Conjuring movie magic is not just lights, camera and action

Making people angry, cry and laugh is part of his job as a film director.

But Boo Junfeng says he has to help actors and crew deal with emotions off camera, too.

The 32-year-old Singaporean says: "When the cast and crew have a problem, I talk to them to understand why. Sometimes I feel like a counsellor."

At work, Boo is often in a T-shirt and jeans. That laid-back attitude makes him more approachable, he says.

He shares easily - it's like talking to a friend. One almost forgets that he's an award-winning film-maker with a feature film, Apprentice, competing at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival next month.

His previous feature film, Sandcastle, was listed by The Wall Street Journal as one of Asia's most notable films in 2010.

How does it feel to receive accolades for his work? Boo says modestly: "I have always been blessed to work with the best people and the film is as much theirs as it is mine."

He says it is important as a director to carefully choose the people you work with.

Boo does not just think of acting chops when casting for his films. He also considers how the actors relate with one another.

"Sometimes I get really good actors who work well on their own but might not have the best chemistry," says Boo.

What happens then?

He sighs: "We have to let them go but it's the hardest thing to do. Sometimes it's so difficult, I need the help of my casting director to do it."

But Boo says it is this attention to detail that has helped him produce his seven short films and two feature-length movies. Sometimes he feels more like a "researcher" than a director.

The research for Apprentice, a drama about a correctional officer who befriends a prison executioner, started five years ago.

Boo spoke to those "inside and outside of the system", including families whose breadwinners have been executed and people who worked in prisons.

"When I make a film, I try to understand people's lives and draw out the humanity in them so that it can appeal to all of us," Boo says.

He adds that a film-maker has to always be resourceful because things can and do go wrong.

Once, when he was travelling to Australia for a shoot, Boo realised there was not enough luggage space to take all the gear he wanted.

He dumped his warm clothes to squeeze in another tripod or lens. His crew followed suit.

"This was when it was chilly over there and I really felt it. But that had to be done and I'm glad my crew was willing to make the sacrifice too," he says.

Despite the support he gets, Boo says the pressure of film-making can be intense. "All these people have invested in you, financially or otherwise, and you just don't want to let them down."

The stress got to him was when he was directing Sandcastle, his first feature film that premiered at Cannes.

Two days before the shoot, Boo suffered a panic attack, afraid the film would not meet expectations.

"All eyes were on me and it's not like I could just hide the film under my bed if it was bad," he says.

But after a lengthy phone conversation with his producer, Boo arrived on set and saw the entire crew was all geared up and had his back.

He says he recognised he was not alone and everyone was ready to give their all to help him.

The movie became a hit and won awards in film festivals overseas.

Boo says: "It's like they are all these great colours and palette, and I am lucky enough to be the painter who gets to create beautiful art."

This article was first published on April 24, 2016.
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