A Singaporean Filmmaker’s Story
Interviewed by Justin Zhuang • Photography by sam chin
Close to a decade after graduation, Nicole Midori Woodford is set to realise her dream of shooting a debut feature film. The director from Zhao Wei Films shares her journey down the path less trodden, all so she can tell Singaporean stories through film.
NTU School of Art,
Design & Media
Field of study
Place of work
Zhao Wei Films
After graduating, you participated in international filmmaking platforms—getting selected in 2010 for the 8th Berlinale Talent Campus and then the Asian Film Academy (AFA)—instead of taking up a full-time job. How did it affect your subsequent career path?
I actually interviewed at a few places and got offers, but I didn’t take them up. Some of my friends from the same graduating cohort signed on full-time with production houses, but I freelanced with them and saw how they were often worked to the bone and paid little. It made me realise that working full-time would mean having no time to work on my own films. I was interested in keeping my own narrative work intact. When my first couple of short films went to festivals, people around me were encouraging me to make another one.
I couldn’t call myself a director straight away so I worked my way up by freelancing, to get insight into the different filmmaking roles. I don’t know if it was luck or timing, but I felt very grateful to be selected for Berlinale and AFA in the same year. I even won some prize money from AFA that I saved to make my next short film years later. Working with filmmakers from around the world helped me see the high standards overseas and how far away the Singapore industry was. AFA in Busan was a particular turning point because I saw how much the Koreans love cinema and how disciplined the filmmakers were in film production. They would pack their cinemas during the Busan International Film Festival, which contrasted greatly to the little support we got back home. I told myself Singapore just needs time to turn around and that gave me the faith to tell Singaporean stories.
In 2011, you founded GREYXGRAY with two of your classmates. Can you tell us what it was like and why you eventually left?
Initially, I was quite resistant on mixing friendship with business and I had never run a business before. Like with any start-up or business, we had our ups and downs. One highlight was producing the first-person perspective film Our Defining Moments for the Singapore Memory Project. Later on, my partners wanted to do more corporate work while I wanted to pitch for narrative commercial projects with better production support to up our quality of work. There were creative differences and money became a factor that affected our working relationship. Those 3 years running my own company made me realise it was taking me away from directing my first feature and from improving as a director. If you want to be a filmmaker, you kind of have to put money aside, make the film(s), and if the story is well-crafted, then everything else will fall into place. So I never like to chase money, to put it bluntly.
It was strange how the timing worked out. Zhao Wei Films contacted me to direct for them right after we decided to split. That kick-started the next phase of my career.
How is working for Zhao Wei different from running your own practice?
Zhao Wei gets a certain kind of clientele. The work might be a commercial for an organisation, but it generally tends to be more narrative driven. I realise there is a way to earn some income and still tell stories. Running my own company was a lot more worrying about when the next job would come and less time focusing on the creative aspect of the projects. We were always the last people to be paid because I believe in being fair to those I work with and would pay them on time.
As I’m not working full-time for Zhao Wei, there are periods of free time that I use to work on my own films. The company is pretty supportive of me working on my own work and I started developing my own visual style and tone. This was when I reunited with an ex-classmate from the first batch in ADM, Lim Teck Siang, a director of photography. I approached him to shoot for my short film, For We Are Strangers, and the subsequent short film, Ordinary, which was commissioned for the 2015 Southeast Asian Games.
You’ve also been teaching film editing part-time at ADM since 2011. How does this feed back into your practice?
Looking back on my teaching, I have a bit of a maternal side and I see myself as an alumni returning to support my juniors. I share with the students my experiences on how production is like out in the industry. They always say that if you teach you also learn while you’re teaching, and I’ve met students that inspire me too. When I notice potential in them, I try to nurture and encourage them. As a student, I initially didn’t think I was cut out for directing because I was soft spoken and did not dare to speak up. But my lecturers made me think otherwise when they pointed out I was good with working with actors and had a strong grasp of visuals for a film student. That pushed me towards directing.
What is it like being a woman in a male-dominated film industry?
On my first professional shoot as a production assistant someone told me to act instead, because this line is too tough and tiring for girls like myself. I was quite amused then, and for starters, I prefer to be behind the camera rather than in front of it. It’s easy to be stereotyped as a woman. If you bark at your crew when a shoot is slowing down, a guy will be dismissed as an angry director getting things done but a woman might be perceived as being too aggressive or ‘difficult to work with’. Along the years, I’ve been regarded as ‘too detailed’, ‘perfectionist’, and the list goes on. It cracks me up because the truth is a director has to be very detailed and a perfectionist as they have a huge responsibility to answer to the work. No one blames the sound guy or the director of photography if the film doesn’t meet expectations; the onus always falls on the director.
Now I try to let these things wash over me, or I try to laugh it off. I have also met a lot of people in the industry who are supportive of me on my projects, crew members who are super helpful towards me on my shoots. As a director, I feel that you have to define yourself and people will respect you for that. And once you get to know the crew, they are actually very supportive. Most people who work with me say I’m very calm on set.
Can you tell us more about the debut feature film that you are working on now?
I had submitted a feature script for the inaugural edition of the Southeast Asian Fiction Film Lab (SEAFIC) and was pleasantly surprised it got selected. Now as fate would have it, it has become my debut feature film. Right now, the working title is You Are There, and the film will be shot in both Singapore and Japan. It is a coming of age drama with supernatural elements. The protagonist is a young Singaporean girl who travels to Japan on her own to find her mother. Along the way, she journeys with her uncle who she has never met and he becomes a surrogate parent of sorts. I’m interested in exploring the psychological part of the protagonist; she is able to traverse the worlds of the living and the dead. I am now in the midst of researching and writing my next draft for the last session of SEAFIC, the lab ends in July.
This interview has been condensed and edited.