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'Pop Aye' director Kirsten Tan shares her experiences of making her debut feature... with an elephant

No, she didn't prepare for it by watching 'Operation Dumbo Drop'.

The thirtysomething New York-based Singaporean filmmaker says directing an elephant is a cinch. It's the saying good-bye part, that's really, really hard. 

8 DAYS: They say never work with children and animals. In your debut feature, you worked with kids and an elephant. How did you find your ‘star’, the 21-year-old Bong?

KIRSTEN TAN: I have no idea how to cast an elephant; there are no books [on the subject]. So I just went very much by instinct. For me, it was about how much I felt connected with the elephant. It’s almost like adopting a dog — you just want to see if you have chemistry with the animal, and how it behaves with other animals. From there, you start to narrow down the ones you like. I think I saw close to 100 elephants. I saw so many that even when I was back in the city, I could still see elephants from the corners of my eyes. But as I turned around, I realised it was just my imagination.

Did you research by watching elephant movies like Larger Than Life and Operation Dumbo Drop?

I definitely didn’t see those movies as research. Maybe if I had known about them beforehand, I would (laughs). But I did watch Au Hasard Balthazar, this 1966 film by Robert Bresson. But instead of an elephant, it’s about a donkey. It’s actually a simple story [about a girl and her donkey], but I was very moved by how powerfully it was told.

Two for the road: Thaneth Warakulnukroh chilling with his pal Bong.

There was a scene where the actor, Thaneth Warakulnukroh, slept under Bong. Wasn’t that kinda dangerous?

That scene wasn’t CG-ed. We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think it was safe. That routine was something Bong is very familiar with — his handler has slept under him many times. We made sure everything was safe before we actually did anything. Actually, Thaneth and Bong lived together for almost two weeks before the filming started.

Like in an elephant boot camp?

Yes. I made them stay together so that they would develop a bond. In the mornings and evenings, they would go out for walks together. During the course of the day, I’d make them do simple exercises — like he’d touch the elephant or they’d lie down together on the floor — so that they develop a bond on a tactile level. In some ways, I made them do more than what the film required, so when you see the film, they’re doing things that feel very believable.

Was Bong easy to direct?

There’s a scene where Bong walks into a house that was very difficult to shoot because no one has done that before. The producers were very nervous because if anything went wrong, Bong might hurt himself or damage the property. That would’ve been a catastrophe.

Did you cry on the last day of filming?

I was very sad. Actually, Bong wrapped three or four days before the last day of production. The moment he had to leave, I felt this tinge of sadness that I had to say goodbye. But at the same time, the ADs were also rushing me finish the shoot, so it’s almost like you want to feel sad but you don’t have time to feel sad; you don’t have time to process the emotions. We just took a photo with Bong and the rest of the crew. After that, he just walked away. I can still remember the sight of him walking away.

Photos: Kelvin Chia (main), Golden Village 

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