Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

HBO | The Sympathizer Official Podcast | Episode 5

Host Philip Nguyen sits down with legend Ky Duyen, host of Paris by Night and a star of The Sympathizer, and her on screen daughter Vy Le, alongside EP Niv Fichman to talk about music and art imitating life. Then director Marc Munden and co-showrunner Don McKellar get into putting action on the screen – and greenscreen alligators. Finally, author Viet Thanh Nguyen and episode screenwriter Maegan Hoang talk about adaptation and the beautiful tensions of going page to screen for HBO

Read Below for Transcript

Sympathizer Clip 0:06 

The war is over. It’s done. There’s nothing left to reclaim. Even the Americans couldn’t defeat the communists. 

Wars never really die, they just hold their breath. 

Phil 0:21 

Welcome to HBO’s, The Sympathizer podcast, where we’re debriefing and decoding the new HBO original limited series, The Sympathizer, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. I’m Philip when a scholar of Vietnamese American culture, and on this podcast, I’ll be joined by the sympathizers creators, the cast and crew. And of course, author Viet Thanh, when, after every episode, we’ll go deeper into the characters, their motives and how this espionage thriller slash cross cultural satire complicates what we know about the Vietnam War, also known as the American war in Vietnam, and its depictions in US pop culture today. 

Looking at you, Hollywood. 

Today, we’re talking about Episode Five, titled All for one and we have a loaded lineup of great guests for you. We have executive producer and CO showrunner. One of our podcast regulars. Don McKellar here with Episode Director Mark Munden. We’re going to be talking with actors Vy Le and Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen who play Lana and madame, respectively, as well as executive producer nev Fishman and author Viet Thanh Nguyen is back to talk screenwriting with Episode Five screenwriter Megan Wong. 

Phil 1:44 

Okay, all spoilers are imminent. So if you haven’t watched episode five, it’s time right now to press pause, go and watch it streaming exclusively on max, then come back and join us here on the podcast. 

Okay, it’s recap time. In the hospital, the captain drifts in and out of consciousness. The movie studios lawyer comes to visit. 

Sympathizer Clip 2:08 

That’s supposed to be an apology. No, no, it’s supposed to be 3000 Very generous amount. Of course, we would love to offer you more. But frankly, it’s difficult to make a case for compensation unless there’s tangible loss, tangible, like an eyeball, or a toe. The captain negotiates the payout up to $15,000 with the additional possibility of an apology from the outdoor back in LA. The captain discovers that mme has opened a Vietnamese restaurant now

a gathering place for the refugee community while the back room serves as the generals planning headquarters for his secret operation to take back Vietnam. 

Phil 

Bon and the captain’s attend a Fantasia event at the Roosevelt Hotel where Lana is now performing under the name of the captain’s mother. 

The setting, songs, and synchronized choreography of Lana’s — excuse me, the up-and-coming singer Que Linh’s — FantASIA performance is an ode to “Paris by Night,” a popular diasporic Vietnamese variety show. The show was created and produced by Thuy Nga Productions to preserve the history, traditions, language, and culture of South Vietnam. 

To Van Lai, a university professor in Saigon South Vietnam, founded Thuy Nga Productions, in 1972 to record and redistribute “nhac vang,” or the “golden music” of South Vietnam, distinguished by songs sungs slowly and sadly about love and war. Paris by Night was established after he fled to Paris, France in 1976, bringing with him musical recordings and tapes banned by the Vietnamese communist regime. He recorded and produced the first Paris by Night in 1983 onto VHS. The program captured a shared sense of homesickness, longing, and nostalgia among fellow expatriates overseas, known as the “Viet Kieu.” Paris by Night relocated to California in what’s now known as Little Saigon, to continue to be produced annually featuring MC’s recognizable in any diasporic Vietnamese household (one of whom is Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, who plays Madame- and who we’ll hear from today), as the shows became a way for Vietnamese refugees to build community through music and memory in exile. 

Back to our story, the captain pays Miss Mori a visit, only to discover that Sonny is there. And he and Miss Mori now dating…. which is awkward. 

With the assistance of Dorothy the alligator, the captain surprise Is the outdoor at his home. 

Sympathizer Clip 5:01 

Oh Christ. That’s why you’re here. He wants an apology very well. I am truly deeply. 

No, I want something else. An apology from you isn’t worth shit. You keep all the Vietnamese lines in the movie. 

Brother, even the studio doesn’t tell me what to do with my final cut. 

Phil 5:26 

The captain sends evidence of the generals plans to Hanoi. He also sends the photographic evidence to Sonny who publishes a story about it in his newspaper. The episode closes as the general brings the captain to a remote area and reveals the true extent of his operation where a

substantial army of men led by bone are in the midst of training exercises. And now it’s time to welcome back our series regular executive producer and CO showrunner Don McKellar, as well as Director Marc Munden. Marc Munden is an English film and TV director, known for his work on help national treasure, the devil’s whore, and the cult favorite utopia. He directed The Sympathizer episodes five, six and seven. And I have so many questions. 

