The Internet Movie Database doesn’t tell you everything about Mike Wiluan. It might list his career as a prolific producer — whose credits include Eric Khoo’s My Magic, the bloody-as-hell Iko Uwais-starring Netflix thriller The Night Comes For Us, and HBO’s 1960s-set crime drama Serangoon Road — but little else as an actor… in the ̕90s.
If you’re of a certain age, you might recall seeing Wiluan on Under One Roof, Growing Up, and most memorably, for this writer at least, a bizarre TV commercial for a condo where a shirtless Wiluan jumps onto a table and proposes to his girlfriend, and they live happily ever after. Or something like that. Really bizarre. Or did I dream the whole thing up?
Nope, that ad does exist. “It’s been brought up a few times,” the Singapore-born Indonesian filmmaker tells 8 DAYS over the phone, with a chuckle. “It’ll be with me forever.” While acting still interests him (more on that later), he’s busy being the CEO of Singapore- and Batam-based media company Infinite Studios.
Last year, Wiluan made his feature directorial debut with Buffalo Boys, a Nasi Goreng Western — the Indonesian version of a Spaghetti Western — set in 19th century Java. It’s about two American-raised brothers returning to their native home to avenge their parents’ deaths. The US$3 million (S$4.1 mil) movie, released in September, was Singapore’s Foreign Language Oscar entry; it wasn't shortlisted, though.
After working on Buffalo Boys, Wiluan realised that more stories could be mined from this historical period. This led to the creation of Grisse, an eight-hour HBO series about a motley crew of people rebelling against the ruthless Dutch colonists in the eponymous town. “We had more time to explore the characters which is something we couldn’t do in Buffalo Boys,” says Wiluan. “Grisse is a far richer world.”
Here, Wiluan tells us more about the influences behind Grisse, which just ended its run and is now available on HBO on Demand (StarHub Ch 602) and HBO Go. Warning: some spoilers ahead.
8 DAYS: Buffalo Boys and Grisse are both set in 19th century Java. Why are you drawn to this particular period?
MIKE WILUAN: I just didn’t find a lot of entertainment content written about that colonial era. If you compare to the stories of colonisation of North and South America and India — every European power has stories being about told about its time in [that period] — I just felt that there wasn’t a lot of them being told about the Dutch East Indies. So I thought, this was such an interesting period, why don’t we do something [that blends fiction with history] and make it a lot more colourful and intense.
Who are your filmmaking heroes?
I’ve always been a fan of Westerns and a wide variety of them have influenced some of the more recent projects I’ve written and directed. The Spaghetti Westerns of Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, and the mainstream Westerns from John Ford were great influences. Aside from Westerns, I was very attracted to genre films that had a strong visual style. The sci-fi films of Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott had a huge impact on me, as did the horror zombie films of George A Romero and the thrillers of Hitchcock. The loaded proses of Quentin Tarantino’s writings. The early Spielberg and Lucas adventure films. The list goes on.
In the case of Grisse, what were your influences?
There are various inspirations that allowed the creation of Grisse. Gangs of New York, directed by Martin Scorsese, for the visual barbarity of modern tribalism; Deadwood, the HBO series created by David Milch, for the salty, flinch-worthy dialogue; Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo for the narrative portrayal of men lost and found; and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained for the genre subversion and stylistics.
What does directing give you creatively that producing doesn’t? We know of producers who are happy to just produce because directing is a time-consuming endeavour that takes them away from doing other projects. What’s your story?
I was a producer first. A writer second. A director third. Being a director is the most rewarding and yet all-consuming. Although producing and writing is just all-consuming but in different aspects. But directing is taking all the elements — talent, story, technical, setting — you’ve prepared for and making them work for the moment. For the camera. And in most cases, the best-laid plans are always dashed by Murphy’s Law. So one has to be incredibly open-minded, patient, creative, and be able to play both macro and micro roles to get the job done with the same amount of resources. That’s a challenge that can consume one’s soul to the point of breaking. Directing is like diving into a dark ocean, holding your breath and swimming down. You’re in an all-consuming space. But because I love it so much, coming back for more pain is an absolute pleasure.
Let’s talk about pleasure and pain, then. What are your favourite sequences to direct on Grisse?
There’s a sequence I wrote where Kurt [Jamie Aditya’s character] comes into the bar and Jambu [played by Zack Lee] confronts him. I didn’t direct the scene but I was constantly tickled by how what on paper came [alive when] these actors applied the emotion. It’s tickled a lot of people. Another [exchange] I enjoyed writing was for Chi [played by Joanne Kam] and Jambu. They have this incessant conflict with each other that needed to go beyond the surface vulgarities so I had to weave Chi’s dialogue around tongue-in-cheek Chinese Proverbs while Jambu’s dialogue is plain street-vulgar.
In terms of directing, it would be the calm and preparation before the storm in the last episode [which I directed]. The dramatic still parts in which General De Witt’s adjutant Dirk is sent into Grisse and demands the formulas. He’s poisoned by Kalia [Adinia Wirasti] and shot in the head by Harsha [Alexandra Gottardo], followed by a funny moment with Hidayat [Kelly Tandiono]. This scene is absolutely controlled by these women who each comes out with her own distinct personality.
I love directing action sequences that are combined with an emotional component. Especially if we’re ‘running and gunning’ — a term we used when we had little time and just had cameras on the shoulders rolling — and the action teams were pushing those moments time and time again. That was wild. Some of the best creative moments came from tight and seemingly impossible situations. Actors were also pushed to their limits and sometimes we had to do alternate takes to make it work. What’s on paper never always translates well to screen so the ability for us all — the director, camera teams, actors and stunts — to move as one ecosystem is important. When it does work, you’re smiling even when you’re mentally and physically hurting.
And the least favourite moments?
I least like complicated technical situations when we have to depend on computer graphics, — because you can’t see it yet — and using in-camera practical effects that have a 50-50 chance of working. Practical effects is always something I try to achieve on camera all the time, like bullet hits. But for that, we need to use explosive squibs that never always work. Actors are really put through the wringer if they fall over and over again without it going off. This takes time. Anything that takes too much time — like over-complicated camera moves and set-ups for a small scene — is annoying for me. It is necessary, of course, and that’s film-making. But I love it when we are in the heat of the drama and action, and running with it. Sometimes you find these beautiful moments that were just off the hip. That’s why I love running and gunning.
In Buffalo Boys, you have a small role as one of the bad guys, but you didn’t appear on Grisse.
We try to keep the world apart. I’m always making cameos in various projects. But at the time, I found it too taxing to do it — I was writing, show-running, directing. To think about getting into costume and make-up while all these activities were happening was just too much stress for me to bear. I’m an actor myself and I love the art form but it would have stretchd me too much to a point that I had to prioritise my responsibilities. So, unfortunately, I had to take myself out of the equation.
You dabbled in acting and modelling in your 20s. Does acting still interest you? Or are you doing it via proxies, the actors you’re directing?
To be an actor was my first love. Always will be. However, I love writing and directing — I don’t place myself in shows to fulfil the love but more so out of filler. My long-term producing partner Eric Khoo would always ask me to cameo in his films and it has been a tradition. But I always would approach the material as an actor and place myself in my actors’ shoes to understand the parameters of the actions and emotions.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Catch Grisse on HBO on Demand (StarHub Ch 602) and HBO Go. The Oscar nominations will be announced on Jan 22. Buffalo Boys will be out on iTunes soon.
Photos: HBO, Shaw Organisation