Michelle Chong (extreme left) with the lead cast of '3 Peas In A Pod' during a press conference here. Photo: Golden Village Pictures
Talking to Michelle Chong is like trying to pin down a whirlwind.
She’s talking to you, then has to hang up, calls you again, hangs up again to attend to something and, after some time, she calls you again, whereupon you hope that she is chained to the phone somewhere.
The interview was slotted for 2.30pm. In between long stops and short starts, it ended at about 7pm.
But through the on-off-on-off conversations, and by extension, through her films, TV work and showbiz career, the friendly, chatty, generous and irrepressible Michelle Chong never loses a beat, never fails to sparkle, and never makes you feel neglected.
And oh, she makes you laugh as well.
The multi-talented multi-tasker thrives on being so completely hands-on, she makes micro-managers look like loafers.
Indeed, with her second movie, ‘3 Peas in a Pod’, Chong goes over overtime as director, writer, producer, popped in front of the camera for a funny cameo, and even wrote the lyrics to the theme song herself.
She also reportedly sunk a six-figure sum of her own money into the film’s S$1.7 million budget.
“I thrive on multi-tasking. Right now, I’m talking to you and driving at the same time to my next interview. I thrive on multi-tasking because otherwise, life would be miserable for me,” Chong, 36, explained her pao ka liao (“do everything” in Hokkien) obsession.
The movie is an interesting little drama about three young people targeted primarily at young people. It is a road-trip movie set in Australia with Peter (Alexander Lee Eusebio), Perry (Calvin Chen) and Penny (Jae Liew) as three close friends from college.
Their feelings about one another are inexorably intertwined as much as the journey they embark down Australia’s scenic Great Ocean Road is continually straight.
At its essence is a story about friendship, love, joy, jealousy, yearnings, secrets and pain marked by the unexplainable, inevitable things that youngsters do in moments of both common sense and more common folly.
The drama sits well with the continuing evolution of Chong as she develops into one of Singapore’s most fascinating filmmakers, with tales that unveil the human condition.
Her first movie in 2011, ‘Already Famous’, was chosen as Singapore’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 2012.
Chong tells you more about the latest movie.
Is ‘3 Peas in a Pod’ a personal story?
No. I’m not any one character (in the movie) and this didn’t happen to me. But I can relate to what each of the character feels at different points. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of people. Maybe not exactly in the same way, but similar situations where you have to deal with your own feelings versus how you want other people to see you. Oh, am I giving too much away? (Laughs)
The lead actors on location. Photo: Golden Village Pictures
You have a Taiwanese pop star (Calvin Chen of boy band Fahrenheit), a Korean K-popper (Alexander Lee Eusebio) and a total novice (Singaporean Jae Liew). How did you choose your actors?
We had a list, but not everyone is going to do a smalltime independent filmmaker’s little movie, right? Especially when they’re known in the international pop arena. It boils down to two things.
One: whether they can speak English fluently. Two: whether they can accept my budget. I was looking for people with a considerable fan base too. It helps sell the movie. It’s not a guarantee, but at least it helps with awareness. Then people can decide whether they want to see the film or not. When you make a movie, you want people to watch, right?
For your second feature film, you went to Australia, with a cast from three different countries. People normally don’t do this. Are you nuts?
I’m always nuts (laughs). I don’t know how to be anything else. First of all, I wanted to do a road-trip movie about young people before I get too old and forget what it’s like to be young. I mean it’s not my story per se, but it’s a coming-of-age drama about college life. Tourism Australia was very excited when I pitched the idea to them. They flew me to Australia to recce.
I got inspired and wrote the script in about two weeks. Australia is very suitable for a road-trip film. The scenery is so beautiful, the roads are very easy to drive, the infrastructure is good – you literally get everything there. It’s so nice we needed a helicopter to shoot it. Big budget, hor? Haha.
Did you go on a road trip yourself while you were studying theatre in Bates College, Maine, in the US?
