Interview: Contributing Editor Jim Weitz Talks with Don Linder, Screen Writer of The Last Executioner
Don Linder is a New Yorker living in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. In 2014, he wrote a screenplay called The Last Executioner about the last man in Thailand to execute people by machine gun before lethal injection became the preferred method of capital punishment. Besides garnering several international awards, the biopic became the first film written by a foreigner to win best screenplay in Thailand—the prestigious Takata Tong award (literal translation “Golden Doll” award), the equivalent of the Golden Globe. I talked with Don about the challenges that he as a foreigner faced researching and writing a very personal biopic in a distinctly foreign culture, his development as a writer, his approach to writing generally, as well as about what he’s working on now.
Weitz for O:JA&L: How did you become interested in writing?
Linder: “My first interest was poetry. I remember reading e.e. cummings and writing my first three poems when I was 11 years old. I went to Stuyvesant High School, which specializes in math and science. On the one hand, the curriculum there gave me an almost analytic base for processing information—a sort of logical bent, which had an impact on my writing. And on the other hand, the atmosphere of the school was conducive generally to creativity. Nobody cared how you dressed or wore your hair, which was a big deal in those days.
My close friend there was Walter Becker, who became a founding member of Steely Dan. Yet, in the seat next to me might be a guy in a three-piece suit who was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Physics. That kind of blend, scientific and artistic, had a deep influence on me.
After high school, in college and graduate school at Columbia University, I studied comparative literature with a focus on modernism, specifically modern Irish writers like Yeats, Joyce, and Synge. I also did film studies with the critic Andrew Sarris.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: You say you were interested in poetry early on. How did you come to write prose?
Linder: “It was a very organic change. My poems started showing narrative elements with characters, scenes and long descriptions, which finally just transitioned to prose. I found very quickly that I’m a short story writer not a novelist, which has to do with my worldview. I view the world episodically, not as a closed system, which makes an easy transition to screen writing, which is episodic, scene after scene.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: Do you have any particular approach to writing prose?
Linder: “I very definitely define myself as a character-centered rather than a plot-centered writer. I always have a sense of what decisions a character would make in a given situation and how he or she would act, whether that action is expressed or not.
I used to work with the novelist John Gardner. John and I were light years apart philosophically. We saw the world very differently. But he was a fantastic editor. Just as an example, I might bring a thirty-page short story to John, and he’d say something like “the Buick should be green not red.” And I knew exactly what that meant. It meant that if the main character went into a show room, he would choose that color car, and that sets off a whole universe of other decisions. It sounds strange, I know, but it’s surprisingly accurate.
And every story’s essentially about transformation, so understanding what changes a character goes through is key. The plot elements kind of move that along. Whereas a more plot-centered writer sort of sees the plot as determining the character’s choices and feelings.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: How did this character-centered approach influence your writing in The Last Executioner?
Linder: “The quirks and disjunctions in a character are what I find most interesting. In 2007, I met Chavoret Jaruboon at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok. There were three people on a panel about prison life. One was an Australian woman who worked with slum kids and prisoners and was known as “the Angel of Bangkok” and a Thai man who had spent ten years in jail for money laundering. Then there was Chavoret. What interested me in him was that this was a guy I could be sitting next to in Starbucks, and yet he executed 55 people. It’s that kind of disjunction in a character’s personality that intrigues me.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: How did you go about getting to know Chavoret? What was that process like?
Linder: “At the FCCT, I think I was the last person to ask him a question—and he spoke English well. I asked, ‘How do you reconcile your Buddhism with what you do? What do you do after an execution? Do you go out for beers with the guys?’ And it turns out he did! His answer to my question about Buddhism seemed like a very pat answer, I thought. He felt like he was helping the prisoners fulfill their karma in a gentle and benevolent way. And yet he didn’t define himself as a religious person, he didn’t go to the wat all the time. He felt he was a spiritual person but not in the traditional religious sense.
