Boba Talk - Chris Dinh and Viet Nguyen
In this installation of Boba Talk, we catch up with the human Swiss Army knife duo of indie cinema, Chris Dinh and Viet Nguyen. Chris Dinh has appeared in dozens of short films, TV programs and starred in many Wong Fu Productions' YouTube videos. His appearances have gathered clicks numbering in the tens of millions. He met filmmaker Viet Nguyen at the Visual Communication LA Asian Pacific Film Festival and since then, they’ve worked on numerous projects including feature film, Crush the Skull. We talk about their careers, filmmaking, funding, UCLA, romance, and more at GR2 while sipping on boba drinks from Volcano Tea.
By Eric Nakamura
Photos and Video by George Ko
GR: Hi! I’m Eric Nakamura and we’re here doing a Boba Talk with Chris Dinh and Viet Nguyen.
Chris Dinh: Hi I’m Chris.
Viet Nguyen: I’m Viet.
CD: And we’re here to do Boba Talks.
GR: I once heard a person say Nuh-goo-yen, is that a bad butchering of your name or is it alright?
VN: I think for anybody who has never heard the name before, if they say it that way I don’t blame them. I will correct them, but I don’t blame them.
GR: What’s been the worst one?
VN: The worst one was “Noggin.”
CD: That’s good creativity points.
GR: You two worked on Crush the Skull. How did you divide up the work?
VN: We wrote it together. I directed it, Chris’ famous face acted in it.
GR: How did you come up with that?
VN: We call it a horro-medy. No I’m just kidding, I just made that up.
CD: That’s actually kind of catchy.
VN: The funny thing is that the porn version would still be called a whore-omedy.
GR: What was the character in Crush the Skull? Was he called Big Dumb Asian? The actor comes to GR2 sometimes.
CD: Did we call him that?
VN: In Q&As before, we have referred to him before as the Dumb Asian, but his name is Riley in the movie.
CD: Although, back in the day, in the early 2000s, Viet had a film called The Dumb Asian.
GR: He forever became known as the Dumb Asian. Isn’t he in something now?
VN: Silicon Valley?
CD: Tim’s been in a lot of different shows. I’ve known him since the UCLA days, the LCC days.
GR: Can you talk more about LCC?
CD: The theater group, Lapu the Coyote who Cares. The story behind the name is that the co-founder, Randall Park, Derek Mateo, and David Lee were all part of this Bruin Woods camping program at UCLA. When you join that camping program as a counselor you take on a camp name and those guys were called Lapu, one was named Coyote, and the other was named Care? Maybe Care Bear or something. That’s where they got the name for the theater group.
GR: Isn’t one of the guys on Marco Polo?
CD: Oh yeah, Leonard Wu used to be LCC.
VN: He’s one of our buddies too.
CD: He had a small bit part in Crush the Skull. Obviously Tim Chiou, and then of course most well known Randall Park and Ali Wong and Mike Golamco. There are a couple of folks on the executive side—Stan Lee who’s at Disney—
VN: Stan Lee made a bunch of comic books.
GR: Yeah, he’s an old dude.
CD: He’s like indie comic book guy, right?
VN: Yeah, really obscure stuff.
CD: Sorry, we didn’t mean to be snobs by mentioning Stan Lee. No, Stan Pham. Kristina Wong who is a performance artist. Yumi Sakugawa who has had work here before.
GR: It’s weird because a lot of people reference that group at UCLA. It’s going to be legendary one day if it’s not already.
CD: I hope it will continue to provide that type of opportunity for people.
GR: And the Dumb Asian guy was in that too? What’s his name?
CD: Yeah, his name is Tim Dumb-Chiou. No, just kidding. I’m sorry Tim.
VN: He’s smarter than all of us
CD: He’s smarter than you, for sure.
GR: Really? He was so dumb! It was awesome!
CD: That was Viet’s whole short that was going to be a web series, right?
VN: No, I didn’t have any plans for that.
CD: Viet played the main character, the Dumb Asian, and I remember, before I met Viet, I thought it was hilarious. Then we met up, and I was like, “Wow! He really is that dumb! I thought it was a character.”
GR: Where was that?
CD: The Visual Communications Film Fest. That’s how we met.
GR: What do you think of that whole Asian American cinema scene today?
VN: I definitely don’t think it’s getting worse. I think there’s a community building. We met there after doing shorts and stuff, and eventually we got a feature there. I feel like we personally grew from that community. But we also made a movie that was not specifically focused on Asian Americans. It was a horror movie, and we were still able to thrive in the community. People still watched our terrible horror movie.
