Ken Kwek: Hello, Nicole! How did you find the photoshoot? I found it surreal, stepping into the shoes of the metrosexual I’m not. But let’s get down to the stuff that truly excites us: movies! How did you get into filmmaking? Was it something you’d always dreamt of doing professionally?
Nicole Midori: It started with graphic novels, I started reading them when I was seven. In my early teens I began drawing my own narratives and going to an uncle’s shop in the neighbourhood that rented LDs (Laserdiscs) and DVDs.
It was from what my dad rented that I first discovered a whole gamut of films, from mainstream classics to arthouse fare. Later on, I’d borrow DVDs from the Esplanade Library and watch films every week.
I was also really into music. The idea of creating something original was something I relished, despite the long process (of that creation). I guess from music and writing, it evolved into drawing and photography and then eventually to filmmaking.
Ken: How old were you when you wrote your first story?
Nicole: I think I wrote my first short story when I was 15. Before that, I was also influenced by music from playing in my school military band.
Later on, doing science subjects at National Junior College would become the most frustrating two years of my school life.
It made me turn to playing saxophone in the school band as a form of creative escapism.
Everything else felt bland. I felt a strong pressure to conform to academic norms and expectations but JC really killed my love for the sciences and after those two years I told my parents I’d had enough and wanted to go to film school.
Ken: You enrolled at NTU (Nanyang Technological University), right?
Nicole: Yes, I did Digital Filmmaking at ADM (School of Art, Design and Media). You know I mentioned discovering films through rental LDs and DVDs?
That was the beginning of a long addiction to films, but when I tried showing Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Dreyer’s Joan of Arc to my parents, I think they were horrified!
I ended up being inspired by Scenes from a Marriage for a short film workshop at uni. I even put my parents in a film I did for that workshop.
Ken: (Laughs) So in spite of their horror, you put your parents in front of a camera. Did you interview them as subjects, like in a documentary?
Nicole: No, I got them to act. They played themselves, re-enacting some of their conflicts.
Ken: That’s quite incredible. Why did you choose to do that?
Nicole: When I was in my second year at film school, my directing mentor was Malaysian filmmaker Tan Chui Mei.
I was 19 and meeting a female mentor like Mui was a turning point for me. She taught us how to tap on our real stories and be brutally honest with ourselves.
That’s why I decided to use my parents in my film.
Ken: Was it a way of developing a method of working with non-actors?
Nicole: When I was in film school, I realised I worked very well with both actors and non-actors. It felt very natural coaxing performances out of them.
For me it was a combination of using sense memory and improvisation, pulling from one’s own emotional memory to intensify my connection to the material.
I believe directing is about connecting fictional material to what a person has gone through in real life.
I do believe that if you’ve never really experienced some sort of pain in your life, how can you understand how to portray it on screen, vividly and honestly?
So I do try to mine my own personal encounters, even though they may be horrific, or dark, or inflict pain. I endured some especially tough tribulations and trauma in 2011.
That’s why if you look past my first short film Kitchen Quartet (2010), all my films gravitate towards the dark.
Ken: But they’re also beautiful and humane. They’re about human connection rather than alienation.
Nicole: I’m an introverted person and, given my rather strict Catholic upbringing, a sense of self-questioning and fatalism does pervade my worldview.
But filmmaking forced me to confront my own experiences and demons, and also allowed me to connect with others.
When I made For We Are Strangers (2015), a few of my collaborators revealed their own stories of sexual trauma after I’d shared my own.
We were creating something together whilst negotiating our individual experiences.
Ken: What about Permanent Resident (2017)?
Nicole: For Permanent Resident, I gave myself a bit more distance.
Ken: And yet that film – the story of a neglectful mother who poses as a house-buyer in order to view homes she can’t afford – is the one you’ve said is closest to your heart. Why?
Nicole: Because it still touches on something personal. It comes from a time when I was growing up. I was the boy in the film who was forgotten by his parent.
I was the one walking home alone from swimming lessons at six years old.
Back then there was no such thing as kids having phones, so I couldn’t call my mother when she forgot to pick me up.
My childhood was to some extent austere but interesting. My mother was a property agent and I would hear many of her stories.
