An Interview with Director Mark Duffield
Since its debut into the U.S. moviegoing market in 2004, Tartan Films has slowly positioned itself as one of the country's leading distributors in an increasingly popular niche market: offbeat Asian cinema. From high-profile releases such as Chan-wook Park's "Vengeance" trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance) to smaller fare (The Booth, Cello), Tartan's Asia Extreme label has provided genre fans with the sort of films they've been looking for. Because October 10th marks the release of their latest Asia Extreme title, Ghost of Mae Nak, I recently interviewed -- via e-mail -- Mark Duffield, the film's director, about his entry into the Asian horror race.
HAKARI: Let's start off with a very obvious question: what are some of your favorite horror films?
DUFFIELD: As a young boy growing up in England, my first introduction to horror were the Hammer Horror Films. And I still have a fondness for Hammer Films and their Victorian Gothic and contemporary retelling of the horror classics Dracula and Frankenstein, as well many other horror stories and characters they made into movies. The Haunting by Robert Wise is a horror film and ghost story that I admire. The Changeling, Stir of Echoes, The Shining, The Exorcist, Suspiria, Candyman are a few of my favourites but also because these are films that have inspired me as a writer and director.
HAKARI: Ghost of Mae Nak is based on a Thai legend that's been filmed many times before. Please provide our readers with a little background on the famous story and comment on how your film differs from previous interpretations.
DUFFIELD: Yes, Ghost of Mae Nak is based on a famous and true Thai legend. It is a hundred year old dark tale of a young couple named Mak and Nak who were deeply in love. After being called to war, Mak returns to his wife Nak and their newborn child. When he is alone, the villagers try to warn him that he is living with a ghost and that his wife died during childbirth. Mak refuses to believe them and returns to confront Nak. That night, the ghost of Mae (mother) Nak gets her revenge on those villagers who tried to take her Mak away from her. The next morning several villagers are found dead with terrifying expressions of fear on their faces. The villagers prove to Mak that his wife Nak is a ghost, exhuming her grave, revealing her decaying body and dead infant. They summon an exorcist monk to put the ghost of Mae Nak to rest by cutting out a piece of bone from her skull and sealing her "revengeful" spirit inside. The exorcist monk wore the piece of bone as a belt brooch until he died. The brooch holding Mae Nak's spirit inside it was passed on until it was lost in time. My film differs from previous Mae Nak stories because it follows the story of the brooch containing Mae Nak's spirit and tells of a modern day young couple that discover the brooch and have to help the ghost of Mae Nak rest in peace. Thai filmmakers have made all previous interpretations and I am the first Western filmmaker to adapt and develop the Mae Nak story. I feel I have also brought a contemporary spin and Western style approach in filmmaking to tell the story to a modern and International audience.
HAKARI: How did the Ghost of Mae Nak production first come to fruition? What inspired you to make the film?
DUFFIELD: Ghost of Mae Nak first started with a spec script that I wrote in London. Because of my contacts with production and distribution companies in Thailand, I felt it was possible to approach them with the project for funding. I knew I had written a "commercial" movie and I felt the concept was new for the Thai and International market. I was right and the script was funded with a distribution deal in a very short space of time. I was inspired to make the film after I watched the definitive Mae Nak 100-year-old set period film Nang Nak directed by Nonzi Nimibut. It ended with the story of Mae Nak's skull bone holding her spirit and that was lost in time. I asked myself what would happen if someone found that piece of bone today? It was a great concept that got me excited to write the script in a quick time frame and it was thrilling to write. I love horror films and I saw the potential of creating a new Mae Nak story.
HAKARI: As a British director in charge of a Thailand-based production, what sort of challenges did you encounter during filming?
DUFFIELD: I faced many challenges. The most obvious one is the language. I don't speak Thai even though I had written and directed a Thai based horror story. But I had my script expertly translated from English into Thai that helped the Thai cast and crew clearly understand my story. I did have translators and it was fun trying to convey what I wanted to say as a director. Bangkok film crews are highly skilled, so the film making process was no different to making a movie in the West and the language of filmmaking is universal. However we did have to make an offering at the Mae Nak shrine. This is an actual shrine to Mae Nak where many Thai people ask for her guidance and blessing. The day before filming the entire Ghost of Mae Nak cast and crew went to the shrine to ask Mae Nak for her permission to make a film about her. I felt she gave us her blessing as the filming went very smooth and it was a joy to direct. I guess the biggest challenge for me was directing a movie in a language that I don't speak but finally I was congratulated by many Thai people, film industry professionals and the movie going audiences on how successful the film was.
HAKARI: The American market for foreign films seems narrowed down to a dedicated arthouse crowd. But with the recent successes of Hero and Life Is Beautiful, do you see foreign-language films truly breaking out into the American moviegoing mainstream anytime in the future?
DUFFIELD: I believe there is potential for any film to break into the American mainstream cinemas if it has a strong original story and the right marketing behind it. I'm sure American mainstream films will always dominate the American and International markets but there are a large (growing) audience that are willing to look for something new. Foreign-language films have that potential. Not only can they be successful in cinemas, but also there is a new movie going audience who are discovering international films on DVD and probably watching them in state-of-art home cinemas. I know that in the UK, the DVD market has actually boosted the interest in International foreign-language films.
HAKARI: With Japan and Korea dominating most of the Asian-bred horror market in the U.S., do you have hopes of Mae Nak giving Thai efforts some footing in the genre?
DUFFIELD: I believe that Ghost of Mae Nak offers a completely new type of horror film to what usually comes out of Japan and Korea. I have directed Ghost of Mae Nak like a European horror film. By this I mean its characters, pacing and atmosphere. I feel it tells a unique story that also has a strong love theme to its heart that is based around a true Thai legend.
HAKARI: How do you view the trend of studios remaking Asian horror titles for American audiences?
DUFFIELD: I feel the trend of studios to remake Asian horror titles has been very interesting and positive. I did enjoy The Ring, The Grudge, and Dark Water remakes. I think if they are made well, then they have potential and can be entertaining. This trend also gives the original Asian horror movies an opportunity to be discovered by American audiences, which could be a new moviegoing experience for them. I could see Ghost of Mae Nak being remade for the American market because the story and themes are universal and the potential of reinventing Mae Nak's ghost for the West would be very scary.
I want to thank Mark Duffield for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly. And I know he hopes our ReelTalk visitors will check out Tartan's DVD release of Ghost of Mae Nak, which contains his director's commentary and a one-hour video diary plus other bonus features.
(Read Adam Hakari's Ghost of Mae Nak review here.)