Nadine Truong: Reclaiming Identity and a Sense of Security

I Can I Will I Did

At Heartland Film Festival in October #DirectedbyWomen Catalyst Barbara Ann O’Leary had the opportunity to talk with filmmaker Nadine Truong about her feature film I Can I Will I Did, which explores a teenage boy’s recovery from bullying and bully-induced physical and emotional trauma through the power of community, Tae Kwon Do, and reassessment of self. Nadine also shared insights about her filmmaking process as a participant on Heartland’s Women in Film panel, which Barbara facilitated during the festival. 

DBW: Just so you know I have this project #DirectedbyWomen. I don’t know if you are familiar with it. A few years ago I started this idea of celebrating and helping people fall madly in love with films by women directors. In September we have a Worldwide Film Viewing Party and encourage people to share—either in their communities or just watching online and talking about it—so they get the idea of how many women are making films. Because of the inequality in Hollywood and the film world, people get the wrong impression and think no women are making films. That’s not factual, so they’re missing out on beautiful films like yours. So that’s what I do. I try to help people with that.

NT: That’s so great and super noble. Thank you for fighting the fight with us. It’s the right thing to do.

DBW: Well, it’s fun. Film appreciation and film love is really what we like. I know that film lovers like to find out about films. One of the things that’s fun about being a film lover is you get to discover, which is why Heartland is so fun, because people come and they take a shot on your film. They really don’t know anything about it. So one thing I wanted to talk to you about… and you talked about this in the Q&A that we just did. I wished I had recorded everything. But for people who weren’t at Heartland for your Q&A can you talk a little bit about what got you into this project?

NT: In the film there is a Grandmaster of Tae Kwon Do and he’s a real grandmaster. He and his students have studios all over New York and Connecticut. And his students really wanted to immortalize his philosophy on Tae Kwon Do—his teachings—so they had teamed up with a different filmmaking team before us, but they didn’t work out. They came out with a script that they had in their possession. They found Brian Yang and I. Brian is my producer and also my husband now. We’re partners in life and business partners. So Brian and I met with them. We read their script that they already had, but I didn’t connect to it. That’s an intention I wanted to set for myself, because I had already directed a few projects that I didn’t necessary like or connect with, but I did them anyway for my own education and it’s a job. You CAN direct things that you didn’t author, but at this point in my career and in my life I really wanted to do something that is meaningful to me, so I pitched them a different idea with an anti-bullying message, because I have experience in bullying from my own childhood. So I pitched them this idea and they loved it. And then I went to town writing it for a month, which is actually quite fast.

DBW: That is very quick.

NT: But it had been percolating in my mind for so long already that it just kind of presented itself. It did take me another five or six months to revise and all that until we were shooting, but the first draft only took me a month. They approved it and then we went into production six months later. That’s how we got started.

Still image from I Can I Will I Did
Ellie Lee and Mike Faist in I Can I Will I Did

DBW: That’s interesting. So it originated from the grandmaster and his community, and then it blended with your own ideas about what needed to be shared. One of the things that I really enjoyed about the film is that it takes us through some kinds of stories that we see quite often, but it is put together in a different way. Bullying is often a story. People who have injuries and have to overcome them. People who are experiencing a new cultural way of engaging the world, but when you put these together I feel like I’m being taken into the story in ways that are unexpected, which I really appreciated.

NT: Thank you.

DBW: When I read about the film, I didn’t know really quite what to expect, but I don’t care. It’s a festival. I’m going to come and enjoy it. And that’s one of the that’s so great about trying a film without worrying about what it is about.

NT: On the surface level, if you just look purely at plot, it could be another Karate Kid sort of narrative. You have a master. You have a mentee and he helps him through life. We see this archetype in a lot of different films whether it is Rocky or any sports film really, but for me it really was about how do we humanize that, because I’m not really about the flashiness of this world. I’m not a martial artist, but I do practice yoga. I come from a dance background. I understand firsthand in my own body how movement can help heal. It can’t take all the pain away completely, and the scars may stay, but it can help heal. It can make you feel better. You can also reclaim your identity, reclaim your sense of security. That can happen through movement a lot. That’s the thing that I really wanted to put on the screen. That’s where every single kernel for every scene originated from.

