M.I.A. A Greater Evil: Haunted by the Vietnam War

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On location filming M.I.A.
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 Written by Peter Alan Lloyd, writer and producer

As a British writer it may seem unusual to have written a screenplay about the Vietnam War, a conflict my own country was not involved in. For some reason (probably down to watching The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Southern Comfort in my formative years) I have always been fascinated by the Vietnam War.

I first went to Vietnam in 1992, with the first British tour allowed into the country. As I picked up shattered GI helmets and carefully avoided unexploded ordnance at Khe Sanh, a besieged US outpost, I wondered how it must have felt for petrified conscripted US teenagers to face such a miserable death so far from home.

And for what?

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Lead actors Lamou Vissay, Sarah Ball, Valerie Bentson and Mark Matula between scenes.
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Fast forward ten years, and now living in Bangkok (having foolishly packed in my job as a lawyer), I became aware of one of the war’s greatest controversies and mysteries, and a battle still raging at the heart of American politics and culture today. Were American POWs left behind in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam after the Americans pulled out of the war in 1973? Were servicemen really abandoned by their government out there - people who’d actually put their lives on the line for their country?

There is considerable evidence to suggest some were left behind, and I began to investigate this aspect of the war, visiting caves, jungles and mountain locations where men had been held as POWs. I became fascinated by the idea of writing something original and unique about the Vietnam War, with a wholly modern-day take.

Another contributing factor to the M.I.A. screenplay was my experience of many nights spent camping in the dense, war-torn jungles of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Vietnam.

Out there, as darkness falls, a primeval fear takes over. What was stunningly beautiful scenery and a vibrant natural world suddenly becomes an inky-black menace. Anything could be out there: tigers, snakes, poachers, drug smugglers. Who knows what else? Especially where so many died such violent deaths during the war and where unrecovered human remains still rot into the jungle, slowly becoming a part of it.

Every noise is a threat, and there’s nobody around to help you.

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Abishek Bajaj, Byron Bishop and Peter Alan Lloyd in the jungle during filming.
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I was fascinated by this psychological turn, and feelings of nocturnal oppression worked their way into the screenplay. The film had to be a supernatural thriller.

I began mapping out the plot of M.I.A. on one of these jungle trips, in the dead of night, asking myself what was so terrifying about being out there alone in the darkness. (There were plenty of answers).

I came back to Bangkok and worked with Byron Bishop, my creative partner and fellow-producer, to flesh out the plot and then I wrote the screenplay in about two weeks flat.

We took it to director Abishek Bajaj, who we’d previously worked with on a successful short film in Thailand. Abi was also fascinated by the war, and had some great suggestions for the screenplay. He was very keen to make M.I.A. his first directed feature, having previously worked in various capacities on Hollywood productions in Thailand.

We quickly realised M.I.A. was going to be shot on a micro-budget. And even though money goes further in Thailand, it was always a huge problem for us.

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A rehearsal on the river.
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We shot the whole film on location in the jungles, rivers, caves and mountains of Kanchanaburi. Elements of the film, especially the creepy nighttime scenes, were definitely enhanced by being out there in the middle of the night, shooting in the jungle into the early hours.

The river also assisted. Seen from above it looks ominously black, suggesting menace for our hapless adventure backpackers, who are happily floating along, unaware of what lies ahead.

Although a perfect location, the jungle and river frequently presented unusual obstacles during filming.

Critical scenes in the dead of night were sometimes disrupted by bellowing elephants. We had centipedes, snakes, bats, spiders and mosquitoes to deal with, and shooting on the river was interrupted as elephants wandered down the track to drink and forage along the river bank.

We could have done things better with more money, for sure. We were often restricted to two takes, as we shot the whole film in just 10 days. That was a pretty impressive feat, especially in such challenging locations.

But the story seems to have struck a nerve and I believe we have punched well above our financial weight - it’s a low budget film with massive ambitions.

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Shooting along the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand.
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We filmed some important scenes on the famous River Kwai. Not famous to me because of the film Bridge On The River Kwai (which was anyway shot in Sri Lanka), but because some of The Deer Hunter’s most powerfully graphic scenes were shot on the same river – Russian Roulette with the Viet Cong, the bamboo POW cages, the river escape; all shot on the River Kwai.

I felt we’d paid suitable homage to one of the films that had got me so interested in the Vietnam War all those years ago, back when I lived in Liverpool.

I felt I had somehow come full circle…

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