The first time I met Nicholas Chee was at the 48 Hours Film Competition. My classmates and I decided to venture into film competitions. And so after registering for the 48 Hours Film Competition, our team was told to go to what seemed like a warehouse to commence the contest. As a non-Singaporean I did not know that the energetic, enthusiastic man with long hair calling out the teams and rules was Nicholas Chee, the co-producer for the event who happened to be a very accomplished man, having won multiple awards throughout his career.
Given this, when we were informed that Nicholas Chee was to come to LASALLE’s The Puttnam School of Film for a seminar with the BA (Hons) Film students, what was I to expect? With a resumé as impressive as his, one would think that he would embody an intimidating character. Alas, he was still the vigorous and fervent man I met at that same warehouse; cracking jokes every so often, who to our delight gave an honest, personal account of working as a producer.
Like most of us, Nicholas Chee had difficultly with choosing what career path he wanted to assume. At first he thought he would become a scientist but felt that Singapore was not conducive for science. So he then went on to pursue music, then engineering, and at some point became enthusiastically invested in gaming with one of our lecturers, from which we all had a good laugh. He also didn’t hesitate to leave out the fact that they were the “top” gamers in Singapore (to which he also added that every gamer claims they’re the top.) It wasn’t until he went to Polytechnic that he discovered his keen interest in photography. Although it was a journey to discover his passion, he said that without having gone through all of this, he probably would not have been a producer today.
He then went on to covering two of his primary subjects for the seminar: producing and Project Utter. Before commencing however, he added caution that he “is not qualified to give us the academics on film” because he “never went to film school.” The humble nature residing in him made him that much more remarkable to listen to. He communicated with the students on an intimate level talking about his own personal experiences, which to me was refreshing.
He was one of the founding partners of Sinema and told us that the intention of its establishment was to provide a venue for the screening and promotion of Singapore’s independent films. From the photographs he showed, it looked like a place any film lover would dream of going to. With its red couches that give it the nostalgic and intimate feel instead of individual seating like in conventional screening theatres, Sinema reflects Chee himself. Being an affable person, he speaks with such genuineness, evoking a warm familiarity in his tone. Sinema has an overall “chilled” appearance where film viewers could relax with a cold beer in hand in the comfort of the comfiest red seats.
To my dismay, I will not be able to enjoy what looked like an enchanting film viewing experience. Due to the realisation that there weren’t enough films to screen, Sinema closed down. As an indirect call to action, the team instead decided to solve their initial dilemma and focus on helping the production of Singaporean films. Thus, Flying Kick Asia was born.
When talking about his first feature film Becoming Royston, which had been nominated for Best Script, Best Cinematography and Best actor at the Asian Festival of First Films as well as being the official selection for three film festivals, Nicholas became animated yet at the same time embarrassed to talk about it stating that it makes him cringe.
The film is about an island boy who moves to the mainland in hopes of becoming a filmmaker, and by chance obtains Royston Tan’s ID and impersonates him. Nicholas definitely had a lot to say about directing his first feature film, but appeared uncomfortable due to the laurels praising the film at the top of the poster. “It doesn’t matter what the praises between the laurels state. People will automatically think it’s good.” His modest attitude seemed striking, especially since his film has been acknowledged and nominated for awards even without having finished the film, which he says he hopes to do in 2016.
Between April and August of 2014, Nicholas had a very hectic task before him as one of the producers for Utter, a Singapore Writers Festival.
Utter is a Singaporean film initiative that supports local writers by adapting their stories into short films. The project which spans four films, has four directors, four cinematographers, four stories, and in four languages. At first it was indicated that at least one of the films had to be in a different language than English, to which Nicholas replied “How about having them all in different languages?” This was not only to challenge himself, but to take these stories deeper and closer to home as Singapore is a multilingual country and to try and engage and identify with the whole Singapore community.
One can only imagine how chaotic it must be to produce four shot films simultaneously, but he managed to do what seems like an impossible task and did an extraordinarily great job. Not only did he produce the films, he even made cameo appearances in all four as a man in white smoking a cigarette, thus knitting all four films into one universe.
With every screening of Utter a viewer gets a free book that includes the original short stories, profiles on the directors, authors, and screenwriters, as well as the scripts, directors’ notes and even story board art. It’s a rare gem to find so much creative processing in one book and to have it for all four films blew my mind.
I had the privilege of attending Utter’s screening, and after the formal Q&A session, my friends and I met him just to pick his brain for a bit. He was courteous to spend additional time with us and to satisfy our dying questions in the most thorough way he could.
He ended the seminar by saying that if he could have the opportunity to help more filmmakers, he would. He would help with the production and make sure that it sees exhibition. Throughout the entire seminar he persisted that it’s okay for us to make mistakes and in fact, the more mistakes we make the better, admitting that he too has made an innumerable amount of mistakes (and that if he were to go in depth with us about it, it’d be a whole other lecture altogether). He then proceed by saying that if he had not made those mistakes, he wouldn’t be standing before us at this very moment.
And to that, we are grateful to Nicholas Chee for having made those mistakes, because we wouldn’t have had one of the most insightful and intimately honest accounts of a man’s love for film; how he kept preserving with every endeavor he took, and how easy it all looks when you’re that passionate about something.
Zuki Juno Tobgye is a Year Two BA (Hons) Film student at the Puttnam School of Film. She enjoys crafting, creating and watching films. In her spare time she loves going to the cinema, nature, reading and spending time with family and animals.