Toronto International Film Festival : Memoria : Q&A with Palme D’or winning director Apichatpong Weerasethakul / Starring Tilda Swinton

Toronto International Film Festival : Memoria : Q&A with Palme D’or winning director Apichatpong Weerasethakul / Starring  Tilda Swinton

Q: Thank you very much for your time today. We should start with “Memoria,” your new film, which is really special, and I really love it. This is the first time you shot outside of your native Thailand. It was shot in Colombia. It’s also in a non-Thai language, it’s predominantly in Spanish with some English. Can you talk about what led you to want to shoot outside of Thailand or the first time? 

AW: It was, I think, four or five years ago, after I made “Cemetery of Splendor”. That was made in my hometown, and it’s almost like a wrapping [up] of something or a farewell to a place that I know so well. During the shooting of that film, the military took over and still is in power now. At that time, I was thinking it was quite a challenge to make a film there because I feel that if I make a film, I want to make something that touched on the subject of authoritarian regime, which is impossible. 

Another dream of mine was to work in Latin America, which was quite a mysterious region for me. But I was always attracted to the Amazon, the jungle, which is [in] a lot of my works, the early work that featured jungles. Because when I was younger, I was reading these novels written by Thai authors. In fact, they were influenced by a lot of Western writers from the era of colonization of South America to discover the treasure, and romanticized the Amazon. Thai writers were influenced from those writings and I thought Oh, why not go to the source? 

So over the years I was traveling in South America and dreaming about this. In 2017 I had a chance to be in the Cartagena Film Festival and they were doing a retrospective of my work. Also in this tribute, showing clips of my past work and looking at those images and them being celebrated, I felt like I was in a funeral somehow. I was thinking, “Oh, I’m really getting old and I feel that there’s an ending of some kind of chapter.” I was thinking, “Oh, maybe this is a new beginning, this place is a sign.” 

I also had a chance after Cartagena to travel around Colombia for three months, doing an artist residency, and I felt very alive. I felt “Oh, this is really a new chapter” and I started to write, pictures [sic] and just to imagine. 

So bit by bit Memoria was formed, and coupled with my communication with Tilda [Swinton], I felt like, hey it’s time. It’s been too long that we talk about hey let’s do something together. I wrote to her, “Tilda, I think I found a place in Colombia”; and I’m so grateful now that we made it. It was very quick, 2017, only a few years to make this personal film, which is not that easy to finance and everything. 

Q: So in addition to filming in Colombia and in a non-native language for you, you are incorporating international professional actors: you mentioned, Tilda Swinton; there’s also Elkin Díaz and Jeanne Balibar. But when did you first meet Tilda? I believe when you and I were watching Fireworks archives, there was also a video that you had of her sleeping already. Had you worked with her in an art complex before? 

AW: Right, kindof casually here and there because we met, but the memory is gone. It always feels like we met but somehow we didn’t.  She always said that we met in 2004, that [she] discovered “Tropical Malady” in Cannes and she was one of the Jury members. And then she wrote about a film in one of the texts her son [used]. [Apichatpong Weerasethakul edited by James Quandt (Austrian Film Museum, 2009)]

Then we made a film festival together – I don’t know when, but it was in Thailand, in the south of Thailand. It was so beautiful and impossible to make it again because it’s so ambitious. In the southern island with the platform in the sea, with the seating and the screening on the end of a cliff.  No, it’s crazy. 

We met again, I think, when I was at a London film festival. But we kept in touch, communicating and having shared dreams. 

Q: I don’t know Tilda, but when I think of the two of you there are some similarities. You deal with sleep and dream life a lot. I remember Tilda’s installation at MOMA where she was sleeping in a glass box. I went but she wasn’t there that day, I saw only the glass box. And then when I think about her beginnings, the experimental films team in London working with Derek Jarman, and then you being influenced by Bruce Baillie, and your big support of experimental cinema — you seem to have a tremendous amount in common. 

AW:  Yes. I think my point of reference with Tilda was with Derek Jarman that I watched when I was studying, so it was a bit surreal. Because that time in the early ‘90s, that’s when I discovered many other experimental films, and I remember seeing “Orlando” [dir. Sally Potter] in Chicago. I was shocked by the experimentation in the film. I wouldn’t believe myself at that time [if I knew] I’d be working with this lady. That’s more of my reference point, because later I actually haven’t seen many of them. 

