It’s been seventeen years since director Wych Kaosayananda’s Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever put him on the radar for many a filmgoer for several reasons. For someone pennamed Kaos for the film’s marketing, I totally expected Wych to stick around and blow minds. Of course, that was how my fanboy brain worked at the time.
Wych and I spoke of this and more back in 2014 for our first interview, and he certainly gave an in-depth perspective about his career to keep in mind. Around this time, he had just finished a seething murder mystery thriller called Angels along with serving as director of photography for a few projects from directors like Daniel Zirilli and actor Dustin Nguyen. I don’t plan on re-editing it like recent reprints given the time-sensitivity, but I welcome anyone willing to check it out if it provides any current and needed context.
For this, the director and father of three just wrapped a trio of projects, save for a few stops and start along the way, and he is as candid now as he was then, which I think is something most of us can appreciate. There are also some reality-hitting blurbs in here to – such is the nature of the film industry, of course. My goal, aside from casting a spotlight on some of his upcoming works incluidng Dead Earth, The Driver and One Night In Bangkok, is to simply share Wych’s story, in his own clear and concise words.
They’re the words of someone who enjoys and loves what he does, someone who is honest, works hard and gravitates people around him in the best way. I know this for a fact – apart from our own conversations – having just watched ninety minutes of behind-the-scenes footage for Dead Earth, which you can read more about by clicking here. Otherwise, feel free to jump below and get into the thick of it, including exclusive behind-the-scenes photos collated below.
A lot has happened for you since we spoke. Congratulations on your newborn son, first and foremost by the way!
Thank you so much. It’s been an interesting twelve days or so. He’s fantastic. I named after Mark’s character Kai after him in One Night In Bangkok. True story.
You worked on additional photography to refurbish your 2012 crime drama, Angels, into Zero Tolerance. I would have loved to have seen Angels circulate, and at one point you took it to Cannes and you told me long after, that buyers said it needed more of a global appeal. Talk about the prospects for this film then compared to now with the trend we’re seeing in terms of the increase of Asian representation in film and television.
It was a big learning experience for me and Zach Smith who’d partnered up with me for the first time. We couldn’t sell it for a decent price because we didn’t have a “star”. I’d written it specifically for the people I cast which were all friends of mine. Dustin, Sahajak, Gary, Way etc. I’m very proud of that movie. It was the first time I was able to make the movie I had in my head. From a story standpoint. I believed if you made a good movie, an audience would find it. What I neglected to think about was, I had to get a distributor to buy it first or there would be no audience.
It was a twenty-two day shoot for me, which at the time was a very short time from what I was used to. Fast forward seven years and I’m shooting movies in nine days! [laughs] But back to Angels, I got a lot of praise, which I felt was genuine, (you can sort of tell for the most part if you’ve been doing this for as long as I have and have made enough bad movies) but the problem was no one knew how to sell it. It was a slow burn drama with elements of action and crime in it. And this was pre-Netflix.
Today I think it would have done really well on that streaming service, as in, it would have found an audience. Netflix or Amazon I think would have suited it well. They probably wouldn’t have paid much for it, but it would have found an audience. Audiences I believe have always loved foreign movies subtitles and all, it’s just they were always hard to find. That is no longer the case today, although studio execs still need to understand that.
Talk about meeting Scott Adkins for the first time and the process of creating his character and mixing him in to Dustin Nguyen’s story.
I spoke with Scott before I met him. It was a typical conversation in these circumstances. He’d accepted an offer to fly in to Thailand (a place he’d worked in recently) to do four days and for him on the call, I think it was just to determine that I could communicate with him. Funny thing is, it took me some time to adjust to his normal accent over the phone [laughs]. But we had a really good conversation which turned out better when he landed and we started working together. We’ve become pretty good friends.
Writing the part was difficult. How do you insert someone into an already finished movie which had already been released in Vietnam? But the mandate was there from our biggest investor as he was told one of the smaller studios would buy it. The investor and I are good friends, and we remain so, and I felt I had a fiduciary responsibility to try make some money back for everyone. I failed that, but we tried our best. The good thing that came out of it was meeting and working with Scott who was terrific. But he was severely jet lagged and was fighting the flu. So it was miserable for him, so much so afterwards he called me and apologized even though I never once felt he was phoning it or anything while we were shooting it.
