Why Tilda Swinton Headed to the Colombian Jungle to Make Her Weirdest Movie Ever

TheWrap magazine: “It was a place where we could build a dreamscape,” says Swinton of “Memoria,” her collaboration with Thai visionary Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Tilda Swinton
Photo by Jill Greenberg for TheWrap

A version of this story about Tilda Swinton and “Memoria” first appeared in the International issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

The films of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul occupy a meditative dreamscape of time and space, with events unfolding slowly and plot less important than mood. And because of that, adventurous actress Tilda Swinton has been drawn to the director of such films as “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” for years, cultivating a friendship that has finally led to a collaboration on “Memoria,” Colombia’s entry in this year’s Oscar international race.  

“We recognized in each other a very compatible response to cinema and the opportunities of the frame to hold a kind of suspension,” Swinton said. “That’s the first thing we talked about, and we talked about that for a long time before any other details became even remotely a concern.”

Weerasethakul added, “I know her as a friend and I admire her ability to transform, like water. She’s fluid, and I knew that she would jump at anything.” But Swinton was cautious about working with Weerasethakul (whom she and most other people refer to as Joe) on his home turf in Thailand.

“We went, OK, let’s go somewhere where both of us are strangers. And we went searching for it as if it were a new planet.” Joe suggested Iceland, but she said no because she’d been there several times; Tilda suggested Japan, but he was too familiar with it so it was struck from the list as well.

But after he went there for the first time for a film festival, Weerasethakul brought up the idea of making a movie in the South American country of Colombia. “There’s something about how people in Colombia deal with memory that interests me,” he said. “This is a country that’s waking up from 15 years ago, when it was another kind of landscape. It was too violent, and now there’s lot of evaluation of trauma that’s going on.”

Swinton, too, felt a pull when she finally went to Colombia. “I realized on about the fourth day that the reason that it felt so familiar was because I, like all sorts of lucky teenagers, had been exposed to the work of Gabriel García Márquez,” she said. “This sensation of magical realism and the sensation of what Joe calls time collapsing is a very Colombian thing. It’s not unique to Márquez’s perception of life, but something that lives in Colombian culture, the idea that one can be in constant dialogue with one’s great-grandparents – this feeling of time collapsing and the feeling of a dream, which of course is incredibly important not only to Joe’s work, but to me. It certainly was a place where we could build a dreamscape.”

Tilda Swinton in “Memoria” (Neon)

In the film, Swinton plays a woman who hears mysterious bangs in her head, a case of “exploding head syndrome” like the one that Weerasethakul himself suffered from. “We wanted to make a very personal film, and something very authentic to the two of us,” Swinton said. “And as the years rolled by, we, as friends, shared with each other certain personal developments that were happening in each other’s lives.

“Joe had this syndrome and suffered for a long time with insomnia,” she said. “And I suffered a bereavement and shared with Joe the sense of dislocation that came with that. This strange suspended sense fed into what we wanted to make the film about.”

Not that the details of the story are what matters. “The really fascinating, slightly magical thing about working inside Joe’s frame is not just the frame of the camera, but also the frame of time, because to work within a 15-minute take there’s a sort of surface tension,” she said. “When Joe says action, you know that you’re going to be there for 15 minutes.

“It’s actually a very free space which is completely welcoming to everything that might happen. A bird might drop in, a dog might bark, somebody might turn the radio on — it’s all part of the landscape of the shots. Joe gives you the license to be in the absolute present moment.”

Read more from the International issue here.

Hand of God Wrap magazine cover