Kong: Skull Island: the art of filming to a Vietnamese backdrop

By Vu Van Viet   April 4, 2016 | 02:51 am PT
Nicolas Simon, the veteran line producer that helped create “Transformers 3” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, shared his experience of making the first blockbuster to be filmed Vietnam.

Q: What brought you to Kong: Skull Island? Why was Vietnam chosen to be the film set for this blockbuster?

A: I began this project November 2014 when Ilt Jones, a very well known and experienced location manager with whom I collaborated on Transformers 3, approached me about various location options for Kong: Skull Island. The filmmakers were considering several places globally including Thailand. I pitched them Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. I then worked with the production to scout Vietnam thoroughly from the Mekong Delta to the mountains of Sapa. When our director and producers arrived we made everything seamless - from acquiring visas to transportation on the scouts in special vans. I helped to show that not only did Vietnam have spectacular locations and the right look, but it truly had a film-friendly environment. From that stage, the director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, made his creative decisions based on what he saw, and his film’s visual style was influenced by Vietnam's unique landscapes and vistas. We prepped for a long time and shot from mid-February to mid-March. Additional filming took place in Hawaii during October through December, and Australia during January and part of February.

Q: Tell us about your experiences of making Kong: Skull Island in Vietnam over the last two weeks?

A: It's been an incredible journey. My job is to set up everything in preproduction so that it runs smoothly during production, which I'm glad to say we accomplished. I think the best way to understand our crew’s pleasure of shooting in Vietnam would be to see the movie for themselves in March, 2017. We put all our wonderful experiences on the screen!

Nicolas Simon at Kong's film set in Ninh Binh, Vietnam.

Nicolas Simon at the Kong film set in Ninh Binh, Vietnam.

Q: How did Vietnam compare to filming the rest of the movie in Hawaii and Australia?

A: Vietnam is exotic, unique, and, of our various other locations, will perhaps be something the global audience has never experienced before on the big screen. If you were to ask our director and our production designer, they would say that Vietnam helped set the visual tone for the entire movie.

Q: How did the production of Kong: Skull Island in Vietnam differ from the time you spent making Avengers: Age of Ultron in Bangladesh in 2015?

A: With Kong: Skull Island, we had the main unit with more than a dozen principal actors plus our director and 225 foreigners to support over a four-week shoot plus splinter units, nature units and an aerial unit. Avengers was second unit and aerial with around 25 foreigners and only three shoot days – and no principal actors.

Q: How was filming Kong: Skull Island different from making the film in Australia and America?

A: This was the first movie of this size and type to shoot here. Australia and the US have long supported a whole industry of films of this magnitude. To film in Vietnam, we needed to put a lot of the infrastructure in place, starting from scratch -- things that are already a given in Australia and the U.S. We imported tons of specialized equipment – airfreighted a helicopter with two specialized camera rigs; and also had to plan for things as mundane (but important) as transportation and accommodations for our crew and sourcing enough mobile toilets and ways to clean them -- all things that had not been done before on this scale.

Q: What are the prospects for Vietnam as an international filming location?

A: With the successful finishing of Kong: Skull Island, I think that the future is bright! However, Vietnam needs to grow from this experience, as mentioned before -- simplification of the tax structure and customs procedures would greatly aid attracting top-rate international productions.

Q: What do you believe Vietnam should improve for feasible future ventures?

A: I think that the more exposure Vietnamese filmmakers have to international training the better. It is good to have a strong local voice, but the global systems of filmmaking translate worldwide and make filmmaking easier.

I do not think that such elements take away from a director’s voice/vision, it's just with proper systems you put the money on the screen, not losing it to confusion and bad organization.

Q: After many years of working in Southeast Asian countries, can you compare filmmaking in Vietnam to other countries such as Cambodia, Thailand or Bangladesh?

A: Thailand – serves as the basis of a country which through laissez-faire policies has successfully built a production service industry ($100+ million worth of foreign productions shot in Thailand).

Q: What changes have you seen in Vietnam since the first time you came here in 1994?

A: Wow – Vietnam has changed in so many ways since 1994, I think that the best is to talk about what has not changed!

Still some of the most incredible food in the world, a bowl of late night pho anywhere in Vietnam is one of the best experiences ever!

Q: After nearly 20 years of working in Vietnam, how have your viewpoints and feelings of Vietnam changed?

A: During that time, I have grown as a filmmaker, having produced projects shot in the U.S., Mexico, Europe and throughout Asia. I have a much more global view now and also have adapted to high-quality international standards that I did not know when I first started working in Vietnam.

Q: After Kong: Skull Island, what future projects do you have planned in Vietnam as well as Southeast Asia?

A: I am now in Thailand were we are prepping a lower budget feature film, "A prayer before dawn" directed by the Cannes-winning director Jean-Stephane Sauviere. We have television commercials and photo shoots at various stages of production in Singapore, Laos, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.We are working on enticing some projects of different budget ranges to consider shooting in Vietnam and the region, but nothing is yet at the stage that we can announce.

The other countries are all fantastic, each having their unique locations and subsequent challenges.

Q: What do you think young Vietnamese filmmakers should do to compete in the global film industry?

A: Make films, watch films, ask questions, listen and learn. Ego is your biggest enemy.

Q: What are your favorite Vietnamese movies? Could you share some details about them?

A: Wow, there are so many of late and so many coming out. I have enjoyed past films such as "Madam Phung’s Last Journey" (by Nguyen Thi Tham, 2014) and "Living in Fear" (by Bui Thac Chuyen, 2005). For your information, I know the first film from The Luang Prabang Film Festival – known as “The Sundance of South East Asia”. It celebrates films from all over Southeast Asia. Vietnamese filmmakers and film lovers should make the trek to Luang Prabang next December to see all the region's rising talent.

Q: What is your basic philosophy as a producer?

A: Be honest, transparent, treat people with respect and you are only as good as your crew.

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