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Interview: Hong Khaou, director of Lilting

Lilting © Artificial Eye

By Ellie Buchdahl and Tim Pilgrim
7 August 2014

In 1997 Hong Khaou, from Cambodia, graduated from his undergraduate degree in Film Production at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA), Farnham, England.

Tomorrow, Hong’s debut film Lilting hits arthouse cinemas across the UK, having already scooped the Best Cinematography Award and a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

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Hong Khaou director © Sundance‘Strangely, when I was at Farnham, my graduation film explored a similar theme,’ says Cambodian-born Hong (right), who moved to the UK with his mother and father at the age of eight. 

‘I guess it came from my family really.' 

Since graduating from his BA (Hons) in Film Production, Hong has stamped his name firmly on the British cinema scene.

His short film Spring was featured in the British Council's BritFilms Catalogue, and, with support from the Council's Short Film Promotion scheme, it premiered at Sundance and went on to the Berlinale film festival. 

Lilting has been screened at festivals around the world, and made the Official Selections of the Karlovy Vary, Seattle and Hong Kong International Film Festivals – not to mention receiving rave reviews from the critics.

Set in contemporary London and starring Ben Whishaw (Skyfall, Cloud Atlas) and Cheng Pei-pei (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Lilting tells the story of a Cambodian-Chinese mother grieving for the sudden loss of her son.

'My brothers and I, being young, assimilated into UK life very easily, but my parents had a difficult time and never really assimilated,' Hong says.

‘I took that as the premise and imagined how a mother would cope if her lifeline to the outside world was taken away from her.'

Rising star

Hong is confident it was his degree that set him up for success.

'You can get into films by yourself, of course,' he says.

'But you don't have the equipment or environment to learn that a degree gives you.

Lilting © Artificial Eye
Family inspiration: Cheng Pei-pei stars as Junn and Ben Whishaw as Richard in Lilting (Picture © Artificial Eye)

'I did a BTEC in Art and Design with a film option before my undergraduate, but everything I made there was very experimental, and my degree was the first time I really got to make a storyboard, work with actors and actually develop a narrative.

'I feel it was really useful because you can make all your mistakes in a learning environment and get feedback as you shoot.'

Graduate connections

Directing skills weren't the only things Hong gathered during his time at university.

The editor of Lilting, Mark Towns, and sound recorder Matt Johns are both former course mates from UCA.

'The best thing I got out of the degree was the incredible group of friends, a lot of whom are now in the film industry,' Hong says.

'You grow together and continue to support each other, calling in favours and returning favours, and that's one of the things that is most helpful when you make your first low-budget film.'

Hong's producer, Dominic Buchanan, is also a UK film graduate.

He completed his BA in Film at the University of Roehampton in 2004, and has since gone on to become Head of Film at the independent film company Stink, winning awards for his productions including the SXSW Grand Jury Prize in 2012 for Gimme The Loot.


‘Dominic has been in the industry a long time, working his way up,’ Hong says.

‘He's worked with Weinstein and Universal, so he has a lot of connections.’

World-class tuition

With Dominic's help, Hong put forward a film proposal to Microwave, a scheme set up by Film London and supported by BBC Films and the British Film Institute (BFI), which challenges filmmakers to produce a feature film with a budget of £120,000.

The team at Microwave was impressed. Hong was invited to take part in a five-day intensive workshop with top filmmakers Clio Barnard (The Selfish Giant) and Peter Ettedgui (Kinky Boots, Welcome to the Punch).

Hong Khaou © Hong Khaou
'Mad time': Hong is looking forward to a busy few months (Picture © Hong Khaou)

‘They looked at the script and the directing side, there was another period of rewriting, and another interview, then another period of rewriting, a selection panel, then once you're selected, there's another rewrite,’ Hong explains.

‘They [the mentors] work very closely with you in all of that.’

Stellar cast

Microwave promises to fund 50% of each film selected, and Hong managed to gather together the other 50%.

'Dominic knew a lot of people who helped us, and we also went back to tutors at university for help, and to put us in touch with supporters. They were brilliant and really helpful,' Hong says.

The next step was to gather a full cast and crew, including Hong’s first choice for the lead role – Ben Whishaw, who played Q in the latest James Bond film.

First choice: Hong wrote a personal letter to Ben Whishaw (Picture © Artificial Eye)

After his casting director had sent the script to the star's agent, Hong followed up with a personal letter to the actor himself.

‘I always wanted him as I've always liked him,’ says Hong.

‘But I guess I wanted him to understand that I wasn't going for him just because he was big, but genuinely because I thought he had all the things that I wanted.

‘Ben's character [in Lilting] connects everybody's emotions and he really has that strength and vulnerability, so I wrote him a letter explaining why I thought he'd be good for it.’

High-stakes challenge

With a star name attached, filming took place over 17 days during winter a process Hong describes as 'brutal’.

‘Everything was a challenge, I found  the schedule especially so, as it was so low-budget.

‘A lot of people were really excited about the script, but once we cast Ben Whishaw, the stakes were really raised for the film.’

With the film complete and about to open at selected screens nationwide, Hong is already looking towards his next project.

National release: The film will be screened at 30 cinemas in the UK and available online (Picture © Artificial Eye)

His next script has been selected for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, he is planning a trip to Vietnam in October to write a second draft, and he has also been signed by agents in the USA.

‘They have been sending me lots of scripts, so hopefully something connects,’ Hong says.

‘It's quite a mad time, in the most flattering way!’

Lilting opens at 30 selected screens in the UK and will be available online through Curzon Home Cinema on August 8. Find out more at Liltingfilm.com.

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