Chancing upon an isolated, mountaintop monastery hidden within the recently-opened country of Myanmar, Portlander filmmaker Brian Perkins smuggled in gear on oxcart, dodged military investigations and risked everything to realize his vision. The result: Golden Kingdom, the story of four young monks left by their master to fend for themselves in a hostile world, starring non-professional actors found in Myanmar.
Golden Kingdom premiered last year at the Berlin International Film Festival, and the film has recently been acquired for future release by Netflix. But before you watch it on your couch, you can catch it at its Portland premiere this Friday at the Hollywood.
We spoke to Perkins about shooting a movie in Myanmar, evading the military and premiering Golden Kingdom in Berlin with the film's young stars.
WW: How do you cast monks?
BP: The main kid—Shine Htet Zaw— was essentially the neighbor of our co-producer, and he was really the find of the shoot. He was a natural—just amazing, incredible. He took to it like a duck to water.
He is not an actual monk, but he became a monk during shooting, which is pretty common for the area. It's like a Bar Mitzvah or confirmation. They go get their heads shaved, put on the robes, do the prayers, eat the food, and, after a week, they go back to mom totally glad to be home. But, a lot of the kids are orphans, or their parents can't support them, and they live like how you'll see in the movie.
Shine Htet lived in a village nearby. They have electricity, his dad has a cellphone now. I think they have a TV—I'm not sure. Up on the mountain, the only thing they've ever seen is a couple Chinese kung fu movies. That's really all the entire exposure they've had. There'd be like fifteen kids sitting around one little DVD player—like, a 1999 portable with the five inch screen— for like five villages. It went around the mountain.
That's part of the reason I thought I could get interesting performances from them—real performances, because they haven't been exposed to media since they were in the womb. Just from TV, movies, Facebook, home movies, Kids in the U.S. get an idea how they're supposed to act around a camera, and these kids didn't have that. It was risky, but I was confident that I could get something that was really special when I got up there.
WW: Did you go through the monastery?
BP: I asked the guy who brought me to the monastery—just an amazing guy, like a natural born fixer— if we could we talk to the head monk. He thought so, and we sat down and talked to the abbot that you see in the movie. And, I could see he liked having his picture taken so I was, like, 'hey, would you be interested in a story about the monastery? It's not going to be anything bad.' He said 'yeah, we could probably do that'— in translation, because I hadn't learned Burmese at that point. So, I kind of tucked that away.
WW: And they were happy?
BP: They loved it! It was some excitement. The kids, especially, were so amazing. They're just so open. They really have nothing there, you know. They have two robes and a sweater and a pair of sandals and the books they take to school. They don't have any toys or anything, but, for the most part, they're so happy.
WW: Was there a screen test?
BP: I did a general casting in the sense that I asked the senior monk, who's in his twenties, who would be good—and, who would even want to do it. Once we had a group of the ones that would be interested, then we had some script sides that were already translated, and I ran lines with them to see how they responded, if they were able to get into character or whether they just froze up and got awkward.
WW: What were they like?
BP: They're still kids, but, even though they goof around a lot, they're trained in meditation. So, if we had to do something again, they would be a bit more patient than average kids. But at the same time, it is a working monastery. There'd be a religious ceremony that had to happen, that they had to be there for, and so we'd have to go shoot some B-roll. Also, we had to make sure they had their lunch before noon because, due to the monastery rules, they're not supposed to eat after that.
It wasn't like a traditional military-type set. I mean, we kept on a schedule, but, obviously, the circumstances were different. We were working with kids who were monks. Sometimes, they would get a little bit bored and want to go play soccer or whatever. They didn't understand when we were changing the angle of the camera. Like, if it was four people in the master shot and we wanted a shot that was just two of the kids, we'd go 'okay, you guys can go relax.' And, ten minutes later, we'd be, like, 'where did Than Maung go?' And, he's down at the swimming hole.
WW: Was the shoot dangerous?
BP: It was safe, but, in order to get a permit to shoot in Myanmar, you have to submit your script for censorship and pay an official an insane amount of money to be with you at all times. And, they have the right to review every single thing you shot. And, then, they can confiscate your movie before you even leave the country. So, if there's something minor that I didn't know would offend someone, then I'd change it in the script. But…[laughter] I'm from the U.S. We don't censor things, hopefully.
Also, I couldn't say to the people that invested with me 'oh, by the way, if they decide to extort us, we'll have no movie.' So we went there without permission. The crew came in on different flights and brought the gear in piecemeal. It was the tail end of the rainy season so it was pretty much impossible to do anything except sling it over bamboo poles and hump it up on foot. We brought a steadicam from Germany all the way to the top of the mountain. It's about a five hour hike. We had to build an electrical system—no electricity up there so we had to get these huge car batteries and have a generator and converters. The generator was brought up by oxcart.
WW: Was the crew aware of what they were getting into?
BP: BP: I made it very clear before we signed up anybody that they understood we were going to be sleeping on the floor of the monastery. There's no running water. There's no electricity. There's no toilet—it's just like a little outhouse thing, you know? I had to make sure they were okay with this and not going to have a meltdown midway through production. Matt [O'Connor, producer] and Tom [Oliver] had done a lot of outdoors shooting. My Director of Photography, Bella Halbern, was this woman from Germany who has shot things like this in Africa, and our on-set sound guy—Alex Altman, who also used to live in Portland— he'd been on a Greenpeace boat in the arctic for three months.