Phil 

I want to ask you, Marc, if there are any things that you felt most strongly about when approaching this episode, particularly, or parts that you look most forward to filming? 

MM 6:24 

Well, it sort of is a very emotional episode. I mean, it’s really all about the, the captain being at sea. And, and, but also he has like these very strong relationships which have been sort of severed with, you know, two women, one is Miss Mori who, who is totally neglected, and decides that he can just rock up at her doorstep and carry on where he might have left off. And he has a rude awakening in finding another certain someone there as well. But also, there’s something quite sort of, I think he’s discovering his own feelings about Larner, which were, you know, perhaps a little incoherent, you know, in the past episodes, but now she’s grown into a woman. And that surprises him and not only a woman, a beautiful woman who’s got this incredible talent of singing, you know, so she’s become, you know, the captain and bond sit at their table at Fantasia in awe of her, you know, sort of, she’s just become a completely different person. So, I love doing that, because I felt there’s some really nice, tender flirtatious moments between the two of them, and also some sort of rather sort of tricky moments between the captain and Miss Mori. But that was that attention. Yeah, definitely. You know, I felt strongly that all that needed to be very clear, as it were, you know, because it’s a certain manifestation of His being at sea. I think, you know, those two Nexus. 

Phil 

Huh. And I think for both of you, you know, vittime when the author of The Sympathizer he writes women in a very particular way, in the sympathizer, so what it what was it like to What are you trying to say, you know, what was it like, adapt the novel to what we see on the screen, right, because I think what we see on the screen is that these characters are much more layered and much more complex than one would lead onto, especially, you know, what we know about stereotypical depictions or portrayals of Asian American men or women in film, right? 

DM 8:31 

Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. I’m curious, you can talk to Viet about it. But in the book, I feel like the captain is a bit naive, in a way he sees himself as a spy. And he’s almost like, as we say, in the show, like, Steve McQueen is something like the sort of 70s spy model. He’s sort of like a Vietnamese version of that and that sort of he has that in his head. He’s very conscious of popular culture. And I think in his head that’s the way he is with women you know, like he’s cool guy slick. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. But he finds that that doesn’t apply all the time with real women like these women are you know, Miss Mori is very American but Lana’s really blossoming in a

way that is both exciting to the captain but also threatening and it changes his character. I think when he sees that happening. Yeah. 

Phil 9:21 

And I think there’s something to be said about the naivety of the captain as well right? Because we’re sort of growing through it with him 

DM 9:26 

we always have to remember that we’re seeing it through his eyes so when we see Lana sort of like a glamorous figure on stage all the sudden that’s through his eyes it right and 

Phil 9:37 

you’re not really sure what’s fantasy. Yeah. Yeah, I want to get into this Fantasia scene right like the scenes where we are Alana is singing. It’s It feels very nostalgic to some of these variety shows that after the end of the war after the fall of Saigon, the mass exodus and resettlement of refugees, the way in which folks had built community because they were dispersed all over the world was through music through arts Do culture, Paris by night or Asia entertainment or vung, sang like these diasporic Vietnamese variety shows, a lot of the music speaks to this sentiment of missing the homeland or of this longing for the homeland. And so oftentimes, you know, I think now for me as a child of refugees, the songs become very familiar, right. And they’re very evocative of all of these different emotions that folks like my parents, my aunts, uncles, wouldn’t necessarily talk about, but they would be very open to sing karaoke of the songs that evoke that type of emotion. Yeah, 

DM 10:30 

they wouldn’t credibly popular to like every, every family, basically, that we talked to, had those stories of watching with my family, Paris by night. And the end, the sentiment, as you say, like was the only time in the family was it was pure sentiment, right, that just exploded? 

Phil 10:48 

Yeah, any house party, you know, that’s, that’s what you you’re confident that that’s going to be on a TV somewhere. Yeah. Yeah. Marc, I want to ask you about this moment, after the captain wakes up, where he goes back and finds the altar to not necessarily seek revenge, but kind of 

make his peace, I would say or find closure, that director speech, or when the altar speaks to the sacred art of the editing process. You know, how can you speak to the meta textuality of that? 

MM 11:12 

Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of Robert, in that speech, actually, you know, the way that he did that, all that that trumpet playing at the end is total improvisations. That’s not in the script. But you’re talking about the idea that editing is like jazz in some sort of way. Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t, I don’t totally believe that. I just think it’s a bit more like punk actually, you know, punk music, you know, you sort of destroy in order to do that. I mean, I think as a filmmaker, you’re always experimenting with, you know, the alchemy, which is the footage that you come away from the

shoots with, you know, and which hopefully turns into something else, once it’s all put together goes from base metal to gold. And I guess there’s a certain amount of improvisation and free form and experimentation going on with that as you go along. Yeah. And 

Phil 12:03 

So did the alligator have lines? Did you were to Dorothy. Dorothy validating that? 

