Whether shooting in the enspirited jungles of his native Thailand or the mystical rainforests of Colombia, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has a sleeping problem. His head keeps exploding. Imagine a cannon in your brain with a will of its own, an ever-ticking time bomb detonating at random inside your skull. It’s called Exploding Head Syndrome and, well, it keeps him up. How precious is the peaceability of stillness when the alternative is bone-rattling booms? The silver lining: he’s been busy.
The Palme d’Or-winning writer/director, known for still, ethereal, and inscrutable works like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Tropical Malady, is back with his ninth feature. Memoria marks his first film outside of Thailand, his first in Spanish and English, and his first working with a professional lead actor in Tilda Swinton. The longtime friends have been angling at a project together for over ten years, until Weerasethakul pitched the idea to give her Exploding Head Syndrome, too.
We follow Jessica––a Scottish botanist working in Bogota––from sound engineer to bone doctor to fish scaler and on as she desperately tries to find out what the noise in her head is. It’s a new step for Weerasethakul, but, as is typically the case in his work, the journey is patient, contemplative, unpredictable, and ultimately awe-inspiring, a breath of fresh air from Western sensibilities of cinema, a chance to learn anew what film can be.
Jessica’s winding path of interior, existential exploration is grounded in Weerasethakul’s singular style of minimalist storytelling and his impeccable sense of framing, every shot a rich composition considered to its fullest (some lasting as long as nine minutes). The making of the film was captured in granular detail by Giovanni Marchini Camia through the Memoria production journal published by Fireflies Press (heavily referenced below), which features photocopies of Weerasethakul’s research, pre-production journals, and shooting scripts.
Daily journal entries tell of the anti-method-acting Swinton squealing in delight over on set pig births in between takes. They detail the political and historical aspects lurking beneath the surface, some of the wild set pieces left out––like a dream sequence through a hole in Swinton’s head and a bursting sequence of floating geometric color––and the unparalleled sanctum of the filmmaking experience. As the film begins its city-by-city theatrical-only tour, we sat down with him to talk about it all.
The Film Stage: Memoria seems to be as much about feeling sound as it is hearing it.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I don’t know if you feel it. Because that’s the point, you know? That it’s a feeling, it’s not a sound, this bang that’s in my head. Of course there’s a sense of sound in there. But it’s internal. So: how to express this? It’s a starting point, or one of the starting points. It’s like in the scene in the mixing room, trying to express something. An attempt, but not successful, I think, in a way. But it allows Jessica to at least have something, to assure herself that maybe it sounds like that. It’s almost like you want to take something abstract, and to visualize or to make it concrete, and I think the film is about that too: the impossibility of that attempt.
There’s a line in a conversation in the book that reads: “the story has formed the basis of a character whose audience experience synchronizes with the country’s memory.” Why did you choose to address the country’s memory, and especially trauma, through this sensory syndrome?
Maybe because, at that time, I was also going through my own problem. Personal and also something that, you know, something about the country, Thailand. And the way to reach out to other places that share traumas of political problems. Maybe it’s a way to learn or to stop thinking too much about my own. And it was really impressive. I mean, Colombia, you know, the landscape. But I feel Colombia, with the huge mountains, is something that—like when I was first attracted to mountains in Thailand—triggers a lot of imagination or some thing. Language. Human history. The thing that’s buried there.
The historical and socio-political aspects are pretty buried within the narrative, to the point where some viewers might not pick up on them, I think. Is that something you’re concerned about at all?
No, I’m not. Because I know it will operate differently in different people. I think location is really important. At least, to me, if it speaks something or invokes a certain feeling, I’m in. You know? I’m just going to shoot that place. And it works in a really particular way in Colombia. I found out when we premiered the film in Bogota and other places. Because some of the shooting locations are just ten minutes away from the theater, for example. And some people cried afterwards because the film touched on their past feelings. You know, the feelings of anticipation, of this violence—a gunshot. Twenty years ago it could happen any time in the neighborhood. So I think it works in different ways.
Your frames are exquisite. The book depicts Tilda reflecting on frames regularly on set and people sort of always talking about frames. There are some instances where you find the frame on the day, it seems, but most shots seem storyboarded and locked in place ahead of time. Is that typically the case?
Yes, yes. We still operate on a low-budget level so I cannot afford to delay or to improvise that much, you know? But still, for that day, it’s going to be different. For the weather, for the sound. Everything’s affected. I always stress to the performers, or even to the crew, “Okay, just chill. Just be in that moment and listen to the place, or to your peers.” And I think Tilda also operates that way, reflecting on her movement in relation to the previous scene and next scene. It’s important to shoot chronologically so that we slowly keep track of this character. Even just a small gesture matters.
When you’re deciding on a frame, what kind of things are you looking for? Or what’s guiding you? Is it just a feeling?
[Laughs] Mostly feelings. And what’s happened to me before there, too. Because I always go to the different locations for each film, just to be there and to listen. And I always find something. It relates to memory or sometimes I just find interesting people or a story there, or have some idea just by being there. So the framing kind of lives like that memory.
