a twenty-minute film out of it. On the directing side, this was the first project where I had to work with a six-year-old girl and a dog as part of the ensemble cast. You know the old film adage about working with kids and animals… Fortunately for me, both child actor (Zemily Leaw) and animal were true professionals! I think Zemily does a great job in the film with a role that demands a lot out of a six-year old - when you see the film you’ll understand why. She also holds her own against a great cast of theatre and television names: Jae Liew, Karen Tan and Catherine Sng.

Film still from Timepieces

InCinemas: You are no stranger to adaptions, having adapted over 20 local works for both film and television. Can you share with us if you have developed a special approach to adaptation through the many years of doing adaptations?

TJ: I wish I could tell you there was a formula to doing adaptations, but every story is different - and it should be different, otherwise what would be the point? But one guiding principle I try to live (or work) by in the process of adaptation is to try and stay faithful to what I perceive to be the essence of the story or the author’s voice. The other is that adaptation is a process of transformation (of a work from one medium to another), not a translation. Both principles may sound contradictory, but that’s the fun of it.

InCinemas: What is your favourite film adaption and why?

TJ: If you’re referring to an adaptation by somebody else, [Stanley] Kubrick’s The Shining, probably, for the way it managed to preserve that pervasive sense of dread in Stephen King’s source novel, if little else. I’m well aware that Stephen King has said it's one of the only film adaptations of his books he’s ever hated, but like I said above… transformation, not translation. If you're talking about one of my own adaptations, it would have to be A Perfect Exit, by Richard Lord, from a book called The Best Of Singapore Erotica. The source story is about a retiree who decides to check out (i.e. commit suicide) via a night of continued intercourse with a pretty young girl he meets on the internet. It was one of the most challenging adaptations I ever did, but I was happy with the way it turned out.

InCinemas: Do you have further plans to adapt other Singapore literary stories?

TJ: Yes. In fact, I currently have a project in development that is a literary adaptation. Stay tuned.

Film still from Timepieces

Screening Dates:

Friday 29 September, 7.30pm @ Golden Village, Suntec City
*Post-screening dialogue with K Rajagopal, Lee Thean-jeen, Henry & Harry Zhuang and Jerrold Chong

Saturday 30 September, 7.30pm @ Golden Village, Suntec City
*Post-screening dialogue with K Rajagopal, Henry & Harry Zhuang and Jerrold Chong

Saturday 4 November, 730pm @ National Gallery Singapore (Auditorium)
*Post-screening dialogue with JM Sali, Lee Thean-jeen, K Rajagopal, Richard Angus Whitehead, David Lee                 
Moderator: Li Lin Wee
You say

Get Showtimes