Sunday, January 11, 2015

CRHK radio interview with HKTV director and scriptwriters - PART ONE

CRHK radio show “On a Clear Day” (在晴朗的一天出發) invited the main director (KK Wong) and scriptwriter (Benny Wong) of The Election as well as the scriptwriter (Alex Pau) of To Be or Not To Be to talk about both currently airing series.

Here’s a link to an article that recaps some of the interview (mostly stuff about The Election) as well as a 2 minute excerpt from the radio interview:

Radio show excerpt:


I listened to the full radio interview and decided to recap it below.  There’s quite a bit of interesting information that was discussed during the interview, both about the 2 series currently airing as well as about HKTV itself. 

One thing I would like to highlight about this interview – prior to the HKTV launch (and to some extent even now), I’ve heard “HKTV doubters” question what the ‘difference’ is between TVB and HKTV and claim that HKTV’s series can’t be better than TVB’s because the people (specifically the scriptwriters and directors/producers) came from TVB.   Of course, those who’ve been following HKTV and the licensing issue for a while now will understand very well the differences and why the same people can produce such drastically different results – but for those who don’t know or don’t understand, I recommend this radio interview to you because the host actually asks that very question and the answer is very clearly explained by Alex, KK, and Benny.


Recap of highlights from CRHK radio show “On a Clear Day” hosted by Kwok Chi Yan (郭志仁) – January 2, 2015


-          Before introducing his guests, the host started his opening segment by asking the following question:  If there was to be an outside award show (not affiliated with any TV station) where HK audiences get to vote for ‘Best Series’ and the choices were The Election, To Be or Not To Be, and Line Walker, which series would the audiences likely choose?

o   In answering this question, the host said that the likely choice would probably still be TVB’s Line Walker, mostly because there will always be a large majority of HK audiences who comprise TVB’s main fanbase and who are already so used to watching TVB that it has become a habit that won’t change. 

o   This is why it makes sense that HKTV’s chairman Ricky Wong has said from the beginning (and repeatedly reiterated) that he is NOT trying to “grab” TVB’s audiences with his series – it’s actually very simple:  those who are used to the “TVB way” and enjoy watching their series will continue to do so, no matter what other choices they may have (HKTV’s target is NOT this type of audience).

o   To support this, the host and his guests also talked about HK audiences’ decades-long habit of using the television as ‘background noise’:  meaning that for the average Hong Konger, they get home after a long day, turn on the TV, then go about their business – so they are used to TV programs that they can ‘listen’ to and not have to think much about…this is TVB’s target audience. 

o   HKTV’s audience base is obviously different, as their series require audiences to actually ‘watch’ the series and pay attention.

-          The host then proceeds to introduce his guests:  the behind-the-scenes talents responsible for HKTV’s currently airing series The Election (選戰) and To Be or Not to Be (來生不做香港人):

o   TBONTB scriptwriter is Alex Pau (鮑偉聰) – he’s a former TVB scriptwriter (worked there for close to 20 years) and is currently also a guest host for one of CRHK’s radio shows

o   TE’s scriptwriter is Benny Wong (黃偉強) and main director is KK Wong (黃國強)

-          Before diving specifically into the 2 series, the group first talked a bit about their current relationship with HKTV and future prospects:

o   Alex Pau’s contract with HKTV has long been over – he’s back to being freelance however if HKTV needs him, he will collaborate with him again.

o   Benny Wong also left HKTV already, so out of the 3 of them, only KK is technically still with HKTV currently, though his contract will be up soon as well.

o   The host asked is it because HKTV is no longer filming series, so most of the staff has left or will be leaving?  Alex answered that is pretty much the case – most of the production crew at HKTV already disbanded long ago.  He said that TBONTB’s main director Luk Tin Wah (陸天華) has also left HKTV, as his last day was 12/31.

o   Alex put it best when he expressed how most of the behind-the-scenes people at HKTV felt about HKTV’s predicament:  the production team went through so much together – the excitement of being in a different environment and getting the chance to make a difference, then seeing those hopes dashed twice with the licensing debacle….now their series finally get the chance to air and they get to see the fruits of their labor, but because everyone has left the company, it’s almost like they are outsiders looking in – they don’t get to share the experience together as a team.

o   KK also made a good point:  if the series had aired while they were all still working for HKTV, they could all go to work the next day and discuss the various feedback from audiences and talk about what they could do better (it’s part of the experience of being part of a team) – but now, since everyone left, that experience was “taken away” from them.

-          Discussion with Alex Pau on TBONTB:

o   The host said that when he started watching TBONTB, the first thing that captured his attention wasn’t the acting or even the story – rather, it was the theme song ‘Two Cups of Tea’ (兩杯), sung by Prudence Liew (劉美君).

§  The lyrics to the song were written by Albert Leung (aka Lam Jik / Lin Xi ), who hasn’t written theme songs for HK television series in a long time.

