The true story of Aung San Suu Kyi, a living icon to the Burmese people, is a tale of love…romantic and humanitarian…for husband, family and country. The slight, slender woman, who stands with flowers in her hair and a resolve stronger than the military might of the Myanmar junta, was finally freed in November 2010 from a total of 15 years of house arrest.
The feature film THE LADY reveals her story, with deep commitment from Director Luc Besson, Producer Virginie Besson-Silla, Actress Michele Yeoh [who portrays Suu Kyi], Actor David Thewlis [as her husband Michael Aris], Production Designer Hughes Tissandier, Set Decorators Evelyne Tissandier and Jackie Yau, Director of Photography Thierry Arbogast and an entire production crew dedicated to bringing the woman, and her determination for the rights of her people, to the attention of the world.
There is also the remarkable love story between the non-violent activist and her husband, founder of the Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Centre at Oxford.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s father had opened the doors of democracy for the people of Burma, and she refused to allow them to be firmly closed. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, “Suu Kyi's struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades. She has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression…”
However, she could not receive the award in person, nor were her husband and children allowed to bring it to her. In fact, there were often times that they were not allowed to communicate.
Because of her detention, Besson and company had to secretly film most of THE LADY in northern Thailand, bordering Burma, where they constructed an exact replica of the house in which she was incarcerated. It had been her family’s lakeside home. The film opens with compelling shots of the Burmese countryside and a narrative by her father of their country’s history, as told to her in the home’s sunlit yard when she was a child, a few hours before he was assassinated. She returns to the house as an adult to care for her ailing mother and becomes imprisoned there. We see the house deteriorate over the years, but the woman holds strong.
SET DECOR talks with Besson and Besson-Silla re: the making of this film from the heart…
SD: When you made the film, Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest with limited outside communication. How were you able to determine what was accurate?
LB [Director Luc Besson]: We knew from the beginning that we only had about half the information…all the people who know her had not seen her since 12 years, so you take all the information you can from them, from human rights organizations, from the Friends in Burma association, and you cross reference all this information. There are a couple of things where we were sure…for example, her house. So what I had, I tried to make.
SD: And you had photos of the house?
LB: We had 200 pictures of the house outside, and a couple of the inside. And then we went on Google Earth and measured the entire house, and determined where it is on the lake, and how far the lake is from the road. So, we made the entire plan and we rebuilt the house, but in concrete because we had to shoot for almost three months in this house. We built the exact replica of the house…even the gate is the same, with the same pikes.
SD: Did you use fly-away walls? Or was it like a location, an actual house?
VBS [Producer Virginie Besson-Silla]: It was a real house, but constructed in concrete.
LB: The Thai people built it in a couple of months…
VBS: And then we tore it down to make sure it wouldn’t be used for any other purposes.
SD: And the details of the set decorating, all the details…you determined these in the same way, from talking with people who had been there and from photographs?
LB: Yes, exactly. The piano, for example…we have one photo where we can see the piano and even the name of the piano. So we were able to use the same piano, the same model…everything exactly as in the photo. You will see also that on the wall there are a couple of pictures of her parents. We found the pictures…we duplicated them and put them in the exact same frames.
SD: Another example of a specific element, in the bedroom where her mother was, there was an older sewing machine…
LB: Yes, again, the same one she had.
SD: After the soldiers came, did she still have that? The military took so much away when they first put her under arrest.
VBS: The sewing machine was used more in the beginning to help establish that the house had been there for such a long time. We thought that elements like that showed part of the day to day life there.
LB: What you perhaps noticed during the film is, because she is under house arrest for so long, the more we go into time, the less furniture. It was because she was selling the furniture. She had no money for food, so every week she was selling something. And at the end, the house is pretty empty.
VBS: Can I just add one thing about the house? It was also a character of the movie…because she spent so much time there, it was essential to get the right spirit in the house.
SD: And along those lines, did you spend time in the house other than when it was being shot?