DBW: Something that I was noticing in the film is that there are a number of people who reach out to the main character as he’s dealing with his struggles. One of the things I really liked about it is he chooses which ones appeal to him. We don’t even find out the details of some of the others. Like someone comes and offers him opportunities to overcome the fact that he’s not finished high school. We don’t really know whether that person is able to help or not, because we don’t follow that path. In another film that person could be the person who helps him in incredible ways and I found that was one of the things that both the main character and Adrienne have to face. She has choices she has to make about who she is going to let help her. I know I’m rambling a little bit.

NT: You’re not rambling. That’s an astute observation.

DBW: When I think about telling people that I saw this film, this is one of the things I want to tell people is that It’s a story that will surprise you.

NT: Thank you. It’s an astute observation, because even though we have a bully, we don’t have a clear villain throughout the film. The villain actually exists in his own mind. He’s his own demon. He doesn’t follow up on all these offers of help in a lot of ways, because he is his own worst enemy in those instances and he has to get out of his own way in order to heal. That’s sort of the arc of his character, but also of Adrienne’s as well. She has to allow herself to feel vulnerable so that she can go through the surgery.

DBW: And it’s interesting that the film originated with the grandmaster, because sometimes when film people decide what a film should look like, there’s a certain structure that we’re familiar with in a story. Of course, this film has a beginning, middle and end, and it has a satisfying ending. As you said in the Q&A it’s inspired by Dirty Dancing with this kind of big dramatic moment, which is fun and also feels heartful, but during the course of the film it doesn’t have the same kinds of placement of where people’s relationships form. People come in and out unexpectedly and then resurface and that was very enjoyable to me, because I find that a film that is created with a certain technically organized structure, we know what’s going to happen and then we don’t care, even though it could be beautifully acted and by the way the acting in I Can I Will I Did is really great. I was really wanting to hear from you about the acting. You were talking earlier about how your lead Mike Faist, who plays Ben, was from Broadway, and he came in and auditioned, so that was really lucking out. But what about Ellie?

NT: Ellie also came and auditioned for us. This is her first time actually acting, but she has on camera experience as a host. She had also taken various acting classes before, but this was her first acting job in a film. She’s naturally very talkative, very spunky, very lively.

Ellie Lee in I Can I Will I Did
Ellie Lee in I Can I Will I Did

DBW: That’s how we meet her.

NT: Exactly how you meet her in the film—that’s how she walked into the audition room as well. That’s really what I was looking for, because I myself am very sensitive about the portrayal of A) wheelchair user, but also B) Asian-American women in media because there’s a tendency to sexualize Asian girls on screen, and I didn’t want a sexualized version of anybody on screen. I also didn’t want her to come off as a victim. She needs to be strong, but she can have down moments. That’s who we all are. You can be the strongest person, but you’re allowed to feel upset and weak, but her overall persona when casting that role was I need someone strong and full of life.

DBW: What you’re talking about—that scene when Ben and Adrienne talk about the ability to not always be upbeat. That is a beautiful moment in the film, because it is very tender and the connection between them is very strong, but there’s nothing sentimental about it either, which is really hard to do, so thanks for that. That was very good. You said a lot of the kids are actually Tae Kwon Do students with the grandmaster, so was it challenging for them to adjust to doing that work in front of the camera? What was that like?

NT: They had a hoot. For those sequences I just had Master Kang teach them the way he would teach them in a real class and I’d just turn on the camera and just captured almost like a documentary. We’d have them do it a few times and change lens or camera angles and let the master and his students dictate what happens in that sequence rather than me. There are choreographed sequences for example with the actors that are more planned out but the bigger scenes with the extras that’s all them just having fun and doing what they always do in class.

DBW: That’s good. They were very natural. I love the scene where they’re practicing in nature closer to the end of the film. I won’t give it away. I was thinking about all of the different actors like the young girl, who comes into the foster setting later in the film. Where did you find her? She’s so subtle and interesting. I was really impressed.