§  Alex expressed that perhaps he is ‘old-school’, but he feels there hasn’t been a true ‘theme song’ for TV series in a long time (the host mentioned something about TVB series Line Walker’s theme song, which Alex admitted was ‘popular’ but doesn’t mean it fits the bill).

§  Alex explained this thought process this way:  perhaps it’s the nostalgia speaking, but he felt that with Prudence’s style of singing and her voice, hearing the theme song brought him back to his high school days – add to that the lyrics that Lam Jik wrote, which reflect the plot of the story perfectly….for those of us who were around in the 80s and 90s, it takes us back to that feeling back in the day when we would listen to the theme song and instantly, scenes from the series would run through our heads – that’s what a ‘true’ theme song should be like (nowadays, the theme songs don’t give off that same feeling and instead seem to be ‘detached’ from the series).

§  Alex said that he was surprised that today’s younger generation – the target audience for HKTV’s series – have been so accepting of this ‘old-school’ feeling as well (based on all the praise for TBONTB’s theme song).

o   TBONTB is based on a real story of two sisters – one who went to live in HK and the other who stayed behind in China – who, after 20 years, get the chance to reunite.  This story serves as the backdrop for a discussion of the Mainland China / HK contradiction.

o   The host played part of TBONTB’s theme song as well as some of the dialogue from the series that ‘highlight’ the China vs HK issue, then he asked Alex:  if this was TVB, would the dialogue that we just played not even make it into the script?

§  Alex’s response:  I can’t say that the dialogue wouldn’t have made it in for sure, but it definitely wouldn’t have been an easy sell.

o   Alex’s response was then used as an off-shoot to discuss the differences between how the production process works at TVB vs HKTV.

§  At TVB, the structure is that the producer is the main person responsible for the entire production – with that position, he/she has the power to call all the shots, which includes banning ideas they don’t like and changing / revising scripts if they feel it’s warranted.

§  At HKTV, there is no ‘producer’ position – there is a ‘main director’ position, but his responsibility is not to oversee the production and he has no power to ‘ban’ ideas or change scripts.  The main director’s responsibility is to give advice and feedback on the production based on his/her own technical expertise – in other words, his role is to “help” bring the script to fruition.  Alex emphasized that, at HKTV, the director and scriptwriter have equal footing and work together in a ‘partnership’ to create the series.

o   As a little bit of a sidebar, the host took the opportunity to involve all 3 of his guests (Alex, KK, and Benny) in a more detailed discussion about the ‘structure’ and production process of TV series at TVB vs HKTV, since all 3 of them worked for both stations [TN:  KK and Benny had also worked for ATV at one point as well].

§  The host asked whether the ‘normal’ process at TVB is for the scriptwriter to write the story, then give it to the producer to review and then after that, go through an ‘approval’ process involving the execs and other departments (i.e. artists dept, sales and marketing, public relations, etc.).

§  Alex and Benny clarified that actually, the presentation of the basic story idea to the execs (and other departments) occurs BEFORE the script is even written. 

§  At TVB, how it works is:  the producer and scriptwriter are technically ‘assigned’ to work together to come up with a story idea, but in reality, due to size of TVB and the amount of series they churn out, the producer becomes the ‘main driving force’ of the series – he/she is the one giving all the direction and making all the decisions.  The scriptwriter’s status is low and they are expected to ‘support’ the producer without really questioning – they basically accept that’s the way things work.

§  The question was posed:  if this were TVB and they had to ‘sell’ the idea of TE and TBONTB to the execs, would it have been banned right away?

·         Alex’s response:  it’s hard to say, as there are several ‘levels’ they would have to go through – they don’t just ‘sell’ their idea to the execs, they also have to ‘sell’ to the rest of the production department, the sales and marketing department, human resources, artists department, etc.  Each department wants to have a say in the matter – they have to consider how the series will affect them, what they will gain out of it, weigh the positives and negatives, etc.

·         Basically, there are a lot of ‘hurdles’ and obstacles that need to be overcome just to get to the point of story idea ‘approval’.

§  At HKTV, there are no such ‘meetings’ across departments and no such ‘approval’ process – in fact, the scriptwriter can come up with the story idea and the main director may not even know about it until later. [TN: as discussed later in the interview, the main difference is that at TVB, the producer is the ‘main driving force’ in producing a series whereas at HKTV, the script is the ‘main driving force’]

§  Alex recounted his ‘process’ when creating TBONTB:  he would come up with the basic story concept that he wanted to do, then meet with the creative director Stella Choi (蔡淑賢) to discuss it.  Then, he contacts the main director Luk Tin Wah and they meet informally over a dim sum lunch to talk about the idea.  The main director gives his feedback on the feasibility of filming the story from a directing and production perspective.  If the director says that the idea won’t work from a filming perspective or certain elements will be difficult to achieve, then the scriptwriter will make adjustments if warranted.  After the meeting, both Alex and Luk Tin Wah felt the story idea would work, so they moved forward with it.

§  Alex stated that oftentimes, even the one ‘forking out the money’ (their boss Ricky Wong) doesn’t even know about the ideas they come up with (meaning that they do not need to go through an ‘approval’ process with the execs like they did at TVB).

