Award-winning writer and director Muhammad Mahfuz Mazlan talks about his transition from cool uncle to Cool Dad, and why it’s a rollercoaster ride he wouldn’t trade for the world
When Muhammad Mahfuz Mazlan isn’t working on his next screenplay or directing the next big telemovie, you’ll probably find him curled up at home with his 3-year-old son, Muaz, or whipping up a storm in the kitchen for date nights with his wife, Nurmaya Alias, who’s a freelance journalist. We speak to this ultra-awesome dad about his recent Malay telemovie Papa Pilot, how he juggles work and family time and why he thinks being a dad is the coolest gig of all time!
Congratulations on bagging Best Drama Series and Best Directing – Drama and Best Videography for your thriller drama Kultus at Singapore’s elite Malay awards show Pesta Perdana! What was it like filming abroad?
Firstly, thank you. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it wasn’t for the sacrifices made by the rest of the cast and crew as well – all of whom had to leave their family and kids for a month when we were filming in New York. Filming overseas and leaving your family behind is never going to be easy. But when you are filming a thriller where the locations range from abandoned barns and dilapidated basements to icy forests in New York City and Upstate New York – totally unfamiliar ground with zero technical and operational support – during the dead of winter where temperatures on the coldest day were at -28oC and with windchill, it’s exceptionally tough.
Many of us were on the verge of breaking, be it physically or mentally, but everyone hung on because they believed in the story. Kultus had a storyline that was very different from what you would normally see on local television and everyone was invested in making Kultus come to life. Aside from that, the support of family kept everyone going. It was difficult to Facetime or call due to the time difference – the bad cellular and wifi connection in remote upstate New York can be extremely frustrating, to say the least – but everyone was patient and kept trying, which was important because the connection with family helped us keep our sanity. Sometimes all it takes is a simple video from your loved ones to keep you pushing forward.
What are some of the ways you supported your wife and son while you worked abroad?
I had to leave my wife and my son, who was 2 years old at the time, back home and not a day went by where I didn’t worry about how she was coping alone. She insisted on not going back to her parents while I was away because while my wife may appear demure and sweet, deep inside, she’s a tough cookie. There was not a lot I could do in terms of support aside from the occasional texts to check if they are okay and videos that we shared. The thing with my wife is that she never insists on Facetiming every day, nor did she ever text me about the issues she may be facing at home throughout my time in New York.
Honestly, I think the lack of communication didn’t stem from nonchalance or her being aloof, but more of the fact that somehow, she intrinsically knew I would be completely swamped trying to complete filming – which was absolutely true – and thus she did not want to be a distraction. That said, it made me treasure whatever little communication we had; the occasional video of my son learning new words, a voice recording of my son saying “Goodnight” or simply the short text messages like “Hang in there” to encourage me to push forward, those meant the world to me. So in short, I think she was supporting me a whole lot more than I was supporting her.
Your latest telemovie Papa Pilot looks like such a fun lighthearted drama! How did you draw inspiration for the film?
Papa Pilot was actually written by Adib Kosnan and conceptualised by Adib and Daphne Koh. The story was tricky though because they drew inspiration from stories of pilots losing their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic, so the storyline was initially very bleak and heavy. However, deep down, we all knew we did not want something too serious and dark because life is hard enough during this pandemic. So the challenge, as a director, was to tell the story with fun and comedic undertones without dismissing the seriousness of the issue. What made my life easier was that I had wonderfully versatile actors such as Fir Rahman, Farhana M Noor, Zaidi Ibrahim and many more who were not only great with drama but also gifted with an amazing sense of humour and comedic timing. I think that was how I managed to tell a very serious story in a lighthearted way which I hope audiences will enjoy.
Do you generally have a busy schedule? How do you juggle your career and spending quality time with your son?
