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But Seriously… With Wan Hasliza Zainuddin

The decade ended on an unexpected high for Wan Hasliza Zainuddin; writer, producer, director and Iron Lady of KL Motion Pictures. ‘Kampung People’, which she had directed and co-wrote for TV3’s Lestary slot, gathered a strong and enthusiastic following after just a couple of episodes, and turned out to be a bona fide hit.

And in a rare show of solidarity, humans on both Facebook and Twitter couldn’t stop posting their sound approval of the 13-episode comedy starring Rashidi Ishak, Elly Mazlein, Namron and Razak Ahmad. The story, about an urban family forced to move to the kampung under a witness protection programme, was roundly praised for its colourful characters, social commentary and its aversion to tired clichés.

“One of the criticisms we often received was that we are not mass enough,” says Wan Hasliza, 47, through a voice note after this interview took place. “I remember one executive from a local broadcaster who said that people couldn’t understand stories, and we were urged to do “normal” stuff. So, yes, I am happy that ‘Kampung People’ resonated with a huge audience, garnering millions of views every episode, including on YouTube.”

Not that KL Motion Pictures has been short of success before. Since its inception in 2006, it has picked up a fair share of awards and healthy ratings including for ‘Keluarga Iskandar’, ‘Geng Surau’, ‘Jihan Tak Nak Buat Open House’ and ‘Rosli Dhoby Warkah Terakhir’.

Gendang.com.my caught up with Wan Hasliza to talk about the origins of KL Motion Pictures, how she became an accidental director, and what’s ailing the industry.

So, how did it all begin for you?
I first dabbled in scriptwriting in 2003 when I was working as a consultant at KPMG after a 5-year stint at Petronas. And it started in a way most people would be familiar with; I was watching a local drama on TV and thought, “Hey, I can do better!” And then I called my consulting colleague and started working on a script idea. But we had no idea what the formats were; 13 or 26 episodes, length of each episode, and stuff like that. And we didn’t know films required 100 pages of script and all that. So, we wrote 300 pages of script! Then we went to meet the late Pak Hamzah Hussin at FINAS and gave him the script. He actually read it and said it was a beautiful script!

Wow, he read all 300 pages?
Yes, in one night! He then wrote a letter of recommendation, and within a week, the script was sold to Grand Brilliance! It became ‘Salina’ and it was aired on TV3, starring Fahrin Ahmad and Sharifah Haslinda. It did quite well and became popular and with that came the writing bug for me. We worked on a telefilm for TV3 and a series for RTM before ‘Dunia Baru’ came along.

Ah yes, ‘Dunia Baru’.
Yes, and it surprisingly did well too. It prompted my brother-in-law, Jamal to ask if I wanted to start my own production company. I was reluctant at first, thinking how I would have no steady monthly income, haha. But Jamal said, “You know, you might die tomorrow. So just do it!” And I said, ok lah. Haha.

So that’s when KL Motion Pictures was born?
Yes, it was in 2006 when I finally took the plunge. But producing is a totally different ball game from writing, so I had to learn from scratch all the other stuff like budgeting and staffing.

How did you cope?
Well, I was actually getting just one third of the pay compared to consulting. It was tough, but we started getting jobs from the likes of ntv7 and gua.com.my. And we were really persistent, looking for opportunities everywhere.

And you had begun directing as well then?
Actually, I started directing by accident! The biggest breakthrough for us was when we were commissioned to do a show for Astro Ria. So, we had this one guy to come in and direct. But on the first day of the shoot, he called me just before the 7am call-time and said, “I’m going to come in at 11am. Can you just take my place for a while?” I was like, what?? But it’s the first day of the shoot! He said, “Yeah, but I have a meeting at Primeworks Studios lah.” I was like, “What the hell?”

And what happened next?
Well, I knew shots. But I was like, how do I say it to these guys? My assistant director was new as well, so we just bulldozed through. I was just focusing on completing a set number of scenes, and we managed to do it. And the show did well!

You mean, that original director didn’t come back to continue the job?
No, he didn’t come back! But because of that, Astro had more faith in us. We were using a P2 camera with an adapter that we bought overseas that gave a film look, and there were questions if it was suitable for the 16:9 television format. But we used it anyway, and it was accepted. And after that, Astro gave us ‘Rosli Dhoby Warkah Terakhir’ to do, a collaboration with NSK. That was an even bigger breakthrough.

OK, coming back to ‘Dunia Baru’. That was your idea that became a big hit which most people remember till today. How did you feel when it was well-received?
Obviously, I was happy. But it was interesting how we didn’t pitch the story based on a plot, but on the characters. I knew secretly in my heart that people were going to accept it. ‘Dunia Baru’ was about your everyday friends. So, I was confident people would be able to relate to it.

And how did you push it through to TV3?
Well, the late Encik Puad Onah (GM of Grand Brilliance), had asked me if I had any cerita for a teen drama. And I said, yes, and it’s called ‘Dunia Baru’! I remember presenting 52 slides to the people there including former Media Prima GMD and CEO, Dato’ Abdul Rahman Ahmad. People got restless after a while, but I was so excited talking about all the characters. I was winging it as well but Dato’ Rahman liked it and ‘Dunia Baru’ got made. It even had seasons 2 and 3. I have to give credit as well to Jalena Rejab (Grand Brilliance executive), who put her foot down when the initial director wanted to change the story. She made the right choice in changing the director, rather than the story.

So, it’s accurate to say the success of ‘Dunia Baru’ reaffirmed your own belief that characters should be at the forefront of any story?
Yes. All my stories have been character-based, like ‘Keluarga Iskandar’, ‘Jodoh’, and ‘Geng Surau’. More recently, people kept coming to me saying how ‘Kampung People’ reminded them of ‘Dunia Baru’ with such interesting characters. So yeah, my stories are always driven by characters. When I write, it’s about “what’s going to happen to this character, and that character”. I work it from there, rather than from a plot.

