Up close with ‘accidental’ filmmaker Derrick Lui

The Singaporean director talks about his filmmaking journey and his latest project, Warrior of Love, the island's first film set in the world of motor racing

April 2, 2017 9:00 AM (UTC+8)
Director Derrick Lui says he was more passionate about music than movies when he was growing up. Photo: Derrick Lui
Director Derrick Lui says he was more passionate about music than movies when he was growing up. Photo: Derrick Lui

Derrick Lui is about to make Singapore’s first car racing-themed movie. His career, though, has been something of an “accident.”

The 40 year-old Lui burst onto Singapore’s filmmaking scene with his well-received debut, 1400 – a telling of four intertwined stories about characters searching for love in a hotel – in 2015. He is now working on his first commercial release, tentatively titled Warrior of Love, which is scheduled for release in 2018.

According to Lui, he stumbled upon the idea for the film after witnessing a touching scene between his friend and said friend’s father.

“My friend was disowned by his family because he chose to open a car
workshop instead of taking over the family business. Many years later, his father drove to his car workshop one day and asked my friend to service his car,” said Lui.

“I almost cried when I witnessed this scene between the two of them. It meant that my friend’s father had finally forgiven him.”

Teaser poster for Warrior Of Love by Derrick Lui, starring Nathan Hartono. Photo courtesy of SIMF Management and Opensky Entertainment
Teaser poster for Warrior of Love by Derrick Lui, starring Nathan Hartono. Photo courtesy of SIMF Management and Opensky Entertainment

Sing! China contestant to star in the movie

Inspired by this, Lui wrote the first draft of a treatment around 2002 but shelved it due to the large budget involved to produce a car racing film. The knowledge that this had never been done before in Singapore also also made it a risky financial move.

Last year, buoyed by the success of 1400, Lui revived the project. He also secured a partnership with Singapore-based SIMF Management and Taiwan’s Opensky Entertainment, among many others, to fund the film, with Singaporean writer Boris Boo heading script development. Lui participated in the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) last year, where filmmakers pitch their projects for funding.

Describing Warrior of Love as a “romance-comedy,” the film is intended to be about a girl with dreams of becoming a professional car racer who falls in love with a professional race car driver played by Nathan Hartono. Leona Chin, a professional race car driver from Malaysia, will also feature in the movie.

Singer Nathan Hartono will star in the race-car themed movie Warrior of Love, due for release in 2018. Photo: Vanessa Caitlin
Singer Nathan Hartono will star in Warrior of Love, due for release in 2018. Photo: Vanessa Caitlin

The move to cast Nathan Hartono, an acting newcomer as the male lead, was surprising. Even Hartono confessed that he was “still very raw when it comes to screen acting.” Hartono was the runner-up of Sing! China, a popular Chinese reality singing competition, who was mentored by Chinese pop star Jay Chou. Prior to Warrior of Love, Hartono had only been involved in a handful of acting projects.

Despite Hartono’s relative inexperience, Lui said he had no qualms casting Hartono. He also revealed that Hartono did not need to go through an audition.

“When the script was done, I was very clear that I wanted Nathan to play the lead. I had the feeling that he would fit the role perfectly,” said Lui, who knew about Hartono before the latter’s singing debut.

Leona Chin, a Malaysian professional race driver also stars in the film Warrior of Love, scheduled for release in 2018. Photo: Leona Chin
Leona Chin, a Malaysian professional driver, co-stars in Warrior of Love. Photo: Leona Chin

An accidental journey

Although Lui co-wrote and directed his debut film in 2015, he had amassed more than a decade’s worth of experience in television, music videos, documentaries and short films prior to that.

Unlike some filmmakers who knew they wanted to enter the industry from the beginning, the decision was not a clear-cut one for Lui.

“When I was young, I loved watching movies, but I never thought of becoming a director. I was more passionate about music than filmmaking,” he said.

Derrick Lui 3
Derrick Lui (centre) on set. Photo: Derrick Lui

At 19 years old, Lui started playing football semi-professionally but fate dealt a cruel blow when injury called a premature end to his career.

Left with no choice but to quit his beloved sport, he went back to studying. His foray into filmmaking started when he was faced with the choice of selecting a major.

“Since I disliked like memorizing, I picked filmmaking which was a more hands-on course,” he said.

Lui’s first assignment in university turned out to be a curve ball. “I failed it – and I was the only one to fail,” remarked Lui, who believed then that he was destined to failure.

Fortunately, Lui’s tutor did not give up on him. She explained what he did wrong and told him that she saw his talent and wanted him to improve and succeed.

“My tutor changed my life. Before that, I thought I was a failure. I had failed in the Singapore education system and failed again in an overseas university,” said Lui.

So powerful was the tutor’s encouragement that it inspired Lui to excel in his subsequent modules and eventually top his cohort. After graduation, Lui worked at Caldecott Productions, the television commercial arm of MediaCorp, Singapore’s sole broadcasting station.

An unconventional approach

Lui has always been a firm believer in taking an “organic” approach to filmmaking.

“I prefer not to have a script for my indie movies so that I can experiment and develop the characters with my actors,” said Lui. He acknowledges that this is different from the industry norm since a script is usually important to secure funding from investors.

Citing an example, Lui explained, “If I’m writing a story about a coffee boy, I want to discuss the character with my actor to get his inputs. I believe this will give a better portrayal of the character, as opposed to me writing the dialogue for the actor to act.”

1400 was also created with the same “organic approach.” In fact, it was made in a mere five days on a shoestring budget and premiered at Canada’s Montreal World Film Festival in the Focus on World Cinema section. This is a feat considering that a feature length film is usually shot in one month, at a minimum.

Calling 1400 the “most challenging production of my life,” Lui revealed that he almost “collapsed” on the third day of filming as he was averaging two hours of sleep daily.

“I would be directing a scene and in between takes, I had to call my extras who had not arrived for the next scene. When everyone has gone home, I will continue preparing for the next day’s shoot. Every morning, I will be the first to arrive at the set so that I can prepare my props.”

It was precisely this experience that convinced Lui that nothing can faze him now. Nor does he feel pressured to replicate the success of 1400 with Warrior of Love.

Compared to 1400, Lui says he feels “luxurious” as Warrior of Love had more resources, while 1400 was filmed made with next to nothing, with Lui doing all the legwork in addition to his duties as a director.

When asked about advice for aspiring filmmakers, Lui said the industry was tough but urged them not to dither too long in making their first film.

“I have seen so many film students switching lines – you don’t earn a lot and you work long hours, so these people get disappointed and disillusioned.”

To which he adds, “Don’t wait. The more you wait, the more you will procrastinate.”

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