Festival Q&A: Mye Hoang, director of VIETTE
As we count down to opening night, we bring you special Q&As with directors whose films will be presented at our festival this year. First up is Mye Hoang, who makes her big return to SDAFF — this time as director, producer, writer, and star of her debut feature, VIETTE, which screens on Monday, Nov 5 and Wednesday Nov 7.
First, I must say how weird it is doing a Q&A with you after working with you behind the scenes at SDAFF for so many years! How do you feel now that you’re on the “other side” as a Filmmaker?
I know that the grass is not greener (not that I thought it would be)! It’s interesting to have worked both sides now. I have learned that it is a small miracle to make a feature film no matter how bad or good the film is. It’s all the same pain. And on the business side of filmmaking, I understand the filmmaker’s plight more. It’s not that much different from working in nonprofit, and we are all just trying to figure out how to break even. Maybe I was poised for this all along.
Congrats on your upcoming premiere in San Diego! Now let’s talk about your film, VIETTE. Tell us about the significance of the title, and where this story came from.
VIETTE is based on my life as a young Vietnamese American woman (born in the US) during the most transformative years of my life. I was trying to live my own life while being the dutiful daughter to parents whom I did not speak the same language with. The experiences I had trying to break free were extreme and sounded like a movie to my friends who encouraged me to make this film.
As for the title, “Viette” is the Americanized version of the common Vietnamese name ‘Viet’ which is often mis-pronounced and is broken down to the two-syllable “Viette.” Also, the character is a die-hard romantic and I felt this name best suited her (it has a little French ring to it).
Not only do you direct this film, but you also star in it as yourself! Did you write the script with yourself in mind?
I wrote the script a long time ago, and during that time, never thought the film would become a reality and therefore didn’t think about casting. As time went on, I started to visualize myself in the role and then it seemed stranger to cast someone else to play myself. There are pros and cons to directing yourself. And when it became clear what the budget was going to be, the pros outweighed everything else. I knew this would be a 2-year or more journey. No outsider would have been as committed as me for that long and to be available at any moment for additional shooting. There are even small scenes in the movie that I shot myself. It was just me and the camera on a tripod and no one else. That’s the great thing about casting yourself – you’re a one-man band! More importantly, there was a lot of violence and sex involved. Stunts and nudity are a lot to ask of any actor, especially if you are not paying them. A young actress can ruin her career by doing nudity. I am not an actor nor aspire to be, so I have nothing to lose and I can dive into the material fearlessly. I would have been uncomfortable putting an actor in the situations I put myself in.
Much of this film was shot in San Diego. Can you share a little about the production experience, your cast/crew, and any particular hardships in making this film?
Over half of the film was shot in San Diego. Everything about making this movie was hard! But San Diego was actually easier to shoot in overall, while LA was the most difficult. People in San Diego are less jaded and more willing to help for free and less likely to call the cops on you. It’s not everyday that someone is trying to make a film there, so people were willing to allow us to shoot. However, we had to fake San Diego for the mid-West and it was hard to avoid palm trees and mountains. So we shot mostly interiors and close-ups.
Money and time are the enemy for all no-budget movies. There’s never enough of either. On top of that, for nearly everyone on set, this was a first feature film experience, including myself! We made it work, but it wasn’t easy. There was no budget for hiring experienced crew, and the film was shot in several cities including one portion in China. The cast and crew were spread out over several cities – the music composers were in San Diego, the editor was in Dallas, the other actors were in LA or San Francisco. It’s hard to work that way, but you gotta work with people who will work for free and are committed (wherever that might be, and often it’s not in LA). A decade ago, this would not have been possible, but thank goodness we have Skype and file sharing tools now.
Who was your intended audience? and What do you hope people will learn and walk away with from VIETTE?
I intended for the film to be seen with film festival audiences because I think the Q&A is part of the experience. Since the film is based on my true story, I would expect some interesting discourse afterwards. The immediate interest will probably be from Asian American audiences, but I think the film has universal themes for a broader appeal.
The film has several messages that I hope people walk away with, but revealing them would give away too much of the story. However, I will say that one thing I hope this brings up is how as Asian American women, we are brought up to be perfect and obedient – to never speak up, never complain, and never show our faults. Most of us have watched our mothers suffer and sacrifice, so there’s a tendency to emulate this. We have a high tolerance for pain and a mission to try to please everyone – which can sometimes lead to humiliating experiences that we never talk about and that leave us feeling alienated in Western society. I can’t tell people what to think at the end, but I hope to offer a rare perspective. I mean, there aren’t many Asian women making films (I’m the only one in my category at SFIAAFF), but here I am sharing my secrets and failures in a no-holds barred approach in hopes that someone else in the audience can “connect” with it. How do we learn about real life if we don’t share our stories? Are we to only receive our information from what mass media feeds us?
I saw David Boyle (White on Rice, Surrogate Valentine) in the credits. What kind of influence did he have on the final product?
I brought on Dave as the Post Production Supervisor to help get the film to the finish line. Because I haven’t been in film school in nearly 15 years, everything about post-production has changed – and it is constantly changing as technology advances. When I was in film school, we were cutting 16mm film. Now it’s all digital, and I am not a technical person. I needed an expert to get through the final stage and make sure we were doing things right. Dave has finished 4 feature films (2 of them on the same budget as mine), and so he knows how to finish on a micro-budget and that’s critical. He was also a major influence on the final edit. My first cut was around 2 hours and 40min! And I did not want to be making another Tree of Life. So he helped me re-shape the narrative into a well-paced 90 mins by focusing on what was most essential to the story. It’s difficult to do this on your own when you’re so close to the material and have been working on it for 2 years. He was a fresh set of eyes, and he was by far the toughest critic on me, so that was good.
Finally, what’s next for Mye Hoang?
I just finished the final film two weeks ago, so I’m still decompressing and preparing for the festival circuit. If I never make another film, I will be a-okay – it’s a real privilege to just make one. But making this one has resulted in extreme difficulties in other areas of my life like getting a job, finding a place to live, and strained friendships/relationships – so I need to get back to working on those areas. That said, I have no other projects and look forward to getting back into a normal life and maybe watch a TV show (haven’t done that in years). If I do something creative again, it will be in service to my friends who have helped me. It feels much better to be helping them with their films than for me to be asking for help. After all these years, I feel it’s payback time.