Interview: Timothy Bui and Stephane Gauger (Owl and the Sparrow)

What’s happening is a lot of Vietnamese Americans are studying film now, more than before…I definitely think there is a new wave.

Timothy Bui and Stephane Gauger, makers of Owl and the Sparrow, share their thoughts on the movie and the Vietnamese film industry in an interview with Alex Burkett from the San Francisco Appeal online newspaper.

I sat down with executive producer Timothy Bui and director Stephane Gauger to talk about their film, Owl and the Sparrow. It’s the story of a young Vietnamese orphan in Saigon with more maturity than she knows what to do with and a quiet knack for setting up lonely souls. It’s a simple, natural, and delicate story in a raw and burgeoning setting, and it works for any audience. We talked about the three lead actors, the social development of Vietnam, and emerging East Asian cinema.

Me: I figured it would be good if you started with a little bit about your relationship with Saigon. I know you were born there.

SG: Yeah, right. I have interracial parents, my mom is Vietnamese. I grew up speaking the language, came here when I was five. I think I started going back in the mid-90s when you could kind of see the changes in society. The country was opening up economically to the outside world, so you started seeing the class divide. There were street kids then, and there still are. It’s still a poor country. These kids would sell things on the streets and I would hang out in cafes and get their stories. When I was writing the character I always imagined that I’d be casting a real flower girl from the streets, you know, make it authentic. The producers in Vietnam were advising me not to do that because the role of Thuy, the main character, is so-…there’s a lot going on. She’s in almost every scene. So they said we should do a casting session with someone who has experience. I asked real flower girls if they wanted to be in a movie anyway, but they were all afraid of the camera, afraid of authorities and stuff like that. So we did a casting session, saw about 10 girls. I settled on the best one and we only cast her two days before we started shooting. Stroke of luck.

Me: Yeah, she’s really something.

TB: A little discovery.

Me: How did you settle on the other leads?

SG: The two other actors were hand picked. Cat, who plays the stewardess, I had known from another film and I liked her acting style because it’s internal and naturalistic. And the guy who plays Hai, the zookeeper, he had done another film and I had heard about him. So he was recommended.

Me: He’s got such a good look for all the close-ups.

SG: Yeah, yeah. He’s also another Vietnamese actor who tends to underplay and be understated. So for a naturalistic looking film and having something almost cinéma vérité it was important to have three actors that were, I guess, not theatrical. There are a lot of close-ups in the film and we really wanted to see what was going on behind the eyes.

TB: Yeah, and Cat Ly’s a well-known singer in Orange County, kind of a Vietnamese community singer.

Me: The movie is an international movie, but I imagine you get asked a lot of questions about making a “Vietnamese movie” or a “Vietnamese American” movie. How do you feel about those monikers?

SG: Well, you know, I have Vietnamese roots but when I wrote the script I intended it for an international audience. My wish was basically to play it for a European art-house crowd, and I figured if it works for a Vietnamese audience, then that’s a bonus. And so, I still hold true to that. It’s catered more to a Western audience but Vietnamese people enjoy it as well, which is a nice complement. But still it was important for me to keep the shooting of it, the process of it, to keep it small and family oriented. The whole cast and crew were Vietnamese and it is a Vietnamese language film. It works on a universal level because the story is something that anyone can get into.

Me: As much as it’s a universal movie I feel like it’s also a timeless movie, with a timeless story. But at the same time, it’s very much about modern day Vietnam and modern day problems. How was it reconciling these two things?

SG: Well, that is the fusion of it. I like films like Chungking Express. I just want to put the audience right there.

Me: Right. Some of the quick cuts reminded me a lot of early Wong Kar-Wai.

SG: Yeah. That was definitely an influence and I think most audiences haven’t seen modern-day Vietnam on-screen, so for them it was an introduction to that world, so they could see it was bustling, full of energy. The timeless quality is putting a fable element to it. So a small child taking a journey has kind of a Dickensian touch. We have this girl, she’s put in an orphanage and her struggle to find a new, surrogate, family, is very much rooted in fable. So it was a fusion of sorts. It’s a sweet film. It’s cinéma vérité. It’s a fable, but it’s grounded in reality.

