Monstrosity is a locally-produced short film about Jason Summers, who is studying Criminology at university, has a loving girlfriend and good life. But his world was turned upside down by a book that made him understand that to truly know the mind of a criminal, you have to become one.
Director Dr. James Rowlins played a key role in the film’s success, which has seen it win a number of prestigious awards and selections at festivals. What’s quite amazing is that he did it all on a relatively tiny budget of less than $5000, with a mostly novice team of first-time student filmmakers from Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). They have recently submitted the film to a number of ultra-prestige festivals and now wait on tenterhooks for the good news.
We managed to link up with the creative genius behind Monstrosity and found out more about the back-story of this short film that lifts curtains on dark and heavy topics. He also discusses the state of affairs in the Singaporean arts scene. Peep our interview below:
What inspired its conception, in terms of subject matter and thematic choice?
Film noir is a genre that I find most fascinating as a film professor and film lover, and I’ve long since wanted to have a stab (pun intended) at making my own. Last year I sat down with local actor Jack Hyde to flesh out some ideas in this vein – thus was born Monstrosity. The basic idea is taken from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, who is something of a fetish author for me. The novel is about a young man who murders a mean old lady pawnbroker as a matter of principle, but afterwards is burdened with regret and suffers a psychological meltdown. Of course, our version is abridged, set in modern day Singapore, and the narrative differs slightly too.
Jason Summers’ meet with and murder of the escaped loan shark is, of course, not very likely to easily happen in real life. How do you try to reconcile fiction with reality when there’s a gap between the two?
It is not unheard of for vigilantes to take justice into their own hands, or for young men to commit rash acts based on ideology. But in a way it doesn’t matter if this is a regular phenomenon or not. The most interesting characters and situations are often not commonplace. A drama can be plausible so long as the acting and character psychology realism are believable. I hope we achieved this in Monstrosity.
Monstrosity is a short film with dark and heavy topics. What were the greatest challenges in trying to consolidate the whole plot narrative and character arc into under 12 minutes, and how did you try to circumvent these difficulties?
Dostoevsky’s novel is extremely long, so indeed it was quite a challenge to condense the essence of this complex story into a short film. The first versions of our script ran to about 50 pages and the first cut of the film was 20 minutes. It is notoriously hard for films longer than 15 minutes to succeed in the short film market, so we had to cut some good scenes to make the narrative ‘tight’ and festival-worthy. In the end, I think these hard choices paid off.
If I were to make Monstrosity into a feature film (which is, between us, every short filmmaker’s dream), I would extend the scene of Jason’s shock and anguish in the hours and days after the murder. This is a crucial moment that marks a total transformation in his character, and is one that requires more screen time to do it justice.
Is Jason Summers the tragic hero or the suppressed villain?
It’s up to the audience to decide. Of course, we don’t know what Jason does next – does he jump, or allow himself to be caught? Dostoevsky’s protagonist, Raskolnikov, is a hero in spite of his deed – but he confesses his crime to the compassionate Sonia and allows himself to be arrested. Jason, on the other hand, kills his girlfriend when she fails to sympathise with his actions.
Like most noir protagonists, Summers is neither wholly good nor bad – a mix of both and above all, ensnared in a web of circumstances caused by his own rashness and ill fate. I appreciate this kind of ambiguity and feel that we don’t see it enough in modern films.
“In the future I hope to see more ‘out there’ stuff by new artists, more filmmakers pushing boundaries and a relaxation in the IMDA censorship codes.”
With the rise of independent cinemas, namely The Projector, and filmmakers such as Kirsten Tan (whose Pop Aye clinched the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for screenwriting at Sundance) gaining recognition for their work, what do you think of the current film scene in Singapore, and what do you make of its future, given its current trajectory?
It’s great to see initiatives like The Projector and pockets of cinematic excellence coming out of Singapore. Fantastic – the only way is up! Having taught Film Studies for five years at SUTD, I am noticing a significant upturn in the creative industries. That said, there are some underlying issues that are hindering progress, so I would not yet go so far as to talk about a “new wave” of film production in the Red Dot state.
As creators yourselves, what are the obstacles you’re facing in the local arts scene, what problems do you think need to and can be addressed, and what tangible changes do you hope to see?
The Singaporean media and film industry, especially independent, does not have access to the level of funding available to filmmakers in many other developed counties, such as the United States or Hong Kong. There are also some problems related to the strict censorship in force in Singapore, which I fear extinguishes the green shoots of creativity at its roots. Many prevailing conservative attitudes – for instance, the reticence to embrace gay rights, combined with a lack of independent film and media culture, contribute to this problem. In the future I hope to see more ‘out there’ stuff by new artists, more filmmakers pushing boundaries and a relaxation in the IMDA censorship codes. Don’t be afraid guys!