Art/Culture  •  In Convo with

In Convo with: Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit and Violette Wautier

2Magazine returns to our 2015 interview with award-winning filmmaker Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, along with one of his star actresses, to discuss everything from how it started to his views on fashion.

B&W Portraits:
June 10, 2017
The young master of arthouse cinema, Nawapol “Ter” Thamrongrattanarit made his debut with eccentric short films. His first feature, 36, earned a top prize at the Busan International Film Festival; and his follow-up film, Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy, was an instant cult classic. Freelance, his third feature, is his first studio film, produced by uber-studio GTH, producers of such mega-hits as Pee Mak.

We sat down with the talented filmmaker together with his bright star, Violette Wautier, to talk about film, fashion, and life.

On Beginnings
How did you get here?
Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit: I just kept going. I’m from a middle class family so to actually get somewhere took a lot of effort. I also believe that to do something requires continuity. For me, when you work on something that is in the realm of art, there really isn’t a barometer to measure what is possible and what is not, you just keep going! This was the way that I worked and things grew organically. It started with me working on my own short films, then, after a certain point, people were willing to fund my other projects, and it just got bigger and bigger until professional actors actually wanted to be in my films!

When did you know you wanted to be a director?
NT: For a while now—definitely since high school, but then I didn’t really know how I would get here, especially because at I didn’t go to art or film school but rather majored in communications/languages. Back then it was kinda like, whoever did liberal arts would be unemployed, but I guess ‘cuz (film) wasn’t my major it forced me to take action: I would take courses in the liberal arts faculty and try to figure out how I would make my film. The thing with film is that you have to do it yourself.

I was lucky that I found myself and what I wanted to be quite early, so I was able to devote all my time to this dream

What about you, Violette: did you know that you wanted to be where you are now? To be an actress?
Violette Wautier: I was totally lucky. I was just this teenager and I had no idea what I wanted to be except that I loved to sing. I never had the nerve to tell anyone that I wanted to be a singer or actress but secretly I guess that is what I wanted to do. So I got on The Voice and one of the producers at GTH saw me and thought, maybe she has potential (and that) maybe that I should give acting a go. So I was lucky enough that someone gave me a chance.

Given that each of you is here because of an element of chance and that things have since grown organically, is your work personal? Is it a reflection of your own journeys?
NT: Since, in a way, I taught myself how to make film, when it came time to make one, it was about the things that were closest to me: so, yes, the stories that I tell are not too far from my life. I was lucky that I found myself and what I wanted to be quite early, so I was able to devote all my time to this dream. The work that comes out is a reflection (of this), and, because I am doing something that I love, it doesn’t feel like work at all. I guess I enjoy the process a lot, so if the work doesn’t turn out the way I expect it to, I don’t beat myself up too much as the process to get there was fun too, like I learnt something from it.

So you like the process?
NT: Yes, definitely. It’s not that, because I’ve made a film or two, writing the script for Freelance wasn’t challenging: I certainly had moments when I was stuck. But I don’t see any part of that as a failure. Every project is a lesson. As the projects have gotten bigger the lessons I’ve learned have gotten bigger too. The thing with making a film is that it takes a long time—a year at least out of your life—so I want to work on projects that I like, working with friends. After all, it would be pretty miserable taking a year to do something you didn’t like to do.

Is there room for improvisation? For accidents?
NT: Well, for me, making a film is full of accidents, maybe even half of the time. When you go on set, there are the unpredictable elements that, no matter how prepared you are, you can’t control. At the same time, working within these unpredictable circumstances, you can make magic: something that you didn’t even know could be a solution turns out to be the best thing.

Violette, did you feel a big responsibility as an actress in your role? And how did you deal with these accidents?
VW: I had to do a lot of homework, a lot of preparation; after all, my co-stars were really experienced actors and I didn’t want to be the weakest link and have them say “Oh, she’s new, yeah we’ll let her get away with that.” So I worked really hard, prepared myself as much as I could to understand my character so that, should these accidents occur, I would be able to react as best as I could and still be in character.

What was it like working on set? Are you guys like family now?
NT: Yes, absolutely, we really know each other now; I mean, we have spent so much time together now, especially for the roadshow after the film premieres.
VW: We even have these little inside jokes, and no one is worried about getting into those little squabbles that you do when you are tight.

Did you both know each other before?
NT: Yeah, Vee [Violette] was in my short film before this; I saw a glimpse of her in this other short—it really was just a glimpse—and I liked her a lot so I cast her in Freelance. I felt a connection, you know?
VW: We did a fashion shoot together remember?
NT: Oh yes, we did! That’s where we first met.
VW: It was for Hamburger [magazine], and they paired people they thought would be good collaborators, and they just happened to put me and P’Ter together as a pair for the shoot.

