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An Interview with Tony Pietra Arjuna, Director of Shadowplay

by Mike Haberfelner

February 2020

Films directed by Tony Pietra Arjuna on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new movie Shadowplay - in a few words, what is it about?

 


A novice P.I. is hired to seek an enigmatic woman whose vanishing is linked to his childhood trauma which manifests as evil entities in the present. His investigation merges with the pages of a Fighting Fantasy-like gamebook that he discovered. Yeah, it gets pretty phantasmagoric.

 

Shadowplay sure is a genre bender, but in key elements it resembles film noir rather closely - so is that a genre at all dear to you, and some of your genre favourites?

 

Noir was my obsession when I became cinematically literate in my teens. The dark side of Americana spoke to me. I wanted it to become my field of study. Shadowplay is basically an extension of my student films and theory papers in college. I love Kiss Me Deadly, Laura and The Long Goodbye immensely. I think they had some latent/subtle influence on this flick, but the aesthetics of 80’s neo-noir like Thief or To Live and Die in L.A. are more directly referenced.

 

(Other) sources of inspiration when writing Shadowplay?

 

My guiding light was Twin Peaks in the 90’s. I sought to transpose its elements and themes to an Asian milieu, but Mulholland Drive helped to craft those ideas into a Moebius-strip narrative.

I revisited Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective for its “confront the past to heal the present” framework and drew from Grant Morrison (especially Animal Man) for the metafiction aspect, but The NeverEnding Story became the main template. It is a Lynchian noir reimagining of it!

 

What can you tell us about your co-writers Khairil M. Bahar and Magdelen Spooner, and what was your collaboration like?

 

They’re pals! Khai is a fellow filmmaker who I regard as Kevin Smith’s Malaysian kindred spirit.

The Big Nothing was the first screenplay that we co-wrote. I did the story/treatment and he adapted it into a script that was retitled Detective Ex Machina (wordplay on deus ex machina).

Mags is a Brit novelist who polished the dialog for the final version that became Shadowplay.

 

To what extent could you actually identify with Shadowplay's lead character Anton Shaw, and did you base him in any way or form on yourself?

 

You hit the Freudian nail on the Jungian noggin! I believe that every director is entitled to one “wank” in order to establish their signature. Who I am became the blueprint for Shadowplay.

Anton is a cathartic projection but the film is my alter-ego. It is hence my most introspective and personal effort. Now that it is out of my system, I just want to make fun grindhouse flicks!

 

Shadowplay is rather labyrinthine in its narrative approach - so how easy or hard was it to not get (literally) lost in the plot?

 

7 drafts over a 10-year gestation period! The screenplay was even wilder and more cryptic in its earlier incarnations but once we stripped it all down, it was easier to navigate its surreal stream of consciousness. So after being in my head for a decade, I knew the storyline as well as the way to my apartment. It is actually linear but in a circular path instead of a straight line.

 

What can you tell us about your overall directorial approach to your story at hand?

 

Since the story is composed of dream logic, I directed with intuition more than conventional sense. In other words, I took acid. I encourage viewers to experience the film in the same way.

 

Do talk about Shadowplay's key cast, and why exactly these people?

 

I chose Tony Eusoff to play Anton because it was destiny. He has an old school vibe that is like matinee masculinity laced with vulnerability; a fragile Steve McQueen. When Juria Hartmans was cast, she was as alluring as Lamya; demure in an unearthly manner that evoked Jennifer Connelly in Phenomena. I wanted Megat Sharizal as Dan for both gravitas and levity. It was without question that a veteran talent like Radhi Khalid would compel us as The Gaunt Man.

 

A few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?

 

Being an indie production, we threw ourselves into the fire by packing a 3-week shoot into 10 days of principal photography. It almost killed us! Thankfully, there was nothing but love and support for each other and a collective belief in creating something unique to pull us through.

 

Anything you can tell us about audience and critical reception of Shadowplay yet?

 

The current rating on IMDb is a bit depressing, but I expected that Shadowplay wouldn’t please general viewers for both subjective and valid reasons. However, most of the reviews that are published online are pretty positive and audience reaction at screenings were encouraging. It won for best feature at the Malaysian Digital Film Awards. The nation’s most renowned critic, Hassan Muthalib, listed Shadowplay as the best local film of 2019. It’s not all doom and gloom!

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

Two indie horrors that I co-directed! They are currently in post. One is Safari Mall, a creature feature that is inspired by 80’s B-classics like The Blob (1988), Chopping Mall, Demons or Night of the Creeps. It is positioned for the Malaysian market, but the other flick, The Dark Eye, is targeting worldwide digital/streaming distribution. All I can say for now is that it is something like John Carpenter meets Rosemary’s Baby with martial arts. I kid you not. Just wait and see!

 

What got you into making movies in the first place, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?

 

I blame it on a compulsive addiction to VHS rentals as a kid. At some point in high school, I decided that becoming a filmmaker was the only way to recreate my adolescent daydreams.

Exposure to Bad Taste and Evil Dead 2 incepted the idea but it was Blue Velvet that inspired me to take it seriously. My parents probably knew that I was throwing my life away but they still got me into Emerson College. I graduated as a film major and I have suffered ever since!

 

As far as I know you are originally from Boston but make movies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - so how did this come about?

 

Being from Boston is frankly a hyperbole (LOL), but that city shaped me in my formative years.

I am a “third culture kid”, which means that I was raised in various countries with Malaysia as my motherland. There was a faster route to enter the field here than in the US, so I chose to build my career in Kuala Lumpur because it was a smaller and growing industry. Half of me remained in Beantown spiritually. Shadowplay echoes this condition of feeling lost between two worlds.

 

What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to Shadowplay?

 

My first forays into features were with segments in two indie anthologies: Cuak (Malaysian) and Train Station (international). The latter had a decent run in overseas and stateside film festivals and scored a few awards. Before Shadowplay was released, I co-directed a Chinese action flick (Red Storm) and was main director/showrunner of a thriller web series (Devoted).

 

How would you describe yourself as a director?

 

Merely a gen X geek whose only ambition in showbiz is to make the kinds of movies that he grew up loving … and hopefully earn a living from it! It is either that or working in a pet store.

 

Filmmakers who inspire you?

 

David Lynch, Michael Mann and Sergio Leone are the holy trinity. Shadowplay is my shrine to the former two. “If Lynch married 80’s-era Mann and their baby was a direct-to-VHS B movie” encapsulates the initial concept, but I subconsciously channeled Dario Argento in the process.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

Too many! I’ll narrow it down to the flicks that are relevant to Shadowplay. Inland Empire is the most intense and transcendent Lynch experience for me, so I wanted to capture that fever dream essence in our own little way. Manhunter is my single favorite film because it’s the one that has consistently informed my directorial work. I tried to emulate its style in Shadowplay.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

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I’m easy to please! I enjoy bad and good movies in equal measure but my tolerance is lowering for horror films that are incessantly dependent on jump scares. They’re so fucking boring now.

 

Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

Go to https://www.27tenproductions.com/shadowplay for the movie’s digital/VOD links and to purchase its awesome synthwave soundtrack by Stellar Dreams

Our social media sites are: https://www.facebook.com/ShadowplayMovie/ and https://www.instagram.com/ShadowplayMovie/

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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On the same day
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A Killer Conversation

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directed by
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written by
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starring
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