The subtle graze of fingertips against cool skin. The comforting warmth of a familiar embrace. The fiery heat of a sensual caress. These elements of human touch between family and strangers are explored in Touch.
Set against the vibrant and colorful backdrop of modern Los Angeles, an unexpected friendship blossoms between Tam (Porter Lynn), a newly hired manicurist at VIP Nails, and Brendan (John Ruby), a timid, dejected mechanic. Brendan’s oil-stained hands are the basis of his wife’s rejections and he seeks Tam’s help in a desperate attempt to re-kindle the flame in his marriage. Through Tam’s advice and aid, Brendan’s marriage improves, but Tam and Brendan find themselves drawn to one another, an attraction which intensifies with each session. Meanwhile, Tam is forced to face her own demons and desires as well as her tumultuous relationship with her estranged father (Long Nguyen).
Minh Duc Nguyen, director of Touch, attended UC Berkeley, where he discovered his love for creative writing. Several of his short stories were published in prestigious literary journals and anthologies. Tale of Apricot was nominated for the O. Henry Award. In graduate film school at USC, Minh received the Jeffrey Jones Scholarship for excellence in screenwriting. His thesis film, Sunshine, inspired a favorable review in LA Weekly and was accepted at many film festivals. Touch marks his feature-length directorial debut.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you come up with idea of this Touch?
Min Duc Nguyen: Well, first of all, every Vietnamese knows someone who works in a nail salon somehow. I did research and more than half of the nail salons in America are owned and operated by Vietnamese, so the nail salon industry provides countless jobs for Vietnamese immigrants. I thought that would be an interesting place to set a story in; not just a story, but a multi-cultural story because you can see the Vietnamese workers interact daily with the American customers that come from all walks of life, and what really fascinates me about manicurists is the fact that they have to touch peoples’ hands every day. To me, in general, touching someone’s hand is a really intimate act. You see these people that have to do it every day, so I wanted to make a sensual film about the importance of human contact, so that is how I got the idea for the film.
Bijan: Is this your first feature film?
Min: This is my first feature film. I went to USC graduate film school and I graduated a long time ago and I had made short films since, but I could never find the finance to make a feature length movie before, and it was just impossible to make a cheap movie. With the advancement of digital video, I was able to make my first movie on a smaller budget. So yes, this is my first movie.
Bijan: It’s a very interesting subject and it also seems to have some cultural roots in the story with regard to the way that the main character is facing the world and facing love. Did the film directly follow the screenplay or did you do some improvisation when you were making the movie?
Min: I wrote the screenplay and the screenplay was really short; I would say like maybe 75 pages. It’s just not my style; I like films that don’t have a lot of dialogue in them, I think that film is a very visual medium so my style is to let the silence carry the story as much as possible through facial expressions and just the body language. Also on the set—because this is my first film—I am learning a lot. You write a bunch of dialogue and then when you see the actors act them out, you begin to notice that a lot of the dialogue has become unnecessary. So I would cut a lot of it while I shot the movie and even more while I edited the movie. It was a great learning process to see that a lot of things did not need to be said. As a writer, you tend to write too much, and as a director you cut the excess all out.
Bijan: The film has many different aspects. There is a lot of humor in it; there is romance, love, and a number of different themes at the same time. How did you manage to coordinate all of these in the movie?
Min: I want my movies to represent life, with the right amount of drama and realistic emotion. I think that nail salons are places where people go and gossip and just make jokes about their daily lives and they gossip about others, so for me it was just about a slice of life where everything is happening. I did not want to make just a comedy like Barbershop or a movie like Wong Kar Wai, so I would say that my films are somewhere in the middle where I just try to balance everything. I did not do it intentionally, but that is just my style. I tried to coordinate all of the elements together without going strictly comedy or strictly drama, I just did it how I saw it in my head and it just came out that way.
Bijan: How did you go about casting the film and finding the actors that you needed for the movie?
Min: Since we had a very small budget, we could not get any know actors, so we just did it the low budget way, which is to place a breakdown service website and find talent agency to cooperate with us. So this is how we found Porter Lynn. This is her first feature film and lead role; she never did a feature film before so it was very exciting to find these actors with the right sensibility that fit the project. For the Vietnamese roles, the women who play the nail workers, we had to go down to Orange County and place a Vietnamese Ad into the Vietnamese newspaper for an open audition. They just came and we saw quite a few people. Most of them had no acting experience and they just thought it was interesting and came in. We auditioned them and we found a few roles for a few people and it was great working with non-actors. I think my favorite part is the auditioning because once you cast the right people, then the film is almost 50% done.
