vietnam fixer

Vietnam fixer – pre-production

In the post below, Vietnam Filming Fixer would share with you our general experiences working as fixers in Vietnam for pre-production period. For production period, please read here.

Through this, you may learn how filming/journaling in Vietnam may differ with other countries. At the same time, we would share our point of view about how a working relationship between journalist/film crew (our Clients) with us (fixers) should work, and what we can do to make things better and easier.

I. Definition:

Fixer, or location manager, sometime is called local producer is the person who help international journalists/film crew to facilitate media/filming activity in a country which the journalists/film crew are unfamiliar with, but the fixer is familiar with.

Fixer isn’t a tour guide nor business interpreter, but play role of both tour guide and business interpreter and more than that. Fixer need to be able to see things from filming/reporting perspectives. For any request/inquiry, the 1st question fixer need to ask himself/herself is “Is this doable for filming/journaling? And how to make it doable for filming/journaling?”

Thus, a tour guide or business interpreter may not able to do the job of a fixer.

In a filming trip, if things go alright, it looks like film fixer has a lot of free time. However, if there is a problem, then film fixer need to ‘fix’ it, and even fix many problems at the same time and in a short time, it’s based on skills and experiences which tour guide/ business interpreter may not have.

The role and work of a fixer, specially Vietnam fixer will be demonstrated as below:

II. Initial contact – getting to know what does the potential Client want:

If the Client and the Vietnam fixer never worked with each other before, then this is a critical stage decide their working relationship. The Client need to share with the Vietnam fixer what do they want to do, what do they want to accomplished, where and when (schedule). Then the fixer may make a lot of questions to verify and to understand things better, to get the most clear picture of what the Client wants, what they already have/know, and what do they need/lack of.

The discussions may process a lot via email, then may transfer to Skype/Whatsapp call for faster communication. Here, the Client and Vietnam fixer could have the chance to get to know if they can understand each other verbally. And in my opinion, Client and fixer should have at least 2 channels of communication and shouldn’t depend on one channel only, since what if one day the email doesn’t come through, we should have another channel to follow up.

By the end of this stage, Vietnam fixer need to be able to provide Client information of:

+ if he/she can do this project (availability, ability)

+ a rough costs idea for: fixer service, visa, permit (if needed), transportation, and others if Client request (equipment, extra crew, accommodation, food …) Normally accommodation isn’t needed due to Client can book online, but there are some locations too remote which Client can’t find any accommodation online. Same with food, normally this isn’t needed to prepare in advance, but sometimes we may film in too remote location or crew has a special diet.

+ what need to be done, what’re next steps

Then the working process would move to the 2nd stage which is: research, preparation and scouting (if needed)

There is usually not any statement of ending a stage and moving to a new stage. I categorize stages here for easier understanding based on my own opinions. However, in short, the purpose of the 1st stage is to see if the Client and Vietnam fixer are a good match to work with each other based on many factors: is the project doable? Are the prices within Client’s budget? Can Client and Vietnam fixer work well with each other? (based on responsiveness, clarity of information …)

Depend on each project, this first stage could take even few months. Sometime Client contacted Vietnam fixer to ask for a rough cost then “disappear”, only come back after few months after they’re done with budgeting and the crew is ready.

III. Research, preparation and scouting (if needed):

Continue the work from the 1st stage, a lot of things need to be done to make things ready before Client arrives.

– Visa

– Transportation, accommodation for the crew, and for the fixer if the fixer isn’t based at the location where filming activities happen.

– Schedule for each day, which one should be done first, which one should be done last. Traveling time from one location to the other. And if there is interviewing, then Client and fixer need to work together to find interviewees, convince them to answer the interview, send them content and interview questions and making appointment. If the interviewee doesn’t speak Client’s language, then most of the job would belong to fixer to find, convince, translate interview questions, making appointment, and answering question interviewees may have.

– Other preparation if needed: permit, extra crew, equipment rental …

– Revised cost calculation as things are clearer now

– AND there might be contract signing, or if not, at least an agreement of how things should work, include unexpected circumstances (crew can’t come, natural disaster, fixer can’t work but have replacement …)

Above are summarization of steps at pre-production, below I would list problems may happen at pre-production.

