At this point we’ve finished shooting for the GV25 Film Shorts Competition. But I only dare to say “finish shooting” because we’ve locked picture, and I don’t want to tempt fate and it’s the Seventh Month and yes la I am a bit pantang because when it comes to production, anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
Also, the title of my short film changed so many times until someone from GV had to say “Congratulations for finalising your title!” Oops.
So here’s how rehearsal/script read day went for Raffles v Utama: Dawn of Singapore! But first, here’s an introduction to the characters in the short film.
Who’s who in Raffles v Utama: Dawn of Singapore
I think that at least two of the characters should be obvious from the title, but here they are! Ladies first.
Xing (played by Ning Cai)
Xing is a high-strung student who’s used to scoring straight A’s and handing everything in super early. So you can see why it’s a problem when, well, she discovers that there’s a major project she hasn’t done.
I met Ning at a good friend‘s party, and I was like here was a real actress who was eloquent (I’m very particular about this and I’m thankful that all my cast speaks English properly), suited the role, and she was there, in person, and OMG she agreed to help on that day itself because I was really very nervous when I asked. And of course, she’s pretty. 😀
Chandra (played by Divitra Sukumaran)
Chandra wants to be an influencer, and it’s just unfortunate that, well, studies get in the way. But unlike many wannabe influencers, she’s actually pretty savvy and knows what would make her shoot to popularity. That is, if she can record it.
I met Divitra during my auditions, and she could pull off the sassy, snarky Instagrammer persona without looking mean-spirited. That was really important, that she be likeable but a diva at the same time. She could roll her eyes and mouth off and snap her fingers, but she would still come across as friendly and cheerful. It also helps that she is genuinely friendly and cheerful in real life.
Cleaning Auntie (played by Flora Yeo)
Like all cleaning aunties, this Cleaning Auntie (uppercase C and A) is a vital but often overlooked member of the cast. Nobody really notices the Cleaning Auntie, but her presence is always felt when it comes to cleaning up messes.
Flora is a real-life friend and in the short film, her theatre background is evident (plus she’s going to get certification in that soon). Her role was small but significant, like her in real life, and I’m so thankful that she was game to be turned into this horrible-looking old woman on screen (not many people would be willing to play an unglamorous character).
Alvin (played by Nat Ho)
Alvin is a nerdy gamer who likes all sorts of pop culture (because I like all sorts of pop culture). He would actually fare pretty well in school if not for the fact that games are so much more interesting than Social Studies.
I met Nat a long time ago when I was still at Mediacorp, and he’s one of the humblest people I’ve met. I’m very, very grateful that he came on board (I’m sure you know that) for this project and his experience, on and off-camera, shows. For me, a person who’s not had a lot of on-set experience, this was really valuable.
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (played by Arnaud Pierre)
Bet you didn’t know Raffles’ first name was Thomas, right? In this depiction he’s a pompous aristocrat (I say “this depiction” because there are different historical accounts of him) who, like every real Singaporean, is damn competitive.
I met Arnaud during my auditions, and coincidentally also emailed him around the same period for an article I was writing. He’s an actual theatre teacher (he teaches improv) and added a lot of smaller actions and quirks to Raffles, while still maintaining this stiff upper lip and haughty demeanour.
Sang Nila Utama (played by Syawal Yusoff)
I know that technically, he shouldn’t be called “Utama”, but of all the three parts of his name (“Sang”, “Nila”, and “Utama”), “Utama” is the least inappropriate one to use. Being a literal prince (and then king of Singapura), he’s a little… spoilt.
I met Syawal during my auditions, and his delivery was exactly how I wanted Utama to sound (for plot reasons, he has to speak in a particular way). In comparison, he’s quite fluent in real-life, so I was always a bit unsettled when he spoke normally (because it sounded unnatural to me that he was talking like a regular person).
The stars aligned
Originally, we couldn’t get all the five main cast members together in the same room, so I opted to have the three students in another script read/rehearsal, and the founders (and the Cleaning Auntie) on another script read/rehearsal.
