Mark Duffield Interview
Brit Mark Duffield is the writer and director of Ghost of Mae Nak, a Thai language film which is a re-telling of a popular Thai myth. It’s released in the UK by Tartan on the 29th January.
Rosie Fletcher: First and most obviously: Why does a British director choose to make his debut feature in a foreign country and a foreign language?
Mark Duffield: I first went to Thailand to work as a Cinematographer on the British Feature film Butterfly Man. While I was there, I followed my passion in horror films and watched many Thai ghost stories and horror films. I also heard about a shrine that is devoted to a Thai ghost called Mae Nak (Mother Nak) , and when I visited the shrine I was surprised to see hundreds of Thai people pay their respects and make offering to the Ghost of Mae Nak. I researched the legend of the ghost and saw the potential for a contemporary ghost story. I have been trying to make a British horror for sometime, but getting interest in the UK to make a ‘commercial-multiplex-horror’ movie is very difficult. I wrote the Ghost of Mae Nak script in English and had it expertly translated into Thai. I knew I had written an exciting project that was a unique take on the Mae Nak Ghost legend. When I showed it to Thai investors, the response was amazing and there was a mini ‘bidding war’ for the project. A lot of the Thai’s were surprised to discover I was British, but this was also was a bonus as they were keen to work with a Western filmmaker who would direct a Thai film with ‘Western’ feel. And within a short time, the film was funded with a Thai distribution deal in place before I had filmed anything. So maybe Thailand ‘chose’ me?
RF: What appealed to you particularly about the Mae Nak myth?
MD: I believe the Mak Nak myth has a sense of being real. It was amazing to see how many Thai people believe in her and fear and respect her. I was also drawn to the tragic love story, which for me is a universal theme. And as a horror writer/director I saw the potential of Mak Nak’s ‘horror’ that she inflicts on those who wrong her.
RF: There are British tales involving dead lovers returning from the grave (stories like Wuthering Heights instantly spring to mind). What was the appeal of making a film about a myth from a culture that isn’t your own?
MD: What I like about making a film about Mae Nak and the different culture her myth is set in, was that it was easier to believe in and there is a wealth of images that are new to the Western eye. There are many Mae Nak stories and anecdotes that made her presence strong and fit with Thailand’s past and present day. The theme of returning ‘dead lovers’ (great title for a film?) is universal, timeless and truly haunting.
RF: How much of the story in your film is taken from the myth and how much is your own elaboration/invention?
MD: I believe I have been truthful to the Mae Nak myth, but by obviously exploring a 100-year old legend into feature film length, there are many details or ghostly incidents I have not shown. However the key part of her legend that I explore is the piece of bone cut from her skull that contains her spirit and was lost in time. This was the conclusion of Thailand’s most successful Mak Nak period film Nang Nank (1999), directed by Nonzi Nimiburt, that concluded with the missing bone. My story continues from that premise a hundred years later.
RF: Did you find any particular obstacles arising from the fact that this myth isn’t part of your heritage, but is, as I understand, a strong part of the Thai heritage?
MD: The legend of Mae Nak is huge in Thailand, like Dracula or Jack the Ripper is to the West. So it was a big responsibility to treat the myth with respect. The test came when the script was shown to Thai people who gave me a very positive response and then finally when the film was released. I knew I wanted to make a serious film and also treat the Ghost of Mae Nak with reverence.
RF: How has the film been received in Thailand?
MD: The film was released all over Thailand and went to number 3 in the Thai box-office. There was a big Thai Media attendance at the premiere in Bangkok. The distribution company actually built a Mae Nak shrine outside the cinema on the pavement. They had an official Buddhist consecration ceremony with Monks and the cast attending that was headline news on Thai TV. This was to pay respects to Mae Nak and bring good luck to the film. People took the shrine very seriously and would even pray in front of it. The film was shown in cinemas in Singapore, Malaysia and Korea and had sold well Internationally including Tartan for USA and UK DVD distribution. It has been selected for several international festivals like Egypt, India, Bermuda, England and San Francisco where it was screened at the excellent Another Hole in the Head Horror Festival last July. In the UK it was shown at Bradford, Cambridge and London Film Festivals respectively. It was recently shown in London at the Frightfest Festival to a large genre based audience. And it was selected for the San Diego Asian Film Festival and New York Horror Film Festivals. Critically the film has reviewed well in the US from Variety, Film Threat and many US horror websites. Asian Cult Cinema Magazine gave it a cover story. The German distribution company NIXBU who produced an excellent DVD product for the German market expertly dubbed Ghost of Mae Nak in to German language. The reaction has been very good and the feedback I get from people is they enjoy the characters dark journey with the Mae Nak legend and the gory moments, especially the “shocking” gory sheet-glass splitting moment that everyone talks about after the film.
