Directors, Features, Filmmakers, Interviews, Thailand, UK

Journey to the East: an interview with Mark Duffield

Mark Duffield, director of Ghost Of Mae Nak, talks to easternKicks about how he came to be a British director on a Thai produced horror film, and what inspired him to make it…

What attracted you to the story of ‘Mae Nak’?
I’d been working in Thailand as a cinematographer on a British feature film called Butterfly Man and because I love horror films and ghost stories I became attracted there to a local myth called Mae Nak – which means Mother Nak.

There’s an actual shrine to her in her in Bangkok, in the Prakanong area. People treat it almost as a religious shrine, giving offerings, paying their respects lighting incense and even offering flowers. I was quite amazed; it was such a phenomenon in a way. I researched the actual legend and discovered that she’s almost like Jack The Ripper or Dracula in terms of their impact on the West: everybody knows about her from birth and there are many stories about her, both good and bad. Some are ‘she’s going to come and get you’ while others say she’ll see you through troubled times.

The actual legend is a troubled love story which I connected with in a way and I think a lot of it deals with lovers who have departed and have come back from the grave. I thought it was an interesting concept, and something that most of us can relate to, that when someone departs we miss him or her and wish they were still here. There have been a few classic British stories that have done the same – I guess Wuthering Heights is quite an obvious one – and I’ve always loved Hammer films, so I saw a connection there almost like a ghost love story, which really appealed to me.

Then I found out that there had already many films made from the legend, I think over 20 in the last fifty years, and there was one definitive period version, set about 100 years ago, called Nan Nak, and that ended with the spirit of Mae Nak held in a piece of bone that had been cut out of her head, and it was lost in time. My eureka moment was the thought that wouldn’t it be amazing if that piece of bone was found in the present day, I guess in the same way it would if you found a piece of bone with the spirit of Dracula or Jack The Ripper, and from that that came the story.

So you’ve entered the Asian film market, what do you think you bring to it as a British director?
One thing that’s good is that I’ve been writing horror scripts for some time now, trying to get interest here in the UK (without much luck!) but when I was in Thailand I saw the potential there for a ghost story about Mae Nak I decided to take a bold leap and get it translated into Thai. I showed it to some investors over there and they got it and really liked it.

I guess part of the appeal for me was casting a Western eye over the myth and the different feel I could bring to Thai films that were being made. Especially in terms of pace and just storytelling, in fact. It was also that I treated the subject seriously – a lot of Thai ghost films tend to steer towards comedies, which is not what I wanted to do. For me as a director it was a continuation of the world I was involved with. I’d been in Thailand, understood the culture yet was a Western filmmaker, so it was a good opportunity to bring the two together.

Did you always plan to make the move from cinematographer to director?
I would say my passion is being a filmmaker, and although I professionally started as a cinematographer I was always very keen to direct and create my own projects, particularly in the horror/fantasy genre. I wasn’t a big leap because I’ done several short films in the past, and obviously working as a cinematographer on other features the awareness and experience was there. In some senses it was a lot easier for me, because I was writer, director and cinematographer – which takes a page of (Robert) Rodriguez I guess! It meant I could work very fast in terms of one less voice to speak to on the set, and I only lit where I was going to be pointing the camera.

How did you find working with the cast and crew in Thailand?
Moss of the crew spoke English very well, and the language of filmmaking is universal, so wasn’t difficult asking for set-ups – it’s the same practise as you would here. The good thing was that in Thailand, and especially Bangkok, you get very professional crews. They do a lot of high-end commercials for Japan and East Asia. They can be extremely inventive and high quality, so they get a lot of experience in that area. The equipment is state of the art and actually often better than what you get here. Even the post-production is all high end. In fact the post-production for my film was all in Bangkok Technicolor, which is exactly the same as the set up as they have in Hollywood – in that sense I was very lucky!

Did the production run smoothly then?

Surprisingly it went very smooth! It was a joy to film, everything just seemed to fall into place, even raising the finance happened very quickly which in my mind was a mini miracle as it’s so difficult to raise money for a film.