After the panel I went up to his editor and told him I’d like to do an interview with Chavoret. Originally I had in mind maybe a feature article for The New Yorker or New York Times Magazine. They arranged for me to meet him at his office in the Bang Kwang Prison (aka, the Bangkok Hilton) a week later. By that time he was no longer an executioner. He had become the foreign affairs liaison because he spoke English and he was good with the embassy people and the foreign prisoners’ families. He had several books out in Thai and several in English, the most famous being The Last Executioner.
When I went to see him in his office, it was probably the most bizarre interview I ever did. I knew from reading his book that his first love was rock ’n roll. We talked for about 5 hours, but for the first half hour without any explanation, he just started playing air guitar and singing Beatles and Elvis tunes. I thought, “Well, this is pretty interesting…” Later, I must have interviewed about fifty people as part of my research, from his family, to his drummer in his first rock band when he was nineteen, to his monk confidante.
In addition to being fairly well tuned to character, I’ve travelled all my life and I can pick up some of the key elements of different cultures fairly quickly. I had lived in Thailand seven years or so by that point, so I knew the culture. And then as I was researching the script, I met an American woman, born in Laos, but whose parents are American, and who had grown up here. Her understanding of Thai culture is a lot deeper than is mine, and as we watched about 50 hours of video either featuring or about Chavoret, she gave me a lot of the cultural insights I might have missed.
When you do that kind of research, you sometimes get very wildly different stories about the same event from different people, and it’s the writer’s job to synthesize and make some reality out of all of it. Because the film was a feature film and not a documentary, it made it a little bit easier because I could shape situations to make it all fit.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: I read that the other people who were asking questions at the FCCT that night were asking softball questions, which I thought was kind of strange. Why wouldn’t other writers see an interesting story there? I imagine there are a lot of these sorts of stories, sort of regular people with unusual backgrounds. And how do you find these sorts of people?
Linder: “For me, it just surprised me. A lot of these people were top journalists. I don’t know why it happened.”
Weitz for O.JA&L: I know you’ve taught writing a lot. Is it something you can really teach to people?
Linder: “I think you can teach a little structure, plotting and how to look at characters. But it’s hard to teach a sense of things. You have to trust that what you write is accurate to your own vision.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: Did you find that he seemed to feel any guilt or ambiguous feelings, or was he at peace?
Linder: “He didn’t set out to be an executioner. When he was 19 years old, he was playing rock ’n roll for the American GIs on leave from the Vietnam War near Udon and Ubon. Then he met his wife to be, and she soon got pregnant. He was an intensely responsible man, so he decided he had to give up his love of rock ’n roll and do the responsible thing. For me, one of the main themes of the movie is the perennial struggle between being an artist and making a living. He tried other jobs, like working on an oilrig and teaching, but they didn’t work out. So he took the civil service exam to be a prison guard, which offered a stable salary and benefits for his family.
Because he was so precise and committed, when the old executioner retired, they asked Chavoret to take his place. Also, he got an extra 2000 Baht per execution, in those days a lot of money. For him, in some ways it was just a job. One thing about Chavoret— he was very good at compartmentalizing. He could do his execution, go out for beers with the guys, and love his family all on the same day. I get asked a lot whether he was pro- or anti-capital punishment. I really don’t know, but I got the sense he became anti-capital punishment towards the end, though I can’t say for sure. I don’t know whether he had moments of horror or nightmares, but he did reveal to me times that he saw spirits, which helped me form the character of the Spirit in the movie.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: At one point in the movie, he went to a monk to ask about his karma, and the monk says “Don’t worry about that,” almost as if he were surprised he’s bringing it up.
Linder: “I got to know his monk-confidante well. They often toured together, going to schools warning kids about drugs. I asked the monk about the karma issues, and his answer was that Chavoret was an executioner, not a murderer. So by that reasoning, killing people was his job, not his intent.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: Shifting gears a little. What would you say is the role of the writer in contemporary life?
Linder: “Telling the truth. But there are obviously very different shades of telling the truth. So maybe it’s an attempt to tell the truth, whether it’s fiction or journalism or anything. Rational people have their own truths but also recognize that other people have other perspectives that must be taken into account. And it has to be interesting.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: What are you working on now?
