E.J. Carter: Okay this is E.J. Carter and Azen Jaffe. We're here interviewing Vu Pham on December 3rd 2018 at Lewis and Clark College. Thanks first of all for being with us today.
Vu Pham: Thank you. I appreciate being here.
EJ: Could you start by just telling us when and where you were born and a little bit about you life here in Portland?
VP: Sure. I was born in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and at the time I was born in 1975 it was still Saigon, but not for very long. Or if I remember historically that chronological order of things I think I may have born been born shortly after the Fall of Saigon, but they probably didn't change the name until a few years later. And my mother sought political asylum here in the United States when I was a little boy. Probably roughly around five years old, she decided to leave with several other Vietnamese refugees. At the time there were probably twenty plus Vietnamese refugees that were squeezed onto a fishing boat and they left in the middle of the night. It was pretty espionage-like, I guess you could say, leaving under the cover of the night sky. And we escaped Vietnam effectively by sailing a part of the South China Sea and were lucky enough to be picked up by what I can only remember -- due to my mom not being here anymore and having to sort of piece this together in my own mind, and some fragmented conversations in the past -- what I can only assume to be a European, possibly an American, but I think most likely European freight ship -- that passed and essentially rescued us. And so, that began this immigration circuit in which we were then dropped off at a few different islands and a few different countries along the way in order to get vaccinations and be put into language immersion programs. In the Philippines, I remember my mother attending English speaking classes and things like that. I think that was part of a sponsorship program that was here in the United States in which my father, he had a brother who essentially sponsored us. And then, probably a year after that in ’81 in November, we arrived here in the United States.
My life so far has been sort of a really odd combination of different things that, I could say, all accumulatively, is both arduous and surprising and rewarding and inspiring. I started off with my mom and myself trying to make our way in the suburbs of Portland. She worked very hard as a lot of immigrants do to try to make their way in a new country. Unfortunately, she did not live long after she made it here. She died in ’83, so just two years later and I would spend the rest of my youth living under the care of her half-brother, my uncle. Through that period of time it was definitely a very arduous period of time for me just because not only of her death, which is unexpected and tragic, but because her half-brother was also a man who had been severely traumatized by his war experiences, particularly in Cambodia. And also just living in a very harsh country like Vietnam. So he didn't really understand how to raise a kid, being that he was young himself and also just had a lot of personal things that we can all maybe call baggage, or what have you, to work through. So a lot of that became sort of a traumatic fallout for me to have to deal with.
Through most of my youth I had a tough time adjusting and finding my own personal path in the world. I knew that I wanted to be creative somehow, I just didn't know exactly how and as a young person I was told by my elementary school teachers that I was a good writer and so there was a period of time when I fantasized about being a novelist. It wasn't until I was in junior high that I realized that I really wanted to tell stories through film. So it would probably take me another fifteen years after that before I could really make my first film, and you know a lot of that is one needs a live a certain amount of life to achieve some maturity to be able to understand oneself and to be able to put art out into the world. A lot of that is also just some circumstantial things that did not necessarily facilitate an efficient means to do film production. Because it is kind of a science and requires a pretty elaborate network of collaborations. So I currently spend a good majority of my time and energy making narrative short films and I am in the process right now of making my first feature film, something called The Horizon is a Scar, My Love and it is about a pair of transient outcast lovers who trek across the United States. They live somewhat of this counter cultural, nomadic lifestyle. Occasionally they engage in these petty crimes and at the end of the temporary catering job in the suburbs in Oregon they started burglarizing this home and the home belongs to the widow of a recently deceased spiritual leader and the drifters find more than they wanted, much more than they wanted. So, interestingly enough this first feature film deals with immigration and the idea of refugees but in a different way. It does not do it explicitly, it does it implicitly. Through these implicit means it reveals these very complex layering of what it means to be a refugee or an immigrant. It essentially expands that definition to include more general existential transience of being human.
EJ: Great. Well, we definitely want to hear more about your filmmaking career but could you tell us a little bit more about the migration to Oregon? So your father, did he stay in Vietnam or had he passed away as well?
