Lots of Western Judgements: Todd Kellstein on Buffalo Girls

The director of the new documentary explains why Muay Thai little girl boxing rings are a good thing, and why he fired Dakota Fanning.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

There’s a movie about eight-year-old Muay Thai fighting girls, and it’s not the latest crazy kickfest from the producers of The Raid or Ong Bak. It’s real. The documentary Buffalo Girls follows Stam and Pet, two eight-year-old girls from Thailand who train to be Muay Thai champions. And they are. We spoke with director Todd Kellstein about the film’s provocative subject and surprising complexity.

CraveOnline: What was your reaction when you first heard about eight-year-old Thai boxers and how did that change when you started actually getting to know them?

Todd Kellstein: Well, I didn’t hear about them. I ran into them completely by accident in Chonburi so I didn’t even know anything about it. My first introduction to it was actually seeing it. So I was pretty shocked obviously. I had lots of judgments, lots of western judgments about it, but I really came around and when I saw how necessary it was, in terms of what they were doing for their families economically, how it was keeping them in school, how it was helping pay the rent, pay the films. So I really came around, found it very empowering for them, I thought. So when we made the film, I had to really take a line not to go either way, not to push my views which polarized 180 degrees from beginning to end.

And it also shows how capable they are. People might not give eight-year-olds enough credit that they’re working out that hard.

Stam’s mom has a piece of the film where she talks about that. You know, if it was you or I that got kicked in the stomach like that, we’d just go down. She works out so much that it’s really all right for her. I think to a degree that’s probably true. I just think it’s tough to say that and qualify it that way when you’re talking about little kids, especially little girls.

The training montage is such a staple of narrative movies. Were you thinking of that when you captured Stam and Pet’s workouts and put together those montages?

[Laughs] No, I wasn’t actually. I was thinking that’s a silly thing that people always do and I wouldn’t do that. And then I did. The training is such a huge part of their life, I can’t even imagine how much training footage I have of those guys. It must be 40-50 hours of just training footage because it’s such a big part of their day. So if I was going to shoot, I would always end up shooting that. It was something I never got bored of so it turns out that there’s tons of that footage, but no. I didn’t want to do one of those montages but I did.

Those sit-ups they do hanging from their trainers are pretty impressive.

Oh, when they’re hanging upside down, yeah, that’s pretty amazing. I just never got sick of it so I would always shoot it. I would always be there anyway and there’d always be some new training thing they were doing that would be interesting to photograph so it was literally every day for years watching those guys work out. There’s way more training than is in the film. There’s way more footage that they have.

Isn’t that true of every documentary? There’s more footage than makes the cut.

Yeah, well we really, really cut down. An hour is pretty short. It’s pretty tight, considering. I think anyway. We really made a concerted effort to cut down, cut down, cut down, cut down, really tighten it up.

How did you come to just over an hour as the length of the film?

We didn’t set a time per se. I mean, I had always imagined an hour and a half just generally, but our first cut was really long as they always are, like three hours or something, and it just became interminably boring to everybody in the world except me. I could just watch it all day, but it was really just a matter of trying to keep it as tight as possible, keep it as interesting as possible and really pare the story down just to what’s immediately important to Stam and Pet and that’s it. The little context that we do have with the trainer and the bookie is there just because people always had those particular questions. If it wasn’t for those questions always coming up, I probably would have cut that out as well.

Was the running time, a little bit less than most features, a hindrance to getting the movie sold and distributed?

No, no. As I found out later, that’s actually a pretty good time for TV distribution or HBO. They like things 45 minutes to an hour because it perfectly fits their slots. That wasn’t a consideration at all. I didn’t know that but no, it wasn’t a problem. I mean, I don't know, I don't think of movies by the minute or by the pound or art by the yard. You tell the story until it’s done. You can’t arbitrarily just tag a number onto how long it should be.

In Thailand do they not televise the fights? Is it just for the live entertainment?

Oh, they do, they do. Recently they’ve been televising more and more kid fights actually. Yeah, boxing is such a huge part of the culture there, it’s on all the time, all the time. On Sundays it’s always on channel 3. It’s incredible. Walking down the street, everybody was watching stuff from cab stands or outside on their porches, and people will just stop and watch fights, bet on the street, on the side of the roads. Mostly the televised fights are the big fights, the older guys, but once in a while they’ll throw some kid fights in, once in a while. So yeah. Pet did a TV fight when I was back in Los Angeles. I didn’t film that but she did do one.

Yeah, I didn’t notice any cameras in the ring besides yours.

No, no, when the kids are fighting, it’s very, very rural. It’s inside these little provinces and no, once in a great while you’ll see maybe a family member maybe with a camera. I don’t even remember that. I’m sure somebody was videotaping something but no, those fights are not televised. If they’re going to be on TV, they’ll travel to a bigger stadium, maybe in Bangkok, and those bigger events would be televised.

Since the whole movie is in Thai language, what did you want to do structurally to make sure western audiences had their bearings?