I have a very specific question about a shot. There’s a conversation transcribed in the book where you, script supervisor Natalia Moguel, and 1st AD Boat Chidgasornpongse discuss piecing together the scene in the studio when she meets young Hernan. And in the conversation Boat suggests cutting together a couple shots and you say it’s impossible because it needs to be one shot. But the scene ended up being four shots—three different angles and then we cut back to one of them. Why did you go with that instead of the single angle?
Hmm. I don’t remember. But that’s a whole movie, too: how we shot it. I always want one shot [Laughs], but the others are backups just in case. Because when we put the sound design in, or when we put it with the previous shot, it’s always changing. It’s always like, “Okay, maybe one more shot.” Because maybe a single shot is too stiff, or… it’s hard to say. Sometimes the movie tells you. And it’s organic, you know? Everything about movement, about everything. [Hums understandingly, as if he just re-learned something]
Your connection with Tilda and the story of this film grew over ten-plus years. How did you meet? And what made you want to work with Tilda after working primarily with non-actors?
We wrote each other first. We actually don’t remember when we met. I know we met in London in a hotel that I stayed at for… I don’t know what kind of work. [Laughs] We don’t remember. But then this conversation continued through emails, through meetings in London, Thailand, the Maldives—different places where things kept developing.
How was it having Tilda on set?
I just feel like family. I don’t feel that I was working with a really famous actor or Hollywood or something. Because she’s always there and gives her total time. Not only to me, but also to the family. We lived together in that period and also played together, you know? Partying is also important. And Tilda is so hands on in that department. I just feel that it was a great trip. We work hard and play hard. It’s sometimes unspeakable because it’s not about story. It’s about certain movement through different scenes, and appearance is not much. But for us it’s really heavy work to try to find this Jessica. And every time I keep asking her, “How do you feel? How do you feel?” It’s so spontaneous and, at the same time, really physical.
The book describes several deleted scenes that would’ve been very noteworthy sequences, ones that could’ve changed things narratively or visually. You’re also known for killing your darlings in the editing room. Why do you shoot sequences and get rid of them like that?
Well, because I need to see that. I need to maybe shoot that to know that I don’t need them. But after a while I think those scenes that you mentioned contributed to the storyline, somewhat, and complexity of the film. But somehow it didn’t work, because the film told us—me and my editor—that it needs to be a very simple journey, and that you really need to focus on this walking and listening only instead of layering it with so many distractions, let’s say, from its own meditation. It’s quite hard, because they’re so beautiful visually. And really interesting, too. But they don’t belong to the whole journey, and I feel like the sense of anticipation, we lose it when we had those scenes.
There are several scenes with rich ecosystems of extras, some of whom are much closer to camera than the subjects. Like in the long dolly scene, or the sequence where the bus tire pops, or when they’re having lunch in the courtyard at the beginning. Those extras have to hold the duration of the shot with Tilda and the others. How do you go about directing that?
I didn’t, because it was so complicated for me! I needed to focus on Tilda and the actors. In the beginning I tried to, you know, like: “Hey, do this and that.” But then they say, “Oh no, it’s too much.” With the second AD, third AD, and then the crowd of people, they started to work and share with me before the shoot, “Okay, movement like this… what do you think?” So the credit has to go to those guys.
Sound design-wise, there’s a sleepy white noise, a low humming throughout the entire film. Why do you have that in there?
I appreciate this noise so much. Just being in a particular space and just aware of all the sounds happening, you know? I don’t need music in my life. You already have many things, and sometimes this noise, white noise, is the bridge. The layer, the best layer, where everything happens. So it’s really important. I remember we had the sound recorder that was not my sound recorder in Thailand. So this guy is really talented, but he has a different way of recording sound and noise. So it becomes very clean, very precise. And in Thailand my sound man has to record dirty: “dirty it up.” To put more noise in and to make it not perfect. And maybe that’s part of your question. Just to make it more organic and more like my ears operate maybe.
Memoria is going on tour eternally, only playing one city at a time, instead of being distributed to theaters, then coming to streaming or releasing on home video. Why did you decide on this distribution plan?
I think the film’s potential is with a lot of people in a big space, in a dark space. Because when we were testing the film for the sound in Thailand with five people, ten people, it worked okay. But when it was in Cannes, for example, with thousands of people, the film has big potential for this collective experience that we are so needing. I think for the film itself and also during COVID times. It just reflects something about the magic of cinema. And that’s why, you know, I hesitated when we submitted the film for festivals that had online features.
That’s a starting point with NEON, actually. Tom [Quinn] and his team understood that and really embraced that. Instead of working, normally, you know, this personal film that just opens in a few key cities. But if you tour it, it actually reaches more people. In its intended form. And the film has opened in many festivals already in the U.S. So to tour is the way to reach more people. You just need to be more patient. So in a way I think it’s about making the theater experience special in your own town.
Do you have a next project in the works?
I’m working on a VR project, a performance, for Japan—Japan and Germany, actually. And then one new film about sleep. And then other projects, but these are the two main projects.
Memoria is now playing at NYC’s IFC Center through January 1 and then stops in Chicago.