VBS: Well, in the preparation, we went several times to see it being built. And then the first few days when we were in Thailand for the prep, we would spend time in the house to get the feeling, the atmosphere, the light. Luc would sit there with his script…at his tiny table…and he would just sit…
SD: And then because you have this long-term degradation of the house, did you film it consecutively?
LB: We tried to shoot in order…you cannot do it all the time… but it was more for Michele than for the house. For example, the first scene that she shot in the house is the first time she comes in, when she discovers the house. Because she was not familiar yet with the house, because we had never filmed in it, she’s not so comfortable. And two weeks later, she knows the house.
SD: You feel that in the film. At first, she’s visiting, and then it’s her life.
LB: Yes, and it helps the actress to do it this way. What I was very careful with since the beginning is, you’re going to arrive in the house and, if you know her story, you know that she’s going to stay under house arrest for 15 years. So the first time you see the house was very important for me, because you’re going to see a beautiful house, and it’s your jail. And I wanted to give the two feelings at the same time. The scene when she comes…she leaves the taxi, she opens the door, she has her little suitcase and she goes through this passageway...you have this alley of palms and then you discover the house…like a dream. She is happy, but at the same time, she doesn’t know exactly…That was very important, so we worked a lot when we built the house to be sure that we have the trees left and right to give this sudden apparition of the house.
VBS: And Hughes and Luc really worked on the images, to make sure the house was devolving throughout the story.
LB: We figured out the orientation of the house…you know, south/north…So we put the exact same orientation.
SD: Ah, so your lighting would be the same as the original?
LB: Exactly! The sun…the rise was coming the same way, the sunset was going the same way.
SD: Speaking of the lighting, did you use a lot of practicals? For instance, the small oil lamp she had to use because the electricity was going out. Were you using mostly film lighting, or did you rely on the natural, or practicals, or a mix?
LB: I play a lot with the real light, the natural light. So when the light at 4:00 pm was good on one angle of the house, we would do the scene at that part of the house, because the light is very particular in Burma and Thailand, and I didn’t want to lose it.
VBS: We didn’t want anything to be artificial…
LB: Thierry, the director of photography, was very light when he added light…he was very, very light.
SD: And the natural light is almost a golden yellow.
LB: Yes! We called it “The Golden Land”, Burma. That is why…the light is often golden.
VBS: We also wanted to feel the heat, to have that sensation of being in the very warm, humid country…
SD: Then there is the heaviness of the military presence throughout, including the barricade and encroaching encampment at the house.
LB: We built this piece by piece…when the military are first coming into the house, and they erect a barricade and begin building this extra “house” inside her gate. And little by little, it grows. It gets bigger and bigger and more involved…more omnipresent.
VBS: And this whole time, they are invading her property.
SD: Yet she remains sanguine. The scene where she writes out the quotes about non-violence and about human rights...where she does the brush drawings of the quotes…did that actually happen?
LB: Yes, we have some pictures of this.
SD: That was wonderfully artistic…and impactful…
LB: We had some photographs of the house from then, and like in the film, everywhere, every wall was covered with these. You know, it was her way of surviving, to fight with words.
SD: And to remember them.
SD: The books that she had initially…for the set, did you try to get authentic books, too? Or were they more “the feeling of”?
LB: Authentic. The books are the books she had at the time. The coats hanging on the walls are coats that we have seen in actual photos, so it’s the real thing.
SD: It’s so great, because of course, that’s what set decorators try to do, particularly when re-creating history, is to make it as close as possible. Sometimes you can only give the flavor, but when you can get specific details…
VBS: Yes, it is very important. We spent time in Burma before building the set in Thailand, to see how the people were living, to get the feel, the energy, the tastes, the mores of the Burmese culture. The production designer and set decorator went over there and bought a lot of stuff…fabrics and lots of things…so that we would have the same, accurate pieces.
LB: And most of the people that we were using in the production came from a refugee camp in northern Thailand, near the border, so they were Burmans. So we could always ask them. I said, “Feel comfortable, if it doesn’t look like Burma or feel like Burma to you, say it, so we can correct little details.” And someone might say, “Oh this is not totally right, you know. We do it the other way.” And then we could adjust.
