(Top: Ben Gazzara as Jack Flowers. Bottom: George Morfogen, Lisa Lu and Peter Bogdanovich - all taken by Agnes Chia during the Saint Jack shoot.)
When Saint Jack was finally screened at The Arts House last August one great surprise was the appearance of casting chief Agnes Chia, someone who many of my interviewees had sung the praises of, but who I had entirely failed to track down. Turns out her niece is someone I actually knew a little before I began writing the book, and since then she had completely missed my various public calls for Saint Jack cast and crew to contact me. Singapore is both a small place, and strangely big (or fast moving) enough for people to not notice each other. Anyway, since then Agnes has read the book, seen the film a few times (she was very pleased that it came out on DVD here) and either she or I were too busy to meet up. Finally we set a time and date, at McDonalds at Clementi of all places (the West side of Singapore), close to where she lives and works.
There was a great feeling of deja vu for me, getting the dictaphone out and jotting down questions - the first time I've interviewed a Saint Jack crew member in about a year, and Agnes gave me the usual - "I don't have very much to tell you" routine, before I began to plug away. Agnes had been pulled into Jack Of Hearts (the fake name they used while filming) by Tony Yeow (Unit Manager) because her sister-in-law, who worked at film studio Cathay-Keris, had recommended her to Tony. A decade earlier, she had worked on casting for Pretty Polly, the largely forgotten Noel Coward adaptation set (and filmed) in Singapore, which she says was "very straight-forward". Saint Jack would prove to be a more unpredictable and memorable experience.
She and Sally Tunnicliffe were in charge of casting, working with George Morfogen (Peter Bogdanovich's right-hand man), who dealt with them directly. Agnes, unlike Sally, says she didn't have many dealings with Peter, who she describes as "aloof". Pierre Cottrell (Roger Corman's production guy, who fell out with Peter) on the other hand was "a nice guy". Sally was teaching during the day, and mainly dealt with casting the expats, Agnes specialised in finding Singaporeans for the many small or larger roles and was in the office - at the Shangri-La Hotel and then later at the Goodwood Park Hotel.
Interestingly she says that many of the locals who had speaking parts were recruited from Chinese Clan Associations who were regularly doing performances, and had names and addresses of their best actors. The hordes who turned up after seeing the newspaper ad, were generally pretty terrible. She recalls the legions of models sent over to audition for the female roles, and how difficult it was to find a pretty girl with 'bow legs' (a description inherited from Paul Theroux's novel, of one of Jack's best ladies), so they gave up on that.
On casting Monika: "There was a lot of competition for the lead – a lot. Monika was very natural. She had that look, innocent and fresh, not so vulgar, very different from the other girls."
On casting the part of Toh, the gangster-boss: "They wanted a dwarf, and they wanted him the next day… (finally)we heard that there was a dwarf living in this one particular place, so we took a car and went over there and went looking for him door to door. We didn't have his address or phone number. And we found him"
When the shoot began, she or Sally had to be present to make sure the actors turned up, and to find replacements if they were needed, which by the sound of it, was never. For the big crowd scenes, at Goodwood Park (with the GIs) and at North Bridge Road (the nightclub raid scene) Agnes ended up managing the extras, and she even organised the catering, which was budgeted at an extremely generous 10 bucks a head.
She loved the old house on Institution Hill, and at the end of the shooting there, the production/set guy David Ng auctioned off the furniture, so for years she had a chandelier and sofa from the film set (sadly she no longer has them).
Agnes had been told that the film was Jack Of Hearts, but knew pretty quickly that it was something more risque. There was obviously tons of gossip flying around the local crew about what the foreigners were up to - both in terms of the film and their other activities. The script was changing all the time, which was a problem for casting because they never knew what characters might be invented, be needed or dropped, but from the pages that they saw, it was clear that Jack Flowers was a pimp. The scenes with the trans-vestites/sexuals Bridget and Lily were the most shrouded in secrecy, and she had no role in casting those scenes - Peter, Pierre, Ben and George did that alone.
She doesn't remember seeing much about it in the papers until it was banned (early 1980), and wasn't at all worried about this, by that time she was busy working, but not in films or TV sadly...she obviously had a real talent for casting.
The screening at The Arts House was the first time she'd ever seen Saint Jack, and she really enjoyed finally getting to see it, and was even more excited to get the DVD, which she has shown to her whole family. Her feeling is that the film is a very valuable document of Singapore's past, and should be required viewing for young people...
Agnes shyly agreed to pose with me after we had photocopied her my archive copies of the casting notes, which she hadn't seen since the summer of '78 (pic taken by Wayne from Access Depot), I promised to give her a bunch of contacts for some of Saint Jack crew so she can get back in touch, and then she showed me how to get back to the station without getting wet (It was pouring with rain), and she was gone.