On location in Mongolia with Orgil Makhaan, the founder and president of the Mongolian National Film Commission
TLG speaks to Orgil Makhaan, president of the Mongolian National Film Commission about Mongolia's production sector, locations and the new 30% filming incentive.
Firstly about you Please tell us about you, your career path and how you founded the Mongolia National Film Commission?
I loved watching films since I was a little child. When I was about fifteen or sixteen, I watched an American Action/Drama film and it’s like I had this sudden strike of realization that I wanted to become an actor when I grew up.
I spent my whole childhood in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I graduated high school and majored in German language at the University of Foreign Languages. One day, I had a chance to meet an American university professor who was working on the first exchange programs between the countries. At the time, not many people could have had the chance to travel. So, it was quite unbelievable. But I met this man, whose name was Malan Jackson, and it was true. In 1997, I came to the States and got into college. Then in 1999, I enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles, majoring in acting.
My career path as an actor started when I was still a student at AADA. I starred in some Mongolian films in 2000. After graduating the AADA as an actor in 2001, I established “Makhaan Pictures” LLC. Since then, I’ve worked as a producer for Discovery Channel’s Synk or Swim, Trans World Sport TV regarding Mongolian national sports, and worked on an Action/Drama, Kill the Victim, as the executive producer and the main star. In 2005, I was cast as the main character of Genghis Khan for BBC’s documentary of the same name, the main role of Jamukha in By the Will of Genghis Khan made by the Yakuts in 2007, and featured in supporting roles for Channel One Russia’s Undefeatable and Desantura feature films in 2008.
I took a break from my acting career and from 2012-2014 I became an advisor, then later the Director, of the Cultural department at the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. We co-produced two feature films, Remote Control and Yellow Colt. Both films were presented at the Busan International Film Festival in 2013 and Remote Control won the “New Currents Award” for the very first time in the history of Mongolian filmmaking.
In 2014, Mongolian ethnic band Khusugtun was the runner-up in Asia’s Got Talent which I worked on as the producer.
Through 2014-2016, I was the Mongolian service producer for Netflix TV series, Marco Polo. We sent over 70 Mongolian artists for stunts, extras, wrestlers, throat and traditional Mongolian long-singing, etc. It was a world class show with cast and crew from all around the world. The fact that the story was based on Mongolian history but it did not film any of the scenes in Mongolia is what made me build the first steps of the Mongolian National Film Commission. We were in need of an organization that supported the film industry in all of its legal, infrastructure, artistic, and international aspects.
In 2017, I became a film advisor to the President of Mongolia and established the Mongolian National Film Commission. Today, MNFC is the official member of Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI) and Asian Film Commissions Network (AFCNet).
What does your role as president involve and what do you enjoy most about the job?
As the President, I work supervising the film industry matters such as the infrastructure, the legal environment, finance, and foreign & local relations. I am also a member of the Government’s working group committee regarding film law. It has gone through the two stages of Parliamentary discussion and the laws have been passed last week with tax incentives of 30% for a spending of $500,000 or more. Foreign production teams will also be granted a visa for a three month stay. It will be effective starting from January 1st, 2022 which I am enjoying the most about my job right now. Our commission is an official member of AFCI and AFCNet, so I am always aware and informed about weekly news on online platforms from our fellow members.
I love everything I do, because I fell in love with filmmaking and films since I was a child and my job today involves developing the Mongolian film industry to compete with the rest of the world but also to attract foreign productions to film in the beautiful lands of Mongolia that can be transformed into any place throughout the globe.
On location in Mongolia
What can you tell us about Mongolia as a location filming destination?
At the heart of the world and centre of Asia, Mongolia has a tremendous history, culture, and eccentric wildlife and nature that can all be captured as anywhere in the world. Our land varies from steppes and plains of grasslands of hundreds of kilometres to forests, Gobi deserts, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, rocky everlasting snow mountains, you name it, we have it all.
We have crew and production team members that are available at our disposal at any given time. There are several building projects of sound stages and film studios that will hopefully finish by 2022-2023. The legal environment for the film industry has just passed its laws of 30% tax incentives and granting of visas of three months for foreign production crew and cast which will be effective from January, 2022 as mentioned above. The Government supports our work greatly and is keen to provide armies, facilities, soldiers, livestock, and other needed equipment and materials cost effectively.
