GVN Interview: Mattie Do Wants to Believe

Mattie Do poses for a portrait

Mattie Do signs onto our Zoom call and immediately apologizes. It turns out that it’s a holiday in Laos, where she’s based. Her apartment is surrounded by drunk, happy people singing karaoke. “You might hear some weird stuff,” she says with a laugh. I promise her it won’t bother me, admitting that my noisy cat Rudy will likely be louder than anything a karaoke machine can elicit. With the lay of the land sorted, it’s time to talk about Do’s new movie, The Long Walk

Do’s film takes place In a near-future and rural Lao village, an Old Man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) forages for scraps he can sell. His only companion is the ghost of a Young Woman (Noutnapha Soydara) he has known for 50 years. He has grown up from a boy to a weathered old man while she remains unchanged. The ghost does not speak, but the old man realizes that she has the ability to cross through time. Most importantly, she can take him with her. He makes her take him 50 years into the past so he can talk to his younger self (Por Silatsa) in hopes of changing the course of his life. 

What follows is my conversation with Do, edited lightly for length and clarity. 

Mattie Do at a premiere event for The Long Walk.

Devin: Right off the top, I have to ask. Do you believe in ghosts?

Mattie: You know The X-Files, and [Agent] Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” poster?

Devin: Oh yeah. Had one of them on the wall in college. 

Mattie: Well I’m like him, like Mulder. I want to believe. For the Laotian they’re real. They’re present daily. They’re tangible and they’re here, even if we can’t see them, or feel them. Our worlds are very much coexisting just like you see in the film. But for myself, maybe this is the Westerner, the American in me where I want to have some kind of opening of the veil. I want this kind of proof. Evidence. I think about how there used to be this old Victorian thing that anyone who could prove the existence of ghosts would win a bunch of money, and I get it.

I guess that’s a little bit of my mindset. Also, I love those shows where they have the night vision goggles, and all the weird equipment, and the spirit boxes where they go to the supposedly haunted places. I want to show them they’re ridiculous, but also love them because I want to believe so bad [laughter]. And sometimes when that squawking box picks out random words I’m like “Oh good. Cool!” But it’s not enough. I’m in doubt. I mean, I don’t want to say I don’t believe, and  I don’t want to say I do believe because I think that there’s something that I don’t understand. I’m too much of a cynic. So I need some kind of hard evidence, which nobody has had.

Por Silatsa in a still from The Long Walk.

Devin: I totally get that, and I think I’m with you in the gray area. Which also makes me curious about your filmography up through The Long Walk because all of them concern ghosts in one way or another. Why do you keep coming back to ghost stories?

Mattie: Culturally, in terms of making movies in Laos, it’s difficult to do a genre story without doing a ghost story. We have monsters and beasts in Lao lore, but they’re all secondary to ghosts. Also, m background is not in film. It’s in classical ballet, which has a shit ton of ghost stories. So besides personal interest, you know, that’s why I keep coming back to it. It allows stories to revolve around the supernatural. Even though modern society is losing touch with spirits, black magic, occult, and old-world ideas, Lao continues to cling to the ghosts. I think that’s really special. That’s why I love to come back to it for my films, not just because I love them, but also because culturally, we still value that. And it’s great that we can share that.

Devin: That absolutely tracks, and puts your work in a wonderful lineage. Sticking with the ghosts and other genre elements in The Long Walk, it strikes me that you project a rather magical realist aesthetic. The ghosts just look like people. Sci-fi flourishes are earthy and grounded. How did you decide on that visual tone?

Mattie: It was really easy because when you live in a place like Lao, you see a little bit of everything. Of course, it’s a developing country. There’s a lot of what I call the Lao entropy. Because you know, it’s a hot and humid jungle. Nature wants Laos back so bad. Like, literally today before you called me, I was on a chair at my walls, cutting vines back, and I probably cut the vines back only like a month ago. That’s how fast they grow. It’s trying to engulf my house right now, and I live in the capital city. Devin, I live in the capital and the jungle still wants my house back. You’ll see a building that’s newly built, and something happens and everyone moves out of it and it gets abandoned or something and it’s pretty new, then all of a sudden, within a year, it’s decaying and crumbling. Lao entropy. 

