More of a "haunting love story"
than a bone-rattling "scary movie" (Michael Guillén
at Twitch), Mark Duffield's Ghost of Mae Nak is remarkable for at least two reasons. First, because this is the second instance of a British cinematographer turning writer and director and filming a ghost story in Thailand with Thai actors aimed at a Thai audience (the first was P), and second because this continuation of a legend brought to the screen nearly two dozen times has been so well-received. See, for example, reviews in Variety and Firecracker. Jonathan Marlow talks with Duffield about how he's pulled it off.
After a decade as a cinematographer, how did you decide that Ghost of Mae Nak would be your first feature film as writer/director?
I feel the Ghost of Mae Nak
decided first. But apart from being a cinematographer, I have also spent a decade writing spec scripts, mostly horror or dark thrillers, so I have been developing the craft of writing and understanding the process of the horror genre. Ghost of Mae Nak
culminated in my experiences as a cinematographer, director of short films, and scriptwriter. I knew when I was writing the script for Ghost
that I was doing something exciting and unique. It was a joy to research and write. And it was an amazing film to experience and direct as my debut feature.
Did your work on Butterfly Man allow you to travel to Thailand for the first time?
Yes. I first went to Thailand in 2001 to work on the independent British feature. I was there for four months and even returned a year later to do re-shoots and pick-up shots. I was later awarded Best Cinematographer at the 2003 SlamDunk Film Festival
in Park City for my cinematography.
As a British director, what attracted you to filming in Thailand?
Since I had spent some time in Thailand as a cinematographer, I began to see the potential of directing a movie myself. Film crews in Bangkok are highly skilled and there are many high-end commercials made there. The latest 35mm cameras and production equipment are available and there are excellent post-production facilities. Thai people working in the media there speak English (some fluent, some basic) so it was not too difficult to communicate but an interpreter helps. And, of course, I had also written a script that was specific to Thai ghosts and culture and finally everything came together.
How familiar were you with the story of Mae Nak before you began? Did you research other versions of the folk tale?
During my first time in Thailand, I became fascinated with the Thai ghost stories and legends. I heard of a shrine that is devoted to a famous Thai ghost called Mae, or Mother Nak. I visited the shrine and was surprised to see hundreds of Thai people praying and givinh offerings to Mae Nak and ask her for a blessing or guidance. I then began to research the Mae Nak story, listening to the various versions from the Thai people I knew. Each story varied but at its heart was the tragic love story and the theme of love transcending death.
I also discovered that there had been many films about Mae Nak over the last fifty years. Most were hysterical comedies with poor production value and over-the-top acting. I watched the definitive Mae Nak period film called Nang Nak
, directed by Nonzi Nimibutr
. This film concluded with the "evil" spirit of Mae Nak being held captive in a piece of bone cut from her forehead by an Exorcist Monk. Then the bone was lost in time. It was here that I was inspired to write my script and continue the Mae Nak story.
From this historical background, did you believe it necessary to have the grandmother address the camera directly at the beginning of the film? It adds a sense of reality to the film.
In Thailand, Mae Nak is a legend and there are many stories about her. A lot of people believe the legend to be true and the Monk who exorcised her did exist. The legend is as famous to Thailand as Dracula or Jack the Ripper is to the West. I was keen to have the grandmother address the camera and introduce the legend of Mae Nak. I felt she would set the tone of the film, which is a dark contemporary fairytale and she also gives a voice of authority to the legend that comes into play later when she tells the tale to her granddaughter, Nak.
In your earliest draft of the script, were there always the parallel stories between Mak and Nak and the ghost?
Yes. I was keen to show a connection with past and present and played on the coincidences of same names, location of the house and the brooch bone. I felt it would give the story substance and make the mystery more intriguing and supernatural. I have always liked stories that connect us with the past. I think the legends of the past ground us in modern reality. The love story was a strong parallel theme with the Mae Nak legend and the contemporary couple. It is this "love" that is the catalyst for them to connect.
You're clearly a fan of classic horror films, particularly of the "atmospheric horror" variety over the "graphic horror" type typical of recent films. However, you expertly cover all of the standard tropes - the passing shadow trick, the mirror trick, the waking-from-a-dream-within-a-dream trick, the creepy music trick, the implausible coincidence trick, even the advice-from-a-psychic trick, particularly a blind one! Most important of all, you craft a few horrific deaths. Decapitation, crushing and a splendid split-in-two. How difficult was this last effect to create?
