I believe that in this day and age, the more unique you are the better. Your perspective is why most people want to hear what you have to say. It does matter who tells the story.
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 14, lightly edited for clarity.
This week we feature Derek Nguyen, an award-winning filmmaker, writer, director, and independent producer. Over the last 20 years, he’s directed and produced feature-length & short films, as well as written for stage & screen.
Most recently, Derek wrote and directed The Housemaid, a Gothic Romance horror film based in Vietnam. The film was released by IFC Films last year in 22 different territories around the world. An American adaptation of the film is currently in development, written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher.
Previously, Derek was a fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab for the screenplay adaptation of his play, Monster, and a 2004 Screenwriting Fellow at the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Over the last four years, he’s helped to develop and finance 10 films through his work at the Tribeca Film Institute and Gamechanger Films. His own short film, The Potential Wives of Norman Mao narrated by George Takei, screened at the Cannes Film Festival and several other renowned film festivals.
Currently, Derek is producing A. Sayeeda Moreno’s I’m Not Down with Monique Gabriela Curnen. He recently co-founded The Population, a film production company with Mynette Louie and Mollye Asher which focuses on producing feature films by or about women, people of color, LGBTQIA+, and other underrepresented groups. For more information, visit wethepopulation.com/.
Above all, Derek sees his work as a form of activism and derives inspiration from his own experience as a Vietnamese American queer individual.
In this episode, Derek shares personal stories about:
• What it takes to get a project from idea to release
• His thoughts on Asian American identity and assimilation,
• What it was like breaking into the industry as a playwright, and
• His advice for budding filmmakers
I. Derek’s Origin Story
Derek: My name is Derek Nguyen. I'm a filmmaker living in New York City. I write, direct and produce films. I'm also a theater artist, so I write plays and direct plays. I'm also in some ways an activist.
Lynne: Derek’s lived in New York City for over 20 years. But when we talk about origin story, he takes us back to Vietnam where he was born in 1973. He came to the United States with his family on a boat in 1975, right after the fall of Saigon.
Derek: My family is from Vietnam and we survived the war; half of us did not. My father was a Naval captain for the South Vietnamese Navy and he worked with a lot of Americans during the war. We had a very close relationship with the U.S., at least in our hearts.
We had the papers to leave Vietnam to go to the United States early but my father decided not to because he truly believed that the South Vietnamese and the Americans were going to win the war. It wasn't until the very end when the North Vietnamese went to the gates of Saigon, that my father decided to leave with us as a family.
My mother, my father, my sister, and I left Vietnam on the day of the fall of Saigon which was April 30, 1975. We went to the embassy because we were supposed to leave by helicopter and plane. But we waited too long, so all of the helicopters and all of the planes had already left. We had to leave the country as refugees by boat which is how the majority of people had to leave. We fled to the coasts and ended up on a barge where we drifted out into the sea.
Lynne: Growing up, Derek actually heard various versions of this story. His aunts and relatives would cook up dramatic tales about this boat ride. Derek was only 2 when he came over so he wasn’t sure what was true and what was...slightly exaggerated.
Derek: I was told that my father created a raft out of sticks and stones, and we drifted out into the sea by ourselves.
Lynne: Derek later found out that it was a barge with a motor, and there were other people on the barge with his family. Though his original story definitely makes the journey sound more epic. The real story was...
Derek: Apparently, there was a church group that was on the barge with us that was a Vietnamese Catholic priest that had gotten all of these people onto the barge with us. And there was no captain, the barge just drifted out with all of these people.
After a couple of days, we were picked up by an American ship. During this time Australians, Americans and other countries were going up & down the coast of Vietnam to pick up refugees because there were so many refugees. We were picked up by an American ship and we were taken to Guam. In Guam, there was a refugee camp where we lived for a little while.
Lynne: Families would wait at this refugee camp to be sponsored. Derek’s family was sponsored relatively quickly - within 3 days - by a Catholic Church. And this transported him and his family to Jacksonville, Florida. It was a bit of a culture shock to say the least.
Derek: I remember when I was a kid seeing a crucifix for the first time. It was huge. It was a big cross with Jesus Christ on there and it was bloody.
I remember thinking to myself, "Omg America is such a violent place". The irony of it all was that I had just come from a country that had been torn by war.
I ended up in a pretty peaceful area of the US and was thinking to myself that America was violent.
Lynne: Most of Derek’s immediate family was Buddhist so he hadn’t really been exposed to Christianity or Catholicism until he came to the U.S. Aside from this, Derek’s family was one of the only Asian families in Jacksonville. Derek was too young at the time to remember what that felt like, but there is one vivid memory that stands out.
