24 Mar Chris Lowenstein: From Hollywood to Thailand
From Hollywood to Thailand
24 March 2018
Chris Lowenstein left Hollywood Studios more than 20 years ago to settle in Chiang Mai. At the head of the production company Living Films, this idealist dreams to shoot there as many films as possible. Between two projects, we met the producer for a behind-the-scenes dive in the film industry of the land of smiles.
Born in Chile, raised in Portland, Oregon, American Chris Lowenstein started out as an Assistant Director on Hollywood feature films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Oliver Stone’ Heaven and Earth (1993) before he moved to Thailand in 1992 and started in 1996 his own production company: Living Films.
First as Production Manager and then Producer, Chris has achieved over thirty-five feature films and Television series in Thailand, working with such artists as Jackie Chan on The Medallion (2003), Matt Dillon on City of Ghosts (2003), Nicolas Cage on Bangkok Dangerous (2008), Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and the rest of the cast of The Hangover Part II (2011), and Owen Wilson, Pierce Brosnan and Lake Bell on No Escape (2015). Most recently, Chris completed work as Co-Producer of Gold (2016) starring Matthew McConaughey and Seth Green on Changeland (scheduled release in 2018). Living Films is now one of the best production companies in South-East Asia. Chris Lowenstein received the Latitudes team in his office with simplicity, a few kilometers south of Chiang Mai.
Why did you decide to come to Thailand?
I started to love Thailand instantly! When I first came to Thailand it was almost like I had lived here in a previous life. I discovered Thailand at this very early stage of the lm industry, I was still making films as an assistant director, mostly on Hollywood movies, and I ended up working on Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth (1993), I was ready to work on any roles in this film, I just knew I wanted to make movies and I loved Thailand, so if I could have both, I would be happy. I did my last film as an assistant director on The Quest (1996) with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Roger Moore, which we shot all over Thailand. After that, I realized that if I wanted to continue, I should have my own operation. I really wanted to surround myself with people I trusted. So I moved to Chiang Mai and started Living Films here because it was clearly outside of the film industry base in Bangkok.
Why did you want to keep yourself separated from this industry in Bangkok?
I wanted to try to set a new standard for the way lms are made here in terms of accounting and transparency, to bring a more Western style of scheduling and budgeting and I felt I had to do it physically and set aside from the industry in Bangkok. So people who wanted to work with me they’d have to really follow me all the way to Chiang Mai which would show that they’d be very loyal and committed. And in retrospect I think that has really worked.
How was the evolution of Living Films?
We started small. Between 1996 and 1998, we did a lot of documentaries, I directed 4 of them and we also had 4 Hollywood features films in 2 years. In the early of 2000, I realized we could expand. From 2 partners, including me, we added 4 partners and made different divisions: documentaries, feature films and TV series, as well as TV commercials. Over the last couple of years I’ve moved into development of our own content and I try to create new media for the region. The way politics are in the world right now I think it’s important that we support more activism project and I think film documentaries and features can be very powerful tools. So we’re in a very good place in a vibrant country to make new content in the next 10 years.
How many movies, documentaries and TV commercials are you now shooting per year?
It really depends. On a very good year, we make 2 features, it depends how long is the shooting and in how many places. We do around 15 TV commercials, when we can make 60–80 days shooting for TV commercials it’s really good for us. If we wanted to earn a lot of money, we could do more TV commercials, but we want to stay small, to keep the quality and do some projects we really care about. Now, we have 6 projects actively in development, we just finish the preparation for a Chinese action-comedy movie, and we are going to shoot this movie at the end of January.
What is your favorite foreign movie shot in Thailand?
It would be funny but it’s probably two films we shot. The first one is Changeland. It’s not out yet. It’s a film about two old friends (Seth Green and Breckin Meyer) who figure out how to be friends again on a trip to Thailand, it’s a kind of travel story, endearing, funny and dramatic. The second one is Simon (2004). It’s a Dutch film about a Dutch man who came to Thailand in his youth and then goes back to live in Amsterdam and then when he finds out he has cancer he decides to come back to Thailand to relive those times that were so important to his life. It’s like kind of crazy movie but also wonderful.
What would be your dream casting?
For the next years, we’re on preparing to make more local films and we would like to embrace a lot of local stars. I am partial to Ananda Everingham who I think is a great actor. He is half-Lao, half- Australian, but he was born in Thailand. I find very interesting when you can’t really tell what one’s background is. I think the world is getting smaller that way and that makes the casting quite interesting, it’s like we can break those traditional lines of who’s from where and what is their skin colour, for example. Recently, I have worked with Seth Green, he really appreciated and embraced Thailand for what’s wonderful in it. So if you bring in some talents that really want to be here, I think that comes across in their acting and it helps the movie comes out. So, Seth Green and Ananda maybe.
A place where you would like to shoot a movie?
I love to shoot in Chiang Mai, I try to get every movie in Chiang Mai if I can. But if it calls for a beach, I like to go to Krabi, Trang or Phang Nga. People have seen the limestone cliffs so many times in films but you can always find incredible new places. In the future, I would love to make a movie in Isaan. There haven’t been that many and I think there are lots of untouched locations.
What’s the difference between making a movie in the West or in Thailand?
In Thailand, when you make a movie, the crews tend to be larger than it would be in America because it’s like everything in Asia, there are always more people in service type industries. There are advantages and disadvantages. We move faster, we’re not waiting for tracks or cranes to be set up but your footprint becomes larger and our move in terms of logistics becomes harder, we need more vehicules, more food… There needs to be a fine balance to keep it small enough that it’s intimate and big enough to move fast.
The second things: there is no Union here, like, in the West you have the cameraman Union, an accounting Union… With no Union, there is less rules and more flexibility. For example, somebody who’s lighting your scene can also help you with gripping or cameras. People wear multiple hats. And people want to help in any way they can to make a film successful. On the other hand, on one of my roles I tend to protect my crew from being exploited or working too long hours. And in exchange we get great loyalty back.
I also think that Thai people approach their work with more exuberance, it’s not just a job. In the West people often just do it for their well-being and making money, which is a shame, especially when you make a movie you want to believe in and love what you’re doing and you’re excited about the project. Thais tend to be more modest also…
And then, of course, you get these amazing exotic locations from jungle to mountains to tropical waters…
Which challenges await the cinema industry in Thailand?
Thailand is a very cost-effective country to shoot in, but if it continues to develop too fast, it will change and suddenly films could be shot in some other countries like Laos or Cambodia or somewhere else cheaper. Right now, it’s still a really great time.
I hope that the prices in Thailand won’t rise too fast. To attract more international production, Thailand has recently launched a new incentive program: get 15 percent back on budgets for films that spend at least 50 million baht in the country. Plus an additional 2 percent incentive if you shoot in beautiful places and promote the country.
But Thailand also needs to encourage more young people to start in this industry. There are not that many dedicated schools and university programs. So I think it’s a challenge if the industry expands that we will need more people working on it to keep its quality level.
We’re hoping that new venues of distribution on streaming channels like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu will actually enable an influx of money into a local industry where we can raise the standards. I think there’s some great talent in Thailand, but often the budgets for local productions are so low that the films suffer…. So the ability to create consistency in production comes from having a steady funding stream, to create new talent and to have new crews in the local industry. We also need to see more international and local production works together, with people who can go between both and use the best from each. Thailand is supposed to be the center of filmmaking in the whole region, it already is in many ways but it can rise even to another level.