Q&A: Beauty, Scandal and Revenge in 'At Road's End'

Q&A: Beauty, Scandal and Revenge in 'At Road's End'
Credit: Black Dragon Movie Corp.

What you need to know

After two years working on their movie, 'At Road's End', director Pratik Suketu and producer Gideon Welles discuss Taiwan's inspirational mist-veiled mountains, compelling female antiheroes and the island's history of economic success and environmental shame.

“At Road’s End” (毀) follows a "bad-ass Taiwanese antihero" as she investigates the source of a mysterious sickness in her native village in the hills outside Taipei.

Set in 1988, the movie is a fictionalized retrospective that deals with the unseen environmental costs of Taiwan’s triumphant emergence as a so-called “miracle economy” in the 1970s.

Rendered in gorgeous 6K video, the movie showcases the island’s breathtaking, mist-veiled landscapes and frames a uniquely Taiwanese revenge narrative in a manner accessible to a global audience.

As Black Dragon Movie Corp., the company behind the movie, launches an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to complete post-production in Taiwan, The News Lens sat down with Indian-American director Pratik Suketu and Taiwanese-American producer Gideon Welles to discuss the movie’s inspiration and the experience of making a first-time feature in Taiwan.

The film is set in Dahuwei village in Pinglin (坪林). How did your relationship with that place come about?

Gideon Welles: Through a family friend. I met this community of tea farmers in Pinglin, which is about an hour outside of Taipei. I hit it off with one of the farmers there called Brother Zhou — we became drinking buddies, He was amazed at my ability to drink Kaoliang (高粱) and Taiwan Beer at the same time.

Whose idea was it to make ‘At Road’s End’?

Pratik Suketu: The origin of the main character is a short story I had written. It all happened around the same time in September-October 2015. Gideon was going up to the mountains and I had shared this short story with him, and so he was just like “oh yeah I’ve been going up this mountain tea farming village,” and I said that sounds fuckin’ awesome. So he took me up there, and the farmers were like, “Wow I think you’re the first brown person to ever put your foot on this land!” The whole village was so beautiful. I started modifying the short story, and then we did this trip around the island for Chinese New Year, and that’s when I met Kerly [Brown Ahmed], our writer, a college friend of Gideon’s.

Welles: She helped us adapt the short story, which is about a young woman out for revenge, and that coupled with the whole trip around the island. We wanted to shoot a movie, that’s gritty, about revenge and shows Taiwan’s landscape.

《毀》AT ROAD’S END TEASER from Black Dragon Movie Corp on Vimeo.

Was your short story set in Taiwan? How did that adaption take place?

Suketu: Yeah it was. The original short story was pretty simplistic – more me venting about work. The main character reacted to a situation and I wished one of my co-workers had reacted that way. The work culture in this office, even for Taiwan standards, was kind of sexist. One of the managers shifted the blame to one of his subordinates, who was one of my closer friends in the office, but I felt powerless to intervene. I really wish this co-worker or somebody else would have backed her up, stood up for her, ‘cause she got egregiously yelled at for something that was really the manager putting on a show and shifting the blame.

In respect to the recent #MeToo social media movement, would you have changed anything in your original reaction?

Suketu: Yeah. If I were in that situation today, even though I couldn’t speak Mandarin, I probably would have called out the manager in English. At first, when it started it was a distinctive criticism of Hollywood, but since then it's like expanded to everything. The big thing with the #MeToo is, I always knew that it was a problem, but seeing pretty much every person I’m close to publicly or even privately in our conversations mention something that has happened to them, I think I would have at the very least, the minimum I could have done, was just like “yo, that’s not ok.” As a dude, that’s such an easy thing for us to say.

How did you go about developing this exchange into a film idea?

Welles: After we came back from that trip, we took the story to Keryl, who’s a screenwriting major. We thought that as our main character was a woman, it was important to have a diverse and strong female voice. We had a first draft within couple of months.

Suketu: The three of us found common ground through the films and sources of inspirations that we were trying to bring to the table. A big source of inspiration was Spaghetti Westerns. Specifically the "Dollars Trilogy” by Leone (Director Sergio Leone).

