‘Shantaram’: Thai Crew on Apple TV Plus Series Calls for Restart to COVID-Hit Production

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An open letter from members of the Thai crew working on Apple TV Plus series “Shantaram” has called on the government to allow production to restart.

They accuse the Thai government of hypocritically promoting the country as a destination for runaway productions, all while shutting down the big-budget “Shantaram,” which is produced by Paramount Television and Anonymous Content for Apple TV Plus. The group also claims the government is ignoring its own COVID-safe workplace rules, with negative consequences for employment and Thailand’s reputation as a production location.

The 10-part series is based on Gregory David Roberts’ tome about a man on the run from prison in Australia, who flees to India in the hope of disappearing. There he builds a new life in the Mumbai underworld. Alexander Siddig stars opposite Charlie Hunnam.

The long-gestating series began shooting in Australia in early 2020 under Justin Kurzel (“Nitram”), but was shut down due to incomplete scripts and a change in showrunner. At that time, it was envisaged that production would move to India following the mid-year monsoon season.

Instead, with a COVID surge ravaging India, a further production stint took place in Melbourne, Australia, before the show moved in July 2021 to Thailand, which served as a stand-in for India. Several millions of dollars are understood to have been spent on sets at studios on the outskirts of Bangkok which are intended for the show’s Mumbai scenes.

Production is understood to have gotten underway on July 14, but after barely a week, it was shut down on the orders of the Thailand Film Office, a department attached to the national government.

Other sources, have told Variety that the Thailand Film Office does not have sufficient power to shut down an ongoing production.

The Thailand Film Office has subsequently issued a statement saying that the decision was taken by Samutphrakan Public Health Office. The local health office would have seen its role as interpreting the position of the national COVID response team, which is under the prime minister’s office.

Paramount Television, Apple TV, and Charles Salmon’s local production services firm Thai Occidental Production (“The Railway Man,” “The Darkest Hour”) have not responded to Variety’s enquiries.

Thailand is currently suffering a third wave of the coronavirus outbreak, with the highest number of cases recorded in Bangkok and neighboring provinces, and still disturbingly low levels of vaccination. The Bangkok city government has responded by ordering another quasi-lockdown, complete with a 9pm curfew and border controls between the metropolitan area and outlying provinces.

The anonymous authors of the open letter say that the series’ disease protocols have made the set safer than the rest of the city, and that the shutdown order is illogical and counter-productive.

“The COVID safety procedures on ‘Shantaram’ have been an example to the world of how a film set can operate safely and efficiently. ‘Shantaram’ employs a world-respected COVID expert to look after safety, who has been making over 1,000 COVID tests a day. Local and international actors are kept in quarantine for the period of their work. Numbers on set are very limited. Social distancing is enforced. Vans can only carry two people. Coaches only carry six people. With such total thoughts to safety, being on set on ‘Shantaram’ is one of the safest places in the world if one wants to avoid COVID,” the letter said.

The international expert referred to is understood to be Chris Gibson, an Australian flight paramedic, author of “Rescue, Expedition & Disaster Medicine” and a lecturer on disease control in industrial settings.

The letter explains how Thailand had offered “Shantaram” a 5% production spending rebate in order to secure the shoot. Financial incentives are offered by many countries which count on runaway productions to create employment, improve skills and act as a marketing tool.

“[The] series produced by Paramount Studios has a budget of over $100 million, will be streamed to audiences around the world, and requires a crew of over 500, not including hundreds of actors and extras. And it fills hotels, uses catering people, employs drivers, and rents a big amount of equipment,” the authors explain. A shutdown, they say, may lead to longer term damage.

“We are being shut for two weeks. But already all teams are cut. Almost all crews are being sent home,” the authors told Variety by email. “If the Thailand Film Office does not change their mind, we all have no jobs.”

The letter deals an embarrassing blow to Thailand, as it comes only two weeks after Anan Wongbenjarat, the Director-General of the country’s Department of Tourism, appeared at an online seminar at the Cannes Film Festival to tell the world “this is a very good time for big production” in Thailand.