Releasing to VOD this week is Mattie Do’s thought-provoking and haunting sci-fi film The Long Walk. The story of an old Lao hermit man who comes face to face with himself as a child is a beautifully haunting tale that challenges perceptions of what time travel movies can be. It’s a layered story that delivers in more ways than expected, and Do does an incredible job at creating a film that resonates long after the credits roll.
When I saw the film at Fantastic Fest in 2019, it was immediately one of my favorites. I was recently able to chat with Mattie about the release and some of the fascinating aspects of her film-making process.
This film premiered in 2019 and played a number of festivals to great acclaim - how does it feel to have it finally hitting theaters?
Honestly, it's sort of bizarre to see this film having a new life again. Of course I'm excited, but it feels rather surreal that the film is hitting theaters. I don't even want to say "finally hitting theaters", because for a while it didn't seem like this film was ever going to see the light of day or have any release of any kind. People often ask directors and producers about when a film will be released, but more often than not it isn't up to the filmmakers at all, but it's a tangled quagmire of red tape and business documents involving sales-agents and distributors. Rarely is a film commercially released just because it did well and magically popped onto big screen - what we have in cinemas would be drastically different if that were the case.
What was the seed of this story and how did the final version develop? Did you set out to make a film with time travel as a key element, or did that develop later in the writing process?
The original version of the film was a very different mess of a film, admittedly! That's normal for us though, our first draft is always a wild mess, but the point is for us to figure out what's not working and what's crappy and fix it! Actually, time travel being a key element wasn't in the original first draft, but the separate lifetimes/timelines of the Old Man and his childhood self was always an element, as was the ghost girl - the time travel aspect actually was our big lightbulb moment or spark that brought everything together for us. To be frank, when most people hear that there's going to be a film coming out of a developing country like Laos or anywhere from this region for that matter, they expect some artsy and ultra vague and ambiguous film with a bunch of poor folk staring at the wind or with multiple shots of leaves rustling in a forest or water rippling on some lake or river surface. If it's a genre film, they expect some ghost film with desaturated Japanese bed-sheet ghosts who've never met a bottle of shampoo in their lives before, or some slick jump-scare Thai horror film and so when I started making my films that are I guess difficult to categorize, I had some pushback. A few people thought my films didn't seem "authentic". Ha, why does authenticity have to be approved by people from outside of the country and culture I live in anyway? I thought it was pretty bullshit, so I made what I consider a very authentic science fiction, time travel, ghostly horror serial killer film.
The film has a very haunting quality to it, in part because of the very deliberate pacing. As a filmmaker, does that kind of restraint com naturally for you, or is it something that you have to intentionally incorporate and stay mindful of?
I don't really sit around and think about trying to have deliberate pacing or any sort of pacing for that matter. I never really think about restraint either when it comes to film, I'm just trying to tell the story as I see it in my head and often that means many adjustments have to be made during the edit to be able to clearly convey that story. It's also kind of funny when people say the film is deliberately paced, because there's a ton of information being doled out in every scene and there's a lot going on in every moment of the film... it actually made the film difficult to cut down when I was editing with my editor Zohar!
The cast that you assembled was just amazing. Can you talk a little about how you worked with them to find the characters and deliver such strong performances?
Much of my cast was the same from my previous films, and that's simply because I like working with them and they know how to work with me. Some of them are more experienced than others, but our communication is effortless and we have an understanding of how to collaborate well together while having a lot of fun! The newest member of our cast was Por Silitsa, who played THE BOY. He was just a village boy who we found two days before the shoot started, and conveniently, his home was adjacent to the village where we shot most of the market scenes. He was a blast to work with, and really brought a lot of joy to the set. Honestly, everyone on the production was really nervous about having a child shoulder so much responsibility as a character, but it wasn't something that I registered as intimidating since I previously worked with children as a ballet teacher and so I'm not really daunted by the prospect of helping a child through a difficult performance. If anything, I'm much more worried about someday having to deal with adult talent that perhaps have behaviors that resemble spoiled children!
The setting of the film plays such a huge part in the telling of the story. Outdoor rural locations help to set the mood and really contribute to the haunting atmosphere through the isolated locale and the quiet of characters being on their own. How did you go about selecting these locations, and did shooting in an isolated setting create any challenges on set?
Mainly I chose the locations based on accessibility, and for a long stretch of road that would be surrounded on both sides by nature with no visible modern building or skyline in sight. I actually wish I could have included some of our gorgeous, vivid green rice fields in the film, but it wasn't the right season so the fields were dried out. It's always difficult to shoot in the rural countryside, especially in a developing country. We had obstacles such as bad roads, no electricity - for instance, we had to use generators to power our equipment, and generators extremely loud so we had to have huge lengths of cables to be able to place the generator far away enough that the noise it made would not disturb the work of the sound team and the performers. We had issues with sudden tropical storms, animals like cows, goats and even baby elephants disturbing our set or stealing edibles when we'd leave it - in general, shooting in a jungle is not comfortable or easy.
One of the things that really struck me about this film is the way that it is very much a science fiction story, but one that allows the characters to be front and center ahead of the time travel element. How did you work to achieve that during the production process, and was there any temptation to lean into the other direction?
At no point in the filming process did we ever feel tempted to "lean into" it becoming some ultra futuristic Blade Runner type sci-fi film. That isn't what this film is about. The film is about characters coping with regret, loss, grief, and selfishness, it's film about the forgotten and the left behind who feel like life has been out of their control, but when they cease an amount of control, poor choices are made and their lives spiral even farther off the rails. The reality is, when I was a kid in the 80's, we always perceived that 2020 would be hyper futuristic, that perhaps we'd have teleportation tubes, we'd all be using food replicators, and vacations could be on another planet by way of spaceship. Here we are in 2022 and we're still using combustion engine cars that don't look much different from the cars we had in the 80's, the way we acquire and ingest food isn't terribly different, and the only people going into space are billionaires in dick shaped space-ships that hardly even breach the 60 something mile line above Earth that we consider space. The Long Walk matches my image of the future in that life will still putter on in a mundane way, we'll have technological strides, but yet we'll still be affected by hardships like needing to eat and drink, like having to survive and pay our bills, and having to find our place in a society of humans that have material advancements but are perhaps still stagnant socially.
Have you been working on anything new? What's next?
I'm working on three new film projects. One is an American thriller that takes place in Thailand and Laos, more straightforward and fun - I think I need something a bit more direct after doing something as personal and intimate as The Long Walk, then I have a creature feature set in Laos about an old, fat American sexpat that takes over and oppresses a small village community in Laos. He gets killed accidentally during a fatal altercation with three little Lao kids, one of which he's assaulted. They attempt to hide his corpulent body in the jungle and unwittingly set free an entity that reanimates his corpse and he comes back from the grave to terrorize our three young kids and their village again. The third film I'm working on is extremely special, it's a harrowing love story about finding your soulmate and being connected to each other in more ways than one, then being ripped apart from each other across the globe. It's going to be very messed up.
Mattie Do’s long-awaited The Long Walk is now available on VOD and can be seen in select theaters. To learn more, visit: https://www.thelongwalkfilm.com/get-tickets