VP: Well my father was a military officer from the republic. When the war ended he was incarcerated for about ten years. His war crime was fighting for the wrong side. So, I think we all know that history is certainly written by the conquerors and the winners and in this case he lost. So he would spend ten years behind bars. I saw him once in Vietnam and then he came to the United States probably in my senior year in highschool and tried to spark up a relationship with me, but he had come over here with four sons from a previous marriage -- and a marriage I guess that I have to assume just doing the basic math and understanding linear time probably was a relationship that existed before he met my mom. So, I did not particularly feel strong affinity for him not for any other reason than that I sort of had grown up disconnected from him and didn't, at that time, for whatever reason, find it as a part of my true yearning for a family connection to have one with him.
EJ: And your mother left in 1980?
VP: Roughly, I would say.
EJ: She was probably struggling economically to survive.
VP: Well, as I think a lot of people in Vietnam were. And also fearing the worst given that the country was now under a new political regime and even though it had been five years since that all happened I think that there was certainly a lot of fear and some amount of xenophobia for the communists. I think that all precipitated in a mass exodus which, as you know, came in several different waves. The first one was the major exodus that happened in ’75. My mom and I would be part of the second wave of the Vietnamese refugees that would come starting in the late ’70s through the early ’80s.
Azen Jaffe: Why did you arrive in Portland specifically?
VP: Well, so, I believe that it is because my father's brother, I guess my uncle. This fellow had sponsored us. So we specifically came to the suburbs because they were living there at the time.
EJ: Which suburb did you set up in?
AJ: Can you recall some of your first impressions of Portland?
VP: Portland proper or just the suburbs?
VP: Well my first impressions of the suburbs was greatly affected by the climate. We came in November of 1981. I believe that it was already snowing and I had never seen the snow before. It was cold and brisk and strange. I think the climate does a lot of interesting things to people psychologically. Clearly it's what precipitates a lot of our cultural practices. For me, it affected my sense of time in that it might have maybe created sharper edges out memories just because of cold things are -- when your body has physiological associations to particular sensation -- being that it was strange, bright, white, and cold it, in a way, made those first impressions if not necessarily detailed in the terms of explicit memories it certainly created really strong emotional impressions of this country being very foreign, cold, and strange.
EJ: And did you live initially with your mother's half-brother?
VP: Yeah. We lived together in a small apartment in Aloha for the first year or so before we then went to Beaverton. Myself, her, her half-brother, and then a friend of ours who I kind of remember him being on the journey with us also but it's not clear. And it's odd because I don't have my mom to reference about some of these memories.
EJ: Was there a substantial Vietnamese community at that time around there or did you feel somewhat isolated?
VP: Well I think that I didn't really necessarily have an awareness of how dense the community was. I think it was, from my own world view, at that age probably seemed dense enough because there were a lot of friends of theirs and there was a Vietnamese grocery store that we went to. From my own personal experiences, not being out in the world on my own, I was always around Vietnamese people so it probably seemed to me to be a lot more full than it might really be in reality.
AJ: Do you feel involved in the Vietnamese community now?
VP: No. Not particularly. A part of that is a cultural disconnect. A part of that is a linguistic disconnect. I speak Vietnamese probably at a fifth grade conversational level. So this conversation that we are having right now would be impossible for me to have in Vietnamese. It really limits what I can say and it limits, to a large degree, what it is I can actually appreciate other people are saying. I think I can understand more than I can speak. I would like to be more connected, but my personal endeavors and my creative and my professional endeavors all sort of put me outside of that community for the most part.
EJ: Did you go to the public schools in Beaverton then?
VP: Yeah, I went to an elementary school in Beaverton, it might have been called Hosford -- or maybe I’m making that up, I don’t remember now -- but there was an elementary school there that I went to and then we moved to Tigard after that and I went to the Tigard elementary school system for a while.
EJ: Do you remember struggling to learn English or did it come pretty quickly?
