Paul Spurrier Talks Thailand, Ghosts and P.
We've been tracking the progress of Paul Spurrier's P - the first Thai language film ever shot by a westerner - since word began to circulate on it a few weeks back. Early word was fantastic and after it was booked to play the Brussels film festival I managed to track down the director and scoop some early info. A couple inquiries later he also agreed to an interview, something we've just wrapped up via email.
Now I normally aim to do my interviewing by voice - I just find that email can be a bit of a crap shoot with some people over-editing themselves and just generally not presenting themselves nearly as well in text as they would in conversation. Very definitely not the case here. Spurrier is an intelligent, thoughtful man and, from time to time, laugh out loud funny. Read on for the goodness and check out the trailer for P here.
1. Looking at your IMDB entry I see that you did some acting when you were fairly young then were largely silent until turning up as a director ... can you describe your own background a bit? How you got started as an actor, the shows you worked on and how you made the transition to directing?
About the long path to directing:
I went to the Cannes Film Festival a couple of years ago. In order to register, one must join a queue somewhere in the maze of the Cannes Palais de Festivals. But first one has to find the right queue. There is the buyer’s queue, the exhibitor’s queue, the director’s queue, and numerous others including the queue of shame – the queue for nobodies, non-entities, people who have no legitimate reason to be in any other queue. I proudly walked up to the director’s queue, smug that I had with me a DVD copy of ‘Underground’ , my previous film, and therefore even with only my schoolboy French, could prove my credentials by jabbing my finger at my name on the cover. The French official looked at me in the casually disdainful way that only the French can truly manage, and walked a few yards away to check my name on the Cannes Film Festival official credit verification database – aka the IMDB. He returned and pointed out to me that I had shot ‘Underground’ over four years ago, and therefore I clearly was not currently a ‘director’. He seemed genuinely sympathetic as he sighed and asked ‘What has happened to your career?’ So, as I joined the queue for total nobodies, I realized that it was time I made another film.
It was not the first time I had been a ‘had been’. Like most child actors I managed to become a ‘had been’ shortly after puberty. I once received a very kind note from an old lady. Most of my fans were old ladies. (The remainder were men of rather debatable sexuality.) She wanted to let me know that (and I quote) ‘at least one person still remembers you long after you have faded from the spotlight.’
Not that I had ever really been a star. I was lucky in that I had a USP - for those who have not spent ten years of their life making corporate videos, this is a ‘unique selling point’.
99.9% of all child actors at the time were London-based and had strong London accents of the sort so wonderfully imitated by Dick Van Dyke.
I however, was born in a small town hundreds of miles away from London – a town so boring that at Christmas the lights were turned on at 4.00 but switched off again at 6.00 for the logical reason that everyone had gone home by then, and it would be a waste of electricity. I went once to see ‘Airplane’ at my local cinema – the Marina – and was admonished by the usherette for laughing too loudly and disturbing the other patrons. It wasn’t a very jolly town.
But I inherited from my respectable and straight-laced parents the “Queen’s English” – an accent that was considered upper-class, and although it got me beaten up regularly in school, it also made me a shoe-in for all the BBC historical dramas about Kings, nobility, etc.
I appeared in quite a few BBC productions including ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Penmarric’, a feature film ‘The Wild Geese’, two stories in the popular ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ and two different West End shows.
I enjoyed acting, but what I enjoyed more was the ability to miss school and travel the world.
The ultimate experience was when I was cast in a German miniseries shot in Australia, where I got to run around half-naked with a beautiful aborigine girl, who I fell totally in love with.
Unlike most child actors, who sue their parents, go into rehab, and seem to be horribly bitter about it all, I have wonderful memories from my childhood. My parents sometimes regret it, wondering if it hasn’t ‘screwed me up’ and wondering if perhaps if they had not encouraged me, I might now be a sensible lawyer or accountant, saving for a pension instead of spending my money on bizarre films - with a nice wife and children instead of running around with Thai bargirls.
But I wouldn’t change anything.
