Monday, October 6, 2008

A Conversation With Hoang A. Duong

Intimacy. It is often seen as a potential threat and can make or break a relationship. Yet, many of us crave and need it—but what is it about this 'thing' that eludes us and makes it impossible for some of us to grasp?

This is a question that award-winning filmmaker Hoang A. Duong seeks to explore in his films, along with providing his views on what it takes to survive in the industry.

EH: I understand that in high school, you had your start in theater. What made you decide to pursue a career in film?
HAD: I studied theater in high school. I loved theater and wanted to become an actor. And in the middle of it my drama teacher told me to direct, like somehow she sensed it. I directed a couple of one-act plays and they did really well and won a few awards, so I got this directing bug. There’s a limit to creativity [in theater]. I’ve always liked film and I found [there are] much wider avenues to express yourself, so I applied to film school. In theater, you mainly tell a story through acting and writing and film is more of a director's medium. I applied for the sake of it and got in--UCLA was highly selective.
EH: How did your family react to your decision?
HAD: They never liked it that I was involved in drama and I knew the disapproval way beyond high school, but they enjoyed the fact that I was in theater. They went to my high school plays and were proud to see their son on stage. I didn’t know what else to do…I was good in math and using my left side of the brain and I have a pretty good left side, but ultimately I’m an artist and you can’t deny that part of yourself. And ever since I got into film school--a prestigious school--it made them changed their mind in a way, and they thought I must have talent… but I have my own worst critic within me.
EH: Artists are sometimes their toughest critic when it comes to their work. If you weren’t a filmmaker, what else do you think you’d be doing?
HAD: I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it. For me, to be a filmmaker is to be an artist. You can’t escape yourself whether you make film or choose to do something else. I’m good at the logical stuff but I choose to be an artist, but if I was someone else...
EH: Who are your influences?
HAD: I don't know. There obviously are filmmakers and artists that I find inspiring and feel kindred to--David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Claire Denis, and Sarah Silverman. Sarah Silverman is so inspirational to me. Also, I think that who influenced you could be someone that you consciously don't like, but yet unconsciously they might have more of an impact on you than the ones you like.
EH: What is it about [Sarah Silverman] that you find inspirational?
HAD: She’s brave, but she doesn’t think she is, but she tells the truth and the truth can be really offensive. She just goes there--no qualms and uncomfortableness. I find her to be inspiring in the sense she doesn’t give a shit, not because she wants to be a troublemaker; she sees something and lays it there the way she sees it. Because she’s a comedian, her truth is her humor. Some comedians if they mess up, they always patch it, but she never apologizes if things fall apart--she jumps back to ‘This is who I am’; she’s not apologetic and that’s inspiring to me.
EH: Your thesis film from Columbia ‘Heavy Blow’ was an official selection at Sundance and won a Teddy Special Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film festival. Were you expecting this or did it come as a total shock?
HAD: No it wasn’t a shock, nor was it expected. When you make a film, you know how good it is and how effective it is and if you win it’s your fantasy come true. When you go to these awards, there’s always a chance that you might win something.
EH: I really liked ‘Heavy Blow’. In the relationship, Kaleb [the boyfriend] is threatened by Chet, Mina’s friend. I really don’t see this in film where the ‘third’ person, the friend, is seen as a threat in a relationship. In real life this can be the case.
HAD: Kaleb is insecure so anyone can be a threat. The relationship between Mina and her friend Chet is much more intimate than with her boyfriend even though theirs is a sexual relationship. Kaleb must have sensed this. His insecurity is a problem in the relationship.
EH: You captured that pretty well. Often in films, the triangle aspect mostly deals with romance.
HAD: Thank-you. There is a dynamic between straight women and gay men--they have a very strong bond that goes beyond the more normal relationship of typical girlfriends, boyfriends. With gay men and straight women there’s a chemistry that’s very intimate and I wanted to portray this. I’m closer to my straight women friends than my lovers more often than not--there's no threat, there's no fear. It's a very treasured combination.
EH: I notice that in your films, relationships seem to be the driving force in the stories. What is it that fascinates you about this topic?
HAD: Relationships are hard and what captivates me the most is the dynamic between people. Intimacy is very hard to obtain. Although people want it and really need it, it’s difficult. I want to explore what is difficult about this connection. It’s a way to heal and to discover something. People say to write what you know but while you write, you discover new things and I find that this topic really grasps me.
EH: ‘Trigger Point’, your current project, is a provocative film about a married woman who leads a double erotic lifestyle. How is it different than ‘Unfaithful’ or ‘Belle de Jour’? In ‘Belle de Jour’, this woman is seemingly married to the perfect husband and goes to the extreme by working in a brothel.