As a freelance writer and director, I’m blessed to have a schedule that I can tailor to suit my family’s needs. That said, when I’m directing, it’s usually 14-hour days at the minimum, so I would not be able to see my son for days or weeks at a time. As such, I try to make it up during my off days or when I’m writing, which is something I do from home which allows me more time with my son. However you can’t imagine how distracting it can be when you’re trying to write a screenplay and your son is seated beside you, insisting he wants to help (when really he wants to use my laptop to watch Baby Bus on Youtube). [Ed’s note: Actually yes, we can – fellow working-from-home mamas over here with lots of interruptions from the tots. All too familiar!] Also he would be seated on my lap because it’s apparently more comfortable than sitting on the sofa. But he’s an only child and I realise that soon, he will grow up all too fast and suddenly be ‘too old’ or ‘too cool to be sitting on his old man’s lap so I treasure these moments even though I know it’ll wreak havoc on my delivery deadlines.
Do you expose your son to the local arts/theatre scene since you’re in the industry?
I don’t intentionally expose him to the industry, although he will inadvertently be exposed to it since he has visited me on set or at work many times. The truth is I’d rather not influence him to go in any direction and really let his own personal interests lead him to do whatever it is he wants to do.
Is your son interested in pursuing a career in the arts similar to yours?
I think it’s still a little too early to tell. He is only 3 after all. That said, he is a pretty decent storyteller for his age (you should hear the excuses he can come up with when we tell him it is time for bed!) and has the potential to be a great actor. The puppy dog eyes and the ‘on-cue’ crying whenever you say “no” to him is nothing short of amazing, but I don’t think he wants to be an actor as yet because he’s painfully shy in front of people.
What’s your favourite activity to do with your son when mum’s not around?
Well, it’s the usual shenanigans boys get into whenever mum isn’t around: building a fort, watching his favourite show on TV, eating junk food – we both LOVE potato chips and ice cream – and generally making a mess around the house. Then we will both clean up the house together because I think it’s important to inculcate the values of cleanliness at a young age and I also find housekeeping therapeutic, which I hope will somehow rub off on my son. Plus both of us know better than to get into mum’s bad books.
Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
For me, it is just surprising your spouse with something nice now and then. Surprise her with a gift on random days (don’t wait for a special occasion to buy her something nice!) assemble a coat rack or spruce up her walk-in wardrobe, take my son off her hands for the day so that she can have a “me” day alone or with friends, cook her something nice. These gestures go a long way in showing that you love and treasure someone.
What are your favourite date night restaurants?
I usually bring the missus to this amazing restaurant just steps away called ‘Le Petit Kitchen de Mahfuz’ – the chef (yours truly) will cook up her favourite dishes. I’m no Masterchef but no one’s gone to the hospital for food poisoning either. I know you think I’m cheap for not taking the missus out to dine at someplace fancy (which is kinda true) but the real truth is, at this age, we both find that it’s just too much effort dressing up for a night out and we’d rather spend time enjoying each other’s company than spend time choosing what to wear and me repeating “No honey, you don’t look fat in that AT ALL,” at every outfit she chooses.
Where’s the first holiday destination you’d like to go to with the family once we can travel for leisure again?
I have had this discussion many times with my wife over the last year. Initially, the plan was either a beach holiday in Bali or a road trip in Australia. But after not being able to travel for so long, I think we have to make this one count so it has to be something off the bucket list, like an Alaskan Wilderness Explorer Cruise or a Lord of the Rings New Zealand tour.
Lastly, what’s something you wish you knew before becoming a dad?
I wish I knew being a dad is not going to be as easy as being the cool uncle. I married really late and I’ve always been the cool uncle, so I honestly thought taking care of a child would be easy peasy because I love kids and they love me. The one big difference is at the end of the day, you get to return your nephews and nieces to their parents. Having a child, the sleepless nights, the constant worrying, the exhaustion that comes with the constant worrying… It isn’t easy. But a friend once told me that having a child is like riding the most awesome rollercoaster ride; it’ll bring you to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but you wouldn’t want to trade that ride for anything in the world. For the record though, I really hate rollercoasters, but I really do love and adore my son very very much.