ALEX BARRETT spoke to Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit on his recent visit to London during the Pan-Asia Film Festival 2014.
As I sit opposite Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, getting ready to interview the young Thai director of 36 and Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy, I place my two recording devices onto the table in front of us. One is my BlackBerry phone, but the other is an old Sanyo Microcassette Recorder. Normally, at this point in an interview, I would make a joke about still using an analogue machine – but given the director before me, the combination of old and new technology seems somewhat fitting. As if sensing this, Nawapol comments that ‘analogue is reliable’. And, as 36 has shown us, digital is not. I switch on the recorders, and the interview begins…
AB: Your first two films, 36 and Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy had their London Premieres at the Pan-Asia Film Festival this weekend. Could you tell me a little a bit about them in your own words?
NT: I think 36 is a love story about people in the digital era. One day I saw my hard drive and I thought ‘that’s a lot of memories’. I think electronic appliances, like hard drives and computers, are quite fragile. You don’t even need to drop it, maybe one day it’s just broken. And we keep pictures and things, as memories, in these fragile containers. People don’t like to print out digital photos, we just keep them like this. This is our era. So I wanted to discuss this topic, but via the love story, not as a serious drama film or something like that.
Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy is kind of conceptual, because I use social media quite often, and I love the pacing of posting and reading Tweets. I think it’s quite interesting, because it’s short and fragmented. It’s our new way to communicate with each other, and for me Tweets are like a digital diary, like the diary of the era. It’s not like the old days when we needed to go home and every night write something like ‘Dear Diary, blah blah blah’. Today, when we see something, we just Tweet. When we think something, we just Tweet. So I think it’s like a diary. And if it’s a diary, there must be a story. So I thought it would be fun to adapt that into a film.
AB: The two films feel linked by the theme of life in the digital age, and I was wondering – do you think that life has been affected by digital technology? I don’t mean in a practical or superficial sense, but in a philosophical or ideological sense.
NT: I think when we have a new technology, it always changes us in some way, or in many ways. Like one day we got mobile phones, and it changed human behaviour and human relationships. Or, it’s like, do you know when you chat, and it says ‘seen’? It’s quite a problem in Thailand. People say ‘you’ve seen it and you don’t answer me!’ And it always happens between a couple: ‘you’ve seen it but you don’t answer me’. This is a new aspect to relationships of humans, so I’m quite interested in this topic, because I think inspiration comes from the new technology. A new way of communicating, or a new way of thinking, always comes from new technology. I think 36 is the product of the digital era, because every part of it, is digital – from shooting to promotion. When I first screened it in Thailand, it wasn’t in cinemas: it was a conference room, and I had no money to make a TV spot or buy the place for the banner or for putting the poster or something like that, so I used digital only. Digital has changed the way of filmmaking too.
AB: You mentioned that you use Twitter a lot, and you also have a blog and other social media pages – do you think any of them are affecting the way that you approach cinema? You said 36 wouldn’t have happened without digital technology – but do you think social media itself has affected your filmmaking and the way you approach storytelling?
NT: I think so. For the past three or four years, I always think of everything as a fragment – small things. I don’t know if it’s because I watch YouTube a lot or something, because there’s a lot of short video clips and I get used to that rhythm. I think maybe this affected me in some way, my way of thinking.
AB: Mary Is Happy is based upon 410 consecutive Tweets from Twitter user @marylony (aka Mary Maloney). Could you tell me about her? Who is she, how did you find her, and how did her stream end up becoming your film?
NT: I chose [Mary] from my followers on Twitter, because I think it’s easy when I go to them to get the permissions, because if they follow me, it means that they know me on some level, so it’s quite easy. I didn’t choose from my friends, or something like that, because I love the concept that we read some Tweets or some Facebook Statuses of someone, and we imagine them in our way, you know? For example, when I read your Status or I read your Tweets, and I’ve never met you before, I have your face in my imagination, or something like that. We have to use our imagination to interpret that, what really happened in their life. So I chose someone that I never met before. I randomly chose from my followers, and I found Mary Maloney. She is a Thai girl, but she only posts her Tweets, she doesn’t reply to anyone and she doesn’t Retweet anything. So if you go to read her timeline, it’s quite in order. It’s quite a good layout, because it’s only her own. So this is one thing which I think appealed to me. And she Tweets what she thinks, not what she sees. So it’s quite broad for me to interpret.
