Kim Mordaunt on working with non-actors, blending documentary and fiction in The Rocket

The Rocket Poster

Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket arrives in UK cinemas this week, surfing in on a wave of critical praise and festival awards.

The Rocket is a sweet and quietly political film about a young boy in Laos who is considered bad luck from his very first day on the planet. But following the relocation of his family, it is his tenacity and belief in others that keeps them going.

Writer-director Mordaunt drew on his experience shooting documentaries and his past as an actor in his interesting approach to making The Rocket. He shared his thoughts on the process with us. Here they are, and much more besides.

Are there any special techniques that you developed for working with actors? Because there are, of course, ways in which you can coax performances out of people.

I’ve also worked a lot with non-actors, people who are coming to acting at a very early stage, and one thing that has taught me is to look at the human being as much as the craftsperson. I think that when I was an actor one thing I could see going wrong with a lot of direction of actors was that directors treat actors like a tool. Purely as a tool. They’ve got their craft and they’re a tool. But what’s so important is that you see an actor as a human being. Once you understand the human being, then you can manipulate the craft much better.

Working with non-actors you’re forced to use what they’ve got. Because a lot of the time they ain’t gonna invent it. In a way it’s closer to the way method acting began.

I think that with an actor the main thing I do is try and get to know who they are. And then I use partly who they are to draw truth to the craft. In terms of The Rocket, because we had young actors as well as quite new actors, I used a lot of music. I used improvisation. And a lot of the actors came from a tradition of slapstick comedy, soap operas and so I said to them, ‘What do you reckon about trying some method acting. I’m going to take you all into a whole new style of acting’. And they are really gorgeous people. Not a bad bone in their bodies. And they said, ‘We’ll try’.

With our rehearsal I literally took them into method acting. We tried to work with a much more intimate voice. We worked with thought. We dug out internals. We did a lot of trust exercises, which I think is important with children because they will often only share with you once they trust you. Children are very instinctual, I’ve come to really respect this. I have my own child and if they know you’re bullshitting, you don’t like them or you don’t feel comfortable with them. They’re like a dog, they’re onto you. That’s really what they’ve got, they’ve got their instincts.

Trust and sharing, that’s the other important thing. I found it strange that as an actor I was literally giving my soul, sharing my soul, and yet a director will share nothing with you. I think it has to be a relationship where everyone is sharing with each other. And then people start to delve deep. That’s where you want to go.

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Were most of the performers on The Rocket non-actors then?

Well, we had a mixture. The kids were very new. The father, who plays Toma, Sumrit Warin, mostly he was a stuntman. So he’d played a daredevil, being shot at and all that kind of stuff. Gets one line and then dies. So he was really excited as this was his first dramatic role. He was very new, in a way. Grandma, Bunsri Yindi, started acting when she was fifty. Before that I think she did all sorts of jobs. Just surviving. She was a mother and a grandmother. I think she worked as a nanny at one stage. Sumrit, he also works as a window cleaner. He cleans windows on those Bangkok skyscrapers.

Our most professional actor in there was the fella who plays Purple, Suthep Po-ngam, and he’s done a lot of movies but mostly slapstick comedies. He’s something of a veteran star in Thailand but he doesn’t read scripts and he mostly does slapstick. He said, ‘Look, the reason I’m working with you, a Western director, is because I want you to take me somewhere new’. And that’s what we did. This is his first real kind of method acting style of piece. And he’s very, very proud of it. He was our most experienced.

I’ve worked this way before and one thing you get when you mix an experienced actor with a non-actor is that the experienced actors often become kind of mentors to the inexperienced actors and in terms of what the experienced actors get out of it is that they’re looking at real people. Who can’t really lie [laughs]. So suddenly they’re thinking, my God… and they’re humbled by the human truth. That’s all they’ve got to draw on, the non-actors. So you’ve got this really interesting thing that starts to happen. It was a mix in a way but mostly new actors. Which, to tell you the truth, a lot of people were very worried about and I got presented with a lot of star Thai actors. But in the end I wanted to just cast who I felt was right.

Would you say you have a preference for non-actors though?

No, I like working with actors. Just a mix. I think I’ll always mix it up a bit. It’s not a bad way to go. I like working with actors as well. It’s just that they’ve got to be right.

When you talk about looking into the truth of people I’m assuming that’s something that applies to the setting as well. I assume you filmed in mostly real locations? Were you surrounded by the history as well?

