Interview by Andreea Boyer // Edited by Chris Charles of Idol Features
Luke Luoh is a filmmaker who has been looking to return to his roots in narrative films, after 18 years in advertising, and exercise his own unique voice and perspective instead of applying it purely on his clients’ commercials. Mr. Luoh comes to us with his latest short film, the psychological horror, Ostinato (a nominee for Best Horror Film and Best Editor in the upcoming Mabig Film Festival). We sat down with him for a quick interview, and with a director’s statement like; “Never be complacent; Never drink your own poison,” we know we will be looking forward to what he does next.
Andreea Boyer: What can you tell us about yourself and where are you from?
Luke Luoh: I’ve been calling myself TBCBC for decades, which is “Taiwan Born Canadian Bred Chinese,” having grown up in Canada, and working in Shanghai, China for the last 18 years or so. The team for Ostinato, who were all heavily involved in the creative process, are a strange mix of Americans, Canadians, Chinese, French, Hongkonese, Ukrainians, and Russians. I’m still amazed at how well we all worked together.
Andreea Boyer: Have you been working in the film industry mainly in your country or also somewhere else around the globe?
Luke Luoh: Well, I have worked for a very short amount of time after art school in the film industry in British Columbia, Canada, as a production assistant of course, before I moved to Shanghai. Working in advertisement in Shanghai in the early-to-mid-2000s means a lot of bigger budget international access and flying around globally for shoots or post-production. It’s a bit of a shame that the international productions have really slowed down to a crawl in China in the last seven to eight years.
Andreea Boyer: How did you start your career as a filmmaker and what has motivated and inspired you?
Luke Luoh: Well, you don’t start a career in filmmaking, right? There are too many factors at play and too many situations that you can’t control, so you work hard to try to be prepared and be at the right place at the right time. As far as inspirations, mine comes really from everywhere, from the super classic academic and international films, to the experimental films of the 50s and 60s, to modern blockbusters. A good idea is a good idea, and in this post-modern world, it’s all about how you mash different, originally disjointed, concepts together to hopefully create something coherent and interesting. I guess I’m a Situationist International at heart, philosophically. Look them up if you don’t know of them. They have an interesting view of societal interactions as “performances.”
As to my formative years, it was sheer luck that I spent most of my teenage years in Montreal, where it used to have an amazing video rental scene in the 90s. They still have an excellent student rate for films and film festivals, even today. Being able to afford to watch 15-plus films a week, on average, for five to six years, was instrumental in filling my then underdeveloped brains with hopes and dreams.
Andreea Boyer: When did you start your career as a filmmaker and has filmmaking always been your main focus?
Luke Luoh: Always, without a question, since 16, which I guess is a bit late. I didn’t turn full-time director until 2012 though, and even then, it was mainly for advertisement. Ostinato was the result of a series of experiments for me to try to get back to the narrative filmmaking. It’s a short film of course, and produced under the 48 Hour Film Project competition framework, so it really won’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but for me, it was an important confirmation that “I know what I’m doing in the narrative world.”
Andreea Boyer: What can you tell us about the cast and story from your movie?
Luke Luoh: Well, it took me and Viktor Chan, my partner-in-crime for Ostinato, more than two months to pull the team together. As with all 48 hour-style film challenges, there were last minute drop-outs and additions to the team, but we were super lucky that the team that we ended up with for that weekend gelled like they’ve been working on a few indie projects together. Our lead actor, Barret Coates, was a last-minute addition to the team, and he helped tremendously with grounding all the other actors. Our location sound mixer “Sid” and sound designer “Benji” were also late additions to the team, but they worked incredibly hard, are super experienced, and were able to elevate the production, soundwise, to a real professional level.
Storywise, we had some requirements from the competition organizers like genres, character, dialogue, and props, so the team spent three to four hours just throwing ideas at each other, and three to four hours trying to pull together the story elements we’ve got into a coherent script. We’ve voted on about 30-plus main elements, as a team, and whittled it down to four to five, before Paul (our screenwriter, also a late addition) and I went to work trying to shape the actual story, so it all makes sense. It was fun sometimes to just go by instincts, because we don’t have the time to overthink the script to death. We had some locations and actors, a very creative crew, but before we started that weekend, none of us knew what we were going to do. It was a bit of luck that we all agreed on an approach for the story, the visuals style, and its hidden elements, as in what we should show or hide from the audience, relatively quickly between Barret, Anastasiia, our editor and first A.D., and Alexander, our Director of Photography. It just all came together miraculously.
