Shooting The Rocket in the mountains of Laos earlier this year proved a challenging, but rewarding, experience for the Australian crew led by writer-director Kim Mordaunt and producer Sylvia Wilczynski.
The Laotian government despatched 20 minders to watch the crew shoot every scene. “We were carefully scrutinised,” Wilczynski tells SBS Film. Officials insisted on vetting the script of the material shot in the country but they were not shown the scenes that were filmed in Thailand.
Although the story is fiction, the narrative does allude to Laos' troubled past, with references to the US bombardment during the Vietnam conflict and the civil war between the Pathet Lao communist rebels and the Royal Lao Army in the 1960s. Those bombs still kill people.
The Pathet Lao movement seized power in 1975 and its descendants, the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, still rules.
The idea for the film was sparked by the people Mordaunt met in the country's remote regions while shooting the 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest, which examined the bomb disposal teams in Laos and the children who collect bomb scrap metal to sell.
The plot revolves around a boy, Ahlo, a twin, who fears he is cursed because his tribe is convinced twins bring bad luck. To try to disprove that belief, the kid sets out to build a giant rocket to compete in the lucrative but dangerous Rocket Festival.
Kim screen tested countless children in search of the two child protagonists. Working with Thai-based casting director Raweeporn Jungmeier and location casting director Tanawat Punya they auditioned children in schools, markets, temples, drama and youth groups and on the streets. In the end they cast 10-year-old Sitthiphon (“Ki”) Disamoe to play Ahlo. Ki lived rough on the streets until he was adopted. They then cast eight-year-old Loungnam Kaosainam, who plays his friend Kia. Loungnam was born and grew up in Vientiane, the capital of Laos and is involved in a local drama group.
Veteran Lao/Thai actor and comedian Thep Phongam plays Purple, a former CIA soldier who becomes a mentor to the young hero. Thep has starred in more than 35 Thai movies in roles such as a troubled assassin trying to reconcile with his daughter in Yuthlert Sippapak's Friday Killer, the leader of a gang of inept hit men in Sippapak's Killer Tattoo, a slayer of zombies in Taweewat Wantha's Sars Wars, and an imposter doctor in Rerkchai Paungpetch's Dumber Heroes.
The cast also includes Alice Keohavong, an Australian of Laotian descent who lives in Sydney.
The film was produced by Mordaunt and Wilczynski's Red Lamp Films, with Bridget Ikin as executive producer, and funded by Screen Australia, Screen NSW, the 40 percent producer offset, private investors including a commercial bomb disposal organisation, SBS and Australian distributor Curious. It's due to open in the second half of next year.
It's the debut feature by Mordaunt, who got a film production degree at the University of Technology Sydney, and a diploma in acting from London's Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He has taught filmmaking and drama in Asian, Arabic and Australian indigenous communities and been a filmmaking mentor in refugee centres and prisons.
“The film shows a world that has never been seen [on screen] before,” says Sylvia, adding that it deals with topical themes such as a family who are displaced from their home by a hydro-electric dam development, and impoverished kids who collect those bombs.
LevelK's Tine Klint is handling international sales, adding to her portfolio of Australian films which include Amiel Courtin-Wilson's Hail, Robert Connolly's The Turning, David Blake's The 25th Hour and Stephen Lance's My Mistress.
Tine was introduced to the project by Michael Wrenn after he left Curious. “This is one of the best films I have seen in a long time,” Tine says. “The filmmakers have made some very clever choices in terms of making an art-house film more accessible for international audience. It is an important story and from the first minute the film grips you and keeps you completely engaged throughout.” She aims to launch the film internationally at one of the major festivals in early 2013.
Wrenn now heads distributor Greenlight Releasing but says he will work with the filmmakers on the Australian release. He met them when they were developing the project and Curious helped pay for post-production.