Scouting in Sri lanka: lush tropics, colonial architecture and buzzing Asian metropolises
In early November the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau invited six British location managers on a familiarisation trip to Sri Lanka. I joined David Pinnington (Guardians of the Galaxy, Game of Thrones), Eduardo Rodriguez (Ready Player One, Black Mirror), Ben Macgregor (Blitz, RocknRolla), Martin Walker (The Fitzroy, Ill Manors) , Mick Ratman (The Flag, Welcome to Sarajevo) and Algy Sloane (Londoners, Driving Lessons) to document the trip for The Location Guide.
When thirteenth century merchant traveller Marco Polo wrote of his visit to the island, he characterised the place as “for its size, better circumstanced than any island in the world”. Undoubtedly, he was referring to the island’s wealth of natural resources, wide-ranging landscapes and diverse ecosystems but in many ways, if Polo were a modern-day producer, he might be even more taken. Measuring 65,000 km2, the island may be small, but has the potential to double for much of South Asia, and more.
Our six-day itinerary concentrated on the South West and central portion of the island, where we saw colonial facades tucked between developing modern cities, diverse tropical landscapes and golden sandy beaches.
Sri Lanka’s natural beauty has inspired a range of international blockbusters, starting with filming for David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984 and, more recently, 1997’s The Second Jungle Book. However, the destruction of the 2004 tsunami in tandem with the long running civil war, which ended in 2009, dampened international interest in production in the country. Nevertheless?, over the last ten years Sri Lanka has built itself up to a position where it could once again facilitate international production to the standard international producers expect. As a testament to this, ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital has now filmed three series in Sri Lanka, doubling for its Southern India. The great news for producers and directors is that not only is the island an untapped gold mine in terms of locations, but production is affordable too.
After the ten-hour flight from London, a reviving stroll through the capital city was exactly what we needed, and the perfect way to get a feel for the place. We made our way through the fort area's colonial buildings and noticed the surprising number of towering skyscrapers. Algy Sloane, who lived and worked in Sri Lanka from 2013 to 2014 noted the rapid development that has taken place in the last five years. From a location standpoint, he intimated that such rapid change 'does bring an extra spice to having colonial period properties and the new modern world of skyscraper construction'. As dusk fell we ventured into Pettah Market (pictured below), where hectic streets and winding back alleys lead to The Red Mosque, a distinct red and white candy striped building and the Islamic style turrets stand out from the more dilapidated market fronts.
The next morning, our first stop was Colombo Port, what would become a standout location from the trip. Because of the island’s prime position in the Indian Ocean, the port is busy and impressive in scale. Just a short drive from the centre of the city, the port looms large and both its size and set-up lends itself to large productions. David Pinnington explained that because its “set in large areas of open space” the Port would provide”easy wide shots with a cityscape background in some views”. In terms of the type of productions that could be drawn to shoot here, the “landscapes of quayside cranes and docked ships give plenty of options”, and “nearby container storage facilities, and a seemingly infinite waterside harbour wall with adjacent road and lighthouse, as well as the ability to shoot driving shots in and around the Port all add to its attraction”. Eduardo Rodriguez added that the waterside harbour road’s ample room could be rented as a base while filming in the capital, and its tight security and ability to be locked off was an added advantage.
We spent the afternoon far removed from the industrial area of Colombo at The Mount Lavinia Hotel (pictured), the former residence of the Governor General which has been converted into a large colonial heritage hotel. A romantic founding fable, about a forbidden love between the governor and a local dancer has inspired a number of documentaries to shoot at the hotel, but the colonial grandeur of the hotel could inspire a range of productions. The general’s living quarters have been preserved with their original wooden furnishings, and many of the hotel’s rooms retain the style which would be easy to transform into period settings.
If you are coming to Sri Lanka in search of tropical backdrops you should make your way inland. The next morning, we took a two-hour train ride from Colombo to Kandy, a city in the centre of Sri Lanka.
Winding away from Colombo the lush and dense jungle quickly unfolded before our eyes. Ben Macgregor argues that ‘the preferable mode of transport would obviously be by train. They adhere to the timetable and views are spectacular” adding there are some routes “offer dynamic views of plantations as they pass under waterfalls”. Moreover, trains or carriages can be rented for filming.
