‘Someone I Used To Know’ – A Conversation with Nadine Truong

“Someone I Used To Know.” (Photo: Nadine Truong)

This month Cinema Asian American presents the feature film debut of Los Angeles-based director Nadine Truong, “Someone I Used To Know.” A coming-of-age ensemble drama, “Someone” made its world premiere at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and has gone one to screen at film festivals nationwide. From the SFIAAFF’s program guide:

Three former high-school friends reunite for a long Los Angeles night in Nadine Truong’s bittersweet drama, a new-millennium remix of such classic eighties’ ensemble dramas as The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire. Fresh from losing his girlfriend, his job and almost his life, the suicidal thirty-something Charlie (West Liang) heads to L.A. to reconnect with his best friends from high school, Luke (Brian Yang, Hawaii 5-0), who’s now a successful actor, and Danny (Eddie Mui), who’s always been a rich boy. Their faltering nightclub reunion is quickly derailed, however, by two young women (Emily Chang, Kara Crane), one of whom will seemingly do anything to be with Luke, the other barely legal, yet wiser than her years. Later joined by the girls’ best friend (the fabulous Rex Lee, a.k.a. Lloyd from Entourage), the group winds up at Luke’s palatial hillside home, where a “few more drinks” soon becomes an all-nighter filled with revelations, recriminations and, well, a few more drinks.

The success of any ensemble drama, of course, rests on its actors, and Someone I Used to Know boasts some of the sincerest performances of the year. Nuanced and incisive, the film embraces what it means to grow older—but not necessarily wiser—while coming to terms with the person you’ve become.

Truong discussed the making of the film, as well as her upcoming projects:

“Someone I Used To Know” dives deep into themes of friendship, regret and acceptance – themes that many can recognize. At the same time the film feels incredibly personal. What was the starting point for the story; why Los Angeles, and a group of 30-something year old friends starting to gain a sense of the passage of time? What was it about this configuration which inspired you?

NT: The film was written by West Liang, who also plays “Charlie” in the movie. He sent me the script, we decided to collaborate, and then went into shaping the story even further. The characters in the screenplay are all based on real life people important to West’s life, but I’d also say that they are closely modeled after my own personal experience. The screenwriter and the director may or may not have a very intimate working relationship, which was the case for us.

They always say “write what you know”. Well, West and I are both in our 30’s now, and as artists we’ve shared that sense of “what the heck did I do with my life” at some point or another. I think it’s natural. You’re not a kid in college anymore, but you’re also not completely accustomed to “real responsibilities”, whatever they may be. We all need mirrors or friends to help us out every now and then.

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Your cast brings together a number of recognizable actors who have worked extensively in television and independent feature films; Brian Yang, Emily Chang, Rex Lee and others. Was the script written with them, or a specifically Asian American context in mind?

NT: The cast was not set when West wrote the script. Once we went into pre-production and started casting, the characters on the page just came further to life. The scope of the film is very small, the budget micro-tiny. We set out to tell a story, and this happened to be an Asian American story. We could have also just called it an American story. As filmmakers we wanted to put Asian Americans on the media landscape without having to necessarily address their Asian-ness. We, as a population exist. We hang out in LA, we party, we laugh, we cry, we’re there. Being Asian American in the context of a film that’s really about friendship and growing pains is secondary to the story.

I am very keen to keep introducing more Asian American faces to mainstream cinema. I’d like to help make it part of the norm. Including an Asian American cast or cast member in my films is my way to do so.

Structurally, “Someone I Used To Know” takes place over the course of one night, and much of it is set in one location – a palatial hillside home in Los Angeles. Can you discuss these creative decisions and how these parameters helped shape your storytelling?

NT: Film is visual story telling. Since we didn’t have the luxury of different locations and sets, it was important to me to keep the audience engaged and feed them with visual stimuli, even though I didn’t have too many locations available. The script lent itself perfectly for it. I went for the split screen approach: different people conversing with each other in different parts of the house at the same time. It helped give us a real sense of time without having to waste screen minutes on mundane things. I also believe that our audience is very well versed when it comes to split screens. The days of social media picture and video posting in tiny little squares divided into further tiny boxes has contributed immensely to our movie viewing sensibilities. I’m actually waiting for more television shows and movies to take advantage of this!

What are you watching, reading and listening to that are exciting and perhaps part of a larger conversation you are engaged in, in terms of media, politics, film?

NT: I am currently working on a screenplay about a man on death row, who committed a hate crime against an Asian American man back in the 90’s. It’s a topic very near and dear to my heart. However, in recent years, I went through a personal transformation. I started practicing and teaching yoga, and as a result I seek to spread more awareness through my film and writing work. It’s so easy to focus on what’s wrong with this world, but to counter that, we have to nurture what is good. I currently teach yoga at a juvenile hall, and will likely move on to a prison with an adult population next year. It’s part of me wanting to be of service to others, and part research for my hate crime screenplay. I believe in rehabilitation. I believe in redemption. These are themes I’m exploring in my film as well as my yoga work.

What are you working on now?

NT: I’m currently finishing post production on a teenage comedy called “SENIOR PROJECT.” Be on the look out for a summer release in 2014.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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