By Peter Fox
Photos by Nattaya Anurak
The etymology of films has always been a subject that has piqued my interest. The why, the when, and how they happened. When I was relatively young, I fell in love with James Bond movies. The Vietnam era evening news, juxtaposed with Sean Connery and his deadly, casual elegance, made them all the more impactful. Scenes from the war and the death totals would routinely run over the evening news’s closing credits on Sunday evening. Bond’s otherworldly presence was provided an escape, even for a few hours, from the inescapable reality of the moment. Producer Albert Broccoli recognized the vacuum, the unspoken hunger of American audiences, and plodded forward. Great producers possess the uncanny knack to see the landscape’s scale and scope and then make films that audiences want before they are even aware that they want them. Amid the turmoil, be it social or political, no producer wants to be part of the group that stands on the sidelines, scratching their heads, figuring out what film to make next. The great ones are always ahead of the curve. Looking back at the nineteen sixties, the Bond and Hitchcock films provided audiences with precisely what they wanted without them having to say so: The chance to breathe and forget for one hundred and twenty minutes.
At no other time in the history of film production has the climate for film production been more challenging than today. As Covid-19 and social and political upheaval continue to rage out of control along with the California wildfires, most industries are upside down. The picture business was hit particularly hard, with dozens if not hundreds of notable films shut down, canceled, postponed, or re-positioned to allow for the exorbitant expenses and limitations of on-set protocols made necessary by the virus.
But great producers always find a way to get it done.
The first runaway hit film of the Covid era, The Extraction, produced in part by Napa based Producer Nicholas Simon, was completed before the virus turned the world upside down. However, its place in film history is secured not only because its Netflix release occurred during the depths of the first lockdown but by the fact that this raucous and very entertaining shoot ‘em up action film was just the right film at the right time.
What makes Nicholas Simon’s connection to The Extraction worthy of a closer look is not just the film itself, but how he has plodded forward in the height of the pandemic with more projects since then. His company, Indochina Productions, is based in Bangkok, Thailand, and works with the most prominent producers, stars, and directors globally. With production conditions in Southeast Asia relatively favorable to those here in the United States, Simon has quietly-and undeniably- established himself and his company as a force to be reckoned with as the film industry moves through the numerous changes forced upon it by Covid-19.
I met with Nicholas Simon recently at his stylish home in Napa on a hot day during a momentary relaxation of the lockdown (Stage 1? Stage 2? Is anyone keeping track anymore?). With jeans and a blazer, Simon’s demeanor is humble and sage-like, not a sniff of Hollywood arrogance in the air. In his bucolic backyard over wine and cheese, we talked about his projects, how he got his start, how the virus has impacted the film industry, and of course, the future of his company.
PF: If I may-as a kind of a jump-off point, how are you handling Covid testing on your productions?
NS: We offer for people to come to Thailand or to Vietnam and quarantine either at a five-star hotel which (which the government film office does not publicize) or at an Army base, which does have Wi-Fi. (we both laugh). So, we are promoting the five-star hotel, and in Japan it’s the same thing.
PF: How long has your company existed?
NS: I can go back to the origins. In 1994 I studied East Asian history at Columbia University in New York, and I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I thought I would get a job at the Cambodia daily, but I found out the person who’d hired me had given the same position to like ten other people and, I was lower down the totem pole or the friendship pole. So, I ended up going to Saigon instead, and a bunch of crazy things happened there. I met someone (Tran Anh Hung) from a film production called Cyclo, which is the second movie of the guy who did Scent of Green Papaya. Cyclo was set in post-1975 Saigon. In the 90s in Saigon, it ended up going on and winning at Venice, and I caught a film bug there. I talked with the UPM, Benoit Jaubert, and we ended up starting up the first joint venture with Liberation film studio. Ironically, we then went different ways, and then I just hired him back, and he was our line producer on Extraction. He just did another project with the Russo brothers (Extraction’s Executive Producers) in Morocco, and so, the world goes in circles. We then convinced someone who was the regional head of an advertising company that we knew how to produce. This was 1995, and Southeast Asia was really like the wild west back then. So, with dumb luck and luck and good fortune, we figured it out.
PF: I guess the pitch being that you could get things done over there more quickly and for less cost?
