Posted by: Jerry Garrett | November 10, 2011

Ten Secrets Behind the Making of Aung San Suu Kyi’s “THE LADY”

Official HD trailer for “The Lady” starring Michelle Yeoh & David Thewlis


It takes a lot of luck, fortuitous collaborations and good timing to get a movie made in Hollywood these days. Especially one about a democracy advocate who had been languishing under house arrest for most of the last 20 years. To some, it sounded like old news – until the story suddenly landed on the front pages again in 2010. But by then, actress Michelle Yeoh was well along with her project to make “The Lady“, her film about Burma‘s revered peace activist Aung San Suu Kyi, and her tragic love story.

Michelle Yeoh at AFI Fest premiere (Jerry Garrett Photos)

1. The Idea: “I read a magazine article about her about three years ago; that’s what got me interested,” Ms. Yeoh said in an interview at an AFI Fest screening of “The Lady” Nov. 4. She told her staff, “Somewhere, someone has to be working on a book, a script, a play or something about this woman. Find me something I can get the rights to.” That’s how Ms. Yeoh found Rebecca Frayn, a British writer who had visited Burma in 1991, and who had been working ever since on developing a screenplay called “Freedom From Fear”; Ms. Frayn sent the script to Ms. Yeoh, and an arrangement was quickly reached. The author knew the largely untold love story of “Suu” and her husband Dr. Michael Aris, who died of cancer in 1999. “That was the missing humanizing element of this woman’s story,” Ms. Yeoh said, “which makes the movie so compelling.”

2. The Masters of Martial Arts: Ms. Yeoh, a former “Bond girl” and one of the world’s premier female action stars (including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“), had long admired the work of producer/director/writer/cinematographer Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element“, “Kiss of the Dragon“, and “The Transporter” trilogy). “We had always talked about doing a movie together,” Ms. Yeoh said. “But we couldn’t find the right vehicle.” Ms. Yeoh went to Mr. Besson with a draft of “The Lady”.

Luc Besson: I said "No!"

3. The Turn-Down: “I turned her down!” Mr. Besson said. “But she said, ‘At least look at it, and tell me if you can recommend someone who will help me get it made.’ So I took it home with me, and read it. I called her back in the morning and said, ‘I have cleared my calendar. We are making this movie.”

4. The Logistics: How can you make a movie about someone you have never met, about a secretive country, a place foreigners can barely even get into because of the military government’s severe restrictions on entry visas? It turns out some European tourists on closely guarded group photography excursions can get in – in rare instances. “I got in,” Ms. Besson says impishly. “I took a Canon 5D with me, and shot 17 hours of footage. Usually with an armed military guard no more than three feet from me.”

Uppatasanti Pagoda (Courtesy Republic of Myanmar)

5. The Landmarks: All the seldom-seen Burmese landmarks depicted in the film are the real thing, with the film’s actors overlaid in the foreground. “All that is real – the golden pagoda (“Uppatasanti“) – I really shot all of that,” he said. “Even the aerial shots of the river. I rented a helicopter in Thailand and had the pilot fly me to the border of Burma. We weren’t supposed to cross in, but I told him, ‘Keep going! I’m filming.’ For about two minutes, he did, and then he became too afraid and turned around.” Mr. Besson used every frame of that shot.

The remainder of the film, except the portions as noted above that we actually shot in Burma, were filmed in neighboring Thailand. The settings look quite a bit alike.

Aung San mansion (The Guardian)

6. The Mansion: What about Aung San Suu Kyi’s iconic lakeside mansion outside of Rangoon? “We re-created that in Thailand, in a setting that matches the real house. We even used Google Earth to determine the exact dimensions, and how far it was from the lake shore,” Mr. Besson said. The film’s mansion is an exact replica of the real one. “Even the fence is the same, down to the iron gate and the bars.” Sadly, the real mansion lost its roof during Cyclone Nargis in 2008; Aung San Suu Kyi lived there in misery, without electricity and largely unprotected from the elements, for months after that.

After Cyclone Nargis' devastation, Myanmar's secretive govt refused outside aid.

7. The Lady: Mr. Besson also managed to establish a connection to exchange letters with Aung San Suu Kyi during the filming. “Through secret channels,” he said. Ms. Yeoh pulled off quite a feat of daring herself: Like Mr. Besson, she also went to Burma. She even managed to gain entry to the mansion and meet Aung San Suu Kyi in December 2010. At some point, Ms. Yeoh’s treachery was discovered by the country’s rulers – and she was deported.

Besson checks camera

8. The DIY Cinematographer: In addition to his digital filming of locations in Burma, Mr. Besson he often took control of the camera to film scenes with the actors, especially close-ups of Ms. Yeoh. “That’s me, two feet from Michelle’s face, trying to capture exactly what is in her face, and her eyes,” Mr. Besson said. It is ironic on some level that two such acclaimed experts of the action movie genre could capture the essence of the world’s foremost advocate for non-violence.

9. The Reaction:  “We gave her a copy of the film,” Mr. Besson said of “the Lady” (as she is called, because it is illegal to speak her name in public in Burma). But he doesn’t believe she’s watched it yet. “She told me, ‘I’ll see it when I’m courageous enough.'” Ms. Besson said it is his opinion “a big part of her died when her husband died. Something went out of her. She’s just a shell, a symbol, now. She’s become immortal.”

The "reel" Aung San Suu Kyi, and the real one

That is why, Ms. Besson said, the movie ends the way it does, with Aung San Suu Kyi sort of rising, via no visible means of support, like a resurrected being. (The ending has not been changed, despite recent developments in the Aung San Suu Kyi saga.)

10. The Postscript: Since the movie wrapped, the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to expire in November 2010. Her release came just six days after the military government symbolically gave up official control of the country and allowed “free elections”. Quel surprise! One of their retired generals was elected president of the country with a reported 92 percent of the vote. The vote was called a sham by international monitors.

Burma? Reform? Really? (Council on Foreign Relations)

Yet, the political landscape seems to be changing in Burma (I was actually granted a visa to enter the country as a photographer last February). Kim Aris was given a visa to visit his mother for the first time in 10 years; the country’s president invited Aung San Suu Kyi to his palace for a face-to-face meeting; she is able to travel inside the country. But if the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, now 66, wants to travel outside of Burma, she still won’t be allowed to return.

“Thank you,” she told Mr. Besson in a recent letter, for making the film, because “it sheds light on my country.”

Ms. Yeoh and Mr. Besson each say the film stands as the highlight of their respective careers. At the movie’s AFI Fest premiere, Mr. Besson said simply, “It’s the most important film I’ve ever made.”

Jerry Garrett

November 10, 2011


  1. […] She definitely deserves recognition for this role. (And even more so – along with the director – after I read about what they went through to make this film a reality! The credits even said that they couldn’t print everyone’s name because of security […]

  2. Thank you ms. Yeoh

    • What a wonderful movie. I can’t understand why it did not catch on. It played in, like, one theater in Hollywood…got snarky reviews from somebody at the LA Times…and it was toast. It was such a wonderful movie, wonderfully done, and about such an important – and timely! (as it turns out) – subject. Shame on you, Hollywood!

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