One of the more intriguing films in this monthís FrightFest programme is P, a Thai ghost story written and directed by Paul Spurrier, the first ever Westerner to direct a Thai-language film.
P is the story of a young girl, Dau, who is taught the magical arts by her grandmother in their rural Thai home. When her grandmother falls sick, Dau is forced to seek work in the infamous go-go bars of Bangkok. She stays with a wild and experienced girl called Pookie who teaches her the tricks of the trade, but Dau also finds that by using her magic and spells she can enchant men into finding her attractive and thereby persuade them to part with their money. However when her popularity breeds resentment in the other bargirls she again uses her witchís skills for revenge, unleashing an evil force which threatens to destroy her life.
Paul grew up in the UK where he began his career in film as a child actor, starring in numerous television programmes and films including The Wild Geese and Max Headroom, before moving into the production side of the business. He now lives and works in Thailand full-time but we were able to track him down and ask him some questions about his fascinating film.
EMB: Hi Paul. So why Thailand? What attracted you to making a film over there?
Paul Spurrier: My first film was an ultra-low-budget film called Underground, a gritty, urban tale of the rave scene which we shot in 13 days on a non-existent budget. We were all surprised when it got some great reviews but found the process of trying to market it rather depressing. A large distributor agreed to distribute it but nine months went by while they were finding the right moment to release it, and then suddenly we got a letter saying they had changed their mind. They no longer wanted it, and we could only have our master video back if we paid them their expenses including the cost of certification. So weíd made a film, and discovered that, on the whole, nobody gave a damn.
This isnít an unusual story. Between 60 and 70% of British films end up being shown nowhere. The government has been giving tax incentives to filmmakers and lottery funds, but I think they are totally misguided. The main distributors are all US controlled, and they simply donít want to be buying in British films when theyíve got their own Hollywood films that theyíve already financed and want to get into the cinemas. So filmmakers spend years of their life, and all of their passion and energy into making films that will probably sit on a shelf gathering dust. We have been extremely stupid in Britain to allow our cinema chains to be dominated by America, we have in a way given up our culture to them.
We are not unique; globalisation has made many countries start to sacrifice their cultural identity, their economic independence and their political freedom. But Thailand has never been colonised; it is fiercely independent both culturally and economically, it paid off its debt to the IMF and declared that it would never again become economically dependent on foreign loans. It is a poor country but I do admire it for retaining its identity, and I sincerely hope it can manage to do so in the future.
This was an issue I had to deal with when making a film here. As a foreign filmmaker coming to make a film in Thailand I didnít want to become the very thing I hate and to impose my culture on it. So I asked my crews and the establishment to accept me as someone who wanted to try to explore Thailand, its film industry, history and culture, and even cultural issues through understanding and co-operation, and by working from within, rather than imposing an external influence.
EMB: So you always intended for it to be a Thai language film and to work with an all Thai cast and crew right from the beginning?
PS: Yes, that was always the idea. I didnít just want to go to Thailand and exploit its resources. Thailand is kind enough to allow me to be here and work here, and I feel a debt of gratitude. Iíve sold scripts here, I work translating subtitles, I have a job coming up as cinematographer on a Thai film and I work for the same wage as a Thai citizen. I hope that I will have the opportunity to make more films in Thailand, and that my influence here will be a positive one, respecting and supporting Thai culture rather than eroding it.
The practical reasons for using Thai crews are obvious. When you have great, talented, skilled crews, why on earth bring in Westerners? How could you possibly make an authentic-looking Thai film with an art director flown out from the US or the UK?
EMB: You spent three years working on P. Was it hard to raise the finances to shoot the film and did you get any assistance from the Thai government film board?
PS: Itís always hard to raise finances for a film, unless you have a strong track record. I was very lucky with this film to find supporters who were mostly private individuals. I donít know why they had faith in the idea but Iím extremely thankful to them. I should also add that it has virtually bankrupted me. We made P with a Thai production company so we did not have access to the Thai government film board, which only works with foreign productions. This didnít give us access to the resources they can bring, but it did cut away all the red tape.
EMB: Were you always looking to make a horror film or did those influences and ideas come later?
