A New Direction for Don Linder, the Chiang Mai Screenwriter Behind The Last Executioner
We last sat down with screenwriter and Chiang Mai resident Don Linder, 67, in July 2014. A New York City native who came to Chiang Mai about seven years ago, Linder first got to Thailand in 2001 to work as the Academic Director of the AUA Language Institute. Prior to his arrival in Thailand, Linder travelled extensively, taught creative writing to students around the world, wrote programmes for Japanese cable TV, and had done some documentary work, as well. Although he had taught screenwriting courses before, it wasn’t until later that he wrote his own original screenplay, which became an international hit: The Last Executioner.
The film, which premiered at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June 2014, was met with critical acclaim from audiences worldwide. The movie depicts the life of Chavoret Jaruboon, Thailand’s last machine gun executioner, who executed a total of 55 people throughout his lifetime. The film went on to win numerous awards in both Thailand and abroad. When we last left him, Linder said that he was already in talks for future screenwriting projects, and he has indeed been quite busy since. He just recently finished his latest project, a screenplay for a film titled Dark Karma, co-written with colleague Matt Rickard. The film, as described by Linder, is “a crime/comedy in the vein of Pulp Fiction, or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” He hopes that production will begin by the end of the year. Offering us a peek into the intrigue of the movie, which is set in Bangkok, Linder says: “it’s a story about a British expat who is in the financial services business, who gets in over his head in gambling debts, and then the story unfolds from that.”
For Linder, this is a significant departure from the deep, dark style of The Last Executioner, and also his first foray into comedy writing. When asked about any difficulties that he might have encountered in writing comedy for the first time, he explained that there weren’t really any: “I’m a New Yorker so I’m ironic by nature, and cynical, and that was kind of the comedy of this film, so it kind of clicked. I even used to be a short story writer, and my short stories are kind of in that vein, too, dark comedy. So it actually was quite easy for me.” Moreover, switching genres and exploring a new style of writing has been a very intentional choice for him: “What I’m enjoying is doing a wide variety of types of things, which is what I’ve always liked. I mean, I don’t like to be pigeonholed into one thing.”
For Linder, the past few years have been filled with immense change, both professionally as well as personally. The Last Executioner came out in 2014, and the year following its release was one of great success and tumult, which all befell him within a matter of a few months: “2015 was a really horrible year,” Linder told us. “In January, my mom died […] and then, May 17th was my [65th] birthday, May 24th I was diagnosed with cancer–it was stage 4 tonsil cancer.” June 2nd of that very year happened to be the Tukkata Tong Awards ceremony, where The Last Executioner received the awards for Best Film and Best Screenplay. Amidst all of this, Linder decided not to tell anybody, even his wife, about the diagnosis until he got back from the awards, at which time he began treatment for his cancer. In March 2016, after undergoing chemo and radiation treatments, his scans were all clear. But in July of the same year, scans revealled another cancer, which led to surgery and the removal of eighteen lymph nodes. “It really knocked me for a loop and it was very hard,” says Linder. “So it’s been an intense couple of years.” He has since gotten good news: his most recent scan this year came out clear.
Yet despite all the success and personal challenges in recent years, for Linder, not much has changed. He has enjoyed success, but it has not turned his world upside down. When asked about how his life has changed since the release of The Last Executioner, Linder chuckled, and essentially told us that his life was really not as different as one might imagine: “I’ve always been a writer, I’ve always been involved in writing. I’ve won fiction awards and that sort of thing, so it’s not entirely new to me. But The Last Executioner was my first feature film; I really was kind of groping in the dark.” The biggest change that came from such worldwide success, for him, was how it impacted his future work: “It gave me a lot of confidence. It made me realise, yes, it’s difficult to write, but it’s not brain surgery. You can do it. And that just has to do with being a writer. You know, there’s people who are writers, there’s people who aren’t. And you can’t really force that. You can teach people the structure and the outline, how to write a script, but you can’t give them the creativity. I mean, that’s innate. I feel that’s something that cannot be learned. And you know, there’s debate on that, too.”
Nor does the success of Linder’s first film give him anxiety for future projects. “I don’t feel pressure from stuff like that. You’ll read interviews from people saying, it’s so difficult to handle success and everything…I enjoyed it, you know!” He does hope to eventually develop more of his own independent scripts and projects, in the future. When thinking of more Thai-centric themes for possible future screenplays, he has thought of one subject in particular: “I am very interested in human trafficking. But not necessarily from the usual socio-economics of it. As I said, I’ve always been very character-centered. I’d like to write something that really digs deep.” Linder does, however, acknowledge the challenge in addressing such themes and issues through film, noting that steering away from sensationalism is essential in such a project, as well as having a thorough grasp of the context and all nuances involved: “I don’t want to be that kind of person who just really doesn’t understand what’s going on, who just drops in and then just gets out.” For Linder, one of the most essential aspects of scriptwriting is staying close to reality: “I just try to write whatever is as accuratly as possible.” And accuracy is paramount in terms of character development, as well: “I am very, very exacting about my writing. Everything has to be exactly right. [..] I have to feel that every character, that anything the character does, or says, or any motion, has to be exactly in character. And I’m very, very sensitive to that. […] To me, it has to be very consistent. That’s probably the most important thing to me.”
Linder’s advice to budding screenwriters out there? He admits that his writing process is not one that is very encouraging, but that it is quite characteristic of many screenwriters in Hollywood today: “I’m really helter skelter, I have to say. I would love to say that I’m one of these guys who gets up in the morning, have my lunch…you know, I’ve met a lot of people like that. I have a buddy in LA who’s a scriptwriter and he’s very regimented and everything, you know, but I’m not. I’d like to say something else that’s more encouraging to people, but I’m not, I’m really undisciplined, I write in intense spurts, when it comes, like most writers, I obsess about deadlines, and usually write most of everything three hours before the deadline.”
Yet despite his self-described helter-skelter approach to writing, Linder remains firmly resolute in his determination and dedication to seeing his projects through to the end: “I never give up. I always, somehow, in the back of my mind, I know that it’ll get done.” His resolve is firm, even in the most difficult of circumstances; when speaking about the experience of writing and working on projects while battling with cancer, he simply told us, “I wasn’t gonna give up on it. It is what it is, you give up to it, or you go on.”