What you need to know
Bangkok-based director Tom Waller talks about his experiences profiling Thailand's last gunshot executioner and why so few Thai films make it big internationally.
By Anthony Kao
Tom Waller is a Bangkok-based director of "The Last Executioner," a biopic about the last gunshot executioner in Thailand — Chavoret Jaruboon.
Born in Thailand to a Thai Buddhist mother and Irish Catholic father, Waller has produced, directed and written numerous film and television projects across Thailand, China, the U.S., and more. His multicultural upbringing and international experiences have shaped many of his projects including "The Last Executioner," which touches upon how Jaruboon struggles with the notions of sin and guilt amidst an overwhelmingly Buddhist and karma-driven Thai culture.
We caught up with Waller and discussed his experiences making "The Last Executioner," the status of capital punishment in Thai society, and why so few Thai films make it big internationally.
Cinema Escapist: What drew you to the story of Chavoret Jaruboon and led you to make "The Last Executioner?"
Tom Waller: I read about his passing in the Bangkok Post newspaper. As I recall, the obituary referred to him amongst other things as a “rock’n’roll executioner.” It immediately grabbed me, and I thought that his story could make a great film, especially with its themes of guilt and sin, the story of an ordinary man with a license to kill. Being raised as a Catholic and with a Buddhist mother, I have always been fascinated by the notion of good and bad karma, which this film very much explores.
CE: Did you have any interaction with Chavoret’s family while making the film?
Waller: The first thing we did when we set about making a film inspired by his life was approaching his widow and family for permission. They were hesitant at first since his death from cancer was still fresh in their minds, but slowly they came around to liking the idea and were eventually very supportive. The writer, Don Linder, spent many hours interviewing his wife, children and close friends for his research.
CE: What did they think of the eventual film?
Waller: His family attended the premiere in Bangkok, and yes, their response was quite positive. In fact, they would have liked to see more characters from his life depicted in the film.
CE: What was the reception of the film like in Thailand when it was released?
Waller: To be honest, the reception was lukewarm in Thailand, since this type of film is considered arthouse, and if not watching Hollywood movies most Thai audiences prefer to watch the local comedy or romance films. We struggled to stay in cinemas, and the competition at the time we released the film was another "Transformers" and "Planet of the Apes" sequel. I remember seeing a huge Optimus Prime statue standing in the foyer of the cinema which dwarfed our cardboard cutout of Chavoret.
CE: In "The Last Executioner," we see how Chavoret contends with the stigma of being an executioner in a heavily Buddhist country that puts a lot of stock into karma and non-violence. Can you tell us more about to what extent this stigma actually exists in Thailand today, and how Thais perceive capital punishment in general?
Waller: I think most Thais are ambivalent about the death penalty. They know it exists, but unless it affects their lives specifically they care little about the consequences. As it stands we have been in a moratorium on this for many years now, so Chavoret really was the last person to single-handedly take the lives of death row prisoners, which makes his story somewhat unique.
CE: If there is such a taboo around capital punishment, why might it still be on the books in Thailand?
Waller: I am sure everyone agrees that lethal injection is more humane, but few speak out about capital punishment, so it's as if society accepts that this is part of the justice system, a deterrent if you like, for heinous crimes.
CE: On a different note, you’re a producer for "Battle of Memories," a Chinese sci-fi movie financed by Wanda Pictures (one of China’s biggest film production companies) that came out late April. How did you get involved with the project?
Waller: Over the years, my company has been providing production services for international movies wanting to shoot in Thailand, and our company was recommended to the Chinese producer by a friend after we finished working on "Mechanic: Resurrection." We were very pleased to be able to work with director Leste Chen on realizing the vision for his film, which was shot almost entirely in Bangkok.
CE: With "Battle of Memories" as an example — I can think of quite a few movies from not just China, but also the U.S. (for example: "The Hangover Part II") that are shot in Thailand. However, it’s not as easy to see actual Thai-made films in international settings. Do you think that’s an accurate perception and, if so, why do you think that’s the case?
Waller: I think it's hard for Thai films to travel, not just because of the language barrier, but also because most big films which do well in Thailand are in the comedy or romantic comedy genre. That just doesn’t translate to audiences in other territories, except perhaps if they are ghost or horror titles. Distributors overseas are wary of trying to release foreign films that just don’t have enough audience appeal. Martial arts and “Muay Thai” movies have had some success abroad, but its more often than not that you will find it difficult to see a Thai film distributed overseas. Now, with VOD its getting a bit easier. For example, all of our titles are available to view on FilmDoo.com.
CE: You were born in Thailand, are based in Bangkok, and have made plenty of Thai projects. At the same time, you were educated in the U.K. and have also worked on many films outside Thailand. Do you see yourself as a Thai filmmaker?
Waller: I am, but I’m also international. I don’t consider myself as being only Thai. I’m more of a world citizen.
CE: Do you have any other films in the works right now?
Waller: Yes, I’m working on an ambitious historical film about the French trying to colonize Siam in the 17th Century. There were so many interesting characters, such as Constantine Phaulkon, the Greek favorite of King Narai. The story has been with me since I moved back to live in Thailand 15 years ago, Hopefully, it won’t take me another 15 years to get it made.
This article was originally published in Cinema Escapist as "An interview with Tom Waller, director of “The Last Executioner”
Editor: Olivia Yang