At the same time, advancements here are really noticeable. Like, I came here more than a decade ago. And I remember we didn’t have internet. We had to go to internet cafes, and I swear to God, it was like dial-up speed. We had to pay by the hour to sit at these super shitty computers to use the internet to be able to like, check our email. Then all of a sudden, I can’t even remember when we went from the junk from internet cafes paying by the hour to suddenly having like fucking 3G and 4G at our fingertips. Now everyone has it. You go to the countryside, little children are like, swiping on their phone. I say all of this to point out that the way they use technology here in Laos is extremely different.

So the advancements are really sudden, but yet, some of the old shit remains. That gets to a lot of what you see in The Long Walk, where they’re scanning chips in their arms for payment that also have GPS, but the Old Man is still living in a hut on a dirt road. It’s like advancement swept over and forgot him. I see this a lot in Laos. You know what I mean? For the many big strides and jumps that we make, a lot of the problems that we have don’t go away. The basic issues that every human has, like survival and security, don’t go away with futurism. Those problems remain no matter how advanced we get. In fact, sometimes those power problems become compounded. Does all that make sense? I know I rambled [laughter].

Noutnapha Soydara and Por Silatsa in a still from The Long Walk.

Devin: [laughter] I totally follow. Now I just want to hear more about your Lao entropy idea, but I won’t totally sidetrack us because you also brought up a part of the movie I wanted to get to: the Old Man. In shooting him, there’s a lot of smokiness, almost noir-like. In a general sense, how did your style shooting him settle into place within the overall aesthetic?

Mattie: I don’t think I know enough about other genres to be able to say that I’m selectively shooting like a noir style or anything, but I do know that I have preferences for certain aesthetics. For instance, I’m obsessed with the way Caravaggio’s paintings look, and the way they play with darkness and light. How he can pull your eyes through a highlight. Like a beam of light coming in. And uniquely for Caravaggio paintings, I think, you can even see something like mistiness, or dust or smoke. You can feel that, but it’s paint. 

Yet it feels so palpable when you stand in front of one. You really see that. And what I also love about those paintings is that your eyes are drawn to the immediate subject that he wants you to see. But then the more you stare at the painting, the more you start to notice that there are subtleties in the shadows that you might miss. Once you start to study what’s happening in the shadows, it becomes really uncomfortable and almost insidious because there’s so much more going on than just what your eye initially sees. 

I think that that’s the kind of styling that I really love. And both of my DOPs, from my second film and this film, really understood that. They really understood how I like to play with shadow and light, and how I don’t need everything to be lit. I’m shooting in broad daylight, and they understood that despite the time of day, the danger is always present. You know? Why does terror have to cease as soon as the light comes? This is something I super love, and some of that we get through using the smokiness. Oh, actually, you wanna hear a funny story about the smoke?

Devin: Oh absolutely. 

Mattie: [laughter] Ok ok. So, I think the only Lao word that the foreign camera crew learned was the one for “smoke” because they were calling “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!” all the time on set. But, we didn’t have smoke machines because we’re in Laos and on a tiny budget. So the art director and his assistant from Thailand, and four or five young men from around found and cut up these cookie tins that were about the size of gasoline cans. Maybe a little bigger actually. Anyway, we perforated them and filled them with coconut husks and leaves and bark, and we just set them on fire. We had a wire on these tin biscuit holder things and the crew would just run around smoking the set like it was incense from a Catholic church.

Devin: [laughter] Oh my God I love that. 

Mattie: It was pretty fucking hilarious. 

Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy in a still from The Long Walk.

Devin: Incredible set story, and also a real testament to how inventive you have to be.

Mattie: Especially an indie film. I mean, we were so bootstraps cowboy. Our crew was 20 people or less. We all had to find ways to make it work. We couldn’t just sit there and cry like little prissy pants because we don’t have all the efficient technologies of the US or all the crew and equipment. If we did that we just wouldn’t be able to make it. It’s something I think about all the time. When young filmmakers have a dream, have this feature they want to make, but they get caught up in thinking “I have to have this and this and this before I make my feature.” I’m like well if you’re always waiting for everything to be ideal, and you can’t find a way to solve the challenges or the problems that you face and you might not get to make that film. You know, sometimes you just have to like dive in headfirst.

Devin: Just set some cookie tins on fire and you’re golden.

Mattie: Anything to get the right shot, man. 

Devin: [laughter] So all of this is giving me an incredible sense of your aesthetic direction and visual approach. What I’m curious about now is your process of working with actors, specifically Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy as the Old Man and Por Silatsa as the Boy. What was your technique to collaborate with them to assure continuity of character?