Up to turning in my cut of the new footage, I felt very good about the movie. That was when I did the last Q&A with you. And then everything kinda fell apart, again. The small studio didn’t buy it and someone outside our production team took it upon himself to chop and make changes to the movie. I’d taken extreme care in how the movie was going to look, and when I saw the final cut, it opens with what looks like something shot with a Black Berry it wasn’t even iPhone quality. Images of Angel as a child. “WTF?” was the first thought in my head. It wasn’t as drastic a change as say Ballistic, but it was enough for me to only have seen it once. But a funny thing happened. Lionsgate brought the movie, and a relationship formed with Barry Brooker and I which continues to this day. I’m still looking for something to do with Scott, but he’s super busy these days and I probably can’t afford him now.
You served as DP on Dustin’s directorial debut which we know outside of Vietnam here in the states as Once Upon A Time In Vietnam. There’s history there. And I understand, this was after Angels was shot. Talk about working with Dustin.
I spent many years in L.A., and during those years, Dustin, Doug Nam and Vincent Ngo were my closest friends. I think Dustin and I went through a year or two where we basically saw each other every single day. We’d have Thai Noodles together for lunch and then have coffee at least twice a day at Urth Café on Mel Rose before Urth Café became the hip place to be.
Working with Dustin the actor and director was both an extremely fun and rewarding experience. He’s a terrific actor and his first movie as a director was my first as a DP for someone else other than myself. I think we both learned more from one another than we’d care to admit about that experience and in hindsight, it was a great experience. Any issues I had with Dustin was Dustin the producer – which then translated to other issues and culminated in me not being able to grade the finished product, which killed me.
The experience was fantastic. The people I met there, Veronica [Ngo], the crew, awesome people who were super talented. Actually working with Veronica and Quan the AD was some of the best memories for me. All the actors there were so talented. All of them. I think Dustin did a great job with the whole thing, it just looks nothing like the way we planned it or how I shot it.
As a man of your craft, talk about what goes into photography and filming as I reckon it involves more than pointing a camera.
Well I actually didn’t start off as a DP. I was just fortunate to have been able to work with some incredible DPs. I’ve always had a love for cameras and photography, and my first formal lesson in the field was in photography in Christ Church NZ when I was sixteen. I always placed my own cameras most of the time and picked the lens, in consultation with my DPs and would usually go with their recommendations if it were different to my ideas, because they know more then me and I’d learn from it.
I started operating my camera straight out of the gate on Fha years earlier, so I wasn’t uncomfortable with it. I did some commercials in the US and the DPs I got to work with were exceptional. Krash. Russell Carpenter, Ellen Kuras and a couple of others of the same caliber. Every day on set with them I always spent more time watching them work. And of course I worked with Julio Macat who’s maybe the most underated DP working today. He has an incredible list of credits, super nice guy and just an amazing person. Watching him work for fifty something days was inspirational. But the person who convinced me I could do it was Joseph Kahn, who is perhaps the most talented director working today who’s still under the radar somewhat. I feel he’s a much better filmmaker than a lot of his contemporaries who have gone on to gain fame through hit movies. Joseph knows more about the craft of filmmaking then anyone I’ve ever spoken to. And yes, he and I are friends, but if it didn’t genuinely feel this way about his talent, I wouldn’t bring it up. Working with him and just visiting him on his music video sets back in the day helped me decide to be my own DP when I got back to Thailand. And none of which answers your questions! [laughs]…
Which brings me back to your question. I know what I want, I know how to get it. Since I’m the director and a lot of times, I’m making something that either I wrote or came up with in story, it’s a very easy and natural process for me, and I have a terrific crew in Thailand, some of whom have been with me for over ten years now. My AC is a full on DP who’s shot many movies on his own and is a very good steadicam operator. My B-cam Russ Stoddard could shoot a movie on his own if he ever decided it was something he wanted to do. He shoots all my second unit stuff.
