Project Forte is an original series of interviews presented by Maestro Filmworks and hosted by Executive Producer, Kris Mendoza. These conversations work to amplify marginalized voices within our industry, promoting a continued initiative around allyship. Allyship is not about the struggles of our contemporaries canceling each other out, but rather about solidarity. Our goal is to cut through the noise of the status quo in order to highlight the voices of the many talented and creative individuals who are forces in their own craft.
This week we sit down with Steve Nguyen (he/him), a production manager and line producer working in Philadelphia. He investigates a crucial factor present in our industry, the difficulty of cutting through a cyclical network to establish roots and make more diverse connections. Steve shares a unique perspective, recognizing at a young age the social behaviors that cement cultural stereotypes and the importance of rising above them. Having fought for breakout opportunities, he recognizes the value of hands-on experience and has harvested a valuable education by cutting through the gravel of PA-work to achieve his goals in leadership. Join us in this deep dive, which broadens our understanding of how the industry can evolve, especially through considerate production staffing and management by Steve Nguyen.
Written and Edited by Kate Feher
Steve Nguyen: My name is Steve Nguyen and I’m Vietnamese and partly Chinese. In the film industry, I’ve been a production manager and a line producer as of late.
Kris Mendoza: Welcome. I know you’re about that Philly life but I actually don’t know too much about prior to that. Are you Philly born and raised?
Steve Nguyen: No, I was born in Lansdale, Pennsylvania and I really grew up in Souderton, Pennsylvania, and now live in Philadelphia. I went to Pennridge High School out in Perkasie. It was mainly a white school, there were maybe three Asian people..three black people.. and three Puerto Ricans out of about 500/600 people. It was a small school.
Actually, oddly, it felt like other Asians growing up were battling each other to be the token Asian person… which is a trap I didn’t fall into.
Kris Mendoza: It’s interesting you say that. This has nothing to do with filmmaking but … If I’m out with a couple of Filipino guy friends and we see another group of Filipino guys at the club: you would assume that we’re like, “Hey, what’s up my people.” [jokes] But you end up staring each other down and trying to be like that, “Hey, there’s only enough room here for one Filipino group.” So it becomes very territorial. I’ve tried to change that up a little bit by walking up and introducing myself but people are still so put off by that.
Steve Nguyen: Yeah, I think once you go to college you start opening up, but a decent amount of Asians grow up being the “only ones” and there is a sense of survival pushing you to vibe with the white person, even in relationships. I just remember the Asian kids would make such self-deprecating comments about being Asian, like, “Oh look at my eyes.” And I would see all the white guys laugh or play on a stereotype and that would anger me. But at the time I thought, “Well, they’re also winning. That kid is winning because people are liking that shit.”
Kris Mendoza: Like he’s owning it.
Steve Nguyen: Yeah, and I think sometimes black people fall into that too, especially in high school. They use the stereotype to gain more of that status and acceptance. It’s very hard to be yourself as any color but, still, they use that device to make themselves look less alien to people. I think it still goes on a little bit as adults, especially in corporate culture, but not so much in the art industry because it’s too evolved for that.
Kris Mendoza: …You talk differently, you carry yourself differently just to fit in more?
Steve Nguyen: Yeah, and then you might make a joke to put someone at ease about your culture. If the Asian guy brings lunch for the office, he might joke, “Don’t worry, it’s not dog.” People laugh, which relieves tension, and maybe you feel better but I don’t support that.
Kris Mendoza: Injecting humor to disarm because you feel like you have to be liked or accepted?
Steve Nguyen: You do it to yourself first, too. If you brought in Kimchi and somebody asks about it, you sort of dismiss it with, “Here’s some shit that I eat.” Almost to defend against an ignorant person who might say something ridiculous. I don’t know if we’re off on a tangent but-
Kris Mendoza: No, this is right on schedule here. You said this doesn’t happen in our industry because it’s too evolved, is that because filmmakers tend to be more progressive in general?
Steve Nguyen: It’s because I think we’ve been conditioned. If you’re in the film business, you’ve obviously watched movies, TV, or subscribed to something like music so generally, it becomes the diet of what we consume.. You’re watching more, and you’re probably exploring more, so you have that open mind. Culturally, whether it’s race, whether it’s sexuality… you’ve been exposed to it more than the average person. Also the documentaries for the past 15, 20 years have been very social justice conscious so I think people are hyper-aware of political, racial, gender, and environmental issues.
So, yes, I think that’s why most people in our industry are overly evolved. We’re just constantly learning things or open to learning things.
Kris Mendoza: It’s refreshing to hear that because, of the people I’ve spoken to so far, there really are different perspectives on how far the industry has come and how much further it has to go. I’m trying to gauge it properly. Is there a lack of people to nominate or is there work getting lost in the sea of the status quo? Is it possible there are not nearly enough people entering this industry because of cultural differences or expected career paths?
Steve Nguyen: I don’t think the establishment is a systemic thing. I think socially, filmmakers are aware and they are trying to be a “good person” when it comes to the practice.
