HIS films can be creepy, dark and bleak but award-winning Indonesian film director Joko Anwar is far from that.
He is cheerful, playful, witty, funny and love watching frivolous comedies such as Legally Blonde and Clueless.
“If I ever remake Legally Blonde, I will not change a single frame,” said Joko during a recent interview.
The director was in Kuala Lumpur, together with his two main leads, Tara Basro and Dimas Aditya, and producer Sunil G. Samtani, to promote his latest film, Pengabdi Setan, which opened in cinemas here yesterday.
Though this is another of Joko’s trademark horror films, Pengabdi Setan is actually a remake of director Sisworo Gautama Putra’s iconic 1980 Indonesian horror film of the same name. The story centres on four siblings who begin to experience eerie incidents in their home after the death of their mother.
Joko has been an ardent fan of that classic film from young and had wanted to remake the film way back in 2005. He spent the next 10 years chasing production house Rapi Films for permission to do the remake.
When he heard the production house wanted a different director for the remake, Joko said: “When I first heard the news, I was heart broken. I cried.”
But fate has the last say and Joko’s dream was realised. He said when he got the green light, he wrote the screenplay in four days.
Pengabdi Setan became a huge hit when it was first released in Indonesia, selling over four million tickets and getting rave reviews. It went on to win seven awards at the 2017 Indonesian Film Festival Awards.
The rights to the film have been sold to over 30 countries including New Zealand, Australia and the US. Malaysia is the first country to screen Pengabdi Setan after Indonesia.
Dissecting the success of the film, Joko said: “It tells a story of how a family should stick together through rough times, and that storyline is something that the audience can relate to.”
Another factor is the fantastic performance of lead actress Tara as Rini, the protective older sister.
“Tara is smart, talented and fragile,” said Joko. “Fragility is a great quality in an actor. When you are fragile, you will be able to (portray) your emotions better.”
Joko’s previous films such as Pintu Terlarang and A Copy of My Mind were screened at many international film festivals and received critical acclaim from international media such as Time Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter but they were never commercially successful.
In some ways, Pengabdi Setan has made him more appealing to the mainstream audience.
“To tell you honestly, whenever I direct a film, I always go for the money,” he said with a laugh. “I wanted my films to be commercially successful and accessible to my audience. But people kept saying my films are arthouse films.”
He added that he never puts labels on his films and he refuses to let others put a label on him,
Besides Tara and Dimas, the film also stars Endy Arfian, Nasar Annuz, M. Adhiyat, Ayu Laksmi and Malaysian award-winning actor Bront Palarae.
Despite some of the big names in the cast, Joko said all of them went through an intensive audition, with about 40 actors auditioning for each character.
“Auditions are good for me and my actors because they let us know if we are a right (fit) to make a film together,” he explained. “I do not want them to feel that they are not right for the character halfway through my shoot …”
There had been occasions when the actors he wanted for his films refused to undergo his audition process, and he had to make a different choice.
But Joko said he is perfectly fine with that. “I always believe if something happened and you have to make a change, it is always a blessing.”
As to whether he believes in the world of supernatural which he so often portrays in his film, Joko laughingly said: “I believe in UFOs more. I believe I have been abducted at least once and I have the scars to prove it!”
But he turned serious when asked about the hardest thing being a filmmaker in Indonesia: “To stay on track and make the films you are passionate about (even though) you need money to survive and there are tempting offers to sway you from making the films you are passionate about.”
So far he has found the courage to resist the temptation.
His secret? “My happiness comes from small things,” he said.
There are reports that he is working on a sequel to Pengabdi Setan. But Joko refused to comment on that.
Instead, he spoke about his new dream project – a semi-autobiographical film to be called Coming Home to Punish Mother.
He revealed that the story starts with a mother telling her son that he should be grateful to her because she has been keeping secrets from him. If he ever knew the secrets, he will not be a happy man.
This angers the son because he is not a happy man, and he, too, has been hiding secrets from his mother. To punish her, he decides to unload all his secrets on her.
That sounded like Joko might be playing out some hidden resentment towards his late mother.
To that, the director laughingly replied: “You have to watch the film – and I love my mother very much!”