CHOPSO speaks with Nadine Truong, probably one of the youngest and most prolific Asian American filmmakers. Her two features and short films are streaming on CHOPSO.
Can you talk about how you began filmmaking from your early shorts to your first feature?
NT: I knew I always wanted to work in the arts or entertainment, even knew that I wanted to be a director at the mere age of 16, but when I hit college I lost confidence and hope. I was very shy and had hints of deep insecurities about entering a male dominated field. So I resorted to work in the entertainment industry at a talent agency and various production companies. I thought that being filmmaker adjacent would make me happy enough. Then one day I looked up from the batch of bad screenplays I was reading and thought, “I can do this. I can do this better.” At the time, I had a lot of friends just starting out in filmmaking as well. I mobilized them to help me make my first short film “Chopsticks”, which I then took to festivals. I then used it as a sample of my work for film school applications. I got into the American Film Institute Conservatory, where I made a ton more short films, and by the time I graduated I had the offer to direct my first little humble feature called “Someone I Used To Know” written by West Liang. It all just kept snowballing from there.
Let’s talk about your first feature “Someone I Used to Know” which is Asian male-centric feature. How did you approach an Asian male driven story from the perspective of an Asian American female director?
NT: I am mostly interested in exploring the inner life of characters, no matter how the outer shell of the body expresses itself through race or gender. The three leads were all male, true, but there was a lot of them written into the script that I could relate to: growing pains, the need for acceptance, the desire to belong, and relaxing into fun and laughter. It was enough for me to connect to the material. It was also rather early in my career. I would like to make more stories with female points of views. I would also like to make more stories about Asian Americans. Absolutely. But whatever the future holds, I will not let anyone put me into the box of only doing these stories. I am an Asian American woman, but I am not obligated to only explore narratives that I already know. That would be very limiting.
With the current rise of Hollywood females, do you feel as an Asian female director you’re part of it… or not? What are your thoughts on this sexual assault coming out movement?
NT: Truth be told, I feel rather removed from Hollywood. I’m not part of the studio/network system, and have so far only worked in independent film, where productions seem to be rather insulated from the Hollywood system. But the rise is fantastic, and I hope to catch that wave finally, because we are deserving of work and success at the very top echelons of every industry. The #metoo and #timesup movement has been very empowering. I, too, encountered my fair share of sexual harassment both on and off the job. I’ve even been fired from an entertainment job when I was just starting out, because I dared to say no to sleeping with an executive. I plan to share this story in depth when I feel right. The time will come, but it just hasn’t presented itself yet emotionally. I feel empowered and hopeful, and I too will turn my experience into something positive. Who knows, maybe a film that will touch upon this subject?
About your second feature, which unfortunately we know it wasn’t the happiest experience, can you tell us what one important and constructive lesson you’ve learned from the experience of making “Senior Project?”
NT: Don’t work with someone whom you get bad vibes from. I knew from the get-go that the executive producer and I weren’t a good fit, but I was hungry to work and did it anyway. It was bound to be a bad marriage from the start, especially one where the power structure was all off. I want parity in my professional life. It’s very important to me now that I work in an environment that is respectful of my voice and my experience. So I say, trust your instincts and follow your gut. Know your worth. Demand the respect that you deserve. Bow out early to cut your losses.
How did “I Can I Will I Did” come about? What was your experience directing your third feature and were you happy with the film?
My then-boyfriend/now-husband Brian Yang, who is an actor and producer, was approached by one of his basketball friends about a project that a group of Taekwondo students wanted to make about their Grandmaster. They loved his philosophy and wanted to see it immortalized on screen somehow. They had worked with a different team before, but that one didn’t work out so they brought the project to us instead. The existing script from the previous pairing didn’t sit well with us, so I pitched them a different idea. They greenlit it immediately, and I wrote the screenplay. Six months later, we were in production.
Out of all your works, if you had to pick one film, which one are you most proud of and why?
I CAN I WILL I DID is by far my most favorite one so far. It was the first feature length film that I actually got to both write and direct, and my sensibilities as a storyteller really show most in this film. It’s not so much a sports film, as it is a heartfelt story with a strong anti-bullying message, which is a topic near and dear to my heart. The film has a small following now and wherever we have shown it, people have been moved to tears. As an artist, I’d call this a success, because that’s really all you ever want: to move people with your voice.
As an Asian American female director, do you feel you’re competitive or you’re working together with other Asian American male directors?
NT: I have nothing but love for my peers, both male or female, and will always lend my support no matter what.
What advice would you give to a budding Asian American director, a budding female director, and a budding Asian American female director?
NT: For all: Ask yourself, if you’re willing to train for a marathon which you likely won’t finish as a top contender. You must enjoy the physical and emotional demands of the profession, fully knowing that you might not clean up the grand prize. Train your hardest anyway. If that gives you satisfaction, you’re in the right field. And if not, then that’s okay, too. Maybe you’re more of a sprinter. Oh, and don’t let anyone pigeonhole you into a box. You are more than your race or your gender.