Derek Nguyen is a multifaceted artist with a diversity of career accomplishments and personal experiences. He has worked as a writer, director, producer, and playwright on both films and stage dramas. And he is also very active in the Asian American arts scene, as he’s collaborated with Greg Pak, Risa Morimoto, Soomi Kim, as well as George Takei. In my interview with him below, he provides insights on issues like his own unique background, the state of Asian American film, and his new comedy, “The Potential Wives of Norman Mao.”
Q: How did you get involved in film and drama as a career?
A: I was born in Saigon in the heart of the war. My parents and I were boat people who escaped Vietnam after the fall in 1975 and settled in Jacksonville, Florida when a Catholic church sponsored us to get into the country. After living in Florida a few years, my family moved to Orange County, California to live with our extended family. I went to college in Santa Barbara, moved to LA after graduation, and have been living in New York for about 15 years.
I’ve always been interested in the theatre and started my career as a playwright. I loved live storytelling as a kid and wanted to be a part of that world.
Q: The Potential Wives of Norman Mao is a comedy about a socially awkward guy who needs help from his parents to find a wife, and it seems to be spoofing the idea of arranged marriages at one level. What was your thinking behind the premise and story for the film?
A: The story was inspired by personal experience actually. There was a period of time in which my step-mother would try to set me up with all these women every time there was a family function. She was quite obvious about it and it made everyone involved quite uncomfortable but it was really funny at the time. Of course, this all happened before I came out!
Q: What advice would you give to people interested in breaking into the film industry?
A: My advice to people who are interested in breaking into the film industry is to do it yourself. Don’t stop writing! Don’t stop getting behind the camera! Just do it. Use the internet to post your work. Get yourself out there. Be brave. Be honest. Be creative. And most of all, be you!
Q: The Potential Wives of Norman Mao has a Kickstarter website page to solicit donations for the project. Why did you choose to use this site in particular as a fundraising source? And what are the best ways to raise funds for film projects in general?
A: I love Kickstarter! We’ve had an amazing response from our Kickstarter campaign. I like the idea of “microfinancing” and bringing artistic projects to people you might not have the experience or opportunity to participate. I love the idea of working collectively to make something happen so everyone feels a sense of ownership and investment in the project. As you know, film is a collaborative art so the producers and I decided to open up our project to people who might want to get involved. They’re like our extended family! I really think the concept of “Doing It With Others” is the wave of the future.
Q: You’ve worked with Asian American filmmakers like Greg Pak and Risa Morimoto. What is your opinion on the general state of Asian American film? And what do think should be its future direction as a distinct artistic movement or aesthetic?
A: I believe that Asian American film is still in its infancy. I think we need more opportunities to grow and have producers trust our filmmakers more with larger budgets and expanding our stories to include subjects outside the immigrant story. I have a lot of hope for the future of Asian American film though because I’ve had the honor to work or meet with some filmmakers in the forefront of this upcoming revolution. I think the future of Asian American film will be largely dependent on Asian American producers. There are plenty of filmmakers out there that have amazing ideas, great stories, and infinite talent. But it’s a matter of getting producers to make it happen.
Q: One issue that often comes up in discussions about Asian American film is stereotypes — particularly those relating to Asian males. Is this an issue that you thought about in creating The Potential Wives of Norman Mao and the lead character of Norman?
A: I’m glad you brought up stereotyping! As an Asian American male writer, I’m very conscious of depictions of Asian men in entertainment and art. All of my films and plays feature an Asian American male character (it wasn’t conscious actually but it just came out that way). The characters range from private detectives, to forlorn lovers, to Bruce Lee! But when I was looking at the breadth of characters I had created, I realized that none of them were anything like me. They were all pretty macho and kick-ass. I’ve always been attracted to outsider characters. People who are not accepted for who they are and feel like they have to change themselves to be “normal.” I was developing Norman Mao a few years ago and I have to admit, I was a bit afraid of the reaction to him and if he was a stereotype. I even considered making him Caucasian! But then, I started to realize that I can’t do things out of fear and it became a challenge for me to make Norman not a stereotype. It forced me to go deeper into his character and work harder. And now, I feel that Norman is a rather positive depiction of an Asian man. I hope others agree when they see the film!
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