I don’t plan my shots exactly the way Joseph does since I work mainly in film and not commercials or MVs, and I let the blocking dictate how I’m going to shoot it. And for better or worse the past few years, we just didn’t have the budget for rehearsals and full prep so it’s mostly instinctive. I do always use a lot of lights though, I can appreciate natural looking films, but I prefer to light my movies. And I don’t live and die by the so-called rules of filmmaking that you learn in school. I know the rules, I understand them, but for example, I believe blocking and eyeline trumps crossing the line. Audiences aren’t dumb.
If you establish your geography and your eyelines are correct, lines don’t matter. And I don’t care if there are “2 suns or more in my shots” as long as it looks good and feels right, it’s good in my books. Which brings me to your previous question about Lua Phat – or OUATIV. I don’t like to do a lot in post. I try to capture what I want on set. Grading should be the icing on the cake. It’s a tool to take something good and enhance it, make it better, and not to completely change it. I love the clean, high contrast look which maybe the exact opposite of how that movie looks.
Sure, I take on jobs that I enjoy like working with Daniel Zirilli where I know I’m probably not going to get to grade it. I try my best and I’m not upset when I see the finished product because I was prepared for it. But on Dustin’s movie, it wasn’t even close to being a paycheck job, and I sweat blood on it for forty something days in really bad conditions. I loved every minute of it until the end when I felt Dustin stabbed me in the back. He graded it in Thailand but told me he was doing it in Vietnam. To do this day I don’t know why. And to be honest, I don’t really care anymore. I did, but not anymore.
This is all very unfortunate to hear. I was actually wondering about another thing Dustin mentioned he planned on doing with My Wife Is A Gangster in Vietnam many months ago. I understand that project hasn’t moved forward locally since he went on to shoot Warrior for Cinemax. I’m not asking you to sign the proverbial “dotted line” here, but what comes to mind if, say, he maybe came to you with his concept?
“Good luck, and I wish you the best with it.” I still have more good memories with Dustin then bad ones. So I have absolutely zero ill-will for him. Like I said, I honestly don’t know why he chose to do what he did. This is a weird business we’re in and after twenty years doing this, if there’s one thing I know about this business is that you will never know what tomorrow may bring. If I were ever going to work with Dustin again as his DP, for sure the paycheck will be a factor.
You have a few new titles coming. You shot Dead Earth back-to-back with Mark Dacascos’ The Driver which Lionsgate is releasing first this November in the states. And there’s a zombie horror trilogy in mind here as well with a third in the works tentatively titled The Rider?
Yes. These are the first fruits of the relationship with Barry and my other producing partner Scott Clayton whom I met while helping him out with Dying Of The Light. The Driver, and to an extent, The Rider, are easy to sell movies. Hitman vs. Zombies and Samurai vs. Zombies. Mark as the hitman, Kane as the samurai. And because these movies are pretty cheap, it wasn’t difficult. But it all came from me wanting to make what was originally 2 Of Us but is now Dead Earth. I love zombie movies. Have always loved them. Pretty much all of them. The high point for me was Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. I don’t think you can make a better zombie movie then those two. Ever.
The original Dawn Of The Dead started it all – I thought the remake is maybe one of the best remade movies bar none, but those two are cinematic masterpieces. So going in, I never wanted to make a great zombie movie, I knew I couldn’t compete, I just wanted to use the world of zombies to tell the stories I wanted to tell. And the story I wanted to tell was the story of two people stuck in one place together. And that was it. The zombies were a way to help sell the movie so I could get it to an audience. And 2 Of Us was super cheap so I had the idea of shooting two movies back-to-back. Treat it as one, where I knew the second movie would be more appealing to a distributor…And that movie was The Rider, which was going to go back to the beginning of the outbreak whereas 2 Of Us starts in the middle of it. But as we started on them, it became clear that Rider was going to cost way more than we had. Horses, and the fact Kane was using two swords exclusively. Which means less guns, more fights and therefore much more time was needed. So I called Mark, who was luckily available and we went to The Driver instead. The hope is the two movies find enough of an audience we can make The Rider. It’s funny, what was designed to be the last movie in a trilogy, is now the first. Like I said, you never know what will happen tomorrow.
What were some other horror faves and influences growing up?