§  The host then asked:  then when do you guys let Ricky Wong know? To which Alex replied that he doesn’t even remember when he first notified RW about his story idea.

·         Alex expressed that they of course will give RW an overview of what they want to do and update him weekly on progress, but he doesn’t ‘meddle’ in the production of the series [which is different from TVB, since the ‘higher ups’ are the ones who have the final say over there].

·         He also said that Ricky Wong’s philosophy has always been to give his production team the utmost ‘creative freedom’.

·         Alex and Benny recounted something that Ricky Wong had said to them since the beginning (this was in response to why RW would want to poach people from TVB if their series are not good):  RW said -- he firmly believes that the people at the ‘big station’ (TVB) are capable, it’s just that they lack freedom (in other words – he believes that if TVB’s staff had the same freedom that HKTV’s staff have, the ‘output’ would be very different).

·         This philosophy is the main reason why RW allows his staff so much freedom.  He once told Alex and Benny:  “you are freelance writers now, so you should have the creative freedom to write whatever you want to write about.”

·         Benny stated that Ricky Wong understands the concept of leaving the production team alone and not trying to meddle because if he tries to involve himself, then it is no longer ‘creative freedom’.

·         Alex recounted something that Ricky Wong once said to TBONTB’s director Luk Tin Wah:  don’t spend so much time trying to ‘guess’ or ‘conform’ to audiences’ tastes – instead, just put out a production that you feel is your absolute ‘best work’.  [TN:  Luk Tin Wah mentioned this same conversation in the interview he and Alex did with Apple Daily, which you can read here.]

o   The host summarized the main difference between TVB and HKTV:  at HKTV, with creative freedom being the main goal, the scriptwriter and director work together as partners to bring the idea to fruition, while at TVB, there is a formal, cross-departmental ‘approval’ process – so this means that at HKTV, there is no ‘system’ at all.  Wouldn’t this pose a problem when it comes time to actually produce the series?  Wouldn’t they need to consult the other departments down the line anyway, so it would go back to being ‘similar’ to the TVB method?

§  Alex said that he disagrees with the assertion that there is ‘no system at all’ at HKTV.  He said that there is definitely a ‘system’, it’s just less formal and less restrictive than at TVB. 

§  He also said that when it comes to managing the budget of a series, there is definitely a ‘system’ in place.  He said that Ricky Wong keeps a tight watch over the budget and they must report to him anything that would affect costs – for example, how many cars they might need to film a particular scene.  When it comes to cost and budgeting, there is definitely a ‘system’ in place to ensure they remain within their means and don’t go overboard financially.

§  In terms of other departments:  Alex said that at HKTV, the other departments don’t interfere with the production of a series because they don’t have the power to do so – Ricky Wong’s instruction is for all departments to ‘cooperate’…meaning that they take on a ‘support’ role and provide the scriptwriter/director with what they need to achieve their goal.  For example – if they need certain artists for their series, they would communicate with the Artists Department and, if schedules permit, they are provided with the artists they request – the artists department head does not try to influence or ‘persuade’ them to use other artists [TN:  it’s well known that the Artists Department at TVB has large influence on production, so this is definitely very different from the ‘TVB way’.]

o   Basically, at HKTV, the script is the ‘main driver’ of the production – everything revolves around the script and everyone’s goal is to successfully bring the script to fruition.

§  The other departments were given orders by Ricky Wong that they are NOT allowed to interfere/influence with the script/production or change anything with it.

§  Even the artists themselves are not allowed to change the script or dialogue.  The only person who has the authority to change the script is the scriptwriter him/herself.

o   To summarize, the host brings up a good question that a lot of people have asked over the past few years:  if most of the behind-the-scenes people (scriptwriters, producers, directors, etc.) at HKTV actually came from TVB, how is it possible that their ‘output’ (scripts, series, etc.) can be so different from when they were at TVB? 

§  The short answer (which is actually explained in more detail above):  Because the system and environment are different, which creates a different ‘culture’ of sorts.  [TN:  I actually still like the way Ricky Wong explained it 2-3 years ago during his speech at the original launch party of his station (I’m paraphrasing here) --  at TVB, the writers/artists/etc. were akin to being in a zoo, caged up and with limited freedom, whereas at HKTV, they are put back into the wild, with complete freedom to roam and do whatever they want….]

-          To conclude this segment, the host asked Alex Pau if there was particular dialogue from TBONTB that he felt is the most impactful given HK’s situation.  Alex responded that the dialogue in one of the earlier scenes where Isabella (Queena Chan) is scolding Anson (Maggie Cheung) over a failed business deal is very significant – one of the things she says is:  “Hong Kong is an imminently sinking cruise ship…other than abandoning ship, what other choice do you have?”  He says that this dialogue really hits home because it stimulates Hong Kongers to reflect – is HK truly a sinking ship?  If so, what would I choose to do?  Would I choose to abandon ship or go down along with it?

*** To be continued......

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