GR: It wasn’t terrible it was awesome!
GR: The non-Asian film festival took it, that’s impressive! They took a film that kind of as a lot of Asian American characters, a more mixed casting thing, and they took it. That’s where big movies go!
VN: To get into any film festival is obviously a big deal, and we don’t take that lightly. For us, having made a horror movie that went to Asian American film festivals that are heavily Asian American themed was an honor as well. It was cool to be in a category with all these guys.
CD: I don’t think it’s getting worse. It’s evolving. We started around the time when YouTube went online. It feels a little more spread out, maybe. But when I ask filmmakers how they’ve met each other or their co-workers, they trace it back to VC.
VN: Or any of those festivals, there’s one in San Diego. A lot of people frequent those places and we all see each other several times throughout the year, become friends, and end up working together.
CD: I just did a little feature that was written and directed by William Lu. I met him at the Visual Communications Film Fest. I also met the actress Julie Zhan down at the UC San Diego Asian American Film Festival. Then we ended up all working together. There’s no way to visualize those networks and connections, but if you could make an infographic you could see how impactful these festivals are community wise. Unfortunately, when you measure things in dollar amount it’s harder to see. It’s tricky in our community, but if you plotted it in other ways you’d be able to see how widespread and effective these festivals are. It’s healthy, as long as we keep getting funding for it.
VN: There’s a wide spectrum of movies now. Horror movies like ours can be at these festivals now with Asian American themed ones, the coming of age ones, and all the ones you would go to the festival for. But then there are all these other nuggets of genres that you can catch as well. It can only grow. I don’t see it dying off.
GR: What did you think about the film festival with Better Luck Tomorrow?
VN: I don’t know, I guess that’s up to the festival.
CD: It meant something different for me, because I met one of their producers at the original screening of Better Luck Tomorrow years ago when I was trying to get extra credit for an Asian American Studies class. They were sold out and I met Joan Huang, and I turned to her and asked her to sneak me in. She said no, but she was looking for interns, and I got started there.
VN: I’m from Texas; I saw that movie fifteen years ago when it came out. I didn’t see the original version, but going back and watching it again under completely different circumstances now that I’m more mature and a filmmaker, I actually respected it in totally different ways. I enjoyed the fact that I got to see it in a different way. I would have gone to the opening film even if it was a brand new movie, but I think there was something cool to see it.
GR: What do you think about the YouTube scene? It seems together and side by side with the Asian American film festival scene or is its own world that blew up?
CD: I started out at Cherry Sky, which was more traditional. Then I ended up writing and producing with the Wong Fu guys. I would bring Viet over and get him into the YouTube thing. It’s interesting to be able to do both. If you can find a way to do both, there are new audiences you can reach.
VN: The one thing you have to be able to do in this industry and art is to just not be above anything. Be humble to all ways of telling stories. I don’t think we ever felt like we were too good or bad for YouTube just as much as we don’t feel too good or bad for television even though we’d love to make movies. There are so many different ways to tell a story and we just need to respect every avenue possible. People can make a good living doing it you do a good job.
GR: How did you get involved with Wong Fu?
CD: I wasn’t there from the beginning.
VN: Were you dating Phil or Wes first?
CD: I was interested in Wes, but then Phil stole me away, and ended up with Ted. Like everyone else, I caught them online and I started with this short called Yellow Fever. People were passing it around right before YouTube went online when you were emailing each other links to go down the video clips. Then a few filmmaker friends were pooping all over it. They were saying, “Why is this so popular? This is the worst video I’ve ever seen!” The emotional reaction they had to it was so negative and so strong, I remember thinking, “I feel like that means something.” I enjoyed it. I thought it was really funny. It was a lot like the stuff I made growing up, I connected with it. But then I heard this very strong negative reaction to it and I thought it meant something, how strongly and negatively they reacted to it right away without giving them a chance.
CD: Right! Every new technology, every new art form is always met with immense hatred, and I remember, I was really interested in what this YouTube thing is all about now. We had lunch and all ended up at VC Film Fest in a screening one night, and we connected and kept working together.
GR: I don’t know those guys, but I heard about it, these guys from San Diego. They just blew up! Something out of left field.
VN: They were one of the masters of being able to delivered a polished product with very little resources. They had a knack for that and it made them stand out. It looked like professional stuff.
GR: They were titans of YouTube. Rewatching their videos, the ones you’re in have 5 million views!
CD: Those were from a few years ago, and now they’re probably considered mediocre.
