Gareth Johnson 「‘People Like Us’ – a new series about gay men in Singapore」

Posted on February 14, 2017

A compelling look at life in country where homosexuality is still illegal.

Filmmaker Leon Cheo has released the first season of new web series 「People Like Us」.

The first season follows the lives of Joel, Ridzwan, Rai and Isaac – four gay men, living in Singapore, whose lives become interconnected.

It’s a compelling look into gay life in Singapore – a city-state where being gay is illegal, even though the laws are rarely enforced.

I spoke with Leon Cheo for a behind-the-scenes look at the series:

You’ve co-developed the series with Action for AIDS – how did that collaboration come about?

I’ve been actively involved in LGBT activism in Singapore – producing and directing videos for Pink Dot, our version of a pride rally and movement. In 2014, at the press launch of the campaign video which I directed, I was approached by Action for AIDS with the idea to create an episodic web-series for the MSM community through their Gayhealth website.

The idea was that the show would be educational and entertaining at the same time. I said I was very interested, but that this show shouldn’t have a scene which has a characters going to a clinic to get tested – it shouldn’t be preachy. They wholeheartedly agreed, saying it was exactly what they had in mind.

Action for AIDS wanted to portray four gay men of various age groups and ethnicities, and I got to work immediately. Then, I fleshed out the characters and storylines. Eventually, it became six, 10 minute episodes, mostly based on my own experiences, friends, research from AFA, and some fiction and creativity.

Did you find it difficult to weave the safer sex messages through the narrative that you were creating?

It was challenging, for sure. However, our primary goal was to ignite discussion and promote awareness about the social and sexual situations gay men experience. We also wanted to be sex-positive and non-judgmental – we all know how judgmental the community can be. If we shied away from ‘taboo’ or ‘controversial’ situations such as sexual assault, saunas, condom-less sex, and chem-sex, then we exacerbate the silence by sweeping it under the carpet.

One thing we explored with the Joel character is how gay men negotiate – or don’t negotiate – sexual risks, condom use, talking about STIs, HIV status and more. We all know how emotions and desire cloud our judgement, so we have Joel and we juxtaposed him with Ridzwan, who is closeted and more paranoid about safer sex.

One episode involved sexual assault and, to further the educational aspect we have the guys behind Action for AIDS at the end of the episode talk about PEP – post exposure prophylaxis – and how viewers can access such help.

What was the casting process like?

I’m most excited for casting because I can finally hear actors say what I have written and bring these characters to life.

We did a casting call on the Internet, reached out to actors I knew, and had three days of auditions.

For Ridzwan, it was easy. I wrote the role specifically for Irfan Kasban – a crazy talented actor-writer-director himself, who graciously agreed to play the part.

For Joel, Josh Crowe said that a friend sent our casting call to him, saying he’s perfect for the role. This twenty-something Asian actor with a non-Asian last name, who grew up in Colorado, showed up and really impressed us. He worked as a stage performer for musicals and Universal Studios Singapore and this was his first starring role on film or TV. Interestingly, his mother is from Singapore and, after a few lessons taught by yours truly, he got used to the Singlish accent and could pass off as Singaporean.

For Hemant [Ashoka], who played Rai, I found him in a bar in Singapore. I kid you not. It was during pre-production and I was having drinks with friends. I thought he looked the part, asked if he did any acting – he did a bit of theatre – and invited him to come for an audition. He floored us with his vulnerability and innocence.

Finally, for Isaac, we saw a few actors but I wasn’t sure about them. One day my producer, Jen Nee, sent me a news article about the cast of 「Growing Up」 – a hit Singapore period TV drama – and it mentioned Steven Lim. I reached out to him, he fell in love with the script and weeks later, we started filming.

You’ve subtitled the series, even though most of the dialogue is in English – what were the considerations for that decision?

It’s so that everyone can understand the dialogue. Ever since we gained independence from the British, English is the primary language of business and education in Singapore. However, we’ve developed Singlish – a pidgin of sorts, with a staccato way of speech, mixed together with words from Mandarin and other dialects, Malay, Tamil and regional languages.

The series is mostly in English but, like a thick Irish or Scottish accent, Singlish takes getting used to. I’ve learned from screening my early short films to American film festivals, which were made in English and Singlish, that without subtitles, no one can comprehend the film.

What sort of response have you had to the series?

We’ve been fortunate to have received a lot of good responses to the series. Interestingly, there hasn’t been flak from the more conservative camp.

We had a private screening for the gay community in Singapore and comments on Gayhealth and YouTube are very positive, with fans clamouring for a second series or more episodes.

As a filmmaker, it’s very heartening to receive comments about how viewers connected with one character or another’s situation, or how they saw themselves as Rai, Joel, Ridzwan, or Isaac. At the screening, people laughed, and that’s when you know people are connecting.

As icing on the cake, we scooped up the Best Short TV Drama award at ITVFest last October 2016 in Dover, Vermont. Funny story, at the inn where many festival attendees stayed, everyone put out post cards. Ours has Joel and Ridzwan kissing and for two nights, someone would only overturn our stack of postcards.

Has there been any discussion about how the series demonstrates that Singapore’s anti-gay laws are a bit outdated?

Singapore is like how the United States was 8-10 years ago. With 「People Like Us」, one of our creative objectives was to portray Asian gay men neutrally or positively – we certainly need more of such portrayals and images. With that, the series could play a part in changing the hearts and minds of the citizens and government of Singapore. Hopefully, then, the country will do away with such laws and censorship sooner rather than later.

Will there be a second series?

It’s not a 100 percent sure-thing, but we really want to make a second season. The challenge now is funding. We’re exploring possible storylines – we’re thinking of tackling PrEP, living with HIV, and seeing what will happen to Joel, Ridzwan, Rai, and Isaac.

「People Like Us」 is available on all major on-demand platforms.

Leon Cheo 「People Like Us」 Trailer - posted on January 31, 2017.

Author: Gareth Johnson/Date: February 14, 2017/Source: