Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is an impenetrable interviewee, shrugging off my most premeditated questions. I get it, how many ways can you talk about your creative process or the equipment you rented for a film? When I asked him what lights he used on Memoria, he named an Arri Skypanel and left the rest, “the usual,” to my imagination. As I learned from our talk on Suspiria, which he dialed into from his friend’s unruly wedding party via Skype, Sayombhu prefers flexibility, creating lighting environments that are open to how the director and actors react to them, each other, and the material. Listening as a DP—“That’s the point,” as he’d say, more than tools, intentions, and whether the chicken came before the egg (“Did they always plan to shoot so and so this way? Or did they discover it on the day?” etc.).
Our second talk occurred, again, at midnight in New York and morning in Krabi, Thailand, where he chilled outside his office, his camera pointed up toward his chin and swaying palm trees overhead. Despite my efforts, he remained as elusive as ever. He talked about how he and his longtime collaborator, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, read between the lines of the Memoria script to recreate it in the real world. In that same way, one has to read between the lines of Sayombhu’s words to see their fuller picture.
In Memoria, Jessica (Tilda Swinton) struggles for the words to describe the sound that haunts her sleep and days. Forced to articulate it, she does so as a giant concrete ball crashing into a metallic well, then tries to narrow the sound down to its source. Although this is by far the largest film Weerasethakul & Mukdeeprom have shot together, Memoria feels as delicate as their most inexpensive works. It’s also the first time they’ve worked together outside of Thailand, placing Jessica in Colombia as an outsider. Sayombhu confirms that, despite these glaring differences, his collaboration with Weerasethakul and his philosophy as a DP steadfastly remains.
Filmmaker: What was it like to work without your typical crew in Colombia?
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom: There were no difficulties because Columbia has a really strong society of filmmakers. My crewmates, which I call my friends, tell me that Columbia is improving the environment of their film industry. They have new laws that set up the fundamental elements of the film industry—like education. They have been doing that for more than ten years already.
My gaffer is Colombian. He did a really great film about Colombia. I’m sorry, I have a short memory, I cannot remember the name, but it’s a very good one. I’m so sorry about that. [laughs] Something in the jungle, very beautiful. It’s a new one, very famous.
Filmmaker: Do you have a special interview process when you’re hiring a crew?
Mukdeeprom: No, I just say, “Bring me whoever.” Then I talk with them. Diana [Bustamente], she’s a producer on the film, she brought me several guys and that was it. She screened the people before they came to me, so there was no question about whether or not they could do the work. It was only a question of, “can we get along?”
Mukdeeprom: A little bit, yeah. Not in terms of the story itself, like I used to do with him in Thailand. I went to Colombia once, like two or three months before the actual shooting started, to absorb the environment and atmosphere with Apichatpong. At that time, he was not really settled into what he wanted to do. But it was about 90% there.
Filmmaker: I heard the tunnel was a particularly difficult location to work in.
Mukdeeprom: The tunnel was totally amazing. You enter another world. They were working on it when we came to shoot it, so we had to prepare everything, even when and how to get into it, because it’s a closed environment. It’s another world, I don’t know what to say. A very real world.
Filmmaker: Did working with a larger budget with Apichatpong affect your intimate collaboration?
Mukdeeprom: I don’t think so, I had the same feeling. We had the same vibe, same vibration that we usually do. But we don’t have a lot of extras here. I know it seems like a lot of extras for Apichatpong, but actually, they’re real people. We just put our actor into that real environment and filmed it. So the vibe’s pretty much the same, we keep the crew small, and that’s it.
Filmmaker: Actually, if we can move backwards, I’m curious to know if you went to film school. Did you always want to get into film?
Mukdeeprom: I graduated from Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and majored in film. Then I went to Russia. After I finished University, I went to work for ten years before I went to Russia. I wanted to see something else. This was just before 2000. Russia was in its lowest situation, and it was very interesting for me to be there during that time. Wow — you see real people struggling for everything.
But I didn’t finish school in Russia, I just went there for a year, and because I couldn’t find work or anything, I had to ask my father for money. After that, I never wanted to take money from my father again. So I came back.
Filmmaker: Did you work in the camera department or what were you doing?
Mukdeeprom: I did everything. I started as an assistant camera, the video village guy, the second AD, first AD… Then I jumped to scriptwriting, post-production, during the ten years before I went to Russia. I did every technical aspect of filmmaking. The visual departments, not audio.