Linder: “I just finished a script for a film named Dark Karma, a dark humor crime drama. Now I’m working on the film Ghost People, about the Hmong hill tribe people who live in the mountains of Laos and northern Thailand.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: What’s the story about?
Linder: “It’s about the Hmong themselves and also the French special forces guy who came up with the scheme to recruit the Hmong as mercenaries. I interviewed the grandson of this man. The grandson is now a senior France24 TV correspondent, and I was able to get a lot of information from him. The Hmong were recruited as mercenaries during the French Indochina wars and then the CIA dirty war and the Vietnam War. Afterwards, both the French and the Americans abandoned them. The Pathet Lao, the ruling Communist Party in Laos, accused the Hmong of being collaborators. Many tried to get to Thailand for refugee status, many unsuccessfully.
A lot of Hmong were relocated and wound up in the US and France, where they are recognized but without much support – as though they don’t exist. So they’ve been termed “Ghost People.” There are hundreds of thousands in California, France, and Thailand. In the US, they have, to a great extent, assimilated like the Vietnamese did. The Hmong who live in SE Asia get no assistance and are in danger all the time. The Pathet Lao hunts them down to this day. Many hill tribe people do not have official citizenship, so they are not represented and don’t have access to basic necessities.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: Where did you find the information?
Linder: “The story is written based on very extensive research into every aspect of their life, although I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to speak with many Hmong people.
If I needed to know something about shamans or marriages or other customs, I researched as needed using resources available on the Internet and through contacts I developed. Over the years, I’ve seen and visited Hmong tribe villages. It was important to be as accurate as possible.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: Are you working on anything else?
Linder: “Yes, and here’s another example of how character plays into my vision of things. From time to time, I’ll watch some old American game shows on YouTube because they are interesting culturally or because of language, etc.
One of them is To Tell the Truth. Chavoret actually appeared on a Thai version of the show, shown in the scene that opens the movie. The premise of the show is that three people all claim to be the same person and a panel of celebrities asks questions and guesses who is the real one. So there were three women who all claimed to be Jane Dolinger. Her story was she had been a secretary in Miami, and she had answered an ad to be a ‘gal Friday’ to accompany an anthropologist on a trip to the Amazon. So she goes with him. They eventually get married. Then on her own she becomes quite a writer, writing about headhunters in the Amazon, about harems in Saudi Arabia. She was the real thing. A lot of her articles were published in men’s magazines of the time— not girly magazines, but adventure magazines. She was also very good looking. She interested me as a character, but when I Googled her, there was oddly very little information about her on the Internet. However, there were a wide variety of images of her, from her decked out in a pith helmet and a hiking outfit— very much like an adventure writer— to topless Betty-Page-type, faux S&M photos. This is the type of thing that interests me. This disjuncture. So I’m currently doing some research and planning to do a biopic, another combination of actual biography and fictionalization.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: How would you describe your writing process?
Linder: “I don’t have a routine. I’m actually not very disciplined. But when I get into my writing, all time disappears. Most of my writing gets done at night. I do incredible research, which is partly because of my academic training at Columbia. I keep researching until I get to the point where I begin to plot out, or at least have scenes I can move around.”
Weitz for O:JA&L: Is there any particular audience or ideal reader you have in mind when you’re writing?
Linder: “Thoughtful people. I’m not trying to write high-brow, I just want to write something that has some comment on our lives, something which I think The Last Executioner did. Of course, the film opened the same week as Transformers 4, so you can imagine who won that race.”
About the writer:
Jim Weitz, O:JA&L’s Contributing Editor for Literary Tourism (East Asia and the Western Pacific), has lived in East and Southeast Asia for most of the last 12 years. During that time he has worked as a technical editor and taught ESL at universities in China and Taiwan. His stories have appeared in the journals Red Savina Review and Pennyshorts; a satirical novel, The NAFTA Report, is available on Amazon for anyone in need of a good laugh. He has an MA in Applied Linguistics with a focus on cross-cultural communication in literature, and a J.D.
Images: The Last Executioner from Imdb. “Don Linder” portrait photo courtesy of Don Linder.