Today, writer/director Derek Nguyen’s gothic romance The Housemaid arrives in select theaters and on various digital and VOD platforms courtesy of IFC Midnight. Starring Kate Nhung in the titular role, the story follows a young woman named Linh in 1953 who is hired to work at rubber plantation in service to French landowner Sebastien (Jean-Michel Richaud), but finds that her new place of employment harbors many dark secrets. As a forbidden romance blossoms between Linh and her employer, the evil forces lurking on the property become more dangerous than ever.
Daily Dead spoke with Nguyen earlier this week, and he discussed the real-life inspirations behind the story of The Housemaid, his experiences directing his first-time feature in Vietnam over the course of a year and half, collaborating with Nhung, and more.
Great to speak with you, Derek, and congrats on the film. I know you’ve been producing for a while now, but I’m curious what was it about this story in particular where as you were writing it, you were like, "Yes, I'm ready to go out and make this into a feature"?
Derek Nguyen: Well, the story is actually inspired by my grandmother's life. She was a housemaid at a very large estate in Vietnam during the French Indochinese war, and she ended up falling in love with the estate owner. This was kind of a hush-hush story that the family did not really want to talk about, because it was scandalous at the time. About 15 years ago now, my grandmother passed away, and so I have been thinking about her story for a very long time and decided that I wanted to start writing something that was based on her life.
Obviously, this is fictional. Her life was just the inspiration for it. My grandmother also loved to tell me ghost stories, particularly about Vietnam. One of the things that stood out to me was that she believed that spirits lived in trees, and so when I was a kid, I would always think that there were ghosts in trees, and that there was some type of spirit inside there.
So, I went on a trip to Vietnam and learned a lot about what was happening in the rubber plantations that was owned by the French during the colonial period of Vietnam. I heard about all of these really atrocious things that were happening to the workers, where they were basically indentured servants. There were a lot of deadly diseases that were happening, they lived in shacks, and they were hung. Some of the people who were caught running away were killed and put into mass graves.
I was really inspired to tell that that story, along with the ghost stories my grandmother told me, and I wanted to honor her, so it was just so inspiring to me to write a gothic romance that has a backdrop of these horrible atrocities that were happening in colonial Vietnam at the same time.
And you went and actually shot this in Vietnam then, too, right?
Derek Nguyen: Yes. 100 percent of the film was shot in Vietnam. it was amazing. I was there for a year and a half. I lived there for a year and a half making the film, so all the pre-production, every shot was done in Vietnam. All of post-production was all done in Vietnam. So, it was an amazing experience, and I just loved every minute of it.
Let’s talk about this location in The Housemaid, because it becomes almost a character in itself throughout this film. Where did you find the house? And did they just give you free rein to do whatever then, too?
Derek Nguyen: Okay, so interestingly, I originally wrote the script for one location, and unfortunately, we couldn't find a location that was like that, so we ended up going to five different locations to shoot the film. The exterior of the mansion is an old French government building in a province outside of Saigon called Tiền Giang. It was an old, abandoned government building, and it's beautiful. The second I saw it, I was like, "Oh, my god. This is it. This is it." But there were a couple of problems with it, the biggest being that it was in the middle of the city.
And I was like, "Oh, how are we going to do that?" So, what we ended up doing was, with some landscaping and with a little bit of CGI, we transported it into the Vietnamese countryside. I was like, "We just have to have this building." Then, when we went inside, it was absolutely dangerous to shoot inside there. The floors were falling through, and there were thousands of bats everywhere. I love bats, I'm really cool with that, but can you imagine having to shoot in that?
We actually ended up shooting the interiors of the mansion at an old house in a city called Buu Long, outside of Saigon, and we had to match the exteriors of the house with the interiors of the house, and I think that we did a pretty good job because most people don't realize that it's actually two separate locations. It was interesting because the inside of that house was just filled with junk, so the art team had to basically take everything out of the house and redo the house and make it spooky and do all of those types of things, too.
Then the surrounding areas were shot in Da Lat, which is a city farther north of Vietnam, which is actually known as the French Alps of Vietnam. It's a beautiful city, and it is filled with pine forests and lakes and waterfalls, and it's known to be the place where you go on your honeymoon in Vietnam because it's so romantic, but it's also really known to be extremely haunted, too. The old rubber factory is in a place called Long Khanh, and it is the oldest functioning rubber production factory in all of Vietnam. It was preserved like it was during the turn of the century, so I was super excited about that location, too.
I’d love to talk about Kate in this film, as I think she's fantastic. As much as I enjoyed Jean-Michel and the other cast, I just felt like had you not found the right person to be Linh, this whole thing could've fallen apart, and I think Kate carries that weight well. How was it working with her and finding the dynamic of her character? Because she's essentially playing two characters in way, and there’s a subtlety to her performance, too.
Derek Nguyen: Well, we found Kate after months and months and months of doing casting auditions in Vietnam. What I was impressed with about Kate was that she’s ballsy, she's bold, and she is willing to go there, but at the same time, have a subtlety in the ways that she manifests a lot of her emotions. I wanted somebody who was really mysterious, but also captivating at the same time. Kate was an emerging actor in the Vietnamese entertainment industry and has, since then, really blossomed.
We worked a lot with duality and how she was going to play specific scenes in different ways. So, we worked on many interpretations of the character, and then what we did in the edit room was we tried to experiment on levels of how much she knows, how guilty she is, how innocent she is, and it was great to work with that in the edit room because then we were able to really fine tune how we should feel about her and how much sympathy we have for her.
So, I’ll admit that this doesn’t happen a lot, but when I was doing my prep research for this interview, I learned that there’s already a remake of The Housemaid in the works. And even though I’m not always the biggest fan of the idea of a remake, there are definitely aspects of this story that could translate to a lot of other cultures. Was a remake a surprise to you? Did you know this was coming?
Derek Nguyen: Well, I was the one who thought of it, so I did [laughs]. But what ended up happening was that while I was in research for this film, I started realizing that there were huge parallels between the African-American slaves in the American South, and the indentured workers in colonial Vietnam.
There were so many similarities, like overseers, all the hangings, and workers and slaves running away and having dogs go after them. There were so many similarities that I felt like the story would lend itself to another interpretation, so I approached my producer, Timothy Linh Bui, about my idea about an American version. He was really inspired by that, and he approached the studio that financed the Vietnamese version, CJ Entertainment, and proposed this with some other producers, and they loved it.
One of the things that I had insisted is that if we're going to talk about the African-American experience that the writer and the director should be African-American, because I really wanted a sense of authenticity to it and specificity that I knew I couldn't offer. I knew that others could do it well and do it better. And so I'm executive producing it, and I'm going to part of the creative process, too. I'm super excited to have Geoffrey Fletcher on board. He's an amazing writer, he won the Oscar for Precious. I want to give Geoffrey and the director the creative freedom to do what they think is best, and I trust them in making the new version, and honoring the populations they are depicting.