After giving up a lucrative career as an engineer, Winston Furlong mastered every aspect of filmmaking and has made Taj. But there is more coming.
Winston Furlong’s mark as a filmmaker is his ability to translate his own scripts on the broader screen with a determined mission. For most of his life, he was an engineer far removed from the creative world but admits to harbouring this love for the arts. When he entered his 50s, he learnt the craft of screen writing and filmmaking and he produced his first film Taj with his own resources. The film has been feted at a few international film festivals including Busan. “Anybody making their first film thinks they are going to make a fortune, that people will come crawling to the door, buy the film and throw in the money. Didn’t quite work out that way,” he candidly says. Not one to be deterred, Furlong is currently working on a few more projects and his adventure and love for films continues.
Furlong grew up in a rubber estate in Sri Lanka but for nine months of the year spent his time at boarding school. “It wasn’t awful, it was fantastic but I saw my parents only three months in a year. What that kind of upbringing does is it makes one independent and survive in the world,” he says. True if one was to apply this to his career. More on that later.
At the age 19, Furlong left for England to pursue tertiary education at the behest of his father. That was the late 1960s. Unfortunately, five months after he left his father was diagnosed with leukaemia and passed away. He stayed on in England to complete his Master’s degree in engineering and the rest of his family prepared to leave for Australia as trouble in Sri Lanka began to erupt. The country would go on to experience years of unrest. “My world in Sri Lanka sort of crumbled.”
After living in England for 17 years by which time he had gotten married, had children, Furlong came to Australia after he got a job in Canberra in 1985. “An odd place to live in,” he recalls as he compared it with life in England. “Everything shut early and it was very bureaucratic. So then I came to Melbourne and I progressed through.”
Melbourne was the defining city for him as he chased his passion for writing and filmmaking. “I was writing short stories and poems. And because I grew up in Sri Lanka, lived in England and then in Australia, I thought I could write a book like The Suitable Boy – a three-continent story.”
He started attending creative writing class in Boxhill Tafe as a hobby. “In the second year they wanted us to pick more subjects because it was a proper graduate diploma. So I saw the subject called Writing for Performance (stage and screen), I ticked it because it sounded interesting. And then I discovered screenplay. I thought ‘oh my God’, this is what I have been looking for. It is very different, it is not literature. I always liked films. I didn’t think I could make one but once I discovered how a screenplay works; I went to every course, read books, watched DVDs, etc.”
At the same time, as a regular at the Chinmaya Mission, he became their resident writer/director writing plays and working with the students who were brimming with ideas. “Because I was studying this I would write their ideas properly and be their director on stage. We did mini plays but the biggest play we put up was the Ramayan in an open air park for two-and-half hours at Templestowe in 2006. People who saw that says it is the best Ramayana they have ever seen. It drew over 3000 people.”
But going to the Chinmaya Mission also meant Furlong was privy to the stories about arranged marriages among young Indians. “I didn’t know the intimate details but I started to feel the pressure that young Indian girls go through from their parents. In Australia particularly there is the cross cultural pressure with parents being traditional while children are growing up more to be Aussies.”
Based on this, Furlong wrote a film called ‘Serena and Her Sisters’. In gist, the story is about a Punjabi Indian father who has five daughters and no sons. The father believes in astrology, and all the astrologers tell him that the next two weeks around Diwali is the most auspicious time for his daughters to get married. So he arranges for suitable men after matching their horoscopes. But the lesson the father eventually learns is that the girls have to make their own mistakes and lead their own lives.
Furlong submitted the first draft of this to Screen Australia. “I was up against established writers. There were 67 entries and three of us got the funding. I got 12,000 dollars to build/improve the script further. They said the idea is fantastic but the script needed more work.”
The script was also the finalist in the comedy section of 2012 New York Screenplay Contest.
On the strength of this, Furlong decided to give up his lucrative career as an engineer and enrolled in a film school. He wanted to make a film of Serena and Her Sisters. He thought if he could direct on stage, he could direct on screen too. So he found a producer and approached Screen Australia again for funding. Unfortunately because he was an amateur, he could not get the funds and his project was stalled. “They said no because I had no body of work to show. Had another director applied I could have got it but I wanted to direct it myself. I didn’t have enough experience according to them.”
Furlong then decided he was not going to wait for anyone to fund or look for investment as it takes too long. He decided to make his own low budget movie and wrote the script for a new film called Taj.
