How To Make a Feature Film in Malaysia

The Malaysian federal government is actually quite willing to help you out in making your feature film. They will kindly do a lot of your work for you themselves.

To produce a feature film in Malaysia, just follow these easy steps:

First: In order to get your filming permit, submit your script to a government agent. He or she will kindly rewrite it for you. This saves you the trouble of coming up with your final draft.

Second: While you are shooting your film, one or more government agents will continually advise you on how you should make your film. This is because certain types of content are  strictly forbidden by, well, not exactly by law, but by, uh, somebody, somewhere who's kind of important.

Finally: You must submit your finished film to the official censors, so it can be cut in many places to conform to whatever they want it to. This saves you the extra work and effort of doing the final cut yourself.

As you can see, the federal government in this democratic country will kindly lend you all kinds of helping hands, except with financing and distribution. However, as any film-maker knows, these are the "easiest" parts of the process, right?

So if you ever want to make a film, consider doing it in Malaysia. We promise it will be an experience you will never, ever forget! However, if you do forget anything, a government agent will kindly remember it for you.


Producing Horror Films in Asia

One of the main reasons the screenwriter wanted to make his film in Asia is that Asians truly take their horror movies seriously.

In America, people think of horror films as enjoyable but almost always consider them second-class or worse, just schlock. They're "guilty pleasures" or "midnite movies."

No matter how good it is, no horror film will ever be in danger of winning an Academy Award for Best Picture. Hollywood looks down on them.

Not so in Asia: In many Asian countries, such films are considered a high art in themselves, as worthy as any dramatic film. For the most part, making a horror film in Asia is a totally different experience and a fine art in and of itself.

Finding a Way to Film Darkest Night:
Where Do You Start? Where Do You Look? Where Do You Go?

Writer/Producer Searches Southeast Asia for a Place & Director To Film Supernatural Story & Screenplay

Russ Williams (left), the writer and executive producer of  Darkest Night, and Noel Tan, the director, discuss how the film came to be and how it traveled to the Philippines: Noel interviews the screenwriter.

An In-Depth Interview: The Long & Varied Odyssey of a Film Script in Across Southeast Asia

Noel: A good place to start is always the beginning. When and how did you get the original ideas for this screenplay?

Russ: Well, I wrote the first draft of the script back in 2005, while I was still living in Los Angeles. I remember seeing two films that really impressed me that year, and both of them were Asian horror films, the original Japanese Pulse and The Grudge. I guess you'd say this was the year I first discovered Asian horror films, and I love them! I've been a fan of horror movies since I was seven years old, but I can honestly say, I'd never seen anything like them before. I immediately started writing down ideas that grew into my first script titled Out of Time. It had many of the same ideas and plot lines as Darkest Night, but was still a very different story and set in the U.S. I was also influenced by a Russian/Bulgarian international film The Abandoned. However, these films only inspired me with some of their basic ideas and premises. I started out with some concepts from these films and my own reading of horror and Gothic literature and came up with something completely my own.

Noel:  So you spent that much time writing it? Since 2005?

Russ: Off and on, really. I wrote the first draft in about a month, after a month of planning. I sent it out to a bunch of Hollywood agents, but everyone turned it down. I had only written and co-produced one film, The Last Year, in 2002, and even then my co-producer title was not credited. Anyway, it's nearly impossible to get a good agent if you're an unknown writer in Hollywood these days, and of course, nobody wants a bad agent. So I put the draft aside and worked on other projects. Nowadays, almost all studios and film companies in Hollywood refuse to look at a script unless it's sent to them by an agent. That's the way the game works now.

Noel: When did you start work on it again?

Russ: In 2007, I rewrote it a couple of times and sent it out to several horror movie contests. No one was interested, so I heaved a long sigh and thought more about it. I think at that time, as much as I loved the story and ideas in it, I had this feeling deep inside that it was still, somehow incomplete. So, I lost my enthusiasm for the script and shoved it aside once more.

Noel: You must have gotten really excited about it at some time. When was that?

