As performing arts in Vietnam continue to grow, Monica Majors sits down with writer-director Derek Nguyen. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Please tell us about your Vietnamese roots and how they carried you into a profession of screenwriting.
I was born in Saigon during the American War. My family were boat people, refugees who fled to America. I’m now back in Vietnam decades later to make a film called Co Hau Gai (The Housemaid). My Vietnamese roots play prominently in my writing, from characters who are Viet Kieu living in America, to Vietnam being the setting of my films. I’m proud of my Vietnamese-American identity.
In working with children in not-for-profit groups like Apex for Youth, what elements of your own upbringing led you here?
At Apex, I worked primarily with low-income, immigrant Asian youth in NYC. We focussed on mentoring young people in education, self esteem, and social skills. I wish that I had this program when I was a kid because as a racial minority in America, it’s sometimes difficult to navigate life without guidance from peers. Asian-American kids are the most bullied population in America. I wanted to provide that guidance to young people so they could feel good about themselves and have confidence in their everyday lives.
You’ve written plays, shorts and feature films. Do you favour one medium over the other, or do your stories lend themselves to particular audiences?
Many times, the stories dictate the medium for me. I often have to listen to my characters and see where they want to live… and I follow them. I just love to write in all these mediums and feel pretty comfortable working in all of them. I hope that my stories lend themselves to a wide audience. I believe that the more specific you are with your stories, the more universal they become.
Which of your past projects do you find yourself revisiting most?
My play, Monster has a special meaning to me. It was a play that became my first foray into screenwriting. I had submitted the play into the Sundance Theater Lab and when they read it, they encouraged me to write a screenplay adaptation of the play. I did and the project got into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. From there and with Sundance’s support, I started working more in film.
Are there any Vietnamese legends or folklore that have made it into your scripts?
I’m not sure if this is legend or folklore but my film The Housemaid was inspired by a memoir called The Red Earth by Binh Tu Tran. It described the lives of Vietnamese rubber plantation workers during the French Indochinese period. The horrible treatment of these workers reminded me a lot of slavery in the American south. Vietnamese workers were subject to torture, lynchings, and deadly disease under the French plantation owners. I used these accounts as inspiration for the background of the The Housemaid, which is a gothic romance horror film about a young Vietnamese girl who comes to a rubber plantation in 1953 and discovers that it’s haunted. The film is also inspired by my grandmother, who once was a housemaid. As a child, she’d tell me ghost stories and believed that spirits lived in trees.
Your productions are often enrolled and acclaimed at independent film festivals such as Cannes, Tribeca and Sundance. What is it about your style that reverberates so well with the independent film community?
I’ve always loved independent films. I feel that my storytelling style lends itself to the independent sensibility. These film festivals and artist support programs have been integral to my development as a filmmaker. And I feel so honoured to have been a part of them.
You financed The Potential Wives of Norman Mao through Kickstarter. How do you feel crowdfunding is benefiting the arts?
Kickstarter was great! Not only were we able to raise the financing through crowdfunding, it helped with the publicity of the film. But crowdfunding is a lot of work. And you work just as hard on the Kickstarter campaign as you do making your film! What I like about it is that you don’t need anyone to greenlight your project. You can just do it yourself. I highly encourage others to finance their projects this way.
You’re also director of operations and creative affairs at Gamechanger Films. Can you tell us why it’s necessary to have equal financing opportunities available for female directors?
I believe that the gender disparity in Hollywood and the film industry around the world is appalling. And the recent studies of this inequity really illuminate the problem. Numbers don’t lie. I’ve always felt that the more voices we hear, the more it helps the world become enlightened by the lives of others. I feel that there is a suppression of women’s voices in filmmaking, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. Oftentimes, women directors don’t get the opportunity to make films because the gatekeepers for film financing see them as “risky” investments. I try my best through Gamechanger Films to dispel this myth and give opportunities to women to tell their stories.
Have you had any Vietnamese counterparts in the industry ask for collaboration? If so, can you tell us about them.
I have been approached by fellow Vietnamese filmmakers to collaborate. But being a writer-director, I usually direct on my own work. So I haven’t had the opportunity to collaborate with others yet. However, I’ve worked with many talented Vietnamese producers. The producers for The Housemaid include a Sundance award winner and a producer who holds the record for the highest grossing Vietnamese film of all time. I’m in good hands.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers in Vietnam?
Be bold. Be honest. Be responsible. Keep writing. Listen.