That’s a great question. In terms of the translation, we really struggled with that and a bunch of others first of all because it’s so hard to translate. That’s a nightmare for an edit because our editor couldn’t get any work done until the translation was done. So we tried doing some editing while translation was coming in, but you just can’t cut that way. You have to have everything together. You have to have everything in there to pick from and she just didn’t have it. We were really a mess. In terms of structuring the film, I wanted to be very careful that the kids were telling the story, that the parents were telling the story or Thai people were telling the story. So we really went back and forth about having a narrator, not having a narrator, how many title cards we should use, if we should ever use title cards. So when it was something really important, we put up a title card. We actually had a whole narration written and Dakota Fanning agreed to do it and did do the voiceover, but it didn’t feel right to me to have somebody that wasn’t Thai and wasn’t involved in it telling anybody what was going on, just because there’s always a sort of subjectivity to it and I just didn’t want to do it. I really wanted to make sure the kids and the people involved were telling the story 100% and literally in their voices.

How did Dakota take the news that she got cut?

Oh, she’s a very dear friend of our producer, Jonathon Ker. She’s known him since she was born so she was okay. She was fine. She’s a lovely person. She’s lovely. She did a lot of work too. She really did a lot of work for us. We talked about it at a barbecue.

You were a grip on a lot of films in the ‘90s. That’s not usually the story we hear of moving into directing, so did you always have making your own films in mind when you were working on sets?

I did, absolutely. I certainly did but I’ll tell you what happened. I came out here and just by accident the first thing I ever did on a set was be assistant to the dolly grip, and that was all I knew so that’s the road I took when I got to L.A. I was so clueless when I got here, it was ’93, ’94, I literally looked in the Yellow Pages, opened the Yellow Pages and started calling studios to ask if they need any help. That’s how much I didn’t know what was going on out here.

That sounds like a good pounding the pavement way to get a job.

They didn’t take those calls. [Laughs] When you call Warner Brothers and ask if they need help in their grip department, they just hang up on you. No one helps you out. I think one kind person, I don’t remember who it was, some stage or something I called, said, “You need to get Backstage West. That’s where all those jobs come up, all those free jobs to learn about stuff and get involved.” That’s what I did. I went and I got it and that’s how I got my first gig doing a freebie for an AFI student film or something. What happens is you start gripping, you start making a lot of money. These are like big, big jobs, they get a lot of money and you start doing that and lose sight of the big goal was just to make your own film, so I took the really slow path, you know.

Were you still working in the industry for the 10 years before Buffalo Girls?

Oh, sure. I was directing by then. I was directing music videos, commercials, doing a lot of second unit and VFX shooting, stuff like that.

As a grip you worked on the killer snowman movie Jack Frost. Did you think that was a crazy movie when you were on the set, or was it just another job?

No, that was one of the most fun movies ever. It really was. It blows my mind that people love that film. It’s kind of got a cult thing, doesn’t it? The director on that was a madman. He was so cool, he was so crazy and he had so much fun. Everybody had a blast on that. We all had a blast on that movie. I think we shot it, all the snow scenes in Big Bear, the one year there was zero snow in Big Bear. We had no snow for the snowman movie. It was a nightmare, laying out snow walls and making snow every night. It was bitter cold but no snow, terrible for picture.

Were you on the set during the bathtub kill scene?

Yes, I was. I was right there. I was right there. And nobody knew who she was yet. I didn’t know who she was. [Editor’s Note: “She” was a young Shannon Elizabeth.]

But everyone knew what they were filming. What were the conversations on that set?

In those situations, every time I’ve been in one of those shots, it’s always about making an actor feel cool and be okay. So nobody says anything. There’s no weird conversations. You don’t want to be a jerk and say something inappropriate. It’s an important that actors feel comfortable and not feel weird. It’s very respectful but she wasn’t famous yet. I didn’t know who she was.

No, she wasn’t. It was before American Pie.

Yeah. She was beautiful, sure. She was really cool, really nice. The bathtub scene was tough because the bathtub was built maybe 10 feet up in the air and all the work was underneath it. It was a low budget movie so it was a big rig for us to have to pull off.

When did you wrap Buffalo Girls?

Wrap wrap?

Well, when did you stop filming with them?

I stayed there for three straight years until late 2007/2008. Then editing for six months and our edit just sucked so we went down for probably about a year, then we picked up again, picked the edit back up with new partners at Union Editorial and wrapped it officially in late January, just in time for Slamdance. As everybody else, it’s last minute, like the week before Slamdance you’re still making cuts, outputting HD cam.

What are the girls doing now?

Now, Pet is the champion of Pathum Thani which is great for her. She’s doing well, she’s still fighting and Stam is just chilling. She’s sitting on the belt and she’s not really going up in weight class so it’s tough for her to get a fight. She’s got so much experience, she’s got such a great reputation, no one really wants to fight her so she’s just kind of sitting on the belt. 


Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel