Stories We Tell with Lee Isaac Chung & Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen joins Lee Isaac Chung on the A24 Podcast to discuss art, failure, and fatherhood.

An epic conversation with Minari filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung and novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen on the gift of failure, the vulnerability of fatherhood, and knowing when it’s time to tell your own story.

Topics covered include: career trajectories, seeing yourself through your children’s eyes, the traveling circus energy of a film set, paying to play, knowing failure, making art for yourself, the impact of the Hollywood stereotypes we grow up with, American hang-ups about the Vietnam War, the legendary Park Chan-wook, whether Isaac would make a Marvel movie, the artistry of Minari, and why every immigrant story should be considered an epic.

Read the transcript below.

Speaker: Hey and welcome back to The A24 Podcast. For today’s episode, we introduced Minari writer-director Lee Isaac Chung to novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who we’re currently working with on the TV adaptation of his Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Sympathizer, which Park Chan-wook is set to direct.

Last week, Isaac and Viet talked by Zoom and, after discovering they’re basically next-door neighbors, went on to have an incredible conversation about their approaches to art and storytelling. We’re so excited for you to listen.

Lee Isaac Chung: Hello. I’m Isaac Chung, the writer-director of Minari.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hi, this is Viet Thanh Nguyen, I’m the writer of The Sympathizer and The Committed, and I’m talking with Isaac today for The A24 Podcast. Now Isaac, we’ve actually never met. This is our first time meeting each other, virtually or in real life.

Isaac: First time, yeah. I read your book when it first came out and honestly, I love it. I love that book. I was so excited to see that we were going to do something together.

Viet: Yeah, me too. I mean, we’re going to get into all this, and I love Minari too. But I just want to find out, where are you calling from?

Isaac: I’m in South Pasadena, California.

Viet: Oh my gosh. I’m in Pasadena. I didn’t realize we were neighbors.

Isaac: We should be together, Viet, to do this.

Viet: How long have you been in South Pasadena?

Isaac: I guess I’ve been here since 2015. How about yourself?

Viet: 2018. And the thing is, I had thought about moving to Pasadena in 2005, I was living in Silver Lake in Los Angeles. It’s a really exciting neighborhood, and then I went to Pasadena to look at a place. And I thought, “This place is so nice and so quiet, and there’s no helicopters hovering overhead, and people are walking their dogs on the street.” And I thought, “This is not for me, this is way too boring. I’ve got to go back to Silver Lake where there’s police sirens every day, every hour on Sunset Boulevard.” Because I was living right above Sunset Boulevard. And then in 2018, I got old and I was like, “Oh, Pasadena is now the right place for me.”

Isaac: Yeah, we looked at Silver Lake when we moved out here, we were living in Brooklyn. And we saw how narrow the roads were there and we just thought, “Okay, we’re going to get stressed out over here.” We got so stressed out in New York in general. We went completely for the easiest place to live, and that’s South Pasadena.

Viet: Yeah. I mean Silver Lake feels like Williamsburg. When I went to Williamsburg, I thought, “Oh my God, they just airlifted everybody from Williamsburg to Silver Lake.”

One of the things I learned about you from your interviews, of course, is that you’re a father, and I am too. And I think that was actually the major reason why I moved to Pasadena, because Silver Lake with kids was just a little bit too much for me. And I was really struck—obviously we’ll talk about Minari and the family dimensions there—but I was also really struck in some of your interviews when you talk about yourself, autobiographically, your own childhood, and then becoming a father, it really resonated with me, because I’ve gone through some of those same feelings. I had the chance to see myself by looking at my own children—my oldest son as he reached my age at four years old, for example, when some things happened to me coming to the United States. And then I saw my parents as well, because I never thought about my parents in that way. In your interviews, you were also talking about part of the challenge of doing Minari was also to see yourself through your children’s eyes, or see your children and see yourself, and then also to see your parents in a new way too.

Isaac: It kind of untethers the perspective a bit, is the way I felt. I remember as soon as my daughter was born at the hospital, and I saw her on the weight measuring thing, they kind of plop her on there—it felt like a part of my body, basically, that’s so integral to my survival was just placed right outside of myself. It kind of untethered my feeling of who I am as a person, it expanded it somehow, it took me out of myself somehow, which I needed. I was way too in my own head, in my own space, before that.

Viet: Yeah. I think I share that in common with you as well. I mean, there’s something, to me anyway, really self-centered about being a writer. I think that maybe it’s a little bit different for a filmmaker where you have to interact with people at some point in what you do. But for me as a writer, I just sit in a room by myself for thousands and thousands of hours, living within my own head and being kind of selfish, because you have to be selfish to find that time, selfish in the face of people who want your time.

Isaac: Yeah.

Viet: And that includes your loved ones. And that can be challenging, both for me, but also for the people who are my closest people.

