James Brooke is good to go

The long-awaited White Ra­jah biopic is fi­nally set to be­gin film­ing in Sarawak next year.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - Sto­ries by MICHAEL CHEANG en­ter­tain­ment@thes­tar.com.my

THE story of James Brooke, the White Ra­jah, is one wor­thy of a Hol­ly­wood epic film.

A former Bri­tish sol­dier sails to Bor­neo in 1839, where he helps the Sul­tan of Brunei put down a pi­rate re­bel­lion and was be­queathed the land of Sarawak as his own pri­vate king­dom.

Thus be­gan the reign of the White Ra­jah, whose dy­nasty would last three gen­er­a­tions across a hun­dred years.

Brooke him­self was knighted by Queen Vic­to­ria, and af­ter re­sist­ing ef­forts by the Bri­tish to colonise Sarawak, he was even put on trial for piracy and mur­der.

Well, that afore­men­tioned Hol­ly­wood epic is ac­tu­ally go­ing to be made, one that has a US$15mil (RM48mil) bud­get and a twice Os­car-nom­i­nated di­rec­tor at­tached to the project.

And the best part is, the en­tire film is go­ing to be filmed in Sarawak.

The prime mover be­hind White Ra­jah is Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer Rob Al­lyn, founder and CEO of Mar­gate House Films. Al­lyn wrote White Ra­jah’s orig­i­nal screen­play based on Brooke’s diaries and let­ters, ar­chives of the Brooke Heritage Trust, and the help of Ja­son Brooke, a Bri­tish Mu­seum his­to­rian and cur­rent heir of the Brooke fam­ily, who also serves as a tech­ni­cal ad­viser on the film.

Star2 caught up with the pro­ducer on his re­cent visit to Kuala Lumpur, and he said that the movie has been fully fi­nanced and green­lit.

Shoot­ing will com­mence in mid-2018 with di­rec­tor Sergei Bo­drov at the helm. Bo­drov is best known for Pris­oner Of The Moun­tains (1996) and Mon­gol (2007), both of which were nom­i­nated for Os­cars in the Best For­eign-Lan­guage Film cat­e­gory.

The book of Brooke

Ac­cord­ing to Al­lyn, he first got the idea to make a movie about James Brooke seven years ago when he came across a cof­fee ta­ble book called The White Ra­jahs Of Sarawak in a Singaporean book­store.

“It was a fan­tas­tic book with beau­ti­ful il­lus­tra­tions of all the Sarawak tribes and the ex­otic lo­ca­tions, and the story was just an in­cred­i­ble ro­man­tic ad­ven­ture,” he re­called.

“So, the first thing I did was get on (on­line film data­base) IMDB and make sure there wasn’t a movie about it!”

Al­lyn was ini­tially fas­ci­nated by the story of a young man who fled a ro­man­tic scan­dal in Eng­land to be­come a ra­jah in Sarawak.

“Brooke prob­a­bly never re­ally fit in the prim and proper world of Vic­to­rian Eng­land. He was born in Ben­gal, and had a bit of a wild streak. He spent his whole life es­cap­ing – run­ning away from school when he was 12, and later join­ing the army, where he was badly in­jured and left for dead on the bat­tle­field in Burma,” Al­lyn ex­plained.

“He was never re­ally suc­cess­ful at any­thing, but he had a dream of some­thing dif­fer­ent, a wilder and more vivid life. And he found that trop­i­cal paradise of his dreams in Sarawak!”

Upon fur­ther re­search, Al­lyn was also sur­prised to find out that Brooke was the real life role model for Rudyard Ki­pling’s short story A Man Who Would Be King and Joseph Con­rad’s Lord Jim.

There had been pre­vi­ous at­tempts to make a White Ra­jah movie, start­ing with an at­tempt by the leg­endary ac­tor Er­rol Flynn in 1936.

“Ba­si­cally, Hol­ly­wood’s been try­ing to make this movie for more than 80 years!” said Al­lyn, who said the thing that at­tracted him to Brooke’s story most was its sense of ad­ven­ture. “For me, it’s one of the last great un­filmed ad­ven­ture sto­ries. I loved big ro­man­tic ad­ven­ture movies like The Mis­sion, The Last Of The Mo­hi­cans, Lawrence Of Ara­bia. But Hol­ly­wood just isn’t mak­ing these type of films any­more.”

An­other thing Al­lyn’s pro­duc­tion has go­ing for it is the fact that he has the help of Ja­son Brooke, the cur­rent heir of the Brooke fam­ily.

