It’s often said that the sign of a true craftsman is the ability to make complex tasks look effortless (there’s even an Italian phrase for this skill, “sprezzatura”). No 21st-century filmmaker more breezily captures the multiplicity of modern life than Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who across seven solo-directed features and dozens of short films has created worlds both cosmic and intimate. Less than two years after Memoria‘s U.S. premiere shook Lincoln Center’s foundation at the 59th New York Film Festival, he has been invited back for a full-career retrospective paired with screenings of works that inspire, inform, and challenge his own body of work.
Ahead of the series, kicking off this Thursday at Film at Lincoln Center, Apichatpong joined us over video chat from Thailand to discuss his career, process, and future.
The Film Stage: A little note before my questions begin: In 2011, when I was 17, I reached out to you through the comments section of your production company, Kick the Machine. I was trying to get my local Connecticut independent theater to play Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and you not only helped, but agreed to do a Skype intro as well.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Oh, I did?
It was a very important moment as a young cinema lover, so I thank you for your time then and thank you for your time now.
Oh, thank you. Thank you for reaching out and nice to meet you again.
I don’t know how many people would respond to an anonymous 17-year-old saying “can you help me get your movie played?” But you did, so I appreciate it. Speaking of young cinephilia, you’ve cited two main periods of movie-watching as important: the films you watched growing up in Thailand and the movies you watched as a student at Art Institute of Chicago in the ‘90s. How do you think these two disparate sources propelled you into filmmaking?
I liked those films in my childhood because I was innocent. There’s not much comparison and there’s no criticism to follow. So that was a precious time; it’s self-education. Then, in Chicago, it was another kind of innocence because I had no idea about experimental films and so it was all new to me. So maybe that’s why, after that period in Chicago, I just had enough and I mostly stopped watching films. I think that the treasure is in something you don’t know and you are not really conditioned by knowledge, let’s say.
Regarding Tropical Malady making the newest edition of Sight and Sound’s 100 Greatest Films of All-Time list: you said that all of your films are “the same––they’re all connected.” Is a sense of unity across your work something that you intend, or is it just the natural result of your creative process?
A mixture of both. Something I am conscious of when I’m creating fiction that’s mixed with or influenced by real life… it comes really close to accurately presenting certain parts of my life. So that’s why I say it’s a continuous journey and the film becomes not only just the work itself but also the making of the film becomes part of the memory. Sometimes it’s really hard to distinguish, so that’s why I think it’s just one stream of creation, of living.
I don’t know how regularly you get the chance to re-experience your own films, but I’m sure watching them does feel like trying to remember a dream, more than it already feels like that for an average viewer. Is there something unique about watching your own movies that causes you to reach back even further into your memory, since they are echoes of times past in your head?
Yes. The good thing for me is that I don’t remember that much. [Laughs] I’m a really forgetful person, so to see the films again––sometimes I am surprised to rediscover myself back then. Another person, another view, another idea of time in cinema. So it’s quite a good testament that we are always changing.
Going back to that idea of unity, was that something you looked for as a viewer? Because I know some of the directors you programmed as part of this series––Wiseman, Kiarostami, Cassavetes, obviously your well-known love for Tsai Ming-liang––they all seem to fit that bill similarly: unity across a body of work.
What kind of unity, do you think?
I mean Wiseman, for example, presents a variety of subjects, but the way he is processing information, the way he is linking ideas between moments, ultimately feels like a continuation of the same project––even if you are jumping between Belfast, Maine or the New York Public Library or, now, a restaurant in France.
I think they all are forcing you to be silent. These films act like mirrors because when you are in the theater you become part of the subject. When you watch Primate about these monkeys––you become monkeys, you become scientists––it’s really like a mirror for the fear and shame of being human. “Do we treat animals like that?” All these things come up, and I think with the silence we allow ourselves to be open to that kind of empathy.
In addition to your features, a number of your short films are going to be screened during the retrospective. I know for shorts like Anthem or Phantoms of Nabua or especially Letter to Uncle Boonmee, they almost feel like scenes ripped from your features. When you have a scene play out in your mind or when you make a sketch of an idea, how do you find what type of project it will end up in?