The cast turned out to be stellar! I hadn’t had the experience of casting so would just cast the actors who looked right for the part and were talented, but without prior knowledge of their backgrounds. Once they were cast I was being asked if I knew how famous the actors I got were. In fact when we’d be filming on the streets there’d be literally hundreds of people watching us. Everyone would be well behaved and polite, standing still and would be quiet when we asked to for a take. (That’s a lot different to what you get here, you can get a lot of abuse if you do that here!) But it was amazing – you can see it on my video diary on the DVD, when I turn the camera round there’s like 200 people watching!

How well was the film received on its release in Thailand?
It was released September 2005 and it went number three in the Box Office, which I’m told is good. We had a huge gala premiere with all the Thai media there at a multiplex with 10 screens or so, all showing the movie. We must have had a thousand people there, and there were press interviews. The distribution company even built a shrine to Mae Nak outside the cinema to bring good luck to the film.

Again, you can see that on the new DVD. There’s the shrine they’ve built and all the mad press excitement because the two lead actors, Pataratida Pacharawirapong and Siwat Chotchaicharin, were becoming celebrities while we were filming. They’d done a lot of publicity for other things, and the lead actor was fast becoming a pin-up, so that all worked in my favour.

What filmmakers do you admire?
Well there’s quite a few! I think if anything they’re directors who’ve done a good body of work Like Alfred Hitchcock, who’s extremely good at story telling and a classic director in his own right. I like John Carpenter, Ridley Scott has always inspired me, Sam Rami, Tobe Hooper, even Robert Wise, who did The Haunting, he’s been a huge influence.

Sometimes it’s specific films, not necessarily directors. For instance The Omen was a big influence…

I noticed that reference in how you set up the macabre ‘accidental deaths’ in the film.
I’m glad you picked up on that. In a way it was truthful to the Mae Nak legend, because the myth is if you wrong her then you’ll die a gruesome death. That reminded me of The Omen and even Final Destination, so I played on that feel, which was a new spin on the legend that hadn’t been explored before.

It’s quite a fun device to play with, especially when it’s done well.
I was trying to make a multiplex, popcorn movie in a way, so I tried to make it entertaining to a teenage audience, but at the same time tried to approach it seriously. To give it some kind of emotion rather than be too throwaway with the subject matter, which often happens with a lot of modern horrors. They might have great death sequences they lack a bit of substance or character.

What are you future projects? Are you sticking with horror?
I’m writing a new vampire story that I think will be a really neat idea. You won’t have seen this take before! I’m keeping that under my hat right now, but if you happen to know anyone at Pathe let me know!

You’re not planning to film this story in Thailand, then?
No, it’s all set in London this time. But I do have another Thai ghost story, based on legend that I’ve also got lined up. I think it’s a really neat idea and it would be great to go back explore it, so it might happen. It’s just a question of when. Filmmaking is such a slow process, things don’t happen overnight. I’d also like to work on a Western project. I guess I’ve just got to see what comes up first. I mean if someone said to me a few years ago that my first film would be a Thai language ghost story I just wouldn’t have believed them. Filmmaking is such an unpredictable process.

For me it’s all about story. If I found a really good love story I wouldn’t necessarily turn it down, but I do have a passion for horror!

Many thanks to Mark Duffield for his time, and to Paul Smith of Tartan Video for helping set up the interview.

About the author

Andrew Heskins
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
Read all posts by Andrew Heskins

On this day One year ago

The Medium

Na Hong-jin (The Wailing) and Banjong Pisanthanakun (Shutter) combine forces, but is it anything new?... (more…) Read on

On this day Five years ago

Our Time Will Come

Celebrated director Ann Hui returns to the Sino-Japanese war of The Golden Era with a star studded cast… (more…) Read on

On this day Eight years ago

An interview with Yosuke Fujita

We chat to the director of Fine, Totally Fine about his latest film Fuku-Chan of FukuFuku Flats... (more…) Read on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.