A few years ago, Jimmy Henderson moved from England to Cambodia when he grew sick of hearing producers pass on films he wanted to direct, or equally bad, not hearing back on them at all. He had already taught himself the skills he needed to become a filmmaker and at a place once more in his career where he could only rely on himself, he headed south to Phnom Penh where he could find work as a cameraman and started plotting to make the kinds of intense action extravaganzas he’d like to see himself. Surely Henderson could be inspired by the trajectory of another ex-pat Gareth Evans, who found his calling in Indonesia making films such as “Merantau” and “The Raid,” and he developed the prison-set “Jailbreak,” knowing if he didn’t have to spend much on a location or company moves, he could fill one place with as many insane action scenes as he wanted.
As memorable as “Jailbreak” was when it burst onto the festival circuit in 2017, featuring the rarely seen Cambodian martial art of Bokator, there seems to be something vaguely autobiographical about “The Prey,” his follow-up that starts out in a jail and quickly bursts into the wild when a power-crazed warden (the inscrutable “Only God Forgives” heavy Vithaya Pansringarm) invites the rich to select and pick off a handful of the convicts under his jurisdiction as if they were deer. Letting them loose in the deepest part of the jungle, no would would be the wiser about the warden’s illicit sporting venture, except that one of the prisoners Xin (Gu Shangwei) is an undercover agent for Interpol that the agency wants back and suddenly in a place where there’s nothing but forest for 30 kilometers in any direction, a crazy manhunt commences with Xin uniquely suited to elude predators with his extensive martial arts and weapons training.
It isn’t just Xin who has a few tricks up his sleeve as Henderson oversees a number of inventive set-pieces that make the most of the outdoor locations, with fisticuffs breaking out near water’s edge and the bushes occasionally hiding explosives that could blow up at any time. Although it’s tempting to say they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, you’d be more inclined to say of “The Prey” that they never made them this way before, despite all of the film’s clear ‘80s inspirations, and with the film now arriving in virtual cinemas as the ideal summer entertainment for action fans, Henderson took the time to answer a few questions via e-mail about the film’s wild shoot, becoming more ambitious in the wake of the success of “Jailbreak,” and what unlocked his creativity in Cambodia.
After “Jailbreak,” I felt the need to do something a bit more personal, exploring themes and subject matters closer to me. The experience of making “Jailbreak” taught me how to handle action scenes well and with “The Prey,” we decided to push the scope even further. We designed the action around the environment and treated it like a narrative element to move the story forward. Every action piece has consequences that reflect in what comes next.
Was it challenging to film in the jungle? I understand there were monsoons and filming in and out of the trees must’ve been interesting.
For sure! It was very difficult to know what the weather was going to be like. I had to change a good number of scenes on the spot and adjust the storyline because it was suddenly raining. We planned to do a swimming chase scene during pre-production. We checked the level of a waterfall and filmed some pre-visualization. It seemed doable. But once we went back, during production, the water level was drastically increased and it was impossible to pull off the same stunt.
You still pull off an incredible fight in the water. What was it like figuring that out?
For the fight in the water, we found a little pond right next to the waterfall and shot it there. There was a pretty strong current so we had a couple of stunt guys standing at the edge of the pond in case the actor would slip. The hardest part was that the place had no shade and the Cambodian sun heats up to 35-40 degrees Celsius. We spent the whole day there and had to adjust some parts of the fight because we ran out of time, but the actors pulled off something really special. It’s actually my favorite fight in the movie.
I remember one day we had a stuntman over from Thailand to perform a fire stunt and we only had him that day. We were way behind schedule as it had rained and it was getting dark. The stunt guy set himself up with the fire gel and covered all his body with protection, but by the time we started shooting that scene, the gel had soaked into his outfit and we struggled to set him on fire. We had 20 minutes of light left and we hadn’t even start rolling. Then the Thai stunt guy told us to pour a few liters of gasoline all over his body as it was the only way to make it happen in that short amount of time. We had only one try, we set up two cameras, set the guy on fire and shoot. It was the first time I did a fire stunt; it was a very intense experience.
Is it true this is the first film in Cambodia to use pyrotechnics?
We had a professional pyrotechnics crew from Thailand to set up the explosives, and it was a learning experience for us. They knew what they were doing so everything went smoothly.
Since you seem to have been so inspired by Cambodia, what clicked for you as a filmmaker once you got there after starting your career elsewhere?
I travelled to Cambodia without knowing if I would stay. A month or so went by and I fell in love with the country and the people. Here I am, years later, and there is a lot of undiscovered potential over here. I looked out for those talents that needed a voice and started collaborations and so far It has been a win/win. I helped the Cambodia industry to reach international spotlight and the industry helped me to pursue my career further.
“The Prey” is now available through virtual cinemas, including Laemmle, Alamo on Demand and the Philadelphia Film Society, with your purchase supporting your local arthouse, and will be available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, XBox, Vudu, DirecTV and Dish Network on August 25th.