“I was in Lon­don a few years back when I got an e-mail from some­one called Ja­son Brooke rep­re­sent­ing the Brooke Heritage Trust. It said, ‘We hear you’re mak­ing a movie and we’d like to talk to you about it’.

“My first thought was, ‘Uh oh, is it a law­suit?’” Al­lyn re­called with a laugh.

Al­lyn later met Ja­son in Lon­don, where he vis­ited James Brooke’s an­ces­tral home and his gravesite. “Ja­son is the best spirit guide to the world of Brooke you can ever have. He’s a his­to­rian at the Bri­tish Mu­seum, and he spent his whole life in this story!” said Al­lyn.

The Brooke Heritage Trust, a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion, serves as tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sors on the project, and are giv­ing the film­mak­ers rights to tens of thou­sands of im­ages to use in the film, said Al­lyn.

Lights, camera, ac­tion ... in Sarawak

It was Ja­son who con­vinced Al­lyn to make the movie in Sarawak. Yes, ap­par­ently the idea of mak­ing a Sarawak-based film in Sarawak had not oc­curred to Al­lyn at first – the pro­ducer had ini­tially planned to film in ei­ther In­done­sia (where he has made sev­eral movies be­fore), Sin­ga­pore or Lon­don’s Pinewood Stu­dios.

“The thought HAD oc­curred to me, but I was wor­ried about the lo­gis­tics. I had been liv­ing in that Brooke era in my head for so long that my im­pres­sion of Sarawak was that of long­houses and jun­gles!” he said sheep­ishly. “Then, Ja­son asked me why I didn’t just make the film in Sarawak, and three years ago, he in­vited me to go there with him.”

There, Al­lyn re­alised that his ini­tial fears about film­ing in Sarawak were com­pletely un­founded, and that in fact, it was the per­fect place to shoot the movie.

“In most Asian cities, you have to drive through an hour or so of bad traf­fic to get out of the city to your sets. But Kuch­ing is

un­usual. I was afraid it would be too un­der­de­vel­oped to have the things we would need, or too de­vel­oped to have the his­toric things we needed. But it’s the op­po­site – Kuch­ing is mod­ern in its core, but drive 15 min­utes out­side of the city and there’s a mag­nif­i­cent nat­u­ral stu­dio!” he said. “One of the places we’re re­ally in­ter­ested in film­ing at is the Sarawak Cul­tural Vil­lage, which is a fan­tas­tic fa­cil­ity.”

White Ra­jah will be filmed in a com­bi­na­tion of Malay, English as well as Iban, Bi­dayuh and other Sarawakian lan­guages, and Al­lyn said they are also look­ing into in­clud­ing lo­cal ac­tors and non-ac­tors in the cast. “Sergei has a his­tory of us­ing not only lo­cal ac­tors in his films, but also non-ac­tors to play the parts. He’s had good suc­cess in his pre­vi­ous films with that. The role of Brooke’s love in­ter­est, Fa­tima, will most cer­tainly be a lo­cal star,” he said.

White Ra­jah also has of­fi­cial back­ing from the Sarawak State gov­ern­ment. Dur­ing a sign­ing cer­e­mony last Septem­ber, Chief Min­is­ter Datuk Amar Abang Jo­hari said:

“White Ra­jah is an ini­tia­tive by the state gov­ern­ment to pro­mote Sarawak as a nat­u­ral stu­dio and a re­sult of ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the Brooke Heritage Trust, the film pro­duc­ers and the state gov­ern­ment through Sarawak Tourism Board.”

The Film in Malaysia In­cen­tive’s (FIMI) 30% cash re­bate on Qual­i­fy­ing Malaysian Pro­duc­tion Ex­pen­di­ture (QMPE) was also crit­i­cal in get­ting the film made in Sarawak.

“This will be two big his­toric firsts for Malaysian film. It’s the first time that the re­bate has been used to make a Hol­ly­wood movie out­side of Penin­sula Malaysia,” said Al­lyn. “And most im­por­tantly, it’s also the first big Hol­ly­wood movie ever made in Malaysia about a story in Malaysian his­tory.”


Al­lyn wrote the screen­play for White Ra­jah based on Brooke’s diaries and let­ters and the ar­chives of the Brooke Heritage Trust. — SHAARI CHEMAT/The Star

A por­trait of James Brooke, taken from the book Gallery Of His­tor­i­cal Por­traits. — Hand­out

A paint­ing of one of Brooke’s bat­tles against pi­rates in Sarawak. — Hand­out

(From left) Ja­son Brooke, Bo­drov, and Al­lyn vis­it­ing po­ten­tial set lo­ca­tions up the Sarawak River. — ROB AL­LYN

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