Set Diary: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, pt. 2
Photo from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Twitter
I was invited to follow the shoot of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria in order to collect material for an upcoming book to be published by Fireflies Press. This included writing a daily diary of the production, from which the following passages are excerpted exclusively in Film Comment, in serialized form with a new entry every afternoon for the next week. Read previous entries here.
Day 3—Wednesday, 21 August 2019
The production hit its first snag this afternoon. A lengthy conversation between Jessica and her brother-in-law Juan [Zama’s Daniel Giménez Cacho], which alternates between English and Spanish, can’t be completed today as planned. The actors are sitting at a table in an outdoor lunch area with students all around. The general commotion and the mix of extras and real students proves difficult to coordinate, causing constant distractions. As the first significant dialogue, the language dimension is still new territory for both Apichatpong and Tilda, neither of whom is fluent in Spanish (Jessica has a conversational command of the language). Despite shooting numerous takes, by end of day Apichatpong isn’t happy with any of them and space will have to be made for a reshoot later in the week.
Afterwards, Sompot and Apichatpong sit down with the script. They agree there was too much going on, too many different movements and superfluous bits of dialogue. At Sompot’s suggestion, Apichatpong cuts the whole first half of the scene. The expository information in the preceding dialogue, about Jessica being an orchid farmer, comes up again later anyway. His reason for including it early on, he says, had been to keep the story as simple as possible and avoid asking the viewer to “connect the dots,” an observation I can’t help but find amusing. He then simplifies a number of gestures, such as having the props already on the table instead of the actors placing them there, and within the space of a few minutes he’s happy with the new version of the scene.
This is a mode integral to Apichatpong’s method. He isn’t at all bound to his original intentions and will usually start from a more elaborate premise that he gradually distils to its essential elements. This approach, which in large part accounts for the directness of his cinema, isn’t limited to the script but extends all the way to the edit. Arguably, it applies most of all to the edit—he’s certainly not shy of killing his darlings. On Cemetery, he spent several days shooting the evisceration of a giant monster that looked like a composite of infected sexual organs only to excise it completely from the final cut.
Day 5—Friday, 23 August 2019
Apichatpong’s work with actors is characterized by an intriguing interplay between micromanagement and openness. He will frequently choreograph movements down to the second and his notes can be bewildering in their precision (a favorite is invoking percentages: “30 percent less dramatic. 15 percent funnier.”). At the same time, after a take he will regularly ask the actors, “How did that feel for you?” and take on their input.
In the scene currently underway, Jessica is eating at an Italian restaurant with Juan and Karen [her sister, played by Agnes Brekke]. Their meal is captured in a single shot that spans several minutes and pages of dialogue. After the first run-through, Daniel suggests fixing an unintended aloofness between the characters by having Juan offer Jessica a piece of his osso buco to try. Later, Tilda feels that the conversation’s eventual turn to Karen’s job is too abrupt, so the actors and Apichatpong brainstorm some additional lines to render it more organic. This piecemeal process continues until the last take, underlining the practical fallacy about auteurist views of filmmaking; by the end the scene has changed so considerably, one could legitimately credit the actors as its co-writers.
Once the day is wrapped, I go out for dinner with Apichatpong and Sompot in La Soledad, a residential neighborhood where the international crew have been set up in various apartments and Airbnbs. Describing the new experience of working with professional actors, Apichatpong says, “During the rehearsals before the shoot, the actors would often ask me background questions. I’ve never worked like that, so I just made up answers. Sometimes I got caught. Agnes asked me when Karen last saw Jessica. I told her it had been a year and she said, ‘But Jessica’s husband died six months ago, didn’t they meet at the funeral?’”
Tilda isn’t as interested in her character’s biography, but she’s involved in the construction of the individual shots in a way the others aren’t. When she arrives on set, she always asks to see the frame and then meticulously deconstructs her performance, discussing every gesture and line of dialogue with Apichatpong to understand the underlying motivation, on a formal as well as narrative level, and suggesting changes when she feels something is illogical or could be smoothened. An equivalent exchange didn’t exist with the actors in Thailand. I would have expected a measure of resistance on Apichatpong’s part but from what I’ve been able to observe he’s been uniformly receptive, enthusiastic even.
“It’s very interesting,” he says. “Because of this new way of working the film is becoming much more character-driven than I had anticipated.” Sompot adds that “in the previous films, when a character was just looking ahead, there was nothing else going on, whereas now there is so much going on inside.” Apichatpong agrees, “A flower was a flower.”
Day 9—Thursday, 29 August 2019
We’re shooting in Bogotá’s old town, on a small street lined with quaint hat shops. The catering is set up a short walk away in the Cuban Jazz Café, an underground nightclub that looks like something out of De Palma’s Scarface, all lacquered black wood and plush red upholstery. Pity it won’t serve as a location, it’s fantastically tacky. During lunch, a news bulletin plays on the TV hanging behind the bar. A Fidel Castro lookalike is reading out a printed statement while surrounded by a group of variously uniformed men and women, all carrying assault rifles. “They’re guerrillas from the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia],” says Andrés [López Guzman, the on-set editor]. “This morning they announced they’re going back to war because the government isn’t respecting the conditions of the peace treaty. Today is a very sad day.”