A Conversation with Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco
AT: How do you feel about Apichatpongís work?
PR: [in serious and low tone] I love his work. I really love his work. And I really like him. Have you met him?
AT: No. No I havenít.
PR: Heís the sweetest, sweetest guy. Heís really a super, super nice guy. And heís unstoppable. Heís going to go REALLY far.
AT: Thatís the thing I find exciting, when thereís someone like that. On the one hand, you know theyíre not going to compromise. You know theyíre going to keep doing the work they want. And on the other hand, theyíre experimenting and still growing.
AT: And theyíre young.
AT: So you just have a whole world of work ahead.
PR: Yeah! He is a visionary, he is a real artist. I love...I love Tropical Malady. I like Blissfully Yours, but I love Tropical Malady. I was totally stunned. I was like ďwhy didnít it win the Palme DíOr?Ē after I saw the film. Because I saw Michael Mooreís film, and I thought it was so-so. I saw Old Boy, it was good, but I mean. But of course it canít win the Palme DíOr because itís too weird. I donít know him that well. We know each other, but Iím not close to him. Itís not like we talk to each other on the phone every day or anything, itís not like that, but we know each other well enough. I only have good things to say about him; about his work. I really enjoy his work.
AT: Have you ever thought about working with each other? Or helping each other out?
PR: There was a project that Apichatpong and I were supposed to work together on. It never materialized. It was not organized by him or me, it was organized by an old Thai director- I donít know if you know Cherd Songsri? Heís a classic, classic, director. He made a few classic Thai films that really stand the test of time. He made a film called The Scar. Thatís a brilliant film. Heís much older than us. But heís still very interested in my work and Apichatpongís work, he goes to Cannes every year and seeks out really weird films. And heís old. And he hasnít made any film for almost like 20 years.
AT: He must in his 60ís or 70ís?
PR: Yeah, quite old.
AT: And he had an idea for you guys to work together?
PR: With him!
AT: With him?
PR: Yeah we were going to do a story of this one guy, just this one person, and itís his journey through different stages of life. When he was young, when he was middle aged, and when he was old. And each of us, the three of us, would direct one age. I would do the old manís part, and Cherd Songsri would do the baby part, and Apichatpong would do the middle aged part. We thought it would be quite interesting.
AT: It sounds very interesting. What happened to it?
PR: I donít know. It just never pushed through. And I got busy on something else, and Apichatpong got busy on something else, and it never materialized. But itís an interesting project.
Iíll go to the bathroom, for one second. [leaves]
PR: Apichatpong is now producing for two young guys. That will be really interesting.
AT: People heís worked with?
PR: Yeah, yeah. Heís producing for them. [brings out a pack of tobacco, time passes, topic shifts]
AT: You met Prabda because his girlfriend was the actress in Monrak? At the crew parties?
AT: And then you asked him to write for you?
PR: Yeah [laughs]. Because I was at the point where I wanted to do Last Life but I didnít want to do what I wrote.
AT: You wrote your first three [films] entirely on your own?
PR: Yeah, and I already wrote Last Life. Finished. Actually I wrote Last Life even before I made Monrak Transistor. And I didnít want to make it. So I just put it away. Then one day my producer said ďyou want to work with Asano?Ē, ďyou want to work with Chris?Ē. And I said yes. And he went to Chris and said ďDo you want to work with Pen-Ek and Asano?Ē and Chris said yes, and he went to Asano and said ďDo you want to work with Pen-Ek and Chris?Ē and Asano says yes. And then he said ďPen-Ek, now we need a scriptĒ.
PR: So I took that script from the drawer, but I didnít want to make it like that. So I asked Prabda if he wanted to try writing a script. Because I [had just] read one of his books; I had never read his work before that. But heís so famous in Thailand, heís really famous.
AT: Which book of his did you read?
PR: Somebody gave me a book of likeóhe did film reviews. And itís all collected into this pocket book called ďMoving PicturesĒ in English, but itís in Thai. And I read it. And I found out that this guy hates the same films that I hate. He didnít like Run Lola Run at all. So I thought, if someoneís going to understand a little bit of whatís in my head, it might be him. So I kind of took a chance. And he kind of took a chance also, to work with me. We met, and I told him the story of Last Life. About this guy that wanted to commit suicide and found a girl. And then they lived together for one or two days, with all these gangster elements in it. And he just took it away. He didnít even take notes are anything. He just listened. And then he just went away for, maybe 3 months. Just dissapeared. And we had no contact, I never called him. But I knew Prabda to be a very disciplined person. So I knew he was doing something with it. But I didnít feel like one of those people that keep calling him to ask how its going. Because I donít like it when people do that to me when I work. I just left him alone for a few months, and then one day he e-mailed me the first draft. And it was wonderful [lights up]. I didnít like the ending, I didnít like some parts of it. But it really changes my script. I mean, the story is there, but its completely a different film. And the fact that he had never wrote a film before [was evident]; it was something that was so unfilmable.
