How a Film School Reject is Becoming the New Wong Kar-Wai

Tor Thanapob and Ice Natara appear in 'One for the Road' by Baz Poonpiriya, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A few years back, Baz Poonpiriya was depressed and too broke to finish film school. Then one day, he got a phone call from Wong Kar-Wai.

Poonpiriya is not someone to be stopped by disappointment. He moved to New York to become a filmmaker, but film school didn’t pan out. He didn’t give up. He returned to Thailand, making commercials, music videos, and eventually two feature films. One of them, Bad Genius, went on to become so popular that it’s now the highest-grossing Thai movie in international history!

After Bad Genius came out, he got a call from Wong Kar-Wai, who ended up spending the next three years helping Poonpiriya make his new film One for the Road.

Of course, it’s probably unfair to call Poonpiriya the a new Kar-Wai; his filmmaking style is uniquely his own.

Tor Thanapob appears in 'One for the Road' by Baz Poonpiriya, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

One for the Road is a cinematic saga of a young bartender in New York who gets asked by a dying friend to come back to Thailand and help him return items to his ex-girlfriends. It’s a somewhat autobiographical film, and it won the Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Creative Vision.

No Film School caught up with Poonpiriya during Sundance 2021, and here is what he had to say about making the movie, working with Kar-Wai, and finding happiness as a filmmaker.

No Film School: How did you get started on this film? And how did you start working with Wong Kar-Wai as your producer?

Poonpiriya: I still feel really surreal about it. I grew up in the 90s. Wong Kar-Wai was the most influential filmmaker in Asia. I grew up with his movies. So I love him. I really adore him.

And one day, I think after Bad Genius showed in China, he got the chance to watch it. And he let his producer call me and said that he wanted to work with me. And I go, "Why not?" I flew to meet him in Hong Kong. And we decided to work together on day one that we met. After that, I think I spent about nine months developing a story with him.

Baz Poonpiriya, director of 'One for the Road,' an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

And then Wong Kar-Wai being Wong Kar-Wai, he just turned to me, and he said that, "You know what, Baz? I don't think you believe in this story. We should cut it. We should start doing something else that you will believe in.” And we did that and that's why it came to be this movie.

NFS: Wait, so you completely moved on to a different project, and that ended up being One for the Road?

Poonpiriya: Yes, correct. Like I say, actually, it's the first time I heard it, I feel like, how do you say, depressing I guess. I mean, when you spend time carrying a baby for nine months, and then one day he just said, "You have to change the baby."

But it turned out good. I think it was worth it for everything.

NFS:  I was really impressed with how visually the story is told in One for the Road. What is your process? How did you write this into the script, or do you storyboard?

Poonpiriya: The funny thing is that when I have made movies in the past, or music videos or commercials, we do not have a storyboard at all. We didn't even have a shooting script. We just only have the script.

I had to give credit to my cinematographer Mr. Phaklao [Jiraungkoonkun] who I have worked for the last 10 years. I have worked with him on almost every project. So we have a partnership. He really supported me to shoot this way. We always say that we don't need all the block shots. We just go out there on the shooting day, and just feel it. Feel it with everything, feel with the location, feel it with the actor and the moment that we're living in that time. And we just go for it. I'm just lucky to have him support me on my gut feeling, on my instinct for making the film.

NFS: How did you learn to communicate with him in this way?

Poonpiriya: Me and Mr. Phaklao have reached the point that sometimes when he starts to create the frame, I watch through the monitor. And if I didn't feel right, I just look at him, and we look in each other's eyes, and he'd just get it right away. And he'd go to change the framing. We don't have to even communicate that much. I'm just going to let him do whatever he wants, and he's going to let me do whatever I want if we have enough time. We just try to create something that you feel is exciting as filmmakers.

Tor Thanapob appears in 'One for the Road' by Baz Poonpiriya, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

NFS: What was filming like? Was this a big production?

Poonpiriya: For this one, actually it's a pretty big set and big crew. But for the key person, I always work with the same tools, shot designer, costume designer, cinematographer, assistant directors. They all work with me on almost every project for the last 10 years.

But for this one, I also have the honor to work with someone else, like New York crews. And it's a really interesting experience to adapt to each other. And I guess we learned a lot as filmmakers, along with them.

I didn't graduate film school. Even though I love watching movies so much since I was a kid, but I ended up studying in theater for the stage. Which I thought, what am I doing here? And then it turned to be something that really shifted me in terms of being human and a filmmaker. When I start to try to work my way through the film industry, I think was just lucky that I had everybody who supported me.

Tor Thanapob and Violette Wautier appear in 'One for the Road' by Baz Poonpiriya, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

NFS: Did you learn something from that background in theater that inspired how you work as a filmmaker now?

Poonpiriya: I don't know if it's a good thing or not as the writer or the filmmaker, but I think it's made me a really interesting human.

When I make a movie, I don't really take in that much attention to all the technical aspects of the film. I try to do the best I can, but I don’t get excited by a new camera or things like that. I get excited to work with new people or a new actor or actress. I think those are the key things for making the film.

NFS: And since Wong Kar-Wai had encouraged you to abandon the other film for this one, at the end, what did he think? What do you think of the collaboration?

Poonpiriya: I believe we all heard about the old urban legends about him. How he's going to taking time on shooting and stop production and everything. I really prepared for that step working with him. But it turned out that he really trusted me in the production process. Once we finished with the script together, he let me do anything that I want. He would send me messages like, "Good luck. I know you can do it." And then when the film was finished, he was really refreshing, really supportive. It was an honor to have him backing me up.

NFS: Based on what you've learned, what would be your advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Poonpiriya: How should I start? I used to be a young aspiring filmmaker. That's the reason I went to New York. I tried to attend film school, but then this didn't happen, because you had to spend a lot of money on film school. So I had to change my plan. I had to save up money and make my own short film.

All that stuff can make you feel depressed and disappointed.

I think the key to it is to balance your passion and your life. You’re supposed to have passion, but you cannot let that passion run you down when it didn't turn out the way you want it to be. You just have to have that passion, and go along with your life, and try to make yourself happy. And try to make the people that love you, that surrounded you, happy also. I think with that success will happen, even though it may take more time than usual.


Thank you, Baz!     

Can’t take part in this year’s festivities? Check out the rest of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage here.

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