Wednesday, August 10

Through the eyes of a film location scout


At the Matang longhouse set of ‘Farewell to the King’, with director John Milius, 1987.

THE actual job description for a scout or guide who actively goes out to find suitable locations for a feature film, documentary or commercial may appear to be simple and straightforward – after all it’s rather easy these days using GPS, Google photos, a Lonely Planet guidebook or even just using Waze.

The days of spreading out topographical maps and road guides have now been made redundant with the advent of satellite photos and Google Maps.

However some 32 years ago in 1987, when I had first started out in the business, there was no one else doing this kind of work and it was pretty much a learning curve all the way and it was an uphill struggle with the bureaucracy and red tapes.

We needed topo maps from the Land and Survey Department, which meant special permission and approval from the Chief Minister’s Office, after obtaining all the other relevant permits to go into the national parks and the remote reaches of the state. We needed local guides who knew the jungle paths and the virgin jungles hitherto unreachable by man – by road, by track, by rivers, streams, bridges and mountainous terrains. Most of all we needed satellite phones as once we’re in deep jungle, there was no other way of communications (in case we got lost.)

But first, let me start from the very beginning.

As a film location scout (nowadays we are more popularly known as ‘fixers’), we are the very first professionals that the film producers get in touch with once they have decided to shoot a movie here – be it a feature film, a documentary or a commercial work.

We’ll be given a shooting script and a schedule with extra information of what the producer, director and production designer are looking for. The list will be very precise and entails exact details of what elements are necessary for it to be considered. We needed to be able to interpret and visualise screenplays.

There are several prerequisites in order for a film set location to be workable and practical. Firstly it has to be within one hour’s journey (be it by road, track or river) from the cast and crew’s main point of residence for the shoot. This has to be the main consideration as on a film shoot on location – time is of the essence, and the time wasted in travel has to be minimised to a tolerable two hours each day.

We mustn’t forget that a lot more time would be spent each day on make-up and costumes as the majority of such shoots would be historical in nature, and would need major changes of costumes and a lot of make-ups. Then there’ll be time off for catering (if the call-sheet is so early that the cast and crew cannot eat at the camp base or hotel.)

As a film location scout, one needs to have the perception and the mind-set as well as be able to visualise closely each possible location through the eyes of the director, the producer, the writer and most of all, the production designer.

A location suggested can only work if all these four people agree on it!

It’s tough work and usually at the end of the day if a decision is not unanimously agreed upon, the man who puts up the money up has the last say – the producer.

Before all this, the location scout has to look for and locate at least two or three suitable locations for each major scene in the movie; in order that there’s a choice and a Plan B if the final chosen location doesn’t work out at the 11th hour.

There are so many reasons that this can happen.

On the ‘Farewell to the King’ shoot in 1987, we almost had to scupper a main location for the landing of the aircraft on a piece of open field halfway between Kuching and Bau – at the 11th hour, some hitherto unknown ‘co-owners’ of the land had turned up at our production office to demand that we stopped shoot.

Eventually we could continue on, it had involved coughing up more money (as is to be expected once a landowner had seen the size of the film crew, cast and entourage and decided for himself that he had probably not asked for enough money– he was only being human!).

On another shoot in nearby Batang Ai, at the river location for ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’ in 2000, the director and producer decided that of all the rivers they had been shown (dozens upon dozens) they liked the look of that one particular river.

In order to be able to deliver the 300 native extras to the set location by 40-seater buses, we had to travel inland through hard earth tracks and we had to build a bridge for the buses to cross! So we dumped truckloads of gravel and built a bridge, big and strong enough, to deliver those extras for a two-day shoot there!

There are many other such stories — one could write a book about them.

After more than 30 years in this business, I still learn something new with every film location scout, but one can never take for granted about this singular fact of life – whatever had worked for one producer or director, would not necessarily work for another.

Even though we’re all in the same business, we all go through the same motions, the trials and errors, the ups and downs and the usual joys and stresses of any job. Everyone wants to be his own man – unique.

However, I know this one truth – all film-makers do not want to hear this: “Hey, we had used this location before for such and such a movie; they shot this very scene here; we had no problems.”

Every film-maker wants to create his own dream; to be the first to reach a virgin territory, to walk on ground untrodden by others.

Because for him, the movie he is making is his own precious baby, the one project that he knows that people will remember him by; who knows… he might even win an award or two.

As a film location scout, it is only my one single track minded job to make sure that happens and for him to be proud that he has made something memorable here – in our beautiful land of Sarawak.