Ostinato is structurally a series of pieces of “nano” shorts in a large “micro” short, linked to a reveal that hopefully twists everything before it. The hard parts throughout the writing, shooting, and editing of the film was to hold back on expositions, to try to intentionally confuse the audience in the first two “acts” of it. It was hard to suppress the urge to explain “our version” of the story to the audience directly, but I think we were largely successful in that.
Andreea Boyer: Where did you film your movie?
Luke Luoh: Shanghai, China, but it doesn’t look like how people picture it in their minds, if they haven’t been here before physically. It’s a real cosmopolitans city that unfortunately isn’t that production friendly, as far as independent films are concerned, but you can really find everything here if you look hard enough and be tenacious enough.
Andreea Boyer: What can you tell us about your other films and work ?
Luke Luoh: Not much can be said about my daily grind, unfortunately. Directing for advertisements is about using the best of your ability to ensure what the clients want to say gets said properly, so it’s not fully your own voice. I find independent narratives incredibly liberating, but since it’s your own voice, the risk of it being unchecked and wrong is infinitely bigger as well. Thankfully, the team on Ostinato is never shy at telling me where I was mistaken, and occasionally call on my bullshit as well. People like that are worth more than their weight in gold I think, for a director.
Andreea Boyer: What can you tell us about your best experiences and which moments in your career have been the most influential ones for you?
Luke Luoh: Well, almost every project I’ve done, there’s a moment of sudden clarity that happens, when you are either standing on the top of a remote mountain, or in the private access corridor of a museum or concert hall, for example. You realize for a moment that there is really nothing like the life of a filmmaker. We do wild and illogical things, bend backwards for a small effect, work long hours just to catch that impossible moment on camera. Not many industries have that much passion, and touches so many facets of the world, I think. It’s also a very human industry, where it’s really all about the people you surround yourself with. Imagine spending 24/7 with a crew, and seeing them more than your family and friends, on a production. The amounts of good-natured shenanigans are incredible, but also healthy if you can achieve that balance of irreverence while everyone still does what they need to do to get the film done. A good crew is almost more than family.
My career is nothing fantastic, but I’ll always remember what one of my bosses said to me when I first entered the industry; “If you are the closest person to solving a problem on a shoot, and you know your solution is absolutely correct, just go solve it! Don’t worry about politics and unions and hierarchies, that comes later. Filmmaking is about solving problems, and once all the problems are solved, your film is done.”
Andreea Boyer: What moments on the film-set have been the most difficult ones for you?
Luke Luoh: On a “normal” shoot, the difficulties of a director are always to keep true to what you see in your head when you were in pre-production or writing stages while everything around you changes. The actor may be reading the character differently, the lighting may be taking longer to set up, the prop may break. The hardest thing is always about how to adjust on the fly, double checking your decisions quickly, while remembering how it would all fit together at the end in the edit. Remember, if the director stops thinking and moving, everything on the shoot stops as well, and on an independent production, you simply don’t have the luxury to hide away for a couple of hours to gather your thoughts and clear your head as a director.
For Ostinato, it was all about the time limit put on the project by the 48 Hour Film Project rules. We were also dumb enough, or maybe more accurately, audacious enough, to try to do special effect makeup for four actors in the same scene, in under 48 hours. True filmmakers are all a bit crazy and over-ambitious, always biting off probably more than we should, but we got it done on time, thankfully.
Andreea Boyer: What advise can you give to all young independent filmmakers on how they should work on their goals and reach the best audience for their individual work?
Luke Luoh: In the immortal words of Captain Jason Nesmith of Galaxy Quest; “Never give up, never surrender!” (laughs) Really though, filmmaking is hard, but the satisfaction of a job well done, with the friends you’ve made along the way, is extremely rewarding. These days, with so many international film festivals all with a few clicks of a mouse to access and submit on platforms like Film Freeway, self-distributing platforms like Youtube, social media that is more and more video-based, and increasingly easy to use tools that are cheaper to buy or rent everyday, there’s really no excuse to not do something to express yourself. If you create something you personally like and believe in, then chances are there’s an audience out there for it as well.
Probably the best advice I can give to young filmmakers, while it may sound a bit cliché, is to just go out and shoot something, edit it together, and look at it. Everyone’s got a camera phone these days, so start there! If you don’t do it at all, you will never improve. If you don’t do it, and don’t fail, you won’t know where you are inadequate, or where you shine. Be self aware when you do it, knowing you can always improve on the next project. You’ve grown up with so much media around you from birth, so you should already know that you have all the preparations you need for a good story, and know the language of films instinctively, so just go do it! No excuses!
Thank you, Mr. Luoh. We wish you continued success.