INTERVIEW WITH SANDI TAN

GOURMET BABY

a film by Sandi Tan

I am aware that you have lived and worked in Singapore. Why did you decide to use it as the setting for Gourmet Baby?

I made the film in 2001, near the start of a long and vigorous boom in high-end food culture that’s still going on strong in Singapore, seemingly untouched by the economic chaos that has taken root elsewhere. The idea in the film proved resilient—that food remains the dominant cultural pursuit (besides shopping, stocks and real estate), and restaurant excursions have always been a substitute for actual social interaction, which in rigid Asian families can be painfully awkward. The difference between now and in our parents’ time is that the restaurants thriving today are often ambitious, perfectly executed European restaurants—which can sometimes give Singaporeans a misleading sense of their own sophistication and worldliness. You may think you think like Proust because you’re a connoisseur of sole but you do not. What you think like is the Michelin guide.

Please discuss your experiences casting and directing Cheyenne Allenspach and Carla Dunareanu. I am also interested in hearing about the type of actor you envisioned playing the Uncle. What was it about Lim Kay Tong that filled the bill?

Lim Kay Tong is one of Singapore’s finest actors of stage and screen, if not theone—he’s like their Ian McKellen or Alec Guinness, a classically trained actor. But I have seen his talents squandered playing vicious Vietcong (those cheekbones!) in forgettable American movies, as he was cast over and over as sinister Asians or anodyne, noble dads. I thought I’d gift him with a little film that would showcase his best talents—interiority, intelligence, wounded pride, that great voiceover read. He’s nothing like the character, aside from his love of good food and wine. He’s a bon vivant who runs ten kilometers a day and spends his spare time combing the fine restaurants of Europe with his food writer wife! As for the two young actresses—I found them while scouting a drama workshop for children. They’re actually the same age, or just a year apart. Carla (who played the girl at twelve, and was then twelve) was a standout and a natural, startlingly intuitive as an actress; I knew she’d go on acting professionally. She’s now freshly graduated from drama school and is based in Manila. Cheyenne was sweet and shy, with a really lovely openness that passed for much younger. I’m so glad I managed to catch her at that unique time in her childhood.

Your film is a refreshingly humorous take on a traditionally taboo subject. Our worst suspicions about the Uncle’s intentions towards his Niece are tactfully undercut through a series of gustatory encounters that reveal his apparent lack of an ulterior motive. Was it your intention to make a film that subverts the conventionally fraught dynamic of the older man who lusts after the young girl?

Hmm… I don’t think it’s about lust ultimately. It wasn’t my intention, at any rate. It’s youth and beauty he’s after, a connection with kin, a desire for a loyal companion. It’s an unfortunate accident of fate that he’s this stiff old single guy and she’s a kid—his niece, on top of everything else. And it’s about the disillusionment when youth outgrows you.

The montage sequence midway through your film features still photos of Bobby Fischer and Nadia Comăneci. Through the Uncle’s voice-over narration, we hear his argument for an understanding of the young as “superior beings.” Your focus on a male protagonist who privileges a youthful sensibility “not yet indoctrinated by them” echoes themes in the works of Vladimir Nabokov and J. D. Salinger. What were some of the literary and cinematic influences on this film?

It was very important, even the blazing white desert of the tablecloth in the fancy restaurant at the end. I’m glad you saw all of it! But I’m embarrassed to have these motifs seen through so nakedly. I’ll need to build a better fence!

In the final dinner scene, tango music conspicuously mirrors the strategic back and forth between the Uncle and his young companion. Please discuss the role of John Sharpley’s original score in your film. Did you intend for it to help to keep things on a more whimsical plane?

Yes, I did. The last thing I wanted is to make a film about a bleak man that was tonally bleak. John, a classical composer from Texas who specializes in Asian instruments, was great fun to work with. This was the very first film he scored, and in fact was the first film that was scored classically at all in Singapore. We shot and edited the film in four days, then did the score, with John shaping and refining the cues according to the edited film. I remember there was no specialized studio for this. We worked with a VHS tape deck (!) and a stopwatch in a recording studio where teenage punk bands went to jam. First we recorded John on the piano track, then we recorded him on the violin. It was kid’s stuff.

Your IMDb bio states that you will be expanding Gourmet Baby into a feature film set in New York City. What is the status of this project? What aspects of the original are you interested in exploring further?

Yikes. Does it really say that? Can that be erased? It might have been an inkling once, eons ago, but it’s never been more than an inkling. I am currently working on novels. My debut novel  THE BLACK ISLE will be published by Grand Central (Hachette) on August 7, 2012 in the United States. The eBook is already available to device-owners in the US. It’s nearly 500 pages long and it depicts a whole other world from the one in Gourmet Baby. It’s a sort of metaphorical history of 20thcentury Asia, as seen through the eyes of one very haunted woman. My mind was exploding and I had to find a way to collect the shrapnel—the most effective net seemed to be a big, fat old-fashioned Bildungsroman. But I could not have arrived at it without first passing through the doorway of film.

Finally, after watching your film, I am dying to taste Hanoi’s cha ca. Will you take me to Cha Ca La Vong someday?

Sure! If everything’s still there! I’ve thought of cha ca often ever since I tasted that dish there in 1997. But the fish wasn’t actually that great. It was the idea of the idea that was the thing. A humble portion of river fish on rice served to you after you ascended a creaky winding stairway, in a place you’re unlikely ever to return to.

Sandi Tan was born in Singapore. She attended University of Kent in the UK and received an MFA in Screenwriting from Columbia University. Her short films have shown at major festivals and museums around the world, including the New York Film Festival and MoMA. She lives in Pasadena, Calif. with her husband, the critic John Powers, and their cat Nico. THE BLACK ISLE is her debut novel.