NT: She also came in to audition. She’s active as an actress and a dancer in New York as well. She has a sibling who is also an actress and mom who’s a director, so she comes from a very supportive performance arts background. Nixie Strazza is her name. She’s awesome to work with and her parents are awesome to have around as well. A very supportive family.

DBW: There were a lot. I could name half a dozen others that really struck me, but I particular was struck by her ability to connect with the Ben character. I loved the way certain little moments in the film—certain interactions—inspire a new direction for him and for others in the film. It was very subtle. In the moment when they’re throwing the ball back and forth, he has this awareness out of which some other things arise. People have to go see the movie. I’m not going to tell them what I’m talking about. So how many people did you have to work with? How long did you shoot?

NT: We shot in twenty one days.

DBW: That’s fast.

NT: Yeah, it’s very fast. When you don’t have a lot of money, you have to keep going—almost like a television schedule without the budget.

DBW: …without any of the benefits.

NT: Exactly. Luckily all of the actors are so sharp we didn’t have to have so many takes. We could go
and the crew worked efficiently as well. The film was fairly contained. We’re in a hospital and then we’re in the Do jangs.

DBW: …the few places where people live and a work environment.

NT: It’s contained enough. We’d have overnight breaks so we could go to the other side of town over night instead of breaking in the middle of the day. It was very very fast, but that’s indie film. But I actually like it, because it really keeps you on your toes and it forces you to be creative in a way. I imagine if I had a lot more time for some of these scenes I could try out more things but it forced me to prepare more and be very clear with my crew and with my actors. This is the intent. This is where I want to get to. These are the beats. Let’s make sure that we cover this so that nothing gets lost.

DBW: So when you are preparing, do you storyboard?

NT: I used to do storyboards a lot when I was first starting to make movies. I’ve been at this game for a little over ten years now. I went to film school, so I did work a lot with storyboards when I first started. Then I gradually found that unless the sequences were going to be very complicated I didn’t really need them anymore, because especially in indie film where the locations aren’t set yet and you don’t know what the geography is going to be. I mean there’ll be moments when I know for a fact I need a close-up for this moment, but I don’t need to storyboard that moment. There are moments where I feel it could benefit me in certain ways. For the bigger sequences I think I’ll start doing it again for sure, but the last two or three projects haven’t lent themselves too much. To me it just felt like it would waste my time. The way I work is more that I start with my actors and I walk the set with them and see what feels natural to the scene first. Then once I’ve figured out the placement of the actors and their movement—their blocking, what are they going to do with the props. Are they going to walk back and forth? Are they going to pace? Whatever the movement part of the actors in that space, that’s when I start placing the camera last. I know people work the other way around too. I know there are directors that place the camera first so that they get their dream shot and then they make the actors move along those lines. It’s just that I find it more organic to have it come from the actors.

Jack DiFalco in I Can I Will I Did
Jack DiFalco in I Can I Will I Did

DBW: I can see that shows up in the work that they bring, because they feel cared for it seems like, especially in a story that’s so reliant on subtle changes in perception—basically aiming towards what brings a person peace and the ability to be themselves fully, which is something I’m really interested in. I mean how can we be ourselves? Because I always find that when we are ourselves things unfold more beautifully and bullying doesn’t even exist in a world like that. So are you working on anything new?

NT: Because with filmmaking it takes so long to get something off the ground, I only get to direct a film maybe every two or three years, so in the meantime I’m always writing. I’m always working on several projects at once, because I wait to see which one bites. I have two films right now that I am revising. One is about a white supremacist, who murders an Asian American man and is now on death row and has to prove to an Asian American woman forensic psychologist that his crime wasn’t racial motivated at the time. Another one is a Holocaust story about an Italian Tour de France cyclist, who during the war smuggled forged papers in his bike all across Italy to help Italian Jewish people across the Allied line.

DBW: So that would involve some budget for being in those locations.

NT: Yes. It’s a period piece and it involves a bit of a budget, but I’m partnered up with another producer. So I have Brian and I have another producer that I’m partnered up with for that one. It’s really a sports thriller. My husband loves sports.

