Step 2 — Pre-production: production design and set construction
Mountains are significant to the drummers of U Theatre and also in my film, because it’s where the physical and metaphysical transformations of the lead character, Sid, will take place.
A huge challenge in The Drummer, therefore, was to create the mystical world on a mountaintop where the Zen drummers live and train. In real life, U Theatre has a piece of land atop Laochuan Shan in the outskirts of Taipei. We could not shoot there because we didn’t want to damage it in anyway.There was a very special earthy quality about their stage, meditation area and huts. When they moved up to the mountain many years ago, they had very limited funds to build their structures. There is a huge stretch of the mountain where cars could not reach, so they had to carry the lumber up the mountain by themselves. Piece by piece they did it. This is typical of their dedication. Some young people who joined the group to drum would complain that they did not join the group to be in construction; those members were free to go and they never returned. The members who stayed would eventually stay for ten years or more.
U Theatre's original rehearsal pavilion
There were charming details all over U Theatre’s creations, mostly of utilitarian purposes. There were clear plastic sheets all around their training hut to prevent the rain from coming in. Over time, green moss grew all over the sheets which was beautiful to look at. There were small wooden chairs, machetes to chop down wood, and everyday tools. And the years of exposure to the elements were etched into their faces as well as the wooden structures.
I took photographs and video on each of my visiting trips. I showed all the visuals I had to our production designer, Alex Mok, who quickly soaked up all the material. To be faithful to U Theatre, I wanted the structures in the film to have the quality of having been built by the drummers themselves.
Next we scoured for locations throughout Taiwan. At first we looked around Taipei, the capital city where all the local actors and crew live, but we found that the air quality was better in the south, so we eventually chose to film in Taitung. Air quality is important because film is very sensitive and lenses love depth. If there’s dense haze in the air, the film would turn out looking murky and flat. Clean and light air, on the other hand, could allow people and objects to appear three-dimensional.
It was no small feat finding a huge piece of flat land on top of a mountain that’s not occupied nor too isolated, spacious with an air of mystery to it and a view of the city in the distance. We looked at numerous possibilities; some were too manicured, some not lush enough. Some didn’t have the ideal elevation, while some were fine but had very narrow paths that would be too dangerous for the camera and lighting trucks to enter.
After searching for a long time, our unit production manager in Taiwan finally found a piece of land that had everything I asked for: grass field, tall trees and a majestic quality. The only problem was the roads leading into this area. They were steep and muddy, surely to cause problems during the rain. Cars could not go up the slippery road. It was decided that we would to pour concrete on the slopes. As our budget was tight we could only pave part of the slopes. But that section was a critical section and it made the difference in getting the cast, crew, and equipment up the hill, particularly on rainy days.
Once the main location was decided, Alex went to the drawing board to layout the mountaintop setting. He understood what I was looking for and the importance of this natural space; he appreciated the need to make the setting real for U Theatre yet practical for the film. There was a main pavilion, a kitchen shack, a dining area, and cabins and bathrooms for the drummers. There was also a barbecue pit and a platform that faces the city. The unit production manager in Taiwan found used wood for sale, which had the perfect texture we had in mind, then the art department went to the beach and collected beautiful aged driftwood. Alex even went the extra mile and transplanted a gigantic spider to a corner of the main pavilion where it’d call home for the next three months.
Director, center, chats with the drummers at the “dining area”; “kitchen” & “bathrooms”
As the construction of the main set took place in May and June, at the start of the rainy season in Taitung, our crew had to brave the weather and complete the job in less than a month. We were seriously worried by the beginning of June when the incessant rain did not seem to want to subside. However the clouds miraculously cleared up the day before filming on the main set began!
When the drummers finally arrived on our set, I was eager to see their reactions. They were stunned that the place had such resemblance to theirs except it was bigger and with more facilities. And because their performance stage had been under renovation, they had not trained on the mountain for a long time. They felt the calm that they once knew on their mountain on my movie set. It was so authentic to them. It was amazing for the other cast and crew to see that the drummers felt the structures and the space belonged to them. They started taking out brooms to sweep the place as if it were their own property. Each drummer took to a different corner or spot on the set, and those spots became theirs. When they were resting between setups, we would always know where to find them afterwards.
Jaycee on first day of drum training with U Theatre; Jaycee & Roy Cheung on the platform
It was the first time for me to have such elaborate sets built. I usually like to shoot in real locations for authenticity but our production manager told me very early on that I would fall in love with having sets built, because we could do much more with them and that they create their own magic which is specific for that film only. I must say, I agree wholeheartedly.
Next I will be talking about more of our lead actors in The Drummer, namely Lee Sinje, Roy Cheung, Josie Ho and the main guy, Jaycee Chan.