The Last Executioner: An Interview with Screenwriter Don Linder

 | Fri 25 Jul 2014 18:37 ICT

Chavoret Jaruboon executed 55 people, including one woman, with a machine gun. Known as Thailand’s “Last Executioner,” he worked at Bang Kwang Prison in Bangkok and was the last person in the country assigned to perform court-ordered executions by gun before Thailand switched to lethal injection, the method still used today.

Chavoret Jaruboon

Chavoret died of cancer in April 2012, but not before he shared his complicated story with Don Linder, the American expat who would eventually write the screenplay of Chavoret’s life.

The excellent film that emerged, scripted in Thai with English subtitles, is a difficult one to watch. Beautifully shot and directed by acclaimed Thai-Irish director Tom Waller, The Last Executioner presents a fascinating and unblinking look into the Thai psyche from a rather unexpected source. It grapples with Chavoret’s role as musician, family man, and government-sanctioned killer, and explores how the Buddhist concept of karma conflicts with the duties of a very dark profession.

Last year, screenwriter Linder wrote a fascinating story for Citylife about the life of Chavoret and what it was like writing this screenplay. Now that the film has officially been released, he speaks with CityNews to share more about the film and the experience of making it.  

CityNews: Tell us a bit about your background. What brought you to Thailand? Why did you decide to stay? What have you done here for a living?

Don Linder: I came to Thailand in February 2001 after being recruited for about two years to take over as Academic Director for the AUA Language Institute. I had been Academic Director at City University of New York for many years and was interested in the challenge of AUA – at that time the largest English language institute in the world with 18 branches, about 15,000 students, and about 500 faculty and managers. Plus, I’d lived and worked in Asia previously – China, Japan, Mongolia – and like being here.

After three years at AUA, I decided to start my own consulting company, doing academic, creative, and editorial consulting. Almost three years ago, my wife, Lida, and I decided to leave Bangkok and move to Chiang Mai, a move we’re very happy with. A little before that, I sold my apartment in New York City (my home), so that pretty much clinched it for staying here.

CityNews: How did you get involved in this project? Why do you think the director chose an American rather than a Thai to tell this story? (And, did you write it in English or Thai?)

Don Linder: The brief story is this: one night in 2007, I went to the FCCT to see a panel discussion on prison life in Thailand. There were three panelists – Susan Aldous, an Australian woman well known as “The Angel of Bangkok”; a former owner of a travel agency who’d done time for money laundering; and Khun Chavoret, a guy who’d executed 55 people, but who, sitting there in an Izod shirt and Dockers looked distinctly unlike my stereotyped image of an executioner – black hood and scythe. He very much interested me as a character, so after the panel finished, I asked to do an interview with him. The next week, I was in his office at Bang Kwang Prison (“The Bangkok Hilton”) where, after retiring as executioner, he was now the Director of Foreign Affairs dealing with foreign prisoners, their families, and their embassies. (He spoke excellent English.) Before meeting him, I read his autobiography (written in English) so knew something of his background, but was nevertheless surprised when during the first 30 minutes of our five hour interview, without any announcement, he played me air guitar and sang me Elvis and Beatles songs.

My original plan was to write a feature length article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine or New Yorker, and I sat on the material for over a year. One night, I was at a friend’s 50th birthday party in BKK, where I was seated across from Tom Waller, another friend of the birthday boy, who I didn’t know. How the conversation turned to executions, I’ll never know, but Chavoret had died recently, and Tom wanted to do a film on his life, but not simply a film from the book. I had the hours and hours of personal contact, so we decided to talk more and proceed with a screenplay.

I wrote the screenplay in English. It was translated by several people who I know could pick up all the idioms and nuances – Tom himself; Khun Pu [Vithaya Pansringarm, who also starred in the recent Bangkok-based film Only God Forgives], the actor who played Chavoret and had lived in NYC for eight years and has been married to a New York woman, also fluent in Thai, for over 25 years; and Katy Grose (part Thai), the associate producer, who’d played in a rock band in Florida for many years. So, I am 100 percent confident of the translation. Much of the subtitling in English is from my original script.

Cast and crew on the red carpet at the Shanghai International Film Festival (L to R): Katy Grose, Tom Waller, Vithaya Pansringarm, David Asavanond (actor), Don Linder, Wade Muller (Director of Photography)

CityNews: Did you encounter any challenges in the writing of this film? Any unexpected successes?

Don Linder: The biggest challenge was to do it, the biggest success to get it done! Of course, bridging the culture gap and making it accessible both to Thais and foreigners was a challenge. And, although I’d taught scriptwriting on three continents and wrote for Japanese cable TV and other short scripts, I’d never done a full-length feature before. So, that was the big challenge.

CityNews: Can you talk a bit more about the cultural divides? Not being Thai, how did you ensure that your screenplay remained true to Thailand and Thai culture?