Filmmaker: Was cinematography the goal?
Mukdeeprom: Not really. I’m not only thinking about cinematography. I was just thinking about making films. I decided I’d focus on becoming a cinematographer after I came back from Russia. When I went to Russia, I thought, shit, I want to be a director. And then, I have to say, Vadim Yusov, the cameraman of Andrei Tarkovsky, inspired me. In Russia, they have Muzey Kino and have preserved so many films, so I had the chance to see so many films that I did not understand because I don’t speak Russian. I went to the cinema everyday, because it was free for me as a film student. One free movie a day. So I watched over 200 films that I can’t remember anything about. I just absorbed everything. I think seeing Ivan’s Childhood on film projection made me switch back to my camera. It was amazing how we see the detail on film, how the image has power over you. I decided to go back to my roots again.
Filmmaker: Have you watched any Filipino films?
Mukdeeprom: I’m not a film guru anymore. Maybe you understand what I say because today we are overburdened with too much information. At some point, you say that’s enough. I just want to be with my own ideas. But I found that the Filipino film society is very interesting. They struggle. I know because I met them. Because of that struggle, that makes them good, I think, it makes them fight. That’s the energy I found. I really like that film, Shadow Behind the Moon (2015). It’s super good. But, in general, I’m not following the movement so closely.
Filmmaker: How did you first meet Apichatpong?
Mukdeeprom: When I first came back from Russia, I went back to the camera department and started to be a focus puller. That was my main job. Then I started to find shooting work. I’d shoot anything. Apichatpong also just got back from Chicago and started his own project. And that was it, he just called me, gave me the script. The first script was Blissfully Yours (2002). I read it in like 2 hours because it was so fun to me; I was laughing like crazy. [laughs] And that was it, “Let’s make it!”
I had no idea what I was going to do with Apichatpong at that time. We just followed our instincts because we were so young. That’s it. That’s the point.
Filmmaker: How do you think your work has evolved?
Mukdeeprom: I think the instinct and spirit remain the same, but I have shaped up my view of things and technical knowledge. It’s the same, but sharper, more precise. There are so many kinds of movies, right? If you shoot a green screen, if it’s very technical, you have to be very principled in doing things, because you have to get that footage to do something else, you have to answer to technical aspects. I like the French avant-garde idea that you take the camera outside and absorb everything. This is especially true with Apichatpong, even if the wind blows it gives us something to work with. That’s the point.
Filmmaker: How did the environment of Colombia affect your work?.
Mukdeeprom: It’s not easy shooting in Colombia, including in Bogota and Pijao, believe me, because the weather is quite difficult to film. Generally, Colombia is high in the mountains, so the weather is changing drastically every minute. For me, the most difficult scenes are the ones we cannot control, where we have to adjust or improve, whatever we have to do.
Filmmaker: Did anyone fall asleep on the set of Memoria?
Mukdeeprom: Maybe, because sometimes we had to stop for like three hours when we couldn’t shoot—especially the last scene on the riverbank. It’s not easy to fulfill Apichatpong’s demands. In the beginning, I was thinking, “Oh my god. I have to force everything. I have to cover it up.” Because the film is moving in chronological order, but the lighting would change very much while shooting. Then I dropped the idea of trying to force everything because we couldn’t—we were too small. I would need more gear, more equipment, to do that kind of thing. So I decided to go the other route, I decided to follow the sun—what it would give me. I just absorbed what we had. Of course, I also need to study what time is the best for this or that angle.
Filmmaker: [I show him a BTS photo of him sleeping on the dolly]
Mukdeeprom: [laughs] It was during the lunch break! That’s it!
Filmmaker: How was the wrap party?
Mukdeeprom: We had a lot of good parties. [laughs] Many parties I cannot remember. It’s fun, it’s fun. But there are some I don’t join because I need sleep.
Filmmaker: Do you try to take a certain amount of days off between jobs?
Mukdeeprom: No, it depends on the job. You never know. Come on, we have to work, we have to feed our families. That’s the point. We are humans in this capitalist world! It’s what we have to do! But, okay, we have to balance working too much. If I need to be home at certain moments I will, but in general, I cannot control it. Sometimes you finish a job and go to another job tomorrow because it’s your commitment.
Filmmaker: What do you do in your off time?
