We Ask One Of The Directors Of HBO's Folklore: Why Aren't There More Singapore Female Directors Doing Horror?
Nicole Midori Woodford, the director of the Mindee Ong-starring episode 'The Excursion', says, "It's all about timing."
When you think of Singapore horror movies (and TV shows), they are mostly made by guys. There’s Kelvin Tong ( The Maid), Jacen Tan ( Zombiepura), and that dude who did our Oscar submission Precious is the Night…no wait, that isn't horror (but it sure feels like one). My bad. In any case, the genre seems to be dominated by men.
Maybe Nicole Midori Woodford can shake things up a bit in the boys' club.
“I’d rather have a good director do a horror movie than a good horror director,” said millennial horror maestro Jason Blum once quipped.
“Because like any other movie, a good horror movie is really much more about the storytelling and acting than the scares,” said Blum, whose list of left-field collaborators include Jordan Peele (Get Out), David Gordon Green (Halloween) and Joel Edgerton (The Gift).
And it was that same reason that Eric Khoo broached Nicole Midori Woodford to contribute to the second season of Folklore — HBO Asia’s spooky anthology which he serves as showrunner — after seeing her 2018 short film, Waiting Room.
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Waiting Room isn’t strictly speaking a ghoulish yarn, but it contains “a slightly supernatural tone” that intrigued Khoo, Woodford, 35 tells 8days.sg over Zoom recently. That led to the two chatting about ghost stories and her eventually pitching him an idea for Folklore. He liked it and the rest is, well, history.
“I was excited to do it because I have a soft spot for horror,” she says. “I used to be quite scared of horror. I started watching more of it and there’s a certain addictive quality to it. Even though I was scared, I feel this high and catharsis which I don’t get from some other films.” Good horror should mess with your mind, she continues. Like the ending in The Wailing, the 2016 Korean shriek-fest by Na Hong-Jin: “The ending… I had nightmares for three days!”
The result of Woodford and Khoo’s brainstorming is Hungry Ghost Festival-set The Excursion, starring Mindee Ong (of Royston Tan’s ge-tai drama 881 fame) as a downtrodden mother haunted by a past trauma — and a shadowy figure around the house. Is this spectre real or imagined? The answer lies on their favourite spot on the beach.
Woodford, whose lineage includes a Japanese grandmother and a British-Portuguese Eurasian father, says The Excursion was inspired by a research trip to Pulau Hantu for another project just before the Hungry Ghost Festival.
“I always feel that even though Singapore is a very urban country, there are these places that feel very primal and creepy,” says Woodford, a filmmaking lecturer at NTU School of Art Design and Media and winner of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 2020. And one of those places is the beach. “The shores are always full of presences and history…blood-stained history.
“I befriended a local who told me to be very careful and not to go near the shore during that period,” she recalls. “Because there are vengeful or malicious spirits in limbo would follow people back [to the mainland].”
That exchange got Woodford thinking: What if the spirits aren’t spiteful, but just lost and lonely? “I thought of victims of drownings and wonder about the families and their connection to these places,” she explains. “If I were to lose someone, would I go the beach to see them again?"
For Woodford, there’s more to horror than just the boo factor, it’s also a chance to explore deeper issues of grief and loss.
“Horror calls to the reptilian brain in us,” she says. “Even though you are scared, you want to take a peek at what is that thing moving over there; you don’t want to turn away. Because of that, you’re looking at yourself — something dark. [In The Excursion], I felt that it was the lead character who’s looking at a darker part of her past, within her family she’s been hiding from.”
Citing Julia Ducournau’s Raw, Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Rose Glass’s Saint Maude as examples, she says, “The horror films that freaked me out are things to do with secrets, trauma — very human emotions, not the jump-scares.”
Elsewhere, contrary to the common adage to avoid working with children (and animals), Woodford found working with child actors a joy: “It’s just a matter of finding a way to communicate with them.” It also helped that Mindee Ong is a real-life mum of two. “She has a strong connection with children, so working with them was a breeze.”
Into the night: MIndee Ong in a scene from 'The Excursion'. Woodford enjoys working with actors who are honest with her. She says: "They would point out in my script, Why like this? Can we discuss this? Mindee, especially, would do that. That would help me push myself as a director when I explore a character."
“The difficult part was shooting on Pulau Hantu — without electricity,” she says. “It was tough for me and my team. We had to carry a lot of gear. We had to take a bump boat out to this remote place and it just ate into our schedule.”
Turns out Mother Nature was a diva on set. “The tides kept changing,” she adds. “[I remember I was setting up one scene in the waters, but the second I turned around — the tide is gone!” We would have to shoot something else until the tide slowly returns. [Working outdoors] is unpredictable.”
Another logistics hassle: Recreating the Hungry Ghost Festival in February. Doing things as mundane as burning paper offerings and making sure the smoke didn’t blow into someone’s home can be a real pain in the ass.
“My whole production team kept burning and burning a lot of things — I wanted this feeling of just smoke, emanating from the road – not just from one family, but many families doing it,” says Woodford of the atmospheric sequence.
Post-The Excursion, she isn’t done with horror. Up next: her feature debut Last Shadow at First Light, a supernatural coming-of-age tale she’s been developing since 2017.
“Things were delayed for more than a year due to the pandemic but thankfully we managed to complete principal photography for the Singapore portion,” she enthuses. “I am waiting to shoot the rest this year in Japan. The shoot in Singapore went really well despite the heavy rain and I’m really excited about the footage my team and I have shot.”
Behind-the-scenes: Woodford with 'Folklore' EP Eric Khoo on the set of 'The Excursion'. "When Eric hears an idea, he is able to push it and link it back to the series in a clever way," says Woodford. "Sometimes I’m so caught up with the script, thinking of the micro stuff, and he would remind me what is the big picture."
And isn’t it about time we see more Singapore female directors tackling horror, both on the small and big screen? (Of the six stories in Season 2 of Folklore, two are by women, Woodford and J-pop star Seiko Matsuda, who did The Day The Wind Blew episode.)
“At the moment, I don’t know per se who else is actively pursuing to make horror,” she weighs in. “I feel that sometimes it’s about timing for them. I think the timing worked out for me because I was starting to move from supernatural drama to horror film. I think I was asked by Eric at the right time.”
Meanwhile, Woodford is game for another go at Folklore if it gets renewed for Season 3. “I might go a different direction,” she teases. “I’m tempted to do a gory one.”
A gory one? Folk, yeah.
Photos: HBO Asia