The art of set design
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The art of set design

How Thai talent Pawas Sawatchaiyamet helped create the fictional city Yatana in Monkey Man

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
The art of set design
Pawas on set with actor and director Dev Patel.

When Dev Patel, a British actor known for compelling performances in films like Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The Green Knight (2021) stepped into the director's chair for the first time with Monkey Man, he envisioned a neo-noir action thriller set in a fictional Indian city.

To bring this vision to life, he enlisted talent from all around the world, including Thai production designer Pawas Sawatchaiyamet. This collaboration resulted in the creation of Yatana, a city inspired by the dark, gritty tones of Batman's Gotham City, but rooted in the vibrant, chaotic spirit of Mumbai. Pawas' work on Monkey Man was not just crafting sets, but weaving a visual narrative that complements themes of revenge, redemption and resilience.

"Dev [Patel] saw the story happening in this specific kind of world," Pawas explained. "Thinking of Gotham as the dark side of New York City, we created Yatana as the dark version of Mumbai. It was a brilliant, smart idea. Dev was extremely passionate about the story and clearly knew what he wanted. I'm so proud to be part of his debut film."

Monkey Man tells the gripping story of a young man called Kid (Patel) who unleashes a campaign of vengeance as a monkey-masked fighter at the Tiger Temple, and goes against the corrupt leaders who murdered his mother and continue to systematically victimise the poor and powerless.

(Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The production of Monkey Man took place in Batam, Indonesia, a location chosen for its diverse topography and the availability of Infinite Studio, which provided the necessary backlot and soundstage facilities. Despite being filmed in Indonesia, maintaining an "essence of India-ness" was crucial for Pawas and his team.

"We tried to keep the essence of India," he noted. "In Thailand, we have grown up with Indian influence, including religion, culture and mythology. The core idea of Monkey Man is quite relatable to me."

The influence of Indian culture, particularly surrounding Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, is deeply woven into the film. This theme presented both a challenge and an opportunity for Pawas, who had to ensure the sets not only reflected the noir aesthetic but also resonated with the mythological undertones of the story.

"The interpretation of Hanuman is central to the film and Dev," Pawas said. "The wrestlers in the movie's Underground Fight Club wear monkey masks and have white body paint to represent the White Monkey [Hanuman]."

One of the film's most symbolically rich sets is Kings Club, a luxury brothel that plays a pivotal role in the narrative. The design of the elevator in Kings Club, which changes light and colour as it ascends, mirrors Kid's journey from the lower echelons of society to the heights of power and influence.

"The elevator used to travel in the building is both a means of transport and a metaphor for the protagonist rising up," Pawas explained. "The design of the elevator on each floor is thus different."

Production designer Pawas Sawatchaiyamet. 

Creating these intricate sets required meticulous planning and a deep understanding of both the source material and the logistical constraints of filming in Batam. Pawas, who has previously worked on the island, utilised his knowledge of the local topography to scout and select locations that would best serve the narrative.

"I have worked on Batam many times so I know the locations and topography quite well," he said. "Dev travelled directly to the island from India shortly before me and I was one of the first crew members to arrive. We immediately began to find filming locations on the island with Dev."

This collaborative spirit extended to every aspect of production design, from the construction of sets to the procurement of props. Many elements were custom-made in Batam, while others were shipped from India and various parts of Indonesia.

"Props from the Indian team were shipped directly from Mumbai to one part of the island. Those available in Indonesia were also moved by ship, such as from Jakarta," Pawas elaborated.

One of the standout moments for Pawas and his team was the creation of an abandoned Shiva temple, which serves as a significant location in the film. This set, created from an abandoned building on the island, blended practical decorations with the existing structure to evoke the mystical and decayed grandeur of a forgotten temple.

Scenes from Monkey Man. 

"We managed to scout an abandoned building in Batam and built the set to bring out abandoned Indian temple features," Pawas recalled. "It was within budget and resulted in something that everyone was happy with."

Working on Monkey Man was not just a professional milestone for Pawas but also a deeply personal and culturally rich experience. Drawing parallels between the film's themes and his own cultural background allowed him to bring a unique perspective to production design.

"A protagonist who comes back to take revenge on a tyrant, the poor who fight against the wealthy, the underdog from the lowest rungs of society who battles to the top -- these all represent the different social classes," he said.

Pawas' approach to production design is deeply rooted in supporting and enhancing storytelling. Every choice, from the colour palette to the placement of props, is done so with care to serve the narrative.

"I think my work focuses first and foremost on supporting the storytelling," he said. "For example, the selection of colours. We used a monochromatic colour scheme for the wealthy, with accents of dark oak brown and red and gold. While for the the lower-class, we chose natural base colours such as reddish brown, natural green and colourful clothing."

Reflecting on his experience, Pawas highlighted the collaborative nature of the project and the effort of the artistic team.

"I and my team from Thailand, India, Malaysia and Indonesia should be given joint credit," he said. This synergy was instrumental in overcoming the challenges posed by the global pandemic and logistical constraints, ensuring that Monkey Man was not just a visually stunning film but also a true artistic achievement.

As for the future, Pawas sees immense potential for Thai film production teams to work on international projects. He believes that building a robust domestic industry with continuous opportunities is key to nurturing talent that can compete on a global stage.

"In the film industry, it is necessary to accumulate experience to gain credibility and compete with other nations," he said. "We have to accept that there are talented people all over the world."

One of the set designs. 

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