Isaac: Right. I’m sure you have people who are very patient, who love you and are supporting you. I felt like I definitely had to go through that with my own family. My wife is so incredibly understanding and gives me that space, but I feel terrible so often, especially when I’m in the screenwriting phase, because it’s just like what you’re saying. It’s kind of a lonely process and very self-centered in many ways.

Viet: Yeah. My public self only happens when I go on book tour, for example. I spend years and years writing a book, and then I’ve got to go on book tour, which I’m not complaining about, because a lot of authors don’t get to go on book tour. But when I go on book tour, I have to all of a sudden switch from being alone to being in front of hundreds of people in front of a microphone like this on a radio station, and present a part of myself that is me, but it’s a really weird version of me. It’s like the part that I can turn on for an hour or two hours, and then after that, I’m totally exhausted. I go back to the hotel room and I drink myself to sleep basically, when I’m on book tour.

But I’m curious, are you an introvert? And then, do you have to challenge yourself when you actually have to get to the social part of filmmaking, which is everything from the meetings to the actual making of the movie?

Isaac: I think I’m similar to you in that, this aspect of it—kind of bringing the work out into the public—that part’s tough for me. I’m kind of the type who’s very careful about what I say. And what I love about filmmaking is that I can edit a lot and come out finally with something when I’m ready for it to come out. But with engagements like this, I will sit there and think about every word that I said later and tear it apart, and wish that I hadn’t said this or that. It’s this weird sort of thing for me.

But the actual production part of it, strangely enough—I am an introvert—but once I fall into that, I always feel like it’s a very communal, family sort of experience. And, I love it. I need it to get out of my introverted ways. I have to kind of go through the pain of getting to know everybody and figuring out who everybody is, remembering their names. And then, once we’re on the way of making a film together as a community, it feels like a traveling circus or something, where you’re really developing interesting friendships and stuff.

Viet: Yeah. I’ve only hung out on a film set once or twice, and that was only at the after party. As a writer, I’m in charge of my own fate for the most part. Once a book is published, then there’s other factors that come into play, like the sales and whatnot. But, the art of it is purely my own, and I don’t have to respond to anybody, except maybe my agent or my editor at the final stages. And my wife has read most of what I’ve written as well, but it’s mostly me.

And so, whenever I look at someone who’s involved in a collaborative enterprise, like a filmmaker, and then you’re the director, I’m overwhelmed by the thought of—I imagine you have to be sort of the leader on a film set, everybody’s looking to you. Even if you’re collaborating and you have other people that you’re depending on to do different parts of the film, they’re still looking to you in the end for the final say. And I just don’t know how I would hold up under something like that.

Isaac: Yeah. I think what’s hard about it is knowing how many decisions you have to make throughout a day. And you have to often make them so quickly, because if you’re taking too much time on a decision, then it holds up a production or preparation for something. So, everything requires that diligent, measured decision-making. But, the leadership aspect of it, I’ve always felt like for directors, what works best for me is to think of myself more like a maestro, that’s kind of what I’ve considered in this work.

Everybody is incredibly talented and you’re just trying to balance everybody together. And everybody looks to you, not to tell them exactly what to do, but basically to have some guidance, “Am I doing it right in relation to the whole?” That can be an empowering process, or a director is someone who can empower people, and that’s an aspect of the work that I quite like. I’ve got to say that the writing aspect and the editing, those tend to be a lot easier for me because you have more time to just sit there and think things through. And, I think a lot of the creative elements of making a film have to originate in, or be fully invested in, that aspect of a project.

Viet: Yeah. And I’m trying to remember from your biography, I know that you went to Yale and you were a biology major, I think initially, for a few years. I know that you made your first movie sort of as an untrained filmmaker, you were teaching film and you decided that you wanted to—the best way to teach a film was to make a movie, if I remember this correctly.

Isaac: Yeah, that’s right.

Viet: But, did you go to film school? Because I don’t remember that, whether you did or didn’t, from your biography.

Isaac: Yeah, I had already gotten an MFA at the University of Utah. So, this was the first fiction, feature film that I made out of film school. I understand you’re also a professor, is that right, or you have taught?

Viet: Oh, I’m definitely a professor. It’s the bane of my existence. I love my students and everything, but when I’m teaching, I don’t get any writing done.

Isaac: It’s tough.

Viet: Yeah, it’s tough. And I have my PhD, not in the creative arts, but in English, so I’m trained as a scholar. So I had to teach myself how to write fiction. I took a couple of writing workshops and so on, but I didn’t like them. I know you like Flannery O’Connor, and one of the things that Flannery O’Connor’s said—and she went to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the most famous one in the country—and she said, “It’s just a case of the blind leading the blind when it comes to writing workshops,” because the students are writing, and then they’re reading each other’s work. And I felt exactly the same way. And so, I taught myself how to write and it was a very long, and difficult, and painful apprenticeship that lasted about 20 years. I taught myself how to write by writing a short story collection, and that’s how long it took.

