An independent US film producer says, despite their inexperience, working with Cambodians has been a pleasure – and he plans to return to the Kingdom to shoot another film project
The true history of two ill-fated journalists
Although The Road to Freedom is fiction, the story is largely inspired by the disappearance of real-life photojournalists Sean Flynn and Dana Stone in 1970. Sean Flynn was the son of Hollywood actor Errol Flynn and originally started his own acting career but became bored and went to Vietnam in January 1966 as a freelance photojournalist. He made a name for himself for taking risks to get the best photos possible, even doing a parachute jump with the US Army’s 101st
Airborne Division. He continued to cover the Vietnam War, as well as the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, before heading to Cambodia in the spring of 1970. He met up with fellow photojournalist Dana Stone in Phnom Penh and the two embarked on motorcycles to find the front lines of the fighting. Their exact fate is unknown, but it is believed that they were captured by the Vietcong at a roadblock and subsequently handed over to the Khmer Rouge and executed.
Kampot has once again been flooded with armed men dressed in the black and red uniforms of the Khmer Rouge. This time, however, their guns fire blanks and they smile at their Western colleagues.
They are extras on the set of The Road to Freedom - a new, independent action-adventure movie by first-time director Brendan Moriarty.
The two leading characters, Dana and Sean, are a pair of American reporters who venture into Khmer Rouge territory in 1972 to cover the civil war.
"Dana is a photojournalist," explains Scott Maguire, who plays Dana. "He was on assignment and has a wife and two girls back at home. He's very religious and follows his best friend down into Kampot for a story, where he is picked up by the Khmer Rouge."
Sean is played by Joshua Frederic Smith, who explains that his character is somewhat injudicious.
"Sean is an adventurous guy, who takes some risks and likes to figure things out on the fly instead of absorbing information beforehand," revealed Smith, saying filming in Cambodia had helped him create his character.
"It's not like building a soundstage in LA. Out here you're actually living these elements. In movie terms, this is as real as it gets."
Although the story is fictional, Moriarity based the material on the untold stories of actual photojournalists who disappeared in Khmer Rouge territory in the early 1970s.
To prepare for their roles, Maguire and Smith read up on contemporary journalism, spoke to prominent journalists, researched the works of photographers who shot in Cambodia, and even practised photography around Los Angeles.
The film's shoot last Friday took the crew to a salt farm, to film a confrontation between the protagonists and a Khmer Rouge cadre.
Producer Tom Proctor, who has worked in film for 28 years as a stuntman, actor, director and producer, spent 15 minutes showing the Cambodian extras - all of whom are real soldiers - how to give the illusion of hitting an actor with an AK-47 butt.
He lined up the 15 extras and had them practise the maneouvre as he looked for the best one. He found two who mastered the stunt - but only one could do it without smiling.
Afterward, Proctor explained the scene was difficult to shoot.
"We wound up running Stunt School 101," he said.
"We're coordinating extras to do something that should have been done by stuntmen."
The scene was further complicated by the lack of acting experience or training on the part of the extras.
"Here are people who are being paid to come out here to play army," said Proctor. "They're having fun, so they're smiling during a crucial kill scene."
Despite their lack of experience, the movie veteran says it has been a pleasure to work with the Cambodian cast and crew and is even reworking an upcoming project for it to be set in Cambodia.
"A lot of them put their heart into it, and that to me is part of the intrigue of filming in Cambodia," he says, adding that they've discovered many local actors with great talent, despite their lack of training.
The locals have also been helpful and cooperative with the production, Proctor reveals.
"They seem to be very friendly to us, considering we must be inconveniencing them. We're asking them to be quiet; we're asking them to stop work during the take."
I think the story is a tribute to photojournalists of that time and of this time.
Unlike Americans, who are generally reluctant to allow film crews to come onto their property without prior permission, the locals have been exceptionally generous.
"We intrude in front of somebody's property, they see you out there and bring you extra chairs!" Proctor exclaimed.
Shooting the film has cost a mere $150,000, yet the man in charge insists that "nobody will believe this movie was made on less than $2 million".
Currently, more funds are needed to get the film to post-production.
"By the time we get prints and ads and it's set in the theatre, we'll probably have spent $500,000," Proctor said.
The movie is to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival next January.
Filming a movie about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia has proved to be an emotional experience for the cast and crew, Scott Maguire reveals.
"It really touches you, and you get more of a sense of the story you're telling when you're here. We shot in one area where we were blowing things up, people were running, and two days later we found out that those things actually happened right there," he said.
As it turned out, the shot took place around the site of the 1994 abduction and murder of three Western tourists at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
The movie intends to honour the real journalists who died in Cambodia prior to the fall of Phnom Penh.
"Many of them thought it would be like Vietnam," said Moriarty, but revealed that, unlike the Vietcong, the Khmer Rouge made a point of executing any Western journalist they captured.
Meanwhile, Maguire insists the movie is pertinent to this era as well as the 1970s.
"I think the story is a tribute to photojournalists of that time and of this time.
"All over the world people are fighting to get their stories. People go into places that are not so friendly, and hopefully they make it out, but sometimes they don't.
"They're really brave, and I think it's fantastic I have the opportunity to play someone like that."