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With Grain: A Q&A with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

The acclaimed Thai filmmaker sits down with novelist Katie Kitamura for a conversation about narrative vs. storytelling, black magic, and migrant populations.

By Katie Kitamura

On Saturday, March 31, I took the train from New York City to Pleasantville, to interview the Thai artist and film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He was deep in post-production on several projects, including one that would premiere at the Cannes Film Festival the following month. Another was a short film for the camera company Lomography, whose limited edition LomoKino film cameras—bearing Weerasethakul’s signature on the front—I would later see prominently displayed in the Lomography shop in London.

Lomography’s strap line is “The Future is Analogue,” and perhaps no other director today so effectively collapses the categories of the past and the future. Weerasethakul had a solo show at the New Museum last year, and his most recent feature length film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010.Katie Kitamura


KK: One of the most distinctive things about your films is the way they avoid conventional narrative structure. At the same time, it seems clear that you’re very interested in storytelling. Is there a distinction between narrative and storytelling?

AW: I think that in movies you have a lot of room to play with—it’s quite a young medium. I’ve studied experimental films, especially American ones. And they have—their existence is about breaking the rules. When I went back to Thailand, it’s a country full of storytelling. So I’ve been trying to mix these two together. The American way of destroying conventions, and at the same time integrating this kind of storytelling, these rhythms that I love. Growing up with these tales—some people say it’s experimental narrative. Some say it’s simply narrative.

KK: Do you think it has something to do with speech? The stories in your films often take oral form.

AW: I haven’t thought about that, but yes—when you mention that, most of the things I put in the movies are something that I heard, as a child. Stories, or gossip—these kinds of things.

KK: I just saw a new print of the Marcel Carné film, Children of Paradise. It was interesting to see it again because this time I really noticed its digressive pace. Your films also have this wonderful, meandering tempo. How do you develop this?

AW: Mostly I start with words. Darkness, or light, or love. I start with this little thing,  and then I expand it. For me the most comfortable, easiest part is dialogue. So dialogue comes last. So mostly it’s just feelings, situations. All these build up until I meet the actors. We rehearse and we get to know each other, and then there’s a big rewrite to have the character really fit the person who’s playing them. The two kind of merge. Most of the time I change the character I wrote to fit the character of the real person. Because they sometimes say, “This is not my style, I wouldn’t say that.” My so-called actors are non-professionals, they’re not real actors, so I really stress that they have to be comfortable.

KK: How do you cast? For example, Sakda Kaewbuadeehe has such an unusual face and presence on screen. He’s not conventionally handsome or charismatic, but in Tropical Maladyfor example, he has this incredibly strong, almost eerie, presence.

AW: Yeah, I think most of what I look for is the—the aura, I don’t know the word in English. Let’s say pride, I look for this elegance and pride. And it’s quite a nightmare to get those people.

KK: How do you find them?

AW: All the ways. We look through agencies, we post on the net and in newspapers, magazines. Also fliers and I also went myself to the street to distribute fliers, going to restaurants. It’s a really interesting and beautiful process for me, to be able to be involved in everything. Most of the time we found people almost accidentally. For example, this young guy, from Tropical Malady, I met him in the discotech. For Uncle Boonmee, the woman who plays the wife is a singer. In Blissfully Yours, that girl worked in a bar. I have fun doing it, but it takes time.

KK: One of the things that I love in your films is the radical break that you make in the middle—they’re often split in two. Can you talk about what that break does formally and thematically? It’s almost like a gateway between two worlds in your films.

Apichatpong at work with the colorist at the Jacob
Burns Film Center, in Pleasantville, NY.

AW: I think it probably comes from the moment in the beginning when I list all these words. These simple words that I like to put together are something like yin and yang, like opposites. Darkness and light. Happiness, sadness, all these oppositions. And then I look at how I live, in Thailand—sometimes it’s things that are not supposed to go together but do. Like the beliefs and the animist aspect of life. We believe in ghosts, or spirits, or something, but we’re also attached very much to capitalism. So we believe in freedom, and at the same time we worship something that puts us into slavery. So this is what I try to do—I put something that’s not supposed to be together, but somehow needs to be together. Like in Tropical Malady, if you separate the movie, one or the other part doesn’t make sense for me.

KK: But it’s when they’re placed alongside—

AW: They belong.

KK: You’ve made a lot of film and video installations, that are shown in a gallery context. Your feature films seem to draw from both a cinema tradition, and an artist film and video one—particularly in reference to duration. Sometimes the pacing reminds me of a director like Tsai Ming Liang, and the Taiwanese New Wave. But the tracking shots in Syndromes and a Century felt almost like they came from an artwork that I could watch in the gallery as well as in the cinema.

AW: Time is very interesting to me. Because I’m really trying to capture time, mostly in the past, and work it out in the present. For example, when you have the scene in Blissfully Yours where they go to the picnic and it takes so long—the film was made in 2002, and when I watched it in 2005 or 2006, I thought, “Wow, my time back then, I was really patient.” Because I take the long duration for each gesture. And I realized my time has changed. The rhythm inside has changed. Because when I was younger, I didn’t feel that those shots were long, that’s why I put them in. But then recently, in 2012, I watched Blissfully Yours again and the cut is just right. It’s not long at all. So that means that our timings, it’s always changing.

KK: Do you have the sense that you’re making faster, quicker movies?

AW: No, I don’t think so. I think that it has to do with two things about time and also style. I think I’ve become more relaxed. And that affects the cutting. But the time is not only about the cutting. I don’t know if this is right, if it makes sense—it doesn’t mean that if you cut a lot, ten compared to five, it doesn’t mean the time is different. It could be you cut ten times but it could express an even longer duration.