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Wednesday
Jun072017

POP AYE: THE KIRSTEN TAN INTERVIEW

2017 SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: The melancholy and deeply affecting tale of a middle-aged Thai man, an elephant and a pilgrimage to reconnect with childhood memories, Pop Aye has been the darling of the 2017 festival circuit. After a long gestation period in the script lab environment, the debut film from Singapore auteur Kirsten Tan has both wowed critics (earning the World Cinema Screenwriting Jury Prize at Sundance) and been adored by patrons (scoring the Big Screen audience-voted trophy at Rotterdam). “The notion of time passing, wherever you may go, is pretty universal,” says Tan, who spoke to SCREEN-SPACE from her New York home ahead of her film’s screenings at the 2017 Sydney Film Festival…

SCREEN-SPACE: How did the project’s passage through the ‘Festival Lab’ process – the Berlinale Talents initiative, the Torino Film Lab, Cannes Atelier, then Sundance – influence and impact the story you wanted to tell?

 TAN: The script changed a lot from the very first draft. The entire process took about two and a half years, during which we lost several characters. With the help of all these mentors and the ‘lab process’, the themes emerged. It was slow, chipping-away to clarify what I really wanted to say. And just before Torino, I went to Thailand for about three weeks, just to live with and research elephants, to study their movements and personalities so that I could write an elephant character with authenticity. I needed the elephant character to be as real as my human ones.

SCREEN-SPACE: Was the script locked down by the time you arrived in Thailand?

TAN: Once we got to Thailand for the shoot, it took about four months of preparation. I kept adjusting the script to make aspects more real; certain songs that I wanted, for example, were taken out because I learned that they were not appropriate. So many aspects of the script changed right up until we started filming, and then it evolved further as actors began improvising, which I wanted to incorporate as much as I could. (Pictured, right; Thaneth Warakulnukroh and 'Bong', in Pop Aye)

SCREEN-SPACE: Your cast of characters present such a rich cross-section of humankind…

TAN: I tried to paint a realistic story, which for me is one filled with pathos and humour, with beauty and brutality. I didn’t want to present a one-sided story, but rather one that offers a full spectrum of life experience.

SCREEN-SPACE: The casting of Thaneth Warakulnukroh in the leading role ensures a warm empathy is at the heart of your story. His performance is a subtle, sweet everyman figure…

TAN: In his younger days, he was this really edgy Thai rock star. It was insane; in his old photos, he literally looks like Mick Jagger (laughs). At the height of his fame, he just quit the music scene and disappeared. All these years later, I’m searching for a lead actor and my friend recommends him to me. Now he looks so gentle, so reserved. That juxtaposition of who he was and who he is intrigued me. I could see he was someone who had experienced the extreme highs and extreme lows of life. When I got him to audition before the camera, he proved a natural. Then he put on 10 kilos for the part, he was that committed. (Pictured, above; Thaneth Warakulnukroh and 'Bong', in Pop Aye)

SCREEN-SPACE: Does a location shoot in a place like Thailand influence the creative process?

TAN: We shot in what would become the hottest Thailand weather in four decades. Now, I don’t know if you’ve been to Thailand, but it’s already pretty hot (laughs). But that heat added something to the journey; if you see Thaneth in pain or discomfort, he’s probably not acting. The climate pushed us all to extremes, which must have influenced what we created. We actually charted his path from Bangkok to Loei, to study the kind of landscape and terrain he would pass. Then we shot around Loei, matching locations with what we had seen on our own journey. Most of the shoot took place only an hour or two away from the city centre.

SCREEN-SPACE: One of the film’s greatest assets is its refusal to anthropomorphise the elephant, to play for any kind of cuteness in it’s portrayal…

TAN: In their presence, you can’t not respect these animals. I just tried to bring some truthfulness to the depiction of Pop Aye. I didn’t want to milk the cuteness or the exotic aspects; I didn’t want to mould them into what I, or an audience, might want them to be. I just wanted to show him as he really is, because that is what is most beautiful about him. (Pictured, right; Tan, centre, with crew on location during the filming of Pop Aye)

SCREEN-SPACE: As Pop Aye, your elephant Bong pulls off one of the most evocative close-ups in recent memory…

TAN: We shot that using a crane, to give us the slightest elevation, and there was some slight movement on his part that captures such emotion. Actually, just out of frame, we were filling his mouth with bananas just to keep his head still (laughs). We were finally able to cut the sequence so that, yes, it is imbued with a great deal of meaning.

SCREEN-SPACE: Why is this little Thai film playing so well internationally? What about it is so appealing to audiences from Rotterdam to Sundance to Sydney?

TAN: It was important that the film spoke to a larger humanity. To me, the film is about time and its inevitable passing. This notion of inevitability, of the passage of time, is really universal. As is the bleak humour in one’s existence, which I tried to capture. I was born in Asia but have spent most of adult life in America, in New York, and I do see people on both continents employ humour to cope with life’s tragedies.

POP AYE screens June 16, 17 and 18 at the Sydney Film Festival. Full session and ticket information can be found at the event’s official website.

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