Isaac: Wow. When did that begin for you? How old were you when you started on that journey?

Viet: Well, when I first moved to L.A. right after my PhD, I was 26, and I had a summer off before I started teaching at USC. So, I sat down and I wrote a short story collection. I’d done some before that, but this was my first idea that I’m going to try to write a book. That was 1997. And that book was eventually published in 2017, so that was 20 years for that short story collection. It came out after The Sympathizer, which came out in 2015. But the suffering and the agony that I went through in writing that book made me into a writer, because it was about endurance, rejection, and just living with the art by myself.

I’m curious about you because I know, if I remember right, you characterized doing Minari as your last chance. You’d done a few other films before, and I’m just kind of curious about the backstory there. Were they not successful enough financially, and were you feeling some kind of crisis before you embarked on Minari?

Isaac: Basically, I just felt like all the movies I was making, I was paying to play basically. I was shelling out so much money to get films made. And I was self financing. It just wasn’t a sort of craft that I felt I could do long-term. And I had gotten this teaching job offer for the University of Utah in Korea, they have a campus in Korea. And before that job started—I actually went and did that for a year—I decided, “Okay, this is it, I’m going to write this one last script, and then I’ll just become a professor.” And, I felt like I probably would not be able to continue making films if I’m a professor. And also, I was kind of tired of trying so hard to get these films made on my own dime. Yeah, I felt like maybe the door was closing for me.

Viet: I love these stories. Sometimes in the world of literature, we fetishize the young. Like, “Ooh, here’s this 25-year-old. He just got a million-dollar advance, and their book is on the New York Times bestseller list.” And I hate these people. I don’t begrudge them their success or anything, but I’m like, “Oh my God, do you know what failure means?” Then sometimes, I look at some of these career trajectories and someone comes out real hot at a young age, and then they don’t publish for like 10 or 20 years. And I wonder, what are they going through?

I think that’s a much more interesting artistic story because it’s one thing to deal with success, that’s challenging, but I think it’s a lot harder to deal with failure. Overcoming failure, it builds your character, but I think it’s also crucial, to me, for art. Most of the time, art is about failure. It’s about learning from mistakes, and also learning how to stand by yourself outside of the world of approbation and awards and money and all that kind of thing. It’s great to have all that, I don’t deny that, but it was really important for me to make a decision when I wrote The Sympathizer after, at that point, 14 or 15 years of struggling with the short story collection, that I was going to write this novel for me, not for New York, not for my agent or my editor, or whatever. And that came out of confronting failure, and deciding that it didn’t matter if I failed. So that’s why I like these stories about artists who come right up to the brink, and it seemed like you were there at the brink.

Isaac: It was just the same with this film. You could see the texture of the story. One aspect of it is a man contending with his failure and his lack of significance, in a way, in his work. And he’s really fighting to get that done, but I didn’t know that story, for yourself, with The Sympathizer. That’s wonderful. I love how you gave yourself freedom for that, and what came out of that. It must’ve been amazing for you that people are connecting with that book in a profound way, once you shifted your own goals with that book.

Viet: I mean, it’s not an autobiographical book. It’s about a spy, a liar, a womanizer, an alcoholic, ultimately a murderer. I’m none of those things, except for maybe drinking a lot [laughs]. But it was also very liberating for me personally. And it was autobiographical only to the extent that I took some of my experiences growing up as a Vietnamese refugee in San Jose, California in the 1970s and 1980s, of feeling displaced and out of place, feeling like I was constantly spying on people, no matter where I was. Like in my parents’ Vietnamese household, I was an American spying on them. And then when I stepped outside into the rest of the American world, I was a Vietnamese spying on Americans. I took that feeling and I blew it up into The Sympathizer.

Isaac: That’s wonderful. I felt it when I was reading that character. I kind of felt that in my own self.

Viet: I know that Minari, for you, came out of a deeply autobiographical impulse that I don’t think was present in the other movies that you did.

Isaac: Right. Not so much.

Viet: Because it seemed like, when I was reading your interviews, that this might’ve been hard for you to do, to get to that autobiographical space. Is that right?

Isaac: I think so. I used to just feel more comfort looking at stories of other people. I’ve always been suspicious of projects that are super-autobiographical because I’m not always sure that they hold interest for other people. I didn’t think that me growing up on a farm in Arkansas was necessarily an interesting story, so I stayed away from it. But it was like you said, I started to decide I’m not going to make this film for anyone else. I’m just going to try to do something that’s quite personal, and something that matters deeply to me, and see if it can even be made. If not, I felt I’ll always have that script that I can show my daughter. That was one of the thoughts that I had with it.