SD: From Burma, we move to Oxford, England where she had lived for many years as a wife, mother and scholar, and where her husband, a renowned Tibetan and Bhutanese scholar, and their two sons remained during most of her detainment. Their apartment is a great contrast to the house in Burma. Can you tell us about this?
LB: The apartment in Oxford…So you see this curved building? [See photo gallery above.] That’s where they lived at the time. And so I went to #15, because that’s the exact one where they lived, and I rang the bell. The gentleman who is there now is an architect. He knew that she lived in the apartment before. And we asked him, “Do you mind if we do a couple of shots in the house?” We just had like 100 technicians waiting outside! And he was…
VBS: Kind of cautious.
LB: Yes, and he was nice. So we did a couple of shots from inside. When you look out to the street in the film, it is exact…it’s the apartment. The inside of the apartment, we built on stage. We don’t have many documents of it, so we referred to the apartment we had visited. So, at least we know the shape and we respect the shape. And we asked the gentleman, since he was an architect, “What did you keep from the time? What’s new?” He said, “Okay, the chimney was good. The frieze was good.” So we took pictures of all the real things and we incorporated them.
SD: The apartment set has the warmth of family, and yet when she’s not there, you feel an emptiness, even though it was filled with furnishings…English, Tibetan, Asian...Could you talk about these details?
VBS: Because Michael was an Oxford fellow for Tibetan and Himalayan studies, and had lived and taught in Bhutan, what we knew for a fact that all over the house they had tapestries and sculptures from Bhutan. So in the house, it’s basically English, to show that it’s in England, but there are also a lot of those pieces scattered about, and a lot of other Asian items. I think you can see the contrast between the life in Oxford and the house in Burma even in the colors.
SD: Yes, and it seemed as if the cool palette in Oxford turned even cooler when he became so ill.
LB: Yes. We used the blue in Oxford all the time, to make the light blue like ice. So you can feel almost the cold when you are in it.
SD: It’s very recent history, so were you able to film in any of the other locations?
VBS: Yes, a lot of those buildings still exist and a lot of those places. When you go into St Anthony [at Oxford] and all of that area, that’s where he was. Even the hospice where he is, in the end. That’s exactly where he was when he died.
SD: And his office, the amazing study at Oxford?
LB: Where he was giving lectures…yeah. And the shot when he comes in and sits down near the end, that’s the real building, the real place.
SD: So, again, this was a total re-creation, as close as possible?
LB: Yes. You see, for example, when we went to St Anthony, people remembered him, and they were so touched that the crew was coming there…and then they see “him” [David Thewlis as Michael Aris] coming in, and it was strange for them.
SD: It must have been very poignant.
VBS: Yes, and they were proud. Because we always hear about her, but much less about what he had done, and in his domain, he was at such a high level.
SD: And what an incredible person as well.
LB: Yes, he’s the most beautiful husband, I think. Such an example. And she is a goddess, to me.
That November morning in 2010 when she was finally released, I had just shot her first liberation in 1995: she walked out a wooden gate, then climbed stairs to wave at the crowd who was waiting for her. When we got back to the hotel that evening, we turned on the television and saw the same gate and Suu Kyi dressed almost the same way, with flowers in her hair, going up the stairs and with the same wave…
SD: It was not just a story you were telling, you were watching it being lived.
VBS: Exactly. It was like fiction became reality.
As I was reading the script, I couldn’t help wondering how a mother could make such a choice. And it was so far from my own nature that I wanted to understand what had driven her to give up everything for her country. But after doing some research and meeting people who had known her, and more than anything else, after meeting with her just after her release, I understood that she had done it all out of love. She chose not to take into account her own feelings in order to help millions of people.
LB: When I finally met her, I felt like I was standing before Gandhi. A person can’t help but feel small and silly in the face of this woman who radiates extraordinary kindness, gentleness and simplicity. She fears nothing. …What is important to her is that her people be free…She has no personal stake. It’s a lesson in humility.