She even brought me and my sister to visit some of the homes owned by well-off folks. Living in a very different type of environment, we inevitably compared those homes to our lives.
There was a certain voyeurism across class divides that I recall now from my memories as a child.
Ken: Did your mother yearn for the homes she showed to potential buyers?
Nicole: I think anyone who works as a real estate agent would. It puts you in a position of privilege, getting to see beyond closed doors.
In making the film, I was trying to understand how other people from a different class lived.
It wasn’t so much about materialism, but more about our identity.
We Singaporeans are not confident about being ourselves, there’s always an aspiration to be someone else, to ‘upgrade’.
There’s also the fact that the film was set in Xiao Guilin, a fake, “pirated” version of the original landmark in China. These days it has been generically renamed as Bukit Batok Park.
I think as a filmmaker, I’ve always been amused by the fact that we have a lot of artificiality in our surroundings—and in ourselves.
Ken: Tenebrae (2018), which depicts a family having to vacate their home in Pearl Bank Apartments, is also about the way we are shaped by our spaces–and hence re-shaped by their loss.
Was Tenebrae made before or after the enbloc announcement?
Nicole: After. I had the idea for Tenebrae already so when I was commissioned by Astro to craft a short film for their omnibus, I pitched that story to them.
The theme for the omnibus was about love, and for me it about loving the soul of the building.
I’m very intrigued by the idea of loss of spaces: a building stands there for forty-three years, and if one day it’s suddenly gone, does it mean that everything that existed in those forty-three years is eradicated? I’m a little obsessed with the spirits of spaces, both through an existential and a spiritual lens.
Ken: Do you believe in spirits and supernatural forces?
Nicole: I do. In my lifetime, I’ve had some strange encounters which I still can account down to every detail. I think some of them are manifestations of living with my own trauma.
Ken: Trauma is a subject that you constantly return to. Do you use filmmaking as a form of therapy?
By that, I mean, do you derive any comfort from turning your traumas into fiction?
Nicole: I feel that as a director you have to be harsh with yourself, so there is no sugar-coating what life is.
When I saw Bergman’s Cries and Whispers at 18, it was electrifying for me.
There’s a scene where a woman puts a piece of glass inside of her as an expression of her pain. I was drawn to the beauty and brutality of it.
Having said that, I now realize a lot of such scenes have been depicted by male directors, so female filmmakers need to take up the mantle in portraying their own suffering.
I don’t think I use filmmaking as a form of therapy to heal myself, but in making my films I do try to discover the root of my characters which unwittingly makes me strip myself to the core of who I am.
I don’t think life offers any time for bullshit, and with film, it can transform life into a mirror that we hold up to ourselves. If I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I see both beauty and scars and ugliness.
Tarkovsky’s writes in Sculpting in Time: “Some sort of pressure must exist; the artist exists because the world is not perfect.
Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.” I’m more fascinated with dissonance than harmony. But we need both.
Ken: There’s also a melancholy to all your films, not just your character depictions but also your choice of palette and music. Are you a melancholy person? Or is the melancholy an aesthetic choice?
Nicole: I’m not deliberately or intentionally melancholy. All the music I was and still am obsessed with, there’s a lot of post rock and electronic ambient sounds like Nils Frahm and Mono. That would be the dream soundtrack of my life.
Ken: Dang, I’d say that’s pretty melancholy. And I do empathize on a personal level, though in my work I’ve tended towards handling dark material through comedy. And vulgarity.
Nicole: I always thought comedy was the most difficult thing in film to do. I don’t dare to do it, kudos to you for being able to direct comedy! I feel that I’m not ready to embrace it. I’m starting to gravitate towards horror in my work, especially psychological horror.
Ken: Which brings us to the last, inevitable question: What are you shooting next, and will it be a psychological horror film?
Nicole: I’ll begin shooting my first feature, You Are There, next April in Japan. I started writing it in 2016 and I’d say it’s more like a supernatural coming-of-age drama.
There is lot of death that pervades the film and at the heart of it is a 12-year-old girl who has the special ability to see spirits and tune into the emotions of other people, both dead and alive.
It is the story of a child as she metamorphosizes into a young woman, moving from darkness into the light.