About a year ago, I ‘googled’ myself, and was pleased to find one reference to my acting years. Someone had gone to the enormous effort of capturing a piece of video from one of my childhood scenes in which I was being caned by the school prefect. They had taken key frames from his approach right up until the point of impact and my pained expression. It was apparently a website for devotees of ‘spanking’ and I had been given the honour of being named ‘Spankee of the Month’. I emailed the webmaster to ask if such an honour was accompanied by any sort of trophy or certificate, but he did not reply. It was probably too odd and perverted a request even for him.
2. P is being described as the first Thai language film made by a westerner ... why did you decide to shoot your film in Thai? How did you become interested in the culture?
Why did I want to shoot a film in Thailand?
In Thailand they have the soft drink brand ‘Fanta’ – I believe owned by the Coca Cola Company. The logo and branding is identical to that in England, but all the flavours are different. My favourite is one named simply ‘red’. It offers no clue as to its origin, and does not try to imitate any flavour in the natural world. It is simply ‘red’. And it’s great. I drink it almost every day in Thailand. I could argue that red Fanta is the reason I like Thailand, and in a strange way that would be true.
When I first visited Thailand, I found myself fixating on things that no-one else seemed to notice
– the fact that in a restaurant it is quite common for your main course to arrive before your appetizer
- the fact that the word for ‘far’ is ‘glai’ and the word for near is ‘glai’ – to a Western ear the difference is entirely indistinguishable
– the daily pictures of horrific car crashes in the newspaper where the mutilated bodies are on display and the police, emergency crews and bystanders are all smiling into the camera.
-the food. I had tried Thai food in England and it was delicate, fragrant, delicious. But Thai food in Thailand is often pig’s intestines, chicken feet, congealed blood, all with pungent overwhelming smells.
- the way it is not at all uncommon to find an open manhole cover in the middle of the sidewalk.
- the extraordinary visual memory of the Thai people, who will always, always notice if you wear the same shirt two days running. I was once on the skytrain when a girl suddenly leant towards me and told me not to eat chicken. I asked why not, and she was vaguely offended. Didn’t I remember that I had been in a restaurant a couple of years earlier where she worked as a waitress and I had told her of my allergy to chicken?
- the strange way that Buddhism coexists with a totally animist belief in ghosts and spirits. To me, it is odd to see a devout Buddhist make a praying gesture to a small model house erected as a home for spirits. Yet to Thai people there is no conflict in these two beliefs.
Of course having spent much time in Thailand over the last five years, I don’t notice many of the things that first seemed strange to me. A friend visited me recently, and whilst we were driving along the freeway, suddenly shrieked ‘Look!’ I couldn’t see anything strange, and it was quite some time before I realized that he was looking at an elephant walking up the road with a tail-light fastened (where else) to its tail.
Now I am quite used to buying toilet tissue not for use in the toilet, where a small hose makes it unnecessary but instead to place in the centre of the dining table.
But certainly at first I felt that I had landed in a world that was somehow not quite real, distorted in odd ways, that I was possibly experiencing an extended acid flashback.
A good friend of mine, Jerry Hopkins, writer of one of the most famous rock biographies of all time ‘Nobody Here Gets Out Alive’ sums it up by saying that Thailand is one of the few places that surprises him in some way every day. (Although I’m sure he phrased it rather more eloquently.)
Another friend of mine says that Thailand is the most dangerous place on the planet – not because of what you might suffer at the hands of others, but because of what you might do to yourself.
The sensory overload is powerful and like most powerful things it is
attractive, intoxicating, addictive, and dangerous.
I was hooked after my first trip. I knew then that I must return, and that I must make a film there.
3. The press kit says that you spent a few years learning the language and culture to make the film ... did you speak any Thai before starting the process? Was the script originally written in Thai or translated from English? Did you use local film crews or bring your own people?
Living in Bangkok is rather like living in a theme park. It has all the emotional ups and downs of a rollercoaster, the sweetest of pleasures, and all the scares of a ghost train. Anyone who has driven through the rush hour traffic on the back of Bangkok motorbike taxi will know what I mean. And most people wouldn’t want to actually live in a theme park. It’s fun to visit, but you couldn’t do it all the time.