VP: Well I think that as soon as I got into a classroom environment through the ESL program, English as a second language, then I think it became a lot more fluid. I can remember those skills more. But initially, socially, it was really difficult for me because there was a really severe cultural disconnect and I think kids looked at me funny and thought of me as being very alien. Kids can be cruel. And yet at the same time ironically enough they are far more loving than most adults, so it's a weird thing. But, they just didn't get what I was about and I think they were mean little shits actually. I spent the first couple years really struggling to fit in and didn't really have a very good grasp of anything going on around me socially so it was pretty awkward and strange.
EJ: Were there other Vietnamese kids in either Beaverton or Tigard?
VP: Not very many at all actually. I guess that right there is probably a good measure of how unpopulated the Vietnamese community. Or the lack of concentration of Vietnamese people in those areas.
EJ: So at school you felt pretty isolated even if you had parts of the community you could connect with like the grocery store and other places?
VP: Yes. I would eventually find my connection when I learned to speak better English. It was at that point that I felt like I fit in better and was just better adjusted. Funny what learning a language can do.
EJ: How old were you when you started to feel more comfortable?
VP: I don't know, maybe ten, eleven, something like that. Probably right around the third grade I would say. I started feeling better about my fitting in to the larger society.
EJ: You still weren't necessarily tapped into a close Vietnamese community. This was feeling more comfortable at school?
VP: Yeah, mostly. And I think that when my mom passed away that's when my uncle moved us from Beaverton to Tigard. It would be there that I felt there was a larger Vietnamese community because I think a part of it had to do with his intentions to connect himself personally to other Vietnamese people and it probably was facilitated by the fact that he was a student at Portland Community College at the campus in Sylvania. So through being a student he met other Vietnamese people and then that introduced him to this new community in Tigard and that particular community, who I would become entrenched in, were very Catholic focused Vietnamese Americans. I think that it was through the religion that it really brought everyone together.
EJ: Was there a Catholic church in Tigard or did they come over to the Our Lady of La Vang church at that time?
VP: Well, it was a combination. There was people who wanted to go to St. Anthony's in Tigard, where we lived maybe just a half mile down the road or something like that. There were people who made a point to go to the Vietnamese vicariate in Northeast Portland. And I mostly, for the first few years, went to the church at St. Anthony's. One of the things that I think is notable -- and this is really a good conversation to be had about the religious experience and religious history -- is how closely followed and how strong the proselytizing efforts were from other Christian communities when we were introduced to them. I think they were always some good group of Christians that would come around and try to show us the light and the way of the Lord. That's the way it is. And clearly when you're hungry and poor I think there is a pretty strong susceptibility. Not to say of course that there may not be some truth in religion, but just to say they seemed to really gravitate towards the poor and hungry for whatever reason. Maybe it's just they're doing good work, the Lord’s good work, I don’t know. It's hard to say.
AJ: Do you think there are other reasons?
VP: Well I'm sure that it is multifaceted and I'm sure they are plenty of reasons why. But I do believe that a part of it is -- whether or not they admit to this -- is that, well, I think that when people are in need they're going to be more open to other world interpretations. Especially if the people who are giving them those interpretations are of the more privileged class. You look to them as a guide to get to that place where you are not poor and hungry. It's pretty natural I think.
EJ: Was your uncle a full time student at this time or was he also working?
VP: I think that he was maybe going to school full time for a while and then he did probably have some odd jobs and things like that that he would do. I think that he was full time for a couple of years.
EJ: And did your mother work when she arrived here?
VP: She cleaned houses for people. She worked and went to school. Yeah. Like a lot of immigrants, she had to work really hard to make her way in the world. She did both and it's pretty sad, you know, to not see her have her own life as a human being. After all that sacrificing and planning and whatnot. That's the thing that really bothers me today -- not so much my own loss, because certainly that's also very tragic -- but the thing that bothers me the most is that her personal agency and freedom and human being was squashed by somebody else. That's one of the things that is really too difficult to take about being human sometimes is how life and other people can be cruel. Your life can be taken away at any moment by anything. So I think a lot about that and about how maybe if she had been alive, I'm always wondering what she might be doing or what she would've had the opportunity to do.