Oh, yes. Several. When I was in Maine, my friends and I took road trips to Las Vegas and New York. Very far, man. I had a lot of international friends. German, Greek, American. There was a group of us and we were close. I tried to recreate that friendship in ‘3 Peas’. It’s all very realistic, lah, these Korean, Taiwanese and Singaporean students becoming the best of friends in the movie.
How did Michelle Chong, comedienne, turn into a film director?
I was always very active in drama class, debate team and all that. And then I took theatre studies as an A-level subject in Victoria Junior College.
Frankly, I wrote ‘Already Famous’ before I even started (working) with MediaCorp. I wrote it when I was unemployed with a lot of time on my hands. Then, I started doing TV and theatre. I became very busy and forgot about the script.
Then a few years back, I got very bored with TV life and everything else. I was doing well in front of the camera, but there was a sense of emptiness somewhere. I was getting very, very depressed. Now on hindsight, I think it’s because I didn’t have a creative outlet as a storyteller. So, I became a director. I think I’m happiest just telling stories. You know, being part of the creative process instead of being at the end of it.
You’re a scriptwriter who isn’t lazy. Your characters really do talk. A lot. They don’t look at each other moodily with nothing to say. This means you must observe a lot as a writer. How do you keep your ear to the ground?
I think it’s quite instinctive. I don’t have a formula or try to consciously observe anything. But when I’m writing, I try to dive into the depths of my subconscious and then try to draw these things out. If I do observe people, I suppose it’s something I’m not aware of deliberately. Because I don’t feel like I’m observing, snooping or infringing on people.
There is a perceptible sense of yearning in both your films. For what does Michelle Chong yearn?
You’re right. I realise that the messages in both my movies are very similar. It’s the same message. Everyone is searching for something and I think the message is to live for yourself, to be true to yourself and to do what would make you the happiest and not live for others.
After leaving ‘The Noose’, you are now an independent filmmaker free from any yoke. How does it feel? Is it frightening because you have to go find the money you need for your films, or is your independence liberating? Will you return to ‘The Noose’?
It’s absolutely liberating. It’s the best decision I’ve made in a long time and this is really the best time yet for me. And yes, I’m talking to the producers for a possible reunion.
You put on a spot-on Aussie accent in ‘3 Peas’. What is your thing with wacky accents that are now your trademark? How long does it take for you to master an accent?
When I was young, I used to imitate whatever I saw on TV. It came very naturally to me and when I was doing TV later. It turned out to be what I’m good at doing. I guess I milked it for all it’s worth. And now in my films, it’s just good fun for the audience because they seem to like me doing accents and putting on wigs. But not too much, lah. In ‘3 Peas’, it’s only about two minutes, what.
If it’s something I’ve been exposed to, for example, there are a lot of Filipinos and mainland Chinese in Singapore, then I really don’t need to practice. It just comes to me naturally. But if it’s Swahili, Jamaican or whatever, then maybe I’ll have to do some research. I’ll have to practise.
We always link you with comedy acts. Will there ever be a very sad Michelle Chong story?
Of course. I think in recent times, the interviews that I’ve given are all quite serious, because I’ve been quite open about my depression. Nobody knows what that’s about. I think it’s as much chemical as it’s psychological. Probably a mix of both.
I’m feeling better now, but I don’t think one can fully overcome something like that. It’s like quitting smoking. You never really stop smoking until the day you die.
What is a day in the life like for you? Are things swirling around in your mischievous mind all the time? Are you afraid of stopping?
I need to be mentally engaged and stimulated all the time. The idea of relaxing or doing mundane or disengaging stuff such as showering or going on a treadmill, driving or even going for a facial or massage is quite scary for me. I’m not afraid of stopping in itself. I’m just scared of being left alone with my own demons.
Tell us why audiences in Singapore should go see ‘3 Peas in a Pod’.
Wah… because I think it’s going to be the most unforgettable road-trip movie you’ll ever have and it will inspire you to have your own unforgettable road trip… Er, is that too much?