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Courteney Tan on Film, Television, and Creative Expression

Courteney Tan is a multifaceted talent in the world of film and television. With six years of industry experience under her belt, Courteney has delved into various facets of the industry, from production on films to writing and directing her own projects. We talk to her about her award-nominated short film, LONGING, and her creative journey, which is fueled by a desire to explore diverse themes and genres, often drawing from personal connections to infuse authenticity into her work.

Photo: Khuram Mirza / Kae Alexander and Emeline Lambert in LONGING

Tell me a little bit about your craft. What are some of the themes you like exploring, and how do you go on about it?

I like to work across a range of themes and genres, but I find that I often need some degree of personal connection to the subject matter. For example, I'm currently working on a sci-fi [project], but I'm also working on a period drama and a futuristic workplace thriller - they're all wildly different, but within each of them there is something that either interests me or that I can connect to. I think that's necessary to write in a way that feels truthful. However, no matter what I write I tend to try to sneak in characters who are queer or East Asian, even if the project isn't about identity. 

LONGING - If you remember, how did that idea come to you?

I'm a huge fan of slow-burning romances - Before Sunrise, Call Me By Your Name, In the Mood for Love - but I wanted to do something in that space with a queer and East Asian angle. My producer Scarlett Mulraine-Simkin and I started hashing out the initial idea, which was centered around a business person in the UK for work who has a short-lived queer romance over the course of one night. The first script I wrote was actually between two men because it seemed a lot more believable to me that a queer man might hop on the apps and go on an impromptu date on his last night in the UK, whereas there's much less of an immediate hookup culture among queer women. However, I did actively want to tell a queer female story as of course that is much closer to my own experience and eventually the script evolved into a story between two women. We made it so Eve, the protagonist, wasn't actively looking for anything, but rather she just wanted to dip her toes in the water by going to a queer film event, but then of course ends up meeting someone there she has a connection with! 

Was there a purpose behind creating LONGING? If so, what did you want to achieve with it?

I didn't set out with a particular purpose other than to hopefully make something that people responded to, however, I hope that it might serve as a reminder of how far we still have to go in terms of rights for queer people and how in some cases, Britain's colonial law has a lot to answer for. 

Could you take me through the process of producing LONGING - what were some of the highlights or challenges with this short film?

We put in an application to the BFI and we were awarded funding in 2022. So the first few months of that year were spent rewriting the script, casting, location scouting, and crewing up leading to our shoot which took place in August. The shoot was quite challenging, in as much as we were shooting nights and there were a few hiccups with locations and equipment along the way, but the cast and crew were truly brilliant. Short films are always challenging as often there is not enough time or money for what you're trying to do, but having a crew who are either passionate enough about the story or their craft and are willing to stay calm and give it their all really makes a difference. 

After we shot, we spent a few months editing and the non-linear structure actually came out of that process. Originally I wrote the script chronologically, when we got to the edit I felt that it was lacking in something so my editor Jack Goessen and I played around with structure and voiceover, which led us to what is currently in the film. 

One of the highlights was definitely seeing it on the big screen for the best time. The BFI Southeast held a five-year celebration showcase of short films they had commissioned and ours was included, so we got to see it screen in London with some of the crew and cast, which was a great experience. 

I saw that you guys were shortlisted for the Iris Prize last year. Describe to me what that was like? Does feedback matter to you as a person behind the screen?

Yes absolutely. I've always been a fan of Iris Prize so it was really special to be recognised by them! We traveled to Cardiff to attend the festival and it was great to see our film play with the other shorts nominated. In terms of feedback, it does matter but I think it's important to know that you're not going to please everyone - some people might like your work and others might hate it - and that's ok! 

Moving away from LONGING, could you tell me a little about the creative process behind writing and directing films? What are your favourite and least favourite aspects?

I always enjoy the script stage - it's a chance to be alone and figure out what the story is and what you might want it to say, but equally, if you're lucky enough to get a project off the ground, then it's also very rewarding as a director to start having creative conversations with your DP, costume designer, production designer, actors and so forth. New ideas and solutions always come out of those conversations and it's always exciting to see people engage with what's on the page and make it their own. My least favourite parts are the obvious ones - trying to secure funding which is never easy given the level of competition and the lack of funds available in the UK and of course, having to make creative compromises which are inevitable but still difficult! 

Do you ever suffer from creative blocks? If so, what's the best way of getting out of them?

Yes absolutely. I might have a really productive and creative day followed by one where I'm just staring blankly at my screen. For me, the best way to get around them is having time away from the project, which isn't always possible with deadlines, but I find that a couple of days working on something else and then going back to the thing you're stuck on helps you reexamine it with fresh eyes. I also know quite a lot of people who will only write in, say, the mornings and then spend the afternoon going for a walk or gardening or cooking and using that as 'thinking time.' That sometimes works for me too, but equally, if I'm on a roll at 9 pm I'll just keep going whilst my brain is working. Another thing that helps me with creative block is reading scripts and watching films - basically finding inspiration and a reminder as to why you're doing it in the first place! 

Do you have any advice for aspiring directors, writers, or anyone who wants to get into film production?

In terms of getting into film production, there are lots of great trainee schemes out there and various groups where productions post junior level jobs. Most people I know, myself included, started out as runners or assistants and then worked up the ladder. I will say that it is a tough industry, and in the UK, nepotism and class play big roles. 

In terms of writing, the most obvious thing you can do is just to write - it's important to have examples of your work and there are lots of good competitions and schemes out there that can help boost your profile / get an agent. The writing work I have done so far has either come off the back of schemes or through people I know. Directing is obviously much harder to just practice in the early days, but if you're new to it, it can be great to come up with a premise of a short film that you can feasibly shoot quickly and on a very low budget so you have a chance to build your skill set and portfolio that will hopefully prove to future commissioners that they can take a chance on you.  

And finally, tell me about your dreams. What do you wish to do with your creativity? 

I would love to keep creating and learning. I have another short that I would love to make this year, a pilot in development, and a few other projects that I'm currently writing. The dream would be to create stories that people respond to in some way...and also to quit the day job and make a living of it! 

Social Media & Other

Instagram: @mayztan

Watch LONGING: Channel4


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