In the end I think it’s who you know or who that person knows. Networking in any industry presents a barrier to entry, made more difficult unless you shine. It’s not necessarily about race, but it is mainly a white industry still. Black people have been successful but until there’s an active hiring initiative for somebody with a different culture or background or race, hiring starts with “Oh, I need to fill in this position, who do you know?” So most likely that person doesn’t target a minority option they just say, “Oh my cousin or my friend from college does this…”
So you can call that systemic but I don’t think anyone is saying, “I only hire white people.” Look at how politicians tend to fall up. They keep failing and failing but they’re getting promoted all the time and I think it’s the same way with this industry. We could take chances on untried people and get rid of bad people. Stop giving them more opportunities. We wouldn’t have someone like Spike Lee otherwise, but it’s not even much of a gamble. You can vet them, interview them, put them through the wringer, but give them an opportunity.
I think you have to build your own economy, that’s what Atlanta did. They have lots of minority-owned businesses and the method is to keep working with each other, even on an individual basis. There’s reciprocation in building alliances but we can’t get there because everybody’s chasing after the big dogs.
There’s a big movement to decentralize power and I think we can have multiple economies. It doesn’t have to be one linear economy. And it’s moving that way anyway. We don’t even have a common mainstream anymore. Everybody operates in their own cultural world now.
Kris Mendoza: Yes, absolutely. So, you said a lot of good things there and what I’m hearing is – you have to take a chance on folks but there’s no shortage, it’s just a matter of hiring. When staffing a production line, instead of going with the people that have been at arms length, take a second to ask, “Who else is out there?” Ask a couple of questions, get a little more intel, but open up your horizons in terms of finding new people.
Steve Nguyen: Yeah, personally for me, that’s why I think I’ve taken so long to get where I’m at today. I didn’t come into this with a connection. I had to put in the free work or the low-pay work and grind. Nothing is given to you unless you know somebody. We all want diversity but we also want the people that will work hard, rather than placing people due to a quota. I’ve always had a mindset for hiring diversely, but a big complication is the timetable. I can’t spend a month looking for the right candidate who may also be female or a person of color when –
Kris Mendoza: – when you know five white dude gaffers, for example?
Steve Nguyen: We try, right?
Kris Mendoza: I’m interested to hear how you cut your teeth in the industry, was there anyone or two people in particular who took a chance on you? And what was that experience like?
Steve Nguyen: Yeah, so there was a film program available while I was in college. I was a business major but I took this 10-week class in Philly – a bit like what the New York Film Academy does. There was a producing teacher who also worked as an independent movie producer and he said, “Hey, we’re shooting a movie, you want to come and help?”
So I would work, then go to class, and at night I would volunteer on those shoots. Eventually, I was making enough money to leave my other job and commit to building my resume. I got a lot of experience on low-paying jobs and I was expanding outward towards Baltimore and New York, taking any job I could. Starting with PA work, I shifted to grip and then to AD then UPM, which was just a natural progression for me since I had a business background. Making a movie is more than just the story. It’s the financing and the distribution. That’s the next chapter for me.
Kris Mendoza: You put in a lot of sweat equity to get where you are today and in some cases, this loops back to what you said earlier, you’re starting with no real connections. Whether you’re a person of color or not, you have to grind a little bit harder and jump in with a weighted vest from the beginning.
Steve Nguyen: It’s either comfortable or very lucky. I could not get a PA job on a studio picture so I had to be in the independent world. You have to know someone to get in on these Hollywood productions and if you’re a good worker, then you’re part of the machine. Ironically, I think it was better to learn at that bottom level. Instead of waiting around to get that production manager opportunity in the Hollywood system, you can grow the position you want. Being in the freelance world, you’re an entrepreneur without the business behind you. You’re trying to sell yourself and you can always build towards whatever position you want to be in.
Kris Mendoza: I 100% agree with you. I’m also conflicted because I’ve had multiple conversations with other folks about these diversity quotas and in some cases it’s a modern-day affirmative action in our industry presenting those necessary opportunities. Is it fair to say there will be undue pressure for people of color fulfilling those quotas to prove themselves for the whole of a marginalized community? Will they have to try extra hard to impress people as a responsibility? Is it down to the few, to prove we can operate and we can do well in these positions if given the opportunity?
Steve Nguyen: Yeah, in the end, everything’s competition so you have to be better than – doesn’t even matter what race – you need to be better than everyone or you’ll be replaced. There’s a problem when the people in power take the initiative to hire an assistant of color or a woman assistant but then they don’t extend that to any position of managerial or department head status. If the department head is white, do we feel good enough that the lower-paying job is diverse? The true progressive should involve seeing the potential in a person and grooming them to be the best they can be.
Kris Mendoza: So if it’s just a checkbox, then there’s the possibility that it’s considered “good enough” …
Steve Nguyen: Hollywood’s been talking about diversity forever and I don’t see a change. The only way to really do this is out-compete them as companies and give out opportunities that way. When they see a certain model for inclusion working, maybe then those minority companies can breakthrough.