Then lo and behold – everybody could make it on the same day. At around the same time. It was like magic. I was so grateful that everyone took time out in the middle of the day to do this. It was like the stars aligned (because they are literally stars).
I apologise for this terrible pun.
By right, I should have a script read and then a rehearsal
Here’s how the writing process normally goes for a comedy. First, the writer will write the script and then everyone will say it is not funny or that there are too many lewd jokes (or maybe that only just applies to me).
Then there’ll be a punch-up – meaning that as many people as possible (cast and crew included) will do a script read, and give their feedback on jokes that work or don’t work, since what looks good on paper doesn’t always sound that great when spoken. There will also be suggestions on what jokes can be added, so the poor writer will be scribbling things down like mad. This helps to make the script punchier, hence it’s called a punch up.
After that there’ll be a script read by the cast, where the poor writer will listen out for any lines that might be a mouthful (and rewrite them), and tweak the voicing accordingly.
Finally, when the script is in its final draft (hahaha just kidding, there’s always a revision or two to be made), the director will rehearse with the actors.
By left, I had no time
But… I didn’t have that luxury. I tried to show my script to as many people as possible, to as wide a variety of people as possible, to get as much feedback from different angles as I could. And it was important that people were honest about the parts of the script that didn’t work, and thank you, everyone, who read it and critiqued it truthfully and kindly. So that kind of served as my punch-up.
But I didn’t actually hear all five main characters read their lines until this rehearsal day.
Reading without emotions
I did have an earlier script read with the founders, where we blocked some positions and also fine-tuned some lines (and got some translated) (thanks Syawal!). However, we didn’t have enough people, so Sharon (producer) and I delivered the students’ lines.
I was once advised that during a punch-up/script read (basically, as long as the actors weren’t reading the script), everyone should read the lines in as boring a tone as possible. This was so that you could actually see whether the dialogue was funny in and of itself, rather than thinking the dialogue was funny because someone delivered it in a funny way.
So I tried to be boring during the first read.
And yes, the founders came down twice for for the rehearsals. I really appreciated this.
I think it’s terrible to have a comedy which nobody laughs at, so I was damn terrified that nobody would laugh during the script read. That would mean
a. a huge rewrite
b. I wrote a very boring comedy
c. I would have to hold another script read again
But thankfully, yes! We had laughs. Ning brought chocolates for everyone. And slowly, everyone warmed up (including me) (I think) (I don’t know, I’m socially awkward, I can’t tell).
A tight space
We had to finish everything in two hours, and if you see the agenda (yes I’m damn fussy that way) on the board it was quite a bit to cover. But we did it! We had a few script reads, and once all questions were answered and doubts were clarified, we actually had time to go ahead with rehearsals and some blocking, meaning that we could go through their positions in the classroom.
The bulk of the short film takes place in the classroom (not a set, if it were a set we might have three walls only and hence a lot of space), so it was useful to know who would be standing where at which point in the script. Classrooms are, you know, generally not built for shooting comedies, so I was worried it would be a bit of a squeeze.
But it turned out okay on shoot day (I think) (I also apologise to everyone who compressed themselves into corners during the shoot itself).
When we timed the rehearsals, it seemed to fit quite neatly into the 10-minute time limit.
In reality, of course, the first cut was a lot longer than that.
Very kan cheong
I was kind of kan cheong so my notes ended up on two different scripts. It was quite a pain to carry them both around after that so I tried to copy all the notes down into one script, although that ended up yet another script that was half annotated.
We got some stares. I think it must have been a pretty interesting day for whoever walked past. Someone even got recognised! I think it’s pretty obvious who la.
So this was rehearsal day! And it went well.
And thanks Joyous Learning for letting me mess up the place for the rehearsals!
And my hashtag is #RafflesVUtama if you want to check it out on Instagram!
I’m a Singapore television scriptwriter who’s written for Crimewatch, Police & Thief, Incredible Tales, and Point of Entry. I’m also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find me on social media as Optimarcus and on my site.
Send me an email if you want to get in touch!