TIFF 2021 Interview – TERRORIZERS director Wi Ding Ho

Jason Whyte | Get Reel Movies

“This is a story about a young man who commits a public slashing and what happens before and after. At first, the way you follow the narrative is pretty much the way you read the social news; you read the headline and you are told what is leading up to the event. As the news progress everyday, you are given more perspectives about “the past”. When you revisit the past, the news is no longer the truth. There are five other characters connected to this one event. The term “terrorizers” refers not only to the young man who commits the crime, but also to others in society who are related to him. When tragedy happens, no one is an outsider.” Filmmaker Wi Ding Ho on TERRORIZERS which screens at TIFF 2021.

I hear you are back at TIFF this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past and your experience.

Thanks to Giovanna Fulvi, TIFF’s Asian cinema programmer, who has been championing my films, I have attended the festival three times. In 2010, Giovanna discovered my feature debut PINOY SUNDAY and screened it in the Discovery program. In 2018, she selected CITIES OF LAST THINGS in the Platform section of TIFF, which won the top prize. This time TERRORIZERS is selected in Contemporary World Cinema. When I lived in Toronto when I was younger, TIFF was my first film festival experience; I remember watching 51 movies in ten days. Having my first feature selected at TIFF was like revisiting the place, but back then I was still very naïve about the film industry. It wasn’t until the second time around that it felt like I was a filmmaker bringing a movie to an international event: I had a team of sales agents, publicist, producer, two talents joining me the festival. This time around, I’m unable to attend the film festival due to visa backlog. So, this will be my first digital film festival experience. It always feels great knowing you can premiere your film in Toronto; it pressures you to hold up the quality and expectation of your films. In short, TIFF inspires and encourages you”

So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past!

In my 20s, I wandered in Toronto and in Los Angeles before landing in NYC at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. After my studies, I went back to Asia to relocate in Taipei. At first, I almost gave up my film directing career, thinking that I would probably end up as a very good commercial director with a fancy car and life. But I realized this was not what I wanted especially after my working-class parents ended up paying all the expensive tuition at Tisch. So I went back to the indie/student filmmaking mode from the old days on Broadway Avenue of NYC.

I made a short film called RESPIRE (a film I made 15 years ago, where I would predict a distant future in which everyone was required to wear a mask by law because of an airborne virus. Unbelievable that this is actually happening today!) RESPIRE went to Cannes Critic’s Week and collected two awards. I knew then that this was my real calling. Then I made another short film, SUMMER AFTERNOON. It went to Cannes again, this time in Director’s Fortnight. After that I’d told myself that I had to make a feature film.

I spent three years making a comedy/road movie, my feature debut PINOY SUNDAY, totally different from my previous shorts. It won a Golden Horse (Chinese Oscar) Best New Director award. I was stuck with the label of this “young and upcoming director who is good at making comedies” for a long time. After several commissioned short films and TV movies, I went back to the indie/student filmmaking mode again and made CITIES OF LAST THINGS, a film that went through so much financial difficulties and challenging aesthetics that it would fall apart every single minute. It was shown in TIFF platform and won the top prize. So now, with much more confidence, audacity, and experience, I come to TIFF with TERRORIZERS, the most ambitious film of my career.

How did this project come together?

I had so much fun playing with time structure in my previous film CITIES OF LAST THINGS that I decided to do another story that did not follow a linear time structure. I had dug out an old treatment of which I polished into an updated urban story in Taipei with the same challenging time structure as CITIES.

After the small success of my previous film, raising funds this time was a bit easier. Our production company Changhe Films had become savvier about budgeting, working with celebrated talents and attracting more investments: we have nine investors in all.

It was a 180-page script, interwoven plots with six characters, many locations, and only 40 plus shooting days; so my AD and I cut down the script to make it more reasonable within budget. It was shot on time, despite the threat of typhoons and rains. Then the editing was a nightmare process because we had to cut down a three-and-a-half hour rough cut into two hours, the final running time of TERRORIZERS.

What keeps you going while making a project? What drives you?

A certain amount of craziness and stupidity are prerequisites when you’re a filmmaker. For me, there are certain images in my head that I feel I have the obligation to get them out. When I write a story, there is a story in my head and I have to make it happen and watch it materialize in front of me, hopefully becoming a movie that can perhaps resonate with others. This is what makes me so proud: to have someone understand what is in your mind. People watch your film to understand your own perspective of the world.

What was your biggest challenge and what was the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

In Taiwan, lots of young actors have so much potential; they are charismatic and popular. And yet, the local film industry always asks them to perform, behave or appear a certain way with a certain expectation. Their way of acting doesn’t necessarily transform to the big screen aesthetic I ask for. So I have to mold and shape them. I did casting for six characters one year before production started. I wanted them to be realistic and become part of the world I had created. You have to make sure all your actors come from the same world and that no one is better than someone else. Now I look at their performances and think I have done a great job to let people see these are the people who can do different things. They can surprise you and in turn I surprise myself for making them standing out.

I must get on the technical side! I would love to know about the visual design of the movie and how it was made.

I love 35mm film. My last movie CITIES OF LAST THINGS was shot on film. This time, due to the pandemic, it was very hard to access film stock and processing. I was a bit hesitant using a digital medium, but with the recommendation of my DOP Jean-Louis (who also worked on CITIES OF LAST THINGS), the Alexa Large Format camera surprised me…not because it is better than film (it never can be), but because the camera is able to produce images that have the same mysterious soft quality as film which is closer to eyes can see in life.

Of course it comes down to the talent and creativity of the DOP who has a strong technical understanding of the medium. Jean-Louis created specially tailored LUTs on the set and I could see instantly on the monitor what he had in mind. Consequently, in post-production, we spent little time on grading, because everything was pretty much set on the set itself; just like shooting on film, you do lighting in camera right on the set.

I shot-listed most of the shots; I only do a shot-list, never a storyboard. I always like to do something totally different stylistically from my previous films. Previously Jean-Louis and I had shot on film and handheld all the time; this time everything was set on a tripod, static, well composed, and digital.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at TIFF?

I have always enjoyed the interaction with the audience members: the introduction of my films in front of full house; watching the movie with a crowd; breathing collectively in silence; and participating in a Q&A session with a crowd, answering their curious and productive questions. Alas, none of this will happen for me at this year’s TIFF. I’ll have to ask my publicist and co-producer to feel the vibe for me.

Where is the movie going next? More festivals? Theatrical release? Streaming?

TERRORIZERS is the opening film at the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taipei in November. The theatrical release in Taiwan will deploy shortly after. After that, I hope the film will be selected at a couple of more film festivals and have a few more theatrical releases in other territories. Then the film will go on a streaming service to be determined.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or work in the business. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into filmmaking, especially now as things are evolving at such a fast rate?

I would say to them: Are you absolutely sure you want to become a filmmaker? If so, you have to be ready to go past the point of no return.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

THE GODFATHER I and II – That is a two-in-one movie for me.

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