Ten years ago, Le Ha Nguyen became a household name when he wrote Chuyện Mưa (sung by singer Trung Quan), along with a series of other songs. We all thought that the young musician would thrive in the music career from there, but he then decided to put down the guitar and pick up the camera to make motion pictures.
Since then, Le Ha Nguyen has made monumental shifts in his career. He still chooses to take the musical “ride”, but in a different role — directing music videos. He has made over 30 music videos, as well as released his first movie Tháng 5 Để Dành (Sunset Promise) as a director.
“My goal is to make a musical film with the soundtrack composed by myself,” Le Ha Nguyen shared during a recent interview with Vietcetera.
Ten years after its release, how do you feel when listening to the song “Chuyện Mưa”?
Sometimes when I sing with friends, they also turn on that song. But to be honest, in the past few years, I have almost stopped listening to this composition of mine. Listening to it again ten years after its release feels both familiar and strange. Familiarity is caused by the memories of the past that come rushing back. And the strange feeling here is, I cannot believe that I wrote the song myself.
Having started out well in the musical field, why did you decide to put the guitar down and pick up the camera?
At that time, I was majoring in Film Directing at Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema. My closest friends are mostly in this industry. The first money I made was also from making movies. In short, my life at that time was all about filmmaking.
The only thing that kept me attached to music was my passion and my participation in the program Bài Hát Việt* (Vietnamese Songs) shown on our national channel VTV3. I was with the program for six years straight, met many talented people, learned many things and had more opportunities to develop myself.
Composing, performing, and winning a number of awards at this program were the greatest achievements of my academic years. When the program ended its production, I also graduated from University and decided to follow the path of professional filmmaking. I also stopped writing music since then.
*Bài Hát Việt (Vietnamese Songs) is a program for performance and contest of new songs for Vietnamese musicians, organized by Vietnamese Television (Đài Truyền hình Việt Nam) — Vietnamese national television broadcaster — in 2005, broadcasted monthly on VTV3 on the evening of the last Sunday of each month. The show ended its production in 2016, after 11 years of broadcasting.
And from then on, your world only revolved around filmmaking?
I realized that I should only do one profession. There is this saying: “Jack of all trades, master of none”. I cannot fully develop myself in a particular field if I do not focus all my efforts, study, practice, and thoughts to it.
With music, I was not a methodical learner at all. My writing technique was mostly based on observation, and I composed mainly based on emotion and improvisation. It was even more difficult for me when I was ordered to write a song.
When I realized that only having emotions was not enough, I knew I should stop. To go far in art, we should combine our emotions with knowledge. As for me, I have lived in the filmmaking environment, and been passionate about it. I learned and practiced everyday, having better conditions as well as opportunities in the field of cinema than music. So I chose to take the long way in filmmaking.
Was music to you a passion or an “unplanned outing”?
Not at all. If music is to be played at home, or just among friends and close ones, then it is unplanned. But having determined to pursue professional music, there are a lot of things I need to calculate and plan. That’s why I gave up music.
I am passionate about many things, not just movies or music. But I want to make money from one of my passions to be able to “feed” other passions. I think it’s amazing to be able to do that.
I always want to be serious about whatever I do. Emotions cannot be haphazardly laid out; it has to be put into a calculated system to function perfectly. This is what I want to aim for.
Do you still write music, or have you totally quit and no longer compose songs?
When I was in university, my teacher called me a “musician”. That made me a little sad, because I never considered myself a musician. When the program Bài Hát Việt ended, I could no longer find a way out for my compositions. Besides, I also called myself “out of capital.” The reason for this is lack of knowledge.
Writing music makes us understand and discover who we are, but we still have to move on in life.
However, the passion is still there. Sometimes I take out the guitar to write random things, mostly just to satisfy my passion. I still silently write music and interact with my close friends in the industry. But the songs I wrote later were never finalized, just small pieces of improvisation.