Welles: We joked, when we went to the tea farm, maybe we can make this a “Tofu Western”! Defining our own genre kinda thing.

Can we give a plot synopsis without any spoilers?

Welles: It’s Taiwan in 1988. We follow a young photographer who comes back to her childhood village to find out what has been causing a mysterious sickness going around the village. She comes back and goes out to find out who’s responsible.

Credit: Black Dragon Movie Corp.
Actress Mu Mei (莊承梅) fronts the 'At Road's End' movie poster.

You mentioned having access to the tea farm, how did that inspire you?

Welles: It is representative of farmers’ lifestyle, not just in Pinglin but all across Taiwan. Fresh food, lots of tea, a lot of outdoors, you’re putting a lot of hours outside, working the farms, but there’s also that sense of community. Two foreigners being welcomed into this village of 20 people. I hadn’t really felt that before in my life and it was really good.

Suketu: A big source of inspiration was the Flint, Michigan case, which was going on at the same time as we were writing. A bit of background on that — to save money the city of Michigan changed their water source, and that led to high levels of lead in the water.

Welles: That ended up being how we could tie in revenge and landscape: through environmental pollution. After the 60s and 70s, Taiwan experienced an economic boom, the result was great for the economy and for most people but the side-effect was that various places in Taiwan had a lot of bad consequences in terms of the environment. As we were finishing up the script, our Taiwanese executive producer Belinda [Hsieh] (謝璧蓮) was like, “Hey, you guys know about this thing that happened in Taiwan called the RCA incident?” where a French-American company polluted the groundwater in Taoyuan (桃園). We thought that would be a great way to ground this in Taiwan.

How did you go about finding your cast members?

Welles: We held an open audition, starting in April-May 2016. We found half our cast that way. The first guy we cast was one of the bad guys. We had a couple roles we had people audition for, and we just tell them to read it different ways. Everyone’s trying to audition for the main roles of course but we just ended up finding other characters through that.

Suketu: It was important to see how they take direction. The first role we cast was reading the part of the good guys, but I just asked him to “read it more sinister, read it more like a scumbag, read it like you’re Trump’s son” and he just nailed it. He was able to make that switch, even though the lines were very positive, he was able to change his demeanor, and the way he was presenting himself.

Welles: Then we both went to the U.S. for the summer 2016, and when we came back we still didn’t have the main actress. We ended up being referred to [lead actress] Mu-Mei. Basically, it was great. In her first audition out of college, she nailed it.

Suketu: It really struck me was that before she even started reading the role she was asking me specific questions about the lines we had given her character. Normally, people just jump straight into it, I give them direction, they change it up a bit, and that was the evaluation process. But Mei nailed it first read through and I was like “Crap, what direction do I give her?”

Credit: Black Dragon Movie Corp.
A still from 'At Road's End' released in support of the Indiegogo campaign.

Did you start the project as amateurs or did you have funding?

Welles: We both ended up quitting our full-time jobs at the end of 2016. There was a period of which we were definitely doing things very Indie, before we got green-lit but the pivotal moment was when we had a motorcycle incident in Pinglin. I was not the most experienced driver, so we basically just fell down this hill. The bike was banged up, we were bleeding, flesh wounds everywhere, I came back to the apartment and was just lying on the couch and I was like “Pratik, we have now bled for this movie, this is going to happen.”

Suketu: We didn’t even tell our parents, I don’t think my mom knows about the bike crash. I was Skyping with my friend back home, and I told him this had happened and that now we have to make this film because we have bled for it. The friend — Scott [Orzech], our first executive producer — he had been grappling with quitting his job at Apple…

Welles: He was trying to move towards more meaningful projects. Our movie was the first one. He was the first [executive producer] and we had Belinda well. As soon as she heard that this movie was about showing a Taiwanese story and showing more of Taiwan, how could we improve Taiwan through movies … she was all in.

What else attracted Belinda do you think?

Suketu: Having a lead character that’s very different from what we’ve seen internationally.

