Interview with Tom Waller: I tried to tell the story as it was, without passing my own judgement on the death sentence

We talk to him about his career, his collaborations with Hollywood and China, his films, Thai cinema, and many other topics

Tom Waller is a film and television producer and director born in Bangkok, 4th April 1974. He is also the founder of De Warrenne Pictures Co. Ltd, one of Thailand's leading film production companies based in Bangkok. He is working on both local and international productions and recently served as Co-Producer on the $20m Chinese psychological thriller "Battle of Memories" for Wanda Media. He workded as line producer on the $40m action sequel "Mechanic:Resurrection" starring Jason Statham, Jessica Alba, Tommy Lee Jones and Michelle Yeoh, which was released by Summit Entertainment in the summer of 2016. He has directed the award-winning biopic "The Last Executioner" and mystery thriller "Mindfulness and Murder".

We talk to him about his career, his collaborations with Hollywood and China, his films, Thai cinema, and many other topics

You were born in Bangkok to a Thai Buddhist mother and Irish Catholic father and spent your formative years at a Benedictine monastery school in Yorkshire, England before you returned to Thailand. How did your childhood shape you as a person and filmmaker, and why did you decide to return to Thailand and pursue a career there? 

I was lucky enough to raise enough money after film school in England to make my first feature film, 'Monk Dawson', in 1997. Although it was critically well received, it made almost no impact at the box office and sold mainly to television, after it had a short theatrical run in the West End. However, it was impossible to get any of my follow up projects going in the UK - I was a young director and the industry is highly competitive. There was almost no chance for me to continue living in London and make a career in the film industry there. When fellow filmmaker Kaprice Kea approached me to help him with his Thailand set project 'Butterfly Man', I gladly took up the challenge and produced that film for him - that brought me back to Bangkok in 2001.

Actually, your main line of work is producing rather than directing, through your company, De Warrenne Pictures. Can you tell us a bit about this? How did you end up producing an American (in essence) film with "Elephant White", and how was the experience?

I had met a producer from Los Angeles (Millennium Films) whilst I was setting myself up in Bangkok in 2003, and some years later after I had established my production company I started to work for them as their local producer in Thailand. This allowed me to breathe,  as it brought in some much needed income and gave me the experience of working with Hollywood. 'Elephant White' was the first big action film I did for them and this was followed by "Ninja: Shadow of a Tear" and "Mechanic Resurrection" which was a big hit last year.

Can you tell us a bit about "The Battle of Memories?"

"Battle of Memories" is a sci-fi thriller set in the future, when memories can be erased and replaced in your mind. Wanda Media, which is a big film studio in China, wanted to shoot the whole movie in Thailand and I was lucky enough to be hired as their local co-producer. It will be released widely in China and other parts of the world next month.

What made you choose Nick Wilgus' novel to adapt in "Mindfulness and Murder"? 

I was sent the script by Bangkok Post critic Kong Rithdee and it immediately grabbed my attention. I was interested in the themes of guilt and sin in this story, and the idea of a whodunnit, set in a Buddhist temple was intriguing. It was an opportunity for me to return to directing, which was my first passion.

In the film, Buddhist monks are portrayed in rather dark colors. What is your opinion about Buddhism, monks and the way they function in Thailand? Did you have any trouble due to this depiction?

Through the ages, monastic communities of every order have been places of scandal around the globe, so Thai Buddhist monasteries are no exception. The film depicts some bad monks amongst the good ones. In Thailand, monks are usually venerated despite a lack of ecclesiastical training - anyone can enrobe as a Buddhist monk from all walks of life - and therefore there are going to always be characters who are holier or unholier than others. The film was passed by the Ministry of Culture with no cuts, which means that they did not take offence with the depiction of the monks in the film. In fact, they probably believed the portrayal of monks was quite realistic.

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 You have cast Vithaya Pansringarm in both "Mindfulness and Murder" and "The Last Executioner". Why did you choose him for these roles?