So a lot of expats insulate themselves from it for at least part of their time. This is possible. You can eat Western food, drink in Western pubs, work with Western people, and dilute the heady experience to your own taste. I have friends who have lived in Thailand for over thirty years and can’t speak a work of Thai. They live their lives in a little bubble of expat life separated from the rest of the population. I’m not totally immune to that. I have a local English pub – The Londoner – where I can escape to, talk English, eat sausage and mash, and catch up on the world news.
I certainly haven’t ‘gone native’ as the expats refer to those people who attempt to live their life as a Thai. I think that’s impossible. The only real way to experience life as a Thai would be to take away the safety net of a foreign passport , a foreign bank account, a family back home who if everything went wrong would buy you a ticket back home.
But it would be true to say that I wanted at least to explore this magical kingdom and try to understand it. So I went to classes to learn Thai, I spent weeks driving around the North-Eastern province of Issan, walking through rice-fields, visiting witchdoctors in the jungle, going out to Thai karaoke bars.
I knew that I wanted to make a film in Thailand, but I didn’t want it to be a Western film transplanted to Thailand, where the country is just an exotic background. I got very annoyed recently watching the Bridget Jones sequel when she visits a Thai prison bearing gifts of chocolate, and the female inmates grab them with delight. Most Thai people don’t like chocolate, and I’m sure they would be far happier if you brought them some fried grasshoppers. I was annoyed at ‘The Beach’ in the same way. I always realized that if I was to make a film, it would inevitably reflect my own experiences and attitudes and that it would be impossible and undesirable to cut off my own creative instincts, but nevertheless, I wanted to at least make a film where the characters ate grasshoppers not chocolate.
So I worked closely with a Thai translator to try to get authenticity, and used a Thai crew.
Even so, I made mistakes. In one scene, a character greets someone by saying ‘How are you?’ I watched the scene recently and realized that in fact Thai people don’t greet each other in this way. They are far more likely to ask ‘Have you eaten rice yet?’
When I made ‘Underground’ my previous film, I made rules for myself – the main one being that we would never ever use a tripod. If there was a wall or stable surface present in the set, I could rest the camera on it, otherwise it must be handheld.
So with ‘P’, my main rule was to try wherever possible to use the skills of Thai crew.
4. Asian culture in general has a very different view of magic and the afterlife and a lot of the Thai ideas are pretty unique even within Asia ... what can you tell me about the different legends you drew on?
Thai people seem to me to be by nature very practical, and their attitude to magic is consistent with this practicality. The people who believe in magic, fortune-telling, spirits, and good-luck charms bear no relation to the new-age, vegetarian, long-haired, crystal-wearing characters of the West. A scientist or lawyer is just as likely to make an offering to the spirits as anyone else.
I became intrigued by the girls who worked in bars and would visit the ‘mor phii’ or ‘paw mot’ to ask for spells which would bring them more customers. They would tell me that the spells resulted in a 54% increase in the number of drinks they were bought, a 63% rise in men taking them home, and a 81% increase in tips. They would on occasion show me their paychecks to prove it.
One might easily scoff at the charms used to make wealthy customers fall in love with a girl, but I’ve seen level-headed, educated men maxing out their credit cards to buy gold for even the plainest of girls.
Do I believe it? I’m not sure.
Would I want to risk offending the spirits, or fall victim to an ill-intentioned spell? Definitely not.
I have found myself more and more frequently buying jasmine garlands to place as offerings on the spirit houses, I try to avoid treading on the threshold of a building, lest I offend the house’s spirits, and I try to avoid walking under a clothesline.
There is only one practical way to deal with ghosts – which is to avoid them, and that’s what Thai people do.
A foreign-owned company had a dreadful time not long ago when its management unwittingly moved to a building where one of the floors was reputedly haunted. No amount of persuasion could get the Thai staff to work on that floor.
There is a scene in ‘The Eye’ where a gas truck explodes. Not many people know that this was based on a real accident in Bangkok. It happened just like in the film. The flames spread back through the traffic and many people were roasted in their cars. The site of this accident was right beneath my old apartment building. When I bought the apartment, it seemed rather cheap for the area. Now I know that few Thai people would want to live there.