Q: In “Memoria”, Tilda’s character is Jessica, and she’s dealing with exploding head syndrome [EDS], this bang that she hears in her head. I believe that was an autobiographical detail and you did have these symptoms, and it’s also something that you incorporated in one of your theatre works, The Fever Room. So can you talk about the condition?

AW: Right. I thought it was only me. One day I just woke up to the sound and I didn’t know what it was; me, or the environment? And it happened for a few years before my trip in Colombia. I feel strangely not traumatized by it because it’s quite gentle, it’s happening and I know after awhile when it’s going to happen for sure. It will happen early in the morning. And then I started to look online and found it: oh, there’s Exploding Head Syndrome, which sounds really violent, but to me it was not. I was intrigued by it and I was [ready] for it [to] happen. At a certain point in this syndrome I could see something with the bang, a geometric pattern.

So I put the experience in Fever Room which was happening before, and then I did it to insert this sound. I started in Berlin with the edited version of “Fever Room”. That’s when I worked with my sound designer on how to mimic this experience. And it’s very difficult because it’s impossible – because it’s not a sound [per se], it’s a sensation. It’s almost like talking to yourself in your head. You’re thinking, you can hear yourself, but it’s not really a sound. 

In “Memoria”, the way that Jessica tried to describe it as a sound like a metal ball and it’s exactly how I felt. And when I shooting that, by a miracle the symptom was gone. So to make the film and to express it is the way to cure it. 

Q: That’s beautiful. This film was like a metaphor for your working methods and your life. I would like to promote this beautiful book, Memoria. This book attends the film. It is a beautifully curated compilation of research materials, writing, production stills. There’s a really great interview with Tilda, and there’s a production diary as well. 

I do love the fact that you’re multi-disciplinary, you’ve done art books before. This one, I think, is a very special one that includes all of your research. In the interview, Tilda talks about your looking and listening and the way that you see the world. She didn’t see Jessica so much as a “character”, but in terms of gestures and body movements and rhythms. And I think that says a lot about the way you work, as well. Could you comment on that?

AW: Yes. In in the beginning, the character’s name is Diane. After a while I was thinking about this character Jessica Holland. “I Walked With a Zombie” by Jacques Tourneur – I looked at it again and said “Oh, that’s a similarity in the idea of playing a wife who had been traumatized somehow and then hypnotized [into] being called each night from her bed to walk — like a zombie, really, walking through the jungle towards the sea, by this drumbeat. 

So I felt the movie almost formed itself. I realized that and told Tilda about that, and I was really excited about this discovery of mine. And through the working process, I didn’t know what I wanted to achieve. I didn’t know the heart of the film, collecting sound, until the point of editing and sound design and I started to know better. I think Tilda also approached the film the same way: just being present in the moment. 

Q: I think what I also found really fascinating is how she really focuses on the frame. She needs the sense of composition in order to envision her body. Was that a different way of working with an actor, for you? 

AW: Yes, in a way, because I really need concentration because there’s always a long take, always five minutes, ten minutes, using 35mm film. So there’s a sense of ritual and preciousness and I realized that Tilda is really receptive to this preciousness of time and in a way that she makes everyone, including me, feel calm. Because she’s really focused when she wants to, every time when there is action she transforms and that calmness and focus kindof ripples through the crew members and to me, and it’s such a magical way of working. So this kind of channeling of energy has been happening between us, Tilda and me, and to a lesser extent, other crew members, other cast members, too. 

Q: This is a very different environment. When I first saw the film I felt like I saw little bits of Thailand – banana leaves in the windows, there’s also the military, the army, at a certain point. So some of your thematic markers are there. Did you feel a lot of similarities between the two countries while you were there? 

AW: Right, right. And also because people shared a lot of stories with me and I start to live [among] violence and oppression, and how we have to celebrate life and to be very casual about life. The fact that Colombia is full of greens and all kinds of fruits [so] that I felt really at home. The crew members also made me feel at ease about making a film in such a different [place], partly because they know my work and partly because we know that we’re talking about something really important. It’s really silent but it’s about the feelings inside, the feeling of being in the environment that is not stable. 

It’s a beautiful process, like a family working. So it’s like how I felt when I was working with my team members in Thailand, this kind of intimate [group], and thankfully Tilda and Jeanne Balibar and Juan and others operate in that way. It’s not like “movie stars” coming in, but more like “Okay, let’s try our piece.”

Q: What about your interest in archaeology?

AW: Yes, I think it’s coming from this exploding head symptom, and at a certain point I felt like I wanted to crack open my head to see what’s inside. And then to realize that there’s a tradition of drilling a hole inside your [skull] because people believed that there was a demon inside and they needed to get it out. Which makes sense! 

