Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Boys From Bangkok

This story ran recently in the Sunday Morning Post in Hong Kong. It's the story of four gentlemen who have forgotten more than most of us know about movies and television, and a lazy Sunday afternoon spent on reminiscences, predictions and looking back, rarely in anger, at their various careers on stage, silver screen and goggle box. 

'Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon' was a game which captured the popular imagination for a time. The universal law that underpinned it was that you could link any celebrity back to Kevin Bacon in six moves or fewer, thus illustrating the incestuous and tangled web that connects the entertainment world, or perhaps just the ubiquity of the Footloose star.

Between the four gentlemen gathered in Bangkok's Friese-Green Club, a private cinema club in Sukumvit Soi 22, one or perhaps two moves would do the trick.

Collectively, the fellows sipping iced water and exchanging the latest showbiz banter, have done just about every conceivable job in the film, television and theatrical worlds in the course of four very different but equally colourful careers. They have mixed it with the best of Hollywood and European cinema, but choose to base themselves in Bangkok, at least when their peripatetic work schedules allow.

All are true believers that the Asian Century which is upon us marks this part of the world as the place to be for opportunities, challenges and buzz, bullish that the best is yet to come for the silver screen in the Land of Smiles. And each has a well-stocked supply of anecdotes about their lives in entertainment that would keep the most casual cinephile enthralled for hours.

Greenlight Films boss Les Nordhauser, Soho Films partner Mark Hammond, special effects wizard Kevin 'Big Nuts' Chisnall, and ace production designer, published author and self-professed 'blues shouter' Jim Newport have the easy cameraderie of men who have been in the trenches together.

Because they have. The careers of the four intersect and entwine, but only on one notable occasion did they find themselves all on the same set: a horror film called Hellgate, shot in Thailand and starring William Hurt and Cary Elwes. The tale of a demon-plagued car crash victim was widely regarded by critics as a good idea which when executed was not scary enough – although it won the Best Film at the Bram Stoker International Film Festival and Best Horror Film at the Fantasy Horror Awards in Italy in 2012.

The growing coterie of international film and television experts living and working in Thailand is accelerating the learning curve for the already excellent Thai production crews and post-production houses, says Nordhauser, which have already carved out a global reputation as cost-effective and as good as their American, British or European counterparts.

“I've been coming here to Thailand for a long time and I liked it, so I moved here about seven years ago to start Greenlight Films,” Nordhauser says. “My company is primarily in production services. We do a lot of international television and some film. Shows like the Bachelor and Bachelorette, various Amazing Races, programs for Animal Planet, Food Channel, with pretty well known characters like Anthony Bourdain and Jeff Corwin.

“Thailand has a great combination of the locations, the people and climate. But mainly it's the people. I can now say with confidence to any producer from the US or Europe that I will put together a team whose skills are the equal of anyone you'd find in LA or New York.”

Nordhauser's roots in the US go back to the birth of reality television. “I worked on Love Connection, and America's Funniest People. Love Connection was the first reality dating show. Prior to that, I was still going to film school and I had a great opportunity working for the Jewish Television Network.

“The show was called Conversations with Robert Clary, the Hogan's Heroes star who played Lebeau, the little French guy. The thing was, Clary had actually been in a concentration camp during the war. He knew everyone from the industry and through his work telling the world about the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. (The Los Angeles-based foundation for Jewish human rights, named for the famed Nazi hunter).

“So every week, he'd say, 'Right, let's get Leonard Nimoy, and he'd give me a phone number and I'd call Leonard Nimoy, or Mel Brookes, or Dick Van Dyke … we did a show a week and for two years I'd do the research, write the story then go into the control room and direct. It was an amazing way to meet many of the biggest stars of that era.

“My career is a bit different as I really did a broad span of every genre of TV, I did talk shows, sitcoms, dramas, series, features, and I worked in just about every job from actor to producer to director.” Nordhauser admits his television credentials are first rate, his feature film credits less so. He cites his most colourful celluloid moments as Maui Heat, a skin-fest for the Playboy Channel with a plot as flimsy as its stars' lingerie, and Fugitive Mind, a straight-to-video Michael Dudikoff sci-fi flick.

