Penning for the Pictures

By Regina Hoo

December 2021 FEATURE
main image

“SO MUCH OF being in the movie industry comes down to pure luck, of your being at the right place at the right time,” says Chi-Ren Choong. He is the screenwriter for the Malaysian-Singaporean crime drama television series, The Bridge.

A Dalat International School alumnus (“that’s how I got this funny accent,” he chuckles), Chi-Ren fell in love with theatre when he was cast in the role of Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes. He enjoyed making people laugh but at Columbia University, his alma mater, Chi-Ren realised that at most, “I’d always be a mediocre actor. I could make people laugh, but I found that I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes process a lot more. The writing and directing, these give me more buzz than being onstage.”

On graduation, he was set to work for an American company, when it folded. Trying to make the best out of a bad situation, Chi-Ren started testing the local waters. He wrote a play, A Goldfish Tale, for the Actor’s Studio which toured Penang, Ipoh and KL. But later, a chance encounter with a producer on a trip to Singapore gave Chi-Ren his first big break. He co-wrote and co-directed Saladin the Animated Series, produced by MDEC and Al-Jazeera; it garnered an international Emmy nomination in 2011, for the Children’s Programming category.

When the series ended, Chi-Ren took up a stint as a development executive at Ideate, before trying his hands at writing for live action. “That’s where I’m at now,” he takes me up to speed. “I co-wrote Tombiruo: Penunggu Rimba, currently showing on Disney+; and the other was for Polis Evo 2 for which I was one of the many writers. That was quite an experience!”

Not Much Creative Say

Movies tend to be very director-driven; their creative vision is the director’s alone. “Writers, at least for the projects I’ve worked on, don’t really have much creative say. You are usually hired to create a story the director, or sometimes producer, wants for the film. But because it’s usually a two-hour run-time, I find movies a very different emotional experience compared to television. In a TV series, you’re following these characters for months, sometimes years; and because the writers are shaping their stories over multiple episodes and seasons, I think television is more of a writer’s medium. There is more creative liberty in developing the story and the characters over a longer period of time.”

And how does creating storylines for TV shows compare to, say, writing a novel? “It depends on the kind of writer you are,” he says. “I’ve worked with some who start from the inside out; they need to figure out who these characters are, what are their histories, etc. before the plot can be written.

“I’ve tried to do the same, but found that I’ll do the exact opposite instead. I work from the outside in, starting with ‘What does the character want?’ Revenge? To get the girl? To escape? I start with this central question to create a rough framework for the character and the story. Then it’s a process of connecting the dots and reworking the screenplay until the two get clearer.”

Writing for screen is “the ultimate team sport”. But unlike a poem or a prose, a screenplay is but a foundation and never the final product. “The goal of a script is two-fold; first, to tell an entertaining story to engage the reader, and second, as a manual for the technical crew. The art director, the costume designer, the make-up artistes and camera crew should all get a sense for the look and feel of the show after reading the script. But still within that, you want them to feel free enough to contribute their thoughts and ideas. It’s a delicate balance."

A movie or a TV show goes beyond just acting. It is the many minute steps taken to engage viewers; from the positioning of cameras, lighting, costume design, sound levels and music, right down to which take the editor chooses for the final cut. “It’s a balancing act that sometimes ends up as magic, and that’s such a beautiful thing.”

Chi-Ren recalls driving back with The Bridge’s film crew during Season One when from out of nowhere, the entire story for Season Two dropped onto his lap. “I got lucky with that one. I’ve had stories in my head that sit there for years, I just couldn’t get them to work. But sometimes when the writing gods smile down on you, you can see the whole story so clearly in your head. Of course, a lot of The Bridge changed during the development process, and there’s the invaluable creative input from everyone in the writers’ room. But the spine of the story is pretty unchanged and I’m quite proud of that. Sometimes, writing can be a long, hellish process, but at other times, it’s pure joy.”

Translation and Natural Language

In Malaysia, where to know and to write in more than one language is an asset, Chi-Ren only speaks and writes in English. So far, it has worked in his favour. “What’s interesting today is that people only seem to care about stories and if you’re a good writer. They tell me, ‘If you can come up with the story and the characters, we’ll get someone to translate them’, which is an entirely different ballgame.

“Translation is tough; you need translators who are also storytellers and writers in their own right. It’s no good translating the screenplay word for word when its essence gets lost in the process.” No one in Malaysia speaks one language 100% of the time, but more a motley of different language-words strung together in a sentence.

On The Bridge, when a scene was to be filmed in Malay, “We’ll give the actors the script in both Malay and English, and say to them, ‘If there’s any part of the dialogue that doesn’t sound right in Malay, then switch to English and vice versa, or when a particular word needs emphasising.’ This worked out well. It sounded natural, the way Malaysians typically speak.”

Crafting Storylines for Different Genres

Ending of Episode One (Idea), 2018 - “I always knew I wanted our two leads facing off, guns pointed at each other for the cliffhanger ending of the episode.” Photo by: Chi-Ren Choong
Ending of Episode One (Script), 2019 - “A year later, I’m now writing the script for Episode One, and despite the various changes the story went through, we kept the ending!” Photo by: Chi-Ren Choong
Ending of Episode One, 2020 - The final shot of the episode, with the lead actors, Bront Palarae and Rebecca Lim, squaring off. Photo by: Chi-Ren Choong

Nothing trains a screenwriter better than watching how a scene plays out on screen for the first time. “All the book knowledge in the world cannot compare to watching the edited cut. I flouted the rules when I was just starting out, only prioritised my personal expressions; and the screenplays I wrote were terrible,” he laughs.

“Viewers want to be lulled into the rhythm of the stories; they want to know what they expect to happen next will happen. And my job as a writer is to give them that, but also surprising them when they least expect it. You thought this person is your main lead, but aha! I axed him on page 30.”

The basic structure is different for each genre, but the simplest one is probably romantic comedy. “Boy meets girl, that’s the first part. Boy and girl either argue or fall in love, then something happens that drives them apart. Both realise they can’t live without each other and they’d come back together for the big kiss at the end.

“Or for horror, everything is normal until the Other is introduced, whether it be a monster, demon or a Freddy Krueger-like killer with a knife, and causes chaos in the community. By the end of the movie, the Other is defeated and peace is restored. But I also think that horror is the one movie genre that can consistently have an unhappy ending and viewers are OK with it, because that’s how horror works.”

An Artistic Business

Movie-making is an art, no doubt, but it is a business too. “You have a certain responsibility to investors. Again, there must be some kind of balance, between personal expression and market trends. It only becomes a problem when one overwhelms the other. If the movie is simply a means for making money, viewers aren’t going to get pulled in because the emotional engagement isn’t there.”

Chi-Ren’s memory is jogged then. “It occurred to me that the average Malaysian has probably seen more movies than your average film student in America, for the simple fact that Malaysia has been for the longest time, the capital for piracy, whether these were VCDs, DVDs or Blu-rays. Big Hollywood ones, independent films, horror flicks, Hong Kong movies were all available for just a few Ringgit. We’ve amassed so much film experience and knowledge as a nation.”

Regina Hoo

is the deputy editor of Penang Monthly.