In our ongoing column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.
This time out we’re chatting with actors-turned-screenwriters Prem Singh and Michael Pugliese, the creative behind “Tiger,” a moving film that chronicles the true life journey of Canadian boxer Pardeep Nagra (played by Singh) who is banned from the sport for refusing to shave his facial hair, an act that is against his Sikh religion. We recently sat down with the pair to discuss the timeliness of the film, how they’re hoping it will ignite a much needed conversation about acceptance, and why they’re honored to be called “the next Matt and Ben.”
TrunkSpace: There seems to be no right or wrong way to get an independent film made these days. So much of it is really finding what works best for a particular project. As you guys were putting together “Tiger,” how much of it was you thinking outside of the box to get the project made and how much of it was the stars aligning?
Pugliese: I think it’s a little bit of both, actually. When we first started, we were really just following our passion and something that we truly loved to do. We love to be storytellers and filmmakers, and when this story stumbled across our desks, we just felt like it was a good opportunity to buckle in and make something that we could call our own.
We met in acting class a good many years ago. We’re both from Toronto and we weren’t happy with the auditions and the whole process and even the roles that we were going out for, so we just decided, “Let’s make something that we’ll both be happy about, and both be proud about,” and so we put our heads down and blinders up. You just have to go for it.
TrunkSpace: And did you guys have an existing relationship with Pardeep Nagra or was his story just one that called out to you?
Singh: I was watching Pardeep Nagra battle this thing when it was actually happening, while we were doing acting classes, and it wasn’t a couple years later that I actually said that I really wanted to go forward with this. I saw Pardeep give interviews and talk to a lot of the Canadian media, and he was talking more about fighting for what he believed in, and I thought this was a great story to tell, but maybe would have been too early. And now’s the time. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for a story like this to come out. It gave us this push to say, “Listen, there is really nothing going on right now with what we’re doing, acting-wise, so let’s try to to create our own destiny and do what Ben Affleck and Matt Damon did and just write something for ourselves that we know we can do justice to.”
Pugliese: Like you said in your first question, you worded it like the stars are aligning, and I think now it kind of feels that way. It kind of feels like if we would have tried to make this when it was happening in 2000, I don’t think it would have been the right time in the world or that the world would have been ready. I don’t think North America… I don’t think everybody would have been ready for a film like this. Everything happens for a reason. It’s like the stars are aligning. I feel like people should be watching something like this, and it should be inspiring others to stand up and speak up for what they believe in. Now is a perfect time for “Tiger” to be out.
TrunkSpace: It certainly seems like, at least here in the States, that the division between everybody politically and socially is widening, but a movie like this coming along, it could actually help the conversation and get us back to a place of acceptance.
Singh: That’s it. We totally agree.
Pugliese: It can help the conversation, and that’s our goal with this movie is to create that movement and start the conversation. When you walk away watching this film, yes it’s about a Sikh character, a guy in a turban and beard, but it’s much more than that when you actually watch the film. There’s a lot of people that are going to relate to this, whether you’re immigrants new to the country, whether you’re black, white – it doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is or your gender – everybody can relate to a movie like this. The worst case is that this movie is going to start a conversation, and that’s more than enough for us. At least we started a conversation.
TrunkSpace: In terms of bringing your vision to reality, how long did it actually take to see the film come together?
Pugliese: When did we start writing this, 2010? Maybe 2011? We went to camera in 2015. And I think it was just more of having a burning desire to accomplish something. Whether it’s filmmaking or whatever you want to do in life, I think it’s really important to actually truly love and having that burning, aching desire for success, no matter what success means to you. It can be very broad. But I think that’s what made us continue to push forward through the five, six years that we were making it, because we just had that desire to do so.
Singh: It can get you a lot of rejections. There were a lot of rejections that came within those years that we didn’t get it made, and being new writers, people don’t tend to gravitate towards a screenplay or the subject matter, but that didn’t stop us.
TrunkSpace: Sometimes that rejection best serves the project, because had you not received those early rejections, it may have never been brought to life in its current form with your cast, such as Mickey Rourke, and creative team. In an alternative reality, it may have been a completely different film.
Pugliese: Absolutely. And it even builds character. I think it just makes us understand how this industry works and you filter out all of the people, all the naysayers, or all of the people that are just blowing smoke into your ears. You just learn a lot. And I think the longer it takes, the more you understand it, and the more you feel extremely grateful when it does come to camera and you do start. That first day, when the cameras were rolling, it was very special, because it took four or five years of just hard work, and to finally get there, it was really, really special.
TrunkSpace: You mentioned early in our conversation about taking an Affleck and Damon approach and just doing it yourself, and we have actually heard that comparison made about you guys from other people as well. Does being compared to those guys, especially given what they have done in their careers, put pressure on you beyond “Tiger” itself?
Pugliese: I don’t think it puts any pressure. Look, we had heroes and we had icons we looked up to, especially in this industry, and Matt and Ben were guys that we looked up to. They both decided to write a screenplay and push forward and get to where they are now. We always tried to follow the path that they paved for younger filmmakers, and we thought if they could do it, so can we, so that’s what we kind of did. And to even be mentioned in the same breath of air or the same sentence as those two individuals, it’s just extremely… it’s really special.
Singh: I just hope they don’t mind. (Laughter) They paved the way for guys like us. Those guys struggled just like we struggled, and if we didn’t know about this story or they didn’t do what they had done, we wouldn’t have been inspired to do this, or to try to get this off the ground.
TrunkSpace: So with that in mind, if “Tiger” takes off and more opportunities present themselves, do you see yourselves pursuing both acting and filmmaking in the same way that those two guys did following the success of “Good Will Hunting?” What is the goal moving forward?
Singh: Well, I’m gonna play Batman. (Laughter)
We have a company, Running Tiger Films. We want this company to create a lot of content that sparks a social message. I think a lot of films have that, but there’s sill not enough of them. When people used to ask us, while we were just trying to get this off the ground, “What is your company all about?”, we couldn’t really give them an answer. And then after “Tiger” was done filming, we sat down and we had a meeting and we said, “This is about a social message.” And we’re very pleased and very proud to spread the message.
“Tiger” fights its way into theaters this spring.
Featured image by: Valentina Socci