I don’t think it’s deliberately systemic, but you need to build your system instead of waiting on somebody to do it. You can try 25% harder to give that opportunity, and honestly that’s all I can ask for. Just try a little bit but don’t kill yourself doing it, you know? Because you might want more Indian people on your set, but you’re in Nashville …
Kris Mendoza: So let me take it a step farther and say, assuming we do that extra 25% and you go that extra mile, what does this net production? What is the value for productions to have this kind of diversity at the end of the day anyway? Beyond inclusivity, what results can we quantify?
Steve Nguyen: I don’t know if it’s a measurable thing. I don’t know if you can make more money because of it. I think socially it’s good to talk to people that don’t look like you, or work with people that don’t look like you. I think it helps with bridging communities in general and if you’re forcing it, sure maybe that could make things worse. If you hire a bunch of Filipino janitors to satisfy a diversity quota but don’t place any as managers, that’s where it gets bad socially.
Kris Mendoza: That’s when they’ve really missed the point.
Steve Nguyen: I think maybe you can quantify how it affects the well-being of a team or a process. People can feel good about it, which probably makes them better at working. Because they also check their boxes – “I went to work today and I talked to black guy, I talked to a woman, I talked to an Asian guy.” It’s that subconscious feeling that trickles out into society.
Even though in today’s society we’re getting into a person’s identity, we’re also hoping that when people talk to each other, it’s not about the identity or maybe you don’t see their identity. Ultimately you want to be so comfortable with them that you don’t see their color or gender, etc. We want to talk to each other as humans and to get there you have to exercise your biases or prejudices. If you’re not comfortable around women, talk to women all day and become culturally socialized.
Kris Mendoza: Yeah, maybe you can’t say a film made 10% more because you got X number of POC or anything like that. But maybe there’s a way to gauge the economic impact of a film within a city. You can gather the production details of how much money you spent in restaurants and hotels, etc.
I do agree, being on set with other cultures breaks down those barriers which keep you from people you wouldn’t normally interact with. If you’re able to collaborate, you take those relationships with you, even beyond work, broadening all your horizons – I think that absolutely makes sense.
Interestingly, you talk about the issue behind not putting people of color in managerial positions but just including them as seconds and thirds… I think that’s especially important when it comes to a narrative. If you get a Director, a DP, or a Production Designer in charge of molding things visually, that affects the level of authenticity and the nuances of telling a diverse story.
Steve Nguyen: Guiding or mentoring a person who goes on to have a successful life because of that opportunity, that can come back to you 10 fold.
Going back to the business side of things, we’re talking about diversity in hiring, but the diversity in product identity is also important. There are a lot of films and TV shows that market without a cultural identifier, so that becomes a white story. Especially the blockbusters or any big movies, so you have to find a charming person. There are certain actors like Denzel Washington or Will Smith who sort of go beyond race – they’re just personable.
Kris Mendoza: Yeah I think it important to talk about diversity in front of and behind the camera. I think when you start to balance on both sides, that’s when you really start to build these new economies, like you’re saying.
Steve Nguyen: Also, you’re an entrepreneur, so you’ll understand that Hollywood tests independent films. They let you risk your own money to make these decisions and then if they see that it’s successful, they bring it to market. Take Ryan Coogler for instance – he did a $300,000 movie and he put his money where his mouth is. Maybe that is why he got the chance to do Creed then Black Panther.
Things are happening now, Eddie Huang did a movie recently called Boogie, it’s an Asian basketball story. Think those stories are pretty cool to watch but also I’d like to see stories where race has nothing to do with it.
Kris Mendoza: …where there just happen to be Asian folks doing regular people things and it’s not a focal point.
Steve Nguyen: Yeah, how many stories have we seen about infidelity or “the affair” and I think “Why is that a white specific story?” Or all these lifetime movies about women in peril – they’re not culturally specific so you really could put any charming person of color into it. You could use that same formula for anybody.
Kris Mendoza: I think audiences are primed now. I remember in 2000, Romeo Must Die came out with Jet Li and Aaliyah. [ R.I.P. Aaliyah ] I read there was actually a kissing scene at the end of the movie and test audiences freaked out.
Steve Nguyen: They ended up hugging in the end, right?
Kris Mendoza: They shoulder bumped or hugged or something like that but apparently there was actually a more romantic scene in there and audiences just weren’t ready. People were up in arms then, but today, I think we have to make the content and hold ourselves accountable, make good stuff, and not rely on race as a ticket.
Steve Nguyen: But also it’s like, “Who cares?” Even with this cancel-culture, I still hear the same voices over and over. I think any emotion is good so you have to walk away from that critique, especially in the creative world…there’s always going to be somebody that doesn’t like what you made so just stand by it. I don’t even know why they use a test market. Imagine writing a song that is test-marketed. You want to have some emotion to it, that’s how you get people to be passionate about it-
Kris Mendoza: Why create if you’re only making what people think they want…
Steve Nguyen: Yeah, and you shouldn’t market in a general sense. I hope if you are going to a test market, it’s with people that already like that genre. If it’s a superhero movie, don’t test market to people who don’t like superhero movies. If they’d rather watch Italian neo-realism films, then who cares about their input. It’s not for them.
Kris Mendoza: This has been an insightful conversation, do you have any parting thoughts?
Steve Nguyen: Be open to learn, evolve and commit to the destiny that you define. Use your voice, someone will listen.