DBW: Yes, I saw that with Linsanity.

NT: We have good stories and ones that really make us connect. We’ll see how that one turns out. That one I’m actually writing right now. I’m in the first draft of that. I also have another female hero sci-fi story of a woman who has to take her child across borders to get her child medical care, but the entire story takes place in tunnels. This is in the future where the surface is just not livable anymore and everybody lives beneath the surface.

DBW: So that would make for some very interesting visual challenges.

NT: I’m trying to branch out. With every film that I make I try to grow my imagination a little bit, but also maybe the scope also starts to grow a little as investors trust me more with a bigger budget every time.

Selenis Leyva in I Can I Will I Did
Selenis Leyva in I Can I Will I Did

DBW: One of the things I”m always interested in is inclusivity in films. Not just seeing the the same kinds of people—predominantly white men. They’re lovely. I enjoy them also, but it’s interesting to me that in I Can I Will I Did it focuses on a young white man, but there are a lot of different people in it. When you’re thinking about a film and you’re thinking about its viability in the marketplace, does that impact what choices you make about who you are centering your story around?

NT: It is a show business and that is a lot of people’s parameters. Not mine. It’s something I don’t want to be perpetuating. Actually, had Mike not walked into that audition… that role was open to any ethnicity. It just went to the person I felt most connected to.

DBW: That’s important for people to notice. Just because he happens to be a white guy, doesn’t mean that he had to be. I’m glad you said that.

NT: Exactly. He just happened to be. At least we have representation in all the other roles. I have made films where the entire cast is Asian American, for example, and I love telling Asian American stories, but it’s not all I want to tell. Just because I’m Asian, doesn’t make it my responsibility to only tell AA content. It’s not my burden to carry through every single project. but it’s not my burden to carry. My responsibility is to have representation all across the board. This is what New York looks like to me. We have white people. We have Asian people. We have black people. We have Dominican people. That’s the cast. This is what it looks like to me. I don’t have make just Asian American stories. I don’t have to make just women’s stories. I don’t have to be put into that box. The box that I’m putting myself into is fair representation. Yeah. That’s mine.

DBW: Yeah. And honest. where people are humanly engaged, which I think this film does really beautifully. What about TV? Have you been exploring that or have an interest in it?

NT: I do have an interest in it, but my opportunities and my path haven’t led me there just yet. I have directed some episodes of a webseries called MISERY LOVES COMPANY, created by stellar comedic writer/actor team Emily C. Chang and Sara Amini. This show is currently in development at Sony and will hopefully be with a network soon. Maybe I’ll get invited back once that happens.that will go to TV and maybe I’ll get invited back once that happens. But it hasn’t been my focus just yet. Brian and I do have a couple of TV projects that are being developed for the long format.

DBW: I think there’s a lot of interesting things happening there. Some of it is this anthology work like Room 104. I was just talking with Megan Griffiths. She’s done two of those, but they’re like short films but with a budget. One of the things she said is that once she had the opportunity to do that, then other TV people look and say, “Oh, you have TV experience.” So sometimes things show up and you get to do something else. You never know.

NT: You never know. It might still fall into my lap and I might still run toward it.

DBW: Or you might not like it.

NT: So far it hasn’t called my name just yet just because there’s such a corporate structure around TV and a loss of authorship for directors, because it inevitably goes to showrunners and the executive producers that are also the writers. Unless I’m in that writer’s room… I would probably enjoy myself still directing TV, but for this decade of my life I really enjoy making my own content right now. In indie films you have so much creative control.

DBW: So one thing I’m always interested in is other women who direct film that you like their work. Especially I’m always interested in filmmakers that you maybe see their work on the festival circuit, but not everybody in the world knows about them.
Are there women that you think of right off hand?

NT: Two trailblazers right now are Ava DuVernay and in the television world it would be Shonda Rhymes. They’re both trailblazers that have gone so far and are doing so much for their communities including women of color that I find very admirable and their work is also so top notch. I like that a lot, but I actually don’t make it a habit of trying to emulate anybody.

