The following story is from 2014 when Cambodian Productions main fixer, Richard John Currie, was working with a different production company on the project below.
Usually when you are contacted by an international production company they have a clear idea of exactly who or what they want to film, this makes it easier for you to organise the logistical side of the production. But in some cases the production company only comes with an idea or a concept and it’s up to the fixer to research the idea and help develop story lines for the production company before they arrive in Cambodia to film. This was exactly the situation when I was contacted by Icon Films who were looking for an exciting story line for the new episode of the popular television show River Monsters.
The initial email from Icon Films contained only a scanned newspaper article from the Phnom Penh Post (the main source of local news in the countries capitol). The article told the story of a young boy in Kandal Province (just north of Phnom Penh) who was viciously attacked by a puffer fish while he swam in a local river. Icon Films were fascinated by the incident and wondered if it was possible to use this puffer fish incident as the basis for the new series of River Monsters. I was immediately interested in working on this high profile production and agreed to do some preliminary research to help develop the story line and see if we could find some leads regarding the attack.
The first step in the research was to try and find the boy who was attacked, after all this story is the crux of the production and we had to hear from the victim first hand about what happened. Luckily we had some clues in the article which would aid us in finding the boy in question; his age, location of the attack and the injuries he sustained. My assistant started by phoning a few of the local hospitals in Kandal Province, the injury was very specific and surely someone working at the hospital would remember the boy when he came in for treatment. Unfortunately the attack happened back in 2011 and Cambodia is not really reliable when it comes to keeping records of any kind. I’ve always found that it’s much easier to conduct research on the ground and speak with people directly instead of phoning so I decided that we should go directly to Kandal Province on a recce. This expedition basically consisted of my assistant speaking to as many locals as possible who lived by the body of water where the attack occurred. Within a few hours we obtained leads, which in turn generated more leads and then we found the boy. The victim, who is now 17 years old, was a little reluctant to speak at first but my assistant is very good at making people feel comfortable and within 10 minutes he gave us the full (and gory) story of what happened.
Upon receiving the results of the recce and, hearing of the boy’s story, Icon Films decided that the episode of River Monsters in Cambodia would be given the green light. This moved us straight to the next stage in our research which was exploring other story lines and trying to find more incidents which involved puffer fish attacks. Each episode of River Monsters is 45 minutes long so it was important that we found additional stories to help flesh out each episode and keep the narrative interesting. While in Kandal Province we discovered that puffer fish attacks were very rare in this area as the fish usually reside in other rivers in Cambodia. Our team decided to cast our nets out further (no pun intended) and explore other provinces in Cambodia in the hopes that we would find more attack stories. The other provinces which we selected (Stung Treng, Kratie and the Chong Kneas floating village) are all situated on large bodies of water and we were informed by our sources that we were sure to find other victims of puffer fish attacks. After a few days of exploring the new locations we were able to find several local fisher men who had been bitten by the puffer fish, some were attacked several years previous while others had fresh wounds. These results were great for us and fantastic for Icon Films because now they had lots of interviews and stories for the episode.
Not only did our research involve finding the puffer fish attack stories but we also had to find information about the different types of fish that can be found in the lakes and rivers of Cambodia. Jeremy Wade, the River Monsters host, is actively involved with the discovery of the “predator” in each episode and he is a fishing enthusiast as well. It was very important for the authenticity of the episode that we were able to discover other species of fish in Cambodia while he was searching for the puffer fish. During our research we enlisted the assistance of local fisher men in each of the provinces who could provide us with information on the different types of fish and where we could find them. This information was feed back to Icon Films on a daily basis so they could incorporate the findings into their script which was constantly evolving as the research progressed.
Once we had obtained enough information for Icon Films a date was set for filming and that moved us onto the next part of the pre-production which was logistics. For this program we had to utilise two types of vehicles; land based vehicles for transporting the crew and equipment from location to location and boats for filming the water based scenes. Most of the fishing boats were locally owned so it was easy to organise the use of them for a few hours but we had to ensure that the boats which the crew were filming from were sturdy enough to carry the weight of the cameras. We also had to obtain location permits in each of the provinces and cities for the production as well as organize some private permits in protected fishing areas.
We had one challenge ahead of us before the film crew arrived in Cambodia which was to arrange for the skeleton of a puffer fish to be used as a prop on camera. My assistant was able to get a recently deceased puffer fish which we then had skinned to reveal the skeleton underneath. This was done on the Friday before the crew arrived the following week so I asked my assistant to keep it somewhere safe over the weekend. When I came to work on Monday I was met with the strong smell of a rotting fish, that’s when I discovered my assistant had thought our office would be the best place to store the fish carcass over the weekend. For a month after the production finished we had the rancid smell of a dead puffer fish to remind us of the River Monsters shoot, I personally would have preferred a t-shirt.
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