Hobbies and passions are one of the hardest things to give up, what do you think about this?
For me, passion is the hardest thing to give up. Hobbies can change depending on the stages of life.
What else have you given up in recent years?
Sometimes I think I should stop doing commercials, advertisements, and MVs to focus more on working on a long script. However, I have not been able to do that yet.
From personal experience, when do you continue and when do you completely give up on something?
I have to follow my head, even though I am not a decisive person. For me, when I see that I cannot continue anymore, I should stop doing that thing. But if I still see an opportunity, though small, I still want to try until the end.
Life is diverse, keeping or giving up is not easy to decide. I think the most important thing is our own mind. We have to be conscious of where and who we are before we can make a decision.
Then, to you, what can be dropped out and what must be kept?
It is up to each person to determine what is important to their life. The most important thing to me is my family and friends. Other than that, perhaps everything can be trade-offs.
Now that you are a director of music videos, it seems like you are still pursuing music but just in a different way.
Exactly. After all, movies and music always go together and stick together in different ways. Music helps me a lot when making movies, gives me creative inspiration, and makes me understand more about cinematic structure and rhythm. Music also opens the network for me to develop my career.
I still cannot stay away from music, it’s just that I’m choosing music to support me on my filmmaking path.
How many MVs have you made so far? What's one MV that impressed you the most?
I have directed about 30 music videos. The most impressive one to me is Xe anh đến đâu em theo đến đó by singer Duong Hoang Yen. And the movie I like the most is Em một mình quen rồi, also by Duong Hoang Yen.
The movie “Tháng 5 Để Dành” (Sunset Promise) is considered “the purity of Vietnamese Indie movies”. How was the process of producing it?
From the beginning of the project to the time Sunset Promise was released, it took nearly three years. Initially, we planned to develop the project into a web-series called Ranh giới (means “Boundaries” in English), based on the Vietnamese novel of the same name by author Hoang Trung Hieu.
There were accidental opportunities coming to us during the production, so we decided to turn it into an indie movie. The beauty of independent filmmaking is that we do everything on our own, from shooting, finding sponsors, to finding distribution partners.
Sometimes we also wanted to give up because making independent films in Vietnam is like walking in a tunnel or a maze. If we don’t concentrate enough, we would obviously lose our way or direction. Fortunately, however, we went all the way and learned many valuable lessons.
Choosing to make independent films, do you think this is an opportunity for young filmmakers in Vietnam?
I think, never before has the filmmaking opportunity for young filmmakers in Vietnam been so great. It has become less and less difficult for young directors to show their craft because of the tremendous amount of stories and medium. The Vietnamese film market is expanding and Vietnamese films are gradually proving their competitiveness in the international arena.
Although there are still failures and losses, we have started to have consecutive “made in Vietnam” box office records surpassing even Hollywood blockbusters. Not only movies in theaters, the strong development of the online movie platform also brings about diverse needs of movie sources.
I observe that, especially with indies, many projects have very professional and meticulous executions in every stage, and are able to sell tickets and make money. Vietnamese films will continue to grow strongly in the next few years, and enter foreign markets such as Southeast Asia.
Is the excitement when working in music as strong as in filmmaking?
The excitement between working in these two fields is different. For me, music is momentary because I compose independently and base my work on transient emotions.
When making movies, I have to maintain excitement or concentration for a very long time. The essence of filmmaking is teamwork with many people in many stages, from pre-production to post-production. Therefore, I have to maintain energy and focus, as well as make decisions extremely accurately, or else I might damage my own product.
What about pressure?
As for pressure, I think it’s the same. We always want to be the best in doing something, or at least should be in the top 10.
What will your future goal be?
My goal in the future is to make a musical film, and I will compose the soundtrack myself. So if I don’t have the conditions to develop my career path in music, I will just silently nurture this talent, maybe one day I will have a chance to prove it.
Adapted by Thao Van