Viet: I grew up in San Jose, my parents were refugee shopkeepers. They opened perhaps the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose. So in some ways, a very different experience than what you have talked about in Minari, and your own childhood, but in some ways kind of similar because of that sort of first-generation American experience, and just working really, really hard. But my feeling when I was growing up, and later for decades was, “Well, that’s not very interesting.” My parents had an interesting life, I think. They lived through war, and famine, and colonization, and all of these terrible things, but I was just some kid growing up watching all of this happening.

So I never wrote autobiographically, except for one short story in The Refugees about that time. So it was very, very hard for me to write autobiographically, because I just didn’t think I was very interesting, in the same way, I think, that you’re characterizing this childhood on a farm in Arkansas. But in many ways, I think that everybody’s story is interesting, no matter what that happens to be. The real challenge is to try to find a way to tell that story in an interesting fashion. But no story itself is uninteresting. It’s just how we do it.

Of course, the critical and the popular response to Minari, it has been overwhelmingly the case that people did find so much resonance in your story. Korean Americans certainly have talked a lot about this movie, but most of the reviews are not written by Korean Americans, and the reviewers have been equally enthusiastic about that as well. So your movie really, because it was so genuinely about your own experience, but also because of the art of it—I want to talk about that. I think it’s a beautiful movie. It connected, and I hope that anybody who’s listening to this podcast takes that away from this podcast, that every story is powerful. It’s up to you to try to find a way to render it that way.

Isaac: Yeah. Thanks so much for that. The response has been really quite unexpected. I didn’t want the film to just be a very personal story that is only relevant to me. So there was some intention in making sure that it can be a welcoming place for other people, but at the same time, I didn’t expect this, I guess. I didn’t expect this kind of response to it. That’s been incredible.

Viet: How hard was it to pull this together, the financing and then obviously getting a really incredible cast of actors? Sometimes what, in my mind, hampers some independent movies is sometimes the acting is not that great sometimes. The heart is there, and the writing is there, and the vision may be there, but sometimes the acting just doesn’t quite happen. And in this case, you hit everything. That includes getting an incredible set of performers. Can you just talk about that?

Isaac: Yeah. I’m surprised I got the actors I did for this film. Once I was in Korea, I was living there and teaching, a friend of mine—her name is In-Ah Lee, she’s a producer—she read the script and she said that she thinks this is going to resonate with a lot of people, a lot of actors. She’s very well known in Korea. She got the script over to Youn Yuh-jung, who plays the grandmother, and to Han Yeri who plays the mother. I had no idea that they would be interested in this story and in this film. We were completely fortunate and lucky that Youn Yuh-jung, for instance, had taken some time off from her work. Normally, actors are booked up for like a year at least, in Korea, if they’re well-known, but she just happened to be taking time off. And Han Yeri, she had a window in her schedule in which she would be able to do this film. And they came on board in March of 2019, and we went into production in July.

Let me jump backwards a bit. Plan B and Christina Oh, our producer, came on board, I think in February of 2019. We ended up filming this in the summer and getting this out at Sundance in January of 2020. So it was all in less than a year that we made this film. That was really quick. Yeah, Steven came on board with Plan B, with Christina, and I think A24 ended up giving us the greenlight in April of 2019. A lot of people in the industry, when they hear our story of how quickly we got this made, they’re quite amazed, because a lot of films, you’re sitting on them for years. Especially personal films like this. People often say, “I’ve been sitting on this for nine years, trying to get this made,” but for us, it was less than a year. So that was pretty wild.

But everybody was so dedicated to telling this story. I think because everybody took it very personally somehow. Like Youn Yuh-jung came on board and she said this story reminds her of her own relationship with her grandmother, her great grandmother, actually. Han Yeri felt like it really reflects a lot of women in her life that she wanted to portray. And Steven Yeun felt like this really captures the story of his own family and upbringing in the US. So there are so many of us who just came on board and decided to run with it, because it was so personal to all of us. I feel like that’s how we were able to power through and get this thing made.

Viet: Yeah. Again, as a writer, I don’t have those kinds of stories because we sit in rooms by ourselves, and we don’t get the whole family sense, the collaborative sense or the cooperative sense, of bringing together a team of people with a shared passion. But one of the things that I envy about Korean filmmaking and Korean American filmmaking is the power of Korean popular culture and the export of Korean popular culture all over the world. I know yours is not a Korean movie, but you’re bringing in these established Korean actors, and there’s this continuity, and of course, the success of Korean cinema has opened doors for everybody from Korea, but also Korean Americans as well.

