Adventures in film location trade — Sarawak and Sabah


(From right) The writer with Eric Thein and Gideon Mosito during location-scouting in the jungles of Sabah for ‘Sacred Planet’.

PEOPLE often ask me what I find most challenging and satisfying in my personal experiences during my 36 years being involved in the film-scouting and production services industry.

First off, I must admit that when introduced into this business in March 1987 by none other than Ralph Marshall, I had not the vaguest idea what the job description of a ‘film location scout or associate producer’ was at all. Up to the time I had only seen that ‘title’ on the end-credits of movies and documentaries.

Since around the 2000s, the ‘catch-all’ terminology for the same job function in the movie industry is ‘the fixer’. That has a better and more accurate meaning – he actually fixes everything that goes on – before, during and after the movie is shot.

It starts with the pre-production, which is when the producer, the director and the production designer (the guy who ensures what you see up on screen is depicted according to what the screenplay or story dictates) flies in from Hollywood or London or Sydney, and I together with a local team show them all the prospective locations and services that they have requested for.

I should also be able to answer every single query and possible obstacles or difficulties that may arise from the production by way of official permits, local sensitivities, weather conditions, logistics – even down to the minutiae of every possible request, like for instance special diets for the talents and crew, the peculiar personal needs and access to emergency medical attention, every detail of private jet or helicopter or evacuation services – and so on, and so forth.

With every kind of emergency addressed, one can still get offsided by the odd unseen ones, but a good fixer would always be able to anticipate, sort out and resolve the most ‘impossible mission’ or unforeseen event.

The other most asked question has been: “What’s more challenging – fixing a feature film, or a documentary?”

The answer is although both require the same effort and the processes are almost identical, the differences are in time and intensity. From my personal experience, feature films, on average, would take between a minimum of four months and a year, while for documentaries, from a week to a month.

Based on my own experience, the 1987 Hollywood feature ‘Farewell to the King’ took eight months from start to finish, with 103 days of actual shooting-time and as many as 17 major locations. We had to construct most of them – the longhouse location at Matang alone took us almost six weeks to complete and we had to recruit specialised workmen and craftsmen from Australia, Sri Lanka and Peninsular Malaysia.

Photo courtesy of Mary Atang who had worked in the casting department of ‘Farewell to the King’ shows a scene at a longhouse specially constructed in Matang for the filming, with many locals being hired as extras.

There were many problems and issues with the entire shoot, starting with the professional work visas for crew and talents coming in from all around the world – from the USA, England, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, Australia and South Africa. One of the main stars, Marius Weyers (of ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’ fame) had a South African passport which, at that time, was not allowed into Malaysia (due to its apartheid policy).

We had endless hassles with land and property owners who had initially agreed on ‘renting’ us their places for the shoot, but later reneged or wanted more money when they realised that ‘it was Hollywood’ and they (producers) could afford to pay them much more than they had asked for.

Many times we had signed with the landlord, but upon descending on the location, we discovered that there were a few more owners – and they all wanted to be paid too!

Luckily for us, we managed to amicably settle all the issues that arose and had learned valuable lessons to take away for future shoots, but it is safe to say that these same old problems would arise again and again regardless of lessons learned; human nature, alas, does not change.

It seems to me that just the idea and the mention of ‘a Hollywood movie’ or even a documentary would make most people see the imaginary US dollar signs in their mind’s eyes!

I have found it all both challenging and enjoyable as well as most rewarding – the 36 years that I’ve spent in this industry. Sadly with the Covid-19 pandemic from 2020-2023, we are only now recovering slowly from the dearth of filmmakers who usually make a beeline for Sarawak and Sabah.

Creeping age too is catching up and one tends to slow down, or at least be more selective, with potential film work these days.

I carry with me very fond memories of these three major feature film shoots: ‘Farewell to the King’, ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’ in 2000, and ‘The Intended’ in 2001.

My work in documentary features, mostly in association with ScubaZoo Images had taken me mostly to Sabah, but my best memories have been these shoots undertaken between 2000 and 2018, being undertaken in these unforgettable main locations:

  • Mulu Caves and Danum Valley for ‘Sacred Planet’ for Disney IMAX 2000;
  • Lemanak River for ‘Dangerous Grounds’ for Travel Channel in 2012;
  • Long Napir in Ulu Limbang for ‘The Fruit Hunters’ for CBS in 2012, and;
  • Kota Marudu for ‘Naked and Afraid’ for Discovery Channel in 2013.

My recollection of the time spent would not be complete without mentioning those who have been my collaborators, partners and associates in my journey: from Ralph Marshall to Chandran Rutnam, Simon Christopher, Jason Isley and Simon Enderby (from SZ), Eric Thein (RIP), Gideon Mosito, Adrian Cornelius, Hairul Salleh Askor, James Chew, James Ritchie, Dyan Ong, and many more.

The writer with second assistant director Sherard Jayasuriya (centre), co-producer Chandran Rutnam (right) and their partners during the wrap party for the ‘Sleeping Dictionary’.

Due to the nature of my film work, I have found myself in the odds and most ‘out of the way’ places, some extremely remote, many of which have surprised and shaken me due to their pure, pristine and untouched by civilisation beauty; a few on their way to being discovered; some which have seen far too many tourists.

With the exceptions of Bario and Ba Kelalan, I can safely say that I have been to all the small towns and villages that have been reachable by road, river and aircraft throughout Sarawak and Sabah in my search for ‘the ideal filmmaker’s location’.

The beauty of both these states staggers one’s imagination. Such experiences are stored away in one’s memory bank with the hope and prayer that such places would remain untouched for a long time to come.

Still, progress and development would surely one day intrude and compel the locals to join in or miss the boat. At least the memories and some photographs will remain to recall the wonders of what will surely disappear with time and opportunity.

I can only tell myself – at least some of the beauty will remain forever for as long as there are people who can and will access and view and watch what we had captured on film – in documentaries, and in feature films – now, and in the future.