EJ: Did things change when you got into high school?
VP: I guess it depends on what you mean. What changes? Did what change?
EJ: Your life or your sense of ... You must have been in pretty strange circumstances after your mother passed away if your uncle was mostly a student, did things get better later?
VP: Things... I don't know that things got better but I will say that you know my uncle spent part of the time as a student but then he was also working for a while, fulltime. I kind of grew up a little differently than most kids you could say. The general infrastructure of a home wasn't there. I kind of made my own means and was there by myself a lot throughout the years that he raised me. When we moved to Portland finally and I attended Portland Public Schools I would say that life was better in the regard that maybe I had some independence, some sense of independence. But I don't know that socio-economically it was much better. I don't know that psychosocially it was much better. In fact it was pretty awkward, as it is for most people in high school. But for me it was particularly awkward and strange throughout those years. It wasn't until I decided to leave his guardianship at sixteen, when I essentially decided to go live on the streets for a few months so I didn't have to live with him, that the next sort of seismic shift happened in my life. That would kind of send me on another sort of journey all together. One that I think obviously has a huge influence on who I am today. Can I get a little more water?
AJ: Yeah I'll go fill it.
EJ: Okay so when you came to Portland with your uncle what part of the city did you settle in?
VP: We lived in northeast Portland on Halsey St. close to Madison High School. About a mile down from 82nd avenue,which is the infamous strip of 82nd. You know that people all talk trash about and with good reason. I myself seemed to gravitate towards the dirty and the gritty and the desperate and broken kinds of streets of Portland, for whatever reason. So I personally like it.
AJ: We've heard a lot about the Halsey Square apartments. Was it in Halsey Square or just around that area?
VP: No, you guys did you homework, I'm impressed. Yeah, it was close by, right across the street. Lived across the highway from the Halsey Square apartments over there. And then later I actually wound up living in the Halsey Square apartments proper.
EJ: Did you feel more connected to other Vietnamese people at that time? There must have been more, a larger community around there?
VP: No. I think it was mostly because of the circumstances that I lived under. Which was my uncle wasn't particularly that interested in connecting to the community. I don't know why. And also because even at that time, linguistically and culturally I just didn't connect with the other Vietnamese students. I think that they viewed me as being very Americanized, which I am and I make no apologies about that. But I think there was a certain amount of prejudice on both ends because of our cultural disconnect.
EJ: When you went to live on the street what was that like?
VP: It was like a Simon and Garfunkel song man, the entire time there was a soundtrack. It was like the soundtrack to the Boxer. It was sad and really heartbreaking honestly. I slept at the airport for a while until they kicked me out. Then I would sleep at the bus stops and stuff like that. I felt more connected to the city in a way that I had never felt before oddly enough. Being homeless, making you connected to the city is sort of an ironic turn of events. But I can honestly say it made me feel like I was more a part of something at the roots.
EJ: Who did you spend your time with?
VP: I was still in high school so I would spend my days in school at Madison and at night I would be a street urchin. I would take my showers at school and the funny thing is my weight training coach at the time, Mr. Wolf, thought that I was being extremely hard working and diligent and would come in early in the morning to lift weights when actually I just came in to take showers. So that's kind of how I took care of myself. I had a home in school and then I would figure it out on the weekends and at night.
EJ: Did you enjoy school? The academic part?
VP: I liked some things for sure and later on -- in what I look back as a desperate clinging sort of search for identity a la Reese Witherspoon in the film Election -- I decided that student government somehow was my way of having a voice in the world. So I did successfully involve myself with student government. I was class president, then student body president my senior year in high school. But all that is just a big joke to me now when I think about my motivations and the way in which I approached it. Certainly, I think that there are some valuable things to be had, but really felt like I was desperately searching for my identity. It was like one of these very strange formulas that dropped out of my head where I said "Oh, maybe I'll be better liked or know myself more if I somehow get in front of people and assume a leadership role." Pretty immature I guess but that is what happened.
EJ: Did people know you were homeless when they elected you class president?