Bijan: The relationship between Tam and Brendan is beyond just words, even when they escalate their bond, the audience still connects with them. How did you manage to make this relationship believable?
Min: I had to do a lot of research about how marriage can deteriorate with couples. Many times when marriage starts out, it starts perfectly and then eventually the couple starts to evolve and their lives move on and they evolve into different kind of people. That is where marriage starts to fall apart, so I followed that model for the married couple in my movie. When they got married they were in love, but they were two separate people; he came from an educated background and she was not very educated and they married because of love. Eventually they sort of evolve into different people and that is when the marriage starts to face its problems and, without communication, it just gets worse. So that is where the relationship was coming from.
Bijan: How did you work with your actors, did you do a lot of rehearsing prior to shooting?
Min: We only did some rehearsals. During the process, first we narrowed it down to the few people that we liked and paired them up to see if they had chemistry and we did this with several different couples and finally, when we narrowed it down to finalizing the cast, we only did about one day of rehearsal. I really do not like to rehearse too hard, I like to just go over the script with my actors and tell them my intentions and get ideas, then we rehearse without them using their full emotions.
Bijan: How did you come up with visual style of the film?
Min: The visual style was dictated by the set and we had a very small set. Because of our limited resources, we only built two walls. So we were very restricted on which angles that we could shoot so I had to come up with a much more focused style that depended a lot on editing and tight compositions because we just did not have the wall in the background to shoot it. A lot of long lenses just to sort of focus on the facial expressions and make sure the background was out of focus so you don’t see a lot of it, so I would say that I had a lot of influence. I love Almodovar’s movies and Wong Kar Wai, and I wanted it to look as naturalistic as possible with natural lighting. Because of our limited budget, our production design could only do so much; so the movie would seem very close and compacted at times. Bijan: How much of the film was put together in the editing room? Min: I had an idea of what the movie would look like, but of course during the short shooting schedule we only had eighteen days and I could not get all of the shots that I wanted, like most low budget shoots. I planned thirty shots for one day and in the end I could only get twenty shots or fifteen, so I would have to make that work in editing. This is why I would say that the film did evolve in the editing room; you just have to find a way to make it work. So editing became a little bit trickier and I would say that editing was the hardest part of this movie. It took about eight months to edit the movie together.
Bijan: Music played a significant part in your film. How did you select the songs that you used?
Min: Because of we were going for a naturalistic style, natural acting and natural lighting and production design, the story is simple so I did not want to go really big with the score. So I talked with my composer Marcelo beforehand and we wanted it sound very intimate, but not big, so we settled on a lot of string and we went with more guitar sounds. We wanted it to sound intimate but not too dramatic. Bijan: What are your plans for screenings for the film as well as theatrical and DVD releases? Min: Well we just started our film festival run. We are going to go to Boston International Film Festival and then the Seattle International Film Festival. So we are just going to build good words and get a few good reviews and hopefully, from there we can find a distributor. We are just getting started and we are hoping to get a theatrical release; if not, there is always revenue from VOD and DVD.
Bijan: How much did your studies at USC film school help you with you becoming a film director?
Min: It helps a lot because, first of all, we have a very small budget, but just because you have a small budget does not mean that your film has to look cheap. You can create the best movie that you can and try to make it look as good as possible with limited resources. Like I said, we shot the film in only 18 days and we had a very small crew, so I had to be a good manager and try to get people to work quickly so I think that my training at USC helped me in that regard: with how to work with a crew and get the shots that I need, and not over shooting. I was taught to get the shots that I need and move on.
Bijan: Any new projects lined up?
Min: Well, I just finished a screenplay for my next film! It is a romantic-horror film and it is a new twist on the horror genre. I hope to get the finances to do this for my next movie.
Best Story Line, Best Actress for Porter Lynn, and Best Cinematography at Boston International Film Festival 2011
Audience Choice Award for Best Feature Film at Vietnamese International Film Festival 2011
Touch is now playing in SAN JOSE, at AMC EASTRIDGE 15 (2190 Eastridge Loop, San Jose)
Showtimes: 1:25 PM, 4:05 PM, 6:45 PM, 9:45 PM
Starts FRIDAY, MARCH 16, ORANGE COUNTY, AMC BLOCK 30 (20 City Blvd West, Orange)
Showtimes: 10:35 AM, 1:20 PM, 4:00 PM, 7:05 PM, 10:15 PM
Moviegoers who see Touch on Friday and Saturday evenings of opening weekend will receive a complementary gift bag!
For more information visit Touch web site.