Director Tony Pietra (Left) and screenwriter Zalee Isa.
Is it possible to create a single-story film with more than 40 directors and actors?
Apparently, it is, as proven by CollabFeature's "Train Station", a multi-award winning movie featuring over 40 independent filmmakers from 25 different countries including Malaysia's and Singapore's very own filmmakers, Tony Pietra and Zalee Isa.
With such a huge and ambitious project involving so many people, it only makes sense that that the film took almost five years to create and thankfully, the end result is satisfying.
The film has won itself several notable awards back in 2016, including Best Feature Film at the Los Angeles Diversity Film Festival, the Miami Independent Film Festival, and Pune Independent Film Festival; Best Narrative Feature at the Calcutta International Cult Film Festival, and has also earned the Jury Award at the Kansas International Film Festival.
The movie starts with one main character at a train station known as the "Person in Brown" – which is then eventually played by 40 different actors, ranging in age, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation – who goes on an adventurous journey, intertwining through different cities, cultures and languages from all across the world.
Each time the protagonist makes a decision, the story will lead to a different scenario featuring a new cast and a new city while the same story continues on, helmed by a new director, who gets to decide where their version of the character is going.
Filmmakers Tony Pietra and Zalee Isa had let us know about their involvement in the project when we met them at the Malaysian premiere of "Train Station" at GSC Cinemas Mid Valley recently.
Tony and Zalee at the Malaysian premiere of "Train Station".
Cinema Online: "Train Station" has over 40 directors, how did such project come about and how did you get on-board (pun intended)?
Zalee: I joined CollabFeature in mid-2011. At that time, they were looking for several interested filmmakers to do a collaborative feature film, and it was right after their very first successful film which is called "The Owner" that involves 25 film directors. So they wanted to go on to the next film, and they wanted to put in more directors – to break their own record. [laughs]
So, I first joined the group to see what the whole thing was about. Everything was done online. We have this web portal that CollabFeature had created so that each of us knows of our own segments. Everything was going well until at one point I felt that the process took too long and it was hard for me to get involved as I have some personal matters on my hands too. So, after I completed the final draft of my script, I actually dropped out of the project, and that's where Tony came in, without me knowing.
Tony: I got on board via a mutual friend of ours, Juliane Block, a German filmmaker who contacted me and asked if I can take over for Zalee, and direct the script. I couldn't say yes fast enough because it was an opportunity to do something of an international nature. And at that time I was still a budding director, so I thought that this might be a good platform for me.
But, little did I know that this would take 5 years of my life [laughs]. I could see why Zalee decided to drop out at the time. Because it wasn't just about completing the segment, everybody has to drive their own weight in terms of promoting the film, making sure everything was on course for distribution, and whatnot. When we came to the final stretch of it, that's when Zalee realised...
Zalee: ... that my name is on the movie's IMDb page and it's tagged as a writer. So I was shocked to know that this film was actually being made and I wanted to know who directed it. So that's where it all started, and I was pulled back into the picture.
Tony: Long story short, I couldn't handle everything on my own and Zalee started this whole thing, so it would only do him justice if he got involved in finishing this film.
Tony is perhaps most known for his 2014 feature film, "Cuak".
What was your segment about?
Tony: Even though the movie is segmented, it's still a continuous narrative. So it doesn't stand on its own, it's part of the overall story. Let's just say my segment is part of the murder mystery narrative, which is tied to the overall arc of the film.
Zalee: When I wrote it, I had something else in my mind, something like a dark comedy. But when he treated it, it became very noir and murder mystery-like. But I'm still happy with the result.
How do you ensure that your segment is coherent with the rest of the story?
Zalee: There's actually an online portal where we were placed in groups, so each of the groups will be focusing on a linear path that they were placed in. So let's say we were placed on the third or fourth placement of the story, we will then continue based on the draft that was written prior to us, directed by the director before us. We take his ending, and continue from there. The next director will then take our ending, and continue on. So everything is somehow planned on the portal.
A still from the Malaysian segment of the movie.
So you did you get to really interact with some of the other directors and writers?
Tony: Yes, we had to. We constantly discussed on Skype to make sure that there's linearity in the film. We were involved for just 2-minutes of the film, but we were involved for 5 years in the production of the whole film. So, at the end of the day, all of the filmmakers have to be involved in the full film and see the final delivery.
Zalee: Because it's not just about our script, it's also about everyone else's scripts that were on our linear path. It's a really collaborative effort in terms of everything.
Tony: Though we contributed only a small segment, we have to know everything, otherwise, it doesn't make sense. So this CollabFeature really lives up to its name
Besides your own, which director's segment do you enjoy the most?
Tony: The one that I like the most is the one towards the end. I think it's the Colombian segment. The Colombian one is about the two kids on the train.
Zalee: I like the Indonesian segment because it's kind of dark and bizarre.
Zalee is a Singaporean based in Malaysia.
What exactly is the purpose or main message of the movie?
Tony: I think the producers and visionaries behind this feature wanted to prove that you could tell a story with multiple cultures and multiple languages. Because at the end of the day, it's what makes us common that counts rather than what makes us different. That's the ultimate goal of CollabFeature as cinema is fundamentally universal, and I think they've proven that with this.
What's next for you both?
Tony: I've just completed a feature film called "Safari Mall" where I served as co-director along with Jordan Suleiman. It's a creature feature which is completely different from this film. We're hoping that it will come out next year because there's a lot of CGI work involved. I'm also in the process of trying to get my own indie feature off the ground. It is called "Shadowplay".
Zalee: I'm currently editing an international short documentary about the Zika virus directed by American-Brazilian director Craig Leon. Craig has been an award-winning documentary filmmaker for the past three to four years. He is now based in Malaysia. So I'm helping him out with the documentary, which is now in the final locking picture stage. The movie is targeted for the Cannes Film Festival and hopefully for the Oscars Best Documentary short as well.
"Train Station" is now playing its first theatrical run exclusively at GSC Cinemas Mid Valley, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Cinema Online, 20 June 2017