Mike Wiluan is in between fixes. For the better part of the last few years, he has been living in a 19th-century Indonesian town where the heroes ride buffaloes, hurl kris daggers at adversaries and rescue damsels from dastardly colonial oppressors. It is a world he dreamt up for the movie Buffalo Boys as well as Grisse, an eight-episode HBO series that is set in the same universe.
“You go through many months of two or three hours of sleep daily; fighting, loving and crying every day. You go through these ups and downs and the project finishes and though it was a nightmare of a project, it was exhilarating,” says Wiluan, the chief executive officer of media company Infinite Studios, which operates film studios in Singapore and Batam. He wrote, produced and directed both back-to-back projects.
Right now, he is back in limbo, the real world, as he awaits the green light to start another film. “There’s withdrawal symptoms. You wake up and eat cereal and you think, ‘I should have had four hours of drama by now, I wish I was back on set.’ You get hooked on it and that becomes your way of life and you can’t go back to normal life.”
Which is why he is here sipping a dram of whisky in the makeup chair at this magazine’s photo studio, right after hopping off the ferry from Batam where one of the company’s studios is located, as the styling and photography teams bustle around him in preparation for this cover shoot.
Not that the 42-year-old Singapore permanent resident needs much help getting photo-ready. With a perfectly groomed goatee, a body full of tattoos – he proudly shows off the elaborate ink on his forearms – and a crisp British accent from years of education in the United Kingdom, he possesses buckets of magnetic Hollywood bad-boy charm, a la Robert Downey Jr.
NASI GORENG WESTERN
But, while Wiluan lights up the camera, his happy place is in fact behind it. His directorial debut this year Buffalo Boys, which he describes as a “western in the colonial historical context of Indonesia”, is Singapore’s submission to this year’s Academy Awards in the Foreign Language Film category. Created with a budget of under US$3 million (S$4.1 million), it is the story of two brothers who grew up in America, before returning to Dutch-occupied Java to seek revenge for the death of their parents.
“People don’t make westerns in this part of the world. I wanted to see how I can make an interesting story that makes sense so I used Indonesian history and filled it with interesting facts about colonialism,” he says.
As arguably Singapore’s most high-profile movie producer – he was the local co-producer for last year’s surprise hit Crazy Rich Asians – he is used to pulling out the stops to make things happen. Once, he recalls, he had to pretend to be a sultan, complete with an entourage in tow, to get a recalcitrant Hollywood actor to toe the line on set. “It was the only way to get him to behave,” says Wiluan, with a shrug and a grin.
“I should have had four hours of drama by now, I wish I was back on set.”
Mike Wiluan, on the withdrawal symptoms between films
He faced a whole new world of unusual obstacles to overcome when he filmed Buffalo Boys on location in Indonesia, where bewildered locals knew zilch about the film industry. For instance, he had to constantly remind the extras who played the villagers not to stare at the camera while it was rolling.
Then, there was the potentially disastrous situation when he realised the local fixers had brought him tame, bucolic cows for the film. “I wanted water buffaloes with the horns,” he says. He eventually got what he wanted but the buffaloes turned out to be “the most stubborn animals I have ever dealt with”.
“I’m never going to make another film with an animal in the title,” he says.
Still, it is all par for the course when breaking new ground. “I don’t want to follow the path that’s been trodden on. The industry in South-east Asia is growing. It doesn’t have the history of Hollywood or the volume yet but, as one of the largest emerging markets globally, it has the potential to do both soon,” he says. “And we are shooting in jaw-droppingly beautiful locations with waterfalls and deserts. It is enough to make your heart stop.”
MAKING AN ENTRANCE
In a way, Wiluan has always been creating fantasy dreamscapes for audiences. His annual birthday bashes in Batam, where his family owns a resort, were the stuff of legend. Once one of the most anticipated events on Singapore’s social calendar, those events would see society’s finest hopping on the ferry at Tanah Merah to travel to the Indonesian island to immerse themselves in cinematic decadence. Previous themes were Tarzan and Indiana Jones. The highlight of those nights was invariably his grand entrance, often in the most outlandish manner possible, whether by flying fox or as a human cannonball – against the backdrop of a lavish fireworks display. “I’d be half drunk by then,” he says. “We would choose themes like Clash of the Titans, create sets and people would come and believe they were in this world.”
But about five years ago, the father of three – twin daughters and a son, now 10 and 3, respectively – put an end those shindigs as he had come to feel that they were “very indulgent”. “One party was the cost of nearly a film,” he says, although he declines to reveal exact figures. At the time, he organised them as a way to showcase the technical wizardry his production studio was capable of. “Batam has always been underestimated and overlooked. It wasn’t about ostentatiousness but creating this crazy world you live in for a night,” he says. “That’s what we do in the films – the actors get in character for their roles and inhabit this universe.”
Still, those bashes do exist today, albeit in a slightly different form. “We call them wrap parties.”
I LOVE MY VHS
Wiluan can trace his love for movie magic to his childhood. Back then, his father, Kris Taenar Wiluan, chairman of conglomerate Citramas, also owned a video distribution business. The young Wiluan, together with his younger brother Richard, was tasked to rewind the VHS tapes that customers had returned. He became enthralled by the macho classics. “The western format has always interested me,” he says. “Clint Eastwood was the quintessential hero with a mysterious, menacing persona. I also watched John Wayne films and spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone.”
