Highlighting the significant role music plays as the emotional soundtrack of our memories, Dillon M. Banda’s contemplative short Ghosts retraces the steps of a woman’s past romance as she reflects on the end of her most significant long term relationship to date. The first in the How We Live Now series of films commissioned by soundchips.co – a series which sets out to explore the importance of music in the lives of everyday people – DN asked Dillon to recount the path of production through the Central Highlands of Vietnam which led to this poetic rumination on love and lyrics.
Ghosts is the first in a planned series of short films for the music discovery platform SoundChips, that will explore the importance of music in the lives of everyday people. There is no specific format for each film, it just has to be personal, meaningful and related to 5 songs that have special significance for the subject. With that template, everything pretty much originates from the subject’s perspective, their words and their story.
I think that it’s more common these days to meet people who overestimate themselves and their abilities, and not the other way round as in her case.
Van Ngoc Dang, the subject of this film, is just incredible, both as a subject and more generally as a human being. I first met her in August last year, and getting to know her since then has been a real privilege for me, and one of those rare experiences where you encounter someone who weirdly doesn’t seem to realise just how wonderful they are. I think that it’s more common these days to meet people who overestimate themselves and their abilities, and not the other way round as in her case. We have very similar tastes in both music and movies – especially movies – and we share a lot of the same pop cultural references from childhood and what not, so it was easy for us to communicate right from the start. In this film she is dissecting and making sense of what was a painful and transformative moment in her life, so right from the beginning I tried to allow her the time and space to process all of that change and find the right words to enunciate her feelings, free from any intrusion on my part.
I think it must’ve been just over 3 months between when we first met and when she sent me the first draft of her narration. That first draft already carried a sense of poetry that meshed seamlessly with my natural sensibilities as a filmmaker and storyteller, making it easy for me to interpret visually. In the end, every word in this film belongs to Van, I only polished the prose for purpose in one or two places. This is actually one of only a few times that I’ve directed something I didn’t write myself. Even when I make documentary style content for brands and clients, I’ll tend to write from the perspective of the subject or narrator, and make it sound like their own words.
I shot the film myself on a Canon 5D MKIII with vintage anamorphic lenses and a small crew of just 2 other people. I prefer to shoot for myself in most cases, although I’m aware that it’s very rare for most directors to do so. I do however love working alongside a cinematographer, and I’m open and eager for that type of collaboration under the right conditions. I shot it raw, as I always do, and entirely with natural and available light. I’ve become quite adept at shaping natural light from years of practice, and I sometimes prefer it to added light, at least under the right circumstances. Rental costs for cinema cameras are much higher here in Asia than in most Western countries, so I’ve basically used the 5D to shoot all of my personal work during the time I’ve lived here. I just recently bought a Red Dragon as a personal camera and I’ll be using that on all my personal work from now on, unless I find some 35mm film stock lying around somewhere. I have another more experimental short film currently in post that I shot in Nepal a few months ago, so I hope both that and Ghosts will prove to be a fitting victory lap for my trusty 5D, which has served me well for motion and can now go back to shooting stills exclusively.
Production and post-production were pretty straightforward. All the locations in the film are places that Van and her ex visited together, actually the last places they visited together as a couple, so that aspect kind of took care of itself. Van has a day job – she is an environmental engineer, and a rather accomplished one at that – so we had to hop on a bus to Da Lat over 2 weekends in December to shoot the film (both Van and I live in Saigon). I went to Nepal for a month or so right after the shoot and then had to wrap up a brand film when I got back, so I didn’t actually start editing Ghosts until after we’d recorded the voiceover, which was in March.
We recorded the voiceover during a scouting trip to Hanoi for another short film that Van and I will hopefully make together – this one will be more of a fictional narrative. We recorded it after a night of karaoke (we sang the heck out of Oasis and Aerosmith) which is why her voice sounds a bit raspy in places, but I think it ultimately works well for the subject matter. All in all the whole process took about 10 months from conception to completion, but only because we both had so much other stuff going on in between.
In terms of what’s next, the short film I shot in Nepal will hopefully be done by next month. A bit further down the line I hope to make my first feature film – I have a couple of relatively inexpensive ideas in the vein of Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey) and / or Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond The Pines) that I hope will serve as my feature debut. In the immediate future I am of course planning the next film in this series, as well as a couple of narrative shorts, one of which is already cast and very close to going into production.