Our film commission works to provide the best possibilities and experiences for foreign productions, so we eagerly want to welcome anyone to come film in the beautiful lands of Mongolia and see how extraordinary it is for yourself!
What foreign productions have filmed in Mongolia in the past 5 years?
There were all kinds of filming made in Mongolia for the past 5 years. Many short films, documentaries, feature films, music videos, etc. I will name some popular ones that many people may be familiar with:
- Inside the Rugged Lives of Mongolia’s Nomads, a short film, was made by National Geographic’s filmmaker Brandon Li in 2016
- The famous The Eagle Huntress documentary was made in 2016, directed by Otto Bell (Kissaki Films Stacey Reiss Productions Shine Global)
- All the Wild Horses documentary about the Mongol Derby race was made in 2017 and directed by Ivo Marloh (Produced by 3 rd -I Films)
- HYUKOH, a popular South Korean indie band’s Wanli MV was filmed in 2017 (Produced by GDW, Director Woogie Kim)
- French Drama about shamans, A Bigger World was made in 2019 (Sphere Media, directed by Fabienne Berthaud, and stars Cécile de France)
- From 2019-2020, Korean Drama Crash Landing on You was filmed in Mongolia as it was a big success across Asia (production companies: Studio Dragon and Culture Depot, directed by Lee Jung-Hyo)
- Gateway to the West is a Hungarian-Mongolian, British co-production feature film that will start filming in 2022 in Mongolia
What locations are most commonly used by foreign film and TV productions when they come and film in Mongolia?
Mongolia has vast grasslands, mountains, rivers, lakes, deserts, and forests all around and very close from the city which makes it easier for us to travel a close distance and film the needed scenes. The scenic views of these locations can easily double for backgrounds in films like Transformers, Game of Thrones, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, etc.
For specific scenes, the Gobi is a popular destination. It is the largest in Asia and fifth in the world. It stretches from Southern Mongolia to some parts of China about 1,300,000 km.
The capital city, Ulaanbaatar is also popular as it can be seen as a metropolitan area with modern skyscrapers in the centre of the city but also the ger (Mongolian traditional yurt home) districts around it are not found elsewhere in the world and action scenes like car chases from the “Fast and Furious” can be filmed here.
Mongolia has many buildings and areas that can appear as similar countries like North Korea, Vietnam, or China. The famous Korean Drama, Crash Landing on You, filmed some of its North Korean scenes in Mongolia.
What are some of the most unusual locations that Mongolia has to offer that our audience would not necessarily associate with your country?
Our audience may have very little idea of what kind of places exist in Mongolia. It is vast and impossible to explain every detail and beauty of what exists here. We have numerous monuments and sacred places located all in beautiful landscapes across the country which may be unexpected.
Some other fascinating locations include Khustain Nuruu National Park with grasslands and much wildlife, including the Takhi (Przewalski’s horse), the Red Waterfall (Ulaan Tsutgalan) which falls from 24 m lava cliffs among volcanic rocks located in Orkhon valley in Uvurkhangai province, the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park is an everlasting snowy mountain massif near the triple borders of Russia and China located in Bayan-Ulgii province (the highest peak is the highest point of Mongolia, 4374 m above sea level). It also has a Milk river from glaciers and waterfalls.
Although Mongolia is the world’s largest landlocked country, we have many rivers and lakes. The largest saline lake is the Uvs lake in Uvs province (3,350 km2) and Khuvsgul lake is the largest freshwater lake (2,760 km2) in Khuvsgul province which is also an area known for its native Dukhans, reindeer herders, who live in the Taiga. Our Gobi deserts have countless places to see which include the Flaming Cliffs in Umnugovi province (sand cliffs where many dinosaur fossils were found), the White Stupa in Dundgovi province which used to be the bottom of the Asiatic sea that created the picturesque cliffs more than 90 million years ago, the Yoliin Am canyons (named from the bearded eagle “Yol”) is a deep and narrow canyon in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains, Southern Mongolia. It has an ice valley at the bottom of the rocks which transforms into a stream of water during the summer.