Russ: When I first visited Malaysia, in late  2009. I later moved there in early 2010. Actually the reason I moved to Malaysia is a long and interesting story in itself, full of many twists and turns. Retirement and wanting to do something else with my life afterward was part of it. I felt restless and wanted to see more than just the U.S. I had worked in the computer industry in America for 25 years and lived in LA for 20. I had never traveled beyond the U.S., Mexico and Canada. I got involved in film work in 1995 mostly as a screenwriter, as a sideline but a really enjoyable one, in spite of the fact that I only got one of my screenplays produced, The Last Year, in 2002. I worked as a producer on other indie films that never came together and did some script doctoring here and there. I wrote plenty of screenplays that never saw the light of day. I've also written five novels, two stage plays and lots of poetry. However, after I had lived in Malaysia for a while, I started harboring, in the back of my mind, the desire to make a film in Asia. I met a special person in Kuala Lumpur and fell in love, so I decided to turn that country into my Asian "base of operations." But I still did a lot of traveling in eastern Asia. So I don't consider Malaysia my permanent home, even though I've made a lot of good friends there. The Malaysian people are really great!

Noel: So what happened to change Out of Time into Darkest Night?

Russ: Like I said earlier, before moving to Malaysia, I visited there for a while in 2009. I wanted to get to know the place better before I left the U.S. before I made it my foreign pied a terre, so to speak. During that visit, I heard an interesting rumor, probably just an urban legend, but you never know. Someone told me about this Chinese family that mysteriously disappeared in the Cameron Highlands in 2003. It was all very hush-hush and had the air of "forbidden fruit" about it, like people really shouldn't be telling me anything. Only one really credible source was willing to talk with me extensively about the subject. I had to practically drag it all out of this guy, and he doesn't want me to ever mention his name to anyone in connection with this thing! There wasn't any other information available, so I had no way to verify any of what he said. There's nothing on the Internet or anywhere you could go to do research. A lot of people in Malaysia haven't even heard of this story, but those who have quickly change the subject when you bring it up. But the story fired up my imagination. Here was the spark I needed to go back to that horror screenplay I'd put so much work and thought into. In the spring of 2010, I rewrote it, more or less, into its present storyline, except that it was about a Chinese family in, of course, the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. I changed the title to Darkest Night, and voilá! I had the script I really wanted.

Noel: Can you tell us any more about this Malaysian legend?

For the purpose of this interview, anyone reading can check out the Doomed Family page in the film's website and get all the information you want. There are lots of interesting details and anecdotes, including video of an interview with one of my main local sources. I'm convinced this guy was scared, and I definitely believe the story of the family's disappearance is true. As for the ghosts, well people will have to draw their own conclusions. I make no claims that the ghosts people talk about really haunt the old mansion's location. Also, I'll answer no specific questions about the Chinese family. For example, I cannot reveal their names because many of their relatives still live in various parts of the country. I promised during my investigation that I would not reveal any information that would embarrass this family. I feel they've been through enough already.

Noel: So you thought you could really make this film in Malaysia?

Russ: Well, yes, I did. Quite naively, I began inquiring here and there in Malaysia about how to how to make a film in that country. Slowly, I realized I was discovering an American abroad version of the saying "You're not in Kansas any more!" In the U.S., nobody cares about the script or content of your film. If you decide to make one, you get a local permit and shoot it. Period. In Malaysia, the federal government has to OK any script before you can make a film for any kind of theatrical distribution, anywhere. After a federal agent rewrites your script, you can start shooting. Then, they look over your shoulder the whole time you're shooting to make sure you do it their way. Finally, they get to look at your finished product and cut it up any way they want. In other words, it's a government-controlled process from start to finish, with lots of complex bureaucratic red tape along the way. The only exceptions, apparently, are the big Hollywood studios who come in and hire hundreds of people for a single huge film and pay big money to everyone. Obviously, that wasn't going to be me!

Noel: That's a lot different from here in the Philippines. We have some government censorship after the film is made, but not much. Often nothing happens at all. The federal government here doesn't get involved in script writing at all. So what was your reaction to this discovery?

Russ: I felt really dismayed at first. Then, I realized that, if I wanted to get this film made, I would have to do it outside Malaysia, somewhere else in southeast Asia. So, I ran an ad on the website for, first an assistant director and then decided on a director. In the beginning, I thought of directing it myself, because other directors in the U.S. had done total rewrites on my screenplays, and I didn't want this one to go through a similar chop-chop. However, after I got to know my final choice for a director, you, I said to myself, "Here is a man I can trust."

