How Sarawak can attract more filmmakers


Wind Caves.

I HAVE been what is called a fixer for film productions since I first got involved with the film locations business in March 1987, which makes this my 32nd year in the industry.

Two of my mentors responsible for getting me into the business were my former boss in NBT Toyota, the late great Alan Tan Tatt Huat and Ralph Marshall, more famously known for his connection with Ananda Krishnan, Malaysia’s richest man. Thereafter my current partner and everlasting friend Chandran Rutnam from Sri Lanka took me to greater heights and taught me all that I know of the industry.

I am still very much active in the industry and my current associates are ScubaZoo Images in Sabah – Simon Enderby and Jason Isley; and Adrian Cornelius has been my longtime confidant and partner here.

It is a very challenging but absolutely fulfilling industry to be in, especially as a pioneer and having seen and nurtured so many international features and documentary shoots throughout Sarawak and Sabah. When we started 32 years ago there was no competition; today there are a number, but most are specialist film production houses supplying content to the local TV and broadcast sectors. International opportunities are still few and far in between.

When Hollywood producer Andre Morgan (he had co-produced with Al Ruddy the first ‘Godfather’ film and also an early Bruce Lee movie) first stepped foot in Kuching; together with director John Milius (of ‘Conan the Barbarian’ fame; he also co-wrote parts of ‘Jaws!’) they told me they wanted to look for unique exotic locations, local faces, and accessibility.

Sounded easy enough I had thought to myself.

With my trusty Adrian in the driver’s seat, we scouted over many days and several weeks always coming back to our production designer, the late great two-Oscar award Gil Parrondo with photos and location maps and road routes – to end up on the list for final selection by Milius and Morgan.

The preconditions required for all our scouted locations were easy enough: they had to be within an hour’s drive from the base camp, at which time was the Holiday Inn when Peter Mueller was the GM. They had to be away from the madding crowd, yet approachable by road – we could, if we had to, build our own road to get there. They needed to have that certain look for a particular scene in the script.

Eventually for the MGM production of ‘Farewell to the King’, we had 17 major locations throughout Sarawak, and we had to construct from scratch the major film set at the foothill of Matang, now the Boys Scouts Camp. It’s still there but in a terribly run down condition. (All movie sets are constructed in such a way that they are supposed to only last the duration of the shoot.)

Sarawak has been able to attract many film production companies to scout and use its many unique and exotic locations since then. However, for every five productions scouted, maybe one would eventually materialise and get shot here. There are too many reasons for failure to name here.

The next big feature film production which has been in the works for more than three years is a project called ‘The White Rajah’, with Jason Brooke attached as its consultant and the Sarawak government has thus far supported it financially in its pre-production costs. It has been rescheduled to May or June, depending on who you’re asking.

With this article, I hope to highlight the many concerns that I have with regards to the way that the present government is planning to alter or completely change the look of certain film locations that film companies would come all the way from Hollywood for. It counteracts the many promotions done overseas to attract both visitors, tourists and film makers that the Sarawak Tourism Board as well as us, the independent film fixers have been doing for more than 30 years!

Take for instance – Ranchan Pool at Serian; in 1987 we had shot the ambush and massacre scene there at night and the waterfall and surrounding jungle had the perfect look the film director had wanted. We can’t do it today. It’s been modernised with many bridges and manmade structures which we cannot ‘hide’ on camera now.

Then there’s Siniawan old town, the look is still there – please don’t change it. But news of making a new waterfront esplanade will kill off the look that depicts Kuching in the 1840s – James Brooke’s era! Why spoil a natural attraction?

Wind Caves and Fairy Caves – near Bau, again these locations should be left intact and untouched. Too much construction in and around the area will totally change the overall look and atmosphere, which would nullify filmmakers’ love for these unique locations.

It is a good thing too that many locations more obscure cannot be touched or developed too quickly – the few longhouses left, the meandering rivers and streams, the islands and beaches, the mountains and hilly regions (especially the highlands of Bario and Ba Kelalan), and of course the primeval jungle.

So too are the heritage shophouses along Carpenter/Ewe Hai and Padungan. They are priceless remnants of a foregone era.

We are also blessed with the many “faces of Borneo” as how my partner Chandran had put it – we had actually lost one production because we did not have enough Indian faces here! But to our advantage, we have the full range of light coloured Eurasians to medium brown Chinese and Malays, and darker skinned Ibans and Bidayuhs. Our very own rainbow coalition!

It would be wise for our present powers that be to think really hard before they start changing, developing, or altering the look of any of our natural and heritage sites and locations, like the few that I’ve mentioned here – as both film producers and our future generations would thank them for that.

Ranchan Pool.