Well, like you said, it’s about curiosity of what it can be: some are like sketches in preparation for feature films and some are just experimentation with a new camera. They all have different origins. But for quite a while now, I tend to know that it’s gonna be a short because most of them are commissions. Even then, sometimes I take different ideas from the past or use it as an excuse to try out something I wrote.
Switching to more thematic ground: human bodies suffering ailments is one of the most consistent hallmarks of your works––from Boonmee’s karma-induced kidney failure to the soldiers’ sleeping sickness in Cemetery of Splendor to even your own medical condition being the genesis of your most recent film, Memoria. In some way, this is likely linked to your experience growing up in hospitals (with both of your parents being doctors). But what continues to draw you to the vulnerability of bodies across a 20-year span?
They are just a pretext to see the human condition, no? Other than the physical sickness itself, it’s about the variants or shades of pain in motion and especially in my memories. So I think beyond a kidney or Exploding Head Syndrome, it takes the character and the audience to issues of global suffering and how we are bound. Working on Memoria, for me, it was all about that relationship because I was worried about differences in language and culture. But in the end, it is a purely human thing––it’s being with Tilda and with the team in a particular space and saying, “Let’s find out!”
Speaking of, Memoria was your largest production to date. I also know that at various points of shooting your debut feature, Mysterious Object at Noon, there was a crew as small as five people. For you, is there a link between the scale of a project and the experimentation possible? Is that something you are generally concerned about?
Yes, but they come with different challenges. In fact, with more people, often you can experiment more because when you are with five people, you cannot do much––you cannot change an idea midway or have someone decide to have a new wardrobe. It’s less flexible with a smaller crew. But again, it depends on the production itself. That’s why I always stress the importance of rehearsal time: it’s a precious time to change things, to improvise, and to lean on the importance of friendship. I always have to work with friends. It’s important to understand that it’s not only time spent shooting but time living together.
You are hardly the first director to have a stable of actors, but your approach to both performance and casting is definitely unique. Does working with people you have a connection with outside the confines of filmmaking help realize the vision you are asking them to help create?
Definitely, because my world is really small. The people and their stories and experiences really influence the films––whether that be the writing or improvisation afterwards. It’s really hard to compartmentalize that these things all contribute to everything flowing together. It has to be these people and these locations and that memory flowing together. Not only for actors but also for a sound person, for a set designer, for everyone.
Do you ever see a limit to the scale of a project you would ever work on? Now that you’ve worked on the size you did with Memoria, do you ever see something bigger than that? Or are there certain confines you feel comfortable within?
I don’t know. I think I am comfortable with anything if the people involved are synchronized well. I don’t know––it’s really hard to say whether big or small. But for me, freedom is crucial and I don’t want to create stress for people who want different things. So, again, it’s about family.
Nearly all of your films in this retrospective were edited by your most prolific collaborator, the extraordinary Lee Chatametikool. What do you feel has stayed the same about your dynamic and what’s changed as you enter your third decade of working together?
The thing that never changes is the issue of trust. Lee is actually more adventurous because he usually isn’t on set. He doesn’t know the background, how much time we spent, etc. So he is ready to cut it out because he hasn’t spent emotional time with the footage. So that’s what I really enjoy about working with him.
Do you feel it’s a benefit to the films themselves, that he doesn’t have an emotional connection to the footage?
Yes! Yes, totally. He’s surprised me many times by saying “Hey, Joe, can we cut this out?” and I’d say, “You know how much time and money we spent?” It must be so nice––you are not really attached to the memory of the footage.
Given that you have previously lived in America and it is a nation founded upon genocide and institutional violence, has there ever been serious consideration around working on a project in the United States?
Well, Thailand is also full of state violence and, like I said earlier, it’s a human thing. I think we move together as a global consciousness. And why not? Like I say: it’s about the condition that we share.
The World of Apichatpong Weerasethakul takes place May 4 through 16 at Film at Lincoln Center.