Absolutely. It’s a mixture of the two but you’re right in saying that when we were filming in Laos there were a lot of the actors, even some who now live in Thailand but are of that generation of war migrants, who for them it was relearning their history and if not who they are then who their parents are. That was a really lovely thing to share and experience altogether.

So there was a bit of that, that the environment was feeding the character. But also we did have to build onto a lot of sets and reinvent them and rebuild them. Just to give you an example, the rocket festival is half documentary footage and half fiction. Where we actually rebuilt those towers. The reason being is that it’s so dangerous, so unpredictable. I mean there’s rockets that weigh up to a tonne. That’s a lot of explosive and when they go wrong it kills people.

So, the way to do that was that the DoP and myself shot the real rocket festival in that location in Laos. I then went away and storyboarded and wrote around the best moments I could find and made notes about certain areas we could use VFX and plates to put characters up on to platforms. And then we came back six months later and we rebuilt those towers – a little bit smaller but I don’t think anyone will notice – and we got a couple of hundred extras.

Then we filmed it with us in control of it. We even brought in safe explosives from Thailand and had rockets built that would fire smoke and not necessarily actually blow up. We had to plan all of that very carefully, just for it to be safe really, for a crew and a cast.

The relocation village… that’s too political to shoot in Laos, so we actually shot that in Northern Thailand and we kind of built into an old construction site. Which is often what happens in Laos. Because there’s not enough space to house all these people that have been displaced. We had a building site and we made that into a relocation village. We built a shanty and we used a bit of VFX to enhance the background of that shanty. That was very complex because we had to build something so it really felt real. We were building in places where there were real backgrounds where we could take control of the foreground, because it’s not an improvised, loose piece. We had a set shoot, a set schedule and we had to get it done or we wouldn’t finish the film.

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So the documentary footage shot of the rocket festival was presumably shot during a pre-production phase?

Yes, it was pre-production. We planned that right from the beginning. Sylvia [Wilczynski] and I have been to rocket festivals before and we thought that we have to get some of the real into there, because at a real rocket festival what you have is you have the real people of Laos. They’re not praying to these Gods, they’re aggravating them. All that energy and rawness, they’re asking for rain. But you’re also witnessing the most bombed place on the planet, by capita, shooting back at the sky. There’s this great catharsis and we thought that we’ve got to have some of that real emotion in there. We actually planned that well, well in advance. A year before we shot we were aiming to shoot at the real rocket festival. And then aiming to shoot six months after with the crew. It was very much planned.

How did you put together the balance between the personal and the political in The Rocket?

That was very much in the scripting early on. If you see our documentary, Bomb Harvest, one thing we decided very early on is that if you’re too heavy handed about politics you’re kind of preaching to the converted in a way. Because everyone else will go, ‘Eurgh, this just feels like a political history lesson. I’m turning it off. I don’t feel like watching this now.’ Whereas there is a beauty in it if you can entertain and entice and also somehow be parallel to people’s own lives.

Getting a dysfunctional family in there [into The Rocket]. Lets face it, we all have dysfunctional families. All around the world, every quarter of this planet. So if you can kind of give people things that they recognise and you can entertain them and you can transport them. Then if you kind of nudge in the politics very quietly into that landscape I think it’s a great way to get people to start to think about things, rather than preaching to them. In a way that people own their own opinions, rather than reject someone else’s opinion. It’s more open in a way, more interactive. We made that decision very early on about all the films we’ve made and every film we’ve made has kind of got that approach to it and I’m sure they will in the future as well. That’s just the way we work.

With the The Rocket there were documentary elements and with Bomb Harvest I understand there were sections you staged too, is that correct?

Yes, we have always brought the two mediums together and in Bomb Harvest the reason we shot some fiction in there was that it was about an Australian bomb disposal specialist, Laith Stevens. A terrific character – he would crack jokes over five hundred pound bombs, whilst he was cleaning up these killing machines. But there was some narrative to that film, which was about the kids who collect the bomb scrap metal.

In the end all the bombs you see him dealing with were real, full of explosive. It is documentary. You’re there with a live bomb and they’re working out how to deal with it. However with the kids who collect the bomb scrap metal we thought there’s no way we can stand there and film a kid digging up a real bomb, but we do want to tell this part of the story.

So what we did was we reenacted those scenes with the kids. We went and got safe, empty bombs and we put them somewhere and we said, ‘show us what you do, what do you do?’ And the kids were wonderful. They entered their memory and their imagination and they relived those moments. That’s why we used fiction in that film. Because there’s no way we’re going to film a kid digging up a live bomb.

