Shirkers’ Sandi Tan Didn’t Expect Her Very Strange Story to Be So Universal

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

“I’m a looser tongue than most.” Those were the first words picked up by my audio recording of my conversation with Sandi Tan as we sat down in a spare room at her publicist’s office. For those who have seen Shirkers, her stunning Netflix documentary about her lost would-be punk cinema masterpiece, this might not come as much of a surprise. It’s clear that Tan — both the ambitious misfit cinephile teenager immortalized in the 16 mm footage that she, cinematographer Ronnie Lee, and her enigmatic director Georges Cardona shot in the summer of 1992, and the adult who narrates the film — hasn’t ever had a problem expressing herself. I joke that that only makes my job easier. She looks self-conscious for a moment as I put the recorder on the table. “Oh my God, I have to be careful,” she says. Then, seconds later: “You can put it closer. I won’t bite.”

Tan has been crisscrossing the country and the globe doing premieres and press, a nonstop hustle for her debut feature film. (In addition to its streaming release, the soundtrack is now available on Spotify.) It’s been a few weeks since the film’s global release, and she’s still getting her mind around the fact that her strange, long-buried story of teenage dreams and artistic betrayal is now out there for the world to see, and what’s more, that audiences are responding so passionately to it. “There are people who are like, ‘I’m watching it for the fifth time!’ and traveling from festival to festival to see this thing,” she says. “It’s just insane to me.”

I wanted to talk to Tan not only as a fan of her film, but because it seemed abundantly clear to me that the story of Shirkers was a very alive, not-at-all-resolved narrative. Its eventual release, first at the Sundance Film Festival and now streaming worldwide on Netflix, surely added a new layer to a story inherently about the frustration of nobody seeing your art. And the fraught central friendship between her and her producers Sophia Siddique and Jasmine Ng seemed like it could go any number of ways after the credits rolled. Luckily, Tan wasn’t lying about that loose tongue, and she spoke candidly — often hilariously so — about Shirkers wild second life, and what it’s like, after 25 years of limbo, to be inundated with crying emoji and animated fan art from Portugal.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

In a sense, you’ve been waiting to release this film for 25 years. I know the premiere at Sundance earlier this year must have been an extremely emotional experience, but how have you processed the film being out in the world, in the year since?
It’s so strange because at Sundance, the first premiere screening was the first time that Jasmine, me, and Sophie were actually in the same room together in 20 years. So that in itself was a thing. I mean, it just took a lot of doing to get us there and to not be killing each other. And then I put them all in one house in a sadistic fashion, like Big Brother, the new [crew] and the old [crew], and Jasmine and Sophie walked in the door of that condo, and my editor and my producers and my composers were like, “Oh, hi, Jasmine.” They were talking to them like they knew who they were, but Jasmine and Sophie had no idea who these people were. It was a really strange instant family. And I enjoy building bridges in that strange way, just suddenly bringing very disparate people together.

But, the first inkling I had that was strange was at Sundance, and I had all these people — of all ages, but people who were not necessarily like me — come up to me just weeping and telling me, “Thank you for telling me my story.” They felt it was their story. And I was like, Okay, that’s really nice, but strange. But it kept going on, and [when we played at the] True/False Film Festival, it’s in a college town and we played it to 1,100 kids, and that was just like … it was like a rock concert or something. But, you know, it’s ironic because it’s such a specific story. Specific to a forgotten episode in my life. And I’m sure they’re just saying that because it reminds them of being older and their youth and blah, blah, blah, and everybody sees an aspect of themselves in it. So that’s nice, I guess.

Now that it’s finally out on Netflix, I’m getting Instagram Stories every day from people around the world, capturing screenshots with crying emoticons and stuff. There are people doing animated fan art from Portugal, and then people in Peru and Colombia. It’s nice to be able to have people feel like you’ve taken them on a journey that’s spoken to them … I know, it’s so redundant and stupid to say, but that’s a strange thing that I had not expected.

It feels like a great example of finding the universal in the specific. The film is so much about where you were as a teenager, the very particular mix of influences and environmental factors that made you who you were, and I think people connect to that because everyone has those things in their life, even if they aren’t the exact same things.
That was inside my head, I think, that was the thing. I spent a long time, like a couple of months just doing the inside of my head before we even did story construction on this film. The graphics and the music and the atmospheric stuff. And the images, and the collage aspect. We worked at it backward. Most films, most responsible films, [start] with story construction, and you send away the film to some expensive person who then does the graphics. But we went at it backward because I knew we had to get inside my head before I could even tell my own story.

