Cannes: 'Cemetery of Splendor' Director on His Obsession with the Surreal (Q&A)
Palm d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul discusses returning to Cannes and the role man’s best friend plays in his filmmaking process.
Five years after Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s triumph in Cannes with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palm d’Or, the Thai auteur returns to the 2015 festival with Cemetery of Splendor.
Set in the small, rural city in the northeast of Thailand where Weerasethakul grew up, the film tells a story of magic, romance and dreams as it follows a middle-aged woman who volunteers to care for soldiers who have fallen ill to a mysterious sleeping sickness.
The 44-year-old director spoke with THR by phone from the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai about the mysterious nature of dreams, his favorite cricket and cicada sounds, and why Cemetery of Splendor may be his most personal — and unpredictable — film to date.
What’s it like coming back to Cannes five years after winning the Palme d’Or?
Well, I’m excited. The glamour stuff isn’t really my thing, but the projection system in Cannes is one of the very best. To see my film presented under such good conditions is really exciting to me. Too bad it’s not playing in the competition at the Palais, but that’s not my call.
Many films working in the surrealist tradition, or art film genre, use nonlinear structure or surrealist techniques to implicitly challenge the viewer in some way. Your work often has those elements, but there’s also a sensual warmth or embracive quality.
For me, it’s all inspired by living here in northern Thailand. The country forces you to see things beyond the ordinary. It’s like we are living not only on one plane of reality, but also this spiritual plane. We have quite a strong influence from Hinduism and animism. Especially in Isan, in the northeast. There is a strong Khmer influence, coupled with the place itself, which is hot, harsh and pretty dry. It forces people to crave for fantasy or the supernatural. I try to look at the mundane and think about how I can use cinema to bring out the magic that’s very familiar to us in this place.
Do you feel that you have a particular disposition toward your audience?
I make films for myself, really, as a form of diary. That’s the priority. But I also share many people’s aversion to the feeling that the filmmaker is trying to outsmart you. It’s better for me to lay myself with the audience, to experience the film together. I try to treat the audience with respect, as equals, experiencing this landscape side by side.
The way you use ambient sound conveys your themes of connectedness and the living richness of your settings in a very potent way. How has your approach to sound design evolved?
I’ve worked with the same sound designer forever, Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr. Over the years we have accumulated our preferences. He knows what tonal range I prefer and exactly what kind of bird, for example, should come in when. I don’t know their names, but there are specific birds, crickets and cicadas that we really like. It’s very hard to find many of these sounds. One time, he went to mix at the sound studio in Bangkok and discovered that a Vietnamese production was using his sound library because it was still in the hard drive there. I was really mad, because he spent years working in the field and the jungle getting these sounds and details. It’s his private library.
In Uncle Boonmee, the film’s theme of reincarnation also took on a formal quality, in that the past lives of Thai cinema were represented in the film, with each reel featuring a different cinematic style or period from the past. Are there any formal devices in the new film that we should watch out for?
I have to say it’s the most narrative-driven film that I’ve made. But it’s deceptive, of course. It’s the first film that I’ve shot in Khon Kaen, my hometown. I grew up there and hadn’t been back for more than a brief visit in 20 years. From the casting to the art direction, I did everything there. I tried to throw away the styles that I usually use, which constrain me. I tried to get into the city’s rhythm, which dictated the pacing of the film. It’s story-driven, in a way that most of my films are not, but at the same time, it asks my usual questions about the layers of reality. How do we live in our memories? What is the time of dreams and the time of awakening? It’s all together.
How did it feel to return to your hometown to work after so many years and so many experiences and accolades abroad?
It was very emotional for me. But I also really enjoyed working on this film. With Uncle Boonmee, I was quite lost and it felt like a pretty abstract process. For this film, it all went smoothly and I knew exactly what I wanted to show. The overall feeling is this unexplainable mixture of both sadness and happiness. For me, it’s the sadness of Thailand, which is sinking, because of the political situation — the repetition of coups and the coming to power of the military junta that now rules the country. The inequality and the way people treat each other here makes me very sad. But at the same time, there’s so much humor here. You’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. I’m really curious about how people will react to this film.
More so than with your other films?
Yes, because to me, it works on many layers — abstraction, history and just straightforward storytelling. At the test screenings, people seemed to need time to adjust. It was all quite liberating for me, but we’ll have to see how people respond. The film features this idea of sleeping as an escape from reality — for the characters, for the country and also for the audience. The film has an element of hypnotism that I hope the audience can feel — like the whole film is a hypnotist session. I once did some research into the sleep cycle and the four phases that we pass through every night. Each cycle lasts about 90 minutes, which is the length of a film. Maybe the shape of cinema evolved to match this natural, biological function. I like the idea that the length of a film matches what our brains expect a dream to be.
You’ve mentioned before that the personal stories of your lead actress, Jenjira Pongpas, are also in the film?
Yes, I’ve followed her life for a long time. We became good friends and she inspired me a lot with her memories — and her love life, as well. (Laughs.) Like all of us, she has been on a search, or a mission, to find a nice man to spend her life with. Four years ago, she found an American guy from New Mexico, a retired soldier. So I put that into the film.
Does the fact that she’s partly telling her own story help you bring something more authentic out of her as an actress?
Yes, exactly. Also, it works as record for me, as my diary. It’s much more comfortable to have someone in mind when writing. To experience the storytelling together, like in a family. It starts as early as the casting process. Sometimes he or she doesn’t have to fit the character I had in mind — if they have an interesting experience of their own, that’s more important to me. Bringing out and sharing their real stories, that’s the joy of making films.
How do you begin writing a film?
It’s fairly organic. It took quite a few years for me to make this film because I had so many ideas. I wrote two other film treatments but selected this one. I start from sleep. I observe my dreams and I write down what I can remember. I try to find the logic, even though it’s never really logical. Dreams are so subtle. Many times when you see such things in a film, the special effects are very apparent — or, what’s supposed to be supernatural is very apparent. But dreams aren’t like movies in that way. The supernatural has the same feeling as reality in a dream. I try to start writing in this way.
In the official summary for the film, you write that “it is also a very personal portrait of the places that have latched onto me like parasites.” What do you mean by that?
I don’t know, it’s something about the logic of living here. Sometimes I feel really sick of this country — that I’d like to go away. But time and again, I keep coming back, and it inspires me to make movies. There’s this push and pull of the place.
What pushes you away?
The political situation and the inequality. You feel a strong powerlessness. It’s almost like you cannot lead your own destiny — especially for those of us who work in the arts and the media. It’s impossible to communicate your true feelings here in Thailand. There are so many taboos. I feel frustrated sometimes. For the things you see and feel every day, you cannot say.
You’ve said before that you don’t like to be away from Thailand for too long because you have dogs and hate leaving them behind.
Yeah, I actually shot one of them for the new film, but he didn’t make the final cut. Poor guy. I love dogs. After the film wrapped, I got another one. It’s become a rule: When I wrap a movie, I get a new dog. I’ve done it every time. Thankfully, it takes me four or five years to finish a film.