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Hollywood producer tackles Indonesia history in "Grisse"

Mike Wiluan talks to Cinema Online about his upcoming project, "Grisse".

Having made his directorial debut with "Buffalo Boys", a movie with a Western flair that is coming to cinemas in 2018, Mike Wiluan will next be trying his hands on directing an eight-hour series for HBO Asia called "Grisse".

The series is set in the 1800s – Wiluan revealed to Cinema Online during a recent press interview at The Fullerton Hotel, Singapore – at the time when Dutch occupied much of Indonesia. Hoping to tell the story of the small town of Gersik, alternatively known as Grisse, Wiluan combines history with fantasy to create an adventure story that is told in a "wild west kind of way".

"Grisse" follows an unlikely group of people who happen to be in a town that is controlled by the colonial forces at the time. They rebel and find themselves freeing the town but they don't know what to do next. Keeping the freedom soon becomes a heavy price to pay as they have to decide whether to continue working with each other or turn on one another.


While directing may be quite a new entry in Wiluan's resume, the Singapore-based Indonesian filmmaker has produced various films prior to this, including Hollywood pieces "Hitman: Agent 47" and "Beyond Skyline".

Find out more of what the director-producer has to say to Cinema Online about his upcoming HBO series, "Grisse":


Wiluan and other directors and talents gathered in Singapore to discuss their latest projects for HBO Asia.

Cinema Online: Why decide to focus on Grisse a.k.a. Gersik out of all the Indonesian towns?

The Dutch had a lot of plans for Gersik or Grisse at the time. They wanted to expand the town and to make it a trade post, as large as Surabaya but it didn't happen. I was doing research and found plans of the town, what they would do with the town. I found a lot of info on Grisse and I thought it'll be nice to tell a story about a small town, that still exists today, in Indonesia and people can say, "Hey, that could've happened". I'm jumping between history and what's real and what's not real.

This series is set in the same universe as the movie "Buffalo Boys"?

"Buffalo Boys" and "Grisse" are set in the same universe but it's not the same characters, it's a parallel development. "Grisse" explores a lot more than what "Buffalo Boys" did. "Grisse" goes into areas that "Buffalo Boys" never did. "Grisse" has its own set of characters and really explores deeply those characters, where they come from, it's very rich, its context. To be able to explore that over eight episodes, gives us a lot more richness. The characters, you don't have to watch "Buffalo Boys" to understand what "Grisse" is, you can watch it by itself and it has its own story trajectory.

Do you already have a cast in mind for the series?

A good amount of the casting will be from Indonesia. We're setting the story in Indonesia so we're going to use a lot of Indonesian talents. We're going to create a diversity of talents. We'll also find a way to discover new people and not always. We're also going beyond Indonesia, we'll be casting in Hong Kong, China, possibly Taiwan, Japan and Europe. Having a really great range of actors who are able to bring this fantasy to life and for audiences to fall in love with their characters are really key.

Where is "Grisse" being filmed?

We're fortunate enough to film a lot of it in Batam, we have a studio and we have a backlot where we're creating a lot of this wonderful sets and environment. To be able to control as much as you can within that environment is a relief. I've filmed in West Java, East Java, I've travelled across java and there are just things you cannot control, no matter how beautiful the location, you can't control everything around it. These are things we may have an opportunity to get to experiment, but the bulk of our production will be in the studio.

Who will be directing "Grisse"?

The series will be directed by a number of directors, I'm one of them. We have a Singaporean director, we have an Australian director. We'll be announcing their names soon. There'll be three of us that will share the load in directing all the episodes.

Are you planning for more seasons after the series' debut?

I think we've created something that has so much depth to it that to experience it in just one season is not enough, I'd love the opportunity to continue this in subsequent seasons. That's something that we want to work towards.


Wiluan discussing "Grisse" during the press conference prior to the interview with the media.

Have you visited Gersik?

[Laughs] I haven't visited Gersik. I went past it, I've been to Surabaya and I know Gersik is not very far away but I haven't had the chance to go by. I'm actually planning a visit there so I can see what it is like today compared to the world we're building since the world we're building is very fantasy based, but I think as a social reference it'll be good to know what the town is.

What made you decide to transition from a producer to a director?

I've been in this industry for 20 years, I've produced most of my career and I've also been on the creative side, writing a lot. I directed my first film just recently and have been writing a lot. "Grisse" is a fantastic opportunity for me to really demonstrate my passion in what I really love to do, to get more involved with filmmaking as a creator and showrunner is something that's very close to my heart. It's very different being in that situation than sitting in the office running a company, running a studio, I did that and I've handed it over to some other guys [laughs]. Being in the creative scene is like a dream come true.

I've always wanted to direct, it's just about having an opportunity. I find myself producing because I needed to understand the business of film, how it really works, how to pitch, how to sell a project. There are a lot of people out there with great ideas but they don't know how to get that from papers to screen. Being a producer I was able to learn the business of filmmaking, the business of execution and after that my passion, obviously, was in the creative. I kind of let that school takes place before my creativity began to take the stage.

More importantly I had to demonstrate my ability as a writer and as a director on my own merits. People always talk about me being the owner of Infinite Studios and coming from a privileged background. People always talk about my father, in terms of what he's done. There's a lot of noise back there. So I have to prove myself on the merits of the work that I'm able to do by myself. That took time and we're here today because I'm fortunate enough to meet the right people at the right time.

You've been involved in the Singaporean film industry for quite some time now, what are your thoughts on the country's growing film landscape?

Singapore has become a great platform for the promotion of talent in cinema and content creation. I've been a chairman of the [Singapore International Film Festival] now for four years and it's in its' 28th year, it's the most consistent film festival in SEA. We have a government here that's incredibly supportive. We have an opportunity for young inspiring filmmakers in Singapore to meet and collaborate with like-minded individuals from the whole of SEA, coming to Singapore and finding ways to co-produce. I've never seen as much interaction as there is today in terms of people working with each other. It's a confluence of constant networking and collaboration and Singapore has become that platform. Singapore is a challenging market as it's so fragmented, it's small. I think Singapore has always made very interesting films and Singapore today is making films for a wider audience.


Cinema Online, 26 December 2017