As a filmmaker, it was important for me to capture what it was inside my head now, but also what was inside my head when I was 18. And I have to credit Enat Sidi, who edited The Wolfpack and Jesus Camp. She came and looked at my archive, and she was the one who told me it’s about me. And I sat and marinated in my teenage juices, looking at my old stuff for a couple of weeks or months. It was tough, but I had to look at my old letters and all that just to remember who I was. Like, I was a completely different person. It’s actually crushing to realize that you’ve become the grown-up that you would be so disappointed to have grown up into. I mean, it is crushing. And then you try to regain that. The making of the film, even though it takes you through the growing up process, was me recapturing what it was like to be a young person, I guess.

I think, aside from the relatability some people might feel about that teenage version of you and your story, one totally staggering thing about the film is the fact that you were able to write, shoot, and have in the can a feature film on 16 mm as a 19-year-old. It would still be a big task for a young person today, but the tools are so much more lighter now than they were then. There’s something so inspirational about seeing a young woman who has the wherewithal — not just the resources, the physical resources, but the force of will — to do that.
I mean, it was something I had to do to save my life, because it was so … I mean, when I was that age, I read an interview with the Coen brothers and they talked about growing up in Minnesota being stultifying. That word — stultifying — it stuck in my head because that’s exactly how I felt about Singapore. And you just had to make your own things, your own rules.

And the Coens were also inspired by that stultifying environment the same way you ended up being. You take the thing that you’re bored with and you make it into something unique to your point of view.
Yeah, and trying to transcend it and save everyone along the way by pulling them in. I mean, it’s convenient that they were free labor, but it’s like, you want your friends to be able to shine as well. All these friends that did production design were people I wanted to capture some aspect of it.

And I was completely aware that this was a very, very brief period. That we would all fade into adulthood at some point really soon, in different countries. Already we were going to school on different continents, and this was the one summer that it was like, you do it or you die. I mean, Jasmine still is adamant to this very day that I caused this whole catastrophe by forcing everybody to make this film in that summer with Georges. Like we should’ve waited a year for everything to be perfect. But there’s no way everything was going to line up. We just had to grab and go, so we did.

This isn’t really addressed in the film at all, and in a way I’m kind of glad it’s not, but at the time, were you in any way aware of the idea that mounting this kind of project or having a career as a filmmaker would be particularly hard as a woman?
Okay, so this is the thing. We, Jasmine and I, were in a “special” high school, and it was … basically like X-Men Jr. [Laughs.] We went to this place called Victoria Junior College, and we were the pilot program for the A-level, the British college entrance [system], for theater studies and drama. Somehow they chose our school in Singapore. We did Beckett, we did the Greeks, and we did a sprinkling of Asian cinema, we did everything. Also, we had American and British teachers. So when Georges walked into town, it wasn’t like he was this foreign person and we were these naïve girls. It was not that kind of thing. I walked into everything with my eyes open. We were really wised-up kids, maybe even too wised-up. But we were used to doing elaborate, ambitious things in theater. But there was no opportunity to make films.

So when Georges came along doing the first-ever 16 mm filmmaking class in Singapore, of course we had to be part of it. But it was never gendered. The only way it was gendered was, that world around us was very gendered, I guess. When Sophie and Jasmine were trying to get free film from Kodak and nobody would take us seriously, it was like … it was useful for them to play like, “Oh, we’re just girls. We want to just play with film and just experiment, and we’re just trying to learn filmmaking. Can you just, hey, throw us a few cans?”

And then Georges was actually a very convenient friend for us because he was grown up, and male, and an American who knew something about film. There was no way the film-equipment places were going to give us free equipment, all this kind of stuff. It was because we had Georges. In some ways we were knowingly using him as well.

So, it’s more complicated than just the male person coming in, which I like about it. Because it’s … life is messy. It’s so much easier [as a story] if we were just these naïve girls who are taken advantage of, but we were very cognizant of all the signifiers in everything we were doing.

I think that’s one of the most interesting aspects of the film. The relationship with Georges doesn’t quite play out the way we might expect or dread, but that kind of mutual using of each other feels very real and very familiar.
Yeah, of course! I mean, that’s how shit gets done, man.

Like, if you are a precocious teen it can feel very empowering to have an older white man who might take you seriously.
Yeah, if he takes you seriously … because no grown-up was taking me seriously. I would get into these huge fights with my drama teacher, just like, telling [him] I wanted to direct. He thought that I should be an actress, blah, blah, blah. All that kind of stuff.

But the thing is, we were in that milieu talking and yelling at our teachers who are Americans, Brits, and whatever, as equals. So I guess, from there, going to Georges it didn’t feel like a leap. I saw him as my friend, I saw him as a version of a teenage girl, even though I didn’t really think of myself as necessarily a teenage girl. I just thought of myself as me.

