Get a sneak peek into the filming experience of Lizard On The Wall with director K Rajagopal and production designer James Page. Come down for the filming of Lizard On The Wall from 30 June to 2 July for the experience of a lifetime!
Image courtesy of K. Rajagopal
Lizard On The Wall is a film to be made during The O.P.E.N. and made directly with audiences as actors. Why were you inspired by Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel “Inheritance” for Lizard On The Wall? How did you start conceptualising it for The O.P.E.N.?
K. Rajagopal: My films have always dealt with minority communities in Singapore, especially the Indian community, which I am a part of. I was attracted to the book by Balli Kaur Jaswal as it is about a Singaporean Sikh family. Theirs is a struggle to keep the rich traditions alive and dynamic, when customs and morality erode away in the tides of present society. Like many minority groups in Singapore, they are made to conform to labels and stereotypes and made to exist within an inward community set aside on the fringes of the mainstream. These issues are embodied through the complex characters inspired by the novel that draw me to representing them on film.
I wanted to create a work that would allow a live audience the first-hand experience of my process, all the while thinking about the curatorial theme of this year’s festival. This was a challenge for me, which I take as a starting point for my concept. Things fell into place when I remembered a novel that a friend, Daniel Koh, recommended to me some time ago. The story connected with me deeply and I knew it was godsent.
In the book, female protagonist Amrit is forced into an arranged marriage against her will, which was eventually called off. That had set me thinking, what would happen if the wedding was allowed to play out? It is my re-imagination of paths the lives of these characters could have taken, a tangential trajectory I started to develop in my mind in response to the rich material of Balli’s original envisioning.
The wedding, of course, is a very important and sacred ceremony to the Punjabi community and I wanted to invite the festival audience to be a part of this — like guests to a wedding. Song and dance are integral parts of the Punjabi wedding and a natural enchantment to such an experience. The festival audience would be treated to an immersive experience, not as an outsider but as friends and relatives of the family in this grand festivity.
Lizard On The Wall is not your typical arts production, with both audiences and artists as part of the artistic and film-making process. What do you hope this immersive, participatory method brings to the table in the shaping of the story?
KR: This is a film where the gaze of the camera is turned towards the audience for a change. Placed in the spotlight, the audience members become actors and players to the drama unfolding before them. Such blurring of lines between audience and artist fascinates someone like me. I have mostly worked in closed-door environments so this is a chance for me to open up my own practice and expand the horizons of possibilities.
With these new dimensions, I need to also be prepared to let go of my usual scope of control, as more variables enter the picture. Since the audience will come to the set without prior rehearsals, what we try to achieve in that time and space becomes a live process, and how the professional artists react to the audience becomes even more spontaneous and interesting. I am very excited to see what this interplay will result in. Through this method, we are able to witness a more dynamic performance through improvisation — one that will undoubtedly shape the course of the story in the final analysis.
Can you describe the process for this production?
KR: Once audience members have registered, they will be given specific instructions on their wardrobe. The audience members come as guests. Meanwhile, we also have culturally specific costumes designed by costume designer Meredith Lee. These will lend authenticity to the result of the film and also allow for a more embodied experience for the audience, playing either friend or guest of the family attending the wedding.
Audience members will be instructed to arrive at the designated pick-up point. From there, they will be brought to an undisclosed location where the shooting will take place. This location is a historic bungalow where the wedding is set and a character in itself. Our production designer James Page will transform the original space into a site of spectacle and enchantment, giving life to Balli’s words. Be prepared to encounter surrealistic elements translated from the novel. This is done over long discussions with the author and also after consulting experts, such as Harvinder Kaur of the Central Sikh Gurdwara, who has advised us on the intricacies involving Sikh weddings.
Specific scenes have been crafted for each shooting session and will require the participation of the audience. With the help of my assistant directors, we will prepare the audience on set and get them ready for the role. They will not only experience being directed on a film set, but also experience working under the masterful eye of Hideho Urata, our cinematographer.
Hideho is a long-time collaborator of mine, and I know he has a sensitivity to the space in relation to the actors and a keen intuition in capturing the nuances of their performances. This will be crucial given the short span of time we will need to achieve this, and it is a privilege to, once again, work alongside someone like him.
Produced and managed by Fran Borgia, who is one of the most experienced and accomplished film producers in Singapore, the production will run like a professional film set and allow the audience to experience this process in all its essence and intensity.
The film is set in a sprawling house. Conceptually, the rooms on the second floor are designed like an installation. How would you describe that installation and why were they designed this way?
James Page: It’s important that we treat the wedding almost within the realm of when a stranger or family member goes to a wedding. They are always presented with the best version of a family. A wedding is as much a wedding to marry your children off but also to represent your family as best as it can be. Quite often, what a guest doesn’t see or have revealed to them is the inner complexity of the personal relationships within the close family. By putting the wedding in the garden and on the ground floor of the house, what we are trying to do is to enable the upper floor of the house to be this revelation into the mindscape of each member of the close family.
The key family members are the father and his children, son Narain and daughter Amrit. These three characters play very strongly within the book. By going upstairs, we are enabling both the film and the live experience to become almost a surreal realm, where each individual room is almost a voyeuristic glimpse into the minds of those characters. So the father’s room looks like his obsessed nature, in regard to furiously writing letters, which is his own release within his bipolar mindscape. We also get a glimpse of his wife, who we believe may have died while giving birth to Amrit. The wife is not real or alive, but in his mind, she comes to the room every night.
Narain’s room hints that his father has put a lot of his fatherly duties on him because of his inability to control his daughter. On the floor are unopened letters still in their envelopes sent to him from his father while he was in university. A pivotal point of Narain’s character development in the book is a moment he goes to a backyard barber and cuts his hair, which, in the Sikh religion, is a very bold statement against his tradition, religion and father. The room has the barber’s chair, the hair and the letters he never opened.
The architecture of the house then lends itself to how, while these rooms are parallel, Amrit’s room is at the back of the house. She is bipolar and the most obviously bipolar member of the family throughout the book. Her way of release is almost like a sex addiction. Her room has a four-poster bed, which is symbolic sexually. Having had a relationship with almost all the construction workers in her neighbourhood, she describes how she wants to sink into the soil and dirt. So, the bed, although beautiful in appearance will have a mattress covered in soil. And it’s this writhing in the dirt within the context of a four-poster bed that relates her character.
When you come out of all these rooms, at the top of the stairs is the hall, which isn’t particular to any one character. In the book, the description of the father’s relationship with the children are these shards of glass, his words. And so, the room windows within this hall will be lined with smashed mirrors. So when the characters and the audience look out of the house, they are both looking at themselves smashed in shards but also getting a glimpse of the wedding outside. It’s a fractured image of the wedding – this environment in which the characters reveal themselves. To a degree, it even reveals the camera, which is a link at the end of the film; whether we show the camera that the audience knows is there is also captured in the film.
And the film is very much inspired by the book.
JP: Raja took the book as an inspiration and he diverged. The wedding is not in the book, it’s different. However, the characters and their mental state are very much privileging the book. So, the rooms and the house are a foundation and an insight into their mental states.