The award-winning “mockumentary” ‘Keluarga Iskandar’

​Fair to say then that KL Motion Pictures grew in reputation from thereon, and received a steady stream of production jobs?
Yeah, especially at that particular point in time.

Into the 2010s, were you satisfied with how things were going?
Well, you know when you enter into this industry, you are very idealistic. You want to change this and that. And for me, telling character-based stories was a definite success. But the other ideas for changes were probably not shared by others. The system just got stuck and it became tiring and started to hit our bottom-line. The industry is so unregulated. The problem is more than 70% of the workers are the rank and file, and the guys at the top are busy looking for jobs that they don’t actually have the time to look at issues faced by these workers. So yes, I do question the bodies responsible for the industry. What are they doing? I was eager, wide-eyed and eager to change things, but by 2012/13, I was like, “Ok lah, do what we can with this kind of budget.”

So, it affected your vision and psyche in a not so positive manner?
Yes. All that affected the quality of work, and our bottom-line was pretty disastrous. We had people to pay, but it did really become a situation of kais pagi, makan pagi. I think it’s the same with other companies too. The margins are just too small. And then social media came along and artists started building up followers online and that gave them a reason to go up to producers and say, “I should be paid higher.” So, because of that, let’s say I do a telemovie where I pay them RM7-8K, now I have to pay them double or more. Honestly, the producers are left with virtually nothing.

For the benefit of our readers, please give us an example of the budget breakdown for a telemovie.
OK, for a RM100,000 telemovie, we should at least make a 20% profit, but now it’s about 3-5%. Actors take up some 40% of the budget these days. The rest would be for the technical crew, hiring cameras, transportation and other stuff. But the worse is actually for the crew where some companies don’t even provide insurance protection. Honestly, I feel bad for the low pay, but I simply can’t afford to pay more. So, from being idealistic, now I feel like, naaah… let’s just use extras.

What are some of the areas that you feel should be regulated?
Things like salaries for the actors, directors, writers and all that. There should be a proper scale and job description. And people should also be paid based on performance and experience. Work should be rated, just like other careers.

And basically, the budgets given by broadcasters have remained the same?
Yes, it’s been the same for 33 years. [note: The Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo recently announced that RTM will be revising their rates for content, ranging from 10-60% increases]

Even when these broadcasters were making hundreds of millions in profit?
Yeah.

​And when they say a show is “trending” and a huge success, ratings-wise, there’s no real “shared prosperity”, is there?
No. And you don’t even share the intellectual property rights. It’s usually owned 100% by the stations. Why can’t you share the rights with producers? That’s why most producers are having an existential crisis. Those nearing retirement age are thinking of what else can we do to survive in our retirement years. So, you can see those approaching their 40s in the industry getting desperate thinking about what’s ahead. That’s why the industry is not thriving, cos everyone is in survival mode.

How about all the associations?
They have good intentions, but there’s no cohesiveness and synergy. People will say, “Why don’t you step up?” I’ve tried before, but eventually it came back to thinking about one’s own survival, and how to merely make it in the next 6 months.

What are you most hopeful about?
I’m still positive that we will see good content coming out. The animation people have done amazing things, and people like Amir Muhammad for Kuman Pictures will also do well.

What are the stories that need to be told?
Just everyday stories. Ideas can come from everywhere. It can come from a single conversation, like this conversation we’re having. Or you can just look around at what’s happening to everyday people, and as a writer you must be smart enough to twist it to make it into an interesting story. But the problem is now like jual jagung. Like if you go to Kelantan and see someone selling corn, everyone else will also be selling corn. It’s the same with broadcasters. When the trend is telenovelas, everyone’s making telenovelas. Then it’s the same thing with horror. So, who’s brave enough to go against the grain? But I’m thankful that ‘Kampung People’ got made and it shows that there are brave people around and we can still remain hopeful.

And as a producer, what keeps you going while others have given up?
Actually, I’ve also thought about giving-up before. But the reality is, what else can we do? I don’t think I can work a 9 to 5 job anymore. To go back to consulting, I don’t even know what the issues and trends are now. So honestly, it will be a dark ending for the people in the industry, if the industry doesn’t improve.

But seriously… why should people in the industry be struggling too hard, especially established production houses who’ve been churning out content for the longest time? They should be able to do their jobs comfortably, without being stuck in survival mode, no?
Yes. And here’s a funny story. A couple of weeks back, someone from a broadcasting company suddenly asked for our CV and filmography. And I thought, “Hey, I’ve worked for you so many times, producing award-winning shows and now you’re asking for our CV? What kind of a poor show of confidence is this for us?” It’s weird.

What’s your favourite successes to date?
‘Keluarga Iskandar’ is definitely one of them. And ‘Warkah Terkahir Rosli Dhoby’, which was a period piece, and a genre I love. You know, I’m actually a serious person, and I have no idea how I ended up writing comedy!

On a lighter note, what are some of the shows, local or foreign, that you watch now?
I love ‘The Crown’, because it’s so brilliantly written. I mean, I tear up after every episode of season 3. Sometimes it’s not that sad, but I still tear up! And lately, I’ve been watching a lot of trashy shows as well like ’90 Day Fiance’, ‘Super Nanny’ and ‘Dr. Pimple Popper. It gives a different sort of satisfaction watching such shows, haha. And of course, ‘Game of Thrones’, although I hated the last season.

Watch ‘Kampung People’, now available on YouTube.

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