NS: They had to make a TV commercial for the Vietnamese market, and it hadn’t been done before on the scale that they wanted. We thought it was huge, but it was three TV commercials for thirty thousand dollars. When you’re twenty-two, and you’ve never done it before, you’re like, “so much money!” We ended up delivering. Our company was called “Sud-Est” productions. It’s still going on, but we sold it, and it’s a Vietnamese production company now. But before we sold it, we produced hundreds of TV commercials over the years.
PF: Are all of your facilities over there? Or do you do your post-production here? How does it work?
NS: Every project is different. Our main business for Indochina is production service. In the past, when productions like The Avengers or Kong have come over and said, “OK, we want to shoot in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, or Bangladesh,” and then I answer, “Yes, it’s possible, and these are the ways,” I become their on-the-ground producer and production company. So, getting their permits, filming permits, import permits, helping with the logistics, my company does all of those things. It’s grown so that we’ve become more involved on smaller to mid-size projects; we’re much more engaged in the creative side. There was a project called A Prayer Before Dawn that we ended up producing with James Schamus. It ended up going on to Cannes.
PF: When you say that you are now more involved in the creative side, do you mean in terms of development?
NS: In terms of development, yes. We cannot yet talk about certain things, but we are getting different project’s rights. We’re working with writers and directors and actors in the early stages and then leveraging our expertise in that part of the world.
PF: In terms of theme and story, are most of these projects based in Indochina?
NS: Most of them are based there, yes. But because of all of this crazy climate with Covid and the restraints it’s placed on production worldwide, I don’t know how soon a big show like Extraction will be able to shoot with all that’s going on now. They (the producers of Extraction) brought in 100 people for the cast. The first unit crew was like 450 people. The second unit was 200. It’s going to be a while until you can do that again level of production again. So, I’m looking at what we can do in the interim. It looks like there will be projects of $35,000,000 and below, which are more doable. Sometimes they come from the directors, sometimes from the studio, or the project itself, but what I’m looking at is what size of production would be one that we can contain? The size of the crew, etc., so that it’s more Covid friendly? But that’s what we’re doing right now. There were a couple of projects in the back of my mind and thinking about pitching in a year or so from now. But now, we’re thinking of moving them up. There are also projects that we can do in one country, and if we need to fly people in, we can certainly do that. There’s another series that I’m trying to set up that would take place in five to eight countries around Southeast Asia basically from Korea to Thailand. But we’d be able to produce it. Hence, each country is its own segment so we don’t need to fly people back and forth, because we have crews in each place. They can take care of it, and then with that in mind, there are also projects that we’re starting to pitch here in the states which work in the same ways. Whether it’s Oklahoma or Los Angeles, you can do it on a smaller scale and in self-contained units.
PF: Tell me a little bit about Distraction. How long ago did production begin? Was production impacted at all by Covid?
NS: It was pre-Covid, but it certainly benefitted from Covid. A lot of bored people at home with Netflix. The story is set in India, which is a significant market for Netflix. We shot three days in Bangladesh, fifteen days in India, and the bulk of it, eighty to ninety percent of it was done in Thailand. It was initially hoped that they could shoot the whole thing in India, but then came the reality of shooting an action film in India with heavy stunts, explosions, gunfire, and helicopters. India has not been production-friendly. The logistics and importation are just too tricky there.
PF: When looking at these scenes in The Extraction on the street, specifically when they take the kid and throw him in the van, you’ve got all those people around, hundreds of them. I’m assuming all of those were hired actors? How did you manage so many of them?
NS: Every one of them were paid extras. We have systems in place where we pay the extras directly. Our casting department was stellar.
PF: Just by viewing the film, it occurred to me that the production had to be grueling, especially in that heat, with so much cast and crew.
NS: Originally, we were going to shoot in Australia, and then India, but then that was changed too, so as time moved forward, we were left with only twelve weeks of prep. On a movie of this scale, there’s usually a lot more time. I’d say the grueling part of it was doing it on time, doing it well, and doing it within our budget ($65,000,000). If you look at the budgets of what films in this genre usually run, Mission Impossible or Bourne franchise movies, you’re looking at $200,000,000 plus, apiece. With what we were able to get, traveling between three countries, the picture still provided an authentic, worldly experience for the viewer. It was a challenge, but I’d say that it was a rewarding shoot. The local crew worked really hard—the art department; same thing. There was no division between the foreign crew and the Thai crew. It might sound corny, but I’m a real believer that the harmony between the departments on the projects shows in the final product. We can’t change the script or the acting performances; that’s up to the director and the editor, but we gave them a lot, and they used it. ☐