The more detailed version: While growing up, Timothy Linh Bùi always felt that Vietnam’s presence in the film industry could be enhanced and made more visible globally. This belief is woven into all of his works, whether it’s directing Green Dragon alongside his late uncle, veteran actor Đơn Dương, co-creating the story for Three Seasons with his brother Tony, or producing films like Âm Mưu Giày Gót Nhọn and Chị Chị Em Em. Người Mặt Trời (or Daydreamers) marks not only his latest career endeavor but also another step in a deeply personal journey.
However, of all the possible subjects, vampires? Featuring actors like Thuận Nguyễn, Trần Ngọc Vàng, and Chi Pu as characters (Marco, Nhật, and Triệu, respectively) with fangs, bloodthirstiness, and heliophobia? Placing Trịnh Thảo’s character (Hạ) as the mortal who knows too much about this world? Transforming Thạch Kim Long (Lộc) into a Van Helsing-type character? Bùi explained to Vietcetera: “‘Vietnamese vampires’ is just a hook, but I hope the film, with this hook, will reach a wider audience than any of my previous works.”
We recently delved deeper into this perspective with Bùi, and it allowed us to uncover more about the creation of Người Mặt Trời. The film, directed, co-written, and co-produced by Bùi, is scheduled for release on December 8.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
It’s been about 14 years since Powder Blue, Tim! Good to see you back as a director.
You know, I take directing seriously! Making a movie as a director, to me, has to be personal. I need to feel like I’m the only one who can tell this story. I’ve written many scripts that I’ve asked other directors to take on while I produce. I don’t see myself just as a director but more as a storyteller.
What sets your vampire film apart from others?
I wanted it to be about a sense of loneliness and the struggle to find that simple human connection, whatever that might be someone... I wanted to create something personal, maybe because I have a brother (Tony, director of Three Seasons), but then I also felt that it’s fresher. It made me more curious to explore these elements further. I haven’t seen them before in a vampire film.
But the final draft wasn’t always like that... There have been so many drafts, it’s unbelievable (laughs)... COVID was the deciding factor because I had so much time. The earlier version was really about a teen vampire boy who was sick and a girl named Hạ who discovered him. He would secretly stalk this high school... Other kids would come to school and see a mural with a sun — it would become more complete over time, but they didn’t know who painted it, so he became this rumor, “The Disappearing Boy.”
We completed a full storyline draft, but it wasn’t personal enough.
[The plot synopsis for Daydreamers depicts vampire brothers Marco and Nhật being discovered by a human girl, Hạ, and afterward facing division as the former tries to hunt her down and the latter seeks to protect her.]
You also present Saigon in a different light, showcasing a unique kind of night.
I didn’t realize it until I finished writing and entered pre-production. My AD team was breaking down the script for the shooting schedule, and they said, “Tim, this is all at night.” I was like, “Are you sure?” (laughs)
But shooting at night, now that I think about it, was a blessing. The air got cooler, and it was just better for the production. And at night, after 12 a.m. or 1 a.m., it would be quiet. So quiet! We had total control. We were in control of the streets, the park, wherever we were. I didn’t need so many PAs on street corners blocking traffic!
We also filmed a car chase, and we did it at midnight to avoid too many cars. Otherwise, there would be no way to shoot it.
I have to agree.
I’m very pleased with the visual effects company CYCLO as a partner. There has never been a time when they said, “I don’t think we can do this.” They promised me everything, and that made it easy. It becomes a challenge for them, which I think they love. They enjoy figuring out this puzzle together.
[Regarding the makeup and prosthetics from Kim B and her team,] we did a lot of research. Not every set of fangs for every vampire is the same, and what do these differences mean for each character? We created them by obtaining molds of the cast’s teeth and shipping them to a special effects artist in Australia, who sent them back to us...
Kim is an excellent painter, so when she applies things, she does the shading and all to make it feel realistic. She starts and then passes the baton to CYCLO FX. She might create some burning spots first, and then CYCLO takes them to the next level with how they peel apart.
Speaking of inherent vampire media imagery, about the blood...
I’m always aware of how much I can go without going overboard or just enough for fans and then finding that balance... But, even with all the bloodshed in this film, it’s not gore. I think there’s a sense of beauty in it — a sense of life within the tapestry of this world.
Your film has two sources of inspiration I find incredibly interesting. Let’s start with The Hunger...
The film has beauty and humanity. It was just so different from other vampire films. This story about vampires who age was emotionally visual for me.
The only immortal one is the queen of vampires (Miriam, played by Catherine Deneuve). Her storyline was always trying to find a partner, but they’d die off, so she’d be in perpetual loneliness. There’s this deep sense of beauty there that spoke to me.
[The Hunger is a 1983 film from the late Tony Scott and is his directorial debut. It stars the aforementioned Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon. The film was not a box-office success but went on to have a following due to its stylishness.]
The second is a xe ôm ride...
One day in 2015-16, I wanted to see the city. I went to the Opera House, and there was a xe ôm guy. I wanted to return to my old house in Nhà Bè, my parents’ old house, where I used to stay when I came to Vietnam. My uncle used to live there, the late actor Đơn Dương. I just wanted to go back to see if I could still find it.
We were going over the bridge, and the sun was coming down. I told the man to stop so I could take some photos. The river and the setting sun were so beautiful... I was about to return on the bike, but I wanted one more shot at that moment. So I jumped off. He took off, not knowing that!
As I waited for him to come back, I noticed a bunch of boats anchored by the banks. I wondered, “Who are those people who live in them, on the fringes of modern society?” As the sun set more and more, the boats looked like rows of coffins.
So, I wanted to explore these people further. How do I tell their story from an angle that won’t be a straightforward social drama? Growing up in America, I was influenced by vampires a lot, and by nature, they live on the fringes of society… That was my way in! So what if [the people in the boats] are vampires? I then sat down and wrote the script right away.
[The xe ôm man ultimately didn’t return to pick Bùi up, so he went to his final destination with another. The next day, Bùi returned to the Opera House to find him there — the man’s base of operations, he thought — and paid him 100,000 dong. “I have to thank him for speeding off,” Bùi added.]
What are your thoughts on comments about your film being “Tây quá” — or “too Westernized”?
You know, and this is just an honest thing, I’ve never understood what “Tây quá” means being in Vietnam as a filmmaker. Maybe it’s my naivete, but I wrestle with what that means.
But for this film, I finally have the confidence to say, “Don’t think about this. Trust who you are as a storyteller.” It should resonate across the board if I can tell a good story. I trust that if I do it right, audiences in Vietnam or America can relate to stories of forgiveness, family abandonment, and the desire for a human touch.
So how I put the film together, treat the music, choose every detail — it might be a little “Tây” because I grew up in America. I can’t change that, so I’m going to embrace that. But I’ll also bring my other side to it — I have a Vietnamese soul, and I understand, love, and care for Vietnam. I’m combining them. And hopefully, when you watch it, you’ll go, “Wow, this is Tim!”
It was also great to get everyone on board and excited. I’d always keep replaying that fact. This may be the only vampire film we all will ever get to make in Vietnam, so let’s have fun with it. Let’s go with it, you know?