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Exclusive Interview: Writer/Director Derek Nguyen on the true-life traumas behind “THE HOUSEMAID” and more

Thursday, February 15, 2018 | Exclusive, Interviews


THE HOUSEMAID may deal with the supernatural, but it’s informed by horrific true events from Vietnam’s history as well. Born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), writer/director Derek Nguyen also homages classic Gothic literature in the film, which he discusses with RUE MORGUE in this exclusive chat.

Opening in select theaters and on VOD tomorrow, February 16 from IFC Midnight, THE HOUSEMAID stars Kate Nhung as the titular heroine, an orphaned young woman who takes a job in the rubber-plantation mansion of French officer Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud). An attraction develops between the two, but her arrival also coincides with the appearance of literal ghosts from the plantation’s violent past. Nguyen (who will appear at screenings tomorrow and Saturday nights at NYC’s IFC center; go here for details), also a playwright and a producer on films including Sarah Adina Smith’s BUSTER’S MAL HEART, notes that his HOUSEMAID is unconnected to the trio of past Korean domestic thrillers with the same title, and instead stemmed from a more personal source…

Tell us about the genesis of THE HOUSEMAID.

It was actually inspired by the life of my grandmother. She was a housemaid in a large estate in Vietnam, and ended up falling in love with the head of the household. I know there are many other different films dealing with housemaids, but this one was based on her. She also loved ghost stories, and would tell them to me when I was a kid. She believed that spirits lived in trees, and when I was a kid, I thought that was kind of creepy. So whenever I went up to a tree, I was like, “There’s a spirit in there!” [Laughs]

Later on, I learned about the atrocities that had been committed by French landowners against their Vietnamese workers. They were pretty much indentured servants who lived like slaves on the plantations, and the conditions were pretty horrible. They had overseers, they lived in shacks, people were hanged and beaten, and if they were caught running away, some of them were killed. If you go to rubber plantations in Vietnam, you’ll see that the soil is very red, and it’s an old Vietnamese saying that the reason why is because of all the workers’ blood that was spilled there. There were accounts of people being killed and thrown into mass graves as a way of hiding the crimes. That was also a major inspiration for the film.

When did you leave Vietnam and come to America?

I came to America in 1975 after the fall of Saigon on April 30. My family lived there for a very long time; my father was a naval captain, and believed that the Americans and the South Vietnamese were going to win the war. So we stayed as long as we could, until the last day, when the North Vietnamese forces entered the gates of Saigon. From there, we ran to the docks and ended up on a barge that floated out to sea, and we were miraculously picked up by the American Navy. So we were among the lucky boat people. I was 2 years old in ’75, so I don’t remember a lot of it, but I’ve heard a lot about our escape, and it has informed my psyche and my work.

What led you to turn those childhood stories and experiences into a film?

I started writing it a while ago, at least 10 years ago. Then I was meeting with a producer named Timothy Linh Bui at a product market in Los Angeles and talked to him about this script, and he got very excited about it. He’s produced several films, such as THREE SEASONS and GREEN DRAGON, that deal with the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American experiences. I went off and wrote the script, and he took it to some studios and production companies in Vietnam, and there was a lot of interest. I think both the colonial-past and horror elements were appealing to a new filmgoing market in Vietnam. I rewrote the script according to some notes, it was greenlighted and I was off on a plane to Vietnam to make my first feature.

Why have so few horror films been made in Vietnam before?

The thing is, there are censors in Vietnam, just like in China. The censors are actually the official governing board that oversees cinema there, and they have a lot of rules and regulations they have to adhere to. For instance, in Vietnam, you’re not allowed to actually have ghosts in a film. I asked why, and the explanation I got was that it might incite panic and havoc in the countryside [laughs]. Apparently, that was also the case in China. So that was an extra challenge, but interestingly enough, they have been pretty lax recently about this particular regulation, and now THE HOUSEMAID is considered the first Vietnamese film that has a ghost in it.

The censors asked for script changes three times, in fact, so I had to keep rewriting it, and then they were actually on set, watching us shooting, for a few days. I also had to submit edits of the film, because they regulate how violent and sexy a movie can be, so there were times when I had to be clever with how much I could show. They literally counted how many stabs there were in one scene [laughs]; they would say, “You have to cut four stabs,” and then I would be like, “What do you consider a stab?” That ended up being a challenge as well, but we got a cut that I’m very happy with.

Since so few horror movies are made in Vietnam, was it difficult to find effects artists and other craftspeople to work on yours?

DN: Actually, the studios behind THE HOUSEMAID were HKFilm and CJ Entertainment, and they work with a visual effects house called Bad Clay Studio, so it wasn’t hard for me to find them! They are French-Vietnamese and very good at what they do, and they’ve worked on pretty big films, like the HARRY POTTER series. This was the first film I’d done that was fairly CGI-heavy, so it was great to have them as a guide. They were on set a lot, and I was in really good hands with them.

The makeup effects were done by Brad Greenwood, who worked on the LORD OF THE RINGS films and KONG: SKULL ISLAND. He was actually in Vietnam when we were shooting; he loves it there, and after KONG: SKULL ISLAND he wanted to stay. We were looking for someone to do the makeup effects, and my producer Tim had met him casually, I believe in a bar. He introduced me to Brad, I loved his work and he came on board. He has actually been doing more makeup in Vietnam since then.

How did you approach THE HOUSEMAID’s combination of horror and Gothic romance?

Truth be told, the Gothic romance came first. I love Gothic romances and I also love horror films, so I tried to balance out those aspects as best I could. One thing we did was, the studios did test screenings for the Vietnamese audience, and for any director, that makes you think, “Oh shit…” [Laughs] What was appealing to the test audiences, that affected the final cut, was the love story. They felt it was very satisfying. I wanted to make a film that would hopefully play well both in Vietnam and in the West, so the middle section of the film, where the love story comes along, is something that I felt worked well. I was also very inspired by classic horror novels. Essentially, you know, FRANKENSTEIN is a love story, so I was influenced by all of those aspects too.

Where did you shoot the movie, and did any spooky stuff happen while you were filming?

The plantation was actually filmed in five different places! The exterior of the mansion was an old government building built by the French in an area outside Saigon. I keep saying Saigon because a lot of people there still call it that, and I was born there when it was still Saigon. I loved that building, but it was in the middle of a city, so through landscaping and a bit of CGI, we were able to transport it into the countryside. That countryside is in a place called Da Lat, which is kind of the French Alps of Vietnam. It’s pretty romantic; it has a lot of pine forests and waterfalls and lakes, and it’s also known for having a lot of French Colonial architecture. We shot all the interiors of the house in a completely different place, an old house in a city outside Saigon called Buu Long. It was just full of junk, so we had to clean it out, repaint, redo everything in order to get the right look for the film.

Has the success of THE HOUSEMAID in Vietnam sparked more horror-film production there?

You know, I have not seen that. There have been a few horror movies made since then, but I don’t know if it could be called a major resurgence. I hope there will be one, and that others will be inspired to make supernatural films there. A lot of Vietnamese movies do deal with the ideas of ancestry and ghosts, but they’re not scary, and the censor board is less willing to approve supernatural things that deal with horror. But they are loosening up, and hopefully, the more they do, the more supernatural films and horror films will come out of Vietnam.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.