Phan Gia Nhat Linh: ‘Making a movie Em and Trinh is like walking on a rope’

When directing “Em and Trinh”, Phan Gia Nhat Linh was often discussed by Trinh Cong Son’s family about selecting details into the film.

Phan Gia Nhat Linh is directing a movie about the life of the late musician Trinh Cong Son, which is scheduled to hit theaters in June. On this occasion, he talked about the challenges of implementing the project and future plans.

Director Phan Gia Nhat Linh at Trinh music night in Hanoi in May. Photo: Truong Gia Huy

– Why did you choose the direction to exploit the love affairs, the women who passed away Trinh Cong Son for the project?

– About 5 years ago, Galaxy studio invited me to direct a musical film project using Trinh Cong Son’s songs and suggested some script ideas. However, it is very difficult to use Trinh music to tell a different story. After researching him, I found many interesting points and suggested making a film about the musician himself. I think the story of romanticism in Trinh Cong Son’s life and how it affects his music will be accessible to the audience. I also feel moved about those relationships.

– What pressure do you face when bringing a story about a famous character to the big screen?

– Filmmaking in general is always stressful and I’m used to that. With characters no one knows, it is easier to convince the audience to believe. Once they had their own image of the story and characters, the team faced many times more challenges. However, I personally enjoy breaking those stereotypes and prejudices. The biggest pressure is from within, how to tell this story reach the viewer.

For me, the hardest part of this project was finding the story. I read a lot of material about Trinh Cong Son and had to choose the details to put in the movie. The process is like a sculptor. Material is a rock. The filmmaker’s problem is to remove the excess to create the final work.

– How do you convince Trinh Cong Son’s family to support the development of this project?

– I often joke that the film crew was led by Trinh Cong Son. I, along with the studio representative and Mr. Nguyen Quang Dung, went to meet Trinh and his wife – the musician’s sister and the person in charge of managing his estate. The family said many people have come and submitted scripts but have not been able to convince them.

At that time, I had a rough idea and said that I wanted to work on an unsuccessful wedding between a musician and a Japanese girl, Michiko Yoshii. I remember saying something that felt that Trinh Cong Son did not love a specific person. He loved a concept, a beauty. Mr. Truc – Trinh’s husband – said that no one had told the family this before. The musician’s sister said she liked the movie I’m your grandma directed by me, using two Trinh songs. After that, the family was very supportive, sending many valuable documents about the musician.

Trailer Em and Trinh, released June 17

Trailer “Em and Trinh”. Video: Galaxy

In addition to the musical and romantic elements, the film is introduced to “tell many stories of the previous era”. How do you select and balance those elements in the film?

– It was also a big challenge for me. From the beginning, I told the producer I wanted to make a movie about a wartime love story. The timeliness of the work is very important. In addition to romantic music, Trinh Cong Son is also famous for his anti-war compositions. A Japanese girl (Michiko Yoshii) once came to Vietnam to do a thesis on the anti-war spirit in Trinh music. I find it impossible to separate that from the script. It is also a spice to create drama for the love stories in the movie.

When I wrote the script, I built the musician as someone who was against the war. Other characters have different views on the subject: opponents, advocates, and people who just want to run away. In the movie, Trinh Cong Son has three close friends. I use them as three reflections of the musician himself. If he chooses to oppose, not oppose or support, fate will become one of these three.

Receiving the project, I determined from the beginning there will be mixed opinions. The musician’s family also often reminds me to be careful. To me, making this movie was like walking on a tightrope. I consulted many parties and checked whether the stories in the film were too sensitive or not. I have to think carefully because many of the characters are real in real life. Sometimes, I have to turn those people into fiction, into an iconic character for the story.

– Why did you choose and trust the young actors who do not have much movie experience?

– I did not intend to choose a new cast for the project. The casting stage welcomes all to try. At first, I once invited a famous male singer to play the lead role. However, he said one thing that I strongly agree with. As an entertainer, the singer wants to act in a movie that the audience will see when they see him. If you accept the invitation to participate and act well, everyone will see Trinh Cong Son, not him. If the acting is not done, people only see this singer, not think about the musician. Both cases were not good so he refused. That is also an important reason why I chose many new actors for the project.

When casting, I trust the director’s intuition. Seeing a person walk into a room, I sometimes know about 50% of them if they fit the character or not. The other 50% depends on how they act and interact with their colleagues.

– There are many compliments and criticisms about the first images of the film, how did you receive it?

– I think that’s very fair. Once completed, the film belongs to the audience and they have the right to like it or not. I can’t make work that everyone likes or hates. I also take that as a good sign that they care about the movie. Some actors came to me to confide after reading the comments. I said they did their best and should be happy about it.

Director Phan Gia Nhat Linh (center) with the cast of Em and Trinh in Hanoi in May. Photo: Truong Gia Huy

Director Phan Gia Nhat Linh (center) with the cast of “Em and Trinh” in Hanoi in May. Photo: Truong Gia Huy

– How is Trinh Cong Son’s music included in your work?

Me and Trinh Originally intended to be a musical film. However, I think that genre needs a different genre of music that is more suitable. The project was turned into a music film (music) with songs performed by the characters themselves. Each song is chosen to be included in the work with its own meaning, attached to their characters or emotions. The producer gave a list of 10 songs that must be included in the movie. Myself I also like those compositions, so I don’t find it difficult. I chose three more songs off the list because they are landmark, important to the story.

– How do you feel about film revenue?

– Initially, the studio gave me a number to try. Over the past two years, Covid-19 has changed the market. People only know how to do their best, revenue cannot be predicted. After the project was completed, I, the studio and the musician’s family were all confident about the project.

I don’t expect ticket sales because it looks like a scary trap. When making your first movie (I’m your grandma), I just hope to break even to have the opportunity to continue. That project became a hundred billion movie. At that time, I also set a goal of the next products to have higher sales. However, expectations bring disappointment. My purpose of making movies is not to make money. If I just think about that, I can do many other things.

– Your plan after “You and Trinh”?

– I just opened my own film studio called AIOI, so that I have the opportunity to do my own projects. To date, I have four movies, but they are all made to order. I pour a lot of heart into them but have no autonomy. In the coming years, I hope to make bigger movies. My 10-year dream is to make a work about Bach Dang Giang. I’ve been planning every step of the movie since years ago. I also want to build a cinematic universe about the Tran dynasty, so that the audience can better understand the historical context of that period.

Going forward, I will be a producer on two projects. The first movie is Fantis mask, the film debut of Andy Nguyen. The second movie is Once upon a time there was a love story, adapted from a story by writer Nguyen Nhat Anh, directed by Chung Chi Cong. Next year, I plan to direct two films. The first is Red number, announced in 2020. The second film is a dark comedy – fantasy project based on the BIFAN film festival winning script. I also don’t know if the Vietnamese market is ready for this genre. However, in case that fails, it’s still my movie project.

Dat Phan


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