‘GIVE US 100% ALL THE MONEY BY TOMORROW MORNING OR WE WILL NOT HELP YOU!’ Jamie
These weren’t the words I expected to hear, soon followed by a tirade of further threats and abuse via Facebook from the company who were meant to be helping to produce my film in Vietnam.
Sweat trickled down my forehead as I rolled over onto my side on the hotel bed and I moaned ‘For fucks sake! Will they ever stop. These people are unreal!’ We’d been negotiating until 2AM at a restaurant, a chosen neutral place, but by 4AM, the vitriolic rantings continued, unabated thrown through the relative safety of the ether.
Last year I decided to go to Vietnam to shoot a concept film and conduct research for a Sci-Fi horror erotica short film which I wrote. You can find an overview of the project here. But what I didn’t expect, was that a year of work and foundations built would crumble just days before filming.
I always knew that returning to Vietnam to shoot the actual short after completing the concept film would be ambitious. Yet I was willing to push on forward, fixated and obsessed with making my project a reality.
The idea was to shoot a number of key scenes in Vietnam and then launch a crowd funding campaign with what we’d already shot. Now that we have that footage, and it’s currently being edited we can work on piecing together the elements of our campaign which we hope to launch soon.
My film had originally meant to be shot by a friend of mine and DOP called Jimmy (this is an alias for legal reasons). During the making of the concept film and after my return, it became clear that Jimmy’s heart wasn’t in the project. Jimmy had disclosed that he wanted to become a director and no longer just a DOP. Goodbye Jimmy, hello Jan Belina Brzozowski, a seriously talented DOP who gives a damn, knows how to get what he wants and how to get people on his side.
Whilst visiting Vietnam last year, I was introduced to a Producer/Casting Director/Actor who works on television commercials and sources crew for various commercial productions. For the purpose of this article, let’s call him Edgar and his production company Automaton Productions.
Edgar is also an actor which is how I first met him as he starred in my concept film. I became interested in the progress of his company on social media, mainly through Facebook because this is how a lot of film/creative business is done in Vietnam. I then approached Edgar to become my fixer and producer for the Vietnam side of the production. Edgar appeared to be, and on occasion claimed to be well connected and knew a lot of crew. He also worked with his girlfriend Jamie who is Vietnamese and was able to communicate and negotiate on our behalf…or so we thought at the time.
The next five months before arriving in Vietnam in June were spent working on the logistics, looking into government approval, permits, location scouting, securing crew, equipment and preparing for casting so that we could come within my budget to shoot out there. I also had five other cast and crew who came forward to work on the project for low pay/expenses, including my set designers Quentin Delcort Perso and Charles Calhanas from Paris, Jan’s girlfriend Alice Tran, coincidentally a Canadian Vietnamese actress who offered to be our translator, my best friend and Make-Up Designer/Prosthetics Artist Sammm Agnew and Adam Lannon our leading actor from London.
I went two weeks ahead of the rest of the crew to ensure that Edgar kept abreast of everything, and to make the final preparations from securing locations, to running the casting and rehearsing with the chosen actors. I was in Vietnam for around five weeks in total.
Securing crew was turning into a challenge as finding qualified people seemed to be an issue, along with finding the equipment my DOP Jan required.
In hindsight, it seemed like Edgar didn’t have much of an idea about the various equipment which is probably why it took him quite a long time to provide Jan with lists.
One thing to know about hire companies is that when you hire equipment in Vietnam it comes with the technician who is also the keeper of the equipment to ensure it’s not stolen or damaged. It’s almost like insurance because insurance for equipment doesn’t actually exist…so Edgar explained.
Finally, Edgar secured a lighting company with crew along with a camera equipment company, however we were surprised at just how high the price was for a few days of shooting. When we asked for Edgar to negotiate, he appeared hesitant. The next thing we knew, we had lost both lighting and equipment companies (this happened around four times).
