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Advice for aspiring filmmakers - I interview producer Donald Nguyen

During this time of quarantine and self-isolation, I sat down for a (virtual) interview with a producer Donald Nguyen to pick his brain about life working in the industry.

Tell us a little about yourself and a few projects you've worked on.

Hi, my name is Donald Nguyen. I'm a producer for commercials, features, and televisions series. I run a production company called Reel Big Studios with a small contingent of indie filmmakers. We've worked as mercenaries on projects for Disney+, Netflix as well as some of the biggest YouTube Channels (SMOSH). In the past year, I've produced 3 independent feature films, 40-50 episodes of short-form content meant either for YouTube or another social media platform, around a dozen commercials and a few events.

What made you want to get into filmmaking?

Prior to jumping into filmmaking, I studied Economics and Accounting at UC Santa Barbara (2013); during my last year there I took a number of theater classes and my friends from that crowd helped me fall into filmmaking. Once I graduated, I started working for a startup company in Irvine as an accounts payable clerk and convinced the CEO to let me make a Doritos Commercial with some of the companies marketing funds. That was the first project I produced on my own. I hired a few friends who were going to school at Cal State Long Beach at the time and we shot a 30 sec. Doritos Commerical. The friends from Cal State Long Beach then ended up having me produce their Junior and Senior thesis' and we were off to the races.

Two years into it (around 2015) I produced 4 student films and shot more weddings, and bar/bat mitzvah's than I could count. I was still working a normal 9-5 job in mortgage but in 2018 I left my last company and decided to jump straight into working in film full time. I didn't have a plan in particular but I reached out to a few of my friends and they started pulling me onto projects to help them either edit, DIT, or produce them. I think I decided to jump into film because I saw how much film had an impact on my life, there are a number of movies and tv shows that I grew up with that informed the interests I have both in and out of film. I love the quippy humor that comes with shows like Gilmore Girls, The Simpsons, and Futurama but I also love the substance of films like Parasite and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind bring. I wanted to make films like that; films that resonate with people. Films that people loved to watch, rewatch, and find new meaning each time they re-watch it.  

Do you think it is necessary to go to film school in order to work in the industry?

I did not go to film school but I do think that if you do not have friends in the film industry and you aren't making films on your own already, going to film school helps you find that network of friends that will drag you onto project so you can learn. I don't think it's necessary to go to film school in order to work in the industry, especially if you are good at networking. Most of the lessons you will learn come from being on all kinds of different sets. You can take that knowledge and a network and use the resources you have to work on the projects you want to work on.

What advice would you give to people out there who are trying to break into the industry and want to make their passion a sustainable career?  

I would say it depends on what you are looking to do. If there is a department you want to be in, for example, if you want to become a DP (Director of Photography) I would start by learning what it takes to shoot a film using a camera you have access to. I would say find some friends and work on short films together. Make a lot of them. I believe at one point my friends and I wrote and shot over 50 short films in a 3-month time span. It was difficult, but it helped us learn quickly about workflow, what burnout feels like, how to prevent it and what it takes to tell a coherent story. Then I would use the short films as a portfolio to try and get a job either through freelance or at a production house or studio. It is very difficult to make lots of progress in film if you are not fully committed to it at some point. Which means you will have to take the leap into either freelancing or working at a production house/studio. Unless you are shooting a commercial, there are no jobs that will let you take 3-5 weeks off at a time to work on a feature film, and if you do end up working on a professional feature you will be working 12-14 hours days everyday 5/days a week for the 3-5 weeks. This means if you do have that much vacation time you will probably come back to work pretty exhausted and in need of another vacation. That being said, if you are a writer, I would say: write. Write anything, a feature, spec scripts anything. Write frequently, ask for feedback, take the feedback, make adjustments. Send your script out to agencies, or better yet make take a small portion of your script, put a crew together either through friends or by hiring a production company, and make a proof of concept. Then send that to agencies with the script. It will have a better chance at getting looked at and it will help you understand where the holes in your script are.

What are you currently working on?

I have a few independent features that wrapped up before COVID-19 that either need pick-up shots or are just wrapping up post-production. One is a period piece set in the 1940s about a high school swing band called Knights of Swing, the other is a Freaky Friday story about miscarriage and understanding motherhood. The former needs about 14 more days of shooting and the latter is rounding both the festival circuit and in talks with networks for distribution. I have a few scripts in the works, one e are working on together actually, and a TV series I finished writing with a few friends of mine, Cameron and Michael that is waiting for some network feedback.

Which current TV show would you love to work on?

Jim Carrey has a TV show on Showtime called Kidding. It's Mr. Roger's Neighborhood meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with puppets, directed by Michel Gondry. It is spectacular and one of my favorite shows on television right now.

What do you think makes a great script which can pique a producer's interest?

It all depends on what type of writer you want to be. Do you want to write features? There is a very specific formula that comes with features and producers will look for that.  My advice is if you want to become a working writer in the industry you should watch the shows you love. See how they breakdown a story and try and replicate it, either in a spec script or a piece of original work. Hallmark for example made, I want to say, 56 features last year. Every feature follows the same criteria: It is about Christmas, it has a dog, cat or some sort of domesticatable animal in the film. The issue cannot be resolved by a police investigation, and it is broken down into 9 act segments. If you want to write for Hallmark, go watch 50 Hallmark films, find what they have in common, write several of your own and reach out to them. If you are looking to do something that is a bit more independent I would say research the producer you are pitching this to. See what types of films they work on and what types of talent they typically work with. Write for that producer, his/her interests.

Do you prefer working on larger productions as a member of a big team, or do you prefer running the show as the producer of a smaller indie project?

I like producing films. That means that I like to be in a position where I know what is going on and where the project is going whether it is as a member of a big team or a producer of a smaller indie project. I enjoy doing both for different reasons. Larger productions can afford to throw money at a problem to solve it. Smaller productions can't do this, but there are fewer people you need to go through which means teams are more agile and easier to navigate. 

Top three favorite movies?

I love Back to the Future, that is my number 1 all-time favorite movie. My second favorite has got to be La La Land. But then I have films like Parasite or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that are incredible but they aren't necessarily films that I can watch over and over if I was stuck on an island.

Sticking with the theme of Back to the Future, if you could go back in time ten years and give advice to a younger you, what would you say?

Make films more often, do everything, write, produce, edit, market. The more work you do, the more people you meet, and the easier it becomes to get recognized. I spent a lot of time worrying about putting out bad work when I should have spent more time just making stuff. It's about volume, not perfection. Think of Piccasso, most of us can only pinpoint just a handful of his work and say "yeah that's a Picasso and we know that for sure" But what you probably didn't know his library of work includes 800 paints, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, and 12,000 drawings. And this does not include prints, rugs, and tapestries. So it's about volume.

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