With this tradition that is related to Latin American culture of threatening, then I started to look deeper and to feature this construction tunnel that they dig into the mountain. So I found this sense of similarity of men trying to defy nature and to dig into history and into a spiritual world, into memories. 

Q: There’s a beautiful sequence in the film where Jessica is in a museum and she’s looking at works of art. Who is that artist and how did you discovered him?

AW: Yes, his name is Ever Astudillo. I was traveling to Cali they’re making it the capital of filmmaking in Colombia – they call it “Cali-wood”. In the museum there, which also has a cinemathéque, where I show my films, the museum has this retrospective of Ever’s drawings and paintings. 

And I was surprised; I didn’t know this man before. His work is like that in ”Memoria”, dealing with shadows and with obscurity, and when you see it, he is really much influenced by cinema and by photography. It’s almost like you can see the lens being sharpened in his painting that is not about life drawing, but it’s through the medium like photography: blurriness in foreground and background. But he’s passed away in 2015. So we asked his estate to feature his work in the film and I also wanted my DP [Sayombhu Mukdeeprom] to bring this element of mysteriousness and shadows into this film. 

Q: Tell us more about the locations, too. The university has this great modernist, brutalist building. And then, in the second part, you show [one] very different, very Amazonian. Can you talk about those choices?

AW: Yes. To this day I haven’t been to the Amazon because I was so attracted to the architecture in Bogotá – it’s so massive and is something new to me. I studied architecture. I didn’t really experience, really, this brutalism in the ‘80s, ‘90s. And then there are several of them in Bogotá, in the library that we shot, and also in a university and many other places. It reminded me of this image that I saw in the exploding head symptom, when I see the geometric pattern, this flash of square or circle. So I also stick with this circle idea quite a lot in the film. 

And then doing the research, I went to many mountain areas to discover Pihau in the middle of the coffee region and to know the history of Pihau, to know that this is almost like the epicenter of the earthquake. It has its own trauma, being hijacked by the guerrilla to occupy the city, and people have to hide at home, beneath the beds, and all these stories that I tried to channel in the film. 

Q: So some of the stories are taken from actual people that you interviewed?

AW: Correct.

Q: So how did you encounter them? Through people you knew, or through more official film channels? 

AW: Well, just traveling. And I put a focus on hospitals because I want to see a hospital. I feel very comfortable there, and I talk to doctors and focus on mental [health issues]. I want to know why people need antidepressants or how people deal with, or how they end up in, an institution. So in different cities, I try to find doctors through my friends and talk with them. 

I discover a lot of issues, that everything is connected with those national traumas, and also global traumas. During 9/11, that happened in New York, a spike of mental issues rose up in Colombia as well. So I think people feel connected. That’s one of the ideas in the film too, this global memory. 

Q: I think we’re dealing with that now with the pandemic. We should also mention that your parents are both doctors, and hospitals do feature quite prominently in your work, so that was another theme. You did talk about drugs and antidepressants. 

And then you’ve also spoken before about dreamscapes, and you have kept in the past, dream diaries. You said sleep has been a big issue for you, and a big subject. But you talk about accessing a hallucinatory or meditative state without any kind of chemicals. Can you talk about that?

AW: Yeah, I was trying to dream for a few years. And also I had insomnia, I think because of the stress. So I was attracted to that, and also attracted to meditation. I thought that was one of the ways to cure insomnia, and it does, to a certain extent. When you meditate, or when you dream, I think you enter a certain state that is quite visual, and it kindof links with your daily life as well, the things that you dream about. So when I dream and then I wake up and I feel very precious because that means I sleep. So when I have many good dreams, or a bad dream because I had lost some hours, I kept diaries. Looking back, I think that was also the time I was interested less in cinema. I saw films less and less until now, and I was more attracted to these visions at night. And I think that’s enough, just to see my personal movie at night. So that’s the relation to that, and when I make movies or installations, there is always the presence of these [visions]. 

Q:  Talk about some of your installations and your art work as well, and the difference between making cinema and [other] visual arts. You’re one of the pre-eminent artists who [pivots] between the two in a very successful way. You shoot most of your films on film, as you mentioned, and some of your installations on video. Can you talk about the multi-disciplinary practice that you have and how it fulfills you in different ways? 