RF: Mae Nak has some fairly imaginative and shocking death scenes, which reminded me slightly of The Omen and of the Final Destination films.
MD: The Omen (1976) and Final Destination were key in influencing the death scenes in my film. But this was also truthful to the Mae Nak myth in which people who wronged her would die a mysterious or gruesome death.
RF: How do you feel about Asian horror over the last ten years? Are you a fan?
MD: It was great to discover Asian Horror films. They gave and still do give an original take of ghost stories and horror. Watching them through Western eyes can be an advantage because the characters, situations and ghostly myths are credible and easier to believe in.
RF: In the last ten years we’ve seen a fair few pale-faced, lank-haired, vengeful, female ghosts (in Ringu, The Grudge, Dark Water, etc.). How is your female spirit different?
MD: I wanted to be truthful to the Mae Nak myth and truthful to the Thai culture. So the image of a Thai ghost with long black hair is truthful to the ‘look’ of traditional Thai women. Also my film is about a ghost who has lost her spirit, which is why I gave her a pale forlorn look that would transform into a screaming face of death. However the conclusion reveals the true face of Mae Nak.
RF: It seems to me that the coupling of the Asian iconography of Mae Nak’s ghost with the graphic and stylish gore scenes give the film a bit of an “East meets West” feel, in horror terms. Was this your intention, or was it more a bi-product of the fact that you’re a British director tackling a Thai myth?
MD: That’s a very accurate observation. I was very keen to write a Thai ghost story that had a Western feel. I wanted to make a serious ghost story that was well paced and tightly edited. But also the film is a product of my experience and voice as a film director. When I direct a movie in the USA I’m sure I will bring my European/British influences to it.
RF: The central couple in Mae Nak seemed quite old-fashioned in many ways — particularly their relationship. Was this a deliberate move to link them to the ancient legend, or to ground the story specifically in Thailand, or was it purely a decision based on who you wanted the characters to be?
MD: The central couple’s relationship is very truthful to the young present day Thai people. I also wanted to make a contemporary fairytale so the ‘old-fashioned’ relationship worked well. I also wanted a strong link to the original Mae Nak, for it is this young modern couple that she has a connection with — is it because they share the same names, live in the same area, or even have the same true love that Mae Nak once had? What I like about the modern couple is that they go on a journey of discovery. (Spoiler alert!) The nightmare dreams that Mak has in the beginning is finally shared at the end.
RF: There’s a Thai film, P, directed by an Englishman (Paul Spurrier) that was shown in various festivals about two years ago. Spurrier talked of problems with showing the film in Thailand because it includes a number of scenes based in Thai strip clubs. Was there much intervention from your backers about the content of the film?
MD: I had no such problem at all with my script from any Thai people. They actually thought I was Thai because I had captured a truthful and positive image of contemporary Thai life. Ghost of Mae Nak had no censorship or negative criticisms from Thailand. It’s very easy for Westerners to go to Thailand and exploit the subculture for personal commercial gains but this is not my thinking.
RF: Incidentally, the press notes for P also claim it’s the first Thai language film to be written and directed by a Westerner — for clarity, do you know which of the two films was actually first?
MD: I would claim that Ghost of Mae Nak is the first ever Thai language film written, directed and photographed by a Westerner, financed by Thai Production companies and had a Thai distribution deal before the film was even shot, as well as a Gala Premiere and general cinema release across Thailand, and acknowledged by the Thai film board — and now available on Thai DVD titled Nak and that IS a true first. But to be fair the first Westerner to ever direct a Thai movie was an American Henry A. MacRae who made a silent movie in 1923 called Nangsao Suwan (Miss Suwan), which is also regarded as the first feature length Thai film.
RF: Can you tell me about any upcoming projects you have planned as a director?
MD: Yes. I am writing a new horror script. It is Vampire story that I feel is genuinely unique — I can’t wait to direct it. It’s still early days so anyone from Pathe, NewLine or Lionsgate reading? Give me a call!
Finally I would like to thank HorrorTalk for showing interest in the Ghost of Mae Nak and myself as writer and director. I would like to thank the fans of Ghost of Mae Nak. I appreciate your support. And for those who have not seen it, then I hope you will give the Ghost a chance and allow yourself to be taken on a ghostly thrill in Bangkok Thailand and discover a true Thai legend.
Ghost of Mae Nak will be released on DVD with my director’s commentary, my video diary and extras on the Tartan UK Asian Extreme label on 29th January. I hope those who have seen it will want to learn more about the making, and those who have not seen it will discover a new horror legend of the Ghost of Mae Nak.
Mark Duffield – Writer / Director Ghost of Mae Nak – January 2007
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