MM 12:11 

No, Dorothy didn’t have lines. But what do I say about 

DM 12:17 

What he doesn’t want to reveal the fact that in fact, it was a CGI, alligator. 

MM 12:21 

I hope I’m not bursting any bubble. If I was to say that the Oscar winning Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t in the same swimming pool as an alligator. 

DM 12:31 

I think for our insurance reasons. I’m sure he would have been game for it, by the way, but I don’t think we would allow him to have really be in that live alligator. 

Phil 12:43 

I’m surprised he wasn’t the one in the alligator suit that was swimming in. 

DM 12:46 

Yeah, that’s true. We could have done that. And as the alligator 

Phil 12:51 

another antagonists 

DM 12:53 

Robert was very brave. I’ll say no, he didn’t fight an alligator but on the other hand, it was really cold that day remember mark and that and you can see the steam rising off the pool and he was he was very game. So So part of his reaction of the alligators actually reaction to the cold. 

Phil 13:14 

Oh, my goodness. Well, I want to thank you all for sharing your insights being behind the scenes and sort of the the meta the meta and 

DM 13:22 

thank you so loud, Phil. Thanks.

Phil 13:26 

And now I’d like to welcome actors Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen and Vy Le along with executive producer Niv Fishman. Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen is a Vietnamese American actor, singer, songwriter, and acclaimed master of ceremonies for the long running series, Paris by Night, an icon in the Vietnamese diaspora in the sympathizer. Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen plays Madame, the wife of the General. Vy Le is a Vietnamese American actor making her film debut in The Sympathizer. She plays Lana, the daughter of the general and Madame executive producer Niv Fishman is an Israeli Canadian producer and director and one of the founders of rhombus media, which CO produced The Sympathizer with a 24 Team Downey and HBO. 

Phil 

Welcome to Niv, to Vy and to Ky Duyen for joining us on the official sympathizer companion podcast. My first question for you all just to get started, as you know, this is a very historic moment for the Vietnamese diasporic community. And I want to know how each of you got involved with the series, because you’re coming at it from sort of different perspectives, right? nev as a as one of the producers of this series and we had heard in an earlier episode that you were the one that handed Director Park the copy of The Sympathizer. For Vy I know this is one of your first opportunities to act in a series of this scale and Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, you of course, are a legend in the Vietnamese American community as you know, the longtime emcee for Paris by night. I’ll start with you nev. How How did you first get involved with this series and what was that like for you? 

DM 14:59 

Well, I actually first received the book right after it was published from a really good friend of mine, whose name is Kim Lee. He’s an actor and producer. And he read the book and thought it would be, it would make an amazing project for we thought at first a film, actually. And so he got in touch with yet and then arranged for us, Kim and I to meet with yet in Los Angeles. And you know, and we, we spoke to him about the idea of the adaptation. So at that lunch, we asked for yet who he thought would be the the ideal director for this. And he said powertrain work, because he loved proton loops work and actually old boy inspired certain parts of the book, he said, and so and I said, Well, I happen to know about MOOCs, so I was able to, you know, descend it to him, and he ended up really loving it. And that’s how we all ended up here. Yeah, 

Phil 15:53 

making really making that connection. And for you Vy. What was the casting process like for you? And, you know, this is your, you’re the star, right? And especially in Episode Five, where we, we see you become the star, right? So it’s almost like this meta narrative that’s happening with you and your real life. I know, you’re currently a student, right? Yes. What was yeah, what was it like for you? 

V 16:17 

Yeah, I remember my friend sending me an open call. And I’d read Lanos character description, it really resonated with me and I thought, you know, I really love the character, and I really had

nothing to lose. You know, it was my first audition ever. So I just shot my shot. And yeah, the rest was history. 

Niv 16:49 

I can say from the other side of that, yeah, you know, for most of the roles, we had to go, you know, on a worldwide search. And of course, we are looking for actors who had some experience in the past. But in the case of Vy, you know, she was the one like, she was Lana. And she was in the first round, and she survived and are so happy, because she kills it. Ky Duyen I don’t know if you remember, but when we’re filming the the sequences for the longevity party, which are 103, we’re looking together at Vy performing, because you’re there in the audience as madam. And you said to me, you know, I used to also be like that, and maybe maybe you could, you could kind of talk about your your own life that led to kind of being the, the incredibly renowned emcee of 

KD 17:42 

Well, first of all, Lana, I mean, I have watched, you know, because obviously, I was not there every time you take something, but to see the final product. I was telling myself, boy, the producers, the directors, they really have an eye for talent, because you were just so natural. I mean, I don’t know what more training or schooling you need in the art of acting, but you were just so natural. And I’m like, gosh, is good. So maybe you were just being yourself. And that came through really good. I appreciate that. And to answer your question, yeah, I was, I think I was Lana. In real life, I came over here. And as with most Asian family, especially the second generation, like myself, all our parents, we have basically three choices of career to go into, first of all, a doctor. And if you don’t make it, then either a lawyer or an engineer, right. So for me to venture out to go into, quote, unquote, the entertainment business, there were times where I was dancing, also in singing and wearing flimsy dresses, which I’m sure my dad was quite in shock. And it wasn’t until I actually finished school, past the bar, became a lawyer and proved to my parents that okay, I got this career under my belt. So if the entertainment side didn’t work out, you know, I’m not going to starve. I can always be a lawyer. So that’s when they said, Okay, you’re free to try out, do whatever you want to do. So I yeah, I saw a lot, a little bit of myself in you on that day. 