Noel: Yes, I remember your ad on Mandy. I answered right away. I recall that it was for an AD. How many others responded?

Russ: I lost count. My criteria were mainly for an experienced director, not necessarily in indie film, for someone within easy flying distance of KL, and as I said, someone who impressed me as being trustworthy. Well, distance eliminated all the resumes from India, Europe and the Americas. The other factors knocked out many of the rest. Eventually, I narrowed the field down to 12 and finally six: Two from Singapore, two from Thailand, one from Indonesia and one from the Philippines.

Noel: The one from the Philippines, of course, was me. So what made you decide that I would be your director?

Russ: Well, one the respondents from Singapore disappeared and the other turned out to be undesirable. The two from Thailand were very young and didn't really have enough experience, and the guy from Indonesia, well, he was OK, but I heard that I would run into the same kind of government meddling there (though not as much) that I knew existed in Malaysia. Besides, you and I got along well in our correspondence and phone conversations. By July of last year, I had decided you would be the director for this film.

Noel: I'm honored that you chose me. I remember that month very well. We set about planning out how to make the film right away. I'll let you tell the story.

Russ: Well, what's left to tell is just the usual planning that's involved in making an indie, international film. I flew to the Philippines in November of last year and met you in person for the first time. We hit it off great and knew immediately we would make a great team. You, I and our associate producer, Sheena Sunga, founded Gothic Pictures International in Pampanga [province] before I left the Philippines in December 2010, and chartered and certified it as a legal business to use as our production company. Then, by the beginning of this year, our thinking on the story shifted a bit. We realized we would have to make one more major change.

Noel: I do remember some long discussions about that.

Russ: Yes. As I recall, I realized it first. We just didn't have the budget to import all actors from Malaysia and shoot it in the Philippines, pretending it was Malaysia. And even if we did, there was a good chance it would come off phony, like the old "spaghetti westerns" with Clint Eastwood, where they got Italians who talked like Mafiosi trying to act like American cowboys! The effect was somewhat comical and OK for those directors and their films, but it would have been a disaster for Darkest Night. So, I recast the family as Filipino, changed the holiday to Christmas and set the action in the Sagada Mountains, a similar area in the Philippines to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. You were kind enough to advise me of the cultural differences in the Philippines and help me make the story "Filipino-ready."

Noel: At first I resisted, because I liked your original idea so much, but when I read the new script, I loved it even more than the first draft I read. I was totally certain by then that this was a film I really wanted to make.

Russ: And we did it! There were lots of ups and downs along the way, but we finally finished the shoot.

Noel: I have one more question. I already know this, but I'm asking for the benefit of our readers. How did DJ Perry get involved in the production?

Russ: Well, I realized early in January that we would have to hire a U.S. actor to play the American character, Ken Tyler, so I went back to Mandy again. Of course, I received lots of resumes. About a week after I placed the ad, I got a resume from DJ Perry. Being a big horror fan, I had heard of him and remembered seeing at least one of his films The 8th Plague. I filed the resume away without answering it, thinking that anyone famous enough that I've heard of him, we couldn't afford. Then, about another week later I get another resume from him, this time with a friendly note saying he was really interested in doing a film in Asia. Because he was so insistent, I figured that it wouldn't hurt to send him a polite reply telling him we'd love to have him, but we're a lower-budget production. His response was that if the script was good, he would be willing to negotiate on the salary. OK, I thought, so I sent him a copy of the script, he loved it and a month later we signed him. I'm thrilled that we got DJ of course. Not only is he a great actor, but he was a tremendous asset during the shoot in lots of ways, including as a morale booster for the whole cast. Also, he and his film company in the U.S. will be helping us get distribution in North America and the U.K. It was a win-win situation all the way around.

Noel: That's true. I admit t was a little scared at first, of meeting this "big-name American actor," but we warmed right up, and working with him was a great experience!

Russ: Yeah, and of course, he feels the same about you and can't wait to do another film with us.

Noel: I can't wait to do our next film. That will be fantastic!

Russ: OK, I guess we've spent enough time patting each other on the back.

Noel: I agree. Let's get back to film-making!

Congregants gather at a pagan altar during a scene in Darkest Night.

More Information on Russ Williams, Writer and Executive Producer of Darkest Night

    For more information on Russ Williams, you can check out his Facebook page and personal website.