Mukdeeprom: When I’m not making films I do a lot of other things, but mostly for the home. I do gardening, of course. I’m an aquarist, I have a lot of aquariums in my house. Fish in a tank! I have so many. I love that. Because where I live is outside of the capitalist world if you want it to be. I live on the island of Krabi. Somedays I just want to go to the sea, so I take the boat and do so. Spend the afternoon on the bay and do nothing, just watching things happen.
But I don’t make other things, no YouTube, I just want to have this other part of me. Some people say, “Why don’t you do YouTube?” Agh! Too much for me. I’m trying to do things that are different from what I have to do.
Filmmaker: I read that you had to rent every dolly track in Colombia to build the 150 meter dolly-shot.
Mukdeeprom: [laughs] Yes. We got the dolly tracks from all over Colombia. Nobody else in Colombia could dolly that day because of us. This happened during the location scouting. Apichatpong took me to that street, and we had the script in our head, and we walked, and at some point, I said, “Apichatpong, if you can get me the dolly, I can do this scene in one shot.” And that’s the scene.
Filmmaker: How much do you and Apichatpong talk about the script?
Mukdeeprom: Mostly we discuss it in the beginning. And then we just go and make it. Of course, during the process, there are details of the scene that we have to adjust. But in terms of the idea, I think we’ve become quite settled during the preparation. Of course, if Apichatpong wants to do something different on the day he will let me know. If I encounter any difficulty, anything that will cause a problem, I will let him know and we will discuss whether or not it’s impossible. Like the long dolly scene, in the beginning, we didn’t think about the dolly. It was just like, “Apichatpong, for this scene we can do a super long dolly. Do you agree with me?” and he said, “Okay, yeah!” But we don’t think of the camera package the first moment that we think about it, we just say, “Oh fuck, this is a good idea.” And we just leave it. We process it in our heads. Then we walk another five minutes and say, “Shit! We can’t do it!” Walk another five and say, “Shit we can do it!” You have to process ideas for the reality that you face.
Filmmaker: What were you looking for in locations?
Mukdeeprom: To me it’s quite simple. What we are looking for is what is written. It’s the blueprint. And then we just find a way to tell that story. For the long dolly, we have the same content, same idea, different approach. Actually, in every movie that I do with him, we are just looking for how it is written in the script. But, of course, we have to read between the lines what we can actually carry out. And that’s why we have to absorb the environment, to bring out what is not written. You have some content in your head, and you’re trying to carry it out somehow. But we at least get the bones of what we need to capture. Then we expand, reframe, do whatever we need to do to capture what is hidden among the lines of the script.
Filmmaker: Because you had to send the film to Mexico to get developed, how long did it take you to receive dailies?
Mukdeeprom: I can’t remember how long. I think we sent the film to the lab once or twice a week, I cannot remember. I think once a week. We had a boy taking care of this by himself. He carried the film to the planes, made sure it was not scanned in security or anything, went to the lab in the US, and did it all over again I don’t know how many times. [laughs]
Filmmaker: When we discussed Suspiria, I asked you why you tended to shoot Tilda Swinton’s character Helena Markos against a window or a bright light source. You answered that it was simply the result of your’s and Luca’s presupposing nothing, that it was the result of everyone’s openness, and how she happened to carry herself through the space you all made. In addition to her performance, Swinton is so involved in the form and content of Memoria. Did the experience of filming her differ here?
Mukdeeprom: The film is different. The director’s approach to the film is different. But my role is not so different, because it’s all about how to capture them in that space. So I have to provide a space for them to act, to play. Then it’s art, then it’s karma, [laughs] I have to say that because, in Buddhism, everything is karma. The action is karma. So the setup is the same, but the approach is different. Maybe we don’t use the dolly to follow and instead set up a still camera.
Filmmaker: Do you meditate or do anything to prepare for each day?
Mukdeeprom: I do meditation, but not regularly as you say. Nothing every morning. I do it mostly before I go to bed because I think it helps your brain calm down so you can sleep. But it’s not so easy, because sometimes you’re under so much pressure. Sometimes I cannot really do it. I’m a very serious Buddhist, a good follower, but I’m not that good at it. [laughs]
Filmmaker: The book describes a day when the sun was particularly uncooperative. You disappeared for a time and came back with all your rain gear on and exclaimed to the crew, “Whenever I’m prepared it does not rain!”
