Joko Anwar is a sceptic when it comes to supernatural stories.
“I don’t believe in the devil. I only believe in UFOs,” he said.But even he couldn’t deny the stories of seemingly unexplainable eerie things that happened on the set of his latest film Pengabdi Setan. The film is a remake of an Indonesian horror classic of the same name released in 1980 about a family being haunted by the restless spirit of a loved one.
During an interview in Kuala Lumpur, the 41-year-old Indonesian director recalled an issue he had while making the subtitles for the film: “So my producer and I were at a studio in Johor Baru. As we were going through the subtitles, these words, ‘Then I’ll give you ...’ keep coming up on screen. No idea how it got there. Then we just have to keep erasing it. Could it be Satan?”
Joko remembered another incident – they had hired 24 extras to play the undead in the movie. When his team went over the stills for that particular scene, they noticed something strange. “We counted and there were 25 zombies instead of 24 in the photo. Who is the ‘extra’?” he asked.
Perhaps all these creepy stories had to do with the location as Pengabdi Setan was mostly shot in an old house in Bandung, Indonesia that was unoccupied for over 20 years. An uninvited guest had also sat through the preview of the film in Indonesia.
“In the cinema where we had our first preview, we heard sounds of a boy crying ...,” Joko shared.
If there’s one thing scarier than the experiences Joko encountered while making Pengabdi Setan, it was the idea of someone else remaking his favourite childhood film.
Joko had spent 10 years trying to convince executive producer Sunil Samtani to let him remake Pengabdi Setan.
However Sunil had picked another director to helm the remake. But that didn’t deter Joko from pursuing the job.
Joko said: “I sent Sunil the link to two short horror films that I’ve done, Grave Torture and Don’t Blink. I knew I have to fight for it. My last film A Copy Of My Mind made its rounds at international film festivals and he was worried that my treatment for Pengabdi Setan is not going to be accessible to the (mainstream) audience.”
Sunil liked what he saw in the links Joko shared (“It was really scary!” Sunil said) and eventually agreed to let him direct the remake. The executive producer described it as the “biggest risk” ever and it paid off.
Pengabdi Setan was released in Indonesia on Sept 20 and has become the year’s most successful Indonesian film with a cinema attendance of 4.2 million viewers.
At the recent Festival Filem Indonesia (FFI), Pengabdi Setan won seven awards including for Best Theme Song, Best Child Actor and Best Sound Design.
It was something that Joko did not expect. He laughed when he heard about Pengabdi Setan scoring a Best Film nomination at the FFI.
“Of course, we were happy. But we didn’t make this movie to win awards. We made it to make money!” he joked.
Financial reward is really the last thing on Joko’s mind when he makes films. More than a decade ago, he was a struggling writer in Jakarta. Money was tight so he would only eat arem-arem (Javanese rice cake) to fill his stomach.
“I still eat arem-arem, you know. Yes, being a filmmaker, you’d find that it’s easy to be steered away from your intentions. When I started out, I wanted to make films that I believe in. As time goes by, you may end up doing things you don’t believe in just for the money,” he shared.
“For me to not fall into that kind of situation, I have to remind myself that I have been through hard times. I didn’t have money and I survived. So I’ll be OK,” he added.
Joko’s tenacity may also stem from his childhood, growing up in a poor family in Medan.
“My father was a pedicab driver for 15 to 20 years. Growing up, my family often had a hard time buying food. But we didn’t cry. Mostly we faced our situation with humour,” he remembered.
Joko’s foray into the film industry began with an interview he did as a journalist for Jakarta Post back in 2003.
Award-winning director Nia Dinata was impressed by Joko’s knowledge of her career that she asked if he had any story ideas of his own.
“I gave her the first 20 pages of Janji Joni. Later at midnight, she called and said we had to meet the next day.”
The partnership started when Joko co-wrote comedy film Arisan! with Nia. At the FFI awards in 2003, Arisan! won six awards including Best Film. Nia would then produce Joko’s notable directorial debut Janji Joni in 2005. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Story After Pengabdi Setan
When he thinks about the success of Pengabdi Setan, Joko said it’s how he told the story that mattered most to him.
“Our intention for making the movie is to give the audience a great cinematic experience. The fact that over four million viewers have that sense of satisfaction from the movie, made me grateful and thankful to God.”
What’s next for the award-winning director? Joko prefers to keep his audience guessing.
“I don’t want to ride on box office success. If I want to make another film, I want to have that butterflies-in-my-stomach feeling.And when I feel the need to get those butterflies out, then I know I am ready to start writing.”