Mattie: You know, honestly, I generally wish I had done more. Wish I could have done a better job. I think they’re excellent performers, and they did exactly what I wanted them to do. But, due to the chaotic nature of shooting the film, we had a lot of issues. The shoot got delayed and held up at one point, and we had to switch DOPs as well. So because of the run-and-gun nature of the production, one of the things I got to work in with the two of them, but wanted to do a lot more of, was the mirroring of moments and actions. 

You can see it in the film, where there are some shots of the Boy and the Old Man that are sort of like a reflection. The Old Man burning the bloody nightgown over the fire, and then the Boy at the river burning his bloody shirt so that his parents won’t ask how he got blood on it. They’re modeled in the same way. They’re making the same expressions. The two actors were great about having little anachronisms that were similar to each other. Like, they looked at each other and figured out how the other person would act. He was a very mature little boy. But I wanted to do so much more of that. In the end, it just wasn’t as possible as I wanted it to be.

Also, I just had a thought. Do you mind I double back to something we were kind of talking about earlier? 

Por Silatsa in a still from The Long Walk.

Devin: Go ahead!

Mattie: Ok, thanks. So, I think that it can be difficult to work with me for some people. I don’t have a technical background. I didn’t go to film school. I talk about the camera like it’s a human being. I don’t call shots by the lenses or anything like that. I defer to the DOP because they know better what lens to use and all that. 

For instance, I’m thinking about the scene where the police confront the Old Man. What I’m going to say is that I really want this shot to be intimate, and close. I want it to feel really claustrophobic. Because at this moment, he’s being grilled intensively by the police. He thinks the jig is up. They know that I have blood on my hands. They know I’m a murderer. And so I want him to feel like everything is closing in around him. I want the camera to move in on him as if the police are also overwhelming him. And then the minute he realizes that they don’t know he’s murdered all these women. I want it to be this release like the camera doesn’t just move back. It falls back.

Another good example is when the Old Man is cleaning and dressing the first woman’s body. He’s cleaning the body the way we would traditionally, but he’s doing it in a super creepy occult way. When the camera is watching him, I made sure that the DOP always knew where the exit of the house was, even if we haven’t seen the house in its entirety. I wanted it that way so the camera slowly scoots backward towards the exit. Since I’m treating the camera like a human, it’s witnessing this creepy thing and wants to start inching towards the exit. Wants to get the fuck away from this creepy old man. 

These are the kinds of things that my DOP and I talked about, and the way that I framed how I wanted things to look, feel and be. He understood it. And he never, he never asked me, you know, do you want to use 85? Or do you want to use a 50? Like, no, because that’s his job, not mine. He’s a DOP.

Devin: I get it, definitely a similar way to how I think about the camera. So glad you doubled back for the thought!

Mattie: [laughter] Great! Didn’t want to sound like I was rambling again. 

Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy in a still from The Long Walk.

Devin: Not at all! I could listen to production stories all day, but sadly I am looking realizing we are almost at time so I want to sneak in one last question. 

Mattie: Let’s do it. 

Devin: I caught up with the folk horror doc Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched a couple of months ago and loved your appearance talking about the genre. Watching The Long Walk, there seems to be a lot of folk horror inflection in it. Is that something you aimed for?

Mattie: So glad you watched it! One of the things that I love about when I get to do a film is that I get to learn. The research starts with every new project. We start to ask all the old people around, and all the scholars, and all the monks, and so on about the different legends and folklore here. Because in Laos, like we were talking about earlier, folklore is real. It’s present every day in our lives. We live in conjunction with the old world, and we acknowledge that folk horror is real. That could be terrifying, but I think it’s more exciting to find a way to live simultaneously with our supernatural beliefs. 

One of the things that the documentary talks about a lot is how Western folk horror concerns how people think the old ways are not real. They’ve shunned it, so now it comes back for them and shows them that it’s strong. It shows them they were wrong to have abandoned it in the first place. It’s also extremely Christian. There are Christians in Laos, but it’s not the majority. Even the way we practice Buddhism is interpolated and mixed with animism, or paganism. So I think that it’s really unique, that we live a modern life that embraces folkloric beliefs, and that we respect that. It’s not about “Is it real or not?” It’s just, real. The question is how is it going to affect your life and what you do if you mess with it in an irreversible way? That’s what I tried to do in The Long Walk. 

Devin: Makes perfect sense, and I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to talk through all of this. It’s been a pleasure, and hope our paths cross again. 

Mattie: Thank you for talking! And hopefully, next time is in person!