Charlie Nguyen: Interview with Vietnam’s Steven Spielberg

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charlie nguyen vietnamese film director

Charlie Nguyen is one of the most successful film directors in Vietnamese history.

Like Steven Spielberg, Charlie Nguyen has a knack for making great box office successes.  His status as a box office legend was cemented by Fool For Love 2 (Let Hoi Decide), a romantic comedy that was the highest grossing film in Vietnam at the time of its release in 2014.

What makes Charlie Nguyen especially incredible is that he combines box-office hits with work that the critics love – something film directors do not always achieve in Hollywood. His 2007 action drama The Rebel was the highest grossing locally made film at its release, and won the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Grand Jury Prize. His 2013 comedy Little Teo (Phim Teo Em) both set box office records and received a Silver Kite Award – Vietnam’s equivalent of an Oscars. His accomplishments is not just confined to Vietnam.  He was also one of the producers of 2015’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 2.

Innovative directors like Charlie make Vietnam’s film industry a high growth segment. They also join disruptors like Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao and Dominic Scriven in painting the portrait of the new Vietnam.  “On the back of a young growing population, low film audience per capital, rapid expansion of theaters and talented artists,  estimates of annual growth range from 20-35% per year,” said US-based Vietnam investor Louie Nguyen.  “This compelling growth dynamic has attracted the attention of a number of global media blue chip companies like CJ E&M and Netflix,” added Nguyen.

Charlie Nguyen is the global ambassador for Vietnam’s fast-rising film industry. In between his many projects, we were lucky to recently had an opportunity to catch up with him. Below, Charlie shares his take on film-making, directing, and the future of Vietnamese movies.

If you met a young Charlie Nguyen making his first film today, what would you tell him?

I would tell myself to spend more time writing.  Great question. I would tell myself don’t hesitate to ask people for help and advice. Build relationships with people that are more experienced and talented. Filmmaking is extensive and the more mentors you have, the faster you will realize your dream.

Vietnam’s cinema has grown tremendously, much on the back of your efforts.  What do you see must change to take Vietnam to where Korea was when the world discovered Old Boy in 2003?

We’re a young industry and everyone is still learning to master their craft. Every aspect of the industry is constantly evolving for the better. What more important is that we need to develop a creative community of professional screenwriters. Ultimately, it comes down to mastering the art of storytelling and producing great material on paper first. Script development is seriously lacking at the moment.

the-rebel-charlie-nguyen vietnamese film

What are recurring elements in your films? What are the principles that drive your creativity?

I usually put myself in the audience seat when I write or direct. And ask myself if what i’m doing render a certain meaningful emotional experience. I trust my instinct when it comes to creativity because that’s all I have to work with. If something moves me deeply, I’m hoping that it will move the audience in some ways too.

Is the film business a good investment and why?

Yes and No, depends on the what type of investor you are.  If you love movies, yes it is! If you’re a business opportunist, then no.  Producing any movie is a high-risk venture, if you’re not passionate about making movies and achieve no personal reward from them, I’m sure there are better investment opportunities out there.

When people think of a film director, they think of glamour.  What are some of the least glamorous elements of the director’s life that you can share with our readers?

Unfortunately, that’s a misconception.  Directing is anything but glamour.  Unless you’re doing it, it’s hard to describe how tough it really is to make a film, much less a good film. When you see a director walking down the red carpet at the premiere of his movie smiling, it’s nervousness in disguised! But the trade off is that you get to love your work and not many people can say that about their job.

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Can you share some current projects and perhaps some that are still in development?

Currently I’m producing a film for my production company. It’s a coming of age rom-com. At the same time I’m also writing my next film, which I’m planning to shoot early next year. It’s a character comedy and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m also involved as producer and judge on a local short film festival and film seminar.

What do you do for fun when you are not making films?

I enjoy reading while having a good latte and riding motorcycle. But I find very little time to do them. It’s hard to find free time when you write.  There’s no perfect script so your work is never finished.

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Can you share some global film makers who you are currently enjoying?  Who are some up and coming Vietnamese directors to watch for?

Too much to list but let’s name a few: Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Coen’s brothers, Quentin Taratino, Ridley Scott, Terrence Malick, Alejandro González Iñárritu…  Local directors:  Phan Đăng Di, Phan Xine Linh, Lê Thanh Sơn, Vũ Ngọc Phượng, Quang Huy.

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