Popwire Speaks With… Tiong Bahru Social Club co-writer and co-producer Antti Toivonen

After garnering rousing acclaim during its premieres at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) and the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) earlier this year, Tiong Bahru Social Club will finally be released wide in Singapore cinemas on December 10th! The whimsical, pastel-hued comedy follows 30-year-old Ah Bee, a bored office worker who leaves his humdrum job to join the cult-like Tiong Bahru Social Club – an exclusive data-driven pilot programme that aims to create the happiest neighbourhood in the world.

Equal parts quirky and thought-provoking, the film uses soft sci-fi to question Singapore’s social constructs and its citizen’s sensibilities, while simultaneously serving as a stylish love letter to the architecture and eclecticism of the country’s famed neighbourhood. To dive deeper into the film, we spoke with Tiong Bahru Social Club’s co-writer and co-producer Antti Toivonen! The Finnish screenwriter behind award-winning short films such as Fucking Bunnies and Are You Hungry? (which were selected for the Sundance and Toronto film festivals respectively) is also the managing partner and creative director of independent creative agency Superson.

In this interview, Toivonen discusses how his Finnish upbringing and experience living in Singapore for 11 years meshed in the genesis of the film, his collaboration with director Tan Bee Thiam, balancing advertising work with screenwriting, and much more.

Hey Antti! How did the idea for Tiong Bahru Social Club come about?

Ha. It’s a funny story. I got a spare ticket to SGIFF’s end gala but I had just come from the gym. I ended up going there in sweatpants not knowing it was a black tie event. I looked different to other guests which made it easy to strike conversations. I ended up speaking with another lonely looking guy. That guy was Bee Thiam Tan, our director. We clicked and decided to have a coffee a few days later. That’s when the idea for Tiong Bahru Social Club came about. We wanted to make something iconic and fun, something that celebrates the community. A whimsical film that introduces new sensibilities to Singaporean cinema.

Tiong Bahru Social Club is a story about a company trying to create the happiest neighbourhood in the world. If you think about it, Tiong Bahru has this village-like feel to it, it’s like a little island of happy. Tiong Bahru was one of the first HDB developments in Singapore so it was a very futuristic vision of living.  As we know, the future didn’t end up looking like Tiong Bahru so we envisioned what this alternative future could have been. But essentially, we just wanted to make a cool movie. Having a Singaporean–Finnish creative team brought together two different minds which hopefully shows. And coming from Finland, the happiest country in the world, I find the idea of measuring happiness quite fascinating.

What was the screenwriting process like between you and Tan Bee Thiam?

I wrote the first draft before we pitched it. We then kept refining it over time. The basic elements and themes were always the same, but we explored different ways in. Bee Thiam is a character driven thinker who likes to let the characters define how the story unfolds whereas I approach things through the lens of concepts and narrative. I think our different minds compliment each other and we both love injecting imagination and quirk into things.

I lost count how many script versions we had, but there were like 20-30 fairly different scripts. The maddest ideas came from Bee Thiam: giving the film a retro future treatment meant creating a time that is not the past, present nor the future. Another creative challenge was our decision to make Ah Bee, our lead character, almost mute. We wanted to see if we can have a protagonist expressing himself with as few words as possible. Our writing style is very organic, meaning that we kept refining the script with the actors too – and even on set. There was a lot of room for improvisation so it was important that the actors know their characters well.

Why choose Tiong Bahru as the setting for the film?

We love Tiong Bahru and what it means to Singapore so it’s a bit of a love letter to the neighbourhood. We also wanted to give the place a fantastical spin and a visual makeover; it is a very visually interesting place. So it’s almost like some elevated, exaggerated fantasy version of Tiong Bahru. We took a lot of liberties in how we depict the place. Also, what other place could be the backdrop for a story about the happiest neighbourhood in the world?

Tiong Bahru Social Club does a wonderful job of satirizing the quirks and foibles of Singaporean society. What were the real-life inspirations for the themes explored?

Oh there are a lot. I’ve lived in Singapore for 11 years so over the years you start seeing certain patterns in people and their way of life. But to me it was very important not to take sides and avoid writing an opinionated piece. I’d say one key inspiration was the Singaporean idea of good life and the boxes to tick to achieve it. Another would be linking increased happiness to property prices. I remember when Tiong Bahru started becoming increasingly popular with a certain lifestyle associated with it, the property prices started going up.

I hope we managed to make a film that people find relatable despite it being a fable. There are also some more tangible real-life inspirations, for example the Tiong Bahru cat, played by Mochi. It was inspired by the famous Tiong Bahru cat called Bob who even has its own Facebook page. Contemporary Tiong Bahru is also often seen as a very young area, but there are plenty of elderly people who have been here since the place was built. So we wanted to give a big role to the seniors of the neighbourhood. They’ve seen the place change over the decades.

Do you feel that international audiences will appreciate the film as much as the Singaporean audience?

The theme of happiness is pretty universal and I feel this story could exist almost anywhere in the world. Every big city has its equivalent of Tiong Bahru, that older, cool neighbourhood that has gotten gentrified. In that sense we do think it’ll be interesting to international audiences too. But there are of course some more Asian themes, like family ties and some supernatural aspects that could feel difficult for a Western audience to accept. I do feel it is a quintessentially Singaporean movie. We hope it touches local audiences in a bit of a deeper way.

What were some of the challenges you faced going from writing short films to your first feature? 

I’ve written a few Sundance competing short comedies before and it was good practice for writing Tiong Bahru Social Club. There are two key differences. The first one is that my typical writing voice is a lot more raw than this film. Bee Thiam is a very gentle director. So we had to find a unique voice for this film which actually is a good thing. The second difference is the development of the characters. In feature film scripts you have to stay extra true to the characters and what comes naturally to them. Bee Thiam nudged me to that direction a lot.

We also had to be more mindful of the cost implications of the things we add in the script. We kept amending the script pretty heavily when we worked alongside art director James Page’s set design team. We kept tweaking the story based on what they could build because of course we didn’t want anything to look compromised. They did an amazing job, the film looks stunning. What’s great is that when you’re writing a feature film, especially a fantasy story like Tiong Bahru Social Club, you’re creating a world. Using the blueprint created, it would be possible to write an entire TV series set in this world.

Including your short Are You Hungry? and your work on HOOQ’s new show She’s a Terrorist and I Love Her, this film will be your third release in about a year. How do you balance your many screenwriting projects with your day job?

I get this question a lot but I don’t draw a big distinction between the two. 95% of my time is spent on Superson and our client projects; movie projects move at such glacial pace that having all these things live in the same universe is easy. I’m at heart a creative guy who likes to build things that make people tick so building Superson is a passion project for me as well.

Could you tell us a little more about your independent creative agency Superson?

Superson was born from the need to create something fresh; The advertising industry is great at telling everyone that they should do things differently, but the industry hasn’t been very good at doing it themselves. There are a lot of legacy practices from the tail end of the Mad Men era. I got tired of talkers and wanted to work more with doers so we’ve built a bit of a different model where we cast a team of independent specialists for each project. These people are freelancers, independent consultants and small creative collectives. The teams are usually quite interesting, and so are the talents (and the projects!) we work with.

We get a lot more unconventional projects which is cool. A lot of sustainability work and also more heavy duty storytelling. It’s a very simple idea and not unique at all, but I think we are one of the few who have made it work. The process is fairly different and you need to structure the business more like a film production team and less like a traditional ad agency.

Does your work in advertising inspire your storytelling work, or vice versa?

Yes, there’s a lot of cross-pollination between the two. Eventually, the advertising industry should be able to create something that really speaks to people. To me, aiming to strike a chord with the audience is super important; it keeps you at the forefront of culture and acts as a reminder that audiences are not easy to entertain. Our messages are competing with games and the latest Netflix shows and it’s a harsh environment. There is a reason why film festivals see very little branded content. The standard of storytelling in advertising is not there despite all the industry talk about storytelling.

But the influence works the other way round too. Advertising experience helps to conceptualise clear and exciting “audience first” ideas and stories, and eventually to pitch them too. It also gives an advantage in the commercial aspect of the thinking process. So these two types of creative work compliment each other a fair bit. In the end, it’s all about building imaginary worlds for the people. Passion projects are extremely important for your professional growth, even if they feel unlinked at first. The whole idea of Superson’s freelance-based specialist model is to be able to work with people with strong passions and expertise that comes from those passions.

Finally, are you working on any future film or television projects at the moment? 

Yes, I’ve got a feature script in the works with director Teemu Niukkanen who directed our Sundance shorts Fucking Bunnies and Are You Hungry? – and another short film script for director Pete Riski. Both are supported by the Finnish Film Foundation. Once those are in production, I want to write a new Singapore-based story. This island is full of inspiration and I have a few ideas how to add a fantastical, colourful spin to those stories. I feel I’ll always remain a bit of an outsider in Singapore because I wasn’t born here but I try to see it as a strength. It helps to see things differently. 

Tiong Bahru Social Club opens at Golden Village and The Projector on December 10th.