HAD: To me, ‘Belle de Jour’ and ‘Unfaithful’ played with the audience’s morality. It’s not my intention to provoke people’s morality--it’s more about telling [this woman's] story and revealing her psyche moment to moment, and as truthfully as I can--what’ s going on with her, in her head, in her life and how she deals with her pain. However the audience chooses to process it is up to them. I think the difference is I'm not focused on society’s judgment and morality. Although I’m aware of it, it’s secondary to me. I’m more concerned with the characters and their interaction with each other and the result is that it holds up a mirror to the audience. With this mirror to the audience, and just telling it how I see it, not manipulating them to see it in a certain way, will reflect how [the audience] want it; ultimately the film is about them. Although it’s my personal story, I want the audience to enter themselves into it. This film may be moral for some and for some people an erotic journey or soft porn. I think it’s more than that, but you can’t tell a shallow person to be deep or a deep person to be shallow.
EH: What do you think is lacking in film industry today?
HAD: There are a lot of films out there, but if you look at Hollywood films, it’s more lacking than, say, in the 70s, when you had personal directors like Coppola, Hal Ashby and Scorsese. Hollywood has gone global and business has boomed all over the world so we’re seeing the same movie made over and over. But now it’s easier to see [non-Hollywood] movies from all over the world through dvd and internet streaming. For me, it’s not lacking for world cinema. But if you want to focus on Hollywood, it would be problematic.I don’t want to gripe. Filmmaking is going to always be hard no matter what you do. If you can’t find money there’s a reason why--it has to do with market. But there are different kinds of audiences. It depends on what you want to do--like experimental and have it shown in museums, there’s an audience for that. However, if you desire to show it in the traditional way through release in theater and dvd, you have to learn how to get into it--it is a business. Theatrical film is like a business corporation put together by a lot of business people. It is a machine, a system that has a long history. You have to know how the business works--I don’t want to say compromise--but if you get money to make a $5,000,000 film you can’t say I want to do whatever I want. You have to prove yourself--even the most successful filmmakers still have to acknowledge the reality of the business.
EH: Some people don’t like to accept the reality of that.
HAD: I think that I used to be like that. You can still be artists--but it is a combination of business--stay in or not. Some people don’t want to stay, which is cool. If it makes you miserable then don’t do it. There are many other ways to express yourself. Why torture yourself to make a movie, especially when you don’t know if it’s going to be successful? It’s about going with the flow. The ones that can get even mediocre movies made they have a business sense inside them--they know how to sell, how to pitch, how to make people believe that it’s good.
EH: Can you tell me a little about your production company?
HAD: EoA Film Productions is a company that I created to produce and develop my features that I write or co-write. Before that, I would have my scripts optioned by other producers, but then I feel that my projects would be better developed if I become one of the initial producers. I just wanted (or rather needed) to be more involved in the producing aspect of my films. It’s the nature of indie film producing these days where writer/director *has* to be more hands-on with their projects.
EH: Which project did you find the hardest to make, in regards to it being too personal?
HAD: The current feature--‘Trigger Point’. If I didn’t have a co-writer it would’ve taken me forever to finish it. In some way, I feel even if the film is thoroughly mine, it helped me to have a co-writer for the first draft. I was able to communicate with her my ideas. Even when I was rewriting on my own, I was having a dialogue with her in my head. But it is hard in the sense that it is painful. Here’s an idea that’s really cool, but the script was really about me and it uncovered past wounds. Also, I haven't done anything this [sexually] explicit. Those things are difficult to show--one wrong move and it could turn into a joke or flip into soft porn. And obviously it's not about that. But shooting a sex scene is not much harder than shooting a fight scene in the sense of making something seem real that is simulated. You just have to get the actors who are comfortable with their bodies. I think kissing is more challenging because it has to do with the actors more than editing.
Also difficult is how do you tell something [in sex] that is truthful and honest? People do have a prejudice and a harboring sense of judgmental eyes.But I wouldn’t do anything if it weren’t challenging, and you have to look at what makes you have this drive instead of playing it safe.
EH: A lot of artists fall into that playing it safe trap--I don’t want to tell that story because it’s crossing the boundary or it might offend people.
HAD: To me, it’s not worth it. My thing is, making a film is hard no matter what you wrote, so why would you want to end up with something that’s not you?
*Special note: 'Trigger Point' to go into production early 2009


Don said...

I wasn't sure that I'd be able to sit and read the entire interview so imagine my pleasant surprise when I finished the read, while wishing there was more.

Great interview, very insightful.

Don said...

Also, you're portfolio (re: profile read)is impressive. Keep up the great work.