Whereas in my context, I know quite a few Vietnamese American filmmakers, and a bunch of them went back to Vietnam to do their careers because number one, they ran into obstacles in Hollywood, and then in Vietnam, they become A-list directors and then other people, Vietnamese Americans, become famous actors and all that. But in Vietnam, the film situation, I don’t think, is anywhere near what it is in Korea, partly because of financing, but also partly because of politics in Vietnam, that there’s a lot of “political politics,” like censorship, and the government, and the Communist Party. They make things very tricky. So I hope that Vietnamese cinema gets to where Korean cinema is, some time. I don’t know what it’s going to take, but that’s one of the admirable things about what South Korea has been able to do.

The Sympathizer, for example, can’t be published in Vietnam. It’s painful for me when I see other American authors get their books translated into Vietnamese. I’m like, “Well, it would be nice if Vietnamese American authors could get translated into Vietnamese in Vietnam.” Because a bunch of us are not allowed to be published there, simply because what we deal with—many of us being refugees or the children of refugees—we deal with topics that are historically inextricable from what happened during the war, and the aftermath, and communists.

Isaac: Yeah.

Viet: I know in your work, Minari is a very autobiographical movie, very personal, but I think you’ve been pretty clear about saying that it emerges out of a very personal space for you, and not out of this other historical space. I think you’ve said that you thought of Minari as a movie about Arkansas and about farming, working-class life, not really about immigrants or Korean Americans. I’m interested in that. I think that’s a great approach. There are so many different approaches that fall under what we call Asian American cinema or Korean American cinema, if you want to use those terms. I know those are terms that can be both empowering but also limiting, for obvious reasons. We can also call your work American cinema too, and global cinema. You can see all kinds of shades and shadows of global influences on your work, as you’ve talked about.

Isaac: I guess I never actively shun making an Asian American film. Specifically with this one, I knew that that was just naturally going to be a texture and part of this film, but I didn’t want it to solely be that. I didn’t want it to solely be a work about identity, and I wanted it to work on a different level. And I was thinking about stories of the land, stories of America, and there are many different stories from literature that I was drawn to as I thought about this film. The Steinbeck influence is there, and Flannery O’Connor and the way that she handles the idea of grace and redemption.

So, I had many different ideas about it, and I think central to it was that idea of the journey that my community in Arkansas, I felt, was on. I guess, as I was growing up during that time, what I felt around me in terms of farming life, in terms of the ways that those small farms were disappearing. I felt a lot of community with different people I grew up with in that way, and I wanted to tell a story about that, but knowing that it’d be a Korean American family that’s in the middle of that, I thought that could be a very interesting story because it allows two different worlds to come together, and hopefully shows that the divisions that we’re often placing within ourselves in this country are somewhat arbitrary, sometimes; somehow that those divisions don’t need to be there, that there’s a deeper humanity to all of us.

Viet: Well, I mean, if you look at Asian American history, much of Asian America was rural and agricultural throughout much of the 19th and 20th century. So, it’s really only after the 1965 Immigration Act that you’ve referred to that opened the doors to all these new migrants and stuff, that we had really much larger urban concentrations of people. And so much of Asian American cultural production, whether it’s literature or film, has been focused on these urban experiences, and yet I know there are obviously Asian Americans in the South. They’ve been in the South for a very long time, since the 19th century.

Isaac: The Vietnamese community, too.

Viet: Yeah, and the Vietnamese community in Louisiana and Texas and so on. And there are so many more stories to be told about these experiences that are rural but which simply don’t fit sort of the standard or stereotypical Asian American mold. So, I’m excited about that. I think films like yours open one set of doors, as people think about a different set of possibilities and stories.

When I wrote The Sympathizer, I was thinking of some of the same—not the same thing, but I was thinking that in my context, as a Vietnamese refugee, Vietnamese American, the easiest way for me to get published in this country is to do what publishers want. And when publishers look at me, I think what they want is, “Oh, the Vietnamese immigrant story: refugee, shopkeeper, hard life. We know that that’s what happens to immigrants. Too bad. But the second generation gets to tell the stories of the first generation. That’s how we know the American dream has happened.” And I thought, “I’m not going to write that story.” In my case, what I wanted to do was to attack America’s version of history in Vietnam and in the Vietnam War.

I’m curious about this, since you’re a filmmaker. I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s and I was saturated with the Vietnam War in terms of Hollywood. I don’t think you even had to have an interest in the Vietnam War, that was what was out there, in terms of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket and Rambo. If you were growing up and you were watching movies, that’s part of what you saw. And that was deeply damaging to me as a Vietnamese person, seeing myself, or people like me, shown in these horrifying ways. But were you watching those movies? Did you see any of those movies when you were growing up?

Isaac: Oh, I saw those movies, and I love how you kind of go in there in your book and try to blow it all up with the nod to the Coppola film. I might’ve been more of an ’80s kid, the movies I was growing up with. So, I remember Short Round, and then all of the John Hughes, the Asian guys in them. Those were my reference points for Asians in Hollywood, and those weren’t very good, either. The things that I think you and I grew up with were unhealthy for us, frankly, and I’m sure it’s something that you had to work through, I had to work through, or I felt like I had to work through.

