Interview with Mattie Do on 'The Long Walk'

I’ve always had an obsession with horror, there is something fascinating about the genre that draws me in. Maybe it is something to do with the taboo concepts the genre often dabbles in, about grotesque figures and distorted mental states drawn and visualized, or about the unknown that lures and allure us human beings, both in our audience seats and on the silver screen. Horror movies are still pumping from the big American machine; adapted, remade, rebooted, made into sequels, prequels, spin-offs. Clearly, there is recognition of the demand, perhaps it is not just me, perhaps we all have an innate interest in the horrific, the twisted, the macabre moods and things, maybe we are all in search of a good scare or two. 

Great horror cinema pushes beyond superficial scares and frightening scenes. They force us to look at the dark potentials within ourselves and ask questions. Mattie Do’s The Long Walk was a surprise. The early beginnings of the film were never obvious about the horrific possibilities that would occur. An unnamed old man (played by Chansamone Inoudom) spends his days salvaging and selling old technologies, watched by the spirit of a woman. Though he may have a futuristic display embed somewhere in his forearm, it seems that the world has long left him and his village behind. Futuristic flying machines cut the air above, characters talk about the unseen technological marvels inserted into their flesh, they talk about a big futuristic city completely different from the rural boonies that director Mattie Do has decided to set her film in. We are years into the future, yet the village is still stuck years behind. 

Image result for the long walk mattie do

Still, this unnamed old man seems to feel somewhat at ease here, he is fine with living in the village, fine with his old house, fine with his outdated technologies. He seems a pleasant old man who likes his vape quite a bit, but eventually his unhealthy obsession with easing the pain of the living, with death; we are given privy to, he is not as harmless as he seems. Do’s story intertwines the past with present, present with past, concurrently telling the story of the old man’s present days and his youth. Of he, as a young boy (Played by Por Silatsa) discovering how fragile mortality is; struggling to come to terms with the inevitable death of his sickly mother, and discovering a dying woman turned spirit amongst the greens of the forest. It eventually becomes clear that the woman has been accompanying the boy till his old age in the present day. 

Image result for the long walk mattie do

The Long Walk is not an easy film to summarise. It’s mesh of genres is surely both peculiar and assured. Horror, fantasy, science fiction, drama; set in both present and past; where the humans feel more sinister than the ghosts featured. But one thing is for sure - it is great horror. 
Everything begins to spiral when the old man discovers that with the help of his ghostly companion, he is able to travel into his past and influence his childhood self’s decisions. A journey of no return begins. He would have to face the consequences of everything he has done thus far, and come face to face with the darkest possibilities of his humanity.

Director Mattie Do is a distinguished figure of Laos cinema and has been a regular patron of the horror genre; her 2016 film Dearest Sister, a critical success, and Lao's first ever entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. Her latest film, The Long Walk premiered at the 2019 Venice Film Festival under the 'Venice Days’ section. She has recently taken the time to answer a few questions about the production of the film. 

Sindie: What was the process of finding funding for the film like? Considering the unique mixture of genres, was The Long Walk a difficult pitch to potential backers? 

Mattie: We actually had difficulty finding the funding for The Long Walk initially, as it is a mix of genres and strongly arthouse. The pitch itself was difficult not necessarily for backers, but in general. It's quite difficult to encapsulate the story as a whole in a brief or summarized way! Imagine having only 5-10 minutes to pitch the film! We first pitched this film at SAFF in Singapore, where Aurora Media showed interest in the film and joined with us. Eventually, at Focus Asia in Udine, Aurora decided to take a majority producer role and bring on other partners to fund the film in its entirety. So while it was a while for us to find the funding, when it was time for the film to come together, the agreements all happened quite quickly!

Was there any pressure following up Dearest Sister after it's critical acclaim, and submission as Lao's first foreign-language film submission to the academy awards? 

