Sundance Student to Triple Winner, Tony Bui's "Three
by Jeff Winograd
Awarded the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award and Best Cinematography
at this year’s Sundance film festival, Tony Bui’s debut film “Three
Seasons” was clearly the big winner to come out of Park City ’99. The
first American film shot in Vietnam since the war, “Three Seasons” was
also the first Dramatic entry to be mostly shot in a foreign tongue.
Produced by Open City Films, starring Harvey Keitel, and acquired by
October Films, the film focuses on four-intertwining stories set in the
increasingly modernized Vietnamese capital of Ho Chi Minh City.
indieWIRE met up with Tony Bui at the Portland International Film
Festival. The young director was happy to be in Portland though his
non-stop schedule from Sundance to Berlin to New York to Miami meant
that he had little time to enjoy his recent success. Here, Bui speaks
about the necessary boost he received from the Sundance Screenwriting
and Directing Labs, getting Harvey aboard, and shooting in Vietnam.
indieWIRE: You went through the Sundance Labs. What did they do for
Tony Bui: I don’t think I’d be where I’m at in terms of making this
film, finishing this film, if it wasn’t for the Sundance Institute.
Michelle Satter has been an amazing force in my life. She has been an
amazing guidance, not only in terms of someone sort of bucking me out of
pure obscurity when she accepted my screenplay to go to the lab, but as
really supporting the project; she watched it; and brought it to certain
people’s attention to really help me get this film made. So that’s
priceless. And she’s really been there to help me with everything from
my agents to my lawyers. Just sort of this person I always call to look
to for advice. I always feel like it’s coming from the right place.
iW: How did the labs help you to prepare making your film?
Bui: The institute has been very important. The month I spent at the
Writers Lab and at the Directors Lab at Sundance, not only helped to
prepare me to make my first film, which is its intention — to help you
realize your vision — but also, through the Producers Conference and
through just the name of Sundance, gave it enough attention so that
people started to take interest in it.
iW: It’s competitive just to get accepted.
Bui: Yeah. There’s something like 2000 scripts submitted and they just
accept like 15 or something. So the early buzz that began to rise came
from Sundance — and then as my producers got on board and I met Bingham
Ray at the Producers Conference. The relationships that would be forged
through the Institute would then help the film get made.
iW: Is the Institute what led you to Harvey Keitel [star and executive
producer] or was that a separate process?
Bui: It was separate, but again, once I was on that road and Michelle
knew that Bingham was interested she made a call to [him]. Everyone
trusts her opinion because she’s not a producer, she’s not an agent. She
always comes from the right place.
I met Harvey through Open City Films and October Films. And when the
time came to cast the role of the sole American in my script, they asked
me to make a list of people. At the top of the list was Harvey Keitel.
They went, “oh, wow, we already have a relationship with Harvey.” A
meeting was set up. It lasted maybe five minutes. I was intimidated
the whole time. All I could see was the “Bad Lieutenant” in front of
me, and he said “I don’t want to get your hopes up. I’ll be quite
honest with you. I’m 99.99 percent sure I can’t do your film. I’m
booked through the entire year. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll read the
script because I base all of my decisions on the screenplay.” And I
left. I tell you it was five minutes long and at the time I thought
yeah I’m sure he’s going to read it in a week; I’m sure he says that to
On the 7th day, he called me up and said he read my screenplay and was
very moved by it and that it could be an important film. And that he
wanted to be a part of it.
iW: Did his involvement have a big impact on the film?
Bui: He really championed the film. A couple of times he would call to
make sure nobody was messing with the film. He would always say “I’m
making the director’s film, I want to make sure your vision is intact,
right or wrong.” I always felt like I had someone very strong on my
iW: Once you were shooting in Vietnam, how did just being there affect
Bui: Rediscovering my past and ultimately discovering who I am, changed
me not only in terms of my heritage, but it changed me in terms of what
I had become as a filmmaker. The years I was going back there coincided
with a time of discovery for me on an artistic level as well. I was in
film school, learning about which filmmakers excited me. First the
European filmmakers and later the Asian filmmakers. All this was
happening at the time I’m going back [to Vietnam]. It was this moment
of artistic discovery and this part of me going through a very personal
discovery. It was then that I realized the kind of filmmaker I wanted to
iW: Was there any real stumbling blocks with shooting in Vietnam?
Bui: Obviously it was very tough to shoot there. Films had been shut
down before and after ours. We were the first production ever to be
bonded there. Issues like that were obviously tough. I don’t think its
any tougher there than anywhere else, though. There were things that
friends of mine were facing in small towns in America that I never had
to deal with. It may have felt like we were going through hell, but we
overcame it because we had a great crew and the obstacles were not
iW: How were you received by the local communities you shot in?
Bui: I think good. We came in with a very very strong awareness and a
strong effort to leave communities as good or better than when we came
in. We tried to be sensitive to that.
iW: Tell me about your cinematographer. Where did you find her?
Bui: I’m from the West coast and Lisa [Rinzler] is from the East. I
went to New York and met with almost every D.P. in New York. Lisa was
the first person I met. It was her spirit that caught me. Clearly she
wasn’t the most technically knowledgeable — she’ll even tell you that.
But what she had was this amazing heart, amazing humanity, this amazing
soul I connected with. I was sure if I could bring her to Vietnam, she
would capture the people and give the film the grace that it needed to
be given because she’s coming from the right place.
iW: How did you go about planning shots?
Bui: The script was written to be very visual. The tones and textures
of the different seasons were all on paper. We watched a lot of movies
and talked about the tones and how we didn’t want it to look fake. She
wanted it all to feel natural. For four weeks we worked on storyboards
and shot lists. We never really referred to them during the shooting –
we changed shots dramatically on location – but it gave us an idea of
what we were going for.
iW: So what’s next for you?
Bui: We’re doing two things. I say “we” because my brother and I
collaborate on everything. My brother shot all the second unit, which
helped tremendously. I’m producing my brother’s film. He wrote a film
about the refugee camps in America in 1975. These four camps across the
country. Each had about 30,000 people. It is a very universal
immigrant story about people living in America but not really because we
were living in these boundaries. All of these camps were in those
deserts and people were trying to get over to the other side of the hill
to reach the real America.
iW: Do you have anything of your own you’re working on?
Bui: I’m also writing a film right now that I hope to do afterwards
with Harvey [Keitel]. He doesn’t know what it is, but he’s pretty much
said he wants to work with me again. It’s a film in English that has
nothing to do with Vietnam. It takes on other things in my life that
are personal that I want to give a voice to. I want to say something
again that means something.
[Jeff Winograd is a writer/director living in Portland, OR. He recently
co-created and directed the Sundance Trailers for this year’s festival.]