“The idea of Taj came after I saw an exhibition of a city with the waterfall in the background at the Art Gallery. It stayed in my head. And then I visited India and was at the Taj Mahal when the guide opened my eyes to another story centering the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his wife Mumtaz but some things happened in the course of history that even though he had built this beautiful monument he could not go near it and could only watch from a distance, from the Red Fort where he was imprisoned. You make this beautiful creation and you can’t go near it and the only time you are reunited is when you die. So these themes of love, separation, death and reunification came into my mind. I thought why don’t I replicate the story. So I thought about the love between a father and a daughter and it made sense.”
So Furlong wrote the script. Set in contemporary Melbourne, Taj tells the story of a charismatic and self-indulgent Indian writer who, following a health scare, attempts to mend a neglected relationship with his young daughter from a broken previous marriage. When they discover a box of Lego bricks at a garage sale and decide to build a model of the Taj Mahal together, a whole new chapter opens up for them.
Interestingly, Furlong wrote the script without thinking where to find the lego for Taj. When he started searching on Google, he found Arthur, a math teacher who is also lego maker in Cleveland, Ohio. Soon emails went back and forth and it ended up with Arthur building a small one and a bigger one four times the size of the small one. Arthur built the Taj applying mathematical formula. After the film was made Arthur would go on to win the New York Lego Competition.
The script of Taj was submitted to Australian Writers Guild and was nominated in 2008 for best Australian Screen Play at their annual competition for the best unproduced screen play. All these little things gave Furlong the confidence to start working on the film. “I hired professional people and professional equipment. Then I auditioned for 3-4 months and built the entire cast and crew. But it took four months to find a mixed ethnic race girl to play the daughter. We wrote to 600 secondary schools, dance schools etc. On the last day when we thought of taking a break, Coco Cherian walked in and I thought ‘oh my god’ there she comes. She did the most brilliant audition and even through the performance of the film she was amazing,” says Furlong, adding. “She has been on TV show Neighbours since.”
Taj took a year to complete shooting when Furlong ran out of money. “After shooting, you got to edit the film, get the sound design right, the colour, music, etc. It involves a lot of money. Although these days a lot of the cost has come down. You don’t have to go to specialist to get, say, colour grading. Now everything is available on your laptop. I had a co-producer but it was my money so I was doing everything from scouting for location to getting the props.”
Not one to be bogged down, Furlong mortgaged his house to complete the film. “Interest rates are low so that keeps me above water,” he laughs, adding, “Looking back I could have saved money when I was working. I was reckless perhaps and very confident in my abilities.”
Finally Taj was completed in 2012. The pressures on Furlong were extreme never mind that he brought it on himself. Distributors told him the movie looked like a Bollywood film, there were no big names to brag in the movie. And there is no market for unknown faces. “If you say Amitabh Bachchan, they take a cheque book out. It is all considered too risky.”
But victory is sweet even if they come in small measures. The film was screened at the prestigious Busan Festival in Korea. “Screen Australia gave me a grant to go to Korea because they recognise Busan is important. It was shown three times there to packed audience. So that was a great experience.” It was also screened at the Boston and California Film Festivals, the OzAsia Film Festival in Adelaide. This year it also screened at the International Film Festival of Melbourne. On October 8, Taj was screened at the River Nile Learning Centre as a fundraiser, the proceeds of which went to the organisation to help asylum seekers. And Cinema Lido has given him two screenings this month.
It has been 11 years since his journey towards films began. In between bringing up two grandchildren, Furlong is working on his current projects. He is very energetic putting in sometimes 14 hours a day of work. “I have a couple of small projects but Serena and Her Sisters is a big project, it’s a Bollywood inspired project. If I get two big stars and three songs the money is there,” he laughs adding, “I feel Taj is like an art house movie which is a bit difficult to sell but the projects I have are way too commercial.”
Furlong explains his affinity for Indian themes with him having been born and raised in Sri Lanka, which is so close to India geographically. And perhaps his movies are shaped by his intellectual entrepreneurial instinct. “Once in England I bought a book called ‘How to Build Your Own House’ and I built it. So engineering training, plus my upbringing of being independent from young age didn’t stop me from trying to figure something out. It is a bit reckless but you know you got to jump in life and say ‘why can’t I do it.”
It also explains why he inserts himself to every aspect of his filmmaking. “My engineering background helped in producing or production work, it is not too hard. As a director the major thing you need is how to work with actors, if you can learn that everything else is not that difficult. It is trying to get the story which is hard.”
Furlong watches a lot of movies and he reads a lot of books on screen writing. “I don’t find writing that hard for some reason. Anybody can write but only a writer can rewrite, the first thing is to drop the idea then craft it, the ability is to choose to be ruthless to your own stuff. The final thing with getting a good script is to work with the actors, how the words sound, etc..” he reflects.
In the independent realm, talented filmmakers such as Furlong are waiting for recognition they deserve.
By Indira Laisram