Saturday Night Live is going into its 40th year, and it’s now the subject of a documentary, Live From New York!, which opened the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday, April 15, 2015. Vietnamese American filmmaker Bao Nguyen helmed the project, and he was given access to interviews with creator Lorne Michaels, cast members over the years, and cultural critics who could speak to the impact that the show has had on American culture.
We know the Saturday Night Live cast members and alumni, many of whom have gone on to become America’s most beloved comedy stars–but who is the man behind the camera? I talked to Nguyen, who, in addition to directing Live From New York, is the producer and cinematographer for 2030 (NUOC) (CAAMFest 2015) and director of the new CAAM-funded PBS webseries Employed Identity, which features stories of artists and entertainers from the Vietnamese diaspora working in Vietnam. Employed Identity launches Thursday, April 23, 2015 on PBS.org.
How did you first become interested in filmmaking?
As far as I can remember, I used to sketch all the time. I would find anything to draw on and I couldn’t find any paper to draw on, I would take my finger and draw on air. I guess that’s where I would trace back my interest in visuals. Later on in elementary school, I would always try to create a video out of all the written assignments. My parents didn’t have a camcorder so I borrowed my neighbor’s VHS camcorder all the time to visualize the written homework assignments. I’m sure my classmates thought I was a total suck up.
What were some of your favorite films growing up, that may have inspired you to go into the entertainment industry?
Hoop Dreams is really one of the first films that had an indelible memory for me and really made me shift my notion of film as a form of entertainment to an art form.
You take on many different roles, whether it’s director, cinematographer, producer, photographer, creating documentaries, music videos. Do you consider any of these roles to be your primary passion, or is it all different variations of the same passion?
I think it’s all the variation of the same passion. It’s kind of a cliche for filmmakers to say this but it always comes down to wanting to tell a story. For me, growing up such a visual person, I always want to tell a story in a unique way through aesthetics. For that reason, I see any and all the roles I’ve played as a step in that process.
How did Employed Identity come about?
Funnily enough, it started with my parents. My dad moved back to Vietnam about 15 years ago, and it was interesting to see the reasons why he left his pretty well-adjusted life in America to return to the country he left 20 years earlier. Sooner after he returned to Vietnam, my mom joined him, so I came back a lot to visit them a lot. That’s when I noticed that there was a whole influx of Vietnamese Americans moving to Vietnam, not just my parents’ age, but also many people my age.
I found that whole phenomenon intriguing and wanted to learn more. In the webseries, we follow five young Vietnamese from all over the world who come back to pursue their creative passions. This is a phenomenon taking place not just in Vietnam but all over the world. I would love to continue the series by examining diaspora returning to their homelands in different countries. The title Employed Identity comes from the notion that most of these individuals moving back to places like Vietnam are usually not happy with their employment situation back at home. They return to find better employment in most cases but at the same time they find their Asian identities.
Your SNL documentary just opened the Tribeca Film Festival. How did you get involved in it?
The Executive Producer/Producer of the film, JL Pomeroy, had worked with me in the past on a short film I directed. She pitched the idea of the documentary with her fellow Executive Producer Tom Broecker, who has been the costume designer for SNL for the past 25 years, to Lorne Michaels, and once Lorne agreed, the rest is history.
Was there a certain era of SNL that you found most interesting as a documentarian and why?
I think the first of anything is always the most fascinating because you really see how things formed in those beginning years. In the inaugural year of anything, the first participants are always the experimental guinea pigs so that’s always very intriguing to learn about.
How did you get involved in 2030 (NUOC), and what was it like shooting the film with director Nghiem-Minh Nguyen Vo?
Minh, the director, had been referred to me by Stephane Gauger, who directed two previous films in Vietnam, Owl and the Sparrow and Saigon Electric. I had worked with Stephane on Saigon Electric as one of the cinematographers along with Stephane. Minh was originally asking Stephane if he wanted to shoot the project but Stephane was unable to so Minh offered me the job after meeting me and talking about our approach to film. Working with Minh is great since he really trusts his team as creative collaborators and fellow artists. He really trusts the department heads of the film and let’s them form their own creative vision respective to their jobs.
There seems to be a tight-knit community of Vietnamese American filmmakers/talent that have been found success making films in Vietnam. Arguably, more than other Asian American groups that try to make films in their native countries. Do you have any theories as to why this has been successful?
I think the Vietnamese American film community is quite small and because there are so few of us, we all know each other and always tend to work on each others’ projects. We all have a passion to tell stories about Vietnam through our own Vietnamese American perspective, and I think this shared mission really creates this bond. I grew up on the East Coast and most of the Vietnamese American film community is based in California, so I didn’t really have this sense of community until I met many of them through Anderson Le, who is the Director of Programming at the Hawaii International Film Festival and really the thread that connects everyone. I think the Asian American filmmaking community as a whole has a great respect for one another and I think that has really motivated and inspired me to keep making films especially about our own experiences.
Just because you’re dating Vietnamese rapper Suboi, which is pretty cool–I’m wondering if you have any musical talents. Do you sing, rap, or produce music, or do you tend to stick to visual arts?
Ha, I leave the music and rapping to Suboi other than in the karaoke room.
Any other upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I’m developing a few big projects coming up–one I can’t talk about until we get written permission from the estate but it’s about another American icon that has really influenced and left an impact on American culture just as much as SNL, and the other is my directorial feature fiction debut set in Vietnam.
This is an edited version of an interview that was originally posted at XFinity.