VP: At that point I had no longer been homeless because, after three months of it, I decided to seek help. I contacted a mentor who had met me at an after-school program called Junior Achievement. I don’t know if it is around anymore, but it's basically an after school program that teaches young students how to start their own business. So I was involved in that and Bill Schroeder who was my mentor for that program had extended an offer to help if I ever found myself in a jam because he sensed that I was somebody that was probably pretty tortured and had a lot of things that I needed help with. So when I had enough of drifting around on the streets I called him. I was able to live the remaining year and a half, two years of highschool with him and his family.
AJ: You said one of your teachers always told you were a good writer, were you becoming involved in film making in high school at all?
VP: No, no. In highschool I was just trying to tread water basically. I did not start getting involved in filmmaking until I was in my early thirties. It took me a long time. I had to deal with a lot of living.
AJ: So what happened after you finished high school?
VP: I just worked whatever jobs, restaurant jobs, that kind of thing. And then I was still dating a girl from highschool. She got pregnant and I was the father. So I made this decision that was, now, looking back on it, largely influenced by some unshakable tendrils of Catholicism. I just assumed that the right thing, the "right" thing to do was to marry her and be a responsible father. Which is all true, you know except for it's also really important to love someone or be in love with someone you marry and unfortunately I didn't take that into consideration. So after five years of being married to this woman I broke her heart and I divorced. Now I have this estranged son that doesn't seem to want to have a whole lot to do with me. Ironically enough, the same thing that happened to my father happened to me. Pattern of history I suppose. I don't know if I answered your question I can't remember what you asked.
AJ: I was just talking about after high school.
VP: So that's kind of what happened. At that period of time in my life was when I started to write a lot of stories.
AJ: What sort of stories do you feel are the most important to write or to tell?
VP: I like stories about ordinary people fighting extraordinarily for something. My stories don't have heros. There is no easy answers. There is no absolutes of any sort really. All my stories are largely inspired by my observations of ordinary people living in these very indifferent worlds.
EJ: You were working in restaurants throughout your twenties when you started writing?
VP: Yeah, that is kind of when I would start going to Sherry's, which at that time it was a twenty-four hour cafe and it was down the street from where I lived. I would go there and smoke cigarettes and drink coffee and scribble shit on my notebook. Sometimes the only life those stories ever had were sort of just lived on in these feverish late night conversations with the other weirdos and ne’er-do-wells at Sherry's. Other times they just lived on incessantly in my mind. Sometimes the only life that was afforded to them was this being written on some coffee stained, old frayed, college ruled papers that lived in a box. It would take a long time for me to figure out how to take my stories and put them to film form but I'm glad I did.
EJ: That was still in the 82nd and Sandy area?
VP: The Sherry's thing started basically after high school. At the time, Bill Schroeder was living in Clackamas. I lived there but I went to school at Grant. So, the Sherry 's thing started there and stayed there until 3 or 4 years after because it had just become such an important part of my routine to write late at night because it was when I felt I was free to have creativity. Also I liked being around the weirdos, I guess.
EJ: Were you mostly writing for yourself or did you try to get your stories published?
VP: I was mostly writing under the fantasy that one day maybe those things could be made into films. So I actually wrote explicitly scripts with the idea that I was going to make them someday and that would remain a fantasy for the most part for many years.
EJ: That changed in your early thirties when you eventually got into filmmaking?
VP: Yeah, it changed because I had two really important experiences in my life. I worked on a pot farm, for one, and I met some crazy people there. And then I went to Los Angeles and worked there for a while as a P.A. and met some folks there and my girlfriend, who I'm still with today, decided that she didn't want to move to Los Angeles. So I came back to Portland and when I came back I realized that I was getting older and that I was not going to be able to escape that setting sun of time. So I made it a priority for myself to get my ass into gear and start doing something with my life because it wasn't going to be done for me by anyone else. I put forth a ferocious effort to organize and discipline myself so that I could have some amount of consistency and productivity in filmmaking and I hope to have a career.
EJ: What made you want to get involved in film making in the first place?
