Luc Besson already had a tough task in presenting an accurate, well-rounded story of courageous Burmese democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, played by Michelle Yeoh in “The Lady.”
Just as challenging for the helmer: creating a realistic and consistently accurate look for the film, which is set in the repressive nation of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Finding suitable shooting locations required the French director, his producers and key members of the production, including scenic and costume designers, to travel extensively throughout Southeast Asia.
“Luc and I made our first visit to Rangoon six months prior to the shoot,” says producer Virginie Besson-Silla, who’s also the director’s wife. “We engaged the services of a production liaison office in Rangoon (to facilitate government-issued visas and filming permits). The restrictive nature of the military regime necessitated hiring guides and drivers to take us through the areas of Rangoon, including the lakeside house of Aung San Suu Kyi and the surroundings, where we were permitted to travel.”
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“The look and the feel of Burma were always vital to Luc, but just as important was capturing the energy,” Besson-Silla adds.
The energy and what Besson-Silla terms “the spirit” of the Burmese people were present in the more than 50 actors, advisors, translators and extras Besson’s company, Europa Films, hired on the shoot, which was based in Bangkok, capital of neighboring Thailand.
“For security purposes the project was originally titled ‘In the light,'” noted set designer Hugues Tissandier in an email. “In 2010 we made scouting trips through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. An exploratory trip to Burma shed light on our choice of Thailand as the right location. The country, which shares borders with Myanmar, is very similar in its colors and architecture. Due to its proximity to Burma there was the possibility of obtaining materials for Burmese fabrics and accessories,” Tissandier added.
Parts of the film are set in the U.K., where striving for accuracy was equally vital. Says U.K. producer Andy Harries, “Luc was dead-set on shooting on the same street in Oxford where Suu and her husband Michael Aris (a British academic and tireless campaigner for his wife’s Nobel Peace Prize) had lived with their two sons, prior to Suu’s ‘relocating’ to Myanmar in 1988.”
Harries oversaw the Oxford segments of the shoot and remained involved through the entire production. “We obtained permits to shoot in front of the actual house they’d lived in, though the house’s interior was re-created on Paris soundstages,” he notes.
Harries’ commitment to the project came via his wife, Rebecca Frayn, the film’s scribe, who spent three years reconstructing the events of Aung San Suu Kyi’s emergence as a political force and her long years of house arrest under Myanmar’s military regime.
“Rebecca and I had our first look at the repressive military when we traveled through Burma over 20 years ago,” he recalls. “Even then, right after Aung San Suu Kyi’s first landslide election for her Democratic party, the people were not allowed to talk about her (and if they did, feared) brutal reprisals. This was how she received the name ‘The Lady.’ The Burmese people’s need for discretion brought about this (shorthand) that became her appellation.
“Rebecca and I felt that telling her story might assist in her release from house arrest,” adds Harries. “Later, when Aung San Suu Kyi received her unexpected November 2010 release, we were only six weeks into the shoot, and, of course, Luc and Rebecca were very pleased. Due to her release, it was necessary to make some changes to the film.”
In addition to Thai cast members, several Burmese exiles and refugees were hired for the shoot, lending authenticity to the production. “The faces of the Burmese people were crucial to the film’s realism,” says Besson-Silla. “Due to shared borders with India, the Burmese have features that reflect both their Southeast Asian and Indian heritage.”
After a base in Bangkok was established, key production members organized trips to Burma, traveling in pairs posing as tourists to do research. They took thousands of photographs, and shot hours of film in HD, used as further documentation to ensure accuracy.
Costume designer Olivier Beriot paid close attention to the “evolving style” of Aung San Suu Kyi through her first years in Burma — alterations that presented challenges for his team.
“The wardrobe and hairstyles of Aung San Suu Kyi underwent changes after she began living in Burma,” notes Bertiot. “Upon arriving in Rangoon in 1988, Suu gets off the plane wearing the traditional Burmese outfit: a ‘longhi’ (traditional skirt for men and women), a shirt with that specific asymmetrical Asian cut and black velvet slippers sans hosiery… Over the next five years the necklines of her traditional shirt became higher and she also gradually stopped wearing short-sleeved blouses.
“During public appearances (campaigning and speaking at visits to the outlying provinces) she’s wearing strong colors to be seen far away by the demonstrating crowd,” adds the costume designer. “The different longhi’s (she wears) throughout the movie were bought in Rangoon fleas markets a few months before the start of shooting on one of my visits (to the city).”
Bertiot adds that most of the military wardrobe — from uniforms of simple soldiers to generals — was made in Bangkok in the workshop of a talented Thai costuming team of 25 cutters and seamstresses. “An ex-Burmese soldier refugee in Bangkok was our curator for these specific military uniforms.”
“In Bangkok the trees were the same as Rangoon, the birds sounded the same. It felt right,” says Besson-Silla. “The climate is identical and the excessive heat and high humidity enhance the orange glow to the sun, which you also see in Burma. The color palette that was so important to Luc … the saffron, oranges and yellow were all there.”
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