Derek: We were one of the very few Asian families around. This was also at a time when there were a lot of people in this area that had lost their sons and fathers to the war. I do remember having somebody spray paint, "Go home gooks" on our garage door. And I didn't understand it at the time. I had no idea what a gook was and I was still very young, but I knew that it was unwelcomed by the reactions of everybody else.
Lynne: Shortly after, Derek and his family moved to Southern California where his grandma and extended family lived. The neighborhood they lived in was much more diverse than Jacksonville. It was a close-knit community with a large Vietnamese American population. The popular people at school were mostly people of color.
Derek: At least one person on the homecoming court was a person of color. There were a lot of chicanos, chicanas, and Latin X people living where I lived. My sister was the head of the cheerleading team and I was on the football team. We were seen as Asian Americans as opposed to Asian immigrants.
Lynne: Check out Derek’s football photo. He was a stud.
Lucia: He was also a member of the drama club. I guess that made him a cool kid in SoCal.
Lynne: Yeah, Derek was pretty well-assimilated. He didn’t necessarily experience the strife that Asian Americans growing up in towns with fewer Asian Americans typically feel. The strife he experienced was more of a conflict between Asian Americans and Asian immigrants.
Derek: I remember feeling that sense of, "Oh, I'm not fresh off the boat". There were times when there was a resentment between those two groups of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants. Especially in high school and in junior high when everybody just wants to be popular and wants to be liked, you create this unnecessary conflict.
II. Writing as Catharsis
Lynne: Derek had always been intrigued by race dynamics. He started writing about these observations. He had been writing from a young age, partially as a way to process hard times when his parents fought.
Derek: I was writing down what they were saying to each other. It was a way of healing, of figuring it out.
Lynne: He then started writing plays in junior high because his drama teachers encouraged him to write more.
Derek: My drama teachers said, "Why don't you write a monologue about yourself?" So I did. I think it was about my dog, but that's where it started.
Lynne: Derek went to college at UC Santa Barbara, majored in dramatic arts with a concentration in writing.
From there, he wrote a play that ended up being performed internationally. The play was rooted in his early observation of conflict between Asian Americans and “fresh off the boat” Asian immigrants. It was called Monster.
Derek: It's about the beating of a Vietnamese high school kid in California and they find out that the person who did it was Asian American. It's about self-hate. It's about class.
It's about how we try to destroy the things that are within ourselves that might look poorly on a larger community and how sometimes that internalized racism can manifest in many different ways.
Lynne: The play was received very well and performed in theaters around the world. Derek received an Edgar Award nomination for Best Play. He also ended up applying for the theater lab at Sundance which is an artistic development program for independent theater makers. Think playwrights, ensemble artists, choreographers etc. The heads of Sundance actually encouraged him to adapt the play into a film.
Derek: It was such a pipe dream to think that I could actually make a film with the stories that I wanted to tell.
I was writing about the Vietnamese American and queer experience. I really believed that the only stories that were going to be made weren't going to be my story.
Anyway, I wrote the screenplay for Monster. It was an Asian American lead and parts of it needed to be in Vietnam. Everybody said the same thing. We really like the writing. We can't finance this.
Lynne: Derek was repeatedly told this. But he wrote more. He wrote eight scripts with Asian American leads. And he continued to get the same response.
Derek: There were many times when I was encouraged to write something in which I changed the Asian characters to other races. What I found was that it was very difficult to do that because them being Asian or Asian American were intrinsic to their character. I couldn't write Monster, which is about self-hate and the Asian American community, and rewrite it for white people. It just wouldn't work.
Lynne: Derek says the biggest challenge to getting his films made was almost always financing. His other Asian American filmmaker colleagues said the same thing. A lot of them had to go back to their mother countries to make their first films. So that got him thinking, what if he did the same thing...
Derek: I decided that I wanted to write something about my grandmother after she passed away, something that was set in Vietnam and to jumpstart my career.
Lynne: Derek took the film to studios and production companies in Vietnam and received a lot of interest. It was greenlit and before he knew it, he was off on a plane to Vietnam to make his first feature.
III. Making The Housemaid
Derek: The film is set in 1953 in Vietnam during the French Indo-Chinese war. It's about an orphaned girl who comes to a French rubber plantation to get a job, but she soon finds out that the place is pretty abandoned because of the war. She gets hired as a housemaid there and ends up falling in love with the French landowner and soon discovers that the house is haunted.
Lynne: The Housemaid is a Gothic romance film with a slightly dark undertone. The landowner and the servant end up developing an attraction to each other, but beneath it all is a subtle commentary about colonization, power dynamics between landowners and their slaves, and what happens when an imperial power takes over a country.
