- Max Makowski
- "35. And a half."
- Grew up Brazil, England, Philippines, Peru, Bahrain, Hong Kong, USA, Cuba, and Germany. Now lives in Wan Chai, Hong Kong and and when in NYC, Chinatown.
- Film and TV Writer/director
Your latest film One Last Dance will premiere at Sundance. What can you tell us about it?
It is in Cantonese, but -- aside from two of the leads -- all of the actors speak with strong Singaporean accents. Imagine a French movie made with a gang of Québécoise.
I wrote the screenplay over ten years ago. Back then remnants of my college education still found their way to my thoughts. One specific idea that often came to me was the concept of causation. Primarily the way Hume and Kant talked about it. I was floored by how our relationship with reality was so dependant on our ability to link cause and effect. I decided to write a movie that played with this. Anyway, I better stop here or else risk "ruining" the film.
It’s the first Singaporean film to make it into Sundance. How is it that you set about making a Cantonese film in Singapore?
I live in Hong Kong. It has been my base for over twenty years. When I wrote the movie, aside from P.A. work in LA and NY during summer breaks while at University, my entire film experience had been in Hong Kong. In short, I am a Hong Kong filmmaker. So it only made sense for me to make a Cantonese language movie. I think it would be strange if I had done it in Hong Kong and in Spanish. I also feel Cantonese is a great medium for a gangster-noir film. Like Bossa Nova. If you sing it in Portuguese it just sounds better.
You gathered an impressive international cast, how did you bring everyone -- including Harvey Keitel -- onto the project?
The great thing about Hong Kong is the levels of the movie industry are few. Unlike America or Europe where you have to go through so many people just to get to the people who know the people you want to talk to, everyone in Hong Kong is a phone call away. So getting to Francis Ng, Ti Lung, and Vivian Hsu was as easy as picking up the phone. To get to Harvey Keitel was a bit more of a labyrinthine journey. With a lot of synchronicity and a handful of connections, the script made it to Mr. Keitel. And he liked it.
Is it unusual for Westerners to head East for filmmaking opportunities?
I don't think it is extremely unusual for Westerners to head East for filmmaking opportunities. It is rare but not unusual. My producer is such a case. Most of them, however, leave. They go "home." I don't plan to. I didn't move to Hong Kong to become a director. I was living here and began to work in the industry once I graduated from college. Hong Kong is my home. Hong Kong is my West; going East for me would be heading to Japan. True, I take off once in a while to work in New York or Europe, but I always come back.
You’ve lived all over the world. What brought you from place to place? Do you think your career choices would have been different if you had a more stationary upbringing?
For the first part of my life, it was my parents dragging me from place to place. I guess this constant moving around gave me a perma-wanderlust making me unable to stay in one town too long.
How many languages do you speak, and is Cantonese one of them?
Spanish, Portuguese, a tiny bit of German. I shocked myself and learned Romanian in order to shoot a feature there, but I have now forgotten everything except how to ask for ketchup. I really like ketchup. More then than now. In Bucharest, as a matter of fact, the Heinz bottles come in sizes I have -- to this day -- never seen anywhere else. I took around eight back with me.
And I speak a pinch of Cantonese.
Given that you’re not fluent in Cantonese, how well did you communicate with your cast and crew? Or is film/filmmaking just that universal a language?
Fortunately, most of the cast spoke English. Adding a few Cantonese words to whatever I had to say usually made for clear communication. As for the crew, one usually ends up only saying "hurry up," "get away from me," "no," "yes," "higher," "more to the left," "blue," "you can sleep when you're dead," and I know how to say all of that in Cantonese. "Action" and "cut" are said in English. And anything technical is fundamentally the same in both languages.
Are you particularly versed in Asian cinema?
I have become versed in Asian cinema but only in the last year when I was looking for cast. Before then I rarely watched Asian movies. Don't get me wrong. I didn't steer clear of Asian movies. I watched them as often as I watched any other type of movie.
No specific influences. The one guy who really affected me was Samuel Beckett [the playwright].
This is actually your third film at Sundance -- do you consider yourself a festival veteran now? Will you be attending with certain expectations? Or will this year be different because your film is screening in competition?
I constantly swing from a "been there / done that" attitude to a "this is great / I'm so excited" mood. Nevertheless, I do think being in competition does keep the "festival veteran" at bay.
I have had a film that did extremely well at Sundance and another that was probably the least liked. Recollection of these two diametrically opposite Sundance trips only adds to my Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde emotional seesaw playing havoc on what my expectations are. I can see the accolade. I can see the jeers. Whatever the outcome, I am certain it won't be indifference. I do not think, however, we will win. My film is too silly to ever be given a prize.
Your first film, Pigeon Egg Strategy was shot in Hong Kong. Do you find the industry differs from place to place?
Yes and no. The general concepts of "talented," "incompetent," "cheap," "expensive," "easy," "hard" exist everywhere. How they manifest themselves in each place is entirely different. America has its strengths. Hong Kong has its strengths. To say one is better than the other is to say a tennis ball is better than a tomato -- not true if you're making pasta. I like working here because I am more used to the ways things work here. In Hong Kong, I can avoid the bad and latch on to the good with greater ease.