“One great show I worked on in the US was called Bone Chillers, that was great fun,” Nordhauser says. “It was a drama series, Tales of the Crypt for Kids, I called it. One of the executive producers. Adam Rifkin, had an incredible network from growing up in Beverley Hills and we had the second tier of everyone. We didn't have Tim Burton but we had Tim Burton's brother on art direction. We didn't have Danny Elfman on music but we had his brother Rick.” Nordhauser was Unit Production Manager of the 1996 series, in the same year he was Chairman of the American Association of Producers. (He is also a former Vice-President of the Producers Guild of America).

“The other show I was involved in that gives me a thrill to this day was a live show at the Hollywood Bowl called A Celebration of Televison Music – I was producer. it had everybody, host was Mary Tyler Moore, the entire cast of Happy Days, Kelsey Grammer and Jason Alexander, Carol Burnett … and 13 of the best television music composers conducting medleys of their best work.”

Mark Hammond.who has worked as a director, producer and writer of film, television and theater for the last 30 years in Europe, the US and Asia, is collaborating with Nordhauser on Hammond's counterfeit medicine thriller Pharmacyde, one of several planned joint projects between the pair, the other standout being Empires: The Greatest Crime of the Century, a sprawling series on the Opium Wars in which Hong Kong will figure.

“Empires, a six-episode international television series, takes our viewer into the heart of how
Britain, the world's largest free-trade empire came to clash with a decaying Middle Kingdom
that for previous 2000 years was all-powerful, yet insular and technologically backwards,”Hammond explains.

Hammond is the least forthcoming of the four when it comes to discussing past credits or divulging brushes with greatness or discussing why he chooses to call Bangkok home.“It's not about our personal credits,” he opines. “The story here is what's going on in the region, what's in development, why producers come here, and where is the industry going.

“To me, 40 years after first coming to Asia, it's old-fashioned thinking to frame my life as some kind of ‘lifestyle’ choice. This is irrelevant. I am doing what I do, developing Asian-themed content for the international marketplace, because it's a good business model for today.”

Hammond cited HBO Asia's first international English-language TV series — Serangoon Road, a co-production with Australia's national broadcaster, ABC TV as a groundbreaking development in this direction, setting a precedent and a harbinger of great Asian-produced content to come. Joan Chen and rising Indonesian talent Ario Bayu are the stars of this 10-episode noir-ish detective drama set in the heady days of 1960s Singapore, awash with internecine intrigues between the island's traders, expats, gangsters and secret societies.

Hammond is a leading authority on the finer points of the European Convention on Cinematographic Co-Production, a document drawn up to 'minimise the differences and to harmonise multilateral relations between states' when they decide to co-produce a film.

He sees a similar agreement as inevitable in Asia, and he believes co-production of films between several countries in the ASEAN region is certain to become more popular as a way to get projects greenlit. And he sees himself as playing an important role in facilitating such a trend, given his experience at SoHo Films, where he was instrumental in putting together co-funded projects like L'Amour Cache (Hidden Love), a a French-language feature starring Isabelle Huppert and Greta Scacchi.

Hammond's directorial/writing credits include Stolen Song (1997) for Sony, a $2.5 million interactive film that has grossed more than $10 million to date. In theatre, he directed No No Godot (Manhattan Arts Center), Wu Wei (Taipei Theatre Center, Taipei, Taiwan) Girl's Town (Actor's Playhouse), Virgil (Theatre for the New City), Where the Body Lies (Nuyorican) and the critically-acclaimed Tango Theatre production, Vice Verso.

He co-produced the Jamaican feature film One Love, a romantic drama starring Bob Marley's son, Ky-Mani Marley. But his finest hour might just have been the gangster thriller Johnny Was, a Guy Ritchie-with-a-conscience piece with the intriguing cast of Vinnie Jones, Samantha Mumba, Roger Daltry and Patrick Bergin.

“Willow, without a doubt,”is the verdict of Kevin Chisnall when asked about the best film he ever worked on in the special effects sphere. Like Lord of the Rings to come, much of the film was shot on location in his native New Zealand, and Chisnall was in the thick of the action when big bangs were required.