Viet: Yeah, and too bad it’s taken such a long time to work through them. I think that, again, we live in a culture that fetishizes youth and all this kind of thing, but sometimes it takes decades to process these kinds of things, emotionally and intellectually, but also decades to be ready artistically to talk about them. I think with Minari you’ve talked about how it—I guess maybe you couldn’t have done this movie earlier. Like, you did this movie now partly because you were emotionally capable of handling it, and I felt that was the same way for me.

I couldn’t have written The Sympathizer when I was 25. I was a totally different person, and there’s something about—that it took this long to acquire the technical skills to write the novel, but also to acquire the emotional, I don’t know if wisdom is the right word, but capacity to talk about some of the terrible things that have happened either to me or to my family or to Vietnamese people. Is that right, it took you a long time to get ready to be able to do a movie like Minari?

Isaac: I think so. I really believe in that idea of things needing to happen at the right time in one’s life. And in fact, I heard about The Sympathizer, that it’s going to get made into a series. I don’t know if you’re allowed to talk about that much at all, but I was really thrilled to hear that. And I’m curious if you feel like it’s the right time for that, and how are you thinking about that transition of the text into screen?

Viet: Well, it’s been a few years where we were trying to sell the rights to The Sympathizer, and those few years were its own kind of journey. The novel won the Pulitzer in 2016 and then people started to get interested. So I’m very skeptical of Hollywood. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about what happens to writers in Hollywood, either novelists who go to Hollywood or just what happens to screenwriters. At the same time, eventually I did find people whose visions I trust and who seemed extremely competent in terms of getting this done. And perhaps it’s not an accident that the producer who eventually did the first option on The Sympathizer is Canadian, because I frankly think Americans would totally screw me on this [laughs]. Just the American hangups about the Vietnam War are so bad that Americans have a hard time seeing around their own preoccupations and all that. And that’s true, I think, in the case of the Korean War and how Korea is looked at in the American imagination, and so many other situations like that.

So Canadians are working on it. A24 has now got the option on it, and I love what A24 does with your movie and with other shows that they have done. And of course the big news, which I kind of leaked prematurely, was that Park Chan-wook is the director. When I heard that, and I’ve met him a few times now, too, I was like, “Wow, I’m blown away,” because I was already a huge fan of Park Chan-wook. I’ve seen most of his movies, and Oldboy, it just blew my mind. And it was a major influence on The Sympathizer—to have someone who did Oldboy come and do The Sympathizer—and I’d seen his other work. The Handmaiden is fabulous to look at, it’s a great story. He did Little Drummer Girl for TV, and that’s a really well-executed TV series. So, just at the level of possibility, I’m really enthusiastic about where we’re at right now.

Isaac: Yeah, I was so thrilled to hear that. Are you going to be doing the screenwriting for it as well, or guiding that approach?

Viet: I really don’t want to do that. I’m a novelist first and foremost, so I want to write novels. And it’s supposed to be a trilogy. The sequel, The Committed, is already out, and I have to write the third part of the trilogy, which is, in my mind, going to bring us back to Southern California in the 1980s, and will include things about Little Saigon and Koreatown. I’m going to incorporate Korean American history into this, and the role of the Korean army in the Vietnam War. So, I need to finish those so they can turn them hopefully into additional seasons. But I’ve been very active in meetings and in the creative side of the TV adaptation, and with Don McKellar, the writer. We worked on an outline of the seven episodes for The Sympathizer, so at the level of the conception I’ve been very active.

So, I heard that you have, obviously, new opportunities after Minari, and the next one, I don’t know how far along you are in this, but it’s a live action adaptation of an anime film?

Isaac: Yeah, that’s right. I’m working on that and seeing if I can get it ready in time for us to film this year, but I’m working on a project called Your Name based on the Japanese animated film, and that’s with Bad Robot and Paramount, and that’s who I’m working with for this one. it’s a new opportunity, and my first time working with one of the major studios, so that’s interesting. The storytelling, at the same time, is always the same, even if the level of a film, budget-wise and time-wise, changes. So, I’m feeling good about this one, and I’m kind of eager to get back to work as well, just because I’ve been cooped up in the home for the past year. It’s weird, our Minari release has been longer than our actual making of the film. It took us less than a year to get it made and to get it out there, but then we’ve been sitting on it for about a year and a half and promoting it for that long.

Viet: Yeah, and I mean, it’s obviously a good thing that people are paying attention and keeping you busy on the PR front and the promotion, but it is hard to be away from the creative side.