The usual suspects are all high on my list, but I prefer the third Exorcist to the first. I love Changeling. Pet Semetary I still can’t watch with the lights off today. The sister scene for some reason kills me every time. Serpent and the Rainbow was difficult to watch as well, but my favorite is probably The Entity. I think maybe due to my age at the time and then finding out that the movie was based on a true story, that really scared me. But once I hit college, I stopped enjoying horror movies and never really went to a cinema to see one. The Sixth Sense was a more recent one I enjoyed in theatres and that’s not very recent anymore. I liked Get Out and one with Stephen Lang called Don’t Breathe. Last movie I saw before my son was born was Ready Or Not, and I had a great time on that. I have not seen a single horror series and I keep being told by so many people that there are some great ones on Netflix.
Dead Earth is very minimalist in nature. Most of it concentrates firmly on your actresses, Milena and Alice, who play a loving couple amid the visual allure of an abandoned resort. It’s very a paradisical, serene environment and there’s hardly any dialogue which sort of helps toward that cause. Was it easy for you and Stephen, your screenwriter, to conceive the story in this way, the sort of “less is more” approach?
Full disclosure – I was going to shoot 2 Of Us in a 5-star beach resort. I had an in on a location and that was the genesis of the whole thing. The location was pristine. Everythng was high end. The exact opposite of a zombie apocalypse. I mapped out the whole story. Before I had a cast or anything and I was prepared to shoot it without a script. I knew how I wanted it to begin, I knew what I wanted to happen in the middle and I knew how I wanted it to end.
We were going to improvise the whole thing. Then Barry liked the idea, so I needed a script. Zach is friends with Stephen who’d never really written a script but always wanted to. I read a sample, liked it, he was cool with doing it for basically no money so I sent him all my ideas. He filled in the rest. I reworked some dialogue but was very impressed in what he’d done. And then we lost my location, and by that I mean we lost my location for free.
With our budget, I don’t even think we could have stayed there for two weeks. So we had to find another place which was nothing like the place Stephen had written. I mean, it was an island paradise, five-story buildings, and we ended up at an open resort, all single story, no gates, no walls, no car parks, no elevators, no real staircases. Basically seventy-five percent of the script was useless, but the core of the story was there, so we just went ahead and shot it and made things up as we went; Basically, the way I wanted to but with a better plan provided by Stephen, whose script I really did like which is why I gave him The Driver as well.
The Driver was different. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to happen and how and Stephen did an excellent job putting it all together. Milena and Alice had never done a movie before. Daniel Zirilli recommended Milena to me and I thought she was perfect. Talented and super eager. Alice was more difficult to find, and when I found her, she almost couldn’t do it because her parents wouldn’t let her. I’m really happy she didn’t listen to them! [laughs]
So am I.
Thank you! [laughs] We didn’t really have a choice in the “less is more” method. We had nine days. Most of our money went into the zombies – make up, stunts, things that which were required. We actually shot an extra half-day on it while we were doing The Driver. I added the D.J. scenes into it with actor Michael New to help explain things more because it was too minimalistic. And the big zombie kill at the end, that was added as well. I don’t know if it fits or not but we all felt after such a slow build, there had to be something bigger that happens. And we didn’t have money, so it was the best I could come up with.
For the longest time, I was super nervous about it. I wasn’t even sure if we had a movie. Everything came together for me once Justin’s music came in and I watched the movie with the music and sound mixed in. I really enjoyed it. It definitely isn’t for everyone. But I believe it will find an audience. And I can only make a movie like it today because audiences are so familiar and aware of zombies. Even ten years ago, I don’t think a movie like this would work. I’d have to explain a lot more then I do here.
You mentioned this was difficult to pitch to buyers as well…
Non-studio movies are all predicated on stars and their values…At least in the traditional channels. I didn’t want any stars. There were names mentioned and they would have gotten me more money, but I think it would have ruined it. We didn’t have much of a budget so I just embraced it and went all-in with it. And truthfully, most of our budget went to my crew who all took a pay cut and our equipment. As I stated above, I do not know how to shoot something with just a camera and a couple of bounce cards. I’m banking on the fact that the movie looks good to be a key selling point. I should find out soon whether or not I’m wrong, again.