Kandy is a gateway city, from which you can access a diverse range of landscapes. Sitting on a plateau, it has slightly cooler temperatures year-round. For tourists, the main draw of the city is it’s Buddhist sites and temples, the Temple of the Tooth being the most famous. However, on the whole Buddhist sites do not permit commercial filming so we only made a quick stop in the city. What we did find here, only five minutes from the train station was a two-storey market centred around a courtyard less busy than Colombo’s Pettah Market (pictured below) and, further on, a large tranquil lake (pictured below) which stands next to the entrance to the Temple of the Tooth.
The city also has a large prison (pictured below), which closed operations in 2014 and is available for filming. Shyaman Premasundra, producer and director at Frames TV & Film Production Services clarifies, "The Bogambura Prison was a 13-acre maximum security prison and second largest prison in Sri Lanka built in 1876 by the British Ceylon Government" adding that it is "an ideal film set and unexposed to the film industry". Shayaman continues, the prison is unique in Sri Lanka, and "is known to have the longest foundation in all of Asia, and some say that it resembles the shape of the Bastille fortress in France".
(Bogambura Prison images provided by Shyaman Premasundra, Frames TV & Film Services for location guide use only)
From Kandy, we made our way northwards to the Minneriya National Park. Famed for its wildlife, Sri Lanka’s numerous national parks protect large numbers of species including leopards, bears, monkeys and various native and migratory birds. Different parks are hotspots for particular species and numbers vary depending on the time of year, so research is key. Minneriya is one of the smallest, stretching just over thirty square miles and the thick scrubland is home to herds of Asian elephants who gather around the man-made reservoir in the middle of the park. During the dry season the spectacle is even more impressive as herds of up to 300 are known to gather at once.
The next day would confirm the diversity of Sri Lanka’s natural locations within reach of each other. Around a four-hour drive towards Kandy took us into the Knuckles Forest Reserve where the landscape dramatically changes. Here, we stopped at Pitawala Patana, or ‘Mini World’s End’ (pictured below), where undulating mountain ranges sweep across the large expanse.
With a panorama this grand, the location managers discussed a number of doubling possibilities, from classic South Asian mountain ridges one would expect in India, or Thailand through to Hawaii and even the Isle of Skye. In dry season, the view would be even more captivating, but the moody mist added another layer of atmosphere to the setting. Logistically speaking, the spot sells itself. Not only was the road generally in good condition, but the viewing point is only a short walk from the road and has the kind of space that large shoots require.
We then followed the road as it takes you further into the forest. We then trekked into the forest for about twenty minutes, through an area with smaller waterfalls and cascading rivers (pictured above) before reaching the village of Atanwala. A path to the village leads you through rice paddies that stretch into the surrounding mountains and make for a picturesque backdrop (pictured below). Rodriguez, who had previously worked in Nepal saw a similarity between the landscapes, while others once again noted Sri Lanka’s potential to double for most of South Asia.
On our way back to the hotel we drove Riverston Tea Plantations (pictured below), through one of Sri Lanka’s smaller tea plantations. Even in the dying light of the day, the vibrant green of the tea leaves was unmistakable. Although our itinerary did not allow for a visit to the larger plantations, mainly located in the foothills to the south of Kandy, the spot did provide a taste of what the larger plantations which stretch for miles could provide.
The next day involved an early start for the group as we wanted to visit Sigiriya or ‘Lion’ Rock before the crowds hit. This ancient palace and fortress stands on the top of an imposing rock rising two hundred metres above the surrounding jungle. Established as a place of religious significance early on, King Kashyapa constructed a royal residence here in the fifth century AD. Complete with water gardens in the complex’s grounds, frescos on the rock face and terrace gardens, the spot attracts large numbers of tourists. Despite holding religious and historical significance, filming is allowed here for appropriate material. (Pictured below: Sigariya from approach to mountaintop)
Next on the itinerary was a visit to The Kandalama Hotel (pictured below), built by Geoffrey Bawa, the star Sri Lankan architect credited with inventing the style of “tropical modernism”. Sitting in the middle of the jungle, the hotel both blends in to its environment, using the rock formation in its design and greenery drapes its walls. The infinity pool stretching out into the forest attracts frolicking monkeys and Sigiriya floats in the distance.