It was rather strange, but Edgar explained that in Vietnam, you can’t negotiate and it’s about pride rather than money. He told us a story about a man who had an apartment block that remained empty for years because the landlord wouldn’t take any other price other than what was stated. The same goes for companies. It was a lesson in Vietnamese culture, however his parable proved to be redundant as we discovered later on.
With all the bookings almost secured, it was time to confirm the budget and what a shock and horror was to follow.
Edgar and I had negotiated a price in which to work between before I left for Vietnam which was £7K. It would be expected to go over and I had contingency money for this, but what wasn’t expected was it would be almost £10K over. Something was certainly amiss.
The budget kept changing daily, some of the figures didn’t make sense, there were discrepancy after discrepancy!
Then we noticed that there were percentages added onto every single piece of listed equipment which sky rocketed the budget. When we questioned Edgar and Jamie about these they claimed that it was for insurance, yet Jan had written proof from our then Assistant Camera Operator that the equipment was covered by the technicians/keepers and that we didn’t need to worry. As I mentioned earlier, Edgar had told us that insurance didn’t exist.
At this point, Jamie broke down exasperated at our questions and exclaimed
‘WE NEED TO SURVIVE!’
This was followed by sob stories by Edgar, their accountant Silo (who seemed to take on multiple roles on our production) and Jamie.
Now, I do have empathy, but I also run a business and I certainly didn’t expect to be made to feel guilty on my own shoot, that by the way I was funding. Jan and I looked at each other to ask whether the extra percentages they were adding was salary…this was on top of the Line Producer fee Jamie was receiving and all-around Management Fee for Automaton Productions and a Casting Fee for organising the casting which were already quite dear for Vietnamese standards.
Jamie and Edgar were caught out. Suddenly Jamie disappeared to make a call and the next thing we knew, our booked lighting company had dropped out and was no longer with us.
Just what were Automaton Productions trying to do? It was a tricky situation because although we had no proof that they were trying to sabotage our production, we felt that they were proving to be incompetent in the social skills department.
At around this point Alice our translator arrived, she was the last to arrive and we were just a few days shy of our actual shoot. Alice isn’t only an actress/presenter by trade, but specialises in mediation. With Alice’s assistance and mediation, we went through the budget with a fine tooth comb. Jamie and Edgar weren’t happy with this and appeared uncomfortable under the scrutiny. As we were so close to shooting, we had to tread carefully, after all they had our cast and locations arranged, so we couldn’t just leave them, we were locked in.
But there was worse to come. Automaton Productions began to demand extra money to cover government approvals, this was for the permits to shoot in the various streets/districts in Saigon. They wanted roughly around $450 plus bribery money. I was told that they’d need to go to the government offices and pay money under the table for the form to be approved.
I realised that I should have already had approval via the Vietnamese Film Council and that we were allowed to film. Well, this is what I was told by Edgar and Jamie before I left London.
‘OH YEAH WE STARTED THAT BUT NEVER FINISHED,’ Edgar
The penny had dropped. Just who were these people? Here we were, five foreigners in a socialist country shooting without any of the authorities knowing that we were filming and working with Automaton Productions.
I WAS PISSED TO SAY THE LEAST.
I flew into a rage in front of Jan, Alice and Sam who had to hold me to calm me down through my emotional rage.
But again, we were deadlocked in and we had to play clever. Silo then confirmed that we’d be OK if we had bribery money for the police, known as coffee money. We had to accept his word as there was nothing else we could do. I was going to shoot come rain or shine.
Finally, after hours of amending the contract the budget was where it should’ve been in the first place. Jan had also found a new lighting company and negotiated a sweet price with them without Edgar. We had also managed to keep our camera company, although we were always on edge feeling like we’d receive a call from them to say they’d dropped out also.
I saw all of these pitfalls ultimately as a blessing because at this point I really wanted to micromanage our project and wrestle back as much control as possible with all that was happening.
