Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a Thai filmmaker who works well outside his country’s studio system, is well known to Cannes audiences. “Tropical Malady” won a jury prize in 1994 while “Blissfully Yours” took the top prize in the Un Certain Regard program in 2003. His latest film, “Syndromes and a Century“, is a story inspired by the lives of Weerasethakul’s parents in the years before they fell in love. It has moved film critics with its gentle harmony and cerebral observations in following an unfolding love story between two doctors who work in different settings and even different times. Reverse Shot’s Michael Koresky recently praised the film as “truly sublime, a bridging of the gap between avant-garde and narrative forms made by the sure, steady hand of an artist.” Weerasethakul answered some iW questions just before “Syndromes” opens April 18th in New York at IFC Center and April 13th at Yerba Buena in San Francisco.
What attracted you to filmmaking, and how did it become a career?
I knew I was into movies when I was in high school, at the peak of sci-fi, adventure films like “ET” and “Raiders of the Lost Arc.” But I wasn’t interested in film schools here because they are far away, and also there is this notion in Thailand that you have to graduate from certain universities to be accepted. I boycotted the idea and looked for university in my hometown. There was this new architectural faculty opening. Since I was also interested in beautiful buildings, I enrolled in that, thinking I could make my own movies later. Then I was in Chicago – that changed me. I had a chance to see lots of American experimental films. And I was trying to find a way to tell my memories via film. When I came back to Thailand, I was so excited about the possibilities. I tried several ways and met with local young filmmakers. I traveled and the result was “Mysterious Object at Noon.” I am still learning this craft.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
Always. Because filmmaking is my way of living so it will always change according to people I meet, places I go.
How the initial idea for “Syndromes and a Century” came about?
I was approached by Simon Field, one of the producers of the New Crowned Hope project. It is to celebrate 250th anniversary of Mozart. Peter Sellars, the project’s artistic director, encouraged the filmmakers in the series to think in different ways about Mozart. And I tried not to think at all because I believe his work can be applied to everything in life. It’s that beautiful. If I have to pinpoint, there was this Magic Flute, one of the three compositions that Peter focused on. It is supposed to be about Magic and Transformation. The list says, “The emergence and creation of a new era.” And this really hit me. I was having a holiday with my family with the absence of my father. So I talked to my mother about this. Then it started.
I always want to relay many feelings via film. It is hard for me to communicate with people – I want to shake my friends, my partner, for example, and say “look, I am so happy,” or I feel this and that. But I cannot get the feelings across through only words. So I made these films to get my message delivered at a certain level. It is hard for me to make a linear narrative because I think our brain doesn’t operate like that.
What is your next project?
I always have some projects in mind, in case one gets the funding. There is one project called “Utopia.” It is a sort of science fiction film about a pre-historic man in a snow landscape. Another is collaboration with a commercial Thai director Yuthalert Sippapak. I am interested in his films because they are very different from mine, very commercial and popular. So we talked about a collaboration making a film together with the same characters crossing borders. And there is another project in the north of Thailand about an escaped wolf.
Name some of your all-time favorite films.
“The Conversation“, Francis For Coppola
“Love Streams“, John Cassavettes
“The Bad and the Beautiful“, Vincent Minnelli
“Valentin de las Sierras“, Bruce Baillie
These films have a very strong character, especially Bruce’s. It is like you have a joyful conversation with the top magicians. My recent favorite films are “Children of Men“, “Hamaca paraguaya“, among others.
What are some of your other interests?
I like to travel and see young people. Making films allows me to go to many places – for location hunting, for film festivals, etc. It’s always an inspiration to live and sometimes to appreciate simply being home. And I enjoy a lot of my crewmembers in the art department. They are quite opposite from me because I don’t drink.
What advice do you have for emerging filmmakers?
Try to care less about what people say.