Everybody had their own experience with these sub-optimal production conditions. It's one thing having to work all day, do a bunch of stuff, and make sure your gear's right. It's another thing to do that, then sleep on the floor and have to take a bucket shower with cold water in the morning. You're not going back to the Ramada Inn where you can put on Netflix and take a hot shower. So, yeah, it was pretty intense.
WW: Were there any unexpected difficulties?
BP: The biggest thing was that right before I was going to meet the crew…well, two things happened. I was blacklisted at the Bangkok embassy when I applied, and they weren't going to let me go into Burma. There are spies in Burma, and someone I thought was my friend was an informant—a snitch, as they say. So, they knew where I was coming in, they knew what airport I was using, all this stuff. I had to kinda call in a favor, but they only gave me a ten day diplomatic visa, which was non-renewable.
The first day that I overstayed my visa, I was up in the mountains. Most of the crew hadn't arrived, and my producer's son had ridden his dirtbike up the side of the mountain as fast as he possible could have. He was covered in mud and came to me and was, like, 'Brian, the military came to my home last night!'
Unfortunately, Myanmar is still a fairly corrupt society. Somebody had told the military that there was some people doing some strange things up on the mountain, and they were going to be coming up there to shake people down. I had to go down from the mountain and hide out for a few days in the town while we worked out all the wrinkles. So, that was a little dicey. I could've been deported or…who knows what could've happened?
WW: Is Shine Htet acting?
BP: I think right now he's still just going to school and learning English. The film hasn't been released in Burma yet, so it's hard. We're trying to figure out whether it can be approved which it probably won't be, because we didn't go through the proper channels, or if it goes fully on the black market. At that point, he'll probably be able to find work, but he's really far from Yangon, where all the production is.
There is a burgeoning film industry. They have more equipment now, and the crews are more experienced. Just next door in Bangkok, people are always shooting commercials and features so there's world-class gear for service production. In Myanmar, it's totally different. They're still banning things. The generals still hold a lot of power and control the ministry of information.
Eventually, the film will be seen by everybody, but probably in the ways that Burmese films are seen: on bus trips, or by people drinking beer and eating tea leaves while sitting in open-air bamboo tea houses that have a flat screen. It's a great culture—totally unique.
WW: Do any of the other kids have agents yet?
BP: They're monks. They're still monks. They're monking it up. Shine Htet, the main kid, and Saw Ri, who plays Ko Yin Wezananda in the film, actually came to Berlin for the premiere at the Berninalle. That was almost worth the whole thing because they'd never left Burma before. I mean, before they even got their passports and visas, they'd never been out of their state. They'd never been to the capital, and I got to bring these kids all the way around the world. It was snowing in Berlin, and they'd never seen snow before!
On the day of the premiere, there was a whole red carpet thing with like a thousand people outside waiting to see which stars were coming out of these luxury cars idling at the curb. And, then, these two kids from Burma came out, and everyone was looking at them, like, who are they? Saw Ri, who was a monk, was dressed in his robes, and then Shine Htet was dressed in his original gear. Everyone starts clapping when they arrive, and, I was like, wave to the people! And, they loved it. Afterwards, they were signing autographs for all these people. It was really an incredible experience, you know.
WW: Is Golden Kingdom set in the modern day?
BP: The time frame's purposefully kind of vague— in the same way as the details are on who is fighting who. I wanted the story to be a bit more universal, if that makes sense, and make it accessible even if you really didn't know anything about Myanmar. It's obviously a political film, in the sense that it touches upon different themes and how we react to violence or conflict, but you don't need to know the details. You just need to let yourself be taken by the flow, the images and the narrative. Personally, if people get too caught up trying to figure out exactly what's going on, I feel like they're missing the point. I wanted to boil the story down to something from the perspective of these children. It's not a specific time or place. The government is fighting these people. That rebel group is fighting that rebel group. Basically, these children are insecure and they know that one group of men are killing another group of men.
Luckily, I had people who believed in me and my vision, and who allowed me to do what I thought was best aesthetically and formally for presenting the traditions and the culture as best I could. I didn't want to mediate with a wacky revenge plot or any other stuff. I wanted to give a chance for the stories of that tradition to speak for themselves in that environment, which can be difficult for some viewers. At the same time, when I screened Golden Kingdom in India, everyone was like, 'we get what's going on.'
I wanted to make a movie that was accessible to both Western and Eastern audiences, which is a hard balance beam to walk along, but I'm really pleased with what we were able to do with it. For a well-versed viewer of cinema, there shouldn't be anything confusing. Like, 'what's going on? I don't understand! Where's the machine guns?' I mean, I guess there are some machine guns 'Where's the car chases?'
WW: In the sequel?
BP: Yeah, yeah, Golden Kingdom 2: Wezananda's Revenge. They'd all have to be trained in the kung fu arts. 'You guys get to be kung fu monks' – they would've LOVED that.