Welles: There’s not many Taiwanese anti-hero bad-ass roles we’ve seen.

Suketu: Aside from the Michigan case, another thing that was in our head was the really shitty casting decisions from Hollywood. That was when “Ghost in the Shell” was announced, “Aloha” had just come out. “Ghost in the Shell” that anime was hugely influential to me as a kid…

We wanted to create a more three-dimensional story and three-dimensional characters, that better represent the roles we want to see. — Writer/producer Gideon Welles

How did you feel about the casting of Scarlett Johansson in such a quintessentially Japanese role?

Suketu: I still haven’t seen the movie, if that helps explain how I feel about it.

Welles: People have the opportunity to create something meaningful, obviously we are shooting a movie in Taiwan so moving away from that Hollywood stuff, but we wanted to create a more three-dimensional story and three-dimensional characters, that better represent the roles we want to see.

Did you have a chance to involve the community in Pinglin as well in minor roles?

Welles: Brother Zhou’s father, he was called A Bo (阿伯), so uncle. We had a few villagers who were in the movie and Brother Zhou lent us his living room, we filmed an action scene there, so that was pretty cool. Brother Zhou also inspired a role in the movie — also called Brother Zhou — which was more of a character version of himself, but at the end of the day we ended up finding a really well-seasoned actor to perform the role so I think it worked out.

Are you the first two foreigners to do a film like this in Taiwan?

Suketu: We might be the first international filmmakers to shoot something on the red camera system in Mandarin in Taiwan in 6k.

Welles: The red camera system is a cinema company, we worked with our DP (Director of Photography), David, he’s a Canadian DP based in Taipei he’s been here for a while and he had his own gear so that was really useful.

Suketu: Originally we planned on doing everything on DSLR, like tiny cameras and stuff, and when we met David he’s like I’ve got this full-on camera setup.

What have you learned from the process?

Welles: Making an independent film is hard enough, doing it in Chinese is even harder. It’s not just about making the next movie but how can we improve Taiwan’s Indie scene as a whole? There are so many stories in Taiwan…

Suketu: That would resonate internationally as well, so many authentic Taiwanese stories that people around the world could connect to.

Welles: Have you seen “Okja" the new Netflix film? It was a Netflix and Korean co-production, and it’s done in a way where it feels like a very international movie, and I feel like as we’re moving into this over-the-top-content-media-world, Hollywood is not necessary the center of conversation, that’s why we’re interested in growing the scene here, we want to be part of that conversation.

Where are we in terms of release and distribution?

Welles: We finished filming earlier this year, we’re doing an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. That’s to help us cover post-production cost, visual effects, sound mixing, coloring, music. As much as possible will be done in Taiwan, but we have some effects people in L.A. The composer we’re talking to is Taiwanese but lives internationally. We think it’s important, how much we can bring to Taiwan, includes doing some of the post-work here, and that also goes toward festivals next year and marketing. Usually when you have a film crowdfunding campaign it's the same prizes, but we got tea from the same farm where we shot the movie, so we think that’s something that will really resonate with people because everyone loves Taiwan tea.

When will people be able to see the movie?

Welles: In terms of festival we’re aiming for the next spring cycle starting next year. That’s when we’ll be doing more public events. We hope that with this public campaign we have a minimum goal to finish the movie, but, if we can stretch that goal further, we want to bring it to audiences around the world.

Who do do you think that audience is?

Welles: I’m half Taiwanese, but pretty much a foreigner, just how I look, same with Pratik, we don’t claim to represent or know 100 percent what is authentic Taiwanese, maybe only Taiwanese people are qualified to do that. However, as a result of our experiences here, we see a lot of value in showing Taiwan and telling Taiwanese stories. I imagine this might resonate with a lot of Taiwanese-Americans, especially now there’s a lot more push to see more representation in Hollywood. So maybe Taiwanese-Americans and Asian-Americans will be supportive of our project, and hopefully go from there.

To find out more about "At Road's End" or Black Dragon Movie Corp., visit their Facebook page or website.