Among the many wonderful and unique films showing at the on-going Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Two Shadows stands out as being the first dramatic film to explore the contemporary Cambodian-American experience, and particularly that of the refugees of the Khmer Rouge genocide in the late Seventies, as they continue to search for and connect with surviving family members. Two Shadows is the story of Sovanna (Sophea Pel), who receives a cryptic note that her long lost brother and sister may still be alive. Despite her father warning her of a potential scam, Sovanna leaves for Cambodia in an attempt to find her family members and her identity, all of which may or may not be waiting for her. The film screened this past Sunday in Koreatown, and enjoys an encore showing on Saturday, May 19th at 4:00 pm at the Art Theater of Long Beach. I sat down for an in-depth chat with writer/producer/director Greg Cahill in anticipation of the film’s two showings. Here’s what Cahill shared with me about writing a fictional narrative around real-life events, the challenges and benefits of shooting in Cambodia, and crafting Two Shadows.
Jackson Truax: Two Shadows is the first feature film to explore the contemporary Cambodian-American experience. Where did your interest in the subject stem from, and how did it come to form the basis of your first feature?
Greg Cahill: I first got interested in Cambodia probably about six years ago from Matt Dillon’s film City of Ghost, which is one of the first Hollywood films to be shot in Cambodia. I had never seen anything like it before. Seeing Cambodia on-screen had a big impact on me… The music in the film, there was a lot of what I would call “psychedelic rock n’ roll” from Cambodia from the Viet Nam war era. I was really taken with that music and got really interested in one the singers, this female Cambodian rock singer named Ros Sereysothea. I read that she was murdered by the Khmer Rouge. And that all the musicians from that time were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. So that’s when I thought [that] there must have been quite a story behind that. So I researched that and made a short film about that singer…called The Golden Voice. Then in doing research to develop that into a feature, I went to Cambodia a few times, really fell in love with the country, and started hearing peoples’ stories there. That’s what led to Two Shadows, which is based on a friend of mine’s real-life story.
JT: How did you come to turn your friend’s real-life story into the screenplay that became Two Shadows?
GC: I was with a friend of mine. He lives in Cambodia. He’s from Cambodia, lived in the States for twenty years, then went back to look for his sisters. Because they were all separated as kids after the genocide. He told me the story. Almost immediately I said, “Let’s make a movie about it.” When I started writing the script, I spent a lot of time with him getting all the details of what happened and all the difficulties of that kind of search. It was very difficult for him. He had to jump through a lot of hoops. And had a lot of scams and false leads. It was very much a wild goose chase for some time. It took him several months to find them. But he did actually find two of his sisters in Cambodia. They were reunited.
JT: The film is very much a work of fiction. How did you navigate how true-to-life the film should be, and where to make it a fictional narrative?
GC: [I] want to portray the story realistically. But at the same time, [I’m] entertaining people… It’s entertainment. It’s a movie. People go to the movies to escape and be entertained. So you always have to find a balance. But [I] also don’t want to make something that’s absurd, that people look at it and say, “That’s not accurate. This person’s obviously never been to Cambodia or has no idea.” We tried to be as accurate as we could about those kinds of details, like translating the script from English into Khmer had to be done very carefully. That was actually done by some of our actors who are fluent, so that I can rest assured it’s not going to read like a textbook… There is a balance where you are constantly trying to be realistic, but at the same time, you do have to take liberties and tell a coherent story that has a beginning, middle, and end. Life doesn’t always have a coherent beginning, middle, and end. So there’s always a lot of sculpting you have to do.
JT: Your lead character, Sovanna, is steeped in a lot of specificity, as she’s a mid-twenties, wannabe hipster living in Long Beach. How did you craft her character?
GC: In the case of the story, the whole point was to make her alone, and to make her looking for meaning in her life and looking for identity. It was important that the character didn’t really have that. To really give her a motivation to go back to her birthplace to look for meaning and to look for her family, her identity, and her cultural roots, which she was completely out of touch with in America. So if her character…had a more satisfying life here and was very confident about her identity, I don’t think it would have played as well. The story’s very much about a character who’s looking for meaning, who’s looking for identity. And really goes the extra mile to find it.
JT: There’s the scene in the film with Sovanna and the driver, and he’s telling her about the tourist trade that sprung up around people wanting to see the killing fields. Was that something you saw or experienced? How do most of the locals feel about that?
GC: Most tourists who visit Phnom Penh will go to the killing fields and will go to a place called Tuol Sleng, which is a genocide museum. It does sound like a morbid kind of thing to do as a tourist, and of course it is. However, I think it is very important from a historical standpoint to see this… I don’t know anyone in Cambodia who feels that it’s inappropriate. I think they want people to see what happened there. And to understand what happened there… If that stuff is swept under the rug and not talked about, I don’t think that’s going to help anybody. So I think it’s better that tourists going there are educated on the history of the place and what happened… It really gives a much better perspective of the country and what it’s been through, and what the people there have been through. So, it’s a little bit of an industry, yet. But I do think the positives outweigh the negatives. I think it’s something people very much should be aware of and understand.
