POSTCARDS FROM THE BEACH
You're on the perfect beach. With Leonardo diCaprio, a bunch of cool backpackers, and a huge pile of marijuana. Oh yeah, and Hollywood suddenly likes you so much, you've also been given $40 million bucks to blow, any way you want to. Plus, your earlier film about heroin addicts, shot on a shoestring, and once widely condemned by church and state, is now a celebrated international smash.
Could life be any sweeter for producer Andrew Macdonald? He laments his life upon the perfect beach in Thailand
By Ron Gluckman /Maya Bay, Phi Phi Leh, Thailand
ANDREW MACDONALD IS TIRED of the controversy, exhausted by the constant snipping by fact-bending eco-blabbers and a hysterical press on the scent of teen heart-throb Leonardo diCaprio. Plus, he's under pressure to produce. "The Beach" is his first big-budget film, his first partnership with Hollywood, in this case, 20th Century Fox, which is financing the $40-45 million movie. And he's stranded in Thailand, on location, a long way from the grimy studios of Glasgow.
He speaks in a moderate Scottish accent, sounding enthusiastic but admittedly exhausted. And bewildered. Of all the problems that he foresaw, the logistics of shooting on a remote island, without electricity or phones, of moving to the big leagues, managing the budget, dealing with Hollywood, keeping Danny Boyd (his movie-making partner) focused, keeping some balance between pampered superstar Leo and the cast of unknowns, he never imagined this. To find himself and his colleagues Danny and John Hodge cast as Bad Guys. After all, this is the team that made "Trainspotting" and "Shallow Grave" and "A Life Less Ordinary." After all, they are the independents, the up and comers, anything but establishment.
Yet here he is, in southern Thailand, hunkering down from the constant bad press that he has attracted, trying to explain how come, in this twisted world, eco-freaks are actually protesting that he PLANTED some trees on an island paradise and HAULED AWAY several tons of garbage. His side of things:
Explain your problems.
"Thus far, the weather has really been the biggest problem for us. It's just not been constant. Which is what we need for the film. That is naturally what you expect when you are filming a movie like this, about a fantastic beach.
"We're trying to create that imagined paradise. For that, you want sunshine and clear blue skies. We were hoping for blue skies and sunshine in January. We researched the weather ahead of time and everyone said it should be good at this time. Of course, there really is no predicting the weather, especially in these parts, as we have learned.
"Right now, we're doing the beach frontage scenes, so it's .extremely important at this stage. Later, once we finish what we call, on the water, it won't matter as much. Obviously, the weather won't be a problem later on, when we are in the studio, or doing the Bangkok scenes and the interior shots."
"We plan to finish by next week (early Feb) on the island. Then we will move on."
Where to next?
"Next we will start shooting in Krabi."
For the scenes from Khao San Road (the backpacker ghetto in Bangkok)?
"Well, yes, we will be shooting some of the Khao San scenes in Krabi, but some of it will be on the real Khao San Road, in Bangkok. That will mainly be without the main cast, later on. In Krabi, we'll do the scenes with the primary cast.
"We'll also be going to the countryside and to some of the National Parks. We're building up scenery, bits here and there for our fictional island. You know, the best forest, the best coastline. On Phuket, most of the original greenery is gone now."
Explain how this all started.
"We started this all off long ago, after we got the film rights. We started with drawings and plans, just the three of us, Danny, John and myself. Then, with a designer, we built a model of the island, how we wanted it to look.
"Then, back in August of 1997, the three of us came out here, to Thailand. We basically followed the basis of the book to the marine park in Samui and around. We also looked at this side of Thailand. We spent about two weeks looking around."
"We bought the book not long after it came out. I think Danny was the one who picked it up first, and liked it immediately. He had it recommended, read it, then passed it to the other two of us. At that time, we were right in the middle of editing "A Life Less Ordinary," but we were looking for our next project, too. We had made three films together, actually three and a half, either original films or that one famous adaptation. We were fishing for new material."