When we ran out of money during post-production of the film, I had to sell this same apartment, and found that the only potential buyers were other Westerners. I did not tell the buyer the history of the area. I know that by law in England you are obliged to reveal any structural defects when selling a building, but what about spiritual defects?
The subject of Thai ghosts (usually transliterated as ‘phii’ and pronounced ‘Pee’) is really far too broad to begin here. It is perhaps enough to say that whilst in the West we have colourful characters such as werewolves and vampires, Thailand has a plethora of scary spirits.
The phii graseur – a spirit whose head separates from its body at night and floats through the night sky with its entrails dangling beneath it.
The phii am – who sits on your chest as you wake up so that you can’t rise.
The phii brairt – a large ghost whose sin of gluttony whilst still alive is now punished by the impediment of a tiny mouth. It is said that the phii brairt sometimes enters your room at night, and might nibble on your toes if they are poking out of the bedclothes.
But for me of course, the number one ghost is the phii bawb – the spirit that enters your body and gradually drives you crazy with a yearning for innards, offal and all manner of viscera. If you see someone in Thailand eating raw meat – ‘larb dip’ - rather more often than usual, you should watch out! Before long their craving will grow, until soon they can change their form and enter your body through any orifice and then proceed to eat you from the inside.
The ‘phii bawb’ is the particular ghoul that I chose for ‘P’.
There’s an article which in part sparked my fascination, which I have put on the film’s website. It is a report by a doctor of his diagnosis of patients who had been the victims of ‘phii bawb’.
When the Thai government recently launched a fund of one million baht (around $14,000 US) per village as part of a rural development policy, one village spent the whole lot to gather together the countries top witchdoctors and once and for all rid it of the ‘phii bawb’ that had been plaguing it.
5. Were you concerned about how native Thai people would respond to a westerner interpreting their culture?
We are always delighted when a foreigner visits our country and sings its praises. But I think it is also natural to resent the visitor who after only a short time starts to criticize our homeland.
Americans are generally wonderful tourists in England, because they ooh and aah over the history, the heritage, and even forgive us our food. But I have become furious when hearing tourists from other countries loudly criticizing my country – even if their criticisms are entirely valid.
I certainly never set out to criticize Thailand. It is a country that I love, and that increasingly I consider home. But equally it is impossible to make a film that reflects accurately a culture but is 100% positive. I was not making a film for the Thai tourist board! But I realize that I am on dangerous ground.
When Hollywood made a remake of ‘The King and I’ story with Jodie Foster they were denied permission to shoot in Thailand. There are certain subjects that are simply not acceptable, and certainly any disrespect towards the royalty is one of them. I have been shocked on my recent return to England by the hostility towards the marriage to Camilla Parker-Bowles. Such open criticism is simply not acceptable in Thailand. When the royal motorcade passes through Bangkok, the police clear the overhead pedestrian bridges. It would be quite inappropriate for the King to pass beneath the feet of someone. This may sound like a restriction of personal freedom, but it is really far more about respect. The King of Thailand has through many years of his reign dedicated his life to helping the people, and is by any measure an extraordinarily positive influence upon the country. Disrespecting the King would be simply a sign of ignorance.
I am not so foolish, and I hope not so ignorant as to want to make a film which would ignore Thai cultural taboos and cause offence.
However, I do think it would be dishonest and disingenuous of me to make a film that was just a puff piece.
I hope that my love and respect for the country is evident, and that in ‘P’ the emphasis is always on the positive.
6. I know the film generated a fairly angry response when it screened in Brussels, has that been a widespread reaction or is that just a vocal minority?
7. If the same film had been made by a Thai film maker do you think it would have met the same response? I mean the Thai industry is jammed with genre and exploitation titles and the Pang Brothers' early stuff is jammed with the violence, sex and drugs that you're being criticized for and they're probably the biggest names to come out of Thailand ...
‘P’ is about a young Thai girl from the country who is forced by financial hardship to seek work in Bangkok, and ends up in a go-go bar.
Practically every character and every scene of this plotline is based on real life. I have been told and witnessed stories like this many times. I do not think it would be possible to criticize the film on its accuracy as regards this story.