I’ll tell you, one of the most irritating questions that I think a writer can get, a novelist, is: “So, when are they turning your book into a movie or a TV show?” As if that’s the ultimate sign of approbation and success. So, I’m going to ask you hopefully an equally irritating question. Do you want to make a superhero movie? Because I figure that for many people that’s the equivalent, like, “Oh, you’re not really a director until you do an MCU movie.”

Isaac: My tendency is that I love very grounded stories about human beings, so I would have some trepidation about doing that, but I mean, I also want to just have fun with it. So, I’m open to it but I’m not completely sure if I would do it. It’d have to be right. My nephews would be thrilled, so [laughs].

Viet: I think that’s the primary reason for doing those kinds of things, is to impress your relatives.

Isaac: You just try and stay cool a bit.

Viet: Yeah. I was on an episode of Late Night with Seth Meyers, and for my teenage nephews and nieces, that was a big deal. Like, “Oh, my God. You were on that!” And it’s like, “Okay, if that’s what it takes to impress you all, then that’s fine.” So, I’m all for doing those kinds of things.

I’ve seen a lot of social media responses to the movie from Korean Americans and Asian Americans. That’s a big part of my social circle. I know that’s not the only audience for your work, but the response has been so visceral for a lot of Korean and Asian Americans, a lot of people on social media saying they cried, they saw themselves and their families in this story. And I know that when you showed it to your own family, it being an autobiographical movie and you were, of course, worried about their reactions to it, they also cried watching it as well. I can’t help but think that’s really personal. That’s really powerful to know that you’ve been able to touch people in this way, especially people who are close, either in the familial way or in the ethnic experience.

Isaac: I’m not going to lie and try to be modest about it. It’s incredibly fulfilling. My heart feels so full about it, because in a way, it feels like I’ve been able to be part of this thing that’s kind of bigger than me and my own story. That aspect of it has been amazing. I’ve loved all the pieces that people are writing in which they don’t really talk about the film too much, and they kind of go off and talk more about their own families and things that they’ve gone through. I never set out to make a film that does that, if that makes sense. I just kind of focused on the work. To see it getting that response has been really special.

I kind of feel like I can’t assume that in a future project—I can never say I’m going to try to make people cry or I’m going to try to make a film that has this sort of response. I feel like you can never put the horse before the cart, or however you’re supposed to say that. I’ll just try to see how I can make honest films, basically, and hope for the best, but this one was special. This film was just special. I don’t know how else to put it.

Viet: Yeah, there’s no doubt. I mean, because I’m an Asian American guy and I did a degree in ethnic studies and I’ve done a lot of thinking about Asian American issues, that’s one frame for me to understand your work. I’ve seen a lot of Asian American movies, too, most of the major ones and all of that, and it is special in all the contexts. It’s special in international cinema, but it’s also special in the Asian American context as well, because it does what it does so terrifically, in telling the story of this family. And we get both the personal sense, but also the Korean immigrant sense as well.

But I do want to talk about the art of the movie. Because I’m a very opinionated person, I have a lot to say about a lot of political issues in my op-eds and all that kind of thing, and I do a lot of talks on the radio and whatever talking about political social issues. So, often when I appear with my books, people just want to talk about the political and social issues, and not really about the art. That’s a little frustrating, sometimes. It’s like, “Okay, can we just talk about the novel as a novel, and can we talk about my artistic influences and my formal innovations and all of that?” So, I want to make sure we have time just to talk about the execution of the film as a movie. The opening frames, I don’t know what you were trying to evoke, but I was like, “Oh my God, it’s epic.” Everything from the framing of the shot, to the lighting, to the well-done music that wasn’t too overbearing, and this sort of Terrence Malick tone in some of the opening shots of the landscape.

Then the family gets to the mobile home, and what really struck me at that point is, the parents speak Korean and the kids speak English. I thought, “That’s perfect,” because that’s the way it is when you have kids here in the United States as immigrant or refugee parents. That’s just inevitable. That’s what happened to us, we got here to the United States and I was four years old and I didn’t speak any English. My dad spoke more English than I did because he had to have contact with Americans. One of my earliest memories in Pennsylvania was me calling the kitchen a chicken, and my dad was amused, and he corrected me. The poignancy of that is that his capacity in English, as being superior to mine, did not last for very long, because by the time I was seven or eight, I was much more fluent in English than he was.

So, there’s a lot of poignancy for me in that moment in seeing these two generations and knowing that possibly in the future, this will grow, this gap, this linguistic gap will grow against this other backdrop of the farmer dad desperately trying to grow something out of this earth. So, there are these layers of growth that are happening in the movie, both at the visual level, we see the farm going from being just a field to being actual crops, and then we see the generations and the kids witnessing the horrible stresses that are happening to their parents. I saw that too. My parents, they’re wonderful people, but you put them in these horrifying conditions where they’re working constantly, they’re trying to make the bills, and they’re terrified, and they’re going to act out, and they’re going to do regrettable things, and the kids are witnessing that. I thought that was so powerful.