Thank you for your accurate observation, you're spot on. I was keen to direct an atmospheric ghost movie but have all the "obligatory" supernatural tricks. The sheet of glass "split-in-two" death scene was inspired by The Omen
, the original 1976 version. I wanted to try and further that idea. Originally, I was going to have my victim sliced in three but then I saw Final Destination 2
that had a similar freak-death scene.
I went to an exhibition called Body Worlds
, in which German scientist/artist Gunther Von Hagens
displays dissected human bodies in his Plastination process. One display showed a body being sliced down the middle and I saw the potential and came up with the concept.
We filmed this scene at the Tobacco Studios backlot where we built a street set lined with market stalls and traffic. Nirun Changklang, the actor who played Ant, the seedy housekeeper, first had to visit the effects company First Ideas to have made a full life-size cast of his entire body in latex. The authentic looking body-cast was literally sliced in half from its head through to its groin and then joined back together with a hinge. On set, the stunt company Baan Rig wired up the two large sheets of glass, Plexiglas, to fall on cue. The life-size latex Ant figure was treated like a giant puppet with wirework to support him and control the split. Later the CGI effects company Digital Lab would enhance this with computer generated wire removal and digital blood. The scene also required a stunt vehicle and driver for the screeching bus, stunt extras to jump out of the way, a trained dog to pick up Ant's severed arm, and a bucket full of animal offal to add grossness to the "Grand Guignol" scene. The DVD features my "Director's Video Diary" as an extra that will show how the death scenes were filmed as well as the day-to-day filmmaking process.
Was there a particular appeal in working with a relatively inexperienced young cast? Did it present any specific difficulties?
I wanted to find young lead actors who were the characters. A Thai casting agent and myself auditioned many new actors. We would look for new up-and-coming actors and luckily we were able to secure "C" Siwat Chotchaicharin to play Mak and "Tangmo" Pataratida Pacharawirapong to play Nak. "Tangmo" is a pop singer and model but she has also acted in serious television dramas. I actually auditioned her on the set of one of her television soaps because of her tight schedule.
I thought "C" was a brave actor because, for part of the film, he is in a hospital bed being possessed by a ghost. Not many young male leads would or could do that easily, but "C" is true professional. They had both worked in Thai television dramas, so this was their first feature film. During the filming, they were both awarded "Best New Talent for Television," which was a bonus for Ghost
. This brought a lot of attention to the film, which was great. What I really like about them is that I believe in their relationship and they look like they belong together; an important casting note for directors.
As far as product placement goes, how was Singha to work with?
As far as I know, Singha only provided us with product for the wedding scene and the wrap party. But they had no influence on where we placed them and no influence on the film or me. I was happy to use them because it is true to the Bangkok background. There is a lot of blatant advertising in Bangkok, so it would be false to exclude it.
Are there other filmmakers working in that country that you admire, such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Wisit Sasanatieng? Any horror filmmakers elsewhere that inspire you, either past or present?
The above-mentioned Thai director's are very talented and have distinctive voices in Thai cinema. I really liked the Thai horror film The Shutter
. Other Asian horror films that inspire me are Oxide
and Danny Pang
's The Eye
. And of course, classics like Ju-on
, The Ring
and Dark Water
are big inspirations. The new Korean "Giant Monster" movie, The Host
directed by Bong Joon-ho
From what I understand, you're interested in making other films in the horror genre. Can you tell us anything about your next script?
I am writing an exciting new horror script set in the US in English. I do have several other spec horror scripts I have written and I am also rewriting or fine-tuning them. This is something I always do with my scripts until they get made. My subjects are vampires
, the occult, the paranormal and witches. I do have a new Thai/Asian horror script, but with Western characters and in English; it's great idea. I am keen to develop my passion for horror and fantasy films, I have some great, original ideas, however I'm afraid I don't want to reveal anything about my scripts as yet, but I will keep you posted. But I think your observation about me being a director who is "clearly a fan of classic horror films" is an insight into the films I want to write and direct. My aspirations are to make entertaining movies that attract audiences and have an impact on them. I love horror films, so I will be keen to explore those themes and hopefully make a classic one day, like The Exorcist
or The Haunting
Meantime, thanks to GreenCine for showing interest in Ghost of Mae Nak
, to the fans of Ghost
- I appreciate your support - and, for those who have not seen it, I hope you will give Ghost
a chance and allow yourself to be taken for a thrill and discover a true Thai legend.