Bangkok: "I still feel Thailand is a well-kept secret," says Chris Lowenstein.
The more than 19 million tourists who touched down on the Land of Smiles last year would probably disagree with Lowenstein. But the claim made by the founding partner of Living Films, the Thai production company that helped produce The Hangover: Part II, highlights the country's unique and rapidly evolving status in the movie business.
Thailand's film industry is in the midst of a boom. With the lure of high production values, skilled crew, beautiful locations, and low costs, Bangkok is blossoming into an outsourcing hub for foreign filmmakers - it is fast becoming to movie production what India's Bangalore is to call centres.
A staggering total of 578 foreign productions - movies, TV shows, advertisements, documentaries - were shot in Thailand in 2010 according to the Thailand Film Office, raking in more than $59m for a nation that is still considered a developing country. This amount has almost been surpassed within the first half of this year.
Yet, unlike the much-feted industries of Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Bollywood, few would cite Thailand as a major force in motion pictures. This is partly because Thailand might be the industry's most popular body double. For, Thai sites - not unlike call centre agents in Bangalore - often pretend to be somewhere else.
"Thailand is the location but not the setting for more than 50 per cent of our projects," says Kulthep Narula, a Thai producer of Indian descent. "Let's say you have a scene in an Indian jail, well, you can just use a Thai jail."
Thailand has stood in for the death camps of Cambodia in The Killing Fields, the jungles of Laos in Rescue Dawn, the POW camps of Vietnam in Rambo II, and 1960s Hong Kong in In the Mood for Love. And, increasingly, it is standing in for India itself.
"Thailand's beaches, hills, and even airports make frequent appearances in Bollywood's song-and-dance numbers."
Narula's company, Benetone Films, specialises in bringing in business from the subcontinent to Thailand.
With more than 100 projects a year, India vies regularly with Japan for top spot as the Southeast Asian nation's largest source of foreign productions.
Thailand's beaches, hills, and even airports make frequent appearances in Bollywood's song-and-dance numbers as Mumbai's filmmakers seek higher production values and look to escape their government's red-tape.
Hollywood movies like Hangover 2 and the upcoming Ryan Gosling-starrer Only God Forgives are high-profile, but the bread-and-butter work comes from elsewhere. The US brings around 22 productions a year to Thailand on average, well below the number of projects coming in from Europe and Korea.
"It is a unique feature of the Thai film industry that our production service companies are essentially exporting their services in an economic sense - money in from overseas, film sold in a foreign market," observes Bangkok native Abishek J Bajaj, who has worked as a line producer and unit production manager on both foreign and domestic shoots.
Bajaj's employers have included Pure Flix Entertainment, an American company that produces self-described Christian movies such as The Mark and Encounter: Paradise Lost in Thailand, and then markets them back in the US.
Pure Flix's agenda seems at first glance to be at odds with Bangkok's notorious image as a playground for the debauched.
But Bajaj explains: "For independent films with a budget within one million dollars Thailand is the ideal place to get a very good product. So while they [Pure Flix] do make family-friendly, faith-based films, the decision to shoot in Thailand is pure economics."
Other movies have not been so shy about Thailand's notorious red light district, much to the consternation of some locals.
A small-minded view
Lowenstein does not come across as a typical movie producer. Affable and low-key, he has removed himself from the bustle of Los Angeles and Bangkok to the outskirts of the northern city of Chiang Mai, where he grows rice in the fields surrounding his home.
"Chiang Mai was a way of separating myself from the system. LA is very self-promoting, and atmosphere is important for creativity," he says.
From this platform Lowenstein landed Thailand's most high-profile foreign production to date. Hangover 2 had a budget of about $80m, and grossed over $581m worldwide.
"Hangover 2 proved you could make a Hollywood blockbuster in Thailand," he says.
Despite concerns about financial accountability, everything was done above board, Lowenstein says.
"Things can seem difficult, but there's little rules that most people don't know about," he says. "For one scene we needed to shut down Chinatown, and we needed the help of police. There's a rule that says you can pay the police up to $100 a day to clear the streets for a shoot. If you pay them $105, it becomes a bribe."
"The Thai police didn't know this. In the end they were proud to be part of the crew of Hangover 2."
The police may have been happy with their involvement in the Hollywood comedy, but the film managed to incense many Thais with its depiction of the seedier side of Bangkok.
"Surely there's more than prostitution, more than the drugs," complains Pak Chaisana, the founder of A Grand Elephant, which provided production support for Only God Forgives.
"It's a very small-minded view of a country," she says.
The impact of Thailand's notoriety on a film production is not just limited to the script. "A cameraman once disappeared from set in Pattaya," recalls Narula, referring to a beach resort town notorious for its red light scene. "The producers went to the police thinking something had gone horribly wrong. Turned out he met a prostitute, married her, and was last seen on an ATM camera withdrawing a huge sum of money."
"An actor once nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor once asked me to get him 140 boxes of condoms," says Bajaj. "He was only scheduled to be in Thailand for 5 days. I can't say any more."
Thailand's reputation precedes itself, says Justin Bratton, an American actor and model based in Bangkok.
"When people come here, when friends visit from Texas, they think they can do all sorts of messed-up stuff. A lot of people have that initial reaction," he says. "The thing is, its just as easy to get drugs where they're coming from. But it's the perception of 'Bangkok'…"
"The West is developing astounding technology, but East is more enthusiastic, more open. The West has lost a lot of the fun in filmmaking."
- Pak Chaisana
Bratton, a corporate communications major from the University of Texas-Austin, came to Thailand several years ago after an eventful trek around the world that included playing semi-professional soccer in Mexico and sleeping on park benches in Melbourne.
Once he arrived in Southeast Asia, he stumbled into a modeling career after a local friend suggested it to him.
"Modelling? Sounded stupid. Going to model's night? Sounded stupid. Going to an event with free beer and hot girls? Ok… that sounded great," he says, describing his career trajectory. "Then came the film projects, and then the MC'ing and hosting events."
"In LA, you work as a waiter. There's so many talented people there, and they say they're actors, but they're not actors, they're waiters. Here, I use my free time to work on my own projects."
A Grand Elephant's Chaisana agrees. "The world is small now, you need to jump out. It's a different road. The West is developing astounding technology, but East is more enthusiastic, more open. The West has lost a lot of the fun in filmmaking," she says.
But as Bangkok's movie industry develops and more foreign productions are seduced by what it has to offer, a rift has begun to open up. "There are two totally separate groups of crews in Thailand - those who support international productions, and those who work on Thai films," Chaisana says. "Most of the money, I suppose, is in support."
"From an economic perspective this is positive," says Bajaj. "However, artistically and culturally, Thai people need to ensure that our resources and efforts are also channelled towards Thai productions."
Bratton believes the industry still has the potential to grow "a lot", echoing Lowenstein's sentiments. "It's cheap here, and production quality is great. The crews, they know what they're doing," he says.
"It is getting more competitive, and I do feel like I stumbled onto something quite unique about five years ago. But it still is a secret. If you go to a model or actor in LA and say, 'Hey, how about Bangkok!' they'll just ask what the hell are you talking about."