VN: You may or may not know this, but for every view of a video he’s in, he gets a dollar.
GR: Whoa. Who bought the boba again?
CD: Thank you, Eric. It’s delicious. But, it’s a different game now for upcoming YouTubers. We’ll see what happens. You either turn away or adopt the new technology that comes along. I don’t know… 5 million, as I understand it, is not that much these days.
GR: You normally play the lead guy in a romantic role in a lot of the videos I’ve seen. What led to that?
VN: In real life, he’s not very romantic at all.
CD: In real life, I’m not really boyfriend material at all. No, I think I am.
VN: Alright, let’s call all his ex-girlfriends right now.
CD: Maybe I set myself up for that one. I did a little bit of theater at UCLA, that’s what got me curious. Then there was this one theater class you had to audition for, but because I wasn’t a theater major I couldn’t take it, which led me to audition for LCC. I did a little bit of light acting in college and I honestly don’t think I’m an actor because I just play a different shade of myself. There are actors like Leonard and Tim who study theater and really study the craft, but I just play different versions of myself. Even in Crush the Skull.
VN: That’s why he doesn’t choose to play an action hero because he’s not in real life.
CD: It’s the most unbelievable, false thing to see me be a tough guy.
GR: You’re playing another incidental romantic lead dude. You’re on a roll here!
CD: Even the character in Comfort was very close to who I am because we collaborated on the writing process. I was constantly giving notes that adjusted what he maybe had on paper, and whom he had on paper was maybe close to who he was as a person, and he and I already in the same area as people.
GR: You can watch Comfort on a bunch of different platforms, right?
CD: Yeah, we released it on Valentine’s Day since it’s a romance. We learned a lot from Emily Ting who wrote and directed Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong because she also released on Valentine’s. Emily Ting’s movie and Crush the Skull was at the same film festival, the LA Film Fest, and we met her and she gave us a lot of advice on the Comfort movie. That was really fun, to be able to share knowledge with another filmmaker.
GR: Are filmmakers sharing?
VN: We all share with each other for sure.
CD: Sharing in terms of technique or business?
GR: Resources too, right?
VN: I don’t think it’s that small. The world is big enough for everyone and we all try to help each other out. I’m not bullshitting when I say that. If we can’t make it big, we want one of our friends to do it instead of some stranger. We all see each other that way.
CD: That’s the thing about working with Viet. Maybe we came up right at a time between traditional and digital, in the traditional world it felt like everything was very proprietary and people held information close. But with the YouTube generation it was about freely sharing information.
VN: Joining forces is also part of the YouTube culture and combining your fan base.
CD: There was a more tangible way to see how collaborating with each other helped because of the view count number. You could see the crossover of audiences if you looked at the analytics. There was proof that helping each other out helped the whole. Before you had access to that data, filmmakers and storytellers held their information close. The theory is if you help each other we all rise together, but there were no numbers to back that up. With data and digital came visible numbers to show that working together really helps and it slowly changed that culture.
I have met a few filmmakers who are open very open about their business dealings, and that to me is so cool because they don’t want you to fall into the same traps. A lot of filmmakers will work really hard and then get to the distribution part of the business, which is completely shrouded in mystery and darkness. But people won’t want to share numbers. At Asian American film festivals, people are too hush hush about their budgets, but between filmmakers, you need to share because the production companies—the guys with the money—they want you to feel paranoid so they can control as many of these films and filmmakers as they can. But if we share information that makes us, the community, stronger. But it’s hard, especially as Asian Americans and Asians not wanting to talk about money.
GR: Isn’t that the magic question? Everyone’s always asking, “What’s your budget?”
CD: Actually, I think people should be sharing their distribution details. You can come to the table with a little more.
GR: How do you even count a budget?
VN: As we’re sitting here, I can say I honestly don’t know how much we spent on our movie. I can guess but I have no idea.
CD: It’s in the 200 range. 200 million.
GR: What’s the difference between releasing digitally versus theatrical?
CD: Comfort went straight to digital. Mark Heidelberger produced it and I wasn’t privy to the dealings. I know that On Demand release was the best choice for it, and I agree. To put up a film in a theater is so expensive. If you’re in the mood for a romantic movie, maybe you’ll choose that?
GR: Is Julie Zhan in Wong Fu videos? You two are always opposite each other. Why is that?
CD: She has her own YouTube channel. Julie and I met, and we’ve kept in touch. We laugh at the same stuff and end up being in a lot of sketches together. I made Viet appear in a Wong Fu video once, and he was like, “What am I doing here?” Did we write it?