PS: When I was making P, I didnít really think of it as a horror film. It was simply a girlís story that involves supernatural and horror elements. To me that didnít seem strange. I suspect that people who go and see it expecting a pure horror film will be a bit confused, even disappointed. Iíd ask people to try and see it with an open mind. It is rather shocking to a lot of people that for the first hour thereís really nothing horrific in it, but then look at Audition, the horror elements really only come out fully in the last twenty minutes, but what a great film!
Iím not sure I like this little ghetto that horror films live in, I donít see why films have to be tied to a genre. Many of the films I like best are hard to put into one category. Look at Cronenbergís films, for example. He makes intelligent films that cross genres and often contain horror elements, because thatís what he honestly wants to do. He isnít a guy making horror films that look down on an audience or cynically include elements to appeal to the teenage popcorn crowd.
When I was in London at film school I spent a lot of my time at the Scala Cinema. For me it was paradise. I got to see films by filmmakers I had never heard of and who started to influence me. In the horror genre I grew to love Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Sometimes I wondered whether they were both clinically insane, but their films had an energy and a passion that was infectious. One of the reasons I am so delighted to be at FrightFest is because it has its origins in the Shock Around The Clock events at the Scala, which I used to attend.
EMB: Asian horror seems to be extremely popular at the moment. Why do you think that is?
PS: I think because they are made by people who are sincere in their craft. You cannot tell me that directors making Freddy vs. Jason are passionate filmmakers with something original to say. Most American directors take on a horror gig because they see it as a stepping stone to other genres, I donít believe their hearts are generally in it. There are exceptions of course; I loved Saw and The Sixth Sense for example.
Whilst I used to be an avid Fangoria reader, I think these magazines devoted to horror have in some ways pushed horror into a mould. And now people have got a bit bored with that mould and are looking for new directions and they are finding those in Asia. I think that has worried Hollywood, so they exercise their economic muscle and are trying to buy up the remake rights and attract the directors to America. Donít they realise that you canít just buy inspiration by throwing dollars around? Is there anybody who thinks that the remake of The Ring is as good as the original? Why canít they try and nurture US talent? You canít tell me that there arenít filmmakers in the US with a unique vision waiting to be discovered.
EMB: The Thai people are very superstitious and really believe in the existence of ďphii bawbĒ (the type of spirit in P) donít they? Thereís even a study on them by a Thai psychiatrist which you published on your website. Did you yourself ever encounter any supernatural experiences while you were making the film?
PS: I had the idea to make Underground, my first film, when I was taken by my friend Mark to visit a drug-dealer. I expected to find a gun-toting gangster, and instead found a little old couple who made me cups of tea and were genuinely nice, honest people. I realised that oneís preconceptions are often wrong. When I visited Thailand and met bargirls, I discovered that they were often smart, kind, loving people Ė they were just normal people finding a solution in a difficult life. So I try to keep an open mind, and if there is a Ďmessageí in my films, it is just that. If you look deep into anything, you will find complexity and contradiction. So I am certainly open-minded regarding the supernatural and the belief in spirits. I have met so many people in Thailand who have anecdotes about ghosts that they have met or seen that I cannot dismiss them all as delusional.
One quick personal story:
Two days before filming we held a spiritual ceremony where we called upon the spirits to bless our production. The clapperboard, the film-stock, the camera, and all the crew were blessed, which is standard practice before any Thai film production. The next morning our main actress, after ten days rehearsal, changed her mind and said she would not take part. We were due to go off to location that very night, and half the crew were already building sets ten hours drive away. It was a scary morning and I could see that everything I had worked towards for over two years was in jeopardy before we had even taken our first shot.
Then there was a knock at the door. An actress (Suangporn Jaturaphut) who we had cast in a part with only four lines had turned up to rehearse. The strange thing was that she wasnít meant to be there, we had cancelled the rehearsal for that scene days before. So I apologised to her and sat her down whilst I tried to deal with the crisis. I think it was my girlfriend who suggested, ďWhy not get her to read for the main part?Ē So I did, and she blew me away. We called up her agent, signed a contract, and four hours later she was on the minibus going to location. That morning, which at the time seemed like the end of the world, in the end was a blessing. The new actress was so much better than the girl I had originally chosen and I honestly believe that everything that happened was engineered by some divine spirit or force as a result of our ceremony.
