Where cinematographer Benoît Soler speaks of his work on "Apprentice", directed by Boo Junfeng

By François Reumont for the AFC

[English] [français]

Apprentice is the second feature-length film by young Singaporean director Boo Junfeng. It deals with a subject that is taboo in the small, prosperous Southeast-Asian city-state : the death penalty.

Aiman, a young former soldier, has been hired as a prison guard. His skills and his professional attitude are quickly noticed by his superiors, who assign him to work on death row. There, he gets to know Rahim, the chief executioner. This man, who at first seems cold and inflexible, is preparing to retire after a thirty-year-long career, and has decided to teach him the “ropes” of the profession… But Aiman is also hiding a weighty family secret.

Boo Junfeng chose French cinematographer Benoît Soler to bring this story to the screen.
“We met in 2014, when I filmed another movie in Singapore,” (Ilo Ilo, by Anthony Chen), explains Benoît. “When we began to work on preparation for the film, we soon realized that it was going to be hard to find a location for the prison. Filming a movie on the death penalty wasn’t something the Singaporean authorities were particularly pleased about. The justice administration has completely refused to allow us to access prisons, even decommissioned ones. After thinking about the problem from a variety of different angles, we decided to recreate the place by using a composition of different places.”

The film was shot over a period of 26 days – which is longer than average for a feature length film in Singapore – with nearly one week of shooting abroad in order to do a few wide shots and establishing shots in a real prison. “Of course, it was impossible to recreate a prison from scratch, given the budget we had to work with (1 million Euros). We shot the interior courtyards where the prisoners have their walk in Australia, as well as a few gangways and the courtyard with the long fence the prisoners have to cross on their way to be hung. The rest was entirely filmed in Singapore in a patchwork of different places, with the main set – the famous execution chamber and the dark hallway that leads to it – recreated in studio.

This prison looks entirely different from the archetype of the penitentiary that we are familiar with in Europe or even the USA… “It is true that the conditions in prisons over there are totally opposite from what we’re familiar with in France. When you visit a prison in Singapore, you’re struck by the cleanliness of the place and the dominant impression is one of order. Prisoners are housed in cells by groups of 3 or 4, they sleep on the ground and have the right to no personal possessions. They are dressed in a uniform, slippers, and that’s about all they’re allowed to have.

As far as the film is concerned, we really pushed the envelope in terms of the image in order to translate the feeling of intimacy and secretiveness that you feel on death row. That means that we made the spaces very dark, with almost no daylight, and a recurring green colour – in association with the yellow-beige walls – that we decided on with the production designer in order to unify the various locations in which we shot. That green colour was inspired by the colour blue that is everywhere in Singapore’s prisons ; we kept the idea but changed it enough so that no one would be able to state with assurance that it took place in Singapore.”

The film opens with a long, mysterious shot in a very dark hallway, which is repeated in the epilogue. Benoît Soler explains, “At the outset, Boo Junfeng wanted to have a long establishing shot with the Steadicam that lasted 7 minutes to close the film, and that would show Aiman’s last minutes before performing his first execution. But later on, the shot was cut in half, and used for the opening shot. It was a very good idea that was devised while editing the film and that allows it to begin on a more mysterious tone.
As far as the sets are concerned, I got most of the work done during preparation alongside the production designer so that we could integrate all of the small light sources into the walls in order to allow us to capture perspective in the dim light. In order to have latitude to work with, supercharged 300W lightbulbs were used on a dimmer at the lowest setting so that we could only use the bottom of the curve with a very warm colour temperature.
We worked in low underexposure conditions on that scene (around -3 to -4 aperture) so that, on screen, you can practically only make out the silhouettes of dark suits and a lot of other information that gets lost in the darkness and depth of the image. I think that it was a better idea to do this while shooting rather than to work higher up on the curve and then have to darken everything during colour timing.”

This shadowy atmosphere leaves space for rituals, especially the hooding ritual during which a hood is placed on the condemned man right before he enters the room where he will be hung. Benoît Soler : “there is a quasi-religious aspect to the executioner’s work. Rahim insists on the ceremonial aspect when he teaches it to Aiman and shows him how to perform every gesture, as though they were on stage. Similarly, the condemned man is dressed in special clothing, he is asked what he wishes to eat for his last meal, and then the execution takes place at 7 a.m., just before the sun rises. No one is allowed to watch, everything is done in such a way that confidentiality is maintained and total secrecy is kept surrounding the entire affair. This hooding ritual gave us the idea to film this from a point-of-view shot from within the hood. In order to do that, I used the 32mm Arri T2.1 macro along with a hood that was specially made in a fabric that gave us enough material on screen but allowed enough light to pass through.”

Using an Arri Alexa XT 4:3 for the entire film, the director of photography chose to record in RAW format so that he could get the most out of the colour timing which was performed in France by Isabelle Julien. “Despite all of the dark scenes, I pushed the underexposure pretty far, and you have a very good range with the Alexa, especially when you record in RAW,” he explains. “As for the lenses, I chose to film with a combination of Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes and Master Primes, in function of the scenes and the level of lighting available, especially out of doors at night-time.

The complexity of the patchwork between the sets used to recreate the prison and a number of other out-of-doors scenes required the team to perform a lot of preparation work.
“Overall, a month and a half were required on location before shooting to perform all of the scouting and especially to perfect the shooting script. I was glad that it was my second feature-length film in Singapore and I was already slightly familiar with the renters and the teams. I was able to work with some of the same people from the team I had on Ilo Ilo… It’s not that the shooting methods are that different, it’s just that the rhythm of 26 days of shooting was sometimes intense and our days were very long (12, 14, and sometimes even 16 hour days). You’ve got to be able to take it !”

Singaporean independent cinema, represented by Eric Khoo in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is still young but is beginning to be renewed by a new wave of internationally-minded directors like Boo Junfeng, Anthony Chen, and K Rajagopal (A Yellow Bird), whose film was selected for the Critics’ Week this year. Kristen Tan is another promising young talent of Singaporean independent cinema, who just finished a promising first feature-length film. In the words of Benoît Soler, “These young directors are pushing the local film industry to grow and offer Singaporean audiences an alternative to the blockbusters that dominate their movie theatres.”

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxY3zZCqeTw