SGP | 26 minutes | 2013
Drama short film by Daniel Y-Li Grove
Starring Reza Safai, Tania Nolan
A Better Place Than This
When a a young woman takes a trip to South East Asia to unfold a new leaf, romance leads her astray and she finds herself on death row in Singapore for drug trafficking where she connects with the most unlikely of people – her executioner.
CineAsian Films (CAF): What inspired you to make this film and explore a story like this?
Daniel Y-Li Grove: I was inspired by the real life Singaporean hangman Darshan Singh, who was estimated to have hanged over 1000 people from the 1960s to the early 2000s. He was known to have taken it upon himself to get to know those on death row and help them come to terms with the fact they would die. He was a spiritual man and really believed he was playing a part in the mechanics of the universe by shepherding the condemned to the gallows. I heard through a source who spent time with him that he had fallen in love with a woman he hanged. I was moved by the conflicting emotions and motivations at play and wanted to relate them into a story. As far as out there characters it doesn’t get much more sublime than that.
CAF: The sets were incredible and so detailed. How were you able to pull this off?
Grove: Thank you. We were very lucky in a few respects. 1) we could build on the Zemeckis Stages at the University of Southern California during the end of term/holidays. I worked at those stages during my time at USC so had a very good relationship with the staff and could call in favours. 2) My producer Adam Lewin worked at the Sony lot and got a lot of flats (the fake walls) donated from TV shows that had been cancelled. We received a lot of equipment from Sony pro bona which amped up our production value massively (about 2-3 tonnes worth of lights and grip equipment). 3) our wonderful production designer Christina Brenton really knew her stuff and took on the challenge of recreating two Singaporean jail cells, a shop house apartment and a gallows on sound stages and warehouses in LA. We also shot at a women’s prison east of LA and a sheriff’s office.
CAF: A film like this is no small feat. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during production?
Grove: As I mentioned the build was a huge challenge. As we could not shoot in Singapore due to censorship/political reasons we had to recreate Singapore in LA. At the same time we had to hire Asian actors in LA. We were lucky to have a good casting director in Jennifer Levy but at the time and even now there is still a dearth of Asian actors in LA compared to other ethnicities. Tania Nolan who plays Sophie was a great get and easy to find. But we were very lucky to stumble upon the hangman Reza Safai at a screening for the film Circumstance after they won the Sundance Jury Award. Finding the hangman was a major issue and once we did we could take a breath.
CAF: What exciting projects can we expect from you in the near future?
Grove: Funnily enough a feature version of this project was packaged with producers, a sales agent, a well known British actress and ready to shoot mid 2020, but then COVID happened. That project is a co-production involving multiple countries for tax and finance reasons, and to be honest, I don’t see it getting made in the near future. Sad because it took about 6+ years to get it to that stage.
Recently I finished a feature script for a sci-fi family drama called THE PROCREATORS about a married lesbian couple who undertake a special procedure to turn a woman’s skin cells into sperm cells which can then be inseminated into her partner’s womb. The couple are then convinced by a Transhumanist to go the extra mile and genetically “design” their unborn baby. I’m also finishing up a script for a supernatural murder mystery set in Bali called FIRE ON HOLY MOUNTAIN. It plays on Balinese culture and European colonialism in a humourous and horror-tinged way. Once I’m happy with the script my first stop is CRAZY RICH ASIANS star Henry Golding.
And then after many years of not pursuing it, I’m throwing myself at acting again, and building my reel by writing, directing and co-staring in my own no-budget shorts. We’re finishing colour on A FRESH START right now. It’s a fun dark comedy shot in Harry Styles’ old place. It’s about a plastic surgeon and his partner who go slightly mad living in a house together. We can all appreciate that after 2020.
A Better Place Than This is one of the many great projects shared with CineAsian Films through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them, submit your film.
Director, Writer: Daniel Y-Li Grove
Producers: Adam Lewin, Catherine Aeppel, Liz Singh
Cinematographer: Fady Hadid
Editors: Gabriel Renfro, Jordan Ledy
Also featuring: Archie Kao