Rotterdam 2020 Interview: Mattie Do Talks About THE LONG WALK
Regular readers of the site may have read here about Mattie Do before. She is Laos' first female director, and to make her films she almost single-handedly had to create an industry there. Born and raised in the United States from Lao immigrants, she became a ballet teacher. When she moved to Laos, her husband Christopher Larsen started looking for a job there, and as a professional scriptwriter he wanted to write an Asian ghost story based on local legends. The local producers suggested that Mattie should direct the film, because as a ballet teacher she knew acting, staging, lighting, make-up, choreography... and film history was made. The first film by Mattie and Christopher was the virtually no-budget Chantaly, and it turned some heads already. Their next film was Dearest Sister, a local drama with genre touches, and it became the first Lao film to be forwarded for an Academy Award.
Her most recent film is her most ambitious yet: The Long Walk. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival to critical acclaim (our Shelagh loves the film as you can read in her review), and it was also selected for the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
And she kindly agreed to talk with us about the film.
ScreenAnarchy: The Long Walk is a sensitive and intelligent film about a time-travelling serial killer who talks with ghosts, set in the near-future.
Mattie Do: It totally is!
How did you arrive at such a peculiar mixture of genres? Was this something you already had in mind when you made your previous films?
You know, the reality is... I don't know what is considered to be an appropriate combination of genres. As you know I do not come from a film background, so my approach is just that I like to do something that hasn't been done before, something unique. I want to bring something new to the table and I like to have fun. And because I do not know all the classics I did not know that mixing these genres wasn't common.
So why wouldn't I do that, right? It sounded pretty awesome, and it worked, thank God. (We both laugh)
You even put in some science fiction elements.
There's a lot going on, and I'm super excited about that. It evolved a lot over time, like... It started a bit as a joke, but then... with anything my husband and I do, there needs to be emotional input or deep thought in it, because as I said, we want to do stuff that hasn't been done before and that resonates with us.
One of the things which had happened during the writing of this film was... my dog Mango died. We had to euthanize him, which was a very difficult decision for us. And that made it into the film. It brought memories back for me about my mother, who passed away when I was 25 years old from cancer. She refused treatment herself, and to me it showed death from two different perspectives. On the one hand my dog, who couldn't make a decision for himself, on the other hand my mother, who called the family together and said: "We're not going to do this, and suffer through it longer. I'm in stage four, my quality of life is horrible already, why extend it and hope against hope?" And she went home, and we were all with her, even relatives like uncles from farther away, were all with her when she passed away. So a lot of this made it into The Long Walk. But if you'd read the earlier drafts, they weren't at all similar, we were still just having fun!
It is now quite a heavy, dark film. There isn't much redemption in it, as a filmmaker I can be blunt and cynical sometimes.
But the lighter part is of course the whole time-travelling serial killer part. That happened because I love genre, but also to make a joke about what people expect from films coming from this region, from South-East Asia. When you think about films from Thailand, or Laos, you think of these poverty-porn, artsy-fartsy, nobody-knows-what's-going-on... but-you-HAVE-to-love-it-or-you're-considered-unintelligent kind of films. And I HATE those movies, they're boring! I mean, if you like them, more power to you, but I don't think they're made for me. Especially as an Asian person, I definitely do not think those films are made for me. I sometimes wonder if these are made especially for occidental festival programmers?
I mean my films are definitely "arthouse", so you do get that slow deliberate pacing, but I did put in some commentary about that whole artsy-for-the-sake-of-artsy in it. One journalist at a festival where Dearest Sister played remarked off-handedly: "Why did you make Dearest Sister a film that is so vulgar? Why not make an authentic Lao film about village life?"
Wait, what?! He considered Dearest Sister to be a vulgar film?
Right? It blew my mind! I'm Lao, I've lived in Laos now for over ten years, sure there are people living in the jungle here but come on, not the majority!
So my husband and I, when we sat down to write The Long Walk, we thought screw it, let's give them what they want. Lao people, poor, living in the jungle in hut houses... but I'll never make something which is not genre. So this guy in the jungle? I said: "He's a serial killer, living in a hut house!" And my husband goes: "And he's a time traveler!" And we both went HELL YES! (We both laugh)
So now it's an authentic Lao arthouse film about a time-travelling serial killer.
The funny thing about authenticity... I'm Lao and live in Laos, the film is about Lao people, in Laos, played by Lao actors in the Lao language, doing Lao things, and the story is built around Lao religion, culture and Lao society... I mean, how much more authentic can I make this Lao film? And if people want to punch holes in that authenticity, because you always have these authenticity-seekers, I'd say: "Well, how many time travelling serial killers do YOU know?" (We both laugh)
The film premiered in Venice and is currently doing a sort of victory lap around the world, picking up prizes and audience awards left and right.
That is so surprising. I never expect to win anything, and I always fail at getting any grants when I pitch my movies. For The Long Walk I got my first grant ever, and it was from Visions Sud Est fund from Switzerland. I was very lucky because at the Swiss Film Board there are actually people who have worked in genre films. Maybe that helped! That's how these film boards should always be, with a genre person, a drama person, an arthouse person... oh, and a documentary person! (We both laugh)
But because I never got any grants or win awards or such, I was not expecting anything. I always tried to temper Annick and Todd's (note: the producers, ed.) expectations, and honestly? I thought this film was going to be a career suicide. Because the more emotional and intimate the film became, the stranger the story became. But then, as the production became quite challenging as well, difficult, and I thought fuck it, I'm going to make whatever I want.
