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A Buddhist Assassin Seeks Redemption

Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang turns his main character upside-down (literally!) with his latest film, Headshot, a thrilling neo-noir with a Buddhist twist.

Tribeca: Tell us a little about Headshot. How do you describe the movie in your own words?

Pen-ek ratanaruang: Headshot is the story of a hit man who is shot in the head on one of his assignments. When he wakes after being in a coma for three months, he sees everything upside-down, literally. This disability causes him to question his life and his profession. When he attempts to quit his job, his past and his karma eventually catch up with him. Headshot essentially is a Buddhist film noir.

TRIBECA: What inspired you to make Headshot? What drew you to the crime/noir genre?

PEN-EK RATANARUANG: No one film inspired me. I’m a fan of classic film noir, and I just wanted to make a film in that genre for fun.

TRIBECA: Headshot switches between the past and the present with incredible ease, and you manage to keep the viewer alert and engaged. What were the challenges you faced while you were adapting Win Lyovarin’s novel?

PEN-EK RATANARUANG: The novel was written some years ago, and nothing would have been easier than to make a period film based on the book. I wanted to make a contemporary film, however, and many parts of the novel did not fit well in that context. Also a novelist can create unbelievable situations that readers may go along with if the novel is written well enough; however, those same situations would not work in a movie. The original novel has many of those situations.

So I had to come up with something that I myself would believe. I read the novel twice, and I never opened it again once I started writing my script. I re-imagined the story and the characters so freely that when we finished the movie, I couldn't remember which part was from the novel and which part was my own imagination.


TRIBECA: This is your second time working with Nopachai Jayanama who gives a remarkable performance in Headshot. What was it like to work with him again? How did you go about casting the rest of the roles?

PEN-EK RATANARUANG: From our previous film together, Nymph, I knew that Nopachai is a rare kind of actor in Thailand. He is intelligent, very focused and very generous. He is serious about becoming a natural actor and not a star. I felt that in Nymph my script didn't give him enough to do, so when this project came along, I phoned him immediately. As you can see in the film, he didn't disappoint. The rest of the performers were cast through the normal audition process. I'm so grateful to all of them. We did ask a lot from them, and they all worked so hard and got paid so little.

TRIBECA: A good portion of the film is seen through Tul’s vision, which is upside-down due to his injury. How did you work with your director of photography, Chankit Chamnivikaipong, to convey Tul’s damaged perception of the world?

PEN-EK RATANARUANG: When I told people I was going to make a film about someone who saw things upside down, they all asked me, “Are we going to see the whole film upside-down?” I knew that I would have to use the upside-down shot at a minimum. I want people to be entertained by the story and the characters in the film rather than distracted by the upside-down shots. After testing many different kinds of filters, Chankit found this cheap lens from China that did not allow us to control the focus. We did some test shots with it and the result made us felt almost sick, so we decided to go with it and to capitalize on that effect.

TRIBECA: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during the making of Headshot?

PEN-EK RATANARUANG: A few days before we wrapped our shoot, we were filming the scene in which Tul had to kill his injured boss by holding a pillow over his face. Nopachai, our lead actor, did one take and started sobbing uncontrollably. I wanted to make a shot from another angle, and he would not stop crying. I tried to console him and asked him what the matter was. For a long time, he tried to speak but nothing would come out of his mouth except some weird sound. His face was distorted, and he became kind of like an animal. In the end he sobbed: “Why do I have to kill him? Why does he have to die? I am worse than him. I killed many more people. I'm the one who deserves be killed, not him!”

He went on weeping while the entire crew stood silent. I was startled. Nopachai tried again to do the scene, but he couldn't bring himself to kill someone who he thought was less sinful than him. The shot you see in the movie was the one and only take. The next day I thought to myself, “My God... a film director is such a sinful bastard.”

TRIBECA: Many aspiring filmmakers and students read our site. What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers? Is there one particular bit of wisdom that you would pass on to them?

PEN-EK RATANARUANG: I would live life before I make a film. Anyone can learn to make a film, but if you don't live life you have nothing to make a film with.

TRIBECA: As a returning TFF alum, what are you most looking forward to at Tribeca?

PEN-EK RATANARUANG: I look forward to watching other films and catching up with friends, of course. Every time I return to New York, it's like a gift. It's one of my favorite cities in the world.

TRIBECA: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?

PEN-EK RATANARUANG: I don't have anyone in mind. If I have one, it would be someone who is alive because I don't know how much fun it would be to dine with a dead person. Angelina Jolie, perhaps? We can talk about Cambodia or the tattoo she got in Thailand.

TRIBECA: What’s your favorite New York movie?

PEN-EK RATANARUANG: Manhattan. I prefer it to Annie Hall.

TRIBECA: What would your biopic be called?

PEN-EK RATANARUANG: What is a biopic? Does everybody have one?

TRIBECA: What makes Headshot a Tribeca must-see?

PEN-EK RATANARUANG: It's hard for me to promote my own work. It's kind of embarrassing, so I shall borrow what Tony Rayns, the respected British film critic, said about Headshot. Among other good things, he said, “It's one of the best film noirs made in the last few years.” There you go. Thank you, Tony. It’s not just a film noir; it's a Buddhist film noir. Oh, and we'll give some T-shirts away during the Q & A, if I don’t forget to bring them from Thailand.

Pen-ek RatanaruangPen-ek Ratanaruang was born in Bangkok and studied art history at Pratt Institute. He worked as an illustrator and graphic designer before returning to Thailand. His feature films include Fun Bar Karaoke, 6ixtynin9, A Transistor Love Story, Last Life in the Universe, Invisible Waves, Ploy, and Nymph.


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