I showed ‘P’ recently to an ex bar-girl, and she was taken aback by the accuracy with which the film depicts the bar scene. Afterwards she looked at me rather disapprovingly and said ‘You know too much about the bars.’
It is a delicate subject, and I understand why.
When Microsoft Encarta was released in 2000, its entry for Bangkok referred to the famous sex-industry. After much protest from Thailand, the entry was changed. It is not a source of pride to Thailand that fat, bald, unattractive Westerners travel there in their thousands each year to seek sexual encounters with young attractive Thai girls. I myself get irritated when I tell English people that I spend much of my time in Bangkok, and they react with a sort of knowing wink and a nudge, and say ‘I know why you like it there.’
It is appalling that in a country which has such a rich culture and history and so much to offer visitors is so often the subject of innuendo.
The Prime Minister has recently done a lot to clean up the country’s nightlife. On numerous websites, sex tourists complain that now the girls in the bars don’t get naked, the bars shut at one o’ clock, and underage girls are now not on offer.
In the current climate, it is certainly true that a film which could be seen as publicizing an area of Thai society that the government is trying to eradicate might be controversial.
I plead guilty to bad timing.
I was assisted in my research by three girls who worked or had previously worked in bars. They shared their stories with me. They were sad stories of poor families, financial desperation and prostitution as the only viable solution. What I noted from these girls and many girls like them was their lack of greed. Maybe not all, but a vast number of the girls who work in bars do so to meet their responsibilities. Some have a sick parent, or a family in hopeless debt and threatened with eviction, or a child who needs clothes and food. Prostitution might be seen as immoral, but many times I have seen girls sacrifice themselves to help their families. This surely is a moral act.
In an old-fashioned society where sex before marriage is not socially acceptable, where girls often require a chaperone on a date, the act of becoming a prostitute makes one a social outcast. And yet with a typical Thai (and possibly Buddhist) acceptance of life’s ups and downs, these girls not only work without complaint, but often with a real consideration towards the needs of their ‘customers’. The cliché of the ‘tart with the heart of gold’ is as unrepresentative as that of the money-grabbing whore. Reality presents a wide spectrum. But I have met many girls working in bars who have my deepest respect.
Of the three girls who helped me, two are now dead – of illnesses that were probably AIDS related. They paid the ultimate price for their responsibilities. The other girl recently graduated from college, and hopefully will find a better life.
I never wanted to portray bargirls as saints, and I certainly didn’t want to condemn them. But I did want people who saw the film to at least understand that they are people no different to you and I – only faced with greater challenges.
I certainly wanted to make a ghost film, and I certainly wanted it to be fun and scary. I did not want to depress people with a social documentary. But it is also true that I wanted there to be a message beneath it all.
I always greatly admired Rod Serling. I understand that he was a well-respected writer of serious drama, and his decision to write ‘The Twilight Zone’ was seen as strange and even as ‘selling out’. Rod Serling, however, knew that it is possible to entertain whilst at the same time making a point.
The film was only completed six weeks ago, and I immediately returned to Europe to bring it to festivals. So I don’t know how Thai audiences will react to it. One Thai viewer at a festival claimed to be offended and sent out an email attacking the film, but I hope this is not representative.
I suspect that our greater problem in getting distribution will be the pace of the film. Thai horror films tend to follow the structure of a slasher film. They must contain gory killings at regular intervals. ’P’ has a long build-up. The first half of the film has few scares. The sort of horror films that I like are not just a series of shocks but give you time to get to know and empathize with the characters so that when they face real danger, you are worried for them.
I loved the film ‘Audition’ for just that reason. The eventual horror was so much more horrific because of the relationship the viewer has built up with the characters.
Jumping ahead to question 9, I like horror films that are done with sincerity – that aren’t just a series of cheap shock tricks. But sadly I see few American films nowadays made with that sincerity and real passion – which is perhaps why audiences have been increasingly turning to Asian films.
Films I like –
‘The Fly’ – I love the fact that you can simultaneously find Jeff Goldblum terrifying, but also find his transformation heartbreakingly sad.
In real life evil rarely comes as an anonymous killer behind a mask. Real serial killers are people’s sons, they are people who probably are capable of kindness. Life is not black and white.