IV. Problems may happen at pre-production:

Understanding the project:

It’s not always easy, given the distance, and the fact that the people we discuss with sometimes are different with people who are actually coming. Or if the Client don’t express themselves well, or don’t answer the questions thoroughly. Or if the Client still doesn’t have a clear idea of what they really want to do (in this case, we would just pump ideas to Client). Or if the Client has a limited understanding about Vietnam (in this case, we would just provide Client more information/understanding)

Mindset differences, value differences:

If this happen, then most likely Client and fixer won’t be able to work with each other. It could be the fixer feel that that story shouldn’t be reported, or if that story shouldn’t be reported that way (in a way which is not the whole truth or doesn’t do any good for anyone). Though, by the end of the day, it’s not our story, and if we only run after money, then we should work with the Client anyway. But if it is to the extend we couldn’t agree with, then then collaboration may not happen. At the same time, we understand that:

+ reporters sometimes just need to do their job of reporting, and need not to be controlled by emotions.

+ filmmakers want/need to make film which are marketable for a specific group of people (their audiences, their Client, their investor …). So the story selected, or the aspect of the story being selected to be told, might not be the whole truth, but just the aspect the Client wants to tell or the audiences want to hear. The story becomes a commercial value. And this is hard to judge, since filmmaker need to be able to earn money to continue filming and living, and they only can earn money if they can sell the film.

However, if values are too conflicting, then both sides shouldn’t work with each other at all.

Client’s expectation is too high:

It could happen that Client’s expectation for a story is too high which is very hard to achieve what they want to film. It could be the story they want to tell isn’t realistic, or the content they want to interview is too wide and too deep, it would need three different people to answer instead of one person.

Cultural difference, social practice difference:

Here is an example: Journalist/filmmaker may want easy access to film/free filming/free interviewing and they may not agree/entertain with the idea that they have to pay for to be able to film/interview (beside permit fee, entrance fee …). The reasons lay on 2 folds:

First: they think that they’re a big channel and famous. And even if they’re not a big channel or famous, then they help promoting the business/Vietnam tourism, or the one who is filmed get free advertising

Second: they don’t want to “buy” the answers, they want the answers to come authentically, not the one bought by money. Some companies have a clear policy of they can pay for food/drink/expenses for the filming to happen, but not any compensation for the interviewee, which I totally understand.

(Sometime it may be conflicting that they don’t want to buy the answer, but want the answer to have certain contents)

However, for the people who are targeted to be interviewed/filmed, they don’t think the same thing. If they’re willing to participate for free, the reasons mostly belong to these:

– appearing on TV would increase their reputation, which benefit their career/help to promote their business

– they enjoy to share their knowledge/experience, and feel good to be known

– they enjoy the experience, considering it’s a chance for them to practice, or consider it’s a chance for something bigger.

However, there are also people who don’t see any benefits of participating:

– they don’t care if you are a big name and if you can help them to reach millions of viewers

– there isn’t data yet about how appearing on TV/film could help place owners increasing sales/having more visitors/customers

– not all the time we would film about their place directly, we may just borrow the scene there, and occupy lots of space, and need them to be quiet for us to film, which would affect their business.

– for some place owners, they just don’t want to appear on TV, no matter if it could help them to increase sale. Or some may say that they’re satisfied with the sale they currently have, if there is more, they would need to work harder or even couldn’t meet the demand.

– for others such as: farmers, workers, vendors, manual labors … appearing on TV isn’t helpful for them in any sense

Thus, what Vietnam fixer can do is:

– to find people who are willing to let crew film/interview for free

– to convince people that answering the interview worth their time or somehow contribute to the goodness of society and/or themselves

At the same time, Vietnam fixer thinks that: for a short filming/short interviewing, and with people who we just randomly meet, or we come to their place, they don’t have to travel to meet us, then no compensation is okay. But for longer filming/interviewing (1-2 hours, half day, full day …) then even if they don’t ask, it would be nice to give them at least a small compensation, or if we film/interview a group of people, and there isn’t budget to give them individually, then we could invite them for a meal. Imagine that they need to off from their work, and may even need to commute to a location for filming. And in many cases, the film crew need the interviewee more than the interviewee need the film crew. It’s worth considering. Sometime it’s not that they need the money, it’s that we express our appreciation for their time and effort. There is one case I know that the film crew gave her a small compensation for her time, but it’s not yet even enough for her to pay for her transportation.

