Interview with Buffalo Girls Director Todd Kellstein, Pt. 2

Following my written review of Buffalo Girls, opening in NYC at the IFC Center on Nov. 14th, I had the opportunity to interview Director Todd Kellstein. I loved the...

Following my written review of Buffalo Girls, opening in NYC at the IFC Center on Nov. 14th, I had the opportunity to interview Director Todd Kellstein.

I loved the film and was very excited to speak with Todd, who Skyped with me from his patio in Los Angeles.  It’s an amazing, modern world where you can video call a person across the planet and record it right on your computer – in a more amazing, modern world the recording would be perfect, but this one is still pretty good.  The sound is not synched at times, so it should be treated as a podcast with photographic supplement.

I will be transcribing the interview over the next few days and posting it in installments.  Below is minutes 12 – 27, but the entire video is embedded below.

You can jump to Part 1 of the transcript

Transcription Pt. 2

S: I was interested to know, where does this money come from when the purse – when the bet – gets so high? It’s 100,000 Baht. So it’s clearly not one peson putting up that money and there must be huge risk on either end from these families and their trainers. Who’s putting up that money?

T: The promoters are putting up the money.

S: Oh, OK,

T: For the big purse, there’s one – there was one for 100,000 and there was one for… [thinking] 80,000. The promoters are putting those two sides up, so it’s those gyms – it’s usually the gyms who are putting it up with the promoters. But the families have side bets, huge side bets on the last one. They wouldn’t let me film it though. They wouldn’t let me talk about how much they were side betting. But Stam’s side had 10,000 Baht on that, which is a lot of money. [Roughly $333 USD] When they won that last one they made the 100,000 plus 5,000 Baht injection and 10,000 – I don’t even know what the odds were, so at least 10,000 back. They were really careful about not letting me know about the side bets.

[both laugh]

S: Did you bet at all, while you were there?

T: Yeah, but you know what I did though? I always felt bad so I would bet on both of them. And whoever won, I would just give them the winnings anyway. I would just give it all to them. But when Stam and Pet fought together I wouldn’t bet.

S: Right, yeah.

T: Ever. But when they would fight other kids I would bet on both of them and give the winner all the money.

S: It’s [betting is] amazingly complex, it’s incredibly hard to understand and the fact that they kept all those side bets from you makes me feel better, that I’m not just an idiot and that it’s actually something that’s just for the Thais and I just don’t get it.

T: Yeah, but those side bets were not bets fluxuating during the match, those were side bets that they had between the two camps, that they had. And neither one of them would let me know. But a funny thing like that: I started shooting Stam first for a few months before she fought Pet for the first time. So when I approached Pet’s family to film her, they’d seen me shooting the first fight and they were convinced – and I mean convinced – that I was there to shoot Pet’s training so that they [Stam’s team] could watch the footage for the rematch and get some inside information. So they wouldn’t let me anywhere near her, it was unbelievable. It took me hours to convince them that I was not on anybody’s side, that I was just trying to make a movie.

S: There was a moment when – I saw your interview on BYOD and I have such a strongly different reaction to the film than did the woman who was interviewing you, understandably so – I’m not the mother of an 8-year-old and I’m living and fighting in Thailand – but she was very disturbed by the excitement in the corner that happens in fights. And she was very disturbed by Pet – no, I’m sorry Stam – being slapped by her trainer, on the cheek when he’s trying to get her attention. And I was so taken by this moment because my response to the exact same moment in the corner was when she stands up to go back into the fight her father puts his head down by her head in this very intimate moment to maybe speak to her or just give her this moment before she went out. And it made me think of you coming from the West and having an initial response to the fighting and then spending three years watching it – what is the… not necessarily a message, but what can you demonstrate or show to the West in what might not be seen, what might be interpreted in very different ways. What would you want to highlight about childhood in Thailand that is not what we experience in the West?

T: Yeah, that’s a great point. It’s really good. And you know that moment that you’re talking about, where he grabs her down and he’s talking to her. I wish to God I knew what he was saying in there! I really wish I knew what he could possibly have been telling her with all that craziness. And yeah, I have no idea. He’s probably saying you better fucking win [laughs]. Or maybe it was that she wanted some new curtains for her room, I don’t know, I remember her talking about that a lot. And we actually – she won that fight and we went shopping with them a few days later in the talat [market] and she found these curtains that she’d been looking at for months – these, I don’t know what they were, some cartoon character – she really wanted these curtains for the new house. And so she finally wins, they finally build the house, they’re out shopping for curtains and she’s holding these curtains and her mom looks at her and goes, “no, too much.” [Puts head in hands]

S: Oh noooo!