Don Linder: This was a challenge, and with a lot of help, I think I was successful. First of all, I’ve always lived globally, always paying close attention to whatever culture I’m in. It’s just my natural instinct to pick up on cultural norms and oddities. Plus, as part of my research for the film, I interviewed about 50 people, including Chavoret’s family, the drummer from his band when he was 19, his monk-confidante, his childhood friend, etc., etc., so that gave me a lot of advantages to bridge the cultural divide. But, my very special thanks go to Chiang Mai resident Rebecca Weldon, without whose help I literally could never have completed the film. Rebecca, who is fluent in Thai and has lived in the culture for most of her life, sat with me through hours and hours of videos of Chavoret in various situations – serious interviews, game shows, morning talk shows with giggly hosts, etc. While not doing a word-for-word translation (not necessary), Rebecca explained to me the main ideas, but much more importantly, put it all in cultural contexts which I would have never known without her help.

In addition, my wife, Lida, is Thai, so I’m daily an integral part of Thai culture.

Chavoret, as portrayed in the film by actor Vithaya Pansringarm

CityNews: Was it your intention to make any specific statements about the death penalty or karma in this film? What are your opinions on these subjects, and did they change in your interactions with Chavoret and the writing of this screen play?

Don Linder: There was no agenda for this film. I simply wanted to present the complexities and depth of a person who most others probably thought of as one-dimensional. Personally, I learned an enormous amount about the meaning of karma, and the reality of the spirit world for most Thais, but in the end, deliberately left the question open of whether Chavoret goes to heaven or hell, whether his good or bad karma tilts the balance. As for capital punishment, my own feelings are complicated on this issue, and there was no intention to present any statement on the subject – just to dramatise Chavoret’s emotional, psychic, and practical personal means for dealing with his work.

CityNews: Were you very involved in the making of the film? Any anecdotes to share?

Don Linder: I was as involved as I could be. Most importantly, I had – and still have – ongoing communications and friendship with Chavoret’s family, especially his widow, Khun Tew, and his daughter, Khun Chulee. This relationship kept me grounded in the real story, and Lida and I are still close with them. The day after the Bangkok premiere in June, Tew and Chulee took us for a wonderful lunch in Nonthaburi where we discussed the film.

I was on the set for about half of the filming days, and both Lida and I have cameos in the film, most obviously on the bus where Lida is the woman in the green dress next to The Spirit at the back of the bus, and I, in dark glasses, have a brief, Hitchcock-like cameo as the camera pans forward.

One of the most amazing experiences, however, was the day we shot the execution of Duangjai, the only woman Chavoret executed. The actress playing the role [who strangely shared the same name as the women she played] was Duangjai Hirunsri, and we were shooting the scene in the garden and a recreated execution room at one of Tom’s houses in Nonthaburi. The set and crew was always very open and friendly, but as soon as Duangjai came on the set, she went and sat for hours almost catatonic in a corner. Her scene was slated for after lunch, and at lunch, when everyone got together, she sat by herself, picking at her food with her head down. I thought, either this woman is a terrific method actor or she’s clinically depressed. After giving an absolutely amazing performance, she laughed and kidded around with everyone else, so fortunately, I knew she is just a terrific actor, not depressed.

Don Linder and director Tom Waller on set

CityNews: How did you feel about the overall outcome of the film?

Don Linder: There were obviously some changes – deletion, additions, shortening scenes – from my original script, but that’s to be expected. Before the release of the film, Tom prepared me for these changes in such a way that I was unsure whether I actually wanted to see it or not. As it turns out, I think the film is terrific, and although there are some differences from my original, I feel that in spirit and pacing, it keeps about 85-90 percent of my original intent. Plus, we’re dealing with a very low budget film here, and what was accomplished in cinematography, editing, and music, not to mention direction, is extraordinary. I feel it’s a “lean” film (in a good way) and within budget and time constraints, I’m very pleased with how Tom chose the core or scenes and accomplished segues to make it all work seamlessly.

CityNews: How has the film been received, both in Thailand and internationally?

Don Linder: Not so good in Thailand. The press and criticism were excellent, but we only played a week or two, and there seem to be several factors that affected that. One is the marketplace – we were up against Transformers 4 and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. You can guess who won at the box office. Second, it’s not really the kind of film that attracts the usual Thai audience, even though it’s a very Thai story and ultimately celebrates a Thai life. Enough said.

Internationally, so far, we’re doing much better. We were one of 15 films out of 1,500 submissions chosen to compete for the top awards at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June, where we had our global premiere, and came home with the Best Actor Award for Vithaya Pansringarm (Pu), for his amazing performance as the adult Chavoret. We got some great international press, including a piece in the New York Times. We’ll continue to compete in a long list of international film festivals in Europe, Asia, and North America, the outcomes of which will determine our distribution worldwide.

Don Linder and his wife Lida at the Bangkok Premier, June 19

CityNews: So, what’s next for you?

Don Linder: I’m already talking with several people who would like me to do a screenplay – it seems that everyone has a good idea! – and I’m being selective. It’s hard work to write a script, and I want to be sure I take on one that interests me deeply like Chavoret’s story. In the meantime, I’m focusing on my original idea to do some print articles on the subject while I choose the next screenplay. Lida and I also have our wine business, WineCNX, and I’ve started a business for reviewing, editing, and rewriting scripts, so we’re always busy.

The Last Executioner had only a very short week-long run in Chiang Mai theatres and is unfortunately no longer playing at this time, but Linder hopes that it will return after success at international film festivals. The DVD will also be available soon. For now, you can watch the trailer and stay up to date on future releases at the film’s production website.