Jason Chan and Christian Lee are the multi-talented, multi-hyphenated writer-producer-directors-stars of multi-award-winning web series Perfect Girl. Hear the behind the scenes story of how they got it made, how they got it seen, and how they intend to capitalise on its success by listening the podcast here or reading the interview below.
Sat on the sofa in the small but cozy production office of Bananamana films in Jason Chan’s spare room, I began by asking about their respective backgrounds. Jason, originally from Australia, studied acting at the National Institute for Dramatic Arts and got his big break as the Green Power Ranger in the Ninja Storm series around fifteen years ago. That experience took him on location to New Zealand where, he says, he learned everything he knows about filmmaking by using the many hours of down time to talk to the cinematographer, the lighting guys, even learning what a grip does!
Christian, originally from the US, came to Singapore in 2000 as an actor and voiceover artist but decided quickly that he needed to be behind the camera to get the work he wanted. When he first left New York it was because he was only getting cast in stereotypical Asian roles so his agent advised him to go where the work is for Asian actors i.e Asia. He came to Singapore but found the industry young and naive struggling with substandard scripts and productions so he moved to China where, against the odds and with no Guangxi, he found success with his own production company. By the time he returned to Singapore he was Executive Producer of the NBA TV show which went out to 50 stations nationwide as well as producer of a feature film called Slam that got a release at Golden Village.
The boys finally met in Singapore in 2003 and together they formed Bananamana Films to create short, original stories for the web. After several years dabbling in corporate production and gaming the YouTube algorithm with “How to…” videos they realised they had wandered off their intended path in the pursuit of money so refocussed their efforts on original storytelling.
Inspired by French web series Breathe, which pioneered a new type of concise storytelling for digital platforms, Jason and Christian decided to write their own series in a similar vein. It was Jason’s concept so he took on writing duties and knocked out all ten episodes in two weeks by turning down all other work including paid production opportunities. He kept it small, planning the scenes around their own houses and neighbourhood and eventually he shared it with his partner and the rest of their team; Director of Photography & Editor Khairul Norady and Production Designer Min Lee.
The whole team were blown away by Jason’s efforts and immediately agreed to go into production. The first step they took was to plan the look. Khairul set up a Google Doc into which he dropped images from Google search that represented the scenes he wanted to shoot. As Jason says, “everyone logged on and just started dreaming” employing the actorly technique of improvisation to get the whole group saying “yes, and…” to extend each idea. This was a skill the two experienced actors had to teach their team to help them become more open and constructive rather than instantly shutting down ideas based on subjective viewpoints. Jason stressed how important it was to set a code of conduct for critiquing each others work, adding “it’s so hard to go away and write this stuff.”
So what is Perfect Girl actually about? In Jason’s words, “it’s about couple of people, a girl and a guy, in high school who wrote letters to each other in summer breaks that, in a way, were love letters without ever spelling it out. Over time they came to treasure these letters so much that that when they met in real life they could never talk about it, it became so much of a fantasy. So they left school and never met again for ten years but when they met again they still harboured these amazing feelings for each other and had to bridge that gap. The entire ten episodes is about trying to bridge that gap and just say three simple words”. Jason confesses, “if I had to pitch it to someone now I don’t know how we would do it because its just about a girl and a guy that meet each other and spend ten episodes trying to ask each other out. Nothing really happens!”
Jason took the lead role in the production, with Christian taking on the titular girl’s spurned lover – the antagonist. The lead actress, a novice compared to Jason and Christian, has a sexy/sweet quality that is hard to describe and was equally hard to find with the producers seeing over a hundred women until Khaleila Hisham walked in. Jason says he knew instantly he’d found the right person but his staff weren’t so sure. He told them to ask Christian who, without conferring, agreed with his partner. “Casting is really, really difficult,” says Jason, “it’s almost 99% of the entire production and you’ve just got to get it right.”
Each of the ten episodes is 5-8 minutes long and the crew took a fairly relaxed two weeks to shoot it, refusing to rush the process for a change. They then took the footage in to post for a month with Jason, Christian and Khairul taking three episodes each to edit, sharing their work at the end of each day and competing for the best cut.
The series has a haunting original soundtrack composed by Jason, who was classically trained as a child but hadn’t touched his keyboard in a long time. On their previous project the editor had selected stock music from an online library, which Jason says made the footage “unwatchable”. With no additional budget available he decided he had no choice but to compose his own, “it was a lot harder than I thought but I opened up Garageband, used only the free instruments and by Monday morning I had something to show”. When it came to Perfect Girl, Christian had absolute faith in his partner and loosened their limited purse strings for him to buy some additional instruments for his Garageband set up!
When it came to distribution the guys hosted the series on Vimeo but displayed it on their own platform alongside interactive elements like polls. Originally it sat behind a payment gateway which is why, when they saw that the Director of the LA Web Fest had logged on and paid in full to watch it, they got rather excited. Turns out he loved it and asked them to fly to Los Angeles and take part in a panel discussion. When they got their they discovered they had been nominated for nine awards and won five, an extraordinary achievement especially when you consider they were up against some Hollywood-backed productions funded to the tune of US$400,000 with vast television crews. They also had big wins for Best Series in Atlanta and Toronto and were invited to Raindance where they were nominated for Best Achievement in Production. “We were pretty shocked but the investment paid off. If we stick to our guns and invest in nurturing our creativity and doing it to the best level we can then, one day, we’ll be the best in the world,” said Jason, adding “we have to be as good as we can be before the money starts coming in.”
Perfect Girl was completed a year ago and has clearly been a huge success so, I asked them, what happens next? They now have a distributor for Perfect Girl and an earlier series called What Do Men Want? plus a couple of new deals are on the table that they claim would be a first for Singapore and the region, and which would take them to another level in terms of international distribution. They’ve also had two people approach them about investing in their next series, an action thriller about assassins called Bang Bang Club, which I for one can’t wait to see.
To find out more about Bananamana Films and the Perfect Girl Series check out the links below:
- Websites: http://bananamanafilms.com & www.perfectgirlseries.com
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/BananaManaFilms
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BananaMana/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/bananamanafilms
- Instagram: https://instagram.com/bananamanafilms/
If you’d like a more technical guide to how Jason and Christian made Perfect Girl you can check out their post here: http://bananamanafilms.com/how-to-make-web-series/