'Shirkers.' Courtesy Netflix.

Writer/Director Sandi Tan on the Incredible True Story Behind her Netflix Film Shirkers

Sandi Tan was supposed to be the next big teen sensation—not just in the indie film scene, but in the almost non-existent Singapore film scene of the early 1990s. Tan was just 18 years old when she started making the original version of Shirkers, a beautiful, mysterious film, with the help of her friends Jasmin Ng and Sophie Siddique and her film teacher, Georges Cardona. It would have been a revolutionary addition to the indie canon. The current rendition of Shirkers, as released on Netflix on Oct. 26, is not that film.

Tan’s teenage dream got derailed when Cardona, her 40-something-year-old confidant, disappeared with all 70 reels of the film they were working on. Tan—who was a spirited teen rebel who sought out David Lynch films and rock ‘n’ roll music in a country that didn’t have much underground culture—spent most of the next 20 years with unanswered questions and the emptiness of stolen youth. She spent those years grasping at thin air, but never being able to tangibly touch the product of her vision. That is, until 2011, after Cardona’s death, when his late wife found all the reels of the movie in their home kept in pristine condition. Shirkers, as it stands in 2018, is not a restoration of that project (Cardona also made sure to destroy all audio recording) and it doesn’t offer a satisfying solution to this stranger-than-fiction mystery. The new Shirkers, a hybrid documentary of these inexplicable events, has instead served as a reconstruction and rediscovery of Tan’s filmmaking passion. Tan spoke to The Credits about this fairytale-like villain character of Cardona, her teen pursuit of seeking out weird films, and her rocky relationship with the friends who were involved in the making of Shirkers.

As someone who grew up in Korea always seeking out “weird” movies and music with my friends, your pursuit of that with your friend Jasmine really spoke to me.

There was no internet. I’m, like, really old. I read magazines like American Film, Film Comment, American Cinematographer. I’d read the synopsis, and the descriptions of these movies sounded so interesting that sometimes when you actually see them in the end, the movie that played in your head is more interesting than the movie that actually exists. But in many cases, like in the case of David Lynch, the movie far exceeded anything you could have imagined. But I went and sought out these movies, and it was not easy to do.

I’m sure a lot of people have asked you if you wanna make Shirkers into the movie it was supposed to be. How do you feel about the movie as it is now?

Well, I think about the effort that it requires. I mean it would require a squadron of detectives, I think, to kind of like put this thing together again because you have to decipher Jasmine’s logs, you know? There were 700 minutes of 16 digitized. And you just have to figure out what goes where against which script. I mean it was a first draft that we shot, by the way. And then there were things that were improvised along the way. So I suddenly have to be a part of the process, I guess, to figure out where things go. Or you could take a completely experimental approach and have a bunch of kids unrelated to me put it together. And there are volunteers for that job. I mean every screening I go to I get accosted by a bunch of young people who are kind of just out of film school or still in film school who are volunteering their service, just to be part of the Shirkers army. This guy told me like, “I wanna be a lieutenant.” And just the other day this very sweet couple who told me they were Russian hackers told me they wanna help me. They’d do anything. I want to utilize these people, I just don’t have time, I don’t know how to. I’m so bad at assembling my army, but they’re there. They’re Shirkers, and they wanna help me put this thing together again. 

'Shirkers.' Courtesy Netflix.
‘Shirkers.’ Courtesy Netflix.

Where were these hackers when you were looking for Georges in the first place?

I know. Even if they found Georges, I think he’s so squirmy and so squirrely that he would just slip out of the crack. When we look away for one second he would vanish. That’s the kind of guy he was. He’s almost mythological in his, I don’t know, hard-to-findness.

Do you feel like you have closure?

Yeah, I do. I mean the closure comes from making the film. I did everything backward. I went from mood first, listened to the music and got into the mindset of what it felt to be an 18-year-old just bursting with energy and ideas. I went through my journals and looked through all this stuff and rediscovered that part of myself. I was also regaining my voice and confidence as a filmmaker, and realizing what it was that drew me to filmmaking in the first place. I was able to realize this dream in my garage with collaborators I found and handpicked from around the world. So my composer, Ishai Adar, lives in Israel. He’s great. The singing voice you hear in the song, she’s in Singapore. And then my sound designer’s in LA. I edited the film with Lucas Cellar, this 27-year-old skateboarder, in my garage. So it was like a whole ragtag team of Shirkers that I formulated again. And somehow, it had pretty much the same spirit of the original, just with higher level talent. So for me, that is the closure. I’ve regained my filmmaking self that had been taken away and put into some kind of black hole by this very slightly nefarious feller.

Sandi Tan in 'Shirkers.' Courtesy Netflix.
Sandi Tan in ‘Shirkers.’ Courtesy Netflix.

Right. Do you get weirdly, maybe, defensive when people villainize him too much?

I actually find that liberating for me. Because at every screening I always get some women who are vibrating with rage for me, on my behalf. It’s selfish, but it’s very freeing for me to be able to release that energy and have them be angry on my behalf so I don’t have to feel it. I know Jasmine and Sophie are much angrier, still, because they didn’t have the process of making the film. But I don’t think of him as a villain because that would be giving him too much power. I think of him as a very strange friend, who has given me both a gift and a curse. I mean, it’s almost like a fairytale character—Rumpelstiltskin or Nosferatu or something.

Georges Cardona in 'Shirkers.' Courtesy Netflix.
Georges Cardona in ‘Shirkers.’ Courtesy Netflix.

I feel like he was always flirting the line before crossing it, like him asking you to touch his belly or whatever.

Yeah, creepy. We didn’t really think in terms of appropriate and not appropriate in those days. I mean we crossed so many lines that the rules didn’t seem to apply. I mean, the fact that my best friend was this 40-something-year-old guy when I was 18, the optics weren’t great, as they say today. But I just didn’t think the rules would apply, because this was somebody I thought really got me. And we would sit in his car for hours at night just talking. When you find somebody you think gets you and sees you, it somehow overrides all of what people are saying around you. People in Singapore are so judgmental and so quick to yell at you, especially grown-ups, that you tend to kind of learn to shut them out. Because if you don’t, you get dragged down into all kinds of petty concerns.

How does it feel seeing a movie like Crazy Rich Asians, a huge moment for Asian American cinema set in Singapore, when there was no film scene when you were making the original Shirkers?

I’m so happy for them. I really had a good time watching it. I’m actually friends with Kevin Kwan, but Kevin’s too grand to talk to me now. He’s always like, “Oh, I have to go to Scottsdale, Arizona” He kind of lives in New York, but now he’s in LA, and I’m in LA and he’s never there when I’m there. And we’re just dodging each other somehow. I’m trying to get him to see my movie. I’m just so delighted for him. And I enjoyed the movie a great deal. And I have unalloyed pleasure in their success.

Featured image: Sandi Tan in ‘Shirkers.’ Courtesy Netflix. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kristen Yoonsoo Kim

Kristen Yoonsoo Kim is a South Korea-born, New York-based film critic and journalist whose work has appeared in Village Voice, GQ, Vice, and many other places. You can find her at the movies or on Twitter at @kristenyoonsoo.