AB: And has she seen the film? Have you been in dialogue with her?
NT: First, when I wrote the script already, I sent it to her for permission, but I never met her, I just sent an email to her and she gave the permission. And almost a year later, because we go through production and postproduction, I invite her for a press screening, and that’s the first time we met each other. I think it’s like a blind date, because it’s like I know her by the text, by her messages only, and I know her, but actually I don’t know her. So it’s like a blind date. I think it’s interesting when she watched the film, because she’s the owner of the story and she always compared her real life to the film. Something like…there are some Tweets where she plans to go to Paris, and she Tweets that ‘today I’m in Paris’, but actually, she doesn’t go. She hoped to be there, but she didn’t feel sure about it. But in the film, the character Mary is there, in the real Paris. So, I don’t know what you call it. Hyper real or something?
AB: Did Mary like the film?
NT: She liked it a lot. I think it’s quite personal for her. It’s not like – we can’t say she liked it like a general audience, but I think she liked it because it’s quite personal for her.
AB: Even though both 36 and Mary deal with people’s relationship to technology, stylistically they’re very different: 36 has long static shots, whereas Mary Is Happy is hand held and jump-cut. I was wondering how you decided the style for the films, and was it a conscious decision to make them very different?
NT: I think both of them came from the concept, which is quite different. 36 comes from a film roll, because that is 36 pictures in one film roll. I tried to imitate that still photo – so the shot is quite static, like a photo, something like that. But in Mary it’s like, I wanted it to be fragmented, quick shots, quite quickly cut. It’s about teenagers and I wanted to imitate the quick videos on YouTube. It’s quite unstable, it’s like documentary style. It’s like people who play, fall down or do something bad or funny or something like that. They always use an iPhone camera or something like that, so I tried to imitate that style. So the two films are quite different.
AB: Your two films have been produced by Aditya Assarat, who is known to UK audiences for his film Wonderful Town. Could you tell me about how he got involved in your projects, and what influence he had on your work?
NT: For 36, actually, it’s like my film was self-produced, but when we needed to send it to festivals, I called him to help me, and that’s all for 36. But for Mary he was my producer. He called me to see if I had a new idea, and if he could support the project. But actually, about the style, I think our style is quite different. Because he’s more static than me, and more character based, human behaviour, it’s quite deep in his way, but my [style is more] kind of comedy, my films are a little bit more comedy. And I love to talk, I love to tell stories, so my stories are quite obvious and people can catch something from my story.
AB: In addition to your work as director, you also work as a script consultant and film critic. How do you think these roles have affected your work as director, if at all?
NT: I think when I write as a critic, I take myself as the audience. I think when we start making films, sometimes we are deep into our projects and we don’t see the problems. But when we move ourselves as the audience, we will see a lot of problems, or something we need to fix. And when I have to write about the films, I have to analyse why I like this film, or why I don’t like this film – and sometimes I get something from analysing [other films] that we use for my films.
AB: Do you think film is very important to you? In Mary you have a lot of reference to filmmakers, such as Wong Kar-wai, Ang Lee and Jean-Luc Godard.
NT: The film [Mary] is like my world, my subconscious, because I want to give a chance like when people read someone’s Status and they use their subconscious and their imagination to recreate the reality in their head, something like that. So I think it’s possible to bring in my, not my idols, but yeah…I grew up with those films a lot, because when I start to watch independent cinema, it’s Wong Kar-wai or people like Ang Lee or Godard, so I think it’s funny to bring them into this film like, ‘this is my world’. I grew up with Asian cinema, like Wong Kar-wai or Takeshi Kitano, so I think the world in my head must be something like the world in the film.
AB: I think we’re out of time now, but just quickly: what’s next for you?
NT: My next project is making a film with a studio, a Thai film studio. Because usually I [just] write scripts for them, but this time it’s directorial work. It’s not that mainstream. You know, we understand each other, they know what I do, so it’s kind of low budget, but under a studio. Something like that. I’m okay with it, because I love both narrative film and experimental film, so I think it’s fun we that we can move back and forth between the two.
AB: Great. I look forward to seeing it.
NT: Thank you.
IMAGES COURTESY OF SONALI JOSHI, DAY FOR NIGHT ©
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