Prolific Singaporean producer Jeremy Chua (Cannes titles “Rehana,” “A Yellow Bird”) and compatriot Nicole Midori Woodford were among the many filmmakers affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The duo were prepping “Last Shadow at First Light,” the debut feature from Woodford who had made several acclaimed shorts including Clermont Ferrand selection “Permanent Resident” and Busan selection “For We Are Strangers,” when the pandemic struck.
The film follows teenager Ami, who lives with her father in Singapore, struggling to cope with the chasm left behind by her mother, Satomi, who returned to Japan years ago. Ami, who has an ability to communicate with spirits, sees a premonition of disaster befalling Satomi’s coastal hometown, she journeys to warn her mother.
The project was developed at SEAFIC, Tokyo Talents and the Torino Film Lab over 2017-18 and found a mentor in veteran Japanese producer Shozo Ichiyama (“Ash Is Purest White”).
Woodford had locked the casting in Feb. 2020, with a view to filming in May, while Chua had put together a co-production which was a mixture of grants and private equity. And then COVID-19 erupted. “It threw us into a washing machine, a tornado of confusion,” said Chua, speaking at a panel alongside Woodford at the Asia TV Forum and Market on Friday.
The project lost some equity partners who cited force majeure and also the grant from the Japan Foundation which had to divert cultural funds towards COVID relief. Chua pulled together understanding partners and what was to be a co-production with four or five big partners expanded to a coalition of 12 smaller ones.
“A lot of the friendly parties were very sympathetic and understanding and tried to help us as much as they could, and we just did our best by filling up the gaps,” said Chua.
The lockdown and cessation of international travel, while frustrating, brought with it a set of attendant benefits. One of the first things that Woodford did was to rewrite the script several times, especially since there were quite a few hospital scenes. “I looked at Jeremy and we both shook our heads and I knew we had to rewrite it,” said Woodford.
“The rewriting got me to be a lot more open about the script and be less precious about it,” added Woodford. “So I was able to actually add in a lot of these nuances that I thought were not all interconnected before.”
Woodford also had 30 zoom calls with her Japan-based teenaged lead, with each call lasting at least two hours, to take her through the role and improve her Mandarin.
The Singapore leg of “Last Shadow at First Light” was shot this year after lockdown lifted and the Japan leg is due. The Singapore Film Commission is helping to secure travel work visas. Meanwhile, Woodford is editing the Singapore portion of the film while Chua is working closely with Japanese producer Taro Imai (“The Cursed Island”) to put together a schedule and a timeline for the Japan shoot that is feasible and also includes all the new expenses that COVID brings.
“There’s a certain understanding that if something doesn’t go our way, we have to learn to adapt to it rather than to feel defeated,” said Woodford. “Nothing shocks us anymore,” said Chua.