Stephane Gauger knows the drill.
The Vietnamese director, born in Saigon but raised in Orange County, has been traveling from festival to festival for roughly two years in support of his feature debut, The Owl and the Sparrow. Self-promotion isn’t his strongest suit – courteous and thoughtful as he seems to be, Gauger admits he’d rather be making movies than talking about them. But his whirlwind press tour has paid off rather handsomely.
Winner of the Best Narrative Feature award at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in 2007, his tenderly arresting fable about a young runaway who helps unite a melancholy zookeeper with the beautiful flight attendant he admires from afar has earned critical accolades and jury awards in cities across the nation, and justifiably so. Now, with The Owl and the Sparrow finally in theaters – it’s currently playing at the Sundance Kabuki – Gauger is hoping to connect with a wider audience.
On the rigors of securing a distribution deal for a small indie by a first-time feature director:
“It always seemed like the deals we were offered heavily favored the distributors, so they were bad deals. So my partners and I had to learn the ropes of distribution ourselves, and it’s a battle. You need a good script and a better-than-average film, then you need strong reviews, distribution deals and ticket sales. It’s one thing after another. I see myself as more of a creative type, but I’ve had to learn a lot about marketing and publicity. I like to learn, but I’m ready to direct another narrative.”
On finding audiences for The Owl and the Sparrow:
“It’s a Vietnamese-language film, so we’re trying to tap into that niche market. We released it in Orange County, which has the biggest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, and we came to San Francisco to attract the art-house crowd. And there has to be a grassroots movement of sorts. We had some promo spots I directed on YouTube, and Tila Tequila and [comedian] Dat Phan were nice enough to help out because they’re Vietnamese, and they wanted to show support for Vietnamese filmmaking. But it’s still an uphill struggle.”
On criticism from some circles that his depiction of Vietnamese city life isn’t gritty enough:
“Most audience members see the beauty in people and the beauty in the storytelling, because it’s a very sweet movie, but occasionally you get people who assume that a child selling trinkets on the streets of a third-world nation has to live in misery and squalor. They want to see a living hell.
“This is an optimistic movie, but it depicts street kids living in Saigon quite realistically. Ten-year-old girls selling roses on the streets of Saigon are not preyed upon, they’re just part of the daily routine. People leave them alone. When I wrote the script, I envisioned their lives, especially in the city’s orphanages, being darker, more Dickensian, but that’s just not the case. And I think the Westerners who believe that any vision of contemporary Saigon for kids has to be darker and more depressing probably haven’t been there.”
On the thoughts and feelings that inspired The Owl and the Sparrow:
“Every film has to have a tone. I think City of God would have to have a different tone than my film because Owl and the Sparrow is fable-like. You have a small child who takes a big journey into the world and learns something about herself. It would be schizophrenic for me to have explored themes of child abuse in that context. In this story, everybody’s looking for love, and they find it within each other.
“There’s a wistful quality to the story. That’s not to say I won’t explore the darker aspects of life in a city like Saigon at some point, but here I wanted to show people who find a way to connect even under trying circumstances. There’s certainly something uplifting about that. I’ve made documentaries and I’ve worked on reality TV, but I’m most interested in character-driven narratives. And this is where my characters took me.”
Stephane Gauger knows the drill.