Well, ok then how are craft services overseas?
We all get a lunch box with white rice and something on top. I am the last to eat so I usually end up with pig's intestine. We also have a tea lady who walks around during the day pouring tea. There are no sit-down lunches, no craft service table. The lead actor, the PA, the producer, everyone -- we all squat on the sidewalk and gobble up our food. Lunch and dinner are 10 to 15 minutes long. That's it.
Both Pigeon Egg Strategy and One Last Dance use a non-linear structure. Is there something about that technique that especially appeals to you? Do you ever wish you could jump back and forth in time?
The Pigeon Egg Strategy and One Last Dance are part of a trilogy that was born from my years of studying philosophy. Okay, before you gag on the apparent pretentiousness of that comment, let me explain. I wrote Franen's Room to deal with identity: What is it that makes us real? I wrote Pigeon Egg to discuss coincidence and the power of language: Is there something that has nothing to do with anything? Can words prescribe reality? And I wrote One Last Dance to deal with cause-and-effect. Because these films were based on questions, not stories, the non-linear structure helped me isolate the "why." If I show you a broken egg, then a man holding the egg, but now it is solid, it is easier to dive into the subject of "why did he break the egg?" If it is linear, you are focusing on the "what." That man with the egg, what is he going to do with it? And, if you want to get into the "why," you have to wait until he breaks it and then usually rely on a mountain of exposition afterwards. So this structure was merely an aid to get to my thesis sentence as fast as possible. God, this sounds pretentious.
Years ago, you cited Plato’s “Republic” as an inspiration. Can you explain how it influenced you into becoming a filmmaker?
And the hole gets deeper. I think my years in England gave me a sense that the world was canonized. You did things certain ways because that is the way everyone else did those things. The "Republic," as well as [Beckett's] Waiting for Godot, threw a wrench into that Weltanschauung. I suddenly realized you could talk about "How a Leopard got its Spots" in a grown-up context. You could philosophize through dialogue. You could do anything. There were no rules. In short, "Republic" bridged my sense of propriety with my desire to play.
So have you completed the trilogy yet?
No, not yet. The first script, Franen's Room, has not been made and probably never will get made. I wrote it in seven days and only one person who read it likes it. Unfortunately, his taste in movies is atrocious.
You’ve also worked as a TV director for shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy which is as far as you can get from a Chinese mafia thriller. How do you reconcile these two sides of yourself?
I think the true value of a director has been destroyed by the "a film by" at the beginning of a movie. It makes us out to be something we are not. A director has to be shapeless. Like water. Or putty. That elevation above the rest of the crew stiffens us. Makes us solid and immobile. It makes us define ourselves by the end product and not the means by which we made the end product. We have become chefs who eat what we make, something that is a problem if you are a vegan and work in a steak house.
Nike commercials, Queer Eye, a Triad movie. They all need a cinematographer, an editor, actors, and a director. These roles don't change, only the end product does.
Do you watch TV? Would you ever be interested in writing/directing a serialized drama?
I hate to say it, but I rarely watch TV. Nevertheless, I have always wanted to direct a serialized drama. For some reason, I have always been keen on the idea of tackling an episode of Law & Order.
Where do you think your next film will take you?
Somewhere in Asia. I am lucky to have already been offered a few more movies. I am now waiting to see which one sticks. So it's a choice between middle-of-nowhere China, Singapore and Malaysia, or Thailand.
Things to know about Max:
Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
Not sure if this is a guilty pleasure, but I obsess about the grilled chicken and red beans they serve at this place in Brooklyn right under the Marcy subway stop. And the feijoada at Casa Restaurant. I'll order two portions and save one for breakfast and lunch the next day.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
Unfortunately, it is gone. The path around the Alice in Wonderland sculpture in Central Park used to be a little uneven, and one of the corners of the paving was slightly elevated. I used to sit on the nearest bench and watch people trip. No children ever tripped, and no one who tripped ever fell over. They just stumbled. With considerable embarrassment, they'd look around to see if anyone noticed their fumble. And there I was. The best time was when three people in the same group tripped, one after the other. Trip. Trip. Trip. You'd think the second and third would have caught on. Anyway, I went back there a few years ago and the sidewalk had been fixed. All the pot holes in New York, and they fix this.
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
I walked by a taxi and noticed the driver was crying. I didn't want to pry but, unable to help myself, I leaned in anyway, and I asked him what was wrong. He told me it was his first day on the job and he didn't know where Gouverneur Lane was. I heard the two passengers talking to each other in German. I assumed they were tourists and therefore unlikely to be freaked out if I helped. So I got in the front of the cab, moved the driver to the passenger seat, and drove the couple downtown.
Max Makowski's latest film One Last Dance will premiere and screen in competition at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 19-29) in Park City, Utah.
-- Lily Oei and Aaron Dobbs