Phil 19:17 

I think a lot of the art as a imitates reality imitating art is happening, right. So Jake is in your I mean, your family is also referenced in the novel itself. And there are so many similarities between what’s going on in the series, even with the general opening the liquor store and the sort of relationship that you have. And I know the costume design, too, was inspired by your mother as well. Right for my dad. Yes. When 

KD 19:41 

I got there, the wardrobe people were showing me pictures that I don’t know if they knew that the pictures they showed me were of my mother, but I didn’t know if they they knew and then they picked it. But they showed me and I said Wow. Yeah. So there were similarities, but I think

that that’s where it ends. They will similarity in the moustache, the liquor store, the first door, the daughter going into entertainment. And I think that’s where the similarity ends. 

N 20:11 

Yeah, we always have to remind people, this is a work of fiction, right? That’s based within a context. It’s not meant to be exactly the same. But there’s, I think, there, there are so many inspirations from many people in the Vietnamese community, you know, and then, you know, you could say the same about Vy herself. You know, it’s, you know, her own characters based on her own life, but in a way her own life actually happened before the character, you know what I mean? 

Phil 20:43 

So it’s like, which comes first? You know, it’s kind of the chicken in the chicken in the egg, which is also another series. Yeah. I mean, maybe talking about this longevity scene, which I feel like as a Vietnamese American evokes the, the all of those different wedding banquets and celebrations that I’ve been a part of as a second generation, Vietnamese American, I mean to you v. And I don’t know if the listeners caught it, but the relationship between you and Jeezy and I think you had referred to as long earlier too. 

So we have this very strong character played by very strong women in roles that for a long time, we will forever right, we haven’t seen Vietnamese American actors play these Vietnamese American roles, vie to you? Well, I feel like it’s a redundant question at this point. But Paris by night, is it something that speaks to your experience? 

Vy 21:34 

Oh, my gosh, 

Phil 21:35 

Can you talk a little bit about that? What was that? 

V 21:37 

That was a household staple? I would say like, every time the TV was on, you know, it’s not surprising. It’s easy. And, you know, growing up on Paris by night. I mean, yeah. As of every other household. Really. It’s, it’s very, it’s our main entertainment. Yeah, we I just grew up seeing these read on the screen. And then now she’s she plays my mother, and I’m kind of like emulating her her life, which is, it’s still mind boggling For me. 

Phil 22:08 

I know that a lot of story is like reflecting your your own personal life. But I wonder what was the did you have to do any research into getting into the character? What was your preparation? Like? Because in the longevity episode, you also seen for the first time in this banquet, right, and then there are in Episode Five, we in the Fantasia scenes, you are, again, the entertainer the star.

V 22:33 

As for research, I mean, I had to look into the time period, right, but a lot of Lana’s character I, it’s kind of directly from me. But as for the performances, I did theater and musical theater in high school, and I’ve always wanted to be on the stage. It’s like, where I feel like I am most myself when I’m, you know, not in myself if, if that makes sense. The the rehearsal process for those performances were so much fun. And you know, I had Niv right there to kind of hold my hand and guiding you through it all. I feel like he really got me out of my shell. Because, I mean, I was so new. I didn’t know how to navigate things, but he was there to, to really comfort me. And 

Niv 23:17 

we should probably also give a shout out to Shonda Sawyer, Shonda, 

V 23:21 

and even my guardian angels. Oh, my gosh, 

Niv 23:25 

she was introduced by Kyusu. And because when that same conversation when we stood there watching V. And I said to you, I said, you know, she’s doing really well. But you know, in Episode Five, she really needs to be professional. Is there any way you could connect me with any of your colleagues that can help us like really, you know, choreograph and stage like a much more advanced show, and you introduced us to Shonda, which is really, really amazing. 

KD 23:54 

You know, I look at V in those performances, and even the dresses, she wears the movement, and I think of myself and if you look back on some videos like 20 years ago, the body type I was probably her same kind of height and weight and the movement and why it looks so much like the real pairs by night is because Chanda also choreographed and taught me how to do all my moves. So it’s the same teacher. So yes, and yeah, I thought you will also great in those and it’s not just the movement is the expression. And I think that is something that cannot be taught. That is something that comes from inside of you. And the way you move your eyes, the way you flirt. It’s so you have so much confidence, like I cannot believe it’s the first time you doing this. It’s so professional. It’s just so much more grown up than then you are outside and yeah, you did really great. 