You managed to get most of the Dacascos family on board for The Driver, which I really enjoyed for many of its moments, and you’re a Crying Freeman fan too. How lucky do you feel that this would be your first film with Mark and Julie?
Luck doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s beyond description. What makes it better is that they are the most amazing couple you will ever meet. Mark on his own is one of the nicest, if not the nicest person alive today. Julie is so supportive of him and seeing them together, with Noe, I mean, it’s the perfect family. It makes me sick but also hopeful. When I’m with them, I don’t even think about the work, or Freeman or anything. I just genuinely enjoy being around Mark and his family.
My honest goal in life is to be able to just keep working with Mark and/or Kane. Working with them never feels like work. I already love what I do, and any day on set for me is better than any day not, but I’m a fan of the graphic novels themselves more than the movie. I enjoyed it, but had I not been a fan of the comics, I think the movie wouldn’t have stayed with me. The most annoying thing about both of them though, it’s been like thirty years and they still basically look the same.
The centerpiece in The Driver, for me, was seeing Noelani in her screen debut with mom and dad, and the emotive strength and chemistry there is with this family. Tell us about preparing her for the role in terms of drama, targetry and firearm use.
Mark suggested it and I basically said ‘yes’. Literally, she came prepared. Julie is an amazing actress who took a step back to raise a family, and after all the time that’s passed and how older they’ve gotten, I think she’s ready to get back into it. And I seriously hope she does because boy does she deliver!
Mark did the heavy lifting with Noe, and if anything, I probably ruined it cause I was always breaking the moment I was having so much fun. We used Airsofts ninety percent of the time, so it wasn’t too hard for me to walk her through the basics. Harry Lu had taught me a lot and he’d taken me to shoot with SWAT in L.A. a few times, so it wasn’t difficult. Besides, her father had just come from John Wick Basic Training Boot Camp or whatever they call it, so he was more than enough on his own.
Was it easy to choose the car for this film?
Yes. I knew I didn’t want the usual car you see in these type of movies. 4X4s, big utility vehicles or old, beat-up hoopties or something or other. I wanted the car to be something our main character, Driver, genuinely loves, takes care off and is very proud to own. In this fucked up world, it’s a possession of his that still matters to him. One of my oldest friends has a small car collection. I’ve used his 911 in two movies already and I called him and said I needed to borrow his wife’s BMW for two maybe three weeks. He said call his wife who happened to be in the same senior class with us, and she said ‘sure’. I did get caught in two speed cameras on the way to and back from the location which is about four-hours outside Bangkok, but he was kind enough to pay for it as well [laughs]. I have good friends.
Just as with Dead Earth and The Driver, both back-to-back on low budgets and in a matter of only a few weeks, your recently completed project with Mark and Kane, One Night In Bangkok also shared the same lean and tight production scheduling. Talk about the kind of dexterity, savviness and readiness, (and coffee ?) one needs that goes into shooting these kinds of films.
I don’t enjoy making these movies. I love making movies, but not in nine, twelve, and thirteen days. There’s just not enough time, but we managed to do it, and for projects like this, there are certain absolutes you must have:
1. An excellent but small crew where everyone is really good at what they do.
2. Actors who buy into what you’re trying to achieve and trust you when you say we’ve got it.
3. You cannot be in love with any one idea, image or thought. Know what you want, but you must be able to adapt and change to any situation otherwise you will never be able to finish it.
4. Communicate clearly to everyone and every department because there’s no time to redo things.
Here’s where it greatly helps that I’m my own DP: I am only restricted by my budget. Outside of that, I have complete freedom and my camera guys, my gaffer, my grip are all the same people and crew I’ve been with for ten years. Everything is a shorthand. Plus, all these movies were designed knowing all of this going in. It’s not like I took a script and forced the conditions onto it. That hardly works.
I’d also tack on a #5 to that list: Spend wisely. I spend the most on equipment. People usually skip that on these budgets and I firmly believe you need the right tools. There are so many good movies I’ve seen that people don’t know about because they saw a trailer or a piece of it, and the movie looks cheaper, less polished. So I’m banking on the fact that maybe we do end up making a bad movie (because no one ever sets out to make a bad movie), but it’s going to look good and hopefully that will give us an advantage. With Dead Earth, The Driver and One Night In Bangkok, I really believe we’ve made three pretty good movies that look at the very least “legit” despite the resources that we had.