We don’t know how much our Clients know:

Sometime we don’t know how much you already know about Vietnam, and what you already know are solid knowledge/understanding or just on surface level of something you’ve read online. We could help Clients to gain more knowledge about Vietnam, we just don’t know what you’re really lack of, and if it would be offending if we assume that you don’t know something and start to telling you what you already know. And the incorrect understanding would lead to incorrect planning …

(But of course, there were cases which Client knew thing we didn’t know/read before)

Client trusts Google more than local fixer’s knowledge:

This didn’t happen a lot to us, but sometimes when Client isn’t clear about something, Client comes to search on Google rather than asking fixer. Or Client does planning based on Google maps, and Google maps isn’t always correct or updated with situation. For example, if a road is under-renovation then travelling time would take longer than Google maps say, or if a bridge is broken, and vehicles need to take another route which is further, not all the time Google maps is updated with it.

We don’t know how much should we ‘involve’ in the project:

Theoretically speaking, we should involve in the project with all our mind and heart and capabilities. At the same time, we don’t know if Client would think we are doing too much of their job and seem to be “taking over” their project. In the process, we try to find a border line of trying our best to help the Client, at the same time giving them respects and let them make important decision.

Other issues:

+ Client seems to not read email or not remembering what have been discussed.

+ Too much parties/people are involved into the preparation, discussion and fixer sometimes not being informed what is the result. Or sometime it’s not clear who is the final decision maker.

So it would be great if these issues would be fixed when working together, and please let us know if you have problems working with previous fixers which you want to avoid!

(Please contact me via if you need a better example of anything I’ve said above)

V. Vietnam fixer’s role:

Beside regular roles of logistic (permit, transportation, interpretation …):

+ Giving Clients information, knowledge they didn’t know about Vietnam

+ Giving Clients recommendation about stories they can do, what else they can film, what do they need to be aware of.

Example 1: in the planning, a Client wants to film at Sapa on February, but Vietnam fixer know that it would be mostly foggy all the time at Sapa on Feb, no one couldn’t barely see anything, then Vietnam fixer should tell Client that. Or if Client wants to film at a particular location, but fixer knows that that location is closed, then fixer should let Client knows.

Example 2: most of the time Client can check traveling time by Google maps (with assumption that Google maps is correct). However, if there is any part of traveling, crew need to pass by ferry, then Google maps usually doesn’t calculate this. Then, at this point, Vietnam fixer’s knowledge is needed to tell Client: how long does it take to travel by ferry, how frequent the ferry is, the earliest and latest ferry in a day.

+ Giving Clients recommendation about how to communicate with local people/authority/interviewees culturally speaking.

It could be telling Clients to rephrase the questions (to interviewee) in certain way to show more respects, or make questions clearer in meaning

+ Giving Clients recommendation about what do they need to prepare:

It could be which clothes to bring based in weather, to exchange money, to buy sim card …

+ Finding suitable interviewees

Due to language barrier, journalist/documentarian not all the time can find interviewees on their own. Even if language isn’t a problem, then they may not know how to contact a person, for example: politician, high-ranking people … You may see them online a lot but don’t know how to approach them, and even if you have a way to approach them, then you may not be able to convince them. But a local Vietnam fixer has the know-how to do that.

Sometime we also can’t call them being ‘fixer’.

First, there is not yet equivalent of ‘fixer’ term in Vietnamese. 2nd, even for English-speaking people, if they aren’t in media industry, they may not know/understand the term ‘fixer’ at all. And for high-ranking people, even if they know what fixer is, they may not care. Fixer isn’t important enough for them to respond.

As fixer in Vietnam, in that case, we would need to ask help from Foreign Press Center to send an official letter to their office to ask. By government-to-government request, it works differently.

+ Assure and convince interviewees:

Not all interviewees feeling comfortable appearing in front of the camera. They also might be suspicious if the media people are trustworthy, if it’s okay to answer those questions politically speaking, if answering the interview wouldn’t affect themselves in the negative way, if the content of their answers would be kept original or being edited (specially not all the time we have the chance to watch what we’ve filmed, as Vietnamese fixers/interviewees)

Thus, Vietnam fixer need to assure and convince them, based on truth.

If they’re being embarrassed that people they know would see them on TV, then we may tell them this video would be only published abroad.

If they’re suspicious about the film crew, and if they’re technological people (know how to use internet), then I would send them Client’s company website, Client’s LinkedIn and would say something like “this person has 5 recommendations on her LinkedIn, so I believe she would do what she says”

If they’re doubt about if the questions are okay to answer politically speaking, then we would show them that the filming is approved.

+ Follow up with interviewees:

 remind them about the planned schedule, inform them if there is change in planning.

A lot of time it happens that the preparation happens long time before crew arrive, thus follow up and remind interviewees who agreed with filming is necessary to let them know that we still need them and want them to participate, and to make them remember to spare the time for us or prepare for us.

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