A project five years in the making, 1965 goes back to the year when Singapore achieved independence, bringing the nation’s tumultuous journey to the big screen. It opens this Thursday, July 30 2015, more than a week before National Day.

We sat down with Daniel Yun, the film’s executive producer and co-director, and learnt about the making of 1965.

Q: When the idea for 1965 was conceived, was it planned for SG50?

No, actually. It was first minted at an airport in Hong Kong when a staff of mine said we should make a movie where anyone else outside Singapore would know. We thought of chewing gum or Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) and the seed of an idea began to grow: the whole idea of making a movie of LKY, the question of “why not?”.

It started off as a biopic of LKY, but I knew I was never someone who could make (that). I don’t know enough, don’t have the passion to find out as much about the man. The idea is something very personal to me, but it grew and took all kinds of forms and shapes.

I came up with a premise that somehow I think could be expanded. Not a documentary, not a historical film, not a biopic, but something that I thought should be about the common man in the streets in the 1960s. The life of these people – their stories – cannot be separated from the life and story of LKY, especially in 1965. I knew at the very onset that the premise needed to be about very personal stories, not very big ones, so that people who have lived through it or those who knew (about that time) can relate.

Q: The production was done last year?

Yes, till the first week of January. While we were editing it, we heard that Mr Lee was sick, taken ill, then (he) passed on the 23rd. So, we took our cameras and did pick-up shoots for that whole week of mourning, including the funeral procession.

Q: Did the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew affect the script?

The script had many drafts, the final one which was written by (scriptwriter) Chiang Ming. In the weeks leading up to the shoot, when we pieced the film together, we realised it would need narration.

It was very difficult to write the narration. It was difficult to balance narrative with the thoughts and motivations of the characters. But in the week of mourning, it all came together for me. It’s almost a tribute to LKY.

Q: Did it affect how you portrayed him in the film?

Nope. If anything, it added (to it). Because in that week, many Singaporeans, old or young, were reacquainted with our founding father, and it also helped me write the narrative in a way that’s more in-depth.

Q: What did you think was his most badass moment in the film?

He can be rough, direct, take the press, the people. He talks straight. There’s one part where he was talking on the lorry and said something to the effect that you have to face your problems. That’s probably a kind of so-called badass moment.

Q: For Mr Lim Kay Tong (who plays LKY in 1965), was it difficult for him to get into the character?

Nope. I think the casting of Lim Kay Tong (LKT) is quite a blessing for the film. For the longest time, we thought of different people. But when we have (LKT), he’s 60 years old. He has to play LKY in his 40s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Playing a young LKY is not easy. But after a while, we thought it’s not so much (about) physical resemblance or imitation, but the interpretation and aura of the moment.

Q: To recreate the look, the feel, the essence of the 1960s – what efforts went into doing that?

It was the effort of this art director, set designer Tommy Chan. He worked with the director and came up with a look that is impeccable. When you’re on set, can even taste the 60s because the smell was all there. My brief to everyone was: it needs to be very real.

The streets were always wet, always dirty. The people – Deanna Yusoff is a glamorous person, but in the film she’s Khatijah, a lady trying to get by. She had nude makeup. After the wrap, I saw her and realized “Oh!”, she really is so different. So everyone like Joanne (Peh)Qi (Yuwu), has minimal to no make-up. For haircuts, they had to go to the street-side barber.

Q: The cast went for the roadside barbers?

Just the guys. Yuwu and James Seah went to the roadside barber. Mike Kasem grew a beard in 2 months as he plays a Pakistani journalist.

Q: You mentioned a need for the cast to speak some dialect for authenticity. How much of the film is in dialect and how much dialect do you think is needed to bring out the flavour of Singapore in the 1960s?

It’s still English and Mandarin but we have Cantonese, Hainanese, Malay, a little Tamil. All that, to spice up the reality. But essentially, in the Singapore context, for a movie to be released, the dialect level cannot exceed 40% (of the entire script). So we probably maxed it. In certain parts where the protagonists, in moments where they speak their heart, it’s in dialect.