‘Carrie’ is another great film which allows us to truly identify with Cissy Spacek – to see her not just as a telekinetic freak who kills people, but as a lonely, tormented girl.
I liked ‘The Stepfather’ - again for its three-dimensional characters.
David Cronenberg at his best is a genius with characters.
I used to like John Carpenter. Films like ‘The Thing’ had real tension and real characters while still providing the scares. What has happened to him? Let’s hope he still has another good film inside him.
Sadly, I think too many horror films are made by people who don’t really like horror films. Often first-time directors make a horror film as a route to ‘better’ things. And I think that shows.
‘Horror’ is often seen as somehow a creatively less important genre, and I think that’s wrong. Whilst I am delighted that ‘P’ has had a very positive reception from the horror or fantasy film festival circuit, I regret the fact that we haven’t yet been invited to any mainstream festivals. Horror films are not just for horror fans.
8. I've watched enough Thai film lately to recognize a lot of their stars but I didn't spot any familiar faces here ... what can you tell me about your cast?
Maybe the first decision I made in casting was that we would not use famous Thai actors and actresses.
I can’t even quite explain why. It’s not that I have anything against Thai stars. There are many I would love to work with. It just felt like these characters should come fresh to the screen, that one shouldn’t be thinking of the actors’ past roles. So the vast majority of the cast comprised first time actors. We simply held auditions and picked the people we thought were best.
The extraordinary thing about our cast was that very few of them had to act. I don’t know quite how it happened, because you make your casting decisions usually based on meeting the actors for no more than an hour, but when we got to know them, we discovered that they were the characters.
I refer to them by their nicknames (used by Thai people in everyday life)
Fern, who played the main character, Dau was a quiet, polite, seemingly timid girl, but underneath had a real determination, drive and strength that was quite amazing. She had never acted before in her life. Her story is quite interesting and is covered in the article on our website, and the way that she became the star is quite unusual. She had no ‘technique’ at all. If she was required to emote, she couldn’t fake it. She had to understand and feel it. So we would spend a lot of time together talking about how she would feel in this situation, finding parallels with situations she had experienced. It required a tremendous amount of time, but was perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the film for me. In one scene she cries, and the tears are real. I asked her to think about how she would feel if her mother died.
Opal, who played Pookie, had appeared in a number of films, but they were all of the adult variety. She wanted to act in ‘proper’ films, and she clearly had a natural ability, but her past would make it almost impossible for her to find roles, when Thai actresses must have squeaky clean reputations. She was wild, unreliable, and temperamental, just like her character. The only way we could get her to turn up on time was to get her to stay with the casting assistant, who would wake her up every morning and drag her to the set. She was reckless, carefree, and irresponsible, but again just like her character had a hidden warmth and sensitivity.
We recruited three real bargirls who dance in the bar scenes and have a few lines. As we wrapped, one of them came to say goodbye, and started to cry. She said that it was the first time that she had been treated with respect and was able to do a job that she didn’t have to be ashamed of. She was crying because she now had to return to working in the bar.
One of Dau’s customers is a well-known Bangkok author – Dean Barrett. He writes about the bar world, and relished his involvement in the film. He has a website – www.deanbarrettthailand.com
Of course I play a small part too – not really as an attempt at a Hitchcockian cameo, but more because I could speak Thai, I was there anyway, and I didn’t have to pay myself. I don’t play a particularly pleasant character, and at the Erlangen festival someone asked if I was worried that I came across badly in the film. Of course if that’s the perception, then I am delighted.
There is one scene with a policeman. He was a real policeman. He moonlights as an actor, and gets a lot of work because he can supply his own costume.
9. Were there any film or directors that really served as inspirations here? What makes a good horror story for you? What do you want your audience to come away with?
Hopefully answered above.
10. I know you've just started screening the film so it's probably too early to say, but has there been interest from distributors? Will you be doing the festival circuit?
We’ve been invited to the New York Asian Film Festival, and hope that there will be a few more festivals. The film will definitely be out on DVD in the UK and probably Germany, and while it is still early days, we hope to sell to other countries as well.