CD: “The Hugger?” I asked him to do it and his nieces were really excited.
VN: Oh yeah. I have nieces and nephews who think I’m famous for being in a Wong Fu video.
CD: Viet works on iZombie.
GR: What is that?
VN: All the kids ask that too. They all know Wong Fu but don’t know iZombie.
CD: He’s been with iZombie since Season 1.
VN: It’s a TV show based off a DC comic book.
CD: On the CW.
VN: When I was up in Vancouver I directed a scene with some teenagers for iZombie. The kids pretended to know what iZombie was, then as I was working with them, one of the kids turns to me and goes, “Are you an actor?” I say, “No I’m not an actor.” She says, “Are you sure?” And I go, “Okay, I was in this one video…” and she goes, “Wong Fu, right?!” Of course she knew Wong Fu. An actor on a CW TV show had no idea what show she was on, but she knew what Wong Fu was.
CD: That’s so indicative of what’s going on. She was there. She has likely never seen an episode of iZombie but was working as an extra? They’re like parallel worlds living together.
GR: How often do you get cast with a non-Asian person as your romantic partner?
CD: I don’t think that’s ever happened outside of Crush the Skull.
GR: What influenced that decision?
VN: I don’t think it was on purpose since we auditioned all races. We have so many friends who are great actors we wish we could cast. But for these specific roles, we felt like these actors fit those roles. In the future we will write for specific people but in this movie we only had basically Chris for the lead, and we didn’t have anybody else. Since he was a co-writer he decided to star in it.
CD: We actually had a discussion once we cast Tim Chiou in it. I said, “I think Tim should be the main guy.” He’s actually really good friends with Katie Savoy who is the actress. I was like, “I’ll play the dumb one.” I think it was smart because it was an opportunity to do something different.
VN: By the time we made the feature it was based off a couple short films we had already done. I wanted to direct my first feature film, and Chris wanted to star in his first feature film. We had gotten so far at that point. Then classic, Chris was trying to give away his part. I was like, “No, we need to stay the course. Our whole goal was for me to direct something for you to play the part. After this you can do whatever you want, you don’t need to star in anything. But let’s just do the plan to do from the get-go.” And we’ve regretted it ever since.
CD: Same here. Every day on set, I was like, “Is it too late to just swap Tim with me?” Tim just looks better on the posters. We had this situation years ago when we first met, and then Viet was like, “Maybe you should do it with you and so and so.” Then I suggested we use a different actor and we regretted that. I feel like I’ve gotten it out of my system and I don’t want to ever star in a movie ever again.
GR: What do you mean? What about Comfort?
CD: Well Comfort was already in motion. I feel like it’s too much pressure.
VN: And I don’t want to direct him ever again. It works out perfectly to be honest.
CD: Now we just write together.
VN: No, in the future it’s going to depend on whatever the role is, and if he’s fit for it, he can certainly audition for it.
GR: What are you working on now?
CD: In terms of what we’re doing right now, Viet is directing TV now. I’m trying to take advantage of that and work on a project with Viet so we can get it going. We have a few things that are cooking. We’re constantly writing and we have some stuff we hopefully hear back from.
VN: Nothing we can formally announce.
GR: I didn’t know you were Vietnamese, Chris. I guess I knew you were, Viet, because your name is practically Vietnam. I actually looked it up, but what is a Dinh?
CD: Dinh is my middle name.
GR: There’s a different last name?
CD: Nguyen is my last name.
GR: You’re part of the tribe.
CD: I didn’t feel like always correcting folks, so I adopted the Dinh.
VN: I don’t have a middle name, so I couldn’t do the same thing.
CD: You don’t?
VN: No! I have three siblings and they all have two middle names each. I think my parents just ran out of names.
CD: They’re like, “Does he really need one? Forget it.”
GR: Does your Vietnamese American identity play a role in your creativity?
CD: I think we grew up in similar circumstances. Viet grew up in Texas and I grew up in Hemet, California. Our senses of humor line up. I grew up really poor with a tough childhood, but we happen to laugh at the same stuff.
VN: Whatever it is, we definitely write as People of Color. Even though Crush the Skull isn’t an Asian American movie, there’s plenty of racial humor that we like to play with and it’s definitely from our perspective of being People of Color.
GR: I wasn’t sure if the godfather of pho gives you money.
CD: That’d be awesome.
VN: As far as being Vietnamese, no, there’s not a guy out there looking for a Vietnamese writing duo searching for money.
CD: That guy sounds weird. What’s wrong with him?