VP: So in junior high, like I said, I felt like I wanted to tell stories mostly through films and I always watched a lot of films. I think I did more film consumption than I did filmmaking for the first half of my life, first two-thirds I should say of my life. But it always stayed with me. It's like having both a really fiery love affair that is also dormant at the same time. It's only in my mind that I would see my films, but I had a pretty strong vision of what my films would look like. It's sort of a strange relationship to have with a thing or person if they don't ever exist outside of you but you know them so well at the same time that they are almost real. So filmmaking was an opportunity to take what was only inside me and somewhat dormant but at the same time alive and take it outside of myself. Now I have something that is not just in my head anymore.
EJ: What were your big influences or inspirations?
VP: So, Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, The Ugly is one of the films that I remember the most from childhood and it is still one of my favorite films, although I think that a better film of his is Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. Bruce Lee films were big and now I can't watch them without laughing because they were so ridiculously bad. And then I would discover Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola and David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. Those were the initial film makers that really inspired me. Today, I would say that the European directors that have a huge impact on me are the Italian directors. Bernardo Bertolucci, who recently passed away, Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonioni. Then I would say that in Asia I am a huge fan of Wong Kar-Wai, Park Chan-Wook, Bong Joon-Ho, Kim Ki-Duk, and Kim Jee-Woon who are all South Korean Directors. Then the American directors are David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and, you know, Quentin Tarantino. More recently I've become a huge fan of Nicolas Winding Refn and I would say my favorite Danish director is Lars Von Trier whose film The House That Jack Built is a really excellent film but one that also is infuriating for a lot of people as he always intends to do, which is to infuriate.
AJ: It seems like I have a lot of film watching to do. Would you say that your experiences as a Vietnamese American have affected your filmmaking?
VP: Yeah, undoubtedly. I think that my immigrant experiences have deeply affected my filmmaking. My stories tend to deal with outsiders. Outsiders who struggle quite a bit to find home and that doesn't necessarily have to be about homeless people obviously. It could be about anyone who is just feeling transient and cast out and unable to get through to an impenetrable circle. I would say that is largely informed by my experiences as a refugee and being homeless.
EJ: Did you learn the technical aspects of filmmaking in your stint as a PA in Los Angeles or were there other experiences that exposed you to that?
VP: The technical stuff I learned as I was making it. I am not a shooter. I mean I can shoot but being a D.P. is not my specialty. I am not a cinematographer. If you break it down, I'm really a person with good taste that knows how to communicate what he wants with other people. So that's not to say that the technical components of filmmaking aren't important to me, it's just that by the time that I was making my own films I was already involved with other people who were far more technically superior than I was. They just needed a person to lead them towards a common vision, and that was me. So I write, I direct, I produce, and sometimes I'll act in my films as well.
EJ: So you just plunged in and started making films starting in your early thirties?
VP: Yeah. Started making short films.
EJ: How did you finance them?
VP: Out of pocket pretty much with whatever I could get my hands on. Beg, borrow, steal, refined begging, that kind of thing. Then I started writing grants, and then I got a couple different grants from the Regional Arts and Culture Council and then I garnered the support from some patrons of the arts. Luckily, there's some wealthy people out there that dig what I do. I won the support of equipment vendors who provide kind donations to my work. So all the major equipment vendors in Portland have all given generously to my films. It may not be a cash contribution, but it is as good as cash in the marketplace. Lens packages, camera packages, gear, grip, and electric packages, things like that. Then I won the support of my fellow collaborators. Directors of photography who will work for half their rate because they believe in what I do. Without such things I could never make films. It would be impossible. I could make my own very personal and very low-scale -- even more low-scale than what I make now -- but I could never make the kinds of professional films that I make today without these people, without regional arts organizations and equipment vendors and patrons of the arts and collaborators. And friends and family, who give me all sorts of support. Not just monetarily, but they open up doors to opportunities and that kind of thing.