Me: Well since you brought up influences, when I was watching the movie I was thinking a lot about Hirokazu Koreeda, especially Nobody Knows. Was that a conscious influence?

SG: No, not at all actually. One of my favorite directors is Zhang Yimou. Some of his more grounded films, his smaller dramas, I like. And then of course, Chungking Express. I think if the film had an American sensibility it’d be more like early Jim Jarmusch – they’re all character driven and the characters are interesting enough to suck the audience in.

Me: Japan and Hong Kong have been making great movies for a long time. But there’s the Korean New Wave, a lot of great movies coming out of Thailand, and I’m a big Hou Hsiao Hsien fan, the Taiwanese director. Do you find yourselves in this world of emerging East Asian cinema?

SG: I would definitely say yes. What’s happening is a lot of Vietnamese Americans are studying film now, more than before. And also the fact that to shoot in Vietnam, the process of getting permits for example, is easier than before. There’s a lot of independent production in Vietnam now. So getting films off the ground is a little bit easier and there are more filmmakers and storytellers than before. I definitely think there is a new wave.

TB: I think we’re at the very early stages of the movement going on in Vietnam. Compared to all the other Asian countries I think Vietnam is really behind in terms of technicality and storytelling. Up until recently, 5 years ago or so, it was all just government financed movies. Some of them were propaganda. Now, the door is open to where some young, aspiring filmmaker can be influenced by some of these great filmmakers from around the world. Their storytelling techniques and what kind of stories they want to tell are so different now than when I was there in 95 when it was really, really bad. So it’s exciting to see. The Ford Foundation is in Vietnam right now training the younger generation. They’re putting film schools in. It’s very exciting to see.

Me: Is it difficult from a technical and production standpoint to make a movie in Saigon?

TB: It depends. I think it depends a lot on what type of projects you’re doing. Three Seasons it wasn’t so easy, but also the infrastructure wasn’t set up as well at the time. Now that the infrastructure is there, there are actually production companies there dedicated to helping you through the red tape and getting the permits, and the minister of culture is there, all to help with Western productions that are coming in. So I think it’s a lot different now.

SG: Yeah. Because I have a lot of production experience, I kind of know how to cut corners. For me to try to transport the audience to this city, I operated the film in almost a documentary way. We kept the crew small. We shot in alleys and streets where we would be very fast about it. I would take the actors, we’d rehearse them in a room but then it was like, “Okay now you do a scene in the streets. Don’t worry about marks, there are no marks. We’ll just get it with the cameras.” I think that lent the film a sense of place, of real environments, without having to block entire streets and all that.

Me: You finished this movie in 2007.

SG: Yeah. We did a year of festivals. And then with the Europe festivals, we tried to look for a deal. We got a couple small offers that didn’t pan out. They weren’t great. So we spent this year forming our own distribution company, formalizing strategies to put the film out. So one of the strategies was, okay, should we release the film in November? There’s all these Oscar, big films, coming out in November, so maybe we’ll wait until January. It’s kind of, putting care into the release of the film, to make sure it gets a proper audience response.

TB: It’s a nice, satisfying, feeling that stems from the true spirit of the movie, making a total indie style, self-financed, all the way through to the distribution. We don’t wait for anyone to give us the break. Nowadays, with digital technology, you can make the movie yourself. And you can use the festival success as a spring board and market it right to get a theatrical release. Then build a name for yourself so you can take that and jump to your next film with a bigger budget.

Me: Are you guys working on something currently?

SG: Yeah. Owl and the Sparrow is a small film, very low budget, but it’s a simple story that’s well told. And I think it caught a lot of attention with producers because it’s character driven but it translates well through language barriers. And with that the doors have opened up and I have a follow-up project that we’re looking for financing for. It’s a bigger film. It has a soccer backdrop, sports-drama backdrop, but it takes place in Vietnam. It’s about the national team playing in the Asia Cup and the coach is an Englishman. So it’s a little bit bigger in scope and we’re basically shopping that project around now.

SG: If you can have a foreign language film where you forget that it’s a foreign language film. I think you’ve done something good.

We think so too.

Alex Barkett

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  1. Thanks for the interesting interview, I enjoyed the questions that were asked. I wonder why someone would make a Viet film for Euro audiences? Am I the only one weirded out by this?


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