Filmart: Channeling Martin Scorsese for a Modern-Day Malaysian Crime Epic (Q&A)

Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
'Fly By Night'

Director Zahir Omar and star Sunny Pang discuss their thriller 'Fly by Night,' capturing contemporary Kuala Lumpur onscreen and embracing diversity in the Asian film sector (just don’t get Pang started on 'Crazy Rich Asians').

In Malaysian director Zahir Omar’s feature debut Fly by Night, a gang of petty thieves, two brothers and their respective best pals, get in over their heads when the younger gets cocky and fails to heed the advice of his more cautious elder. It’s the stuff of a thousand crime thrillers to come before it, but Omar turns convention on its head to positively Scorsese-ian effect.

With the film finally getting a release in its native Malaysia in April (it premiered last year at Busan) and for sale at Filmart, wider audiences may be on the verge of getting a look at genre action, Malaysian style. Despite featuring a pan-Asian cast — including Singaporean actor Sunny Pang (Headshot, The Night Comes for Us) and Malaysian favorite Bront Palarae (HBO Asia’s Halfworlds) — it took Zahir nearly half a decade to get the film completed.

Zahir and Pang talk with THR about genre, life as an emerging filmmaker and capturing Kuala Lumpur’s diversity at the right time in cinema history.

You’re a first-time director and he’s a movie star. How did you get together for this?

Omar: I stalked him. I went to film school, but I’m actually a film school dropout. I’m also a fanboy and I’ve watched a ton of films. Scorsese said something about there being no small roles in a film. So I knew everybody had to be heavy hitters in their own right. So I had [written] the script and I’m doing research, thinking about who to get for the roles. Malaysia’s a small country, so we have to get creative with our resources. A friend showed me a film with Sunny in it and I thought, “This guy’s great,” and wanted to cast him immediately. But he’s in Singapore and I had no idea how to approach him as a first-timer. But [executive producer] Perin [Petrus] sent the script, and he flew down to meet us and all I could say was, “I’m a big fan of your work.” I never thought it would happen, but if you don’t ask you’ll never know.

A lot of actors in your position hesitate to work with first-time directors — and this is your first. What made you take the chance?

Pang: For me it’s personal. I read the script, and once I did that I spoke to Perin and said I was interested and I’d like to meet the director. I loved the heist angle, and it’s the type of movie on my bucket list, the kind of movie to do before I die. [Laughs.] First time or 50th time making a film makes no difference to me. The most important element is the passion behind it. If you can give me all the details I want I’m in. So after that conversation I was all in. It took a couple more years, and occasionally he’d call and say, “We’re almost there.” No worries, when I say I’m on it, I’m on it.

Did his official casting help move things along?

Omar: Yeah. There were two. The first actors we asked were big guns: Sunny and [Malaysian film and television actor] Bront Palarae…and they both stuck through it for the funding process, which was slow. “Great script kid, but what have you done?” I’ve done a hundred commercials, but getting funding for a first-time filmmaker is never easy. Having Sunny and Bront on board from the start — and it was four years from conception to completion — was very cool.

Where did a glossy heist pic come from? It’s unlike what viewers may think of as Malaysian cinema, and there’s a good dose of Hong Kong action, [Quentin] Tarantino and [Martin] Scorsese in there.

Omar: When you talk about genre films and that the majority of Malaysian [cinema] is art films, I can see why that idea of static, fussy moviemaking has stuck. But coming from where I did the question was why can’t Malaysian films be like Hong Kong’s, or Korea’s? A lot of it is about what you can and can’t watch in Malaysia; producers and distributors prefer sincere, “good” stories. I’m not saying that’s particularly wrong, but let’s not be afraid of commercial success. That’s where it started, with a desire to bridge the gap between genre movies with a little bit of heart as well as a little bit of brains, and accessible to everybody. We started from that. I grew up watching a lot of this kind of brainy genre stuff, Scorsese and Tarantino, and their kind of layered characters; Taxi Driver was a huge influence on me.

A lot of Fly by Night’s tension and narrative momentum come from you playing with archetypes and expectations.

Omar: [Co-writer] Ivan Yeo worked on the solid first draft of script with me. Sadly he passed away just after we finished the second. Then we asked Frederick [Bailey] for some help, and he brought a lot of structure to it. There were so many notes on it when it came back it looked like a new coloring book. He added a structured point of view and a lot of situations that inspired me, to make it better. In Malaysia, especially, we like to think we’re living in black and white, but we are actually living in shades of gray. It’s a world of compromise, and we tried to reflect that in the story.

What we set out to do was tell the family story with four mirrors, and use the story concept as the tool to dig into the subtext. Stereotypes, archetypes, are a good place to start, because they’re a good place to take things apart from and rebuild. I wanted to understand the tension between the two brothers, and the younger brother’s desire to prove himself, but some sense of empathy had to be there, too.

Pang: That’s what appealed to me about the script. The characters took cliches typical of the genre and gave them new shading. It reminded me of how my brother handled things after my father passed away. We used to own a bakery, so my brother had to take over duties as a big brother, and [my] character reminded me of him at that time. I connected to it on that level. I remembered the fights with my brother at times and so felt like I knew who the “elder statesman” character would be — the hot and the cold sides of him. I was drawn to the core story about the family, and I loved how the whole business was jeopardized by one stupid mistake. In real life the bakery went out of business, too, and this became a weird sort of deja vu.

At a time when diversity and representation are major issues in popular art you seem to have done it effortlessly. Though the dynamic in Asia is different, Fly by Night looks and sounds like Kuala Lumpur.

Omar: That should come naturally, but it doesn’t. Normally films in Malaysia will skew 100 percent Chinese, and then after that, filmmakers have to decide what kind of Chinese: Mandarin or Cantonese? It makes it easier for cinemas to package their programming — it’s a Chinese film, it’s Malay. When we wrote the script, funders kept asking if it was a Chinese film. Well, it’s being shot in Malaysia, a language melting pot. What are we supposed to say?

Pang: That diversity was another thing I really, really liked reading the script. In Singapore we have the same problem — your film is either English or textbook Mandarin, and I hate this concept because that’s not what we are as a nation. So when Zahir explained this would be mixing up all the cultures and languages I thought, “Perfect.” It made me want to be involved even more and I would love Singapore to adopt the same methods. I think that, you think that, but politicians don’t think that way. They just want everything to be picture perfect.

Did you see Crazy Rich Asians?

Pang: Oh, please, don’t start me.