Mukdeeprom: [laughs] Oh! Just for fun, that’s it. [laughs] Nothing special. I’m a smoker. If we’re waiting on a shot for too long, for any reason, the actor, the props, whatever. We’ve been sitting for ten minutes now and nothing has happened—so you know what I always do? I pick up my cigarette and light it. Because whenever I leave the camera I’m going to hear, “Ready!” So I light my cigarette because I want to hear the ready. Then I look at my assistant like, “See? Look at me now? You see what I’m doing?” And as soon as I light my cigarette the crew is suddenly ready.[laughs]
Filmmaker: Did you prefer shooting in Bogota or Pijao?
Mukdeeprom: I think Pijao is my favorite location because it’s a town in the valley. It’s like heaven there. A tropical heaven. So peaceful, so alive. So earthy, I don’t know what else to say. You feel like you’re living on Earth, you connect to the land. You wake up in the middle of nature and you watch it change during the day.
Filmmaker: Did you feel lonely on set, shooting away from your family in another country?
Mukdeeprom: Yeah, it is one of my difficulties of working to be away from them. Mostly, I have my wife with me if I have to be away for a long time. Not in Colombia, because I’m not quite sure how we would live there. Because it’s Colombia, come on! Does my wife want to stay in the apartment alone? But I try to keep her with me.
Filmmaker: Did you have five-day weeks? How did you spend your days off?
Mukdeeprom: Sorry, I did so much shooting that I can’t remember. Maybe five. I did nothing but sleep. Maybe I would try to cook something. But that’s it. You spend so much energy during the working days already. So I sleep, sleep, and sleep. I tried to go somewhere once, but I couldn’t. It takes too much effort to do that sort of thing, so I do nothing. [laughs] Then I can be focused on and prepared for the film.
Filmmaker: The book describes a moment when Apichatpong asked you to dim a light gradually over a one minute take, then a two minute take, to which, the author notes, you yelled from another room, “Fuck! So long!”
Mukdeeprom: There’s a lot of that kind of magic. In some locations, the script needs to see Tilda in her bedroom at dawn. We would love to see the outside background, the mountains. So I have to evaluate, develop what I have to create to compensate for the bright background outside. Then I have to set up the lights, of course, I have to use a big dimmer for the light. When you do make it work, it’s kind of a miracle, because it always works a lot better than I expect. [laughs] Sometimes you’re unsure if your ideas will work or not. Unless you have pre-lighting, then you don’t have the guesswork. And if you don’t pre-light, you pre-light on the day. We have to block it, we have to create a box outside the window that will block the sun that gets into the room, and then we create another sun [a light mimicking the sun] that enters the room to make dawn. Typical conflicts. The last scene of the movie, when the two of them sit and talk in the room, was actually a huge lighting setup behind the camera, next to the camera, everywhere, you see what I mean? If you ever see the lighting setup we had, you’ll say, “Wow, this does not look like the result at all.” But I did light it. I lit it as if I didn’t light it. That’s the point.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me your version of how you and a skeleton crew perused the jungle—at one point crossing a frail, man made bridge—with heavy camera equipment to try to get a shot of a Howler monkey?
Mukdeeprom: The monkey… We entered the forest, and it’s like fuck, how are we gonna know where the monkey is, right? I said to Apichatpong, “Shit. I don’t know what we will get today.” I don’t know at all, you see what I mean? But I was thinking, even if we don’t see the monkey, maybe we could frame some forest and, with the sound, make something out of it. I really didn’t know what we would do at that time. So we were in the forest for several hours just walking. It’s super dense—amazing. Just ten miles from the back of the resort and boom—the densest tropical forest I’ve ever entered! The plan was to have the local guys who were familiar with the area looking for the monkeys and talking to us through the radio. So we have the army of the film crew, carrying the camera and walking in a [single file] line because it’s so tight in the jungle. If we wanted to set up the camera, we had to stop and set it up one by one. The person with the sticks had to run to the front of the line while the rest of us got out of his way, and then he’d come back and then it’d be the person with the camera’s turn, et cetera. We had to do it very slowly. But we couldn’t find the monkey at all. At one point the guys got on the radio and said, “Okay. We hear the voice of the monkey. We are very near him.” By the time we got to them, the monkey was gone. But then, when we got out of the jungle, we said okay, I think that’s enough. At least we got stuff from the jungle, as I said. And then, all of a sudden, the monkey just appeared in front of us. That’s it! [laughs] That’s it!? It’s there looking at us!? I don’t know what to say.
Filmmaker: Right when you lit the cigarette!