Chisnall's career started in broadcasting in 1971. In 1978 he studied special effects at the BBC studios in London, England. In 1980 he was special effects supervisor and armourer on New Zealand's first big international production, The Race to the Yankee Zephyr, starring George Peppard and Donald Pleasance, and three years later he was the New Zealand Special Effects Coordinator on the feature film The Bounty starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins.

His Hong Kong connection is strong, He travelled to Hong Kong in 1985 for his first South East Asian feature Aces Go Places 3 (Mad Mission) before returning to New Zealand as SFX Coordinator on George Lucas' fantasy adventure Willow.

Based in Bangkok these past 10 years, Chisnall says he 'wouldn't want to be anywhere else' for a great lifestyle and an easy hopping off point to India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia as well as Taiwan, Hongkong, Australia, New Zealand and The Pacific Islands, all places he has plied his trade.

Other credits include The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption (2012), Elephant White (2011), Red Hill (2010), Sniper 3 (2004), A Bright Shining Lie (1998) and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1989).

Phuket-based New York native and erstwhile Los Angeles habitue Jim Newport is the group's renaissance man, an Emmy-nominated production designer for both film and television, author of six books, four of them comprising the popular Vampire Of Siam series, the other two recounting the underbelly of life in Hollywood (Tinsel Town: Another Rotten Day in Paradise) and a year in the life of Jimi Hendrix (Chasing Jimi), as well as a blues 'shouter' under the name of his alter ego, Jimmy Fame, who has toured with artists including Eric Burdon & The Animals, Jimmy Witherspoon and Robben Ford, and played more recently at the Phuket International Blues Festival.

'My job starts when someone says 'Let's make a film,”Newport says. “Production designers have one of the key creative roles in making motion pictures and television. They are responsible for the overall look. Working directly with the director and producer, they must select the settings and style to visually tell the story.”

Film credits include Bangkok Dangerous, the Nicholas Cage vehicle which packed every 'Hello Hansum Man' cliché into one action-laden, flimsily-plotted romp, Brokedown Palace, with Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale banged up in the 'Bangkok Hilton', Cheech & Chong's Nice Dreams and Heart Like A Wheel, a drag racing romance starring Bonnie Bedelia and Beau Bridges, a movie Newport says should have won an Oscar.

In television, Newport set the look for The Shield, The Education of Max Bickford and China Beach, designing the pilot episodes for each of the successful series. In 2007, he took over design of the award-winning cult-spawning JJ Abrams series LOST for its fourth season.

“I was not a fan (of LOST),” he says. “I had deliberately avoided the show as I knew that you had to commit to it and watch it in sequence. Well, the first task assigned to me was to watch all previous episodes – all 72 of them!

“I did that in one marathon week. I was up to speed when I arrived in Honolulu. We had about eight weeks to get ready to shoot. Five days before we were to start shooting, our budget was halved. And we were filming everything on the island of Oahu, where we had to recreate everything from desert scenes to the Brandenburg Gate.

“LOST was the most popular television show ever, so it was a trip. The outgoing production designer warned me to be careful. You see, the fans go over everything with a fine tooth comb, digital zooms, every single prop is studied for significance and meaning.

“So you have an old wooden cross, say, used on the front of a church meant to be in Rwanda. Then two months later, you stick the same cross on the front of a church meant to be in downtown Atlanta Georgia. To save money, you see. Well, once you do that, you've altered the fabric of the universe of LOST.”

Newport's fondest LA memories include spending nights on the Warner Brothers lot on the Blade Runner set even though a rival production designer had got the gig. “Some nights Ridley wouldn't even film, he'd just spend the whole night lighting and rehearsing his moves,” Newport says, awestruck.
He also cherishes his time working with comedy legends Cheech and Chong. Nice Dreams, he says, had a marijuana section, a cocaine section and an LSD section, and the pair got 'very much into character', loading up on the appropriate drug before filming.

Newport was in the car with Tommy Chong when news came on the radio that Peter Sellars had died.
“Immediately Tommy pulled over to the side of the road. He stopped the car, and proceeded to sob. Eventually, he told me that Peter Sellars was Cheech & Chong's number one fan in England. He had written to them and when they made their first trip to London, he met them at the airport and on the ride into the city, he performed both parts of all their greatest routines. He knew them all by heart.

“Being a part of something like that can restore your faith in Hollywood,” Newport grins, “If only for a fleeting moment.”

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