Q: Having grown up in the era, were there any inputs of yours that you strongly felt should be in the film, and made it eventually?

A lot. From the haircut to the dressing, I needed to have approval. On the street, you’ll hear all kinds of radio. I insisted to get people to read the Hokkien news, Teochew news, Hainanese news, and put it in the background. The most important thing I insisted (was that) it needs to come across real.

Probably my biggest input is the structure of the film. As co-director, at certain points I realised I needed to helm it in some ways. But the director has lots of ownership and without him, the movie cannot be made. Without (production company) mm2, it cannot be made either. But ultimately, it’s my decision.

Q: This is your directorial debut. How different is it producing and co-directing?

It’s very different. As a director, I’m on set every day. I must take my hat off to the director who has to put up with the co-director on set everyday, and is consultative with me. It’s different. You’re in the trenches.

Q: Will you say your collaboration with Mr Randy Ang went well, as you’d like it?

We fought like mad. I have to take my hat off to him. If I were his age, and had to deal with someone like Daniel Yun, I would kill him. But he didn’t, so that’s good. Honestly I think, in the creative process, when you fight, there are sparks. So I never saw or knew Randy until we fought. And he never knew me until we fought.

Q: Was race a big consideration in creating the characters in the film? How did you ensure the way they interacted was authentic?

The subject of race is very tricky. It can be very boring or very severe. How do you keep it engaging, exciting, for old and young? How do you get them to interact in ways that makes sense for the modern audience?

You see the race riots: it’s only between the Malays and Chinese. But towards the end, when LKY says “this is not a Malay nation, not a Chinese nation, not an Indian nation”, then you see the Indian element coming towards the end. (Addressing race is) to tell very personal stories, so people can relate.

Q: There are a few members of the cast whose area of focus is not in acting: DJ Mike Kasem, singer Sezairi, and politician Nicole Seah. So what made you decide to choose them?

I have this idea of inspired casting. I want to sort of have a “组合” (combination), (the) coming together of a fresh collaboration. When we announced Qi Yuwu and Deanna Yusoff, you know this is not your typical Singapore film casting. Mike Kasem was suggested by the director, and Sezairi by the art director. We choose people who are fresh… (and) new to the big screen.

Q: How do you think the pioneer generation and the younger generation can relate to the movie?

For the pioneers, it is to relive a very important time, and for the younger generation, we hope they are transported back to the era that their parents lived through. We hope for them to discover, or for some, to rediscover the 60s.

Q: What was your favourite memory growing up in the 60s?

I remember my brother brought me to watch The Sound of Music at the Orchard Theatre. I mostly remember hawker food. My father was a cook in Cold Storage, so he brought back something that has squares – like bread but with squares. Then years later (I realised), oh, that’s called waffles.

Q: Which onscreen character is most similar to you in terms of character and experience?

I think Cheng. Cheng is the protagonist, Qi Yuwu’s character… all the things that I wrote about doing the right thing, having a brother, taking care of the family, how responsibility can be double-edged – it can bring you down but can also give you strength.

Q: Most importantly, do you think our local audiences will enjoy this film?

It’s a mainstream film, a commercial film. But not your usual commercial fare. It’s not I Not Stupid or Money No Enough. It’s not even 12 Storeys or Ilo Ilo. It’s not any of these wonderful Singapore films, but I hope 1965 can be wonderful in it’s own way. What I really hope is that Singaporeans will relive 1965, and through the film, Singaporeans will rethink, with fresh insights, about being Singaporean again.

Q: Why should anyone watch 1965?

Because we worked so hard… (laughs) I think it gives you a glimpse of our past, in a way that only a movie can, which is engaging and entertains, and hopefully moving and inspiring. Hopefully, it makes you think about being Singaporean again.

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