Filmmaker Spotlight: Derek Nguyen

Featured films this April on the X1 Asian American destination include “The Housemaid,” directed and wrote by Derek Nguyen. We got the chance to speak with Derek about the inspiration behind this film and his journey as a Vietnamese-American filmmaker.

Photo: Chris Leary

Tell us about your film featured on X1 this month!

Derek Nguyen: I wrote and directed a film called “The Housemaid.” It’s a Gothic romance/horror film set in 1953 Vietnam during the French Indochinese War. Linh, an orphaned country girl comes to a dilapidated French rubber plantation to find work and shelter. She gets hired to be the housemaid, falls in love with the French landowner, and discovers the estate is haunted. I’m proud to say that it’s the highest-grossing Vietnamese horror film of all time and that it’s been sold to 19 different territories. This was so unexpected and we’re so honored.

How did you get into filmmaking?

DN: I started out as a playwright and screenwriter before moving into directing and film producing. In 2002, I had written a play called “Monster” that the Sundance Institute was considering for their theater labs. The play didn’t end up getting in, but they strongly encouraged me to adapt the play into a screenplay. I spent several months writing the screenplay and I actually got into the 2004 Sundance Screenwriters Lab. From there I started learning more about film production, took classes at NYU, and did anything I could do to spend time on film sets. I finally directed a short, raising the financing through Kickstarter.

I knew that I wanted to direct as well as produce features, and wrote several feature-length screenplays, all for me to direct, but none of them were “financeable” (apparently Hollywood is wary of financing films with Asian American leads). Then I met Timothy Linh Bui through the project market at Visual Communications in LA. I pitched him the idea of “The Housemaid” and said that I wanted to shoot it in Vietnam, the country of my birth. He loved the idea and I wrote the script. Being an accomplished producer in Ho Chi Minh City, Tim took it to production companies and studios in Vietnam. HKFilms and CJ Entertainment came onboard and I was off to Vietnam to shoot my first feature!

The Housemaid Still (Photo Derek Nguyen)

What are some films and/or filmmakers that have inspired you?

DN: I find inspiration from many different kinds of films from comedies to period dramas to contemporary independent thrillers. But for “The Housemaid,” I was really influenced by Gothic romances such as “Bride of Frankenstein,” and “Dracula” as well as filmmakers Guillermo del Toro and Alfred Hitchcock. Other films that inspired “The Housemaid,” are “The Others,” “Let the Right One In,” “The Orphanage” and “The Witch.”

Do you have a favorite Asian American film?

DN: My favorite Asian American film is “The Wedding Banquet” by Ang Lee. It changed my life when I saw it in the mid-90s. It’s a witty and heartfelt film about love—both familial and romantic. I was deeply touched by the film and inspired me to become a filmmaker.

How does your Asian heritage influence your work?

DN: Absolutely. I find a lot of inspiration from my family and the country of my birth, Vietnam. Like for instance, “The Housemaid” is inspired by my grandmother, who was once a servant in a grand estate in Vietnam and ended up falling in love with the landowner. As a child, she used to love to tell me ghost stories. One of the things that stuck with me was that she believed that spirits lived in trees.

Then I learned about the atrocities that the Vietnamese rubber plantation workers experienced under the French landowners and I thought about how haunted the plantations must be. Thousands of Vietnamese men and women toiled at the French rubber plantations under debilitating and inhuman conditions. Dysentery, malaria, malnutrition, and back-breaking labor were rife. Merciless overseers systematically beat and tortured workers-many of them to death. If you visit the rubber plantations in Vietnam, you’ll notice that the soil is red. Many Vietnamese believe that the soil is red because of all the spilled blood of the Vietnamese workers. This is a lot to be inspired by!

The Housemaid Still (Photo Derek Nguyen)

What is your outlook on the state of Asian American cinema?

DN: I’m very hopeful and excited about the future of Asian American cinema. It is our time! I feel that audiences around the world are now open to see our stories and have started noticing our filmmaking. I’m optimistic.

What’s next for you?

DN: I am writing a new thriller script that’s set in the US that I’d like to direct. I also produce and work at Gamechanger Films, a film fund that finances narrative features directed by women. I’m a senior consultant for the Tribeca Film Institute. I’m producing a film called “I’m Not Down” by A. Sayeeda Moreno and working on the American remake of “The Housemaid.” I’m keeping myself busy.

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Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Derek Nguyen! Watch the “The Housemaid” series on the X1 Asian American destination or with Xfinity Stream this April.

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