Derek: When you go to Vietnam, the ground of the rubber plantations are bright red because of all of the iron that's in the in the soil, but it's known as Vietnamese folklore that the reason why it's red is because of all of the spilt blood of the Vietnamese workers. And so, there were Mass Graves that were discovered in the rubber plantations.
Lynne: The story is mostly fictionalized. There’s a lot of supernatural stuff that happens. People get killed, and there’s ghosts. But it’s inspired by a story that Derek’s grandma passed down through the ages, as well as the horrific true events from Vietnam’s history.
The servant in the film who falls in love with the landowner represents Derek’s grandma. Legend has it that in real life, Derek’s grandma ended up getting pregnant and she was banished from the house…or so they say.
Derek: As you know, Vietnamese people tend to be very dramatic about things. So I have no idea what is truth and what is fiction and again, does it really matter? I decided to tell the story anyway and just say, it's all fiction!
Lucia: There’s a lot of power in the oral tradition of storytelling. My parents would tell and retell stories about how they grew up during the Cultural Revolution. My grandparents would also record stories from well-known Chinese fiction stories like Journey to the West. I grew up with a lot of traditional Chinese literature, which really shaped the way that I think about stories today.
Lynne: Derek also grew up with the oral tradition. His grandma told him a lot of ghost stories growing up.
Derek: She loved to tell me ghost stories. It was a natural merger of what was real and what isn't. One of the things that she used to tell me is that she used to believe that Spirits lived in trees. When I went to Vietnam and saw all the rubber plantations and all the trees, I thought this place must be so haunted! So that was kind of the inspiration for bringing all of those things together.
Lynne: The cinematography in the film is stunning. Derek told us that the plantation in the film had to be shot in five different places. His favorite moment was when they were filming in the countryside in a place called Da Lat. It’s kind of like the French Alps of Vietnam with a lot of pine forests and waterfalls and lakes. It’s known for its French Colonial architecture and it’s where the first scene of the film was shot. It was a moving experience for him.
Derek: We started production with a drone shot in the middle of this beautiful lake area in Da Lat. And you know, you work years and years and years...
It took me 12 years to get to direct The Housemaid. 12 years! When we first started, it was really an emotional moment for me.
I tried to hide it and I'm not very good at hiding my emotions. But once we started rolling and I said cut, I was just like, "Oh my gosh. I can't believe I'm doing this". It's such a privilege to be a director. And not many people get a chance to do it. I felt so honored to do it. I was surrounded by an incredible cast & crew who were all so excited about making the film.
We had blessed the the cameras because that's one of the things that you do at the beginning of production in Vietnam. Monks bless the cameras to make sure that they do well for us and they bless us and I was feeling all of those things. It was just so beautiful.
IV. The Future for Asian American Films and Words of Advice
Lynne: Derek reminds us that it took decades to get here.
Derek: We are benefiting from the years of Asian American filmmakers, media makers, writers, and artists who have built the groundwork for where we are today.
I think that films like Crazy Rich Asians and Searching were pretty instrumental in showing Hollywood that you can make money off of Asian American characters, Asian American art and Asian American filmmaking.
It's less about identity now. We've gotten past identity-focused narratives and now we're freeing ourselves. We can make films that are about anything we want. This is progress.
I say the same thing about the LGBTQ community. The queer community had to have a huge history of trailblazers to get us to where we're at now and I think the Asian American Community is actually the same.
Lynne: Derek has always sought out stories by minorities and particularly Asian Americans through his work at Gamechanger Films and now, his own film production company The Population.
Derek: I think financing is one of the biggest hurdles and obstacles for most filmmakers of color, women and LGBT people. That's where we're hoping to make a big impact. We want to give the opportunities for people to tell their stories and narrative features, which we know is hard in the media landscape. If you look at the statistics, they're still abysmal.
Lynne: Ultimately for Derek, his success as a filmmaker hinges on his ability to tell a story that is true to his voice.
Derek: The best feedback that I've gotten about writing is to be yourself and not try to write like somebody else.
Finding your voice is probably the most important thing, especially for writers and directors.
Lynne: We asked Derek how he found his voice. His advice was pretty straightforward and simple. Simply, keep at it. Keep writing. Keep telling stories. And the voice will emerge. It’s about the long game.
Derek: You hear these stories about people who make their first film and then suddenly become a big star. That's so rare, it's like less than 1%.
The majority of people who are working in these industries have worked for a very long time before they make their break.
Keep working. Everybody has a unique voice and your uniqueness is always going to rise you above everybody else. Keep writing, keep shooting, keep doing the work. Surround yourself with that because that's what fuels you.
If you're an Asian American filmmaker, check out these programs and fellowships that can help you potentially access funding for your project: