Jakarta. On New Year's Eve last year, happy news came for "Susah Sinyal," the third feature movie by stand-up comedian-cum-filmmaker Ernest Prakasa. After only 9 days in the cinemas, the film already racked up more than 1 million viewers.
When it was finally gone from the screen on Feb. 10 this year, the movie – whose title translates to "Poor Mobile Reception" – has been more than well-received by the Indonesian public, earning 2,172,512 viewers in total, 6th on the list of the highest-grossing movies in 2017.
Ernest’s previous films also did very well at the box office. According to data from filmindonesia.or.id, his debut feature "Ngenest" (Poor Guy – a pun on his name, 2015) attracted 785,786 viewers while Indonesian Film Festival's (FFI) Best Screenplay winner "Cek Toko Sebelah" (Check Out the Shop Next Door, 2016) attracted more than 2.6 million viewers.
The three films have one thing in common: they're all comedy-dramas based on the themes of family and identity.
In an interview with the Jakarta Globe on Tuesday (27/03), Ernest said he draws inspiration for his movies from things around him that he knows very well.
He also said he has "a lot of things to say about family matters."
“If you tell stories about things that you know really well, the audience will find it easier to relate," the father of two said.
Ernest shot to fame as a stand-up comedian, winning third place in the Stand-Up Comedy Indonesia (SUCI) competition in 2011.
He then wrote a book based on his life called "Ngenest" and pitched the movie script to Starvision producer Chand Parwez Servia.
Parwez offered Ernest to direct his own movie, which took Ernest by surprise. But Parwez reminded him that he already had another comedian under his wing, Raditya Dika, who also found success on the big screen under Parwez’s tutelage.
"That’s how I got into filmmaking. I started by learning, I read, I watched tons of YouTube videos on filmmaking – video essays, movie reviews, roundtable talks – anything to fill my head in on filmmaking," Ernest said.
Not Just "Ethnic Stuff"
Ngenest and Cek Toko Sebelah are both movies portraying the life of Chinese-Indonesians.
Ngenest draws a lot from Ernest's experience of being bullied as a kid just because he’s Chinese.
Traumatized by the bullying, Ernest became obsessed with marrying a non-Chinese so his own children would not have to face the same discrimination.
A very sad story, but the first-time director delivered it with a deft comical touch.
In Cek Toko Sebelah, Chinese-Indonesian shop owner Koh Afuk (Chew Kin Wah) has to face a lot of family drama when he wants to pass on his convenience store to one of his sons.
The script was not based on a true story, but Ernest again drew from his own life for inspiration.
Susah Sinyal and his upcoming movie "Milly & Mamet" no longer revolve around Chinese-Indonesian characters.
Ernest said it hasn't been his aim to focus on "ethnic minority issues," but to present honest stories about life that people can relate to.
"A lot of times people want to write something that other people would like. I think that’s a big mistake because the first thing you have to do is write something honest. You have to write something that you believe is important," he said.
"My third movie [Susah Sinyal] was the hardest I’ve done so far, because I talked about the experiences of being a single mom and a lawyer – things that at first I had not much understanding of, but also a story that I really wanted to tell. So I really dug in, did a lot of research, visited places. It was really hard, very challenging. But it was worth it," Ernest said.
Best of Both Worlds
"My formula is that I try to balance the comedy with the drama, so you get the best of both worlds," the 36-year-old said.
Comedy is obviously Ernest’s strength considering his stand-up background. He said that shooting the comedy scenes in his movies have been "less work and more play."
His films are known to star fellow stand-up comics such as Ge Pamungkas, Arie Kriting and Dodit Mulyanto.
But having big names on the poster doesn’t guarantee a stamp of approval from the audience, it’s more important to have a good story, Ernest said.
"What people tend to forget is that even if you're doing comedy, you still have to have a solid story and strong drama because no matter how funny you can be, how many jokes and gags you can pull out, they won't linger in people’s mind," said Ernest, whose favorite Indonesian film is Dimas Djayadiningrat’s satirical comedy "Quickie Express."
Since the very beginning, Ernest always consulted his wife Meira Anastasia when writing the scripts for his movies, especially for the drama sequences. Finally, starting from Susah Sinyal, Meira stepped up as Ernest's co-scriptwriter.
"We always start by developing the basic premise of a story together. It’s never like, "You do this, I do that." It’s more doing everything together all the way, this also happens when we wrote the script for Milly & Mamet," Ernest said.
Milly & Mamet & Ernest
Milly & Mamet posed a unique challenge for Ernest and Meira. They had to create the story within the "Ada Apa Dengan Cinta?" universe built in two mega box-office hits by Riri Riza and Mira Lesmana.
"To a certain extent the lines are already drawn, I had to play along with the Mamet and Milly characters that were created by Mira Lesmana," he said.
Ernest was glad that Milly and Mamet were the characters to provide comic relief in the drama-filled AADC films.
"So far it’s been quite a fun ride," said the filmmaker.
Ernest said ironically the more experience he gets, the more he feels "clueless" about filmmaking, because there's always something new to learn and bigger expectations to meet.
"I thought it would get easier. Turns out the saying 'the more you know, the more you don’t know' is so true. The more you dive into it, the more you realize that filmmaking is complicated as hell. Going into my fourth movie, I felt like, well I already did three... but the more you learn, the more aspects of filmmaking you’re being exposed to, the more you realize there are so many things you haven’t done yet."