On Fashion
We are so happy that you talk about fashion because that’s exactly what we are interested in knowing more about from you: not fashion for the sake of it but fashion in film, the role of fashion in your film, not just in Freelance but in all your films.
NT: I like fashion; I even follow it—guys aren’t supposed to really, right? I even know the names of the models now: Liu Wen, Kiko [Mizuhara]. I’m interested in how I can use fashion in my films. Fashion to me is about patterns and colors, and when I watch films that I like, there are these elements, for example, in the lead actor’s bedroom where everything has been selected to create an atmosphere. I feel that if I know more about fashion and actually enjoy the process of learning about it, then I have this knowledge to use in my films … to define the characters. I had a vague idea with Mary [Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy] but with Freelance I gave everything that I had learnt about fashion. Yoon’s walls are brown, his desk is brown, so if he wears blue then there’s contrast: he stands out.

So you use fashion as a tool to help you tell the story?
NT: Yes, definitely in a big way. You know, I could also not use it and it would still work, right? But I feel that, if I can up the level and use this knowledge in each frame, then why not? I see each frame as a painting: you can just paint a tree and a person and you know it’s a tree and person, but to add a little more detail would make it exponentially better, so why shouldn’t I? Like those films where every frame looks so good whichever still I post on Facebook would look good—I want to make my film like that.

Did you work with a stylist? Or costume designer?
NT: Well, I did all the initial research for the characters and then shared this with the designer. When I was writing the script, I already knew what I wanted each character to wear so it actually sped up and simplified the process. I actually found this fashion design element to be larger in the production design aspect of the film; I found myself designing and laying out Yoon’s room, the colors, everything.

Fashion to me is about patterns and colors, and when I watch films that I like, there are these elements

What about the t-shirts? I mean, Sunny [the lead character in Freelance is not supposed to care about fashion right? But then he has on a Nirvana t-shirt sometimes, a Sonic Youth t-shirt, even an Uncle Boonmee Who Could Recall His Past Lives t-shirt.
NT: Sunny is a graphic designer who doesn’t care about fashion, so he wears second hand t-shirts and those that people give away at events. They are from the ‘90s and 2000s. Some of the shots are of him wearing a La Fete t-shirt, so probably he has a friend who does that kind of thing. These tees are supposed to reflect his character. For example, when he is working and he is really happy he wears his Nirvana t-shirt.

Did you have any input in what P’Ter had your character wear?
VW: Well, yes, even though he said go and wear what Sofia Coppola would wear, on one level her outfits had to be really put together and polite because she has to be ready to see clients, but also ready for anything because her soul mate, P’Win, is like that. So that’s why she wears jeans, a shirt, and a HUGE backpack. The other thing was that P’Ter wanted the backpack to be bright yellow, since Je wore a lot of light blue and this would be a big contrast.

Is there anyone in the fashion world who inspires you? Any film? Any photographer?
VW: I like Spring Breakers: the colors.
NT: A bit neon, no? For me, there are a few. Fashion photographer-wise I like Tim Walker.
VW: I like Wes Anderson.
NT: He’s cool. But, at the moment, I am really interested in Chloe Sevigny. I don’t know why. I’ve seen her for ages but recently I’ve come to think every picture she’s in, she just looks really good! Is it her clothes? The colors? I don’t know. The press she’s in, the covers she’s on, I feel that it all connects to me somehow. Who knows, in my next film, I might use her as inspiration for something. I just bought the Rizzoli book and I love it.

There are often these comparisons between you and Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. How do you feel about these comparisons?
NT: For real, I think there are small elements only, (such as) the deadpan element. But personally, I don’t watch a Wes Anderson film and think to myself “I’m going to make a film with those colors”: it’s a bit too much for me. As for Noah, there are only a couple of his films that I like. But yeah, it’s true that people often say my work is similar to these two. But if you ask me where my inspirations are actually drawn from? I would say the work of neo-realists, like the Dardenne Brothers. And also Romanian new-wave, films like 3 months, 4 weeks and 2 days [by Cristian Mungiu], a bit doc, realist, about ordinary people. For me these are much bigger influences on me, but people don’t really see that.