Isaac: Yeah. Thank you so much. All those things that you mentioned, I mean, I kind of thought in many ways the story is about a feeling of progress and decline that different people in the family are going through, and you see that working out in different levels with each person. We’re really capturing just a moment of time here. The language level, it’s something I tried to put in with the kids as well. You see that the older sister is the first to respond at the hospital when the technician basically tells them to go wait in the lobby and all these things. She’s the one who is the spokesperson and says, “Okay.” So there are little details of just what it was like for us to grow up that I wanted to include into the story.

Yeah, I’m glad you thought of it as an epic. That was the challenge. We had a low budget, and we kept on saying we want to try to make an emotional epic film, where it feels like an epic, even though we don’t have the money or the time to really make it an epic, we’d still try to make it feel like one. So, that’s what we were hoping for.

Viet: Yeah. I think the story of the immigrant in American mythology is an important story. I mean, it’s an ambivalent story, because the United States of America fluctuates between saying we welcome immigrants, and on the other hand, we don’t want immigrants. You know? But the idea of the immigrant is a core part of this idea of the American Dream, and anybody can come here and so on and so forth. But at the same time, it’s also treated as sort of a marginal story. It’s the story of the outsider and the minority and the person of color and whatnot. Of course, it’s been hard to tell immigrant stories in their full-fledged way, both in literature and in movies for obvious reasons that we as immigrants or refugees or people of color are not, oftentimes, in the positions of power to publish or to authorize or to greenlight these kinds of stories.

So, to deliberately say that the immigrant or refugee story is epic is a really important statement, because it, again, puts us at the center of an epic experience. Me, as a refugee, I know that when people look at refugees, whether they’re looking at Vietnamese refugees or African refugees or Latin American refugees, the tendency is not to see those stories as epic stories. The tendency is to see those stories as sad stories of pitiful and desperate people and whatnot. Of course, people are desperate and of course people are frightened, but to me, they’re epic, because, God, what does it take to pick up your life and to embark on this incredible journey, whether it’s on foot or over the sea, knowing that the chances of you being badly hurt or killed or being separated from your family are really, really high? And the journey can take months or years, and all the travails that are involved, that to me is epic.

Isaac: Yeah, the stakes are high.

Viet: Yeah. In The Committed, the novel that’s the sequel to The Sympathizer, I deliberately try to cast a refugee experience that way versus try to see refugees from the way that non-refugees would see them. That’s why I think the epic quality of your movie really resonated with me too.

Isaac: I kind of feel like in the US, we’re always so focused on the future and focused on this idea of the American future and fate that we’re trying to build in this country. But what’s lost is that history of what founded this country, the violence that founded the country as well, and the many struggles and travails of families who came over, that required so much sacrifice and suffering of many people who did not enjoy the benefits, in a way, of what this country seems to offer. I do agree with you that all of that history—those are epic stories and they’re epic love stories. I feel like it’s all about relationships and families and struggle that we do on behalf of other people. That’s something I love about your books, something I love about, I don’t know, all these stories that we get to tell, and hopefully we’ll keep telling them.

Viet: Yeah, absolutely. On that note, we’re almost out of time, so why don’t we end with a recommendation from you about something artistic? I don’t know if it’s a book or a movie or something else that’s really inspired you or brought you comfort recently, and I’ll share mine too.

Isaac: Let’s see. Just recently, this week, I watched a film called Another Round. I think it’s from Denmark, Thomas Vinterberg, and I really loved it. It’s a great movie, and I got a chance to meet him and talk to him just the other day. That’s the one I’ll plug, because it’s the most recent thing that I really enjoyed watching.

Viet: All right. Well, I’m going to plug Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown. It’s a novel that won the National Book Award last year. Really, really funny. It’s perfect for what we’re talking about, because it’s about a character named The Generic Asian Man. He’s an actor in Hollywood. That’s his role. It’s about struggling to get his story told despite all of these obstacles that are put up in his way because of Hollywood being what it is. But it’s a very satirical novel, very pointed about so many of the challenges that we’ve been talking about, but in the end also just really, really funny and entertaining. I think anybody will like it.

Isaac: I’ll have to check that one out, for sure.

Viet: Yeah. Well, anyway, it was such a pleasure to talk to you, Isaac. Now that I know we’re roughly neighbors, hopefully we’ll see each other in person sometime in the post-pandemic period.

Isaac: Yeah, come to the farmers’ market on Thursday. They have these baked potatoes that are amazing [laughs].

Viet: Well, I have not been to a farmers’ market in over a year, but I’ve been doubly vaccinated, so maybe I’ll do that.

Isaac: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I’ll need to get vaccinated and we’ll go there.

Viet: Thanks so much, Isaac. Really great talking to you.

Category: Interviews

 

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