Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 08/15/2007
Lost in Translation
Michael R. Morris on Last Seen at Angkor
For the most part, I've not talked with people involved in the movie industry. Well, not with the intent of making their film work the primary subject of our discussions. However, I've recently decided that it was time to further expand the reach of "Baker's Dozen" into other areas of the entertainment industry. Which is only fitting, as this was something I'd always intended to do with this venue, and in light of the current, rapidly growing interpenetration of the two industries. And, to be entirely honest, this decision was further prompted by the arrival of a review copy of a recently-released indy film by Michael Morris called Last Seen at Angkor.
Essentially, Last Seen at Angkor is a thriller with some pretty dark undertones that details one man's obsession with discovering the facts behind his fiancée's mysterious disappearance several years prior to the events depicted in the film. This particular hero's journey is one filled with smart and stinging observations on class, the colonial attitude of tourists, and other discomforting observations. Ultimately, it's about what one man would do to uncover even the most disturbing truths--and the toll that his strange and terrible trip exacts from him.
I've never had the pleasure of meeting or speaking with Michael Morris in person. [We conducted the following interview via email.] But, after seeing the latest release bearing his name, I really would like to have a chance to sit down and speak with him at length about his craft and experiences, both before and behind the camera. And I suspect that many of you will have the same impulse after seeing Last Seen at Angkor, too.
Bill Baker: For those who haven't heard of it yet, how would you describe Last Seen at Angkor?
Michael Morris: Angkor is a low-budget indie movie shot in Southeast Asia about an American traveler searching for his kidnapped fiancée. The marketing people call it a "tweener" because it's both a dramatic thriller and an "indie" with a capital "I." The concept is more "thriller," but the mood and pacing is more "indie." It's just the way the movie came together.
BB: When did you first come up with the basic idea for Angkor, and what are some of the various notions and impulses that informed or influenced it?
MM: The idea first came a year or two after my friend Thomas and I met by sheer happenstance at the Shaolin Temple in Song Shan, China, and had kept in touch for several years wanting to make a film together. A love for travel and a combined interest in filmmaking brought us to Bangkok with the intention of shooting our by-land journey to Cambodia, kind of like a disturbed and melancholy 'Easy Rider.'
BB: So how much did the story change from your original concept to the finished script; how long, difficult and involved was that development process; and what were some of the various factors that lead to those changes?
MM: I'm glad you ask this. The story was originally intended to be a short film, anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes long. I wrote a 25-page script and that's what we took to Thailand where we began shooting.
Needless to say, it ballooned during the shooting, and that was simply because of the richness of the region, and people and places we encountered along the journey. And by the way, I had never been to SE Asia before either. I wrote the initial script based on my experiences in Indonesia, China and Peru. But when we were right there in Thailand, Laos or Cambodia, we just altered the given scene based on what we were looking at. We even wrote extra stuff on the fly just to accommodate something strange or beautiful.
BB: I got the impression from some of the outtakes that there was a certain amount of "on camera rewriting" which occurred during filming. If true, was the screenplay designed with some improvisation in mind, or was it more a case of finding new and perhaps better words and ways of making scenes work once you had them on their feet, so to speak?
MM: No question you're on to something here. Angkor was almost entirely improvised while we were shooting and then editing. We would have been happy if we came home with a 30-minute movie, but what happened was the first cut was 48 minutes long. That put us in the position of: "Well, either we cut it in half or we shoot more?" We decided on the latter.
Some people may not like this because the story doesn't adhere to the traditional Hollywood three-act structure we as audiences are used to. Our film turned out more moody and contemplative with the occasional plot turn or twist. But you have to give us credit for accomplishing the film under these seat-of-your-pants circumstances. I recommend watching it with the commentary track to hear Thomas and me talk about how the film was put together on a scene-to-scene basis.
BB: How difficult was it to get the project into production, and what kind of trials and tribulations did that process entail?
MM: Well I can say this much: there wasn't much of a development or pre-production process. If we had more money, somebody would have made us plan everything out more. One of my filmmaker friends insisted I should hold off the shoot and come back next year in order to plan it out more, bring a bigger crew, etc. But since the story was based on two guys with their backpacks riding public transportation across this rugged region, we thought, how can you plan this in advance?
That was the spirit of making this movie.
BB: How about the actual filming--was it a fairly easy shoot, or were there some hurdles and obstacles you had to surmount or circumnavigate. For instance, how the hell did you actually manage to do the scene at the Angkor temples while their grounds were basically empty?
MM: Thomas and I met at the Bangkok airport. He brought his DV camera, a bunch of tapes, and one lavalier microphone with a twenty-foot cable. At a local shopping mall, we bought an $8 mini-tripod to strap on our backpack. That was it. Quite often, we would just set up the camera on the mini-tripod, set our marks, press record and do a scene with nobody behind the camera. Of course we kept an eye out so that nobody ran off with it. Later on in the shoot we had more support, mainly Roy Low and the other occasional contributor we met along the way.
Now when it came down to it, most everything we shot was in the middle of a crowd or bustling street scene.
That's what Hollywood would have to spend millions of dollars to re-create. We just captured the setting as it really is. And the amazing thing is, people didn't bother us. There's this incredible scene in the vegetable market that is one long take of Thomas and me talking. Hardly anybody looked at the camera or ruined the take in any way. The locals just took it in stride. Not to say they didn't gather around when we were shooting the chase sequence, running madly through the back streets of Siem Reap.
As far as the temple being empty, that wasn't a hindrance. My character is undergoing isolation and alienation so it works. And though there were other tourists milling around, there are so many alcoves and courtyards that we could sneak off to and shoot. But Roy Low did have to sweet-talk a security guard out of extorting us for money.
