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Victoria Film Festival ’08 Interview – The Owl and the Sparrow director Stephane Gauger

Owl and the Sparrow - At the Victoria Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

“For my first feature film, I set out to make a free-flowing film about Vietnamese people with a story that was simple by design. Owl and the Sparrow is a gentle and luminous film about three people in modern day Vietnam intersecting and finding out that they’re not alone, after all. A ten-year old orphan girl, Thuy, packs up her bags and runs away to the big city, where she survives by selling roses on the streets. Here she meets two lonely hearts, Lan, a stewardess on lay over, and Hai, a zookeeper who takes care of the elephants at the zoo. The little girl decides to play matchmaker to the two adults in hopes of forming a new family.” Director Stephane Gauger on “The Owl and the Sparrow” which screens at this year’s Victoria Film Festival.

So you’re in a conversation with someone you haven’t met before at the Victoria fest and they ask if you have a film in the festival. What do you tell them to get them to come see your film? What’s your hook?

Owl and the Sparrow is ultimately a sweet, uplifting film that takes place in modern Vietnam and has some pretty good acting, I think. It is positive. It is audience pleasing.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background, and what led you to wanting to make films.

I was born in Vietnam to interracial parents and grew up in Southern California. I grew up gobbling movies as a kid, always knowing I wanted to have a career in film. I took drama classes in high school and got my bachelor degree in theatre. To learn film production, I worked in cinematography on indie films for many years while writing screenplays on the side.

Tell me about how this production came together and how the film was made. (This can include the screenwriting process as well.)

I wanted to do homage to cinema verite, and I wanted to do a love letter to Saigon, my birth city. Those two elements formed the catalyst for the film. After the characters popped up in my head, I took a couple months off to sit down and write the script. I had experience working in Vietnam’s film community and the film was micro-budget, so four months after the script was complete, I found local actors and crew in Saigon who were willing to embark in something that was not familiar to them: the run and gun production method. In a lot of the film, I just put the actors in the streets and let them free, without marks to hit. I told them to trust me and let me find the moment though the camera lens.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

The film was shot on two mini DV cameras and filmed out to 35mm for exhibition. Since we were shooting on the busy streets of Saigon without street closure, small cameras were necessary. To keep the performances organic, we shot with two cameras at once, with myself operating the A camera. The film was primarily handheld to keep a docu style that I wanted to fit with naturalistic acting. The lighting was also minimal to keep with the organic method I was hoping for.

Out of the entire production, what was the most difficult aspect of making this film? Also, what was the most pleasurable moment?

This film came about pretty easily. Things that I thought would be tough, like shooting with kids and animals, shooting on the fly in 15 days. These were pretty manageable because of my background in indie films, I knew how to be scrappy. We operated the film shoot like a small family, which was the most pleasurable thing. Plucking my ten-year old lead actress Pham Thi Han two days before we began production was a stroke of luck. She had never acted before, and she had two days to get down her dialogue and study the arc of her character. That’s a lot to ask for a young girl with no prior acting experience, but she pulled off a very natural performance. Working with all the child actors were a pure joy.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

For Owl and the Sparrow, the filmmakers that I looked for inspiration were the Dardennes brothers, Michael Winterbottom, and Wong Kar Wai, all for their methods of shooting loose and fast, but keeping everything organic. Keeping everything rooted to the story.

How has the film been received at other festivals or screenings? Do you have any interesting stories about how this film has screened before? If this is your first festival, what do you think you will expect at the film’s screenings at Victoria?

The two main types of festivals we’ve played in all of 2007 are mainstream festivals and Asian-American festivals, where the film was well-liked and received many accolades. What is more satisfying is screening the film in my native Vietnam, where the press and film scholars have received the film well. This was always a wildcard, how my ultra-independent Vietnamese film with a western touch would be viewed in Vietnam.

If you weren’t making movies, what other line or work do you feel you’d be in? There were a few years where the hustle of the film business was tough on me. I was a tennis bum and was looking into teaching tennis at country clubs as a way to escape.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

I think the success of some films are immune from critics, like franchise films are genre films, but for small, character-driven films, good reviews can really help out emerging filmmakers.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

The film hasn’t played in France yet. It would be nice to screen in Paris, where I watched a lot of inspiring films that shaped me in my growing years.

If you could offer a nickel’s worth of free advice to someone who wanted to make movies, what nuggets of wisdom would you offer?

Don’t write scripts that you think will make a zillion dollars at the box office. The odds of having quality work are stacked against you. The odds of success are greater if the story is from the heart.

What do you love the most about film and the filmmaking business?

I love coming out of a movie theatre and feeling like I’ve just been transported to another world. Like I’ve just been somewhere for two hours that I would never in my lifetime, if it weren’t for a strip of celluloid. For me, that is a movie “experience”.

A question that is easy for some but not for others and always gets a different response: what is your favourite movie of all time?

It would be easy for me to say “Taxi Driver”, but honestly I don’t have one favourite movie. I have more of a top ten list.

This film will be screening at this year’s Victoria Film Festival, which runs February 1st to 10th, 2008. For more information on this film, screening times and general information about the festival, point your browser to the VFF’s official website HERE. – Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com


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originally posted: 01/31/08 14:15:15
last updated: 01/31/08 14:15:55
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