Kim Mordaunt has returned to the director's chair this week with his new film The Rocket: a movie that tackles themes of legacy of war and displacement.
We caught up with Mordaunt to chat about the film, finding his cast, and what lies ahead.
- The Rocket is released into UK cinemas today, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
The Rocket is about a boy who is born into a place where they think that one of two twins can be bringing bad luck. The film starts with a birth, his twin dies, but the grandma says 'we need to get rid of this other baby because he could be bad luck'.
The film jumps forward ten years - which is where is really begins - and the boy is now ten years old and his family have just been displaced by an Australian dam. Things start to go wrong: there is a terrible accident resulting in a death in the family.
It is basically about this boy's journey across war torn Laos as they boy tries to prove to his family and himself that he is not cursed.
Along the way, he meets an ex-Hmong child soldier who is now an adult, called Purple: he has an obsession with James Brown and loves a drink. The boy also befriends Purple's niece Kia, and they become his new friends along this journey of trying to make amends with his family.
- You are in the director's chair and you have penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you? And what sparked the idea for the story.
It goes back a long way; it has really been a ten year journey. The producer Sylvia Wilczynski and I lived and worked in Hanoi, Vietnam ten years ago, and while we were there, we use to travel to Laos a lot: it was like our breath out. Hanoi can be an intense place.
We fell in love with the country and the people, and then we found out that it was the most bombed place on the planet. For us, we are educated people and had travelled the world a bit, and we still didn't know that Laos was bombed more than Vietnam during the secret war, that ran parallel to the Vietnam War.
That was really the inspiration to make the documentary Bomb Harvest. Making a feature length documentary in Laos is not something that you do instantly (laughs); it was a long collaboration with the Laos community in Australia.
Trying to get permission to make it in Laos took over a year: you basically had to have clearance from the government, the press department, the district chief, the village chiefs and the police.
We had to literally embed ourselves into the country: we collaborated with people in the Laos community in Sydney as well to make that film.
Bomb Harvest did well around the world, but the reaction from many people was 'why can't the central character be a Laos protagonist and be in Laos?' The protagonist an Anglo-Australian man called Laith Stevens, who was terrific. He was an inspiring, funny, and bright man.
That was a terrifying proposition for us (laughs). We collaborated again with some of the people we had done in Bomb Harvest, particularly a woman called Pauline Phoumindr: she is Australian/Laos. She went on to become associate producer and translator on The Rocket. I started writing a screenplay.
When you look at the screenplay, there are things that are in that screenplay that we witnessed while we were making Bomb Harvest: the legacy of war - which was the major theme of Bomb Harvest.
While we were making Bomb Harvest, one of the things that we witnessed all around the country was the deserted villages and traditional people being moved on by large industry and international corporations: quite a lot of those were Australian. We thought to ourselves 'this is really important.
In Australia, we are always being told that we should have this relationship with our neighbour Asia, and a lot of the time, that relationship is economic opportunism. We thought we were going to make that one of the central themes of The Rocket.
On a personal level, we thought we had to come up with a personal story. Two things really brought us to the story in the end: one, with relocation there is a lot of loss.
For example, there was one village that was relocated by a dam, and within a year of that village being relocated, a third of the people were dead from lowland disease, accidents and malnutrition. Therefore, we believed that loss is definitely part of this journey of relocation.
We came up with this story of a boy, who loses his mother along the way: that is also something that was very personal to the producer and I. I lost a parent at ten years old, and so we have put this personal story inside this foreign land.
That is really how it all came about. At the end of Bomb Harvest, there is this rocket festival and we loved this festival and thought it was very meaningful: it is ancient but reinvented into this cathartic shooting back at the sky - but also shooting back for something that is necessity... rain.
It was about drawing on a lot of things that we had discovered over the last ten years, and putting what we thought was the most potent, timely and emotional story together. That really was The Rocket (laughs). It has come from a decade of research and being on the ground in Laos.
- As you say, The Rocket is a very personal coming of age story, which is set to this backdrop of displacement and legacy of war. How difficult was it balancing these two aspects?
It wasn't too bad. With legacy of war and displacement comes loss, and the other thing that comes with it is... Laos is a very spiritual place: because Animism and the Buddhism, you are surrounded by folklore and believe that there are good and bad spirits in everything that is living.
With that, one thing that we witnessed while we were doing our research, was that traditional people who are being displaced and losing everything - literally their life is being taken away from them - they cling to their beliefs. With relocation or loss, they definitely start to think that something bad is going to happen.
When we heard about the twins, we thought that it was interesting to see traditional people cling to this belief.
The things we were finding out were going to fuel a very personal story that was very connected to the bigger context of legacy of war and relocation of traditional people: in a way, they both run very closely together.
- Can you talk a little about the casting process? I was reading that the children had little or no acting experience.
It was a long search for the producer and I, and we travelled around Laos for a long time: we even travelled around Isan in Thailand. We looked a long long way.
We came across Loungnam Kaosainam, she plays Kia, in a village Vientiane, where she was part of a little drama public group. She hadn't done much before, but it was really her eyes got me. I started telling her the story of The Rocket and she just started living through it.
At just eight was younger than what I thought I was going to cast - we were originally looking for an eleven year old girl - but what you find in those developing countries, is an elven year old is already a young adult: they are usually out working and looking after the family.
What we were finding with the eleven year olds that we were screen testing was that they were already inhibited, as we all get as young adults.
When I met Loungnam, she was still very pure in her imagination, and she didn't care what the camera was doing. I took quite a documentary approach to casting: I filmed the cast for a long time and watch them interacting in a natural way with friends and family.
What I loved about Loungnam was she tough, she didn't care what people thought, she could kick a ball higher than any fella and she could climb a tree higher than any boy. She is who she was basically, which I really loved about her.
She also had this great internal life and you could just see her emotions in her eyes. For me, even though the boy is the protagonist, the little girl is the soul of the film and I was thrilled when we found Loungnam.
I had also been working with a casting agent Non Jungmeier; she is Thai based but does a lot of walking around the mountain of Laos and Burma.
Through her, I heard about this kid called Sitthiphon Disamoe (also called Ki): he had been a street kid for a couple of years. He had a foster mum who had done some extras work, and that was how we were led to him.
With him, the main thing was when you look at the character in the film, he is very resourceful, determined and never gives up: that is what Ki had. I think comes from being a street kid, as you have to survive day to day, moment to moment and somehow find the positives in things.
He was this little wheeler dealer dude, and I really liked that about him. Therefore, I went away and I re-wrote around Ki and Loungnam once I had met them: I just wanted to put in more of who they were because they were extraordinary young people.
Ki is now in Australia. Our main aim after the film was to get them both into school, and we started up a fund that will pay for their schooling for the next seven or eight years. Loungnam is doing ever well in Laos: she is also taking English classes.
It was harder for Ki because he ended up a street kid in Bangkok before we filmed. He wasn't really connecting with his foster mum and then he tried living with one of our executive producers in Bangkok: that didn't really work as he was in and out of school.
Then Pauline Phoumindr, who is our Laos associate producer based in Sydney, said she and her partner would see if he wanted to go and live with them.
That has just begun and he has just arrived in Sydney. We are trying to find a way of keeping him here: it is tricky because it is very conservative here in terms of trying to get someone into the country and be a student here. But we are trying.
- The movie has been playing extensively on the festival circuit and enjoying huge success. How have you been finding the response to the film? And how have you found your festival experience?
It has just been surprise after surprise. When we first got into the Berlin Film Festival - that was our first choice of festival because Berlin is by far the best festival for foreign language films - we were just incredibly happy.
We really didn't expect the three big awards, and then three more at Tribeca. On and on it went winning more and more awards: I think it is up to about twenty-nine now.
Honestly, we thought this was a film about a little Laos family and we were very happy with it, we had no idea it was going to connect with people around the world. It is a big and lovely surprise (laughs).
It has also been very empowering for the Laos community here, because Laos can be invisible: not a lot is shot in Laos or comes out of Laos. We had four hundred of the Laos community turn up at the Sydney Film Festival and they loved the film. We have invited the Laos community wherever we have been around the world.
The hardest thing is Laos itself, as it hasn't got through the censorship in Laos: so the government says it cannot be show there. That doesn't come as a huge surprise to us.
We were hoping it wouldn't happen, but on the other hand, we didn't want to make a piece of propaganda or censor the film. It is a pity for the people in Laos as it is going to be a little harder for them to see.
- Finally, what is next for you?
Sylvia Wilczynski and I are developing a couple of other features, so I am just writing away at the moment. We are off for a research trip to Africa: the film will be set in Australia and Africa. There will still be a legacy of war theme, but it will be a romance adult story.
I am reading a lot of other scripts that are being sent to me, which is lovely. I think the main thing I will do is keep making films with Sylvia, as we understand each other well and have a good partnership.
The Rocket is out now.