V 24:52 

I appreciate that. 

Phil 24:54 

Niv I also want to ask you about sort of the musical direction some of the songs that we hear They’re how they’re performed. I mean, they’re kind of glish mashups. Right. But I know you know, you’re the expert in music and you some of your films in the past, like red violin have also dealt with this concept of music. How did you employ some of that experience into the series and particularly for the Fantasia scenes? Well,

Niv 25:17 

you know, we we wanted to have some, you know, famous songs like close to you know, and, you know, we wanted those songs to be in Vietnamese. So we actually got a lyricist who also works with Paris Barnett that Shonda introduced us to his name is Dylan bow when Dylan who did an incredible job. And so, you know, we tried to collect around us people that actually did the work. And I think it shows in the sequences, because, you know, we didn’t want to have an Americanized version of you know, as as the entire series, you know, we didn’t want to have an Americanized anything. Right. 

Phil 25:53 

I thank you for that. And even and too cheesy, and I mean, music becomes such a valuable tool for the community to create community, right? Are the Vietnamese community a diaspora exists, I would say, arguably, because of, you know, taking AP productions and the establishment of Paris by night to be able to, to be able to memorialize some of what the folks went through, right, and to be able to open up these avenues of conversation around topics that are not always easy to talk about. Right. I mean, you know, given your very vast experience doing Paris by Night, I just want to ask you, you know, having worked in the Vietnamese American and diasporic Vietnamese community for so long, how do you think that our, our, our community will, will react and receive The Sympathizer series? Right? 

KD 26:40 

That’s a hard one. I think it depends on just like in the The Sympathizer just like the characters, they’re gonna be different layers of people different age group, like my age group will react differently this age group, my parents, my answer is, so I think each of us will react differently. But I think basically, the younger we are, of course, because a lot of time has passed. Myself, I came when I was nine years old. I basically don’t remember much. I mean, I know of the war, but I never lived through it. So of course, my feeling is going to be different. But I think, overall, if we keep an open mind, and we know that it’s a fiction, and it’s actually it’s very funny at times, even though it’s dark, but and I think that’s why the book won the Pulitzer Prize, because the attainment was able to take a very serious subject, and make it funny, and then through the lens of the director and make it into the film. It’s even funnier, you know, I mean, so I think sometimes, if you can laugh about something, that it’s going to release a lot of pent up pressure even. So, yeah, I’m sure there will be some people who find things that they don’t like about it. But at the same times, if you look at all the characters, you’ll find something that you like about the character on your side, and then some things that you don’t, and I think that’s what’s going to make the movie a success. Somebody’s gonna like it, and this pot that they don’t like. 

Phil 28:23 

Right, and I mean, even in the all the Paris by nights, right, there’s usually a segment that is a hiking Right, right, right. It’s immediate. Yes. Right. I mean, do you think that the Vietnamese community has a darker maybe a darker sense of humor, or how that humor can be used to alleviate some of that tension and really talk about things that for a lot of folks are really traumatic? Yeah. US

KD 28:42 

my 30 years as an emcee? Yeah, I have to pick the right kind of humor. When I do my stage things. And I don’t know, basically, my humor is just like, you can’t talk about anyone or anything. Because I think Vietnamese people are pretty serious. And sometimes we do tend to take everything. Very serious. So for example, my partner helping out and he’s, you know, we can’t joke about it’s not like American comedian, where you can joke about the president, the Pope, whatever, right? Vietnamese, we can’t joke about anything. So we joke about each other. My partner would always joke about how short he is, for example, but then even then we get some people writing into say, Don’t joke about short people, because they feel offended. You know, right. So yeah, so that’s, that’s my take, I would say overall, overall, at least the older generation are not as opened as the younger generation. Now, for sure. 

Phil 29:41 

I want to ask you, do you get z and v? I mean, does B being a part of the series and sympathizers theories? Has it changed your relationship to your own sense of Vietnamese, this or the Vietnamese community? Because I mean, when people see this, right, like this is, I mean, we are speaking it’s a critique of Hollywood and of course, America, but for a lot of people, I think who are getting these American are living in the diaspora who have never seen any sort of Vietnamese representation like this. There is this this moment where we see ourselves, right? 

V 30:14 

I know that, for me, it just, this entire story really broadened my scope. I grew up in Vietnam, I learned about the war, through a very specific lens, I knew of it as the American war. And then having come to the States and taking history classes and, and such I learned about it through the the other perspective, but it was still through the eyes of the American people. And so the 

show this, this book, The Show it, it’s the last piece of the puzzle. I feel grateful, and I feel there’s a sense of pride there that, that our people are being seen. And there’s, there’s representation, there’s visibility. 