I could feel a lot of pressure from both the audience expectation side as well as from within my own team to make a film that would meet or exceed Dearest Sister. Honestly, there were days I was quite depressed by this because the entire process of making this film in and of itself was very arduous and filled with unexpected challenges and disappointments. Because of those challenges, I really felt no expectations for where the film would go next. I was just happy that I got to make a unique film and somehow I survived and was so close to completing it. All I cared about was that it would get seen somewhere and have its own audience that loved it and appreciated it, otherwise, I just was so tired and exhausted and didn't want to think about the big festivals and the Academy. Imagine my surprise when I found out the film was accepted to Venice, Toronto, and Busan! As for the Academy, I hope that someday I will have the chance to submit again, but really that isn't up to me as submissions are by invitation from the Lao committee.

What attracted you to this story? How was the writing process for the film like? 

The film is a deeply personal story for me about the loss of my mother and my dog. But, it's also a story which I wanted to make to defy expectations of what the occidental world assumes is a Southeast Asian film, and what defines Southeast Asian film. I really get tired of going to various festivals and seeing what is categorized as "authentic" Southeast Asian and how that categorization doesn't leave room for much else. I had some random person comment that they thought Dearest Sister wasn't an authentic film because it didn't portray poor village people in rural Laos... well here you go. I made a film about people in an impoverished village in rural Laos, with time-traveling, ghosts, science fiction, and murder. Boom. Southeast Asia. 

The writing process was fun, but difficult as getting to the point where everything clicks into place through these slow releases of detail is extremely tough. Everything really has to work and come together in a film like this! One also has to have a lot of faith in the audience to stay with the film from the beginning all the way to the end to reap that reward. My husband is my writer, and when I threw this vague idea of him about an elderly man walking up and down the long, dirt road with his ghostly companion from the past... it all just spiraled into this eventually. It took a while though. There were many editions and drafts, and for my writer, he's the kind of person who overhauls each draft completely so that they're almost unrecognizable from the previous draft. In the end, everything actually came together to form this film that I feel so fortunate to have shot and finished somehow!

Did you face any difficulties or challenges during the shooting of the film? Were there any moments of spontaneity on the set that made it into the film? 

I like to joke that this entire film is an allegory for how difficult and challenging the shoot was. We actually even had a bit of a time loop. Five days into production, we parted ways with our director of photography over creative differences. It was problematic because he'd also brought the camera package, and the grip and electric. I had five days of footage that I didn't particul arly like, a dozen people from overseas in a local guesthouse, and I had my special effects makeup artist booked to arrive in three weeks for the most expensive shots of the film. Luckily, my producers were able to find and hire a new cinematographer, purchase a camera package (rentals are almost impossible here) and reconfigure the budget to let me reshoot those five days without adding to the budget. But it was tense. My new DP (Hey, Matthew Macar!) showed up three days before we started shooting, he'd just come off a commercial shoot and a trans-Pacific flight, and with like only basic prep we just jumped in. But I definitely think that added some spontaneity to everything, although more out of necessity than anything. The film had to go on, and it did! We started again on day one and just went for it!

During the scripting process, was it a particular challenge to strike a balance between the mythical elements (ghosts, time travel, etc) and the science fiction elements in the film? Was it a conscious and intentional choice to incorporate contrasting genres? 

I don't think it was a huge challenge. A major part of the commentary held within the film is that no matter how rapid development and technology changes may be, and how quickly they hit, there are certain things that remain unchanging not only about Laos as a country, but us and human nature regardless of place or time. The most intentional part of this was to start the film off without an identifiable timeline, and allow the audience to make the assumption that they were watching a period film that was set in the past or the very poor present, then defy that by introducing the futuristic elements. The reason why things are so rustic and entropic is to really instill that point, that we could have bodily augmentations, we could be rid of combustion engines, we could have prefab food in every corner of the world, but we still have deep regrets and we still suffer loss, and we still wish we could fix our mistakes and turn back time.

The Long Walk premiered at the 2019 Venice Film Festival under the 'Venice Days’ section and has been screened at the 2019 Busan Film Festival as well as the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival under the 'Contemporary World Cinema' section.

Interview by Timothy Ong

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