Marion Hoàng Ngọc Hill is a standout writer and director. She’s also by many standards “worldly,” having been raised by a British father and Vietnamese-refugee mother who immigrated to France before ending up in San Francisco. Hill herself grew up between Europe and the United States, but says she is now ready to explore her Vietnamese roots. She spends her days behind cameras, on sets, or having tea and phở with other Vietnamese-Americans around New Orleans, where she gathers storytellers and collaborators.
After graduating from Northwestern University in Chicago, Hill moved to New Orleans and set up shop. She and a group of friends got together and made a feature film called Ma Belle, My Beauty in the south of France, a gripping tale about the passions and jealousies between two women who were formerly in a polyamorous relationship. The film was well-received at festivals like Sundance and SXSW and went on to be sold and played theatrically. (If you’re interested, you can stream it at the end of November with pre-orders available from iTunes).
Watching the film was like witnessing a mid-century period piece — with its sun-soaked moments of joy and modern characters who delve deep into their emotional needs and sexuality. I spoke to Hill about what it took to make the film and how her identity influenced its conception.
How did it feel to complete a whole feature film?
The experience of pre-production and production stretched me further than I’ve ever been stretched. The image I have in my head of what it felt like for 4 months (the 3 leading up to production and then the month of actual production in France) is of me running along a rickety bridge just saying “don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down” to myself over and over, because I could not afford to get distracted or I would trip.
I could not get scared, I could not get overwhelmed or emotional. I was subconsciously training myself not to feel anything and it’s funny as a result the whole experience is kind of a blur now, there are lots of details from shooting I don’t remember unless someone else describes it.
So when we wrapped and I was back home with a hard drive full with a movie, my movie, all the feels came pouring out. I think there is definitely something in my Viet blood that enables me to shut things off and decide where and when my feelings and sensitivity are allowed to manifest themselves. It’s survival, really.
What was your favorite part of being on the road touring with your film Ma Belle, My Beauty?
Being reunited with almost the whole team of producers, my cinematographer and actors was really beautiful and needed. The first night of Q&A we did at the Angelika in NYC was pretty stiff and I was so nervous. I struggle in front of an audience.
But on the second night, the actors really got silly and were telling stories from production and I realized I had been taking it all too seriously and that it was okay to just have fun! So being up there all together and sharing memories and just remembering how much fun we had when we were filming, especially given that Covid hit basically right after we shot the film, was everything I didn’t know I needed.
The actors have a very different perspective on the project than I do; I’ve been so bogged down in the industry side of things since Sundance, and they were able to bring me back to the purity and beauty of the making-of experience. New York screenings were also really special because some of my friends from high school were there, and those people know me in a whole different way, you know? So they were able to recognize parts of me in my film that no one else had picked up on, because they knew me when I was like thirteen, fresh off the boat!
What are the most stand-out things that you learned from making this project?
Wow, where do I even begin! Almost everything about this project has been positive, believe it or not, and I think a lot of the positivity is owed to my team, the whole team for sure but the root of my team being the triangle of me and my two producers, Kelsey and Ben. We’ve been creative and business partners for three years now and it was the strength of our dynamic that prevailed through everything. We have very, very different and complementary personalities, skills and work styles, and our triad provided the foundation for everything else.
I know for sure that finding the right producers for me and for the specific project is a starting step that absolutely cannot be rushed through or taken for granted, and it’s a relationship that needs to be constantly checked in with and nurtured.
I also learned that distribution shouldn’t be rushed. I feel like our culture and thus “the [film] industry” has now started to think and move at the same speed that we scroll through content, so there was a lot of frantic energy pushing toward releasing the film ASAP after Sundance-- I guess for momentum, and I think as a result I wasn’t able to step back and breathe and actually think more deeply about how I wanted to market my film, and who it’s actually for. And all those kinds of decisions are what lead to what the trailer looks like and what the poster looks like etc. and all of that just felt very rushed, and yet those assets now represent the film forever!
What will you do differently with your next film?
So I guess next time I want to try to build in some time away from the film between finishing it and figuring out how I actually want to release it.
How will you take Vietnamese-American womxn’s representation into your own hands now?
As I work on my next script, I’m realizing that I’ve never allowed myself to truly represent myself or my family in my work. (I’m about to get a therapist to finally dive into why that is and how to overcome it.) There’s always been a heavy emphasis on privacy in my family.
My Ông Ngoại’s reaction to having to leave Vietnam was to cut the family off from the past and never look back, and never talk about it, and that has for sure trickled down into my generation, where we just are very private and protective of the deepest parts of ourselves. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m going to need to open myself and my family up for my work, which is scary.
My world has always looked very mixed -- my parents were globe-trotting expats, so we never actually grew up in a Vietnamese community or any kind of consistent community, we moved through mostly white communities (both European and American) in which we were aliens.
I think part of me has avoided placing a Vietnamese or even an Asian character in my stories so far because then that character is automatically assumed to represent me, and because I’m a private person, I don’t want people to see a character and say “that’s Marion”. But I’m working on letting that go and giving in to peak vulnerability!
How was it directing a music video in New Orleans with big stars?
I was so lucky and blessed to get to work with Fathappy Media, Tank, and Big Freedia. What a dream. It was my first time working with everyone and of course these artists being very busy we had basically one day to shoot BIG.
The whole production felt very New Orleans in terms of how we were pulling things together, there was nothing official about our street shoot. We were just on a street corner in the 5th Ward. We paid a nice man to use his power outlets and let the talent have a place to get ready.
Of course, it was easy, you just whisper “Big Freedia” and “Tank” and all doors swing open. For me, it was really all about executing Tank’s vision, keeping the team on track under such time constraints to be able to get all the components of her brain’s juice that we could, knowing when to spend more time on something and allow for the talent to be taken with the moment, and then assessing what we could sacrifice as time slipped by.
It’s this beautifully challenging balance of enabling the space for improvising and also maintaining strict intentionality, and confidently finding this balance while under pressure is what I love about directing. Working in New Orleans is such a joy because everyone is just down to be a part of something, you can really get people together to come and dance in the street even when it’s 90 degrees, peak humidity, and a pandemic.
I’m looking forward to dancing up a storm when more of Marion’s projects come out.
Learn more about Marion and her work here.
More about Thuc can be found here.