EMB: It must have been a huge risk giving the role of Dau to a 17 year old girl who had no prior acting experience?
PS: It would have been a very big risk to use a totally inexperienced main actress had I not believed she could do it. Iím not sure she believed she could do it, but after the fateful morning where she read for me, I absolutely knew that she had the talent, the question was whether I could bring it out of her. My Thai language communication skills were stretched to their limit in working with her, talking about her emotions, pushing her and telling her stories.
Thereís one scene where she had to scream and I needed it to be an absolute and total emptying of her soul. She couldnít do it. With all the crew around, and only her in shot, she was self-conscious. I had to take her out behind the studio to a patch of wasteland, where no-one was around, and scream with her. We cried together and laughed together. I bullied her, cajoled her, bribed her and sometimes even tricked her. It was an extraordinary experience for me as much as it was for her.
EMB: Where did you find the rest of your cast?
PS: The first decision was that I was not going to use stars. For me that was an obvious decision. The stars in Thailand are mostly glamorous, tall, and pale-skinned. If I had populated my cast with stars, the film, particularly the bar scenes would have looked ludicrous. So we held open auditions. We had a casting director who rang up all the agencies, trawled nightclubs, bars, everywhere.
I would have loved to use real bargirls, but this was tricky. I did visit some bars and speak to girls, but when a customer says he wants to cast you in a film, it is not unreasonable to wonder what sort of film, and distrust the offer. It wasnít helped by the fact that you canít visit a bar without buying a drink, so by about the tenth bar, my approaches were somewhat drunken, and dismissed pretty quickly. Then I returned with the casting director, trying to be a bit more professional about it, but we soon encountered problems with the bar owners, who didnít really want their star girls being poached. We did end up casting two girls in small parts who worked in bars. They approached their parts with enormous professionalism and were valuable members of the cast.
EMB: I believe you actually encountered death threats from some of the bars in the area, why was that?
PS: Well, thatís not really true. It is true that the Thai government has in the last two years started a campaign to clean up its image, and what this means is that while not much has actually changed, the bars have had to keep a low profile and of course they are very wary of filmmakers. Many documentary crews have visited saying they were going to make a balanced film about the reality, and ended up making an expose of the shocking bar scene and the exploitation by evil bar-owners of innocent Thai girls. ErmÖ Actually thatís kind of what my filmís about as well, I suppose.
Although, what I was trying to do was show what I felt was the reality. I really wasnít out to just show the bad side. I think I also show that these places can be fun and sexy. I get some stick for that but the reality isnít black and white, itís very complex. Some people accuse me of hypocrisy, making a film that is sometimes quite sexy, but at the same time making a social comment about these bars. Well, Iím sorry, but thatís the reality. It isnít just the story about a poor, miserable exploited girl from the country, however true and sad that story might be, itís also the story of the girl who is making ten times the national average wage, marrying a rich foreigner, and living happily ever after while supporting her family back home.
Anyway, I digressed from your original question. We did get warned by friends with connections in the bars that we were on dodgy ground, that some of the bar owners did not want us upsetting business, or attracting attention to them, and that we should keep a low profile and watch our backs. That, in reality, is as bad as it got.
EMB: Were communications very difficult between you and the rest of the cast and crew, or were you able to get your ideas across quite easily?
PS: I canít say there were any occasions I remember when I felt frustration at not being able to communicate. Of course there were hilarious moments, like when I used the wrong word and asked the gaffer to ďopen up the pussiesĒ instead of ďturn on the practical lights,Ē but most of the problems were superficial.
EMB: In addition to writing and directing P, you were also the 2nd Director of Photography, editor and composer on the film Ė and played a supporting role! It must have been an exhausting shoot for you?
PS: I wanted to use an all Thai crew as I mentioned, but then I met a young American cinematographer called Rich Moore whoíd been in Thailand for a few years, spoke excellent Thai, and I discovered that we shared a lot of the same ideas about wanting to work in the Thai industry. At first I was reluctant to use him as D.O.P. but I changed my mind; sticking to a principle in spite of common sense just seemed silly. The problem was that he was only free for part of the shoot, so he worked on the first half, and then I took over. I must admit it was good to have one other member of the crew I could speak English to, and to have at least that one direct communication in the early days of the shoot. When he had to leave halfway, I was Ďup to speedí, so taking on his role as well was not such a great burden.
