INTERVIEW: A Boy's Life; Bui Revisits His Past in "Green Dragon"
by Guy V. Cimbalo
(indieWIRE/ 07.23.02) — In 1975, shortly before the fall of Saigon, the United States set up four refugee camps across the country to help displaced Vietnamese relocate to America. Among those refugees were young brothers Tony Bui and Tim Bui.
In the 27 years since, both brothers have managed to make auspicious entries into the independent film world. Tony’s directorial debut, “Three Seasons,” took Sundance by storm 1999, winning the grand jury prize, audience award, and cinematography awards. “Green Dragon,” the first film from Tim, debuted at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, and won the audience award at the Austin Film Festival.
“Green Dragon” is the story of the refugee camps that served as entry point for the Bui family and countless others. Set in Camp Pendleton, the film follows the arrival of six-year-old Minh (Trung Nguyen) and his family. Having become separated from his mother in the chaos surrounding the evacuation from Vietnam, he searches for her constantly. Minh is befriended by Addie (Forest Whitaker), a cook at the camp. Though the two are isolated across a language barrier, they forge a friendship through common interests in drawing and Mighty Mouse.
The film deftly shuttles through the many stories of the camp’s dwellers. Tai (Don Duong), Minh’s uncle and guardian, divides his time keeping his nephew in check and assisting Sergeant Jim Lance (Patrick Swayze) in improving relations between the refugees and their well-intentioned though largely helpless American wardens. Tai’s efforts offer a varied cross-section of life in the camps. Shot entirely on location, Bui’s film presents a compelling, challenging vision of life in Camp Pendleton.
indieWIRE: How did you develop the story? There’s a real sense of oral history through the film.
Tim Bui: I was in one of those camps, the camp in Fort Jaffe, Ark. I was a little too young to remember anything, but I started talking to my mom, and a lot of what she said became imbedded through the story in a lot of different characters. From there I talked to many other Vietnamese refugees and heard their stories. And then I went to the base, Camp Pendleton, to their archival library and I looked through thousands of photos, and it was really from these photos that I was able to get a sense of time and place. I was also able to create characters from them, not knowing who these people were, but creating stories from the photos.
iW: Clearly there’s a sense of responsibility to the people who experienced the camps. Did it ever feel overwhelming?
Bui: Yeah, it did. It really started when I was getting too heavy into the pre-production. Because we did open calls, we met a lot of people during casting, and so many people came in and they all had stories. Everyone came in and said, “I’m so happy you’re making my story.” They’re not thinking you’re making a movie — it was always, “You’re telling my story.” That’s when I really began to feel the weight. And shooting on set it was heavy, because we shot in the exact location where this happened 27 years ago. It was the same mess hall where they ate, the Quonset huts where they slept. And a lot of the extras who were on set — they came through that base — so it was very emotional for them.
iW: Were you constantly reminding yourself that you were just making a movie?
Bui: I knew that I was doing something that not a lot of people know about, but still is very significant to the people who have been through it, and if I started messing with my head about carrying this weight it could have screwed me over. I just really concentrated on the telling the story that’s on the page, and hopefully I’m able to capture the spirit of what happened in the film.
It was a learning process for me. It wasn’t like when I sat down I already knew the entire history of this, every day I learned something new about it. There are so many stories from so many people, the film could have been a lot longer. And of course, each of these individual stories could have been a film by itself. It was a matter of trying to find what I thought was most compelling and dramatic and putting it into the film.
iW: How did you manage to thread so many elements through the film without losing the story?
Bui: I didn’t worry that one story would take over. I wanted to focus on a central idea — the little boy searching for his mother — and the other stories just fell around it. As I interviewed different people, some of these same events or stories kept coming up. I always heard from everyone I talked to about people who wanted to be repatriated. And different stories about how people got mixed in the confusion, about those who didn’t want to stay there, and everyone seemed to know someone who got sent back. So I chose stories that were most universal or I thought would make for great storytelling. There were stories of people — I wish I could have put more in the movie — people who left the camp but couldn’t even adapt to the outside world, and they ended up back in the camps.
iW: Was it a challenge to direct actors who are separated by language?
Bui: The question was really finding the little boy who spoke the language and could act. I found Trung, who had never acted before, and it’s his own natural responses and curiosity. I just put him in a situation with very brief description and I let him react to Forest, and once we got started, he’d forget that there was a camera crew there. The one thing I said to him was “Just pretend that you don’t understand a word he’s saying.” There was so much shooting that Forest had to do a lot of scenes when Trung wasn’t even there.
And even though they’re all Vietnamese, they spoke English pretty well. The only person who didn’t was Don Duong, who was also in “Three Seasons.” It was very difficult for him in the beginning because he didn’t speak the language at all and he had to learn English entirely. He did a two-month crash course, but even on the first day of shooting it was far from perfect. The first scene we shot was the one between Lance and Tai in the office, where they’re arguing, and it’s actually more difficult to understand him. His English got better, but in that scene Don and Patrick did not understand each other at all, not a word, but they were able to act through their eyes. That’s what Patrick told me, that by looking at Don’s eyes he could understand the emotion that was there. I think that language barrier worked nicely into the film.
iW: What memories do you have of the camps?
Bui: I remember the outdoor movies. The first movie that we saw was called “Food of the Gods,” a B-movie about rats taking over a city. That’s going to be stuck with me forever. That was our introduction to America, watching these movies, and that’s what we thought America was on the outside, beyond the fence. Mostly I did not at all understand what was going on around me. I didn’t know that we were running from war.
iW: Is there any kind of competition between you and your brother?
Bui: No, no, we definitely support each other. “Three Seasons” was a film that was the product of Tony’s inspiration when he went back to Vietnam. And after “Three Seasons,” it just felt like a natural progression, because Tony was offered a lot of studio pieces, but it felt better for us to tell this story, our journey, before we go on and do anything else. I think in doing these films we were able to go into a part of lives that we wanted to explore.
iW: What’s next for you? Is “Green Dragon” going to be part two of an epic Vietnam trilogy?
Bui: My brother and I just finished an adaptation of a novel called “Leaving Earth” by Helen Humphries.” He’ll direct that one, it’s about female aviation in the ’30s. And I just finished my own original script that’s going to be shot in Los Angeles. So we’re really sidestepping the Vietnamese scene for now. I think these were two really important stories for us at that moment and now that we’ve explored it, we have other stories to tell.