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SDAFF Interview: Director Mark Duffield of The Ghost of Mae Nak

Tartan Films has made Asian extreme cinema its specialty and it serves up Mark Duffields

The Ghost of Mae Nak

(October 13 at the Brickhouse Salon at the Hazard Center Doubletree) at this years San Diego Asian Film Festival.

As a cinematographer, Mark Duffield worked on a number of British independent films. His turn as cinematographer for Butterfly Man took him to Thailand where he became acquainted with the legend of Mae Nak. This inspired the British native to write a script based on this Thai ghost story, have it translated into Thai and then go to Thailand to make his directorial debut. Now most first-time directors would probably hesitate to complicate their maiden voyage into directing with such things as shooting in a foreign country where you dont speak the language. But Duffield says that his excitement over the story blinded him to what might have been perceived by others as obstacles. Plus he points out, There are examples of directors who have done similar things. Ang Lee came to England to make Sense and Sensibility , a very quintessential English film, and he didnt speak English very well, and Mel Gibson directing The Passion of the Christ in Aramaic, thats certainly not his first language. So Duffield trusted his instincts and headed off to Thailand to make his film.

The film opens with an old woman who recounts the story of Mae Nak, an old legend about a vengeful ghost. The scene feels very authentic, like Duffield found this woman on the street and brought her in to tell us this creepy tale. After this introduction, we meet a contemporary young couple that are about to be married. They buy an old house and come into contact with the vengeful spirit of Mae Nak. At first the ghost strikes out at anyone who might do harm to the couple but then we realize that she wants something from them and will not rest until she gets it.

The film serves up a nicely executed ghost story with a few shocker moments. Duffield spoke with me by phone about the experience of making his first film in a foreign country.

BETH ACCOMANDO: "How did you become acquainted with the legend of Mae Nak? It has already inspired dozens of films, so what attracted you to making another one?"

MARK DUFFIELD: "Mae Nak, which means mother Nak, is a legend that I discovered when I went to Thailand. I heard about this shrine to a ghost, and I thought, 'Wow, a shrine to an actual ghost, I must go there and see it.' I discovered that Thai people actually go to this shrine and pray to this ghost and ask for a blessing. That got me interested in the Mae Nak legend. I discovered that there have been many films made about her and one film I did see, which is sort of the definitive Mae Nak film is called Nang Nak . That film ended with the fascinating conclusion that the spirit of Mae Nak was trapped inside a piece of bone that had been cut out of her forehead, her skull. And thats where I was inspired to continue the storyline.

BA: "I really liked the open to the film. The old woman felt so real and her retelling of the legend had a goose-pimply effect."

MD: "I saw the film as a sort of dark contemporary fairy tale, and the old woman at the beginning is the grandmother in the film. I wanted it to have the feel of a fireside story with her kind of saying, 'Come and listen to this dark legend.' And Thai people do believe in this legend. So I felt it was important to have it told in an authentic way."

BA: "You were a cinematographer before making this film. As a cinematographer, what attracted you to doing a ghost story?"

MD: "I love ghost stories so that was a bonus. As a cinematographer I was keen to try and create some ghostly atmosphere and to be truthful to what I saw in Thailand and Bangkok. In terms of storytelling, that means the film starts out sort of bright and sunny because its optimistic, and then the darkness starts to unfold, the colors become more desaturated. So I was aware of using a film language to tell the story, which was really fun to do. And thats what makes filmmaking so exciting is to find these sort of details to tell a story."

BA: "And how did you want to show the ghost?"

MD: "I think the original side to my ghost of Mae Nak was that she had a hole in her head, which had never been seen before in the films, and that was based on the legend of the piece of bone being cut out of her head. I thought that that was quite a creepy image to have this ghost with a black hole in her head. I also wanted a pale looking ghost because I felt it added to the motivation that this ghost has lost her soul, and that was what she was looking for it. So she had very pale features and long black hair, which is very true to the Thai ghost."

BA: "Now you also invest this film with some gore set pieces, like the one involving a pane of glass."

MD: "One of the things when I was writing this was to create these sort of freak death scenes, which are true to the Mae Nak legend. She would seek revenge on those that tried to stop her and they would die mysterious deaths. I developed that further and borrowed a bit from Final Destination for these freak accidents. And theres The Omen , which is famous for the pane of glass severed head sequence. I wanted to develop that and originally I was going to have the man sliced three ways but then I went to an exhibition called Bodyworks, which is a famous exhibition touring Europe. Its human bodies that have been sort of dissected and stored in this new chemical that allows you to see all the parts and veins and things. It was amazing to see these bodies sort of sliced in half and that sort of stuck in my mind. So when I was planning the plane of glass death sequence, I thought wow that would be a striking image to have, and also to do it in broad daylight as well I wanted to be almost matter of fact."

BA: "I was wondering if you have gotten any kind of response regarding the fact that youre not actually Asian and dont even speak Thai yet you have made this Thai film about a Thai ghost?"

MD: "In Thailand when people read the script they were surprised a westerner had written it. It had its premiere in Bangkok, and the audience all applauded and they seemed to enjoy it. It went to number 3 at the Thai box office."

BA: "As someone coming from a very well established film industry, what was the Thai industry like?"

MD: "It is a growing industry. They dont make a lot of films but they make enough for the size of country. They do love ghost stories and have made some extremely good films in the last ten years. They pay attention to technical details, and have a skilled work force because they do a lot of high-end commercials."

BA: "I was wondering if you noticed any differences in the way ghost stories are perceived in the west versus in Asia. We are seeing a number of Asian ghost stories The Ring , The Grudge , Dark Water being remade here in the U.S."

MD: "The appeal in places like Thailand is they take them quite seriously. I think in one sense weve lost that a bit in the west, weve lost our connections to legends. So its interesting to see in places like Asia that they still have strong beliefs in ghosts and legends, and I think thats why were looking to Asian storylines to remake in the west because they are quite fascinating and they connect with our psyche."

BA: "Now after your festival screening, The Ghost of Mae Nak will be released as part of Tartans Asian Extreme DVD collection. How do you feel about that? Tartan seems to be doing a good job of branding this genre of films so that people know to come to them if they like that style of filmmaking."

MD: "It is wonderful that Tartan had bought the film. One of the good things that they have done is to focus on Asian horror and ghost stories. They specialize in that and in a way its better not to compete with big studios but to find a niche and pick films that have an impact. They do a good job releasing Asian horror. Im pleased that they picked The Ghost of Mae Nak because its like they have given it the Tartan seal of approval, and especially in the United Kingdom, people trust Tartan to have good Asian horror films."

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