Touch marks Minh Duc Nguyen’s feature directorial debut. In this interview, Minh opens up about the challenge of being a Vietnamese-American filmmaker and what inspired him to set his multicultural story in a nail salon.
Born in Vietnam, Minh immigrated to America with his family in the 1980s as part of the “boat people” exodus. He attended UC Berkeley and graduated with a major in Molecular Cell Biology. It was also there that he discovered his love for creative writing and went on to graduate from USC film school. For the past several years, Minh has worked as an editor for a variety of television shows that have aired on MTV, ABC, NBC, Bravo, Lifetime, USA, Spike, E!, Style, HGTV, Oxygen, The Travel Channel, Sundance Channel, and SOAPnet.
I was planning on going to medical school because that was what my mother wanted for me. I didn’t really like science classes that much but I “stuck with it” because I didn’t have the courage to switch.
I went to see movies, plays, and read books regularly and just fell in love with anything that had to do with storytelling. In my senior year, I took some creative writing classes for my electives and discovered my love for writing. I started writing short stories as my creative outlet and getting a few published, which gave me confidence that I had some artistic talent.
I applied to graduate film school at USC, got accepted and never looked back.
I’d say my ethnicity and background influence heavily on my subject matter for Touch.
I chose Touch as my feature directorial debut since it was somewhat of a personal story about a subject matter that I really cared about – the sense of touch and the nail salon as its main setting. Almost every woman I’ve talked to has gone to a Vietnamese nail salon. Naturally, I thought the nail salon would be a fun place to set a story in.
A simple touch can stir one’s passion or can heal a tortured soul.
I wanted to touch on universal themes such as love, loss and the importance of human contact. The bond between two strangers, husband and wife, parents and child are explored…these are the things that all of us can relate to.
Never before had we had a movie about the hidden life of women working in a typical nail salon. I wanted to be the first…not just tell their stories but tell them from their point-of-views. I saw the nail salon as a perfect setting to write a multicultural story, a place where Vietnamese Americans interact daily with people from all walks of life.
The only people who freely touch one another without fear of being judged are kids.
The one thing that really fascinates me about manicurists is that they have to touch strangers’ hands every single day and touching someone’s hand is usually considered an intimate act in our society. I also wanted to bring up a point that in our American society, we have censored ourselves from touching others to avoid misunderstandings. Perhaps we have gone too far.
There were many memorial experiences in making this film, but if I had to choose one, it would be discovering Porter Lynn during the audition process. Touch is her first feature film and lead role. I think she will pleasantly surprise audiences with her mature poise and unassuming strength in portraying Tam.
Having very little money doesn’t mean your film has to look cheap. My experience at USC and working as a TV editor really helped me to make the most out of our limited resources and get the final product to be as high in quality as possible. I learned to be efficient on the set, even though we had a very small crew. We shot Touch in only 18 days.
The writer and director play very different roles. As a writer, I was my natural self, an introvert. To write, all I needed was my imagination. But as a director, I had to be an extrovert. It was hard for me, communicating my ideas to my cast and crew, gaining their trust and providing encouragement to do better. But I loved doing both!
Many filmmakers inspire me like Kurosawa, Kieslowski and Scorsese, and writers like Twain, Hemingway and Garcia Marquez. My parents inspire me with their work ethics and above all, their compassion, their patience and their survivor instinct.
The film business is a tough world for anyone to break into. My difficulty as a Vietnamese-American filmmaker is that if I try to tell a personal story, there might not be enough of an audience to watch my movie to make it profitable. Potential investors and producers would tell me that it was nice that I wrote stories about the Vietnamese American experience, but it would be a hard sell. There’s a constant pressure to tell a mainstream story, to avoid writing about the Vietnamese American experience all together.
I will try to write and direct personal stories in my own style.
After Touch, I would like to do a movie about the other four senses: sight, sound, taste, and smell. I also have a romantic horror script ready to go next and a documentary idea that I’m planning to co-direct/produce with an old classmate.
More of us are choosing this field as a career choice. I see more Asian-Americans in the film industry every year and I expect the same for Vietnamese-Americans.
As part of the Vietnamese International Film Festival 2011, Touch will be screening on April 16th at UC Irvine.
6:00pm – 7:30pm – Wine Reception (hosted by the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce – VACOC)
7:30pm – 9:20pm – Feature: Touch
9:20pm – 9:50pm – Q&A
San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival 2011
April 23, 2011, 4:15pm – 6:10pm
Coppola Theater, San Francisco State University
For more details, please visit the film’s website: http://www.touchthemovie.com