I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Kim Mordaunt to talk about THE ROCKET, as well as his previous films and his personal connection with the country of Laos. Here’s what he had to say.
It’s obvious that some of your experiences from making BOMB HARVEST have manifested themselves in THE ROCKET, but can you begin by telling me about the origins of THE ROCKET and where your inspirations came from?
This all started a good ten years ago, when the producer (Sylvia Wilczynski) and I were living in Hanoi, Vietnam. Hanoi is very intense, there are lots of people, so going to Laos was always like going to the country. I grew up in the country, so going to Laos was actually like going home for me.
Then we discovered that Laos is the most bombed country in the world per capita. We travelled to this country knowing about the Vietnam War, but we had absolutely no idea about this secret war that bombed Laos more than Vietnam, and more than any country during the Second World War.
One thing that struck us from very early on was that we were in this country that had experienced huge adversity. It was hammered, it would have been like Armageddon: the skies opening up, people literally digging into the ground, trying to get away from this horrific bombing. And yet there were these people, they were singing, they were dancing, they were laughing, they had great wit that somehow was very contemporary and very enticing.
We were looking at these people and thinking that this would be a wonderful way to entice a Western audience into this incredible history. We didn’t want to fall into this terrible cliché that in a post-war reality everyone is sitting around moping. Yes, there are very damaged elements and people were terribly hurt, but the Lao people are wanting to move forward and wanting to find joy again, so we thought it was very important to make that a part of the story.
Also, when BOMB HARVEST was released, one thing that the Lao community all around the world said was, ‘We loved BOMB HARVEST, but why couldn’t the protagonist be Lao?’ We took this request very seriously.
It’s all of those things that led us to make THE ROCKET: the experience of making BOMB HARVEST, and the Lao community asking us to make something that’s in the Lao language, with the face of their people as the romantic leads.
In that case, why did you decide to make a fictional piece, instead of another documentary that was this time focused around a Lao protagonist?
I have always been interested in fiction. Documentary filmmaking is a living form. It happens in front of you and takes you in certain directions, and not always the direction that you want to go in. I thought that I would love to create a story where I could put in all of the detail that would normally be confined to the ‘great background’ in a documentary film. And of course, fiction can find a larger audience. That was a very important thing.
Laos is beautiful to look at on film. How was your experience filming there? In BOMB HARVEST and THE ROCKET it comes across as a wonderful yet incredibly dangerous place. Was there constantly an element of risk? And how did this affect the logistics of filmmaking?
We actually shot part of the film in northern Thailand. The rocket festival that you see and all of the landscapes were shot in Laos. Some of the more political scenes, and the kids running through jungles, were filmed in Thailand – the reason being that we didn’t want to run the kids through jungles that potentially had bombs in them! And the political reasons being that in Laos there are currently 50+ hydro dams in planning, and some of the material around the dams we were not allowed to shoot in Laos.
But the rocket festival was incredibly complex to shoot, because in a real rocket festival you’ve got rockets that are up to a ton in weight. That is warfare-size explosives that can fall on their sides, that call fall off platforms and kill people. So we couldn’t put the crew, the cast or the kids in that risky situation. What you see on screen is a mixture of documentary, fiction and VFX all pulled together. It had to be very carefully planned, or we wouldn’t have been able to pull that off.
Laos is a country that is very rarely seen on film, it is a culture that I was practically unaware of until I came into contact with your films, and I expect the vast majority of the audience in the UK will feel the same way. Why do you think this is?
Laos was bombed very heavily, and the war backfired. The Americans pulled out after spending a huge amount of money, and the Lao people decided never to allow that to happen again. There was a revolution, and the people decided that the country was essentially closed to the West.
Making BOMB HARVEST took us two years of research. Trying to get permissions, we had to meet the press department, the government, organisations, village chiefs and the police. For THE ROCKET we had 20 government minders! It is incredibly complex to shoot there, and that’s probably why we haven’t seen much from the country.
In terms of the Lao film industry, they have great young filmmakers who are tending to make genre horror films, because it is very difficult to be political in a country like that. It’s much easier for an outsider to be political. They don’t have a funded industry, which is why we made the film out of Australia.
The performances in the film are universally excellent, especially the two children. How did you discover them, and what were they like to work with?
We had a long, long search. It took a very long time to find these kids. Sylvia and I roamed across schools keeping our eyes open. We looked everywhere.
The little girl (Loungnam Kaosainam) was part of a little drama group on the outskirts of Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and she straight away struck me as having a strong sense of self. And that’s what I wanted, to find people who had a very strong sense of themselves, and then I was going to rewrite around them so we could get human beings who are very much who they are in the film. I told her the story of THE ROCKET and her eyes emoted everything. I had never pitched a film to anyone who had laughed, cried, fallen into depression and got back up again, it was all happening with her.
Originally I had written the film for an eleven-year-old, and when I met Loungnam she was only eight, and I realised that in developing countries an eight-year-old is like an eleven-year-old, and an eleven-year-old is like a teenager. She was inhibited by adulthood and I loved that about her.
For the boy (Sitthiphon Disamoe) it was a lot more difficult. When we found him, he had been a street kid for a few years. Because of this he had a lot of attitude. He said he could do anything. Partly because he was a street kid, he didn’t show any vulnerability, so even though he had this great exterior, he did not emote deeply. He had 95% of what we needed, but he didn’t have that essential emotional interior. I shared parts of my life with him, I talked honestly with him about things that had broken my heart, I talked to him about loss, about the loss of parents, and then he started to listen and align himself with the character of Ahlo. From that point we knew we would get there and find something very honest and deeply embedded in him from part of his history.
And then of course it all went pear-shaped. The kids fought like mad! But as the shoot went on they had to share each other’s lives, they were sending each other love letters and holding hands, and before the end of the shoot they sort of became soulmates.
As well as being entertaining and a great film in its own right, THE ROCKET is also very educational for a Western audience. What were your research methods, and was it as much an educational experience for you as it will be for its audience in the UK?
The past ten years has been constant learning for me, and I’m still learning. To research the film, as you know we made the documentary, so we spent months on the ground with many people. For THE ROCKET we went to more than ten villages and talked to people of all different generations. Nothing has been done by Google!
BOMB HARVEST was the longest shoot at the time that had ever been done in Laos. We spent months, day and night, living in tents, going through 45-degree heat, traveling with the bomb disposal team seven days a week, living with them. It’s a long process of research, but it feels like going back to school every time, a great privilege.
As well as this, the film is also a huge crowd-pleaser. Why do you think this is?
The film is dealing with very important themes: the secret war, the relocation of traditional people, the loss of tradition. But it is also simply the story of an underdog. Even though the detail is unusual and transporting, we made a decision to give it a traditional story form.
At the core of the film is a family, a dysfunctional family – and is dysfunction in family not something we see all the time? The film is quite honest about dysfunction, not only in family but also in self. Also, we are witnessing great courage of people who have experienced great adversity, and the viewers can go on a journey with these characters and get excited as they do.
How was the film received in Laos? And can we expect anything else based in Laos from you in the future?
The Lao government did not let us play the film there, because of the political nature of the dams. We could have cut that whole section out, but then we decided that we didn’t want to make a censored piece of propaganda.
For now, we would like to start a little film school in Laos and develop the industry there, but we need to let the seeds settle first, then I would love to do more things in Laos. The country is like a second home to me now.