AT: You said that it was sort of like a short story at first?
PR: Yeah, about 30 pages. There were some things in there that were completely unfilmable. Which actually showed that he didnít really know how to write for films. But it was those parts that actually wanted me to make a film; make this film. Like ďwhat if I try to do this?Ē, Iím really curious. I [could] film this, but, my challenge would beó Ďand the audience canít get boredí. That would be my challenge. Just to film this guy washing dishes for like seven pages. Or walking around the house when the girls not there; heís like snooping around the house, in that scene. To film something like that for like ten minutes. And you canít make the audience bored, or leave the cinema. That was my challenge. And I said ĎIíll make this filmí. So I took that and I wrote a screenplay out of itÖ
AT: How was the ending changed?
PR: Öand changed the ending. I think it was really soapy, really happily-ever-after kind of thing. Itís still in the film; he went to see her in Japan, and thatís the ending, and I didnít like it. And I didnít like some of the jokes that he put in. So I called him up and said ďPrabda, I donít like the ending, and I donít like this and that, but Iím not going to ask you to change it. Can I just hijack this scene from you. Iíll make the changes myself, itís faster.Ē And he said ďgo ahead, itís yoursĒ. So, immediately I knew that this guy had a really healthy ego. He has absolutely no ego, he has nothing to prove. Heís young, but he acts like an old man, you know [laughs]. So I really like him very much for that, and then I made the film. And then we liked each other so much that we continued with the new film.
AT: How was your original story for Last Life different. Was it just the tone that changed?
PR: Yeah. The story is there, but mine was more like 6ixty Nin9. Mine was more comedy, maybe more black comedy, more ironic. But I came to a point whereó Iím sick of being ironic, Iím sick of doing these kinds of things. So his version really [was different]. And I think the film kind of shocked him; because he didnít think he wrote this film. When he saw the end, the finished film, he was kind of shocked. Because during the course of the filming itself, the shooting, a lot of things changed. Because of Chrisí input; the way Asano acted. I would look at it and think maybe the film should go this way rather than this way. Last Life is a film that actually opened up a lot of possibilities of filmmaking to me. That maybe you donít have to know what youíre doing. To say that is a bit extreme, but I mean to say that with my experienceó Iíve done three films before I know how to control a filmó and with Chrisí experience, with Asanoís experience, thereís no way we were going to fuck it up. I knew that. Thereís no way we were going to make a piece of shit. Itís impossible. Even if you try. So I had that comfort. And like I said in the talk, I didnít know the people who gave money. So if I made a bad film, I donít have to see them again. So, I kind of went and said ďletís not know too much about what weíre going to do, letís just look for the filmĒ. And that film, the editing plays a really big really and no one notices it. Itís actually my editor who made us all look good.
AT: Yeah, I thought there were a lot of really great parts with the editing.
PR: Yeah, she cleaned it up. She cleaned everything up that would be embarrassing. Because the footage was quite a mess. And we kind of looked for the film in the editing. And then I start to realize Ďoh thatís another way to make filmsí, as long as you donít panic. You just keep looking. Maybe, it doesnít always have to be bad films. And at least youíre not as bad as Wong Kar Wai, youíre not as messy as him. Only five pages and he makes a film; that takes five years to shoot. Iím not even like that. So then I thought, that thereís nothing really to be scared of.
AT: So is it that film [Last Life] that was the most enjoyable to shoot. Obviously you had your problems with Chris at the start, butÖ
PR: No the most enjoyable shoot is Monrak, because you get to sing and dance all the time. You get to stage all these concerts and hear all your favourite music. It was great. But again, itís the kind of film where I didnít learn much. No, Last Life was really difficult; really difficult. And this new one is even more difficult. Invisible Waves I had to shoot the film so widely out of sequence, and I had never done that before.. Normally I shoot in sequence, because my films are designed to be small enough so that it can be shot in sequence. Like Last Life the moment they go to the girls house, you donít change locations, and you stay in that house for almost the rest of the film. So we can actually shoot it like it would really happen. And the actors really get to know each other little by little. So thatís why it works so well.
