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Teaching basketball players to actTay Ping Hui's directorial debut is a basketball drama with real players
For popular home-grown actor Tay Ping Hui, it is one of the few times he is dwarfed. Standing beside the cast of his feature film directorial debut Meeting The Giant at a press event recently, the 1.86m-tall star looks at least half a head shorter than them.
That is what happens when you insist on casting a group of real-life top basketball players, the 43-year-old says with a smile.
"For the first time in my life, I have to keep looking up to talk to these guys. My whole life, I've been looking down on people - literally," he says with a laugh about his actors who are 1.9m to 2m tall.
Meeting The Giant, which opens in cinemas tomorrow, centres on a group of basketball players from China who are brought into Singapore to help raise the standards of the team here. Away from home, the talent imports face various challenges and clashes of culture when they train with local players.
The film stars three guys who play for the Singapore Slingers, Singapore's professional basketball team that competes in the Asean Basketball League: Ng Han Bin, Lim Sheng Yu and Delvin Goh. Most of the other cast members in the film are also skilled basketball players who play for their school teams.
For Tay, having a bunch of genuine athletes in his film was important as he wanted the basketball scenes to look and feel authentic, he says.
"I could have cast real actors and have them undergo basketball training, but it just wouldn't look realistic when they play on screen.
"I was always clear that I wanted to have the basketball scenes as real and convincing as possible, so that's why I chose to cast real basketballers instead. In terms of acting, I decided I could help to teach them," he says of his cast, who were selected through open auditions.
The only professional actor in the main cast is Shanghai-born actor Ian Fang, who had reportedly lobbied the director to include him in the movie as he liked the story.
"Even then, I said yes to Ian only because I know that he can actually play basketball. Obviously, his basketball skills aren't as good as the national players in the cast, but he's definitely not new to the game."
For a first-time director, he sounds completely self-assured about his vision for the movie, which cost about $1.2 million to make.
"I was always quite sure about how I wanted the movie to look and feel and I stuck to that. I didn't want this to feel like a big blockbuster and I didn't want it to be a comic book-type of basketball movie, either," he says, perhaps taking a swipe at singer-actor Jay Chou's Kung Fu Dunk (2008).
"I just wanted to make a realistic but touching movie. I am proud to say that there is no wire-work and no CGI."
His self-confidence was what drew actor-producer Zhu Houren, 59, to offer him the director's chair in the first place.
Zhu, whose production house G & J Creation is a producer of the film, says in a separate interview that he had been kicking around the idea for the movie with several other directors for the past decade, but it was Tay who offered some concrete suggestions.
He says: "I was acting with Ping Hui in TV drama 96°C Cafe last year and casually told him about this story idea. He was genuinely interested and kept saying that if I ever got this film made, he would want to watch it.
"He was moved by the idea and we just kept going back and forth discussing it. He was so into it that, one day, I just said, 'Ping Hui, why don't you direct the movie?'"
Tay says he accepted the offer almost immediately, but not before a million different notions of self-doubt flashed through his mind.
He has always had an interest in film-making, but his only experience in directing was for Brothers, a 14-minute pilot that he made two years ago for TesTube, MediaCorp's local content showcase.
"Directing this movie is a big gamble for me. If I suck, then that's it. But I guess, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
"When opportunity comes knocking on your door, you might as well give it a shot."
It helps that the film is themed around a sport that is close to his heart.
Says the director, who played competitive basketball from secondary school through his university years: "I was really interested in being a part of Singapore's first basketball movie. S***, after watching the boys play in the film, I also wanted to play again."
He laughs, before apologising for swearing - probably already the fifth time he has done so at this point in the interview. "People always say I swear too much. I need to control myself."
Given his candid and no-nonsense manner, it is perhaps surprising that he says he never lost his temper at his newbie cast during the 25-day shoot.
Cast member Ng Han Bin, 25, tells Life! cheerily: "All of us didn't really know what to do or how a film set works, but the director was always very patient with us. He taught us a lot and we really respect him."
Tay, who has been acting in local TV dramas for the past 17 years, says he sees "no point" in being hotheaded with the boys, no matter how stressful the situation.
"I was a new actor once myself, so I know what it's like for them. When I was teaching them about acting, I felt like I was also revising my own acting skills - it was pretty great."
He chose not to take on a prominent role in his own film, making only a brief cameo as "an old Ah Beng, which is what I'm pretty much becoming in real life", says Tay, who got married in 2010 to a university lecturer and has no children.
"Besides, this movie isn't about me. It's not a vanity project. The story is about this group of young boys and I have no plans to steal the limelight from them."
He is "pretty happy" with the movie, which he would rate "about 70 out of 100" marks.
More importantly, he has done well enough to win the trust of Zhu, who is developing two more film projects for him to direct. One will be a film about Hainan ethnic theatre, while another will be a biopic about a "very famous singer, but I can't tell you who yet".
Zhu had "such a pleasant time" working with Tay that he wants to collaborate some more. Says the producer: "Ping Hui may have been directing for the first time, but he acted like a total pro. He worked efficiently and commanded the respect of everyone on set. I trust him as a director."
Despite the strong vote of confidence, Tay will not be quitting his day job as an actor anytime soon.
"I feel like I'm nearing a tipping point in my acting career, so I want to do different things. With directing and going behind the scenes, I feel like my range in all areas has expanded."
He pats his stomach, then laughs: "That includes my body. I'm older and fatter but I'm pretty happy."
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