I’m writing this on the eve of sending Shakespeare Must Die to the censors, in an atmosphere of escalating and irreconcilable socio-political conflict under the Yingluck Shinawatra government, less than three months after the great flood of 2011 which for an anxious while held our film hostage at the stranded compound of Technicolor near the old airport.
Thailand is in the worst mood in my living memory; the very dust in the air is filled with rage, hate, grief and helplessness. The inevitable questions from the censors, and others, will be: Are you not afraid that this film will contribute to the existing divisiveness? Are you biased against the red shirts? Aren’t you scared that the red shirts will kill you? Is the film an attack on the Shinawatra family? Is this film an attack on the royal family? (Given the current plague of lese majeste cases, let me confirm right here that every syllable in that scene is straight from Shakespeare; it’s a discussion of the Divine Right of Kings, ie they’re only divine if they behave, and it’s essentially about rulers and leaders of men, not only kings.) Is this film dredging up old and new wounds unnecessarily? Why does Khunying Mekhdeth (Lady Macbeth) call on evil spirits to possess her while praying before a Buddha statue? Etc.
Our cast and crew motto was: Fight Fear with Art; Make Art with Love. It’s not an easy one to live by but very inspiring. I printed it on our t-shirt; I stuck it next to the studio door (at Bangkok University’s School of Broadcasting, now alas damaged by the floods) for everyone to work by, alongside some lines from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ which are supposed to ward off the dreaded Macbeth Curse, to keep the actors happy. We needed a brave set motto, since in the making of the film we faced literal hell fire (red shirt occupation and riots in 2010 which closed down the filming for two weeks, made it a hassle for everyone to get to work, especially Lady Macduff who was daily and nightly harassed by red shirt guards so that she had to move, and once on 28th April stranded us in Rangsit when the highway back to Bangkok was cut off when violence broke out and a soldier was shot dead by a sniper) and literal high water (postproduction interrupted by the flood of 2011).
Everything that we feared went into it—everything that we were hearing and fearing and seeing and sucking up from the world around us, all that oozed from us through every pore. All well and good, since we were making a horror movie. Sometimes it totally changed my vision for a scene, as with the witches’ last scene: they’re watching Mekhdeth’s victory on TV and they’re supposed to be gleeful. But we were shooting it the day after the highway was cut off, and our poor witches could not muster up any glee. They felt sad. I did manage to get a gleeful take, but it just wasn’t truthful. So we’ve ended up with sad, discomfited witches, ashamed of what they have unleashed upon the world. In this way the film was shaped by the dark angels attendant upon its birth.
The sound design for the prison scene also came from that day. As a woman announcer repeatedly told everyone to stay on campus and “do not attempt to reach Bangkok”, an armada of helicopters whirred over head, their heart-stopping chop chop chop sustained and cushioned by heavy grey clouds hanging so low, we could not see but only hear them.
Why is this not enough? Why does art have to be Balanced and Fair? (In this orgy of spin, self-censorship and terror, how Balanced and Fair, let alone truthful or even factual, are the news media, both print and TV? Instead of demanding accuracy from a low-budget horror movie, why don’t you pose such questions to Newsweek, which has just named Yingluck as one of “150 Women Who Shake the World” alongside Aung San Suu Kyi and Hilary Clinton, praising her as one whose election “inspired hope of reconciliation in a country torn apart by two years of violent political protests. She got started right away: just one month before Yingluck took office, Thailand was besieged by floods and quick-thinking Shinawatra immediately set up relief operations and long-term prevention measures.” Er, no, you can’t use my spittoon.)
This film is our nightmare. This is our vision of horror. It’s a horror movie, for God’s sake. It’s meant to be about what scares us. It’s not a news report or even a documentary. It’s not telling you anything; it’s just meant to be experienced. We take the poison from the zeitgeist and weave it into a tapestry of mesmerising images designed for the express purpose of giving pleasure to you. Surely, horror movies can achieve their function of exorcising our demons and bringing catharsis only when they do not shy away from the poison of their native soil but plunge their roots right in, deeply and gleefully.
As a low budget filmmaker with a journalism background, I also couldn’t resist going out to shoot stock footage of the red shirt destruction, especially the burned down Siam Theatre, with its tragedy and comedy twin masks which survived the fire intact (along with a perky Jennifer Aniston poster). A low budget director must seize every opportunity to add production values. There was no way I could’ve afforded such epic images on my own steam. It was cool and it was free! The lord had provided and I could not refuse. The greenscreen behind the witches in that scene originally was going to be a repeat of the Niagara of Blood (another seized opportunity from a free trip to Toronto with Citizen Juling, my previous film) but, since we had the footage, the burned out carcasses of Central World and Siam Theatre were obviously going to win that contest.
In regards to the much older wound dredged up by our referencing of AP photographer Neal Ulevich’s iconic picture of the lynching in front of the Grand Palace, I’m going to throw the question back to you: is it unnecessary to recall October 6, 1976? You tell me. That was also ostensibly ignited by a protest play. Note that our lynching scene’s focus is on the spectators rather than the corpse and the man with the metal chair. Our concern is with the so-called ordinary people, including children, who are laughing and cheering.
This particular photo burned itself onto my stupid teenaged soul in 1976 and has become a life-long obsession. Since then many Thais have been haunted by the fear of being butchered by fanatical royalist thugs and village scouts, and the knowledge that, incited by the right sort of propagandist spin, ordinary Thai people can become killers and this country can turn into Rwanda 1994 in the blink of an eye. Instead of crazed royalists, however, now we have other violent, unreasoning, fanatical morons to be scared of, courtesy of the alchemical spin of the Thaksin machine.
Whether they’re on the so-called right or the so-called left is not the issue; we’re scared of them all because such people make life insane and peace impossible. That photograph is a nightmare vision that unfortunately is no dream. As with Germany and the Nazis, we need to show it to our children; we need to remember it always, not to perpetuate the bitterness, but to remember not to go back there again.
As for our excessive use of the colour red, let me quote the first two sentences in the introduction to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s edition of Macbeth: “Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest, quickest tragedy. Its colours are black and red.”
This is such an obvious thing about ‘the Scottish Play’ that we had already decided on that palette (black for night, red for blood and gold for power), along with a joyously Baroque indulgence in our beloved gory artist Caravaggio for lighting and design, even before we read those words. The lynching men in red headband are wearing a well-known Thai folk opera (Likay) uniform: red head scarf is Thai theatrical shorthand for Executioner, for the simple reason that Thai executioners used to wear this for the job of beheading people. In the film, killers in the world of the theatre in earlier scenes, including Death, also wear red headbands (or hood). In another, real world scene, a different kind of uniform is used for Lady Macduff’s killers, namely synthetic grey, black or dark blue safari suits—contemporary Thai shorthand for henchmen, usually worn by politicians’ drivers and security guards, for instance.
Even without this specific cultural heritage, red is the universal colour for violence. It takes years to get a film made. Why should Thaksin have a monopoly on the colour red as well as on everything else? In the making of my Shakespearean horror movie, I refuse to play by Thaksin’s scriptwriter’s rules. You may prefer to obey those rules; that is your choice and none of my business. (You could even profit from it—latest local filmmakers’ gossip has Thaksin shopping for a director to helm an epic about his life. That would obviously not be a low-budget movie.) If that makes me politically incorrect and gives me a hard time trying to get ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ out into the world, then so be it.
19 March 2012,