Below is my conversation with Linh Tran, the director and co-writer of Waiting for the Light to Change, a film that’s making its world premiere at the Heartland International Film Festival. We talk about Vietnamese filmmakers, the complicated process of writing the film, and its visual influences. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ben Sears: Now that you’ve made your first film, do you find yourself watching movies differently? Do you find yourself analyzing them differently?
Linh Tran: It’s actually a little funny for me because I didn’t grow up watching movies. I didn’t really watch a lot of movies until I was in college, but I guess, from back then to now, there has definitely been a change in how I watch movies. I feel like the change is like, I begin to sympathize and appreciate more things and I watch movies in a kinder way. Now, I feel like I can enjoy them more, actually. I just started watching movies that I enjoy over and over and over again, and the first time is always like watching normally, and the second or third watch is more like a study. It’s a little bit of a learning experience, but at the same time, I don’t think it really differs that much.
BS: Do you find yourself looking at it differently from a technical level, thinking how you would have shot a scene from a different perspective, or a different editing technique?
LT: I don’t think so, actually. Sometimes if something is really outstanding, like a really flashy camera movement, then I would notice it right away, but most of the time I feel like whenever I catch myself doing that, it’s probably because I’m not really into the movie.
BS: You mentioned that you didn’t watch a lot of movies growing up. Is it because you didn’t have access to many of them, or you just didn’t have an interest?
LT: I think both. I’m from Vietnam, and it’s really unfathomable for someone like me – because nobody in my family is in the arts or making movies, or anything like that – and none of the kids that I knew growing up was interested in art. We weren’t encouraged to explore that side; the parents were always saying ‘you have to be good at math’. It just didn’t occur to me that that was a possibility. Making movies was never a thing. We did watch a lot of TV growing up, though. I didn’t get that interested in film until I got to college when I came to the states to study.
BS: Are there any Vietnamese filmmakers that you admire, or that you would recommend?
LT: It’s really hard because I feel like Vietnam was a colony for such a long time, and people were too busy with the war, and people were really poor until the 2000’s. So nobody thought about going to see movies, and now people are going to see movies, but they’re a lot of, like, “instant noodles” kinds of movies. Their arthouse scene is booming right now, and there are a few directors that I know and I like. Dang Nhat Minh made movies in the 90s and earlier, but doesn’t make anything nowadays, and I’ve only seen a couple of his films, but his filmmaking feels very honest and authentic, and very unlike a lot of movies that are made right now. Phan Dang Di, who is still working, and I think he’s really popular on the international film festival circuit. I’ve seen a lot of his movies and I have met him once. He’s a very quiet guy and an interesting character. I got to work with one of the actors that was in one of his movies for one of my short films, and that was really fun. I’m kind of jealous of my friends who are Taiwanese or Chinese or Korean because they have a really long and great cinematic tradition that we don’t have. But at the same time, it’s sort of freeing. You can do whatever you want and there’s no standard or someone to judge. But I’m not in Vietnam right now; hopefully one day I’ll be able to make a feature in Vietnam.
BS: One of the most noticeable things about Waiting for the Light to Change is how most scenes just unfold in these long, unbroken takes. Was it always your intention to film it that way, or did it come about during production, when you were planning it out?
LT: The slowness and rhythm of the films of people like Jia Zhangke and Hong Sang-soo has always appealed to me. With those movies, you can really feel it as if it’s unfolding in front of your eyes. But this was really the first film where I tried to emulate that. It also was because we didn’t have a lot of money or time to shoot the film, so it was a necessity, but at the same time, it works well for the kind of story it is.
BS: I was reminded of Yasujirō Ozu and how his camera was always so static. Was that something you were trying to consciously emulate?
LT: I really like Ozu as well, especially the subject matter of his films. I also really like how stoic his films seem to be. I wasn’t actively thinking of him while I was making the movie, but he’s always been an influence and was probably in the back of my mind. What I like is a lot of restraint. It comes from a character or personality thing, and it kind of extends into the filmmaking.
BS: The dialogue almost feels improvised throughout the film. Was there much improvisation that you allowed from the actors? It feels Ozu-like in that it’s almost like you’re watching something unfolding that you shouldn’t be watching.
LT: So, I’m going to tell you a story of how the script came to be, first. I was a grad student at DePaul University, when they had this program where you pick a script, pitch it, and work on it. This was a very different script, and then we were going to go into production when COVID happened. At one point, after the shoot got pushed a couple times, it wasn’t COVID-friendly, so we put it aside. We thought, let’s just write a new script as what we know as 25, 26-year old’s. At the time, I was working with two playwrights and we wrote the script over Zoom calls, we improvised the dialogue, we divided it into parts, wrote it, read it, and revised it over two months. In January of 2021 we got the first draft, and shooting was in March 2021, so we didn’t have a lot of revision. We were trying to cast the actors who reminded us of the characters we were writing, and we interviewed them and incorporated stories that they told us into the script. Because of COVID, we quarantined the entire crew at the lake house in Michigan where we shot the film. I was so lucky that I got the actors out there a week in advance, so we had the latest draft, we had a table read and I took the script away. When we went into rehearsals, they didn’t have a physical copy to memorize their lines. So during rehearsals, we would improvise these scenes based on what they remember, I would record it on my phone, and write the script based on what they said and send that to them. So on the set, there wasn’t a lot of improvisation, but the improvisation was in the rehearsals.
BS: You can really sense the chemistry between the actors, which is really crucial in this film. Did you do anything beyond quarantining them together to bring that chemistry out?
LT: Yes, in rehearsal, I really tried to get everybody to have trust with each other and establish that kind of familiarity. Before we went to Michigan, I would have these Zoom calls with the actors and I would turn off my camera and let them talk to each other. I would pop in and out, and let them chat on their own. Some of the stories they would tell each other, about their family, or their lives, were really powerful. Sometimes they would just share these things that were so intimate.
BS: Tell me a little about how you chose the location where most of the film takes place.
LT: Well, we didn’t really have money. One of the producers, Jake Rotger, said we could go and shoot at his family’s lake house before he had a story or a script or anything. So we had the location first, and then we tailored the script and the actors and everything to fit the location. Actually, in the original script, there’s a bonfire scene and because we were using the university’s money, they wouldn’t allow us to use fire because it could be too dangerous. We were really upset that morning, we got an email from the school, so we had to think of how we could transform the scene without the fire, so we changed it to a propane oil lamp.
BS: I’ve seen a lot of festival movies that tend to play up the drama with contrivances that don’t really feel authentic, but the drama here is underplayed, which I appreciated. When you were making it, did you ever get the urge to play up the drama?
LT: I don’t like making things so obvious and so external. There’s so much drama going on in everybody’s head all the time, and however we can make that known is more important to me. My best friend bought me a plane ticket to spend Thanksgiving with her. I told my writers I would take notes and come back with a story, so a lot of the bits in the film are things that I’ve experienced in my life. So to me, this is plenty of drama already. And there was a lot of energy on set that it already felt so full to me, and I really didn’t think of making this more dramatic.
BS: You kind of expect that, if things don’t go the protagonists’ way, the world will be over or nothing will ever be the same, but that’s not true to life.
LT: I think, in some sense, it will never be the same. Sometimes you meet someone and you know you’ll never see them again. It’s not always like that, but I don’t think the stakes need to be any higher. When I was writing this, I just really wanted to make something that people around me, people my age, could watch and think ‘oh my god, this is someone I know’.