AW: I actually started from experimental cinema and I was thinking at one point I wanted to make only 16mm black and white films forever. And then reality hit when I went back to Thailand in the late ‘90s, and globally too, when there was – can I say the “dying” of experimental film? There was less channel to see experimental film in theaters. Many filmmakers resorted to galleries and museums. 

But for me, when I was in Thailand, there was no experimental film at all. I had to work in the industry, 35mm film, so I was adapting. But at the same time, video technology started to become affordable, so I started to experiment with that and tried to keep experimental going on from the beginning. My friend put my works in a gallery in the late ‘90s and the early 2000’s. It started in parallel with filmmaking, “Mysterious Object at Noon” or “Blissfully Yours”. Along the way were some gallery works starting, but people know me more in the features all along. 

Q: I also understand you are also such a generous champion of experimental film. Even this year, you are so kind while you were promoting “Memoria” to write me an email and suggest a short film that you really liked. I think that was such a generous gesture, that you are so curious to see what’s out there and really promote what you care about, which is rare.

AW: Yeah. I’m a hermit because I stay on a mountain. Many people sent me works through email, and sometimes I don’t really have much passion to see them because I value seeing them on the big screen. But sometimes [something] is so beautiful, so I want to share. 

Q: I was very lucky to be able to go to Cannes this year and I saw you there. And we both ran into Peter Tokarski. Just seeing the two of you together filled me with joy, and there was so much mutual respect even though the work is so different. I can see how much you admire one another. 

AW: Peter is one of the few artists that I can say I’m really jealous [of], and I feel in the way of his commitment it’s like a dream, it’s like my dream that I couldn’t achieve. To work almost alone, at home, and that’s how I was attracted to experimental film or film in the beginning. 

When I was in Chicago, I was looking at this film [by] Pete Voelker and other films. I said, “Wow, this is me. This is what I was looking for, to do something very personal as an introvert.” To be able to be with something frame by frame in a darkroom, alone. But then I cannot do it – with many reasons. But Peter [Tokarski] is still doing that. So I just look at him with admiration. 

Q: At Cannes the premiere of “Memoria” was really special and moving. You seemed very moved, an international film community was very moved. It was so special. I remember you looking up at the balcony and saying “Long live cinema!”. Can you tell us how you felt at that moment?

AW: Yes, I felt overwhelmed because it was hard to travel – it required lots of paperwork. Then I was there, and I confirmed that we made a right choice to be there together, all of us. It was really going through different processes, especially people from Colombia, to get there in Cannes. To be together and so the borders of all these nations disappear is only cinema, this ship together. It’s never planned, it was just a spontaneous reaction, like “Hey, I wish this ship sailed on and on.” This unique experience of togetherness in the dark, and to be hypnotized by this light. So I said “Okay, long live this ship.” 

Because I was a bit, also, aware that the movie theaters are in jeopardy with this time of streaming, and I feel that they really need to be saved. It’s not yet, of course, the pandemic allows us to be at home and to access a lot of movies. But not yet. I feel the preciousness is to celebrate.

Q: How did you spend most of the pandemic while you were in lockdown?

AW:  A lot of books. Observing dogs, being with them. I’ve become harder to try these three dogs that I have. And it’s really silent communication between them. It feels strange to travel again. Almost like adapting to this dog tribe, then I’m going to betray them by going away again. 

Not only that, but also the trees around [here] because I live in a beautiful area surrounded by mountains. To witness the change in the environment – yeah. 

But it’s also a very interesting time to get connected, to be aware of the failings of the government, and you cannot help compare with other governments. You know, how they deal with vaccination. In Thailand, vaccines have become like gold. It’s really hard to get it. That’s why many young people went on the streets to protest. They wanted to reform the military, the monarchy, institutions. So it’s really the first time in a long while that I feel hope for our country. 

Q: I saw your Tweet, I had it translated, and I think it was a promotion of a protest for freedom of speech for artists and dissenters. What is the mood in Thailand right now? You’re feeling hopeful, and is that because the youth is out rallying and there is this pressure for reform? 

AW: There’s a sense of hope for this. And also danger, because the way that the military government had it quashed and used tear gas with a chemical, left water, and rubber bullets on people without listening, without providing an appropriate platform for communication. That’s really alarming, because I was thinking about Hong Kong and about China. And personally, I really don’t like the way they try to silence everyone and not really listen. 

Obviously there’s a lot of problems in the country. So there’s this sense of broad danger and also hope, because it’s almost like the ceiling has been broken, collapsed. We talk about the role of monarchy. It’s always untouchable because we still have the law of lèse-majesté, that you cannot criticize [the monarchy]. I think there are many people still doing it in good faith — trying to sustain it, actually.   

