Director Abishek J. Bajaj On Pitfalls And Joys Of Filming In Thailand
Filmmaker offer an inside look at the process of making an independent film.
Director Abishek J. Bajaj’s latest film M.I.A. A Greater Evil is a passion project about a group of college students and their professor who travel to Vietnam to pan for gold, only to find something unexpected in the jungles. Here, the filmmaker writes about the experience of bringing his vision to screen and working in Thailand.
“What’s the screenplay about?” I asked.
“It’s about the Vietnam War, but in a weird way – and it’s set in the modern day.”
I read Peter Alan Lloyd’s screenplay for M.I.A. A Greater Evil (“M.I.A.”) in August 2016. He’d mapped most of it out in a jungle on the Thai Cambodian border, writing by torchlight in the dead of night, as he channeled the primeval fears of being out in remote jungle, by day and by night.
This wasn’t a one-off, as he’d travelled extensively around Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia writing about the Vietnam War and POWs left behind after the US pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, which is where he got the inspiration.
I was intrigued by the prospect of telling a modern day narrative within the context of one of the biggest controversies in American history. By January 2017, we were already shooting the film in the jungles, rivers and mountains of Kanchanaburi province, Thailand, a mere five months after the screenplay was first written. Incidentally, it is also the same area where the river scenes in The Deer Hunter were shot, even using the same river (the River Kwai) for its infamous Russian Roulette scene.
As we cast off on the famous River Kwai to shoot the opening scenes on the first day, I marveled at the logistical challenges we had so quickly overcome, little aware of what further pitfalls lay ahead on our incredibly challenging ten-day shoot. This was my feature film directorial debut – an incredibly ambitious undertaking, produced on a micro-budget. What could possibly go wrong?
I’d already gotten used to being without the gadgets, personnel and resources from my time as a production manager and first assistant director on American productions being shot in Thailand. Now it was all down to me, my producing partners, and a crew of handpicked film industry professionals, all of whom I’m proud to call friends. We called in a few favors, and scoured for an English-speaking cast – often difficult in Thailand, but even more so when you are doing everything as quickly as we were.
We had to watch every dollar spent, hiring only essential equipment and crew – the credits at the end of our film are remarkably short. No one signed up for just one job, as a few crew members make appearances in the film. One of our producers took a non-speaking role as a Japanese soldier, our excellent sound man doubled as an American soldier, two of the camera crew appeared as Vietnamese soldiers and the screenwriter took the role of a dead US airman. No one signed up for just one job on our film set.
Then we had to scout locations. And given our budget, locations were absolutely critical. And so it was that we found ourselves floating down the River Kwai in a monsoon in October. We didn’t want to ask our actors to do anything we hadn’t already done. This was a novel, if cold and wet, way to arrive at Our Land, a privately-owned nature reserve, where we found everything we needed. Jungle, a river, riverbanks, caves, a hill-top viewpoint; we could not have found a more ideal shooting location.
Many of our actors were making their acting debuts, and they were certainly thrown in at the deep end, as we could only manage two takes on most setups. And all on location, with the unique psychological and physical challenges that the surroundings threw at them. To their credit, they all rolled up their sleeves and persevered in true indie-film spirit.
For the lead role we were lucky to secure a talented actress from Los Angeles, Valerie Bentson, who was travelling and just happened to be in Bangkok at the right time. Established Vietnamese actor, Lamou Van Lam Vissay, who’d never taken an English-speaking lead before, was very keen to join us, even though we couldn’t pay him much. Thai-American actor Sahajak Boonthanakit, who has appeared in many Hollywood films, and is also an associate producer on M.I.A., took the role of the Guide.
Being out in the jungle in the dead of night presented unusual problems for us. Our Thai crew was petrified of snakes. We had to battle swarms of mosquitos. Scorpions, spiders, huge biting centipedes and millipedes visited us. We had bats in the caves and, one night, as we filmed a critical scene, wild elephants were bellowing so close to us that we had to stop filming as we assessed whether they might stampede.
READ MORE: Our full review of M.I.A. A Greater Evil
But the great thing that came out filming M.I.A was the realization that I didn’t need all the bells and whistles to make a credible independent feature film. For those few weeks, the entire crew was one big family, braving the harsh environment for our passion and craft. As producers, the film is a platform for us to showcase what can be done in Thailand with limited means. For our cast it was an opportunity which may not present itself elsewhere: a chance to take lead roles in a unique and challenging film.