JT: This is your second project with Sophea Pel. What attracted you to working with her initially, and how has your collaboration evolved through making Two Shadows?
GC: I met Sophea in 2006. She auditioned for the role of Ros Sereysothea in my short film The Golden Voice… The challenge in casting that role was it had to be obviously a Cambodian female who looked the part, who could act, and who could sing. So it was a lot of criteria to meet. But she was actually the first actress who auditioned for the role. She just nailed it. I think she’s someone who’s just a very natural actress. She’s very pleasant to work with… Our working relationship had evolved in the sense [that] going into The Golden Voice we were both newbies to [filmmaking]. It was her first film. It was my first…non-student film. Going into Two Shadows, again, we were both learning. Because it was [the] first feature film, for both of us. We’ve worked together enough that there’s a shorthand. We can anticipate each other a little bit. There [are] a lot inside jokes.
JT: I understand Pel’s family has their own refugee experience. How did it inform the writing or production of the film?
GC: Quite a bit… Her family left Cambodia when the Vietnamese invaded. They crossed over to Thailand. When they crossed over, they had to leave her baby brother behind. Because he’d cry in the night, and the Khmer Rouge would find them and kill them. So they had to leave the youngest brother behind, with, I believe, her aunt… So when they got to the refugee camp in Thailand, and subsequently, the United States, they were missing that family member. They weren’t able to get him into the U.S. until…maybe five years ago… So she went through what the character goes through. She went back twenty-something years after the fact and met her brother for the first time since he was an infant. I’m sure that really informed her approach to the performance and to the story.
JT: How did you prep to shoot in Cambodia? How did you navigate how much crew you could take, what equipment you would need, and what was the process of putting everything together?
GC: The thing about shooting in Cambodia, or prepping for Cambodia, is that you can’t prepare very much. It’s the kind of thing where you go and you deal with things on a daily basis. Trying to plan too much never works, because of the constant barrage of unexpected things that happen in that kind of environment. But of course, we went over with a schedule, and a budget, and a crew. It’s just about breaking down the script, like you normally would. And figuring out how many days you need. What elements you need. How many crew you need. What actors work what day. What vehicles you need what day. You just break everything down and figure it out. That gives you a very good skeleton of what you can expect. But you kind of have to expect the unexpected.
JT: Was this a production where you secured permits and union waivers? Or was this more along the lines of guerilla filmmaking?
GC: It was very much guerilla-style. But we had to get permits to shoot in Cambodia. But that process, and just the day-to-day process of filming in Cambodia is infinitely simpler and easier than shooting in LA, which is just red tape from A to Z. You can’t set up a tripod in LA without someone clamping down on you. It’s not like that in Cambodia. It’s much freer. It was actually a huge pleasure to shoot there. We actually shot a week in LA, as well, on the film. That week in LA cost more than the month in Cambodia. And was just ten times the hassle.
JT: What were the biggest challenges of filming in Cambodia?
GC: We had a very blessed shoot. It was the rainy season. So we got shut down by torrential thunderstorms a couple times. A piece of clothing would get lost. A location would fall through. An actor falls through, just kind of the minor day-to-day irritations… People got sick, a little bit. But not to the extent where we lost a day, or we lost Sophea, because we never had a situation where anyone got really sick, or equipment completely melted down, or anyone got held hostage… We really didn’t encounter that at all. I think a lot of it [was that] we were a very small shoot, with a low profile. We were doing everything by the book. So if anyone [came] by, we’re permitted. We had a government guy with us. So, we really didn’t encounter very much static.
JT: After the film’s showings at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival this weekend and next, do you know what opportunities audiences will have to seek out Two Shadows?
GC: I am planning to have it on home video within the next month or two. So it will be on Blu-ray and DVD. I obviously want to make that available through the film’s website, but ultimately through Netflix and Amazon and the more conventional channels… Following that, we would do digital, Video On-Demand, or streaming. There will definitely be more screenings as well. We’re trying to focus on Cambodian communities throughout the U.S. and try to set-up screenings, so that there’s a Q&A, and people can interact with [me] and the cast. Because that’s always nice to have that element… We definitely want to bring the film to different festivals around the country.
JT: Is there anything in particular you hope audiences will be thinking or feeling as the credits roll?
GC: I hope people walk away…feeling like they’ve been on a journey. And that they’ve had a journey with this character.
Filed under: LiC Interview