EJ: Are there other Vietnamese-American filmmakers that you collaborate with? Or actors, et cetera…
VP: There is one actor that I have worked with a number of times and he’s a fantastic actor. He is actually not a professional actor and didn’t know much about acting before we started working together. His name is Long Nguyen and he kind of lives most of the year here and then he spends two or three months in Vietnam. In fact, he might be in Vietnam now. But, as far as other filmmakers or other Vietnamese-American directors, I have no connection to them. I’m aware of some of them, but they are making work that I don’t really connect with, so we haven’t really collaborated.
EJ: How did you get involved in acting?
VP: Well it was funny because I have done some acting before, but it wasn’t until I was cast as Harrison Ford’s lab assistant in this really terrible, disease-of-the-week film called Extraordinary Measures with he and Brendan Fraser. A god-awful film. Anyway, it was a cool opportunity to play his lab assistant. We worked together for a couple weeks and I had like a handful of lines. He yells at me in one scene. Another scene he mean mugs me. That kind of thing. It wasn’t until I was doing that that I began to think more about acting.
EJ: How did that role come about?
VP: When I came back from L.A., one of the things that I thought to myself was, “You know, maybe I can get some acting gigs to make a little bit of money.” Because you can make okay money doing commercial, industrial acting stuff. I got an agent, they gave me a slot in their agency. It was at Ryan Artists, because I’m an Asian-American and they probably just needed an Asian-American face to fill their roster. I think I have a decent look for some commercial stuff. I don’t know, people tell me I’ve got a good look for the screen. They took me on and I would book small gigs. Mostly just local commercials and things like that, and some industrial. And then the film Extraordinary Measures rolled through town in 2010, and they needed a guy to play Harrison Ford’s lab assistant. So they put out a big casting call and I auditioned for like a month or so. [I] would audition, get called back, and get called back again. Probably happened like six times. Then they booked me on the job and worked for like two weeks. Heard some funny jokes from Harrison and saw some funny things that are sort of interesting. Of what I can only describe as probably an eccentric billionaire. The dude is just so out of touch with reality, it’s kind of hilarious. I don’t know the guy personally, but I don’t presume he really understands what it means to live an ordinary life at all. You know? He flies around on a Cessna. Six hundred acres of forestry that he owns in Wyoming as part of his life during the year when he wants to get away from other people. I don’t know. Plays heroes in movies.
EJ: Are there writers who have influenced you? Particularly Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American who influenced your work either as a writer or as a filmmaker?
VP: No, not a lot of Vietnamese-American writers. I don’t read Vietnamese very well so I don’t read very many Vietnamese-American writers. But there are certainly plenty of writers that have influenced me that are of the English-speaking ilk. Lawrence Durrell is one of my favorite writers. The Alexandria Quartet is an incredible work of English literature. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is one of my favorite novels. Notes From Underground by Dostoevsky is another novel that I am a huge fan of. Obviously Crime and Punishment is pretty incredible. And then nineteenth century German thinkers, like Nietzsche and Hegel. He predates Nietzsche, but I’m big on the existentialist philosopher stuff. Nitzsche, Marx, Hegel and later on Freud. It was those guys that have a huge impact on my thinking.
EJ: So you definitely seem drawn to people on the margins of society.
VP: With my stories? Yes. Most definitely. They seem far more interesting to me.
AJ: So you said that in your feature film that you’re working on, some of the things you’re exploring are what it means to be a refugee, what it means to an immigrant. Is that right?
VP: Yeah, but more in the very universal context of what does it means to be existentially transient. But tying that universal theme back to the fact that these two characters -- one’s a second generation Vietnamese-American and the other one is this Portuguese drifter, this woman -- but tying that universal theme back to these specifics of their individual stories helps to make that connection. I don’t like to explicitly explore current, or relevant, socio-political talking points. I find it to be pretty boring. But there are those things that can be made relevant or connected to relevant concerns that we have right now with our current administration. It’s viewpoint on what outsiders are and what immigration is.
AJ: So would you say your films or your art are political?
VP: No, I mean they’re not explicitly political by any means. But they can be looked at through a political lense, for sure. It wasn’t until Trump was elected that I actually became that concerned about politics. Before that, it wasn’t really something that I thought a lot about. Now I think about it on a daily basis and probably spend at least thirty minutes of my day reading up on what that asshole is doing. So, you know, it takes a large portion of my time and energy now that I never gave before. I think it’s something we should all be deeply concerned about if we’re not already.