Why "The Beach?"
"This fit the bill perfectly. It was about young people, real, modern people, exhibiting signs of crisis. They weren't stereotypical. The leading characters were good, reflective and strong. Then, there was the attraction to this enclosed world, an unique world that wasn't totally real.
"We got the film rights at that time, before we came out. But it took a long time to get the script right."
"This isn't a castaway movie. It's not like the Lord of the Flies at all. These are people who came here by choice, in search of paradise."
How does the script vary from the book?
"In the script, we naturally amalgamated characters, eliminated events, and condensed."
There is the rumor circulating that Richard has an affair with Francoise?
"Yes," he says wearily. "He gets the girl. In the book, the chemistry isn't so straight forward. The affair mainly happens in his head over a long time. That's OK for a book. Films are more action."
There are also stories out saying Richard is seduced by Sal. And that he dies in the film.
Andrew sighs loudly and says, "Do you really want to wreck the movie?"
OK, what did you like about "The Beach?"
"We thought it was a fantastic book. It's a Utopian novel, about people out to fulfill their dreams. It's a selfish dream, though. I think tourists often have selfish dreams. That's one of the ironies there. Not just here, either. The tourist business everywhere, fundamentally it's about cash. That makes it difficult to protect the impacts on the environment. But I do think you have to respect the local culture."
"This film won't be a celebration of backpacker culture. It may be a celebration of being young, of being free and able to travel. But we expect it to be thoughtful, too
"We want to make a film that is popular, but also smart, that has something to say."
What about all the environmental problems you've been having?
"This has all come from a group of people, I think, a small group of people. We came here full time in October, so we have talked and listened for a long time. They're concerns have changed a lot in that time. Now, these people seem quite vindictive. It's moved beyond the talking stage. They seem willing to do anything to try and stop the film. It's all grown quite vindictive, and quite racist.
"There have been so many false and ridiculous accusations. Accusations of damaging the coral and using pesticides. These claims are utterly ridiculous. Then, there have been accusations of bribery. This is completely outrageous, totally false.
"I really feel it's dangerous to comment about some of the things going on. I'm an outsider here, but I have been in this role before. During one of our previous movies, we wanted to film in a national park in the United States. We went there and met with officials, explained what we wanted to do, and paid a fee to do it. That's how it's done.
"We pretty much followed the same proceedure here in Thailand. We met with officials, we produced out drawings and plans. We told them how long we planned to be here, and what we would do.
"In hindsight, I think maybe we didn't spend enough time explaining this to the local people. In the US or Europe, we would host junkets to the site, and spend a lot of time talking to the local community, to work out any problems.
"Maybe things should have been done different, but we followed the procedures.
We're all outsiders here. This was approved by Bangkok."
How have the protests effected you?
"The reaction was shocking, and, I must say, quite unnerving. Anyone who has seen the site knows how hard we have worked to minimize the impact. And just look around you. I've seen the effects of tin mining, dynamite fishing. There seem to be so many more important fights for anyone really interested in preserving the environment.
"In the end, I think the facts will bear this out. We have carefully recorded everything. That will show that we have kept our word.
"I can't tell you how many people have been out to the site. There is a member of the film board on hand every day. We've really bent over backwards to accommodate everyone."
How has this effected the rest of the team, the cast?
"I think there is a whole series of issues here, and a lot of them beyond the film. I'm a bit worried that the press will continue to be hounding us. Leo, of course, is used to it. He gets it all over the world. These silly stories about food tastings and pregnant girls. He's used to the flash of cameras.
"We have also had our share. When we made "Trainspotting" it was criticized by the Church, by Parliament. Now, it's hailed as an anti-drug film and shown in schools."
As your first big film, have you heard accusations that you three have sold out?
"Yes, there have been accusations that we've sold out. But it's not all about being a big studio or a small one. Whatever success we had in the past was not because we were independent. We have certainly made films cheaply, but all of them were released by big companies, so this is nothing new."