KD 

Well,for me, it’s not I guess it’s more practical in the sense that I’m so proud of the acting ability of the whole cast of Viet Tanglin for writing such a beautiful book, because we hardly ever seen any Vietnamese name, especially in the in the mainstream entertainment. You know, growing up in the 80s, we always watch the Hong Kong series, right. And now it’s the Korean serie. And as Vietnamese we’ve always looked up to others like that and think, wow, they’re really good. But for the first time, I feel now in the entertainment industry that wow, Vietnamese can do it, they are good, they are so talented. And given the chance they could be as good as all the other Asians that we see a lot. So in that sense, I feel that we are being hurt not not so much in the historical sense yet. I’m just more practical in that way. 

Phil 32:03

Thank you for joining us on the podcast Vy, Ky Duyen and Niv. It’s so beautiful to see the relationships that were built between generations of Vietnamese woman, especially between a living legend and an upcoming star. 

For our last segment, we’ve brought together returning guests Viet Thanh Nguyen Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Sympathizer with Episode Five screenwriter and The Sympathizer co producer Megan Houang to talk about some of the nuts and bolts of adaptation for the screen, the writers room and more. Megan Houang is a writer and director. In addition to her work on the sympathizer, she was a story editor on FX is Shogun, and staff writer on season two of counterpart. 

Maegan, Viet, welcome to the podcast. 

V 32:52 

Thanks, Phil, 

MH 32:53 

thank you so much for having me. 

Phil 32:54 

Viet mentioned earlier this is your first experience meeting with one of the writers for any of the episodes of the television series. Megan, are there any insights that you can kind of share with us about what it’s like to be a writer in the back end, making the series 

MH 33:08 

I’ve always been a huge fan of the book, the book meant so much to me. And I’m also a huge fan of park chan Wook. So when the opportunity came to me, I just felt like I had to try everything that I could to get on the show. And what was really amazing about the experience is that we really did use the book as the source material. And I think that as a room, we really collectively try to respect portraying the book as much as we could just because it meant a lot to many of us as we had three mixed race Asian American woman in the room. And I know that for all of us, we just really, you know, couldn’t be more excited to give so many actors the representation opportunity that they finally deserve. So in the room, we you know, park and Don came in with a pretty good idea of how they wanted to break up the book into seven episodes. And then our job was really trying to pick and choose the scenes and the moments that we could capture. I think this is a pretty hard book to adapt in my opinion, just because it’s so internal. And it’s so subjective, which is actually something that personally really excited me because I think that gives you the opportunity to do really interesting visual things in order to create the internal character state that you wouldn’t necessarily get in another TV show. So that was something that was really fun to talk about 

VN 34:26 

after the opening sequence of episode five which is taking place on the hospital bed as as the captain is negotiating with the lawyer and with violet really captured that that to be was in my

mind exactly what took place in the novel that was a was really a crucial moment where that addition worked really well congratulations 

MH 34:43 

it’s funny because that scene and then also when in my draft because you know, things go through revisions just based on Park and Don’s needs and then their editing process that that scene and also the scene with Miss Mori sunny and the captain when I was writing those I honestly You just use the dialogue from the book and you do that as a writer, because this isn’t the first adaptation I’ve worked on. And you look at and you’re like, can I make it better? Like, what do we need to cut and sometimes you’re like, I really don’t think I should change it. It really captures the spirit perfectly as is. And you know, often the scenes are too long, just from a like usually book scenes are too long when you’re adapting them to televisions, you’re usually cutting but I remember that one, it was like, we can just kind of keep it as is. And it’s a great scene. So honestly, thank you for making my life easier. Because that is the truth, we just kind of used what you’d written what was the 

VN 35:34 

hardest part about adapting the material you use for Episode Five? 

MH 35:37 

I think the hardest part of this episode is that it’s truthfully the episode that diverges the most from the book just because we had to maybe didn’t have enough time to cover everything as well as we could. So we kind of leaned into the surf reality of Fantasia and his memory loss and those types of themes in order to accelerate the plot a little bit because, of course, the books around 300 pages if I recall, and I think that might take people 20 hours to read maybe I’m not really sure, but you only have seven hours here to watch the whole show. So we just don’t have the time and space to bring those out. So I think the hardest thing was just getting the story across and all the emotion across like one thing I was really excited about in my episode right with the flashbacks of man bong and the captain because it just felt like something I had really wanted to see on the show. So it’s like well, we finally get to see you know them as children and how they grew up and like how those memories shaped them. There’s 

Phil 36:38 

almost in that in that particular scene and then watching the the beginning of the episode and the captain waking up. This this is like almost like religious subtext or context that’s going on. My family is Buddhist, Vietnamese, Buddhist. So maybe I’ll pass to UVA if you notice some of the religious subtext or context and it felt like rebirth to me. There’s also this like statue of looks like our lady of love. And if I would say but wonder if that was is was intentional, or if that was something that you had in mind when you were writing out the different scenes in the flashbacks,right? 

MH 37:09 

Yeah. In the flashbacks. I mean, the flashbacks for me, were really just, in my mind or that sense of how memory is a bit jumbled and not fully. You’re not necessarily in touch with it. But I

think some of the religious stuff does set up maybe later things and other that’s why it’s hard to talk about, I think sets up other things in other episodes. But yeah, I think that that’s like a really good analysis of it. 

