Mouly Surya might not be a familiar name to most movie-goers in Indonesia, but recently the director made the nation proud with her latest film Marlina The Murderer (Marlina Si Pembunuh dalam Empat Babak), which received outstanding reviews during its debut at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Not saying that Mouly Surya is a new player in the film industry, though. Born in Jakarta, the 36-year-old film director has three acclaimed movies under her belt—one of them being What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love that premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2013.
We recently caught up with the inspiring director right off her Cannes Film Festival junket, and talked about Marlina the Murderer, how to write movie’s script and even her favourite movie’s scene!
What made you want to become a film director in the first place?
I’ve always loved stories and storytelling since childhood. I love reading fiction, Japanese comics and, of course, watching films. I wanted to become a writer originally— I’ve always loved writing, but then that dream changed when I got involved in an amateur film in college. Before that, I had trouble finding a form for my writing since I didn’t write poetry or short stories. My writing was just prose or notes, which I sometimes posted on my blog. When I had my first taste of directing films, I felt the same joy as when I was writing. But instead of writing with words, directing is writing with images.
Can you tell us the process of writing a movie script? From where do you find the inspirations?
Writing a script is very technical, actually. It is a painstaking process of researching a lot of details and looking for multiple possibilities in order to put the message of the film forward. Scriptwriters are more like technicians, as the film form itself is quite rigid with its 90-120 minutes’ duration.
So inspiration can come from scriptwriting books, and meeting with co-writers and producers who have read the script. I sometimes adapted scenes that happened in real life such as something funny or peculiar that someone said or did and put it into my script. From all of my three films I will have maybe one or two scenes that I adapted from something that happened or was said to me.
Which one is more important in a movie: the directing or the script? Can a movie work without the other?
As long as there’s a director, there’s always a script, written or not written. But a director is human too, so I’d suggest him or her to work with a strong script. For the film’s accessibility (and for other crew to be able to work properly for the film), a script is the most important. But for the film’s identity and soul, I’d say the directing. But if the question is what the most important job in a film is I’d say a producer.
Congratulations on Marlina the Murderer screening at Cannes! How was the experience being at the Cannes Film Festival?
It was exciting to screen my film for the first time at Cannes and kind of weird since I hadn’t seen the film myself on the big screen before the screening due to a tight schedule in finishing the film before the festival. It’s is quite a common thing to happen at Cannes. I read that one film didn’t have a rolling credit title yet because it was just done a few days before its screening.
Cannes is always like another world where movies are what you eat and breathe. Marlina got rave reviews from the critics and a lengthy standing ovation during the screenings, and then you come back home and you were charged overweight fees for your luggage. [Laughs]
Keeping in mind that Marlina was screened at the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight and not to mention being the first Indonesian movie at Cannes in 12 years, did you face pressure to market the movie along with networking with the international producers?
No, I didn’t do much work at Cannes aside from interviews to promote the film. Aside from that, my producers and sales agent for the film did the gritty work instead of me. They didn’t let me feel any pressure. I really enjoyed myself there: it was a well-deserved holiday after three years of working on Marlina!
Marlina received funding from France’s ministries of culture and foreign affairs. How did you manage to receive the funding? Would you recommend this way to other filmmakers?
At first, Marlina was selected to be presented at the Cinéfondation L’Atelier, the Cannes Film Festival project market where we were looking for European partners to co-produce the film with. We finally decided to work with Isabelle Glachant, a French co-producer who is based in Beijing and she applied for the Cinema du Monde funding.
The funding was judged based on the director’s previous works and the script for the film itself. It is notoriously very hard to get, especially because the funding is split into two sections—first-time and second-time directors, and third film onwards. Since it is my third film, I had to compete with past Palme d’Or winners and other big names from all over the world. We were not very optimistic at first, but the judges loved our script and it was a very flattering thought to think that our script can impress them.
And yes, I would recommend this way to other filmmakers. I even want to do this again. Fifty per cent of the funding has to be spent in France and working with French people. So we did a part of our post-production in France and it was a wonderful thing to work and learn there.
Marlina the Murderer’s idea was written by Garin Nugroho. What made you interested in doing the project and how was the creative process on turning the script into a movie?
One of my producers, Rama Adi, who also co-wrote the script with me, was the one who first fell in love with Garin’s story. We were in a development hell of another story, but Rama claimed that Marlina had to be our third film. I trusted him, so I went on with it even though deep down I am still finding ways on how to make Garin’s story mine and how to find my perspective in the film. I was kind of reluctant at first.
After going to Sumba for the first time in my life, I then insisted that Marlina should be a Western and finished the first draft in months. Meanwhile, at that time my father had just passed away the month before and I realised how much I love this project. Maybe it was the grief of losing my father that connected me to Marlina. Or maybe it was there from the very beginning but I haven’t realised it yet until then.
I see Tarantino’s Western in the Marlina trailer. How do you blend the classic Western with Indonesia’s gender role and regional culture in the film?
I had been flirting with the idea of a Western since I first Google Imaged Sumba Island. I’m not much of a Western genre fan; the only reference that came to my mind is Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man which I saw in cinema studies class in college. I recalled a black-and-white Western where they named a Native American character “Nobody”. So I guess it wasn’t a classic Western I was aiming for but more of a Neo-Western. And some of the elements I found in Sumba fitted the genre perfectly from the very beginning. The loose system of law, the vast plain savanna, and how a person always brings a weapon with them, in Sumba’s case, a sword. Those are some of the easiest examples. Also in what happened in the story as well.
Visually, I watched some Western Asian cinema, such as the Chinese martial arts and Japanese Samurai genres and other classic movies. I want to have that classic Asian cinema look along with several Western elements in the film, to make my own impression of a Western.
You are no stranger to the international film festival scene. Tell us how did you first get involved and what was your fondest memory?
When I finished my first film Fiksi, I Googled “film festival in Asia” and I read about Busan International Film Festival, referred it as “the Cannes of Asia”. I applied there and forgot about it. We went about our release in Indonesia and we finally got a call from them and said that our film was selected. It was my very first film festival and from there we went to several smaller film festivals. We learnt a lot from that experience and started to strategise better for our next film.
My fondest memory was when my second film, What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love went to Sundance. We went there and it was terribly cold! The festival was held in Park City, Utah, in January. Every director whose film was selected got a complimentary winter coat, imagine that! So throughout the festival, you can tell who is a director and who is not. We thought it was just like in those American films where the jocks wear their leather jackets and you know they are in the sports team.
With Marlina the Murderer, what can audience expect from the movie? Do you think it will perform well with the Indonesian mainstream masses?
It will be a challenging experience for the audience to familiarise themselves with this kind of Indonesian film. We rarely see this mixed of genre in films, let alone from Indonesia. But I have a hunch that it will do well! What to expect? Marlina is surprisingly fun and very engaging to watch.
How is the experience on being a female director in Indonesia?
I’ve never been any other kind of film director (as in male film director) so I don’t know the difference and I think there should not be any difference.
What’s your favourite film? Give us any particular scene that you like from that film.
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and I love the scene where the President of the United States calls the President of the USSR. The US President said, “Hello Dimitri? Listen, I can’t hear too well, I suppose you can turn the music down just a little?” It was hilarious.
What genres you haven’t explored yet and what are your next projects?
I am still on my third film within my first decade in my filmmaking career, so I am still open to all kinds of genres and films. I haven’t written down my next project yet, still in discussion for some possibilities.
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