T: So she never got her curtains.

S: That’s too bad.

T: But yeah, the thing that you say about childhood in Thailand, I think even if you’re growing up in Isan [the poorest region of Thailand] it’s probably a better childhood than I had, I think. Because it’s just so pure there, it’s so lovely. I remember I took the kids out one time to McDonald’s in Bangkok – what is that big mall, the big big mall –

S: MBK?

T: – with the aquarium… not MBK, a bigger, bigger one even. It’s got the whole aquarium in it at the bottom.

S: Wow, I have no idea.

T: Ugh, something “world,” it’s something “world.” [Remembers] Ocean World, there’s a big mall on top of Ocean World. Whatever. The kids really wanted to go see Ocean World so we all went to Bangkok and they saw McDonald’s, never saw McDonald’s before, like in real life, but they’d heard about it and it’s cool so they had to go to McDonald’s. They ate, I swear to God, they ate a kid’s meal and there were so many preservatives and so much crap in this food they both fell asleep in 10 minutes. Ten minutes after they ate the Happy Meal! So, amazing right? Everything they’re eating they’re picking immediately, just killing chickens and eating them right there, it’s fantastic. And that’s really the thing. The message of the film is just that everybody has dreams, everybody has these aspirations and it just happens that they achieve them by fighting in the ring. It’s not a sport like we have here, it’s just not. Although I think kids train as hard here, swimmers, runners, kids playing football, they all train a lot and they train really hard, especially if they want to be in the Olympics or something. But the difference is, what they [Thai kids] have hanging over their heads is quite literally eating for the next week. And that’s a big deal. That’s what changes the whole scope of the film, that’s the message: people are poor, not because they’re stupid, not because they’re lazy, but they have dreams, they have aspirations and things they want to do and they’re going to figure out some way to do it. And in Thailand the best way to do it is to go fight and go to school.

S: That’s beautiful.

S: I wanted to make sure to ask you, for people who are not in New York or LA, what is the future of being able to see this film? Is it going to be on DVD, digitally online where people can see it?

T: Yes, it’s going to be all those things. So, hopefully if we do well enough in New York and LA – and I don’t know if that’s going to happen, it’s rough right now as the storm in New York made a big mess for our opening, so I don’t know how good it’s going to do in New York. And then there’s LA, if we get enough people in seats and enough interest in the film it will go wider. It won’t be a wide release but it will be a wider release. But we will go to Netflix, DVD, and they’ll be doing overseas sales as well. I know Japan just bought theatrical rights to it, which is great, so it will be there. It will be on Netflix, it will be On Demand, iTunes and all that stuff.

S: Is it showing in or premiering in Thailand at all, like in Bangkok?

T: Well, here’s the plan: we’re hoping to be able to show it in both of their towns [Pet and Stam] for sure, in Prathum, in Rayong; maybe at the gym, maybe we can set up some kind of mobile outdoor thing, ’cause my whole dream for it is to show it in Isan especially. Even though neither one of these two kids is from Isan, they’re both Isan Thai. They, you know, they’re Isan as shit

S: [laughs]

T: So, I want to show it there so we’re trying to figure out a way to show it outdoors, at like talat somewhere. Screen it and bring the kids around. And the promoters said we’ll just see when is a good time to do it. Even though the kids, the two kids themselves think it’s incredibly boring. It might not even play in Isan, it might be so matter-of-fact like watching a bad reality show, I don’t know!

S: How do you keep in touch with them now, do you call them?

T: [Nods] Cell phone. Neither one of them has internet access at their house, which is horrible because it would be so great to get them on to some of the Q and A’s, you know, via Skype. But we just can’t do it, the times never work, it’s always the middle of the night there and the kids gotta go to school, they gotta sleep, gotta get up at 5 AM and go run – it’s just terrible. We can never get on Skype at the same time, so I always have to call in the middle of the night [for me] and chat.

S: And your Thai is good enough that you can just talk to them on the phone?

T: My Thai is terrible, my Lao is okay. [Isan language is a Lao dialect] But yeah, I can talk like maybe a 4-year-old. But because I spent all of my time around Isan 8-year-olds so my vocabulary is about there.

S: My gym is directly across from a school for 4-year-olds and in the morning they’re singing and talking about omelets and stuff [a staple of Thai food] and that’s where I learn a great deal of my Thai.

[both laugh]

T: Do you have any kids at your gym?

S: We don’t have any really little ones. We have some teenaged boys who grew up there, so they’re kind of at the end of their cycle where some of them are turning 18 and moving away and some of them are kind of continuing on. But we haven’t gotten a second, you know, the next generation of kids growing up there. But it’s also a very western-friendly gym, they pull kids from a neighboring village but not so much in the immediate area.

T: And you said Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai – which one?

S: Chiang Mai. But we see on the cards, when I go to my fights there will be little kids. I love watching little kids fight. Little kids fight like nobody else and they’re so good. I think of this, did you ever see “Tideland” by Terry Gilliam? It has Jeff Bridges in it.

T: [Eyes wide, shocked, like “how have I not heard of this?”] Um, no

S: No? You should go look into it, it’s amazing. It’s a disturbing movie, it’s this very little girl and her parents are drug addicts and they end up dying and she has this imaginary wold in the middle of this super darkness. And people were very freaked out by the film so at the very beginning Terry Gilliam has a disclaimer about how this is a very disturbing movie, but he has this really beautiful quote that I always come back to which is that, “children are built to survive.” I think about that when I see these kids who are smashing each other so hard and so good, they’re so well trained – they’re better than I am and they’re, like, 8 years old or whatever. And they’re just incredible! They just bounce straight back up, they’re so strong. And they have this heart, you know, the heart of Muay Thai and a spirit that’s just so strong. It’s really beautiful.

T: What do you think about? – I thought you had a black eye –

S: I often do, I don’t today.

T: What do you think about – people are always telling me the kids are so small they can’t really hurt each other, they can’t kick each other that hard, they can’t punch that hard. I’m not so sure about that. And, I mean, I tried to get Stam to punch me one time and she wouldn’t do it because she said it would hurt. But I don’t know, I think they punch pretty damn hard and I’ve held the bag for them, there’s some power back there.

S: Yeah, it’s relative to size as well. I get told that the reason I don’t get hurt in fights is because I’m so small and I absolutely appreciate that a guy who’s 70 kilos and can break another man’s arm with his kick is experiencing more damage in a fight than I am –

T: I don’t think that’s true!

S: – but if I didn’t train as hard as I do I would be getting hurt more in fights. I loved hearing both those girls’ moms saying that they don’t worry about their daughters because they train so hard. If you train hard enough you’re protected.

T: I just do not believe that line [about small not causing/taking damage] Because, unless you’re a fighter you just do not know what it’s like to get punched in the face. You just really can’t judge how much it hurts or doesn’t hurt. I was watching some of your fights and two things that stuck out to me, and I don’t remember which fight it was – you have a lot of fights up – where you were just hammering this girl’s shin, her left shin. Oh, it was fucking nasty! And you kept getting teeped, you got teeped like four times in a row and every time she put a teep on you you charged in with a left hook, it was beautiful, amazing, and you were cracking her in the face. Unbelievable, that’s some charge you’ge got in there. Is that people screaming at you or is this just your nature?

S: I don’t think I think about it, I think it’s nature. I think for me it’s safer to move in than to stand where you are and my head trainer has recently been just beating the crap out of me in padwork and in sparring and I’m becoming more and more conditioned to just stop responding to it. Just act like none of that hurts. Just today actually he was pounding me so hard, he hits me in the stomach every chance he gets, and if I show any kind of pain he’ll jump on me. I was watching a much bigger guy doing padwork right after me and the exact same thing was happening but he was responding to every single one of them and I was like, “oh God! Don’t show him that it hurts!” I was saying, in this order, do not let 1) your opponent or 2) the judges know that you’re hurt. Like, ever.

T: Another thing Thai fighters do and I’ve noticed Stam does this, when they really get cracked they just [nods head], nod.

S: [excited] Totally! Totally!

T: Just that.

S: It’s so badass, it’s just crazy!

T: [keeps imitating the quick nod, like “yup, you hit me.”]

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Posted In
Female FightersMuay Thai

A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay

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