Within Earshot: A Conversation with Sorayos Prapapan

Thai filmmaker Sorayos Prapapan’s Death of the Sound Man begins with a black screen accompanied by the mysterious but unmistakably sexual sound of someone slurping. Shortly after, the first shot reveals a young man in a sound booth fellating a small toy phallus. With this risqué opening, you might expect a collection of puerile adolescent jokes, but there’s much more to the film than that: what follows is a clever and politically irreverent exploration of life in modern-day Thailand that critiques how the voices of the common people go unheard by the government. The protagonists, Burt and Nicky, are thinly disguised versions of Prapapan, who worked in sound and Foley effects before transitioning to directing. By showing these characters’ day-to-day existence and the underappreciated but crucial role that audio plays in the movies, the film demonstrates how easy it is to manipulate and deceive audiences with both diegetic and nondiegetic sound. Within the span of just sixteen minutes, Prapapan effortlessly immerses us in his deadpan world while also drawing attention to the artificiality of the medium.

In anticipation of Death of the Sound Man coming to the Criterion Channel—where it is now paired with Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, another film that brings audio techniques to the fore in unnervingly stylish ways—I spoke with Prapapan about what drew him to the art of sound design, his beginnings as a filmmaker, and the roots of his eccentric sense of humor.

Tell me a bit about how you were first drawn to the movies.

When I went to college in Bangkok, I was in the department of journalism and mass communication. I didn’t have to pick my major until my third year there, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Initially I thought I might want to be in TV production. But in my freshman year, some friends of mine asked me to help them make a short film. In the process I started thinking that I might want to make one of my own. Because of that experience, I ultimately decided to major in film.

Along the way, I got inspired by a lot of different filmmakers. I’m particularly drawn to Latin American and Iranian directors—I love their approach to reality, which you can feel even in the movies that are touched by the supernatural. Aside from cinema, I love adult animation, including BoJack Horseman—there’s a sadness and pain in that show that makes it feel so real.

I heard that after college you got to work with Apichatpong Weerasethakul. How did that happen, and what was that like?

His company was recruiting for a second assistant director for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and I applied but didn’t get the job. After a few months of shooting, a friend of mine who ended up getting hired called to say that his colleague was out sick, so they had a vacancy. I said yes right away, and that was the first time that I got to work with a professional crew.

There were more than forty crew members, and Apichatpong was really calm when he was on set. I didn’t have a chance to work that closely with him, but it was interesting just observing how he managed the production. We all knew that he needed every detail to be perfect, so most of the time we were just waiting for the perfect sunlight, or the perfect wind, before we could make the decision to shoot. I remember one day he had planned to do four shots and ended up with only two!

In addition to being a director, you’re a sound technician and a Foley artist, and you clearly drew on that experience while making this film. What got you interested in sound in the first place?

My interest started when I first got into art-house cinema back in college. I was particularly fascinated by sounds of the natural environment, but after I graduated I realized it was an area that I still didn’t know that much about, so that led me to explore it in greater depth. I interned with someone who knew how to work with audio both in production and in post-production, and I learned a lot about how recording, sound editing, and mixing—all the various stages of the audio process—are equally important. And I also learned that a lot of the work is just waiting for the conditions to materialize that will allow you to capture what you want.

For Death of the Sound Man, I was actually inspired by Alain Guiraudie’s film Stranger by the Lake, which has a sex scene that highlights a lot of outdoor sounds. I think that makes the whole scene more beautiful. I kept wondering: if I had made that movie, how would I have recorded the sound?

Another film I want to mention that has influenced my approach is La última tierra, by Pablo Lamar. It won the special jury award for achievement in sound design at Rotterdam. I was so struck by the ambient noise of the jungle in that film; I could hear how different birds and insects in Latin America sounded from those in Asia.

As interested as I am in sound, though, it’s not what comes first for me in the filmmaking process—story does. But as I’m constructing the narrative, I’m always thinking about how I can foreground some special sound in a scene. I like to start planning that in those initial stages because sometimes when you add it later, it feels inauthentic, like you’re trying to mislead the audience.

Your film is very funny, but it also criticizes Thai society. What appeals to you about using humor to explore serious issues?

I’m not sure how to answer that except to say, “Maybe it’s because I’m Thai.” We’re really good at making serious issues funny. Partly this is because if we express our political frustrations too loudly and angrily we could get locked up for it. The government likes to ignore us and pretend that we’re all happy. And this is nothing new. I grew up watching a lot of Thai comedy, and the funniest stuff was always related to politics.

What is the filmmaking culture in Thailand like right now?

The grants over here are not enough, especially for short films. On the upside, our shooting expenses are quite low compared to Europe or America, so when we get a grant from the West, it helps us a lot. Also, there are many young people who are willing to work on crews at what I’d call the “friend rate,” but I know that no one can work like that forever. My hope is that someday I can find a way to pay everyone back and use them for future projects that have bigger budgets. That’s what I want to do with my next film, which is a feature. It’s called Arnold Is a Model Student, and it’s about the impact of the school system on Thai society. And yes, sound is going to be a big part of it!