Having said that, I’m also hoping I never have to shoot a movie in less than eighteen days, ever again. Earlier this year I did some Action Design/2nd Unit work on a massive Indian movie. Rohit Shetty was the director and they shot in Thailand for eleven days for one action sequence. I can absolutely say the whole sequence cost more than five-million USD when all is said and done. For maybe seven minutes of screen time. It was mind boggling. Amazing people, amazing crew, different way of working, but it gets done somehow and it just reminded me, there are so many ways to make a movie.
As for the writing, I was in a very difficult point in my life. I hadn’t done much work for over a year, I was working on something for a year and it fell through so I had nothing on my plate. And the reality was my ex-had just dumped me. In a not-so-nice fashion, so it was a pretty bottom of the barrel moment for me. I’d lost 9kgs in eleven days, wasn’t sleeping much, it was genuine misery. My close friends were worried and somehow I was able to sit down and power through on an idea I had.
I started at 3pm and by 7am, I had the script. By the time we shot it, my partner was pregnant, as I’m finishing the edit, my son is currently twelve days old, and my life couldn’t be more different from when I wrote the script. The only change we made was I changed the character from a Viking type to a Hawaiian, and named him Kai after my son. The lesson is, never give up. You really never know what tomorrow will bring.
What can you tell us about The Rider in terms of status, progress and proximity?
Script is ready. Kane is ready. I’m ready. It all depends on how these first two movies are received. It’s very different. The whole goal was to make three very different movies set in the same world. Unfortunately the reason why The Rider isn’t made yet may be the reason why it’s probably the easiest sell. It’s non-stop action from start to finish which is why it was impossible to do on these budgets.
I understand you also want Mark back for another go at action sometime soon.
I want Mark to adopt me. Or his father to adopt me or we can become blood brothers or something. Mark is genuinely amazing in these movies. It’s great he’s riding this new wave from John Wick: Parabellum, and no one deserves it more than him. There are people who question why Mark is trekking all the way here just to work with the director of Ballistic on these low budget movies. However, Mark is a smart man, and I’m humbled that he sees something in me and believes in our stories.
Mark is a very intelligent man. I know for a fact he’s turned down a couple of VERY good offers to come make these movies with me. No matter how these movies are received, even if I fuck up in places or if people don’t like the movie, I know 100% everyone who sees these two movies will come away saying at the very least, Mark was the best thing in them. Because he is. Mark and I made these movies together. He’s a producer on both, and we made it for the same reason. It’s not for the money. We’ve both been doing this or a long time and we recognize that control is everything.
On these smaller budget films, we have full control. Because of Scott Clayton and Lionsgate, these movies will be released. It will have a chance to find an audience, the way we intended, and hopefully it can lead us to opportunities where we can do this again, but with more resources, a bigger scope, etc. And if not, we had a great time making them and we’re very proud of the way it turned out. (well, he hasn’t seen One Night yet so… stay tuned!…).
We enjoy working with one another and I consider Mark has done me two huge favors by coming to Thailand to star in these movies for me. On his last day in Bangkok, Mark told me the one role he’d love to do, he said Driver allowed him to work with his family, One Night, well, what he does in it is pretty amazing, but there’s something he’d like to do that he really hasn’t been given an opportunity to do yet. He told me what it was and I promised him I’d return his favor and write a script for him. Problem is, I hate writing! [laughs]
Thank you so much for sharing a part of your story and career with us. On that note, are there any words you would like to add as we exit this interview?
I’m a huge fan of Film Combat Syndicate and other sites like this. And in a world where there is so much information about every little thing, I appreciate a place where you care about what we’re trying to do. If it were up to me, I’d release all our BTS material to anyone who wants it. I think it’s fun. We’ve even talked about a channel where we just document every day of a production from start to finish and lay everything bare, warts and all. I think more people would appreciate the filmmaking process. Thank you for caring about movies and taking the time to ask the questions.