Phil 37:33 

Viet has spoken about black holes and memory that occur after trauma or traumatic incidents. Do you feel like that’s captured? Well, in this in this episode from, from the book to the adaptation, 

VN 37:45 

just want to say the book will only take you 14 hours to read not 20 Because that’s the that’s the audiobook version. It’s 14 hours long by the by the actor 

Phil 37:53 

that and send it to my students. 

VN 37:57 

I listen to audiobooks. So I have no problem with people listening to to Francois. Excellent narration, you know, in the novel itself, the it’s definitely a rebirth that takes place, and it’s midway through the novel. So structurally, it’s very crucial that it’s midway, he has been through this horrifying experience getting blown up and so on that we have seen in episode four. And then he ends up in this hospital room where then this part is actually not captured as well in the in the adaptation, I think not because of your fault, but simply because in the novel is very interior, as he’s processing everything that’s going on. And it’s a very surreal sequence in his imagination. And it’s an explicit gesture to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, where an invisible man or Narrator also gets blown up in a factory that makes the whitest of all possible paints. And then he wakes up, and he’s being experimented on by scientists and so on. So that’s really, really crucial. But of course, then Megan’s job is to try to figure out a different way to signal the rebirth that’s actually happening. And although we’re here, I think, to talk a lot about the screenplay writing process, and everything I just want to say about these three young actors who play mutton bone and the captain in their youth. They are so good, they’re amazing. They’re amazing, right? And I just thought, I get them a little mixed up trying to identify who’s who, but I think it’s a character of bone as a little boy, the actor who plays him, I wish I knew his name short, smaller in stature. Yeah, but it’s like Southern Vietnamese accent is so that I write about onpoint it’s they’re so incredible as actors, then that was a really beautiful scene. Beautiful, beautiful is the right word. When they find the head of the Vietcong soldier on the ground, they all freak out. And they, they do the this is where they do the oath. Right? Yeah. 

MH 39:30 

Which is obviously from the book. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, the head. I was really excited about that. That was something we came up with in the room. One thing that was really important to me that I wanted to convey on the show is, it’s kind of the banality of war. It’s like, it’s everywhere. And you’re when you’re in a situation like that, and you can be a little kid in a school uniform, and you can just be walking through the woods in an innocent way and then be hit with the

intensity of the experience that’s happening around you. And I think that was a nice Maybe also like visually simple way to convey what kids like that would be experiencing at that time and in Vietnam all over because you’re still trying to live. I think sometimes we forget that during wartime, people are really just trying to live and everyday life no matter how they can. So I was really happy. Not everyone’s a soldier fighting. Yeah, not everyone’s a soldier. They’re just kids who are going to school and they’re privileged enough to go to school, but they’re still going to see these, you know, really horrific incidents that impact them. 

VN 40:27 

I’m still so have a question about the process of adapting plays, because Don, and I actually worked on breaking the novel down into seven episodes. So once it got to that point, you guys, had you had that? How did you end up with episode five. 

MH 40:48 

So that’s assigned by the showrunner and in our case, it was actually done by level. So just to be perfectly honest, Naomi row episode 102. She was a co EP Mark row, episode three, he was a co EP, Don row, episode four. And then I was the next level writer was a co producer. And then Felicia was the story editor in shear episode six. And that’s how they did it. And I think rooms do that in order to be fair, because the reality is, we really are coming up with the story together. And you know, there are pitches I had that aren’t different episodes and their pitches other people had better in my episode. And that’s kind of the collaborative nature of television writing. So even though I wrote the script, the ideas really were, you know, under the guidance of Don and Director Park, but all of our different ideas through their lens, 

VN 41:35 

even after you finish Episode Five, though, and then since then it’s filmed and you’ve seen it. Were there changes that were made from the script that you wrote to the actual final product? 

MH 41:44 

Yes, definitely. There were, there were quite a few changes, I think, both through the script and also through editing in my script, I think you’ll find this pretty interesting is my version started with Fantasia as a very surreal sequence. What I love about Fantasia, right? And I love the way you wrote it in the book is, it’s the city of people kind of reaching for home, and they’re going to this event to sing and just feel this closeness of home. And the captain has been blown up, as you said, and he’s laying in bed, and he’s in the hospital bed, and he’s exploded. And he’s also there’s this third meta narrative that he’s writing his confession. So my idea was like, what if the episode really feels like he’s writing the confession, and it’s his memories are mixed up where it’s like Fantasia, but was I in the hospital. And there’s kind of a blending of those realities that I feel is very authentic to his experience. One thing that’s really personal to me about the shows like my uncle was actually in a Chinese reeducation camp. And so I, I just really wanted those things to like, be clear about that experience. And another thing that was different in the versions that we had in the room is that we actually had the captain kind of mess up his interrogation so much that he had been put in the box. So in my episode, it was also like, I was playing a lot with the light through the slats of like the experience of where are you in, like the

chaos of it, which we all thought, would work really well with the fact that he had just basically had a traumatic brain injury? And is it kind of going through this crazy experience at the same time of him being in that situation in the reeducation camp, 

