Photo by Joe Nguyen/AsiaXpress.com
Stephane Gauger poses during the 30th
Starz Film Festival Nov. 10 inside the Starz FilmCenter
in Denver. Gauger won the festival's Emerging Filmmaker
Gauger wins award at Starz film
Vietnamese-American director takes jurored prize for
'Owl and the Sparrow'
By Joe Nguyen, AsiaXpress.com
Nov. 20, 2007
DENVER – Experience has certainly paid off for
writer and director Stephane Gauger as he won the Emerging
Filmmaker Award at this year's Starz Denver Film Festival
for his first full-length feature, “Owl and the
The award jurors described the 37-year-old half-Vietnamese
American's film as a “poignant and engrossing narrative
(that) addresses universal love and alienation by masterfully
weaving together the stories of three disaffected people
in modern Saigon.”
“A lot of films that play at festivals tend to
be cynical,” Gauger said. “Mine is extremely
unpretentious. It's not trying to be clever. It's trying
to tell a story as simple as possible. I think people
respond to that.”
It seems as if he's been preparing for the movie after
spending the past decade being, as he calls it, the “lighting
maestro” on films such as Timothy Bui's “Three
Seasons” and Ham Tran's “Journey From the
“Shooting my film in three weeks wasn't hard because
I already knew kind of how to put a film together,”
he said. “ ... I knew my way around to putting scenes
together. You learn from other directors.”
Gauger is part of a small circle of Vietnamese-American
directors who are making waves in the film industry with
a mix of genres ranging from Charlie Nguyen's action flick,
“The Rebel,” to Victor Vu's horror, “Spirits.”
“We're pretty tight,” he said.
So tight, in fact, that Bui and Tran are listed as executive
producers on “Owl and the Sparrow.” And while
on the set of Tran's “Journey” in Thailand,
Gauger met singer and actress Cat Ly who he later cast
as the lonely flight attendent, Lan.
“She's a dynamite actress so it was kind of like,
I think Cat could do flight attendent,” he said.
Courtesy Cinema Management Group
From left, Le The Lu, Pham Thi Han
and Cat Ly in "Owl and the Sparrow."
But he needed a strong actress to play the lead character
of Thuy, a young girl who runs away from her uncle's rural
home and ventures into the big city. But he said he struggled
to find one who would be able to draw the viewer into
a movie. That is, until 10-year-old Han Thi Pham was cast
two days before shooting began.
“I didn't really have to direct her that much –
basically kind of laid out the character for her and she
understood it,” he said.
The role would not have worked with a Vietnamese-American
girl because they can't fathom someone their age being
a street vendor, he said.
“The thing with Vietnamese kids, it's like if you
have them play a flower girl ... they know what flower
girls do and how they sell,” he said. “So
it's not a big stretch for them if you put a costume on
them and you give them some props.”
To capture the authenticity Gauger shot the film in Saigon,
the city he was born in. But in order to shoot there,
he had to be careful with what he wanted to do because
the Vietnamese government has been known to ban directors
from working there again because their final product was
negative, he said.
“With Vietnam, they just want to a postive image
of society,” he said. “I think that you could
show reality, but they want a positive message ... You
could show prostitution, but it would have to be like
'Pretty Woman,' where in the end she goes off with the
Gauger said he portrayed a more personal look into the
characters' world by using a hand-held camera throughout
“I wanted to use a fresh new way of cinéma
vérité, so I wanted to throw the audience
into (Saigon),” he said. “The city is so busy
and so frenetic that I wanted to keep the cameras loose,
to kind of give you that sense of immediacy.”
With his prior knowledge of the city, Gauger said the
zoo was the only area he needed to research.
“The whole selling of things on the street, I had
already knew,” he said. “ ... But with the
zoo, it was spending some time there, feeding the animals.”
He said he originally intended to have a tiger in the
script, but changed it to an elephant after finding that
a tiger would be far too difficult to shoot. The orangetan,
however, was a different matter.
“We had (the orangetan) written in three scenes
and then we had to write him out after one scene,”
he said. “He was as tall as the girl, but stronger.
And he would just mess with her all the time. It was hard
for her to act.”
At the two screenings he's done in Vietnam, he said the
audience was most impressed with the acting.
“The story for them is like a slice of life, so
it's not so special,” he said. “But they really
enjoy good Vietnamese acting for once. They don't get
Now, after nine months of being on the festival circuit
and winning a number of awards, Gauger plans on finding
time to write his next project: another narrative that
will take place in Saigon. Only this time, it'll have
an ensemble of characters and it will address different
“(Film is) one of those things where you kind of
perservere and you keep at it and hopefully your work
gets recognized and you get the payoff,” he said,
“which is a career and being able to continue working
on films and projects.”
For more information on "Owl and the Sparrow,"
Joe Nguyen is the editor in chief
of AsiaXpress.com. Joe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.