DBW: Sometimes you see someone and you wish everyone had gone to that film.

NT: That’s true.

DBW: That’s the kind of thing I’m always thinking about. Because I see a film and I think, “Wow. I didn’t even know that existed and I just want to mention it.”

NT: To me it’s not women. When I think in those terms, it’s more Asian-American filmmakers. Male ones as well. Justin Chon who is a good buddy of mine, is an actor/director, who has a film out right now called Gook. It’s a bad word, but it is a film set during the LA riots and it is about friendship, but also the conflicts between Korean-Americans and Black Americans during that time. It’s won a lot of festivals. It went to Sundance. Very hard hitting. It wouldn’t fit into this festival, because it isn’t Heartland easy going.

DBW: It has a different tone.

NT: It has a very different tone, but it’s a very good story and very well done.

DBW: I’ll look for it—even though a man made it.

NT: Yeah… but it’s a man of color.

DBW: No, I’m just kidding. I sometimes tease. Now that I spend so much time watching films by women directors I realize I have a hard time thinking when am I gonna have time to watch films men make. It would be nice if there were balance which is what I am always interested in.

NT: Try POC directors.

DBW: I watch a lot of them. I like to watch films from all over the planet, all different time periods, different topics, documentary, experimental and shorts. I watch a ton of different things and then I try to tell people about them. I try not to share my opinion as much. I mean I tell people, “Oh, I really like this.” That’s great.

NT: You don’t impose…

DBW: I just want to say to someone, “Did you know this is here?” Like I’ll say, “Have you explored Nadine’s work?” I don’t know if somebody else should watch your films. I mean that’s personal, but I do know some people I am definitely wanting to tell about your film because either they have their own dojang or something that they would specifically know a whole community of people who would be intrigued by the story that you’re dealing with. So those kinds of things I naturally think it’s possible you would be interested in this because of the topic. But other things it’s just knowing that there’s so much out there to explore. You’re not going to be find it all yourself. It’s helpful to have people share about it. I think that is one of the things that’s nice about a festival like Heartland. I was impressed by the interest people had in your Q&A. I could see their wheels turning.

NT: I could see that too. It was a very good Q&A.

DBW: Yeah. It was really good. And they were thinking about who else should see it. I think that’s a sign that the film has really hit home. Thanks for taking time to talk with me. Is there anything else you wanted to share?

NT: You know there’s something I keep forgetting to mention to people is that this film was crewed by 50% women—in key positions. My DP—it says Eugene Koh, but she’s a woman. DP. Sound designer. Producers. Artisha Mann-Cooper, who is a fantastic producer was a huge blessing in addition to my husband. My first AC. Key positions. not just the traditional female ones: makeup, hair. Right down the roster. 50% female.

DBW: Do you find that that has an impact on the tone of how people conduct themselves together?

NT: Just because we’re half women doesn’t make it automatically Kumbaya peaceful.

DBW: They have to do Tae Kwon Do for that.

NT: There still is a healthy amount of human friction that comes in the work environment, but it is very respectful on my sets at least. I don’t do the Hollywood yelling. Some people might even think I should be a little bit tougher, but I get what I want out of the scenes, so it’s fine with me.

DBW: That’s the important part. I think that whole image of what a director does, how a director conducts “HIMself”—which is usually what people usually think—but you don’t have to.

NT: No. You don’t have to at all. Especially if it is not a set run by the studios. My husband and I have the creative and the logistical control that means we can set the tone to make it respectful and peaceful. So it was nice.

DBW: So you can get on with making what you want. Thanks so much for taking time. I really appreciate it.


Nadine Truong on set
Nadine Truong on set

Find out more about Nadine Truong’s work on her website. Nadine “discusses novels, memoirs, screenplays, movies, and the creative life” on The Pen and Camera Blog.

I Can I Will I Did will screen at Hawaii International Film Festival, Napa Valley Film Festival, and Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival next. Visit TUGG to find local screenings of I Can I Will I Did or to learn how to host a screening in your community.