And the budget is around $40 million?
"Yes, and it's quite a sum, I know. That's the choice you have to make with a film of this kind. You either make it with a big studio or it doesn't get made at all. That's the nature of location filming. It's not cheap."
Half that money is going to Leo? Is that to sell the film?
"We met Leonardo diCaprio after "Trainspotting" came out and were really surprised to hear he liked it. We don't see him as simply a name for this film at all. We think he's the real deal in terms of an actor. In spite of all his phenominal success, we're impressed with him and his work. And he's had such impact. I mean, "Romeo and Juliet," look what he did with Shakespeare.
"We started talking to him about "The Beach" last year. That made all the other things easy, but we just thought he was perfect for the part."
Why shoot in PPI instead of Ko Samui, or elsewhere?
"Well, as I said, we really looked around, and not just in Thailand. We went to Australia, Malaysia and the Philippines. But we needed the right scenery. The book describes the cliffs, the secret location, the setting. In our minds, this was the ideal place.
"There were problems at the outset. Maya Bay was a mess. We cleared three tons of garbage off the beach. We also cleared an area behind the dunes. I feel like we've improved the place for the film, but we will also return it in better condition when we leave than when we came here. I guarentee that.
"There have been other problems. This is a very difficult place to service. We have to come by boat from Phuket every day. We have to bring everything with us and set up everything on the island ourselves. In some ways, it might have been much easier in the Philippines or Australia. But in the end, we decided, this is called "The Beach." And this is it, the beach.
"It couldn't have been Ko Samui, because of the cliffs. Also the lagoon, it really needed to have that feeling of complete enclosure."
"Danny wanted to shoot the whole thing at Ko Pagnan. Actually, Alex said he based the book more on the Philippines, where he traveled quite a bit, but decided to set it here in Thailand, because most backpackers are more familiar with Thailand.
"Phuket does have advantages. There is good infrastructure and a deep-sea port. And there is a production facility already on the island. They have made films here before, like "Cutthroat Island" and "Young Indiana Jones."
How is it working out?
"This has been quite an experience for us. It's so difficult making films outside your home. You have the language barrier and the different weather. Also the challenge of making a big exterior film.
"We're more used to studios, so this is really big for us. But all of our idols have made big exterior films, like Martin Scorcese. It makes you really understand what geniuses these people are, to handle the making of a big film on location, with a big cast, and turn out something really special.
"Understand, we're city-bound people. We're used to Glasgow, London, New York and Los Angeles. This is entirely another thing. But that's one thing that interests you if you are a director or filmmaker. It's the challenge of the think. Here, working on "The Beach," all kinds of things have come up. We have suffered a broken leg, a broken arm, bee stings. With "Trainspotting," the worst thing was a guy who just drank too much."
There have been so many complaints about the movie. Won't it help Thailand in some ways?
"First off, in Thailand, there will be $9-10 million for the economy, spent on things like staff, equipment rental and airline tickets. We have a Thai staff totalling about 200 people, including craftsmen and crew and drivers.
"If the film is successful, then it will have a huge impact. A lot of people in the United States and the UK don't know where Thailand is, unless they are headed here for a holiday. Thailand will become famous, as a country where paradise is possible.
"The book is already huge in the UK, Europe and Australia, but it hasn't really made a dent in the US. As the film comes out, there will be a new book, with Leo on the cover, and that will help it penetrate the US market.
"I think it's a good first reader on Asia. It will encourage people to learn more. Perhaps to come themselves for a visit.
"Ultimately, what happens afterwards is up to Thailand. Like anywhere else, they have to decide what to do with their tourism, and how it benefits their own country."
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as Asiaweek, which ran this Inside Story in the February 19, 1999 edition.
Beach options: For the Inside Story on "The Beach" turn to Postcards from the Beach.
Or see the interview with author Alex Garland.