‘I WANT TO HAVE SOME FUCKING CONTROL,’
Me whispering to Quentin in the Grab Taxi after the negotiation in the restaurant
Soon it came to signing the contract. There was a clause in there which we weren’t happy with which was to do with Edgar being the point of call for all of the hire companies. We were nervous about this because of the fact we’d lost so many hire companies whilst both him and Jamie were speaking on our behalf. But we agreed to this. There was still an unease lurking in the air, there’s a saying, go with your gut feeling, well my gut was taking a BIG pounding. It was at this exact point that Quentin text and advised me to add a clause stating that I would like to see proof of all transactions made with the hire companies.
Suddenly, Edgar rose abruptly from his seat almost knocking it over.
‘THAT’S IT I’M OUT!’ Edgar
He protested that I didn’t need to see the transaction invoices and that this was internal. Jamie then whispered something to Alice in Vietnamese which later was revealed that Jimmy my former DOP had from the start informed them to be careful of working with me and scaremongered them. Talk about scandal! Maybe Jimmy wanted to shoot my film after all!
‘I’M NOT GOING TO LIE TO YOU, THIS IS SHIT SIMI…BUT AT LEAST IT’S OUR SHIT NOW,’
Quentin Delcourt tries to make me feel better after Edgar and Jamie’s exodus.
So now we were alone. We had no cast, locations, approval and were nervous about whether we still had our camera crew since Edgar’s name was on the hire contract. But we were determined to try and shoot.
As we left glum faced a young person at the hotel bar approached us and asked what we’re doing. His name was Truong and it turned out that he was a filmmaker and had access to a cast. He became our casting director in a matter of minutes, it was an odd and spontaneous liaison.
We had one day to do damage control. Alice and Jan visited the camera crew to try and change the contract over to Alice’s name, with her being Canadian Vietnamese we had a chance, and luckily it worked!
Edgar didn’t know about the lighting company Jan had secured, so we were safe from any other evil doings and further curses.
We also managed to secure new locations thanks to Alice and her contacts not to mention her incredible talent for negotiation with other vendors.
‘CAN YOU BELIEVE SOME PEOPLE! TALK ABOUT DISRESPECT!’ Edgar
This abuse came after I offered to pay Automation half of their fees for pre-production which I still did…
V IS FOR…
It became apparent that my name was being spread across a lot of the creative Vietnamese Facebook pages with warnings from Automaton not to work with either myself or my production. And the abuse continued becoming increasingly threatening and amusing all the same.
‘HI MY NAME IS KATHY, I NEED YOUR HELP,’
I made an informed decision to change my name as I was already on edge after my name was being dragged through cybernetic mud, so when I contacted our potential fixer via both phone and e-mail, I told him my name was Kathy.
Before I’d left for Vietnam, Adam Lannon our actor provided me with the details of a fixer he heard about in Cannes, but as I already had Automaton, I didn’t chase it up. It was apt time to trawl through my mail and chase this fixer.
Our new fixer was called Fong Bui and when I told him about what I’d been through he was astonished. He was willing to help and had contacts in the government to aid with our non-approval issue. He jumped on a plane from Hoi An and was there in less than 24 hours after my call.
Fong was like a silent master, I felt safe the moment I met him with his calm approach, his loyal and trustworthy demeanor. Fong was also able to help us secure other locations that were safe to film in.
‘ERM SIMI, WHY IS YOUR NAME KATHY,’
Fong Bui laughing when he realised I had become so paranoid because of the defamation campaign by Edgar and Jamie…
Around 48 hours later, we had new cast, new locations, new schedule, but most importantly a film to shoot. Each crew member quadrupled in production roles, overwhelmed, determined and hyper focused to shoot our film.
With the Vietnam side of the movie completed (and already in the edit), we progress with the London shoot. Soon I will launch a crowd fund campaign and will be able to share some of the unique footage we shot in Vietnam. The journey continues and there’s a book to write about the full extent of what happened: the horrors we faced, the art of hindsight and what I have learned along the way.
I feel honoured and lucky to have such a resilient and determined team and I’m forever grateful and excited to continue making this movie.