Jagged limestone cliffs trace the bay of Phang Nga in southern Thailand, one and a half hours north of the popular resort beaches of Phuket. Offshore, the islands that were featured in the 007 thriller The Man With the Golden Gun rise from the sapphire Andaman Sea like inverted mountains, attracting hundreds of package tourists each afternoon. But the hamlet of Phang Nga (pop. 9,000) draws little scrutiny except during its annual vegetarian festival — a frenzied Taoist celebration at which tranced-out participants pierce their cheeks with spears, daggers, and sharpened tree branches.
Locals claim that the festival emulates the penance performed by a Chinese acting troupe 150 years ago. Shooting just up the road from Phang Nga, the visiting troops of Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth didn’t participate in the so-called Taoist Lent. But the production, the first major American movie to examine the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective, may have its own spirits to appease.
“We run a three-ring circus here,” says writer-director Stone as crew members adjust the lighting for a night scene. It’s December, and Stone’s third attempt to grapple with the war has brought him to Phang Nga to film an adaptation of Le Ly Hayslip’s critically acclaimed memoirs When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1989) and Child of War, Woman of Peace (1993). The books recount Hayslip’s harrowing adolescence in central Vietnam during the war and her equally devastating adulthood in Southern California. Although Heaven’s perspective, which is both foreign and female, takes Stone into alien territory, the film also marks his return to the subject that won him two Best Director Oscars (for 1986’s Platoon and 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July). Warner Bros. will start beating the drums for a third trophy with Heaven’s limited opening on Christmas Day, building word of mouth for its wide release in January.
The set over which Stone presides is a testament to art direction and Hollywood dollars. In the shadow of twisted rock formations, dozens of new structures have been built to re-create the Vietnamese village of Ky La. Hundreds of Thai extras — and the rare Timberland — shod Westerner barking into a walkie-talkie — mill about the muddy village. Knee-deep in 160 acres of rice paddy, obsidian water buffalo chomp their cud. Nearby, jeeps roar across a replica of the U.S. Army base whose forces once leveled half of Ky La in order to clear a field of fire against the Vietcong.
Three frantic crews operate at once across Stone’s epic simulation, and they have had to contend with more than the typical aggravations. An unusually late monsoon season delayed filming for three weeks, costing “a bundle,” Stone says. Snakebites, broken bones, viruses, and sheer exhaustion caused by Phang Nga’s tropical swelter have further hampered the seven-week location shoot. Five months before principal photography began in October 1992, the region’s mediocre rice crop meant that the production had to create the lush look Stone wanted by transplanting what he calls “super rice.” “We made it greener,” boasts the director. “We fertilized the shit out of it.”