Huisiin 8 Nuur (Eight Lakes), a formation of eight lakes from volcanic eruptions from centuries ago is located in a high mountainous area, 2400 meters above sea level. It is a protected National Park with scenic forests of conifers and meadows all around it. Unlike other countries, the land here in Mongolia are filled with historical stories and possible new discoveries which makes it a mysterious land even to us.
What locations worldwide can Mongolia easily double for?
The Mongolian Gobi Desert can easily double for any deserts around the world. In fact, our Gobi is the largest in Asia which means many places cannot double for the sand dunes we have here. Movies that were filmed in deserts like Mad Max and The Mummy could easily be filmed here in Mongolia. Films like The Martian and the TV show Westworld could also be filmed here as the Flaming Cliffs and White Stupa are scenic desert locations. The Red Waterfall is a single drop waterfall which can easily double for similar ones in Costa Rica, Bali, Brazil, the United States, Marrakech, etc.
Khyargas and Uvs lakes in Uvs province are surrounded by scenic white rocks and mountains which is rare around the world. The Khuvsgul lake is surrounded by forests and has four small islands which are covered separately by forests, shells (this island is home to seagulls), and scenic nature. The area of Khuvsgul lake can be doubled as any sea or area that has lakes with forests like the Alouette Lake in Canada which was filmed for the teen drama, TV series Riverdale, many other similar lakes in British Columbia and Alberta, lakes in New Zealand, Lake Baikal in Russia, etc.
Our grasslands and steppes with cattle and livestock can be doubled for farms, Canadian prairies, areas in Utah, the Columbian Plateau, Oregon, Idaho, the Great Plains, New Mexico, and similar regions in Australia, China, and India. The Flaming Cliffs, White Stupa, and other rocky desert areas can be doubled for the Grand Canyon and areas with similar scenes.
What are the advantages of filming in Mongolia?
The advantages of filming in Mongolia are that costs of spending will be cheaper than spending in the States or Europe. Film law is effective January 1st , 2022 which permits special visas for international production crew for a 3 month stay and incentives of 30% for a spending of $500,000 or more. Our commission works closely with the Government as they fully support us and keen to provide any needed permissions for police departments, roads, any needed equipment, and materials cost effectively.
Another benefit of filming in Mongolia is that our culture is very high-context and collectivist which means that we prioritize interpersonal relationships and we are very other-oriented so our cast, crew, and local people are all welcoming to give any visitors a one in a lifetime experience and life-long friendship.
What has been your most difficult film location assignment or request to date and why?
Working on the Action/Drama Kill the Witness was the most challenging simply because it was filmed almost 20 years ago. From our recent works, there weren’t any challenges as production work is successful.
Are there any particular tips that you would like to share with our readers about filming in Mongolia?
When coming to film in Mongolia, it’s always best to double check needed equipment. There are many rental places for camera and equipment but we suggest productions to bring their own specific cameras and lenses along with their accessories as some of them may be difficult to find here. On the other hand, the different and special equipment and accessories can be rented out from China for affordable price as it is only a 2-hour flight from Mongolia.
What would you recommend foreign film crews and cast do, to have fun and relax on down days or pre / post filming in Mongolia?
On free days, our team is happy to take everyone out for dinner or lunch at nice restaurants of any kind. There are delicious Mexican, local Mongolian, Mediterranean, Korean, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and many more international cuisines all around the city. The night life is vibrant with famous Jazz clubs, nightclubs, and lounges. Numerous shopping centres, malls, and sports centres surround the city centre. There are many historical museums, beautiful Drama and Ballet Theatres
The enormous Chinggis Khaan statue in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is a close destination from the city as it is surrounded by luxurious camps, horse & camel riding, archery, zip-lining, go-carts, and monasteries. The Khustai Mountains Camp is also a quick trip to sightsee the beautiful nature and wildlife. Quick travels can be made to scenic areas with many ger camps.
It is truly an eye-opening and astonishing experience for foreigners to come to Mongolia because so many unexpected things exist here. Our arms are always wide open to welcome guests, so book a flight and send us a message as we will give you and your team an unforgettable experience! Many thanks for having us in this wonderful interview and I wish you all the best of luck.
Thank you. It has been great talking to you Orgil and finding out what makes Mongolia such a great location filming destination.
Image Credits: Erdenebulgan Photography
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