Also, having said that, that was very much the inspiration for The Rocket. Working with these kids… it was just so amazing. And they taught me a bit about directing too. It taught me that you can over-direct things. That there’s a lot of power in letting things unravel, in giving space to what you’re trying to manipulate. In a way you let things kind of live and breathe and then you start to mould them. Rather than imposing direction too early where you kill the life out of everything and just make an imitation of yourself. That’s not directing. Directing is looking at what’s in front of you and trying to bring magic to it, trying to let it breathe. It was a great lesson, in a funny sort of way. I hate to say it but I have to credit some of my directing skills to the kids in Laos.

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You could say there is perhaps an 80/20 mix in The Rocket and Bomb Harvest, with documentary and fiction, but with each percentage reversed. Do you think you will continue with that blend and do you think you will lean more towards the documentary side or the fiction side in future?

My mind’s in fiction at at the moment and only because I’m writing quite a lot at the moment as well. Reading lots of screenplays that are coming in from all over the place. Documentary is great, don’t get me wrong, and I will make other documentaries if the subject is fascinating I won’t be able to resist but, having said that, documentaries are incredibly hard.

Number one you are dealing with real people’s lives and often I feel incredible discomfort about being in someone’s living room. They probably don’t ultimately want you there but that’s probably the time when it’s most interesting because like in any form of storytelling you’re looking for conflict. And looking for conflict in documentaries is very hard. Some people are better at it than others. I’m not too good at it. I tend to go into a little ball of discomfort.

And with documentary often you’re on a shot and you’re going, ‘The best shot’s just over there!’ [points away from where he is]. They’re in the middle of telling me something so I have to just take this rotten little overexposed background shot and that’s it I’m afraid. But what I love about fiction at the moment, it might change, is that you can really finesse the mis-en-scene in every moment. You can look at the backgrounds. I actually love that. I love paintings and fine art for that reason. I love looking at detail and what that means in terms of story and character.

So in fiction what I do love about it is that you can really, really finesse every moment until it’s right. Even in terms of doing takes. You can do twenty-five takes until you feel you’ve really got the essence and the absolute moment you need. You can light things. You can look at the delicate highlights and paint something to the point of where you think it’s really telling the story. At the moment I think I’m head inside fiction but that’s absolutely not to say that I won’t make more documentaries. And I think you’re right, there was always be a bit of a blend going on. Even in fiction I will try.

I’ve got no real interest in working on studio films. As much as I respect them, I think that sci-fi is wonderful, and as much as I respect those genres I need to breathe a bit of air in life at the same time.

You don’t want to spend seven years making Gravity

No, no, not for me. Not at this stage anyway.

You’re currently linked to directing a couple of films. But you said you are reading screenplays. Are you thinking of directing something you haven’t written?

Yes, yes. Absolutely. I ultimately want to make films with Sylvia. Who is the producer of The Rocket and is also my partner and my wife and we have a child together. With Sylvia I kind of know where I’m at and we trust each other. In filmmaking you can be reading scripts, you can be going into these relationships and sometimes you don’t even know if they’re real. Is this funded? Have I really got a chance on this or is someone just getting my feedback and then I’ll be removed? Are they suddenly going to say, sorry but we want this A list actor and you’ve got no chance of getting that person.

The great thing about working with Sylvia is that we make decisions together and we there’s a lot of creative control basically. But having said that I will definitely direct other people’s scripts and I’m reading a lot at the moment. But I want it to be something I feel close to because making a film, as you know, goes on for years. It’s a huge commitment, even if it’s someone else’s script. There are lots of extraordinary stories out there so I am open to those. Screen Australia are supporting the development of our next one at the moment. And we’ve just got back from Africa, where it’s partly set, so I’m now just knocking out a draft.

Is that Pink Mist?

Yeah, which is English speaking this time. We might even have a couple of actors that people know about. Just to make it a little bit easier on ourselves. Because The Rocket was really hard to get financed for Sylvia.

Just to let you know, the little boy [from The Rocket], he’s now actually in Australia. The associate producer, Pauline Phayvanh Phoumindr, and her partner are trying to foster him and we’re trying to get him into a school here. He really wanted to be here. It’s complicated, but that’s where he’s at at the moment. Looking very happy.

The Rocket is out now in UK cinemas and on Blu-ray and DVD from the 2nd of June.