As you can see in the film, we were really in the jungle all the time, and as things became more difficult I thought: I'll be so super-happy if this can play at even just one of my favorite genre festivals. So you can imagine my surprise when the Giornate ticket came in for the sidebar selection of the Venice Film Festival. I thought: "This can't be happening!" And then Toronto, Busan, Tokyo, and Göteburg and Rotterdam... and Rotterdam is like huuuge for me! This is impossible! Like, these are the people who never select me for the Hubert Bals Fund, how can this be happening?!
Each film you made has been about ten times as large, production-wise, as the previous one. What is next? Any concrete plans?
With my films I multiplied up, but maybe sometime I'll go back to something a bit mid-range, something without a giant budget... well, giant to me (chuckles). I first want to grow experienced to working with a western crew, and a larger budget, before doing blockbustery. It may be a strange thing to say as a director, but I'm not interested in doing a blockbuster right now.
I have a couple of projects going on though. I'm developing a commercial thriller that's not arthouse at all, about some American girls who don't realize they've interrupted the work of an Asian human trafficking deal, and shit goes really wrong. It's going to be straightforward and fast-paced.. After The Long Walk I wanted something that's fun to do, even though there will always be a dark subject matter. I mean less personal, less intimate.
I now have time to focus on non-arthouse stuff. Like, I'm also part of the "Mad Scientists", which is a creative group in the Netherlands. I'm always looking for what project I could do with them. I'm also working on a ballet film...
Yes, finally! Back to my roots! My husband jokes that I will finally be meeting some of my REAL celebrities. It was so funny at film festivals, I used to not know any film celebrities, I didn't recognize them or know who they were, and when they told me who they were I was like "Okay...". I wasn't a film person before, I don't know these people! At a festival I was talking with Keanu Reeves when we were both in line for the bathrooms and I was like "Oh yeah, The Matrix, right, I saw that...". He is supernice though.
We hear that a lot.
But if I get to meet the ballet stars I will be all like "Oh my God!"(whimpers, we both laugh)
In the past you've said that your background as a ballet teacher helps you with the determination and stamina needed to finish a film project. Were there moments during The Long Walk where you were extra happy with your ballet background?
(smiles) You can ask anyone in my crew on The Long Walk and they will tell you how hardcore I am. I really believe that's from my ballet background. You cannot crumble, you cannot succumb in ballet, because then you're just unable to, you're done. And we had so many issues during the shoot. At one point we nearly failed the entire shoot because we had to replace the DoP. The new DoP was excellent, but he had only two days to prep with me, but we made it work. That's how hardcore the crew was. I'm a very exuberant and bubbly, joyful person, but on set I'm quiet, thinking about everything, intensely trying to keep everything together. That focus and concentration comes from ballet, you have to master your body into precise movements which aren't natural for a human. And at least with filmmaking, I don't have to do that while still handling what's happening around me on set (laughs).
For The Long Walk you really shot in the jungle. What problems did that bring?
In Laos, we cannot predict the weather, and rain happens even when it's not seasonal. Luckily, my husband Chris is not just a writer but also happened to be an excellent AD, so he managed to keep a schedule that if we hit a rain day, we were able to exchange scenes instantly.
And it was a big set, we were with twenty people. The largest group was art direction, six people constantly building and changing the house according to the different timelines. We pulled very long workdays, thirteen, fifteen hours, but when you set the example, everybody works hard and there's not much bitching and moaning. I have a very low tolerance for shitty people and shitty behavior, so the crew got on very well together. Luckily. Thank God! At the end of the day we'd crack open some cold beers and hang out with each other, having fun like family.
But really, the hardest part was the weather, it was so hot in the jungle even though it wasn't even the worst part of summer. Humidity was so high it damaged the equipment. We had a Ronin break down, and the film relied so heavily on gimbal Ronin shots, so we had to figure out how to achieve those shots WITHOUT a Ronin until we got a smaller one to replace it. Which took DAYS, by the way. We had many malfunctions like a generator breaking down, and we were in the middle of the jungle so we needed that generator, we couldn't get anything plugged in anywhere else.
How far away were you from civilization?
You'd be surprised, as the location was only a 45-minute drive from downtown Vientiane, but it was already deep in the forest, and most of the drive was on dirt roads. So fighting the elements was the most difficult thing. The single biggest crisis was losing that DoP though.
Because you needed one in short order and there weren't like 20 around of course.
Well... actually, you bring up an interesting point, because I thought that too. We had been grooming our DoP for a year but in the end, he just couldn't get on board creatively with our differences. When Annick ended the relationship we had two-and-a-half weeks where we needed to restart the production, as we had foreign crew in Laos and more foreign crew were coming, like the special effects team from France. The actors were scheduled, we couldn't delay any longer, because then people needed to start flying home. There were moments where I was lying in bed crying, thinking WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME? But immediately Annick and Todd, producers that they are, had an entire roster of DoPs available to me, people who were willing to work with me. People from all over the place, several of whom I really admired, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia... Even my art director had recommendations. Scheduling was the big problem though, cause we needed someone NOW. Then Annick was at Fantastic Fest and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (of Spring and The Endless fame, ed.) mentioned a few names, and we ended up going with one of their recommendation, Matthew Macar. For days I was watching films and reels of all these DoPs to see which ones I liked. And he was like "Sure, I'll fly in tomorrow" and we said "Okay!" And he was fantastic.
So our DoP crisis happened while Annick was at Fantastic Fest, she put her feelers out and friends came through! It's nuts. And this is what I love about genre. Genre people look out for each other, they're a community. Benson and Moorhead, Timo from Indonesia, Erik Matti, Todd... all these people instantly jumped to the rescue. Genre people are family. And that's why I always want to keep doing genre.
Thank you very much for this interview.
The Long Walk is currently playing festivals worldwide. Audiences at the International Film Festival Rotterdam awarded the film a 7.4 out of 10.
(Photo on top by Julien Chavaillaz - © FIFF/Julien Chavaillaz)