I’m kind of wondering about how your relationships with Jasmine and Sophie have continued since the film has come out. I know it was tough, especially with Jasmine, during the shooting of it.

Has the film helped bring the three of you together in any way?
Well, we’re still in different places. When we’re here in New York, Sophie comes to support it. When we’re in Asia or in England, like when we were at Sheffield, Jasmine came. It was really hard to get the three of us in the same place again. And we will in the next few months, I hope, get back together, the three of us in the same room.

For Sophie, it’s just been thrilling. Jasmine’s a bit more … this is not a talking point, because I’m not supposed to talk about this, but it’s like … she’s exactly as she is onscreen. My crew, when they finally met Jasmine and Sophie, they said it was like watching these people crawl off the screen. Not like in a creepy way … like in The Ring. But they were authentic. I was really proud of the fact that I caught them as they were. I just wanted to capture the texture of female friendship over time because it’s often so fake and so glossed over, and you’re always doing song and dance montages and jumping on beds and singing to hair dryers or crying on each others’ shoulders. I’ve never cried on anyone’s shoulder, neither of theirs. It’s just more prickly and more difficult than that. And there’s all sorts of different ambitions, and different expectations, and disappointments over the years, and you factor that into your friendship. And it is friendship. It’s prickly, but it’s friendship.

Jasmine still is prickly in real life, [but] she’s really, obviously, really proud of [Shirkers], tweeting that she’s been spotted on the intercity rails, going from London to Sheffield by people who had seen the film elsewhere and recognized her. So in Sundance or in Sheffield, places like that where she’s showed up, people just mob her and shout lines at her. And she loves it. She’s never going to show in front of me that she enjoys it, but the rest of my cast and crew have seen her in action and how she relishes that recognition, and I’m so glad I could give that to her. Because that’s my … I’m such a bad friend. I’m not somebody who can talk easily to people. I need the intermediary of this film.

A project.
Yeah, as the excuse for me to reach out to them. Sophie and Jasmine … I actually hadn’t talked to Sophie in years, decades maybe, and now we’re in touch almost every day. And it’s like … it’s the excuse.

And I have to really talk about Ben Harrison, too, because he’s the person who I was maybe, in some ways, the most unfair to. Because over the years after his music was stolen, I just never believed him. I mean, I believed that it was taken from him, but I thought my tragedy was so much bigger, and he was so quiet about it. And when you look at the four of us [in the film], we’re kind of like overgrown teenagers. We haven’t really grown up. It was really important for me to capture how they are, body-language-wise. Ben just seems like this fragile boy still, and he’s older than me.

And he’s got a band now and everything, but the ghost of the Shirkers music has been haunting his songs, he said. He’d been telling me, “Oh, there’s this refrain in there,” and I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever. Whatever you did wasn’t that great. I’m sure it was just a piece of rubbish, just did some strumming on guitar, and Georges took it, and so what?” And I just never took him seriously. I never did, and I feel really bad about that.

So when he finally saw the film a few weeks ago when we had the Singapore premiere, he had to run out the theater, just overcome. Also, he just was shocked that I got footage from inside his head, seeing Georges in that car because he was like reliving that horrible traumatic experience. Which I didn’t realize was so traumatic for him.

Before we wrap up, I did want to say that even though I know you hate your performance in the Shirkers footage, it makes me so happy to see the teenage you playing S.
Yeah, part of my thing was the horror of seeing myself. Once I got over that, I had to force myself really quickly to just see that as a different person. You have to edit around a performance, and a lot of it was just me being me. It wasn’t acting because it wasn’t a role that could be acted. I mean, I wrote a role that was not playable. It was just —

It was a theoretical role.
And the only person who could do it was me, and just being me. So it was like … it was like really being confronted with the me-ness that I wanted to avoid seeing. Because if I had an acting role that was more distant from me, maybe it would’ve been less traumatizing to see myself, but somehow because it was just me being me, it was realism.

Not everyone has the ability to look back on their former self in such vivid detail. You have this preserved-in-amber, three-dimensional artifact of yourself.
Yeah, giving like … what do you call that when you glare at somebody? Stink eye. The stink eye! I was the master of the stink eye, and I caught myself doing that several times.

At people off camera?
Probably, like Jasmine, you know? And I caught myself. Yeah, I mean, I’m completely such an ass, but —

Well at least you were the first documented asshole director. There’s never been one before or since.
No, actually, I don’t think I was even that much of an asshole. I think I was just determined.

Shirkers’ Sandi Tan on Her Very Strange Story