Isn’t that interesting? That, because of the deadpan eccentric characters, you automatically draw parallels with Wes Anderson but actually, when you mention the Dardenne Brothers, then I think yeah.
NT: Right? And actually, it’s much bigger, about ordinary everything. I can see why people, when they see the scenery of my films, they think of Wes, but I still don’t really see how they think I draw inspiration from his films. I mean, if anything, I am definitely more influenced by Wong Kar Wai: I grew up with his films. Wes is someone relatively new for me. When I think of the neon lights and the outfits that Faye Wong wore in films like in Chungking Express, then I think “Wow, it’s amazing” but really it’s the kind of thing you can buy at JJ Market. But that’s exactly it, what I’m creating is not these fantasies: I am inspired by realistic things. You know this is the first time anyone has asked me this question and it’s the first time I’ve answered it too! People don’t usually ask me because they have already assumed that I am that filmmaker and those are my inspirations.

I want the viewers’ perception about film to change. Before, we would say, “This film is indie, this one is mass”

All of your films have dealt with small, everyday revolutions, like in 36 when everything was going digital, Mary coinciding with a world erupting with Twitter, and now Freelance, about the professional lifestyle that a new generation aspires to live: you talk about things that surround you but do you consider these changes?
NT: When I am working, I don’t set out to go and expose (these) changes for people; that’s not my mission. It’s more about finding new possibilities, especially with distribution, so Freelance was designed in the vein of the American indie film (a film that straddles the line between independent and studio). Here in Thailand, what we have is P’Joei [Apichatpong Weerasethakul] and P’Tong [Bangjong Pisanthanakun] at two polar opposites. This is great but there has never been a middle and I feel, now, that I am in the middle.

How has this had an impact on your work?
NT:  The films that I make, even though they are independent, are still narrative films with a little bit of experimentation, so the studio has allowed me to do what I do. I was lucky that we could connect into that middle. I want the viewers’ perception about film to change. Before, we would say, “This film is indie, this one is mass”—the indie one you have to watch again and again and you still won’t get it, and the mass you think, oh that was just shit. But actually it doesn’t have to be like that at all! Whether it’s independent or from a studio, if you watch it and like it then it’s cool. There are some really bad indie films and some really amazing mass films. Film is a culture, not a product to measure taste so that “Hey, I like Wes Anderson therefore I’m totally cool.” I kind of think you can like Wes but really enjoy a Seth Rogen comedy too.

I got second place but one of the jury members asked me to continue and invited me to do projects with him, so I just kept going.

On the Future
Is there something already in your head that you will do next or do you need to take a break?
NT: Yes, there is something in my head but I need to think about it a little more. I don’t really set out to only make films; in fact,
I might make a book, or someone has invited me to work on an art show. I’ve not put myself in a box and said I will just be a filmmaker forever. That said, it’s not like tomorrow I’m gonna quit (film) and go sell noodles. It’s still about continuity and going down this road that I’ve already embarked upon and finding the next thing, the next challenge. It would be really be really cool to do a
co-production, like it would be cool to direct a Japanese actor.
Sure there will be other goals but they would still relate to film.
So I’ve seen it for a while and I’ve been doing this for a while.
So if I weren’t doing this I really would be quite confused, I don’t know what I would be doing.

How about you, Vee?
VW: I am actually studying filmmaking at university so this has been the direction that I’ve wanted to take: script writing, shooting. When I got this role, it allowed me to see another side to it. I really feel lucky. There are lots of people who are studying this but have not had the chance to be on the field, playing with real people. Also, I’m working on a single; the song is actually done so I’m currently making the music video with a friend of mine. When I graduate, I know I definitely want to still be a musician and I still want to act. I think these two can go together.

For your thesis: do you have to make a film?
VW: I don’t have to submit a finished film, just a finished script, but I figure you get this far, you might as well go all the way. Who knows, I might not have the chance to make my own film again.

So you both feel like everything's going according to plan?
NT: It’s like I’ve drawn a route.
VW: Yeah, me too. I’ve always had a plan, until I actually got to university, and there was no more plan.
NT:  You know it’s not that it’s an easy route, but it’s what we like to do so it doesn’t seem that hard. When someone reads an interview of mine, it sounds so easy, but actually the road to get here was kinda difficult. To actually get where I am today, it took 10 years: I started in my 2nd and 3rd year of uni and I graduated nine years ago. I got into the industry after I entered a short film into a competition, which I didn’t win. I got second place but one of the jury members asked me to continue and invited me to do projects with him, so I just kept going.

As of June 2017, Nawapol has since had a solo art show at Bangkok CityCity Gallery and is currently working on a new film; Violet who has since graduated from Chulalongkorn recently released her newest album.