English guidebook author and film location scout Nick Ray has written guidebooks about Cambodia and Southeast Asia for Lonely Planet since 1998, and established the travel and film company Hanuman Films with his wife, Kulikar Sotho. Laura Walters spoke to him about exploring the Kingdom, working on Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the future of the film industry in Cambodia.
What is it about? Cambodia that drew you in?
We learnt about Cambodia at school, and I became very concerned with the famine, which an English children’s program was raising money for. Then my grandfather gave me an encyclopaedia, and I got as far as Angkor. I was amazed by the picture of the temples, like anyone else who sees Angkor for the first time, and I’m still amazed by it.
How did you get involved in the film industry?
As a young journalist I showed up to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, when all the legends were still there after the war. I convinced Lonely Planet to give me a job. The production company behind the Lonely Planet television series, Pilot Productions, had not featured Cambodia, so I pitched it to them. I told them now has got to be the moment for Cambodia. So, their Cameroon episode was scratched and a small crew, including my wife, put together the episode at the locations I had scouted. From there, I was contacted to work on an Oliver Stone film, but when that fell through another opportunity arose. Paramount needed a location for their movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie. They were going to shoot the Terracotta Army in China, but it had already been done. So they were looking for a new location at the last minute. One of the producers had a coffeetable book of Angkor Wat and it went from there.
How did working on Tomb Raider affect your career?
Tomb Raider was the big turning point. Despite what you may think of the actual movie, it was a huge success for Cambodia. The government was happy, and special effects didn’t destroy anything. Working on the movie was quite intoxicating, and everyone came out buzzing. Everything was very last minute and there was a lot of pressure to get things done. Tomb Raider was shot on a far larger scale than anything we had done in the past. From there Paramount helped us set up Hanuman Films.
How do you find the right locations for the films?
I go out and pick the locations that I know will work. I can look at a story board, or a script, and picture what the director is thinking. It’s about knowing the place so well you can imagine the exact waterfall, or mountain that would work. Organising the logistics to make the shot happen is a different story. Maybe you can’t get permits, or the location is not convenient. Something Kulikar always says is: “Don’t present problems, present solutions”.
What is it like working with your wife?
In the office she’s the boss, it’s her company, but it is a very collaborative process. I go out and scout locations for the movies, and Kulikar will come in later during the filming as a fixer, or translator, or line producer. Some of the work has put her under immense emotional strain. She worked as a line producer and translator, for the New Zealand documentary Brother Number One, which followed Kiwi rower Rob Hamill as he tried to find out more about the imprisonment and execution of his brother Kerry in 1978. She sought to help Rob discover the truth, and in turn learn more about the disappearance of her father, uncle and other relatives during the Khmer Rouge regime. For the documentary she had to interview the people responsible, including Comrade Duch, former commandant of S-21 Prison, at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Sometimes, because few people from the crew speak Khmer, she tacks a few of her own personal questions on to the end of the official interview. She has been back to where her own father disappeared and she wants to know about it.
What potential do you think the film industry in Cambodia has?
The government needs to be less sensitive about how portraying the past in film will affect the world’s view of Cambodia. They should be encouraging people to tell their stories through film. I would like to see more projects wholly set in Cambodia. People seem to be ashamed, or embarrassed about what happened, and The Killing Fields was so definitive it scared the others off. Digging up the past is incredibly painful, but there has not been a Cambodian feature-length film about the war and the genocide. As the next generation comes through they will have more opportunities to make a career out of film. Cambodia also has the surprising advantage of still having very under developed areas, which are easy to shoot, and can convey a sense of where Asian cultures, or countries, have come from, or how they have changed.
What’s next for you?
We are working on a full co-production with Australian production company Flood Projects, called Om Tuk. It’s a contemporary love story shot mainly at night in Phnom Penh. The movie is only partially scripted. But producer Amiel Courtin-Wilson has done other movies in the same way, and has received international recognition, so people are watching this one. Kulikar is also working on her feature debut as a director.