VN 43:19 

I think that’s an important point that you know, in both the sympathizer and in the sequel that committed, we’re dealing with a heavily traumatized person here. But of course, if you’ve been heavily heavily traumatized, you’re not necessarily telling everybody at every step, I’m heavily traumatized. But you’re going to convey that in some manner of your personality or your speaking. And likewise, in the TV series as part of the challenge. You don’t want to announce the character psychological state, you have to sort of convey it through as you said, perceptions and actions and so on. So there’s a great moment in the Fantasia sequence where the captain is watching lineup perform, and then all of a sudden, there’s mutton in the back right, talking to him, right. That’s the voice of his conscience. And Martin is not literally there. But as if he’s in the room talking and reminding our, our captain of what he asked to do almost like a ghost, 

Phil 44:05 

sort of present absence. Yeah. 

VN 44:07 

And it’s just like his psychological state is. What’s kind of nice about it, again, is that it’s not just in the interrogation, that his psychological mind is messed up. But I also think in the present storyline, these ghosts, these ideas, these things are just still revisiting him. Because trauma like mutates and changes over time, 

Phil 44:25 

right. And as the viewer and as the audience, we are sort of processing all of the different traumas with him, because there is this, because we know that there is a Maron meta narrative going on where he’s writing his story in this very, there’s all pressure as he’s writing the story. At the same time, he is processing all the things that he’s been through, and there’s not much time between these different moments that happened to him right. I think another moment that stuck out to me for the scene where he’s waking up to the the lawyer and the all tours assistant, right, is that he’s also kind of catching up as everyone else has been moving. Right and that Something that he I feel he reconciles with through the course of the episode. 

MH 45:02 

Yeah, he’s Yeah, he was unconscious for a little while, 

Phil 45:06 

you know, I kind of want to ask for our audience members. We’re here in the studio with via and Megan and Megan brought an annotated copy of The Sympathizer. And you know, you’re kind of starting to get into a little bit of how personal was for you to be the writer for this particular for this episode, right? I mean, we’re, we don’t oftentimes see like mixed race or Asian American writers or any sort of these any of these tables, right? And what was what is that like for you

right to be in the sort of historical moment where this, you know, 10 years after winning the Pulitzer Prize, we see the sympathizer being made into a television adaptation, you’re there with the power and authority to write what is authentic, whatever that word means for you. Do you ever feel that, 

MH 45:49 

Oh, I, I might cry, because I feel like such an immense responsibility. I mean, my family history is pretty different from other people’s family histories. So I also am very aware of the fact that I’m coming from a quite different point of view, which is that my grandmother left Vietnam, in the 1940s, to move to Hong Kong, with my grandfather, and then she had 14 kids in her family. And so she brought nine through 14 in 1954, because they’re in North Vietnam to Hong Kong. And then she had many siblings who stayed and she slowly brought them over. So my dad grew up in a tiny apartment in Hong Kong with all these refugees that my grandmother had saved. And my family has essentially pretended that we’re not Vietnamese, because I one of my dad’s cousins even told me when he was when he came to Hong Kong, he was forbidden from speaking Vietnamese, because they just wanted him to assimilate and they didn’t want to make it part of their life anymore. Because it was really painful. They lost everything. They were very wealthy people in North Vietnam, who were actually French citizens, because that’s how well connected they were. And everything was taken from them. And so I think the book and just working on a show, it meant a lot to me, because it’s not something I think people will can really understand. And another way like watching the pilot was really emotional for me because I worked with kitchen before and watching her be in a situation that’s not necessarily that dissimilar from her life, I just started crying because I just thought about how everyone in this scene has such a personal attachment to this situation. They’re almost like reenacting the trauma of what their parents went through, or they themselves went through. And I just, you know, I just, it really mattered to me to try to do my best on the show just because it’s our first and kind of only show and we have yet to thank for that because he wrote an amazing enough novel that someone wanted to adapt it, you know, and that’s like incredible and we’re really lucky that we got this chance that we’ve never really had before. I want 

Phil 47:52 

to thank you so much, Megan, and Viet for joining us today. Thanks, Megan. And that’s it for us today. Many thanks to Vy Le, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, Niv Fishman. Don McKellar, Mark Munden, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Maegan Houang for such insightful conversations. We’ll see you all next time when we dive into Episode Six. With executive producers Susan Downey, story editor on truly Felicia King, author of a ton when an actor’s Sandra Oh, blonde Leigh and the Kieu Chien. See you. In the meantime, stream new episodes of the HBO original limited series, The Sympathizer Sundays exclusively on Macs and subscribe and listen to the podcast after every episode of the show. On Max and wherever you get your podcasts. The Sympathizer podcast is produced by the mash up Americans for HBO

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