VN: He’s from a different era.
GR: There was an era of Vietnamese American filmmakers who are maybe 10 years older than you, like Tran Ham, Stephane Gauger, Tim Bui, Charlie Nguyen, and Victor Vu. They're giant!
VN: By the way, those guys are all super offended you said they’re 10 years older.
GR: A lot of them got work in Vietnam, actually.
CD: Oh, there’s definitely that guy in Vietnam throwing them money.
VN: He’s like, “Aye, let’s give these Vietnamese American directors money out there! Here’s some money!”
CD: And they’re all like, “Ah!”
GR: That’s what I’m saying! The godfather of pho that stands around every pho restaurant in the world and he just hands you money! I just know there’s a bunch that got work in Vietnam. I saw that film the film something Sparrow—
CD: —Owl and Sparrow, great movie.
GR: Yeah, they’re all getting work out there and making great movies.
CD: Also, their economy is doing really well over there. The hunger for film is insatiable. They’re coming out with tons and tons of movies.
GR: I didn’t know if that was important to you guys. You’re sort of the young— is it ten years? Am I wrong? How old are you guys in comparison to them?
VN: Twenty years, man. Thirty-five.
CD: Yeah, twenty-five.
VN: At least.
CD: Thirty, forty, fifty years.
GR: Stephane looks a little older than the rest of them—
CD: He’s like the youngest one! He’s eighteen years old. It’s funny to see him riding a little moped in Vietnam.
GR: He does?
CD: Yeah. I visited a few times, and it’s like this giant guy on a moped. He's all muscle. But yeah, the film industry is booming there. We did get a chance to work with Tim Bui and Kathy Uyen on a project last year. But it’s something we’re interested in if something comes along. I think it’d be really fun.
VN: We’re definitely looking for opportunities to jump in wherever it seems fit for us. It all depends. All those guys are definitely friends of ours and it’s fun to watch them succeed from afar.
CD: They have fifty, sixty years on us. They look great for being a hundred years old. No, they’re awesome. Being able to go and be a part of the what— they’re part of the Vietnamese American, there’s like a new wave of cinema?
GR: There is such thing? Oh, great I’m asking the right guys!
CD: Well we’re just cheering them on.
VN: We’re waving. They’re the wave.
GR: Are you going to make another feature film?
VN: We’re definitely cooking on a feature or two. We’re cooking a bunch of stuff up, just trying to figure out what we can afford to do or who to convince to give us money.
CD: We got to find that guy.
GR: Is Kickstarter still used to get films made? Did you guys do one?
VN: Yeah. I would say after we did it, we would never do it again.
CD: It’s hard.
VN: It’s a lot of work.
GR: People don’t know that.
VN: Maybe it was easy for other people but it just wasn’t easy for us.
CD: Maybe we were just dumb?
VN: I think we were just dumb Asians. But, essentially for us, we were basically begging and pleading for money from friends and family. That’s who ended up giving us money, less of the strangers.
CD: A lot of supporters of the short films did as well. But it’s hard.
VN: It was a lot of work and we barely made it. It was very humbling as well. That was when we found out just how un-famous Chris was. Going in, I was like, “No one thinks I’m famous. But people probably think Chris is famous. He’s on the Internet.” No.
CD: There’s a big gap there. It came right after the Wong Fu Indiegogo campaign too.
VN: We’re not going to do it again. We’re going to look for that Vietnamese guy who’s like, “Hey we’re looking for a feature script form two Asian American guys!”
GR: Well, if he’s like Daddy Warbucks, he’s got money to burn!
CD: But honestly, we’re joking around but we kind of need that I feel like, to usher—
VN: What, that guy?
GR: Ask Lee Sandwiches—
CD: —Oh shit—
VN: —We need that guy!
CD: Maybe they are investing in films, just not ours.
VN: “I don’t want to make sandwiches anymore! I want to make movies! I hate making banh mis!”
GR: We’ve found a new investor for you guys. We found Lee—
CD: —Lee Horowitz from Brooklyn.
GR: Would you date a fan?
VN: Isn’t that the best way because they’re always putting him on a pedestal. Isn’t that the perfect relationship?
GR: Pretty unhealthy. Have you run into that?
CD: Nope. I have never run into that. I haven’t, and mostly, I think friendship first is a great foundation for a relationship.
VN: We don’t have to talk about this.
GR: That was more stuttering than the whole time you’ve been talking.
CD: We just ended on the weirdest subject. Tim is not dumb. The new Vietnamese American wave of filmmakers is not a hundred years old.