Q: You have had international success. Does that make your position in Thailand easier, or is it more of a challenge in some ways to speak out? 

AW: I think it’s more personal because in terms of struggling with feelings, as I say, I prefer to be alone, I prefer to be with very few loved ones and the dogs, and it’s not my nature to be very public. But sometimes the situation does call for people because I know that I can influence someone, or if something is not right, I need to voice my opinion as one of the citizens. 

Q: Do you receive funding from Thailand for your work?

AW: Yes, in the past, and also very, very zero-point-something for “Memoria”. But it’s been a fast thing with the Ministry of Culture, the way they look at culture as a whole. When the film got invited to Cannes, my producer contacted the Minister of Culture and said we need support. And they said “No.” They just said I’d have to go through this process and that, that, that. What about per diem, and what about maybe something for food? Or something? And there was just silence. Until now. So I feel that there’s a sense of need to reform. 

We independent filmmakers feel the government is not only not supporting, but also tried to suppress. A few weeks ago, they just demoted the National Artists. In Thailand, when you’re retired and you contribute as an artist, some people have been called National Artists, which comes with a monthly [stipend]. And this one writer who joined a protest with the young people in the street just to voice his opinion about freedom of expression, and the government just said, “We will get rid of your title” [stipend revoked]. I think it’s terrible to do that, so I made an open letter in protest.

Q: You have your own production company, Kick the Machine. Are you working with other artists in that as an umbrella, or how does that work?

AW: If there is still something around, meaning that I am producing something. My assistant director Sompot Chidgasornpongse, I produced his first film. Then a while back I re-produced my editor Lee Chatametikool’s feature film. And now I’m co-producing the second film of my assistant Sompot. So it’s only our circle. I’m trying to have a screening room and screening program here in Shanghai. 

Q: Do you think there is an alternate form of production money through galleries in some way that would contribute to film, or do you think the two are very distinct?

AW: I think there is opening up. In many little things, we do what we can from the production money to asking permission to shoot in the gallery or something. I made additional photographs in exchange for that. So we do every way we can through art and through exchanges.

Q: You have the really large exhibition, a solo show, right now in France until November, called “Periphery of the Night”. Are you going to take a break now or are you already looking to the future?

AW: Oh, I don’t think I can stop because really, to be in a festival and to see the work shown, to be with other filmmakers, is a push, inspires you to continue working. Now I am planning a sort of performance with The Art Technology for next year and for 2023, and also a new movie is still cooking. 

Q: Are you in the writing phase, or the pre-research phase?

AW: We’re really in the research phase. I hope to work with Tilda again, and also to work more with my Thai actors team. So it’s a riddle how to put these dreams together. 

Q: The sci fi elements in “Memoria”: where does that interest come from?

AW: From childhood. It’s in the same corner as those ghost stories and the myths. Sci fi was part of growing up in the ‘80s when there was a big introduction of science fiction novels in Thailand that were translated. Also, I think it was the boom with Spielberg and George Lucas, too, with ET coming out.

If you remember, there was a lot of sci fi going on in cinema and literature, with Omni magazine, there’s all these science magazines coming out in the States, also in Thailand. So I was reading Odyssey Club, I was reading Asimov and Ray Bradbury, and the love of these imaginations is still with me. For me, I put it in the same class as the ghosts and horror, this animist belief that is saying somehow they exist together. 

Q: Obviously it’s in the ethos also, because we’re dealing with extreme weather, and climate change is such a big thing. I heard some people talk about the ecological catastrophe of “Memoria” in some ways, and they’re attaching it to that. Was that something you discussed with your team?

AW: It’s part of the research, and I think it’s going there in the film somehow or somewhere hidden there. Because when you look at this construction of the mouth of the tunnel in the mountain, it’s quite a violent gesture, going through nature and when you’re aware of these conflicts in Colombia. When I was there, there were always protests about mining and about many other issues with how to take care of resources. That’s a big issue, and with global warming, everything is connected. 

In Colombia, it’s really immediate because the landscape is really alive. You have this landslide happening from time to time, and it’s almost like a communication between man and nature. So I feel that even though it’s not there in the film, it’s very interesting when people say what you mentioned, that they can sense this kindof vibration or something threatening in nature there. 

Q: Apichatpong, thank you so much for this conversation. And thank you for “Memoria”, we’re so happy 

AW: Thank you so much for allowing me to share these ideas. 


Here’s the trailer of the film.

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