EJ: So to what extent do you think the themes of your work are driven by your experience as a refugee from Vietnam as opposed to the specifics of your life and being essentially orphaned at a relatively early age and living in the street and…
VP: I’m sorry, could you start over and ask me that again? Somehow I got confused by the question there. Could you say that again?
EJ: These themes of people on the margins, outsiders, to what extent is that interest driven by the fact that you are a refugee from Vietnam as opposed to the specific. In other words, your story seems very different than a lot of other stories that we’ve heard where people are much more firmly grounded in the community itself or family structures. Your story is much different in the sense that you were on your own so much from such an early age. To what extent do you think you have a typical refugee story that has informed the themes that you are interested in? To what extent is it a very different story from the typical refugee story?
VP: Well, if I understand your question right, you’re asking, basically, how has my experience as a Vietnamese-American -- being different from most other Vietnamese-American and immigrant experiences -- informed my work and to what degree does it inform my work. I would say that it informs my work to a large degree and that unlike traditional biographical storytelling, which I do not engage in, because, again, it’s a matter of aesthetic and I don’t like to take a one-to-one analog of my own personal experience and put it out there in story form explicitly. So, whatever particular experiences I’ve had being an outsider, being a refugee, being homeless, being a person struggling to achieve their identity, having lived through particular traumas, being disconnected from the larger culture, and so on and so forth. All of those things are never put in story form in a one-to-one ratio where you could easily identify the particulars of plot points or what-not as being my own. They’re always prismatic. They are always bent and morphed in ways for me to be able to create drama that I find to be interesting. It’s just part of how I choose to retell their stories. So, you can find very specific things if you look hard enough and if I point them out to you that are personal experiences directly, and there are times when there are specific words or even actions or events that did happen to me and they’re buried in the larger text or narrative, but it’s never anything that you could ever trace and make a full comparison that is explicit and matches in a traditional biographical way.
AJ: Well, do you think Portland’s changed since you came here? How do you think it has?
VP: Oh yeah, absolutely Portland’s changed. I think it’s like any major, well, it’s not a major cosmopolitan city, but it wants to be. It’s certainly on its way to being a bigger city and maybe one day it will like a Seattle or something like that. But, I think like anything, any organism, or entity that is going through a burgeoning process, I think there are growing pains and I think that part of growing pains are finding one’s identity. So, I think Portland is sort of in search of its identity in being a larger city. I think it’s changed dramatically because of gentrification, which is also part of the natural order of any kind of growing economy. People who are the owners of capital get to decide what is the pinnacle of culture and so the rest follow in suit. So if you are a have-not, as is the case with many people in Portland who have been pushed out of their homes in order to make way for well-intending, well-meaning, liberal, privileged, caucasian people to come and open up their coffee shops and art studios and boutiques and what-not. It’s just kind of how that’s changed the face of Portland. But you can look at any city in the United States and identify that to be a trend. It’s not just been happening here, it has been happening forever, since time immemorial, actually. If you consider just general trends of human population growth and all that, as far as any major colonizing that took place, I mean, that’s essentially what’s going on. Some people who have more capital and power are just driving other people out that don’t fit into their value system. That’s how the United States was formed.
AJ: So, I think we’re getting close to wrapping up. Before we do so, is there anything else you would like to talk about or anything else that we should ask?
VP: No, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I think that that’s pretty comprehensive, you asked a lot of questions.
AJ: Thank you for being so willing to speak with us and your openness
VP: Yeah. Yeah, my pleasure. Yeah, my pleasure. Let me know if there is anything else y’all need. Let me know if there’s an opportunity to screen some of my work here for the student body. I would love that.
AJ: Yeah, we’ll get that happening.
VP: Cool, man.
EJ: Alright, we’ve been speaking with Vu Pham on December 3rd 2018. Thanks again for meeting with us.
VP: Yeah, my pleasure.