When youíre working at something you really want to do, in a fun, friendly environment and itís going well, then it really doesnít seem exhausting, but I did lose about two stone in weight. Perhaps the trickiest, most exhausting task was writing the music, mainly because I have no musical training and have never written music before. It took me six weeks about ten hours a day working by trial and error. I was totally drained by the end of that.
EMB: Now that the film is finished have you been able to show it to a Thai audience? What was their reaction to a Westerner making a Thai film?
PS: The reactions have been very interesting. I did some sound recordings at the Cactus Bar, where the owner was unusually friendly and co-operative. Afterwards they had a birthday party and asked if they could show the film, so I got some reactions from the real bargirls, and they have been very interesting. One girl burst into tears, saying that it was just too close to her life and things she wanted to forget. Another got so angry at my character in the film that she beat me up! Others had to leave because they said it was just too scary. One girl wanted to borrow a copy so she could show it to her Mum, so she could show her Mum what life was like where she worked Ė sort of like showing her holiday snaps. Of course as a filmmaker I appreciated all these reactions, although the bruises took a while to fade. I was encouraged by this. I had wanted to make a film that depicted reality and these entirely unscientific test screenings seemed to indicate that I had succeeded.
EMB: Have you noticed any difference between the reactions from Thai people whoíve seen the film and those of Westerners?
PS: What is interesting is that whilst this film is wildly fantastic and even ridiculous to a Western audience, for a Thai audience itís virtually a documentary. The seemingly arbitrary rules of magic in the film are known to most Thai people and the ghost is a well-known type. There is little in the film that to Thai people isnít everyday knowledge. So I think Western and Thai audiences see it totally differently. To Western audiences it is something exotic, weird and fantastic, but to Thais itís almost reality TV.
At the same time, we have had a small but significant reaction to the fact that part of the film is set in a go-go bar. As Iíve mentioned, the Thai governmentís change of attitude to these places was occurring as we shot the film, and so we are guilty of rather bad timing. This bothers me if it means we donít get a release in Thailand. It doesnít worry me that I might have offended Thailand, because having shown it to a number of Thai people from all walks of life, no-one has yet been offended by the film. Thai people tend to be open-minded, and are not offended by nearly as many things as the government says they are.
EMB: The film has played at a number of international film festivals this year. Are there plans for a theatrical release here in the UK?
PS: The film I made is a small, low-budget ghost story made for the Thai domestic market. I never dreamed that it would be seen outside Thailand. I sent a rough cut to a festival without any real expectation that they would accept it and was very surprised when they invited the film, and even more surprised when others followed. But itís not a ground-breaking film. Donít get me wrong, it was a film I made with sincerity and a lot of passion, and Iím very proud of it, but it is a small, in many ways quite personal film which some people like and some people detest.
Obviously I would love a theatrical release. I think the film is quite visual, and in widescreen it benefits from the big screen. I hope that it might be entertaining and worthwhile on a limited release, but these are marketing questions and I really donít know whether it could make money for a distributor in a theatrical release.
One of the benefits of the internet and email is that viewers are somewhat empowered. You can post reviews on sites like IMDB and Amazon, write in to web forums, and send emails to distributors, or even to the filmmakers themselves. Distributors and filmmakers do monitor these things, and they do take note of them. I would always encourage people who are interested in films, who care about films, to make use of this power. You really do have an opportunity to change things. I believe that Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels very nearly became one of those 60-70% of films sitting on a shelf, had it not been for the enthusiasm and persistence of a small group of fans.
EMB: Whatís next for you? Would you consider making a horror film in this country or do you want to move on to other genres now?
PS: If youíre asking me whether I want to make more films with horror elements, to explore the dark side of humanity or the supernatural, then I feel that I have barely touched the surface, and Iíd love the opportunity to develop these themes, and delve deeper.
At the moment I still find a lot of fascinating stories in Thailand, maybe because itís still new to me. I certainly wouldnít rule out making a film in the UK, but it would have to be something that would excite me - or that would pay me a hell of a lot of money so I can sell out creatively and pay off my bills!