I had worked with Vithaya on a Hollywood film I produced called "Prince and Me IV" where he played a fictional king, and when I read the script for "Mindfulness and Murder", he immediately came to mind for the role of Fr Ananda. With the success of our first collaboration, it was inevitable that I would cast him as Chavoret Jaruboon in "The Last Executioner". He had filmed "Only God Forgives" with Ryan Gosling in between, so was more experienced as an actor when he took on this role.

Despite the radically different genres, music seems to play a very important role in both films. Can you elaborate on that? What kind of music do you like to listen to? 

I generally have a wide taste in popular music, but particularly enjoy film scores, so music is an important aspect of my films. Choosing a composer who understands the balance required for the score is key. With Olivier Lliboutry, with whom I collaborated on for both films, minimalist was the direction we took, but with samples of Thai 'sepha' chanting and some theme and variation scoring throughout.

What made you shoot a film about Chavoret Jaruboon, the last man in Thailand who carried out executions by rifle?

I had come across his obituary in the newspaper, and that got me thinking - why not make a film about his life; an ordinary man with an extraordinary job.

In the film, you present him as a victim of his circumstances. Is that what you think about him, and what is your opinion regarding death sentence?

I tried to tell the story as it was, without passing my own judgement on the death sentence. There is no doubt that sometimes the judicial process can be flawed, and there is a real danger that a prisoner might be executed even when innocent of the crime - the burden of karma then rests on the persons involved in the act of killing, which is where Chavoret Jaruboon came in - he always had the final hand in taking the lives of others.

 Did you meet him? 

Sadly I never met Khun Chavoret. He had passed away in April of 2012, after a battle with cancer.

The film features a number of surrealistic sequences, like the TV show in the beginning and the sequences at the end, where he is tormented by his memories. Why did you choose to include them, since the film is actually a biopic?

I wanted to try and imagine what might have gone through Khun Chavoret's mind as he dealt with the burden of carrying out his morbid duties as executioner. Hence the surreal sequences which heighten the reality. I wanted to try something different than just a regular dramatisation of his life.

And what about the presence of the young man, who seems to exist only on Chavoret's mind?

The 'spirit' character acts as his subconscious, and also helps us to manifest his inner struggle between his sense of duty, and doing what is right or wrong.

One of the most impressive scenes in the film is the one where he witnesses an execution for the first time, a scene that is presented in slow motion with a requiem-like music track and a smug executioner with two huge rings in his heads shooting without any kind of remorse. Can you tell us a bit about this scene?

I wanted to make the first execution scene memorable, and capture some of the details of the procedure in a stylistic way that leaves the audience feeling both informed but horrified at how the execution is carried out. We observe the scene as the young Chavoret is on the job, taking in the unique surroundings as the difficult task of taking a man's life is enacted, with precision and menace. Hence the nonchalant executioner - its all in a day's work for these guys, just doing their job.

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What is the situation with the Thai film industry at the moment and what is your opinion regarding its future? 

I believe the Thai film industry is in a critical condition - fewer and fewer people are watching Thai films. Funding is almost non-existent, and only tried and tested genres of comedy and horror can succeed at the box office. With only two cinema operators in Thailand, they have a monopoly, and it is hard to get access to screens to show your movie, once you have made it. So most films fail financially. The future of Thai film is bleak!

Which are your favorite directors, and what kind of films do you like to watch? 

I was always been a big fan of Steven Spielberg growing up, and admire the amazing work of Ridley Scott and Chris Nolan. I am inspired these days by Terrence Malick too. Pen-ek Ratanaruang is one of my favourite Thai directors. I try to see as many films as I can, to know what the trends are these days.

What are your plans for the future, both as a director and a producer? 

I hope that I will continue to have the opportunity to produce unique and exciting cinema. As a director I am planning an ambitious historical film called 'Siam' set in the 17th Century in the reign of King Narai. Raising the money is hard these days for such an endeavour, but I still remain hopeful about getting it made soon.

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Asian Film Vault: Interview with Tom Waller: I tried to tell the story as it was, without passing my own judgement on the death sentence
Interview with Tom Waller: I tried to tell the story as it was, without passing my own judgement on the death sentence
We talk to him about his career, his collaborations with Hollywood and China, his films, Thai cinema, and many other topics
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