Martin Walker could see why the hotel had been used for fashion shoots in the past saying that it’s a “wonderful architectural gem. The use of natural light and materials, with the architect’s eye for lines and symmetry would be stand-out location for any director”. Not yet having attracted any international TV or film shoots, having spoken to the hotel he felt confident that management would be ‘flexible and accommodating to a film crew as well’.
From Kandalama we made one last stop before heading back to Colombo. Although the majority of Buddhist temples do not allow filming, we visited Ridee Viharaya, or Silver Temple, where they do.
The monks were particularly welcoming as they showed us around the site’s various temples and Mick Ratman notes that this was one of the standout locations from the trip for him. A treasure trove for any director, ornate paintings and countless Buddhist statues fill the temples. (Pictured below: Ridee Viharaya Upper Temple)
On our final full day, we made the two-hour trip to Galle, a city to the south west coast where The Good Karma Hospital’s production is centred. The Galle Fort area of the city remains of Dutch, Portuguese and British colonial rule can be seen in the wide streets.
Algy Sloane, who based himself in the city when he worked as a location manager here in 2013 argues that “Galle is the jewel in Sri Lanka crown. Beautiful Colonial period streets mixed with the Asian buzz”. Moreover, “it is set up for productions with hotels and some local crew and a short distance to get further supplies from Colombo”. (Pictured below: Dutch Reformed Church, Galle Lighthouse and Galle Fort Mosque)
In the afternoon, we explored the rest of the city that stretches around a bay and the fish market that stands on the beach. Local fishermen and their boats are strewn across the beach, making for a captivating atmosphere (pictured above).
Further along the coast we visited a couple of beaches with crystal clear water and sandy beaches including the touristy Unawatuna (pictured below), which features on ITV’s Good Karma Hospital, as well as a more secluded lagoon, all located right next to the main road only minutes from the city.
On our last morning in the country, we met with the local production industry. After the meeting Ben Macgregor, said “you will need a fixer, as you will need inside knowledge as well as the correct paper work...we were able to develop relations with the correct parties that are equipped with a sound structural platform of advice and knowledge in order to bring any project to fruition”. Sloane agrees, stating that “I would strongly go with a local team who know the way the country works”.
(Pictured above: Meeting with local industry and our hosts at the Tourism Promotion Bureau of Sri Lanka)
The National Film Corporation of Sri Lanka (NFC) are responsible for issuing permits. The local industry professionals assured us that securing film permits is possible in most circumstances, but it is advisable to leave enough time for these to be properly processed. Working with reputable local production service providers will only make this process smoother. A range of modern equipment is available on the island, but other equipment would be easily sourced from neighbouring India, Thailand or Indonesia and they would be able to arrange this for you.
The most reliable way to connect with trusted local production professionals is to make sure you work with a company verified by the Sri Lankan International Film Producers Association (IFPA), and this information can be found on their website.
(Pictured above: View of Colombo from the Hilton, Colombo)
Another indispensable knowledge a local producer will provide is a working knowledge of the tropical conditions. The island has a complicated weather pattern, and monsoon seasons vary depending on where you are on the island. Moreover, local producers can plan shoots accordingly as rainfall can be predictable, even in monsoon season, with the correct local knowledge. Shyaman Premasundra explains "as a tropical country, even in monsoon time you will not get full day rain unless it’s a storm or irregular weather change. Most of the time its less than one hour, after which there is again good sunlight to shoot but this is not indicated in most of weather reports. This creates lots of fear for foreign teams. With our local experience we analyze and schedule the shoots even in monsoon times.
One last thing we were keen to capture in Colombo was a view of the city from above. Measuring three hundred and fifty metres tall, The Lotus Tower whose distinct green and pink bulb resembling the flower soars over the city seemed like an obvious choice. However, since construction of the telecommunication tower was still underway, we were unable to obtain permission for this. As an alternative, we ascended the Mövenpick hotel (pictured below). Complete with an infinity pool and bar, the modern hotel provided great panoramas of the burgeoning city. A drink at the bar while admiring the sunset was the perfect way to end our trip.
The Location Guide would like to thank The Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau for the hard work of all those involved who made the tour such a great success.
Photographs featured in this article were graciously provided by Ben Macgregor, Location Manager
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I have lived in Sri Ania on and off for 12 years, and have been fortunate to participate in several productions with the help of various production services companies here. They give top service and it is very much worthwhile to shoot here. Value for money, great experience, huge variety of locations and much more.