“When I was younger, I was less patient; when you are less patient, you don’t deserve as much. You rush towards an ideal that comes with the inexperience of youth.”
Although his family business is predominantly in the oil and gas industry, his parents had no qualms allowing their middle son (he has an older sister, Angeline) to follow his dreams. He went to film school in Kent University in the United Kingdom, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in film and television, before going on to dabble in acting and modelling in Singapore.
In 2004, with an investment from his father and some partners, he bought over a small production house in Batam and grew it into Infinite Studios, an award-winning production company. A decade later, Infinite Studios opened Singapore’s first two state- of-the-art sound stages at Mediapolis that feature digital production capabilities and services such as post-production, visual effects and animation. Hollywood films such as Equals and Agent 47 were filmed in the Singapore facilities.
At the same time, he also threw his weight behind local productions; he was executive producer for notable films including Boo Junfeng ’s Sandcastle and Royston Tan’s 881. Wiluan and writer-director Eric Khoo also operate a joint venture, Gorylah Pictures, to produce genre features.
Khoo, who first worked with Wiluan on Khoo’s 2005 film Be With Me, says: “When I first met Mike ages ago, I thought, ‘What a dandy guy! I’ve got to have him cameo on my film.’” That opportunity came when Khoo needed a Romeo-type to make an advance on a character in Be With Me. “Mike turned on the charm and nailed the scene.”
It was Khoo who gave him a nudge in the right direction after reading the script for Buffalo Boys. He says: “I visited him on set – he’s got a good vision, pacing and tone. He’s also a very hard worker and was sweating it out on the ground with everybody else. I don’t think I could have lasted.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
That hard slog has paid off. An entertaining romp through a semi-fictionalised version of Indonesian history, Buffalo Boys is, Wiluan believes, rightfully Singapore’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards. “It’s about producing content globally with Singaporean talents. Infinite Studios is a Singapore company, Singaporeans worked on its production and the entire post-production was managed here,” he says.
It has taken Wiluan almost 20 years in show business before he finally realised his childhood ambition of becoming a movie director. But that long route was necessary for him to mellow. He says: “When I was younger, I was less patient; when you are less patient, you don’t deserve as much. You don’t take time to digest the ambience and atmosphere, you just want to rush towards an ideal that comes with the inexperience of youth.”
His parents, while always supportive, started viewing his work in a new light only after they flew to New York where they saw him doing interview rounds of Buffalo Boys and attending the opening. He says: “They’ve begun to realise that this is its own product. I’ve been in the limelight so much for so many different things but this is the one thing that is more soulful to me, because this is what I want to do.”
It is some validation for this former wild child. While he does have a pool of investors, his family sometimes invests in his films as well. He says: “We need to put our money where our mouth is but we can’t finance everything. Ultimately, my work and capability need to stand on its own feet.”
Meanwhile, the western has come to South-east Asia.
THE MOVIES THAT MADE THE MAN
MIKE WILUAN ON THE FILMS AND DIRECTORS THAT SHAPED HIS VISION.
“All of Clint Eastwood’s movies; Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, especially The Dollars Trilogy. A lot of Quentin Tarantino’s films, from Reservoir Dogs to Django Unchained, because there were great characters.”
“I love Stanley Kubrick’s films. I studied Orson Welles in school and it would be very cliched for me to say it but Citizen Kane is a very good film. There are some very memorable classic movies (from which) you learn the art of storytelling and suspense like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Psycho.”
“I love the bravado of Baz Luhrmann films like The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge. Also Alfonso Cuaron who did Gravity.”
“I’m really into gangster movies like those by Hong Kong filmmakers John Woo and Johnnie To. Also Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese’s movies.”
“Raging Bull by Martin Scorsese; it is a masterpiece of transformation.”
WORK IN PROGRESS
THE TATTOOS ON MIKE WILUAN’S BODY TELL THE STORY OF HIS VARIED INSPIRATIONS AND HIS LIFE.
Mike Wiluan’s body is his living canvas. Since his first tattoo at the age of 15, the filmmaker has been gradually adding ink to his arms, back, chest and parts of his legs. Although they look like a continuous design, they have actually been inked over the years. “Instead of sitting in one studio saying I want that one design and sit there for hours, then come back a few days in a row, I’d rather go around the world and get a patchwork done,” he says.
For example his right forearm features images of a Native American warrior, gun and cougar. “I was doing a lot of work on Buffalo Boys and westerns play a big part in my life so these are the strong thematics,” he says. To fill in the spaces, he added smaller motifs, but with an Asian twist, such as peonies and dragonflies to blend with the Japanese woodblock- inspired waves on his right bicep. He says, “There is a strong hybrid of Asian and Western images; it references a mix of cultures.”
To achieve this, Wiluan carves out time to visit various studios around the world when he travels, such as Broken Heart Studio in Los Angeles and Studio Muscat in Tokyo. “I have key tattoo artists from different parts of the world who will do the block work and other artists who fill in the thematics. Each artist connects with the others and each artist would respect the others’ works,” he says.
“Over a period of eight to 10 years, you slowly patch it together and in total it forms a bigger story.”
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