Vengeful spirits manifest violently when a forbidden passion is awakened in the supernatural horror film, THE HOUSEMAID, arriving in theaters, VOD, and digital platforms in the U.S. on February 16. Ahead of the release, Shannon had the opportunity to speak with director Derek Nguyen about his experience shooting in Vietnam, debuting his first feature film, and how his grandmother inspired the story of THE HOUSEMAID.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Hi Derek, thank you so much for speaking with me today. THE HOUSEMAID is your feature film debut. What was your experience like going from producing, to directing a short, to directing THE HOUSEMAID?
Derek Nguyen: I actually 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 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!
Nightmarish Conjurings: My day job is an interior designer and one of the aspects of this film that stuck out to me was the beautiful mansion in which the film takes place. Where did you find such a gorgeous mansion and how much of the film did you get to shoot in Vietnam?
DN: 100% of the film was shot in Vietnam. The exteriors of the mansion were shot in Tien Giang, a province outside of Ho Chi Minh City. It was an old government building that had fallen into disrepair after the Vietnam War. The funny thing is that this building was actually in the middle of a bustling city. But I loved the location so much that we ended up using landscaping, art direction, and a little bit of CGI to make it look like it was located in the countryside. The interiors of that building were completely dangerous to shoot in (the floors were falling through and it was filled with bats)! So we shot the interiors in an old house in Buu Long, a city outside of Saigon. Our production designer Joji Pamintuan and I worked on getting the interiors of the house to be lush, dark, and eerie. During the French colonial period, the landowners would build mansions that were reminiscent of those in the French countryside, and we really wanted to get a strong sense of the faded aristocrazy of European colonialism. The surrounding areas of the mansion were shot in Dalat, which is known as the French Alps of Vietnam – where there are lots of lakes, pine forests, and waterfalls. Dalat is also known to be very haunted. The rubber factory was shot in Long Khanh at the oldest functioning rubber producing facility in Vietnam. I loved it because it has been preserved as exactly how it was back at the turn of the century.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Though this film is definitely a supernatural horror movie, there is a very strong romance story that is weaved in beautifully, and packs quite the punch at the end. What was your inspiration for this story and did you always know you wanted there to be a strong love story attached to it?
DN: Actually, the love story came first. The film 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 out for me is that she believed that spirits lived in trees. When I was on a trip to Vietnam, I learned about the atrocities that the Vietnamese rubber plantation workers experienced under the French landowners. 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. I wanted to tell their stories, which resulted in the horror aspects of the film. And I used that as the backdrop for a love story inspired by my grandmother.
Nightmarish Conjurings: CGI is used a lot in films nowadays, but it seems like you took great care in doing as much practical effects as you could. Can you talk about that process and what it was like?
DN: I really tired to shoot everything as practical as possible. I didn’t want to rely on too much CGI. And I wanted to make the scary aspects of the film feel real. But since it’s a ghost story, we had to do some CGI. I was lucky enough to work with Bad Clay Studio, a visual effects company in Saigon. They’ve worked on films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and X-Men: Days of Future Future, so I felt like I was in good hands. I had never made a film with a lot of CGI before so they were on set a lot, helping us every step of the way. Most of the ghosts were real actors with monster makeup designed by Brad Greenwood, who worked on Lord of the Rings and Kong: Skull Island.
Nightmarish Conjurings: What really sells this film, outside of the story, is the acting. How did you go about choosing actors for these roles? Did you have certain people in mind?
DN: Being new to the Vietnamese film industry, I had no idea where to start with casting when I first arrived in Saigon. I had to lean heavily on my producers because they had a lot of experience with Vietnamese actors and knew everyone in the industry. We saw MANY actresses for Linh and I narrowed it down after months of casting to three actresses. What was important to me was that the actress who played Linh be authentic, versatile, and gutsy. In the end, I ended up choosing Nhung Kate, an emerging actress who was just getting started in the industry. But Kate was so bold, wasn’t concerned about vanity, and mysterious at the same time. She was also able to manage both Vietnamese and Western acting styles, something I was impressed with. She was the perfect Linh and ended up witting a Special Jury Prize for Acting at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The rest of the Vietnamese cast are industry legends. Solid actors, super professional, and great to work with. Phi Phung, the actress who played the cook, Mrs. Ngo, is kind of the “Roseanne Barr” of Vietnam. She’s primarily known as a comic actress but took this role because she wanted to try something dramatic. Everywhere we went, people were stopping to take selfies with her and the rest of the Vietnamese cast. The actor who played Captain Sebastian Laurent is Jean-Michael Richaud, a good friend and colleague of my producer Timothy Linh Bui. And Rosie Fellner we found through our US casting director, Eve Battaglia. Jean-Michael and Rosie both recorded audio auditions and I loved them immediately! I had a few Skype meetings with them and within a couple of weeks, they were both on planes to Vietnam.
Nightmarish Conjurings: There is definitely a lot of subtext throughout the film – love, loss, memories, betrayal, etc. What, if anything, would you like the audience to take away from this film?
DN: To me, the film is about the choice between love and duty. Linh has many tough decisions to make throughout the film, and I wanted to explore when one eclipses the other. I also wanted to talk about the horrors of colonialism and how it still affects and informs the colonized culture many years after the colonization ended. I don’t think a lot of people know about the atrocities of Vietnamese indentured servants during the colonial periods, and I wanted to talk about these issues in an entertaining way.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Last, but not least, are you working on any projects that we should be keeping our eye out for in the future?
DN: I am writing a new script that’s set in the US that I’d like to direct. I also work at Gamechanger Films, a film fund that finances narrative feature films directed by women. And I’m currently working as a 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 that Oscar-winner Geoffrey Fletcher will be scripting. I’m keeping myself busy.