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UCLA Thai alum narrates reign as royal filmmaker

UCLA Thai alum narrates reign as royal filmmaker

“The Legend of Suriyothai” is directed by UCLA alum Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol. Sony Picture Classics

Thai prince unleashes historical battle epic; strives to delight westerners, alma mater.

By Paul Mendoza

UCLA is respected worldwide for its high-profile alumni in the American film and television industry, from Tim Robbins to Rob Reiner. However, one UCLA filmmaker stands out from the field: He is of royal blood.

Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol has enjoyed a prolific 28-year directing career in his native Thailand, but his love for filmmaking really took off while he was a student at UCLA. Now, he returns to the United States to present his latest film, the historical battle epic, "The Legend of Suriyothai," a production on a scale that rivals the largest of Hollywood films.

But Prince Chatri Chalerm's moviemaking history runs deeper than his UCLA days, into his veins. He was born into a family of filmmakers – his father Prince Anusorn made several films before Prince Chatri Chalerm was even born. Once the young Yukol reached college, however, he looked to escape the family business and studied geology at UCLA.

"It's a great subject," said Prince Chatri Chalerm. "You spend half the week outside the classroom."

Yukol attended UCLA in the early 60s, a golden age in the university's history when Coppola and Jim Morrison were walking the halls, and John Wooden and his pyramid were on the sidelines in Pauley Pavilion. Yukol likes to stay in Westwood whenever he's in town, and fondly remembers his days at his alma mater.

"UCLA has never changed somehow," he said. "Except maybe we lose basketball every now and then."

Another thing that hasn't changed is the quest for college cash. Yukol's job hunt as a freshman in college brought him to familiar territory as an assistant to prolific movie director and producer Merian C. Cooper, the man behind classics like "King Kong" and "Mighty Joe Young."

"I had to work, just like everybody else," said Yukol. "Merian was looking for assistants and I thought, 'It's better than waiting (tables), or washing dishes.'"

Of course, nothing works in Hollywood like the name drop, and as a prince of Thailand, he had names in spades.

"He asked me, 'Do you know Prince Yukol?'" said Prince Chatri Chalerm. "And I said, 'Of course! That's my father.'"

After finishing his studies at UCLA, Yukol returned to Thailand and began work as a film cameraman, moving up the ranks until he directed his first feature, "Kuam Rak Kram Sutai (The Last Love)," in 1975. He has directed eight more films since, including his most recent effort, "Suriyothai."

"Suriyothai" is new territory for Prince Chatri Chalerm, as he has never before helmed a project on such a massive scale. The film is set in 16th-century Thailand, an era that he picked for its turbulence.

"It's the first time we have contact with Europeans, it's the first time we have war with Burma, and it's the first time the many states are unified into Siam," he said.

The story centers on Queen Suriyothai, a natural-born warrior who sacrifices her life to protect the royal family and her newborn country. What surrounds this center are thousands of actors and animals for palace and exterior battle scenes, the scale of which can be very daunting for any director new to epics.

"With 200 elephants, 100 horses, and 5,000 extras, it's pretty easy to have accidents," said Prince Chatri Chalerm. "We just had to keep praying that there was no one stepping on the mortar, that the elephants didn't get scared."

"Suriyothai" went on to break all Thai box office records in 2001, but Yukol still prays that American audiences will be equally receptive. To prepare the film for its Western release, Prince Chatri Chalerm enlisted the help of an old college buddy, Francis Ford Coppola.

"I told (Coppola), 'It's too long, it's too involved, and I don't think too many people are interested in Thai history,'" said Yukol. "And he said, 'Let me take a look at it.'"

Coppola edited the three-hour drama down to two and a half hours to focus on the dramatic elements as opposed to the Thai history. Yukol hopes this will help Western viewers appreciate "Suriyothai."

"We're planning to make this film for all audiences," said Yukol on behalf of his creative team. "We want to teach people my history, that it can be fun. I hope American audiences like the film, and especially my alma mater."

And speaking of his alma mater, Yukol hopes to start another family tradition and send his youngest daughter to UCLA for her studies.

"She's deciding between UCLA and NYU," he said. "But I'd like for her to go to UCLA. It's a nice environment."

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Daily Bruin Orientation Issue 2003, dB Magazine, page 5.

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Published: Tuesday, June 24, 2003