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No Pain, No Gain, The Jack Neo Way

He may be Singapore’s most commercially successful film-maker, but Mr Jack Neo, was as affable as his boy-next-door characters as he met students for a talk at The Agency recently. The Agency is a new learning space for our Diploma in Media and Communication (DMC) students.

Applause greeted him as the Cultural Medallion winner -- who has made his mark as a director, comedien, producer and composer over two decades -- bounded into The Agency. It was his first visit to Singapore Polytechnic but his talk with students in a mixture of English and Mandarin was peppered with jokes. His talk on November 16 was presented by the Diploma Plus Certificate in Digital Film.

His comedy in camouflage, Ah Boys To Men, is now showing at cinemas and has raked in $4.9 million after showing for 18 days. It is second only to top-grossing I Not Stupid 1 which made $6.02 million after six months. Mr Neo has made over 15 movies since he began working on films in 1998.

Mr Neo is particularly proud of the 30-minute war scene filmed in Robinson Road on a quiet Sunday – even though it caused the $3 million movie to go over budget.

"Singapore movies are often known as small productions featuring families,” he said.

Jack Neo in his element as he chatted warmly with
students (Picture by Priscilla Liew, Year 2, DMC)

“This time we actually have a long war scene. We had only a very limited time to do it, including clearing the debris.  So we had to bring in 8 vehicles and turn the vehicles so that we could look more realistic for war scene as this has never been done before.”

The scene took between seven and 10 days to shoot and was reported to cost $100,000 a day. He said he may wind up not collecting a director’s fee.

“I don’t always collect my director’s fees,” he said with a serious shrug. “Of course my wife may make noise but you need to tolerate that if you believe in what you are doing.”

Even when he made the very successful I Not Stupid 1, he remembered having to spend a great deal on dubbing as there was too much static. Even then, he was so worried about what the media would say that he decided to show the movie to them in a conference room with a TV set. He was braced to answer questions about the static.

“But instead, they clapped and asked about the characters and the story-line instead,” he recalled. “The Straits Times gave me four stars when I usually got one. The positive buzz helped us to save a lot of money on advertisements.”

“Making movie is not about becoming big director or big star,” said Mr Neo in a sombre voice. “Without determination, it is very hard to finish a movie. You need help from lots of people.”

His advice for aspiring film-makers among his rapt audience: “You must go through a few painful steps. Must make something on your own that people can see. If the standard is good, you can get the money. The world will come.”

He was referring to New Talent Feature Grant scheme by the Media Development Authority, which will support up to new directors in feature film-making.

According to Gloria Kho, 17, a Year 1 DMC student, a fan of his award-winning Homerun, she came away learning how Mr Neo used humour to connect with the younger audience, even in his talk. “He can really understand the younger generation,” she said.

Jack Neo with DMC Year 1 students after his talk at
The Agency. On his left is Gloria Kho.

Another student, Muhammad Nursyakir Taher, 18, a Year 2 DMC student, also found his talk inspiring.

He said: “He really impressed on me how serious he was about film – pointing out that unless we were interested in film, we would not be present at his talk. His is a lesson on the importance of not giving up, not even for someone like him who is already the most successful commercially.”