AT: So it was the one that you learned the most from. Because in terms of working with Chris, and in terms of the editing, it seems like the one that opened up a lot of things for you.
PR: I learned the most from 6ixty Nin9. I think after 6ixty Nin9 was finished I was actually kind of, a bit confident, like Ďnow I know how to make filmsí. I felt a bit like that because I learned so much throughout the whole process. But Last Life is not so much about learning, but it opens up another kind of filmmaking, for me, and exactly at the time when I really needed it. Because I canít continue doing [films] like the first few films anymore. And it came almost like a present, like a gift, with all the elements that you canít control. It came to me, like Ďyeah maybe this is another way to make filmsí.
AT: The finished work, what is up there on screen. What does it mean to you personally? How do you relate to it? Because it started with a script that you wrote even before Monrak. Is it very personal for you?
PR: Yeah. But itís not so important. Itís very personal and Iím proud, of them, but for me the process is a lot more important. I came to filmmaking because of that, because of the process. Not the film. I made my first film with the intention of ĎI really want to know if I would like it, if I would like going through this journeyí. I didnít make my first film thinking that Iím going to make a great film. I didnít even think about the film that much, as much as the whole process. And that has always been important for me. And that could just be a reaction [coming from] advertising, because when you work in advertising the end result is always so important. Because youíve made so many promises to so many people and theyíve expected a certain kind of thing. And you have to deliver. You have no choice.
AT: And you had two banned commercials in Malaysia! [laughs]
PR: And I have four banned in Bangkok.
AT: Really? What are they banned for?
PR: A lot of the times itís just sex and stuff. Itís not even sexy or anything, it just depends on how crazy the censors are.
I canít say that the finished film is not that important, it is, but itís not the most important [aspect].
AT: For youÖ
PR: Yeah. You still donít want to embarrass yourself, to be honest. You donít want something up there that will embarrass you. I donít think I can tolerate it. So you really have to work at it. Which means you care for the end product, but, itís not what you go in it for.
AT: So with Invisible Waves you have the same teamó Prabda, Doyle, Asano, and then you have the actress from Old Boy. Whatís her name?
PR: Kang Hye-jeong.
AT: And thatís the core of the film?
PR: And one Thai guy, one old actor. Who plays Asanoís boss.
AT: How did Invisible Waves come about? Did you have a story that was set somewhere else in Thailand, or want to make a film with this team?
PR: My idea was that I wanted to continue what we had started with Last Life. And to be honest, when I look at Last Life now, there are some certain moments in there where Iím a bit embarrased.
AT: What moments are they?
PR: I felt the film kind of goes like this. And then it goes uh! And then it comes back again. And then it goes uh! And those moments hurt me. Every time I look at Last Life now, I feel like I wasnít confident enough. I was afraid that it might be boring. So then the gangsters start to appear and slap each other on the head. But, I think in the end, we managed to conceal it in the editing, [so] that no one really noticed. Itís kind of like a red-bus or something of that sort. But for me personally, those moments, hurt me. So I say letís continue in this journey. But weíre making a completely different film. Invisible Waves is essentially a film noir. Iím a fan of film noir. All those black and white American filmsó I love. James Cagney, all those films I love.
So this time, I say, for better or worse, Iím not going to go like that [waves hand like a snake], Iím going to go like this [moves hand straight forward]. Even though, I donít know how itís going to come out. I promised myself that this time, Iím going to really go like that [moves hand straight forward]. And, I wanted to make a film in Macau. Because I friend of mine took me to Macau like 10 years ago, and I loved it. My friend was born there, he lives in Hong Kong, heís a Hong Kong guy, but he was born in Macau. Had a Portugese passport. He took me to his neighborhood where he grew up, and I just loved everything about it. I loved the peopleís places there, I loved the small alleys and stuff. So those were the things that I told Prabdaó I want to make a film noir, and I want to shoot in Macau. And he said, ďthis time, Pen-Ek I donít want you to write a script, I donít even want to co-write with you, I want to do it on my ownĒ. So I said ďPlease! Go Ahead! Less work for meĒ. So Prabda went to Macau for a month, and lived there. And wrote there. And then we have this script.