The Long Walk directed by Mattie Do

Director Mattie Do discusses her genre-bending film The Long Walk

The Laotian filmmaker talks bug sounds, Asian Futurism and new projects.

The Long Walk defies easy categorization. It’s a horror movie and a mystery, and it has elements of science fiction and time travel. In some distant future, a Laotian hermit discovers that a roadside ghost can transport him back in time to the moment of his mother’s painful death. A traumatic meditation on grief that integrates Asian Futurism and folk horror elements, The Long Walk creates a complex and visceral horror experience. 

Over the past decade, director Mattie Do has made a name for herself as Laos’s first and only female filmmaker. Raised in Los Angeles to Laotian refugees, she was raised in California but returned to Laos about 10 years ago with her husband and collaborator, Christopher Larsen. Back home, she’s worked with the Ministry of Culture to help set up the infrastructure necessary to introduce foreign co-production to Laos.

The Long Walk is her third feature film. It screened at Sitges (where she picked up the New Visions Award for Best Director), the Venice Film Festival and the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, where it picked up awards for Best Actor for Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy and Best Cinematography for Matthew Macar. The film is now screening on Shudder. 

This interview was conducted over Zoom and has been condensed for length.

Justine Smith: Your husband wrote the screenplay, but I imagine you have a collaborative process. How did you two write the script for The Long Walk?

Mattie Do: Maybe (some) artists have processes like step one, step two and step three, which is not the case for us. I think of an idea, and it could be completely hair-brained, and then we start throwing it back and forth. The strange thing that we have that maybe other people don’t have is that we live together. We are with each other almost 24/7. He goes out to write, and then he comes back home. In our relationship, we talk about work constantly — while I’m cooking, while we’re eating, while we’re playing with the dogs. Work for us is really organic.

An idea comes, and it gets developed through us talking, and then eventually, he’ll outline it. Then we’ll go through the event, and then he’ll start to form pages. He thinks on a very different level than I do. He thinks in script pages and treatment structure. Whereas I think in scattered pieces. I have a scene that I want visually, and I’ll describe it. I’ll (think of) an event that doesn’t necessarily fit into the beginning, middle or end yet. He has to write it down and then find where it fits and how it connects to the rest of the story. He’s building the bones and the connective tissue. I’m building the sinews. Not to sound super deranged, but I breathe the anima into it.

JS: I read that the sound of the insects in the film was from the location rather than being added. Can you talk about that?

MD: It was a sound we didn’t anticipate having initially, but we arrived on set one day, and it was just there. We thought it was a mechanical failure. We had everyone turn off phones, turn off equipment and remove batteries from everything. Then we realized that it was a natural sound. I loved it. I call it the “saw bug,” but I don’t even know what it is. I’ve never heard that sound in Vientiane, only in the countryside. I decided I would use that for the old man’s timeline, but then it became a bitch in sound because we had to spend so much time meticulously cleaning that sound out of any other time. That sucked.

JS: More generally, how are you using sound to create atmosphere?

MD: I might be presumptuous in saying this, but many people have lost touch with nature a little bit. Especially people in developed urban areas or in the western world because they’re surrounded by so much creature comfort: Their homes are soundproof and climate controlled. Nature is just outside my door. If It were daylight right now, you’d literally see vines growing, trying to come into my window. For us who live in Laos, we have to find a way to reconcile the fact that as modern as we become, nature is always there. Nature is always trying to take us back. I call it the Lao entropy. If you leave a building abandoned here for just three years, it gets swallowed up by the jungle immediately. I wanted people to see in the film that no matter how technologically advanced we are, nature is extremely powerful.

With my sound engineer Alex Boyesen, we erased most of the pleasant-sounding bugs and beautiful birds from the old man’s timeline. I wanted to create this world where it felt like, in the future, people weren’t taking care of nature. In real life, when you hear that high-pitched sound, it’s a bug, but it sounds electronic in the film. You don’t get a warm sense of nature. In the little boy’s timeline, there are so many birds chirping all the time, even at night. In Laos, the birds sing even at night. It builds a soundscape where things are less sullied, and things get progressively worse depending on what timeline you’re in. Also, with my composer, Anthony Weeden, I wanted the music to feel almost metallic-like, drilling into your heart in the old man’s timeline. Even though there are strings, I wanted the sound of strings that maybe weren’t tuned or even rusted — like when you take two corrugated metal pieces and slice ’em together.

The Long Walk (Directed by Mattie Do)

JS: I read a review of your film that invoked Tropical Futurism, and I thought that was an interesting framing. Do you relate to that in any way?

MD: I don’t know about Tropical Futurism, but we talk about Asian Futurism a lot. This film was just involved with The National Taiwan Museum of Modern Art for an entire Biennale on Asian Futurism. Professors were breaking down the way I portray this futuristic Asian world. It’s incredible to hear this academic analysis of my film. I have a friend, she’s working on a film right now and is incredibly talented, Isabel Sandoval (Lingua Franca), and her new film is called Tropical Gothic.

I used to be impressed reading about explorers from back in the day, like The Lost City of Z. One of the most interesting things about these places like El Dorado was that these cities were more advanced than anything that we’ve seen before and these explorers looked for them forever. They were always on adventures searching, and many of them died in the jungle searching for them. People couldn’t find them because the jungle had just taken over the city completely, engulfed and swallowed them. Now we have all this technology and radar, and they were able to discover these massive cities under the jungle in places like the Amazon. They had amazing roadways and amazing systems for urban life. There was urbanization and it was probably way more advanced than what they had in occidental countries.

Even Indigenous Canadians say that their cities were incredibly futuristic and advanced. They lived amongst nature, too, so their cities incorporated nature. I’m not sure how verified this is, but for every resource they’d use, they’d replant a tree, for instance. They were living an advanced life with nature. If they didn’t get wiped out by plagues or white people, it would be pretty incredible to see.

JS: Are you working on any new projects, anything interesting that we could look forward to, uh, that you can talk about?

MD: I have three films I’m working on right now. One, I can’t talk about too much because it wasn’t originally ours, but we did get the rewrite. It’s a thriller that I started to imbue with white privilege themes.

I’m also working on a love story about quantum entanglement between two girls who have an unknown connection and end up forced together. I like to call it a love story that transcends gender, culture, class. It’s also very dark and fucked up.

Then I have a zombie sexpat film that I’m working on. It’s a creature feature, a little more fun and a little more straightforward.

The love story one, that’s my baby. I’m going to make sure I get that one extra right. ■

The Long Walk, directed by Mattie Do

The Long Walk is currently streaming on Shudder.

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