BB: Besides writing the script, you both directed and played the lead in the film. Was it ever difficult to do both of these simultaneously, or did it just seem natural to you?
MM: I don't recommend acting in your own film when there's hardly a crew. It is extremely hard to focus on your performance when you're thinking about, oh, I don't know, a pedestrian walking into the shot or evaluating other actors' performances or cutting a take because a noisy truck is driving by. I was fairly miserable a lot of the time, because my brain was about to explode with various anxieties and concerns. It's when I look back I can say: "That was pretty cool."
I think my acting's okay in it. I cut out the bad parts, but there are still some iffy moments in it for me. My official reason for acting in the film is that it was cheaper not to have to fly another American guy out to Asia. The unofficial reason is that I do it out of habit. I did it in most of my other films. But I took a break from that in the horror film I recently directed.
BB: What qualities of the other actors involved made them the right people for those particular roles?
MM: I'll admit that we used qualities of the real people to incorporate into the characters. That way we didn't have to make up too much. Since we were improvising most of the time, it's better to use what comes naturally, rather than be saying all the time, "Now wait a minute. Was I born in Nebraska or Arizona?" For example, my character is from L.A. because I'm from L.A. Thomas's character is from Singapore because that's where Thomas is from. It takes away some of the artifice that will often trip you up later in a shoot like this.
There was an Australian guy we met in Laos who was willing to be in a short scene (Locky Cooper, the tourist asking for directions). Originally we had planned for an annoying American or a loud German to be in the scene, but those actors flaked. So we just incorporated his real personality into the scene.
BB: Were there any unexpected surprises, or discoveries, that doing this film presented to you?
MM: There's the 48-minute conundrum. My wife and I had just watched Open Water and admired how the filmmakers strung it together. It was then that I figured out a way to expand the 48-minute cut into a feature (minimum: 80 minutes). One thing the film lacked thus far were night scenes (due to a lack of lighting equipment on location and so on). So I pooled my resources together in L.A. and basically shot most of the night scenes you see in the film in L.A. The key in that was casting people who matched the original location. One of the luckiest finds was an actress we call "Toon" who played the Thai prostitute ("Hello, mister, come inside.") It turned out she was fresh from Thailand, spoke flawless Thai and had a sexy allure to boot. That was luck. The other actresses, Tessa Sugay and Day Nguyen, also live in L.A.
Another fun-fact is that the scenes with Day (playing "Popo") were shot in Chinatown in downtown L.A. but were made to look like they are in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
BB: So, what's next for you? What might you be working up or currently working on that you can tell us about?
MM: I just finished shooting a horror feature that I wrote and directed for the same company that released Angkor (Lifesize Entertainment) called Fear House. It's about a curse on a house where anyone who enters it will be killed by their own worst fear if they try to leave. Although I am open to most any genre, my personal stamp on everything I do is in dealing with the psychological. What makes Fear House interesting to me is that it's not just about the physical danger, but also about the danger that's housed in your own mind.
BB: What do you get, be it personally or professionally, from writing? How about from acting, and directing? And do those different roles each fulfill the same need for you, or do they seem to feed different hungers, so to speak?
MM: If I was forced to choose between the three, I would choose writing. Because, hey, it's the most autonomous job and there's nothing like creating a world from a blank space. Next would be directing, then acting.
What I get from writing is "righting." That is, balancing the imbalances in the world or in my mind. Every writer must have issues they need to work out and that's why they call it the "writer's journey." Everything I discover in a project is probably something I'm discovering in real life at that time.
Directing is a totally different animal. If I'm directing something I've written, it's strange to have to interpret "what that guy was thinking," even if it was me a few months ago or last year.
Acting is something I believe I have a talent for doing when merely winging it. Ever since a discouraging experience in the Lee Strasberg studio at NYU, I was turned off of the "seriousness" of acting. If I concentrate on it too much, I begin to lose my ability to see outside myself, which is necessary for my writing and directing. Now I only do it when someone asks me or when it comes in handy.
BB: How about your audiences? What do you hope viewers get from Last Seen at Angkor? Is it all about pure entertainment, or might you also be hoping that they get something more from the film?
MM: I have a bit of black sheep relationship with audiences. Sometimes I please, sometimes I don't.
But if I tried too hard to please, things would probably get worse. My favorite role models are people who just did what they enjoyed and felt lucky when it was well received. In short, the audience I try to please is myself.
The anticipated reception for Angkor is a tricky subject for me. On one hand, I want audiences to be drawn in by the story concept and the exotic locale. On the other, I am less concerned about giving them exactly what they expect. All I can ask is that people open their minds to the experience of what the film brings, rather than be impatient for entertainment. That's what traveling (and the spirit of the movie) is about: if you're the kind of person who goes to Club Med or 5-star hotels when you travel, then you should probably go see a Nicolas Cage action movie. But if you're the kind that will strap on a backpack and head into the unknown jungle, then you'll appreciate the elations and frustrations of this journey.
BB: Anything else you'd like to add before I let you get back to work?
MM: Thanks, Bill, for this opportunity to talk about Last Seen at Angkor. You can buy it online at Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, Buy.com and others, or rent it at Netflix.com or blockbuster.com. You can watch the trailer at angkormovie.com (or lastseenatangkor.com) just to get a taste of what we've been talking about. The DVD extras include my NYU thesis film, plenty of outtakes and deleted scenes, and the commentary not only for the movie, but for the outtakes as well. Again, how the film was made is as interesting as the film itself.
I also wrote a novel called The Legend of Smollet's Cirque du Grand Coup which is available electronically at LiteraryRoad.com (or go to www.michaelrmorris.net).
Keep an eye out for Fear House next year.
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