14 May 2022 |

I’m making a TV show

By Trung Phan

There is a phrase in Hollywood called “development hell”.

It refers to a project that takes an unreasonably long time to get made, if it ever gets made at all (software engineers and game developers know this phrase well).

Over the past decade, I’ve been in a creative development hell of sorts. 

While living in Vietnam from 2008-2012, I co-wrote and sold a comedy film script to Fox (I also ate a comical amount of pho during this period).

The movie never got made. However, as a side project, I’ve spent the past few years working on a TV show about expat life in Ho Chi Minh City during the time I wrote that script. 

And holy crap! We just filmed the first two episodes of the show. Here is a Variety story from last month: 

“Vincent Ngo, top screenwriter [Hancock] and Hollywood script doctor, has set up a comedy series called Early Risers in his native Vietnam. Talent behemoth, Creative Artists Agency (CAA)…is handling licensing of the series’ distribution rights.

The show, about the lives of American and European expats living and working in Saigon, is set to begin filming under the direction of Zach Merck.”

Expat life is fascinating. And when Vincent and I wrote a Show Bible for Early Risers, it began with this Ernest Hemingway quote from The Sun Also Rises (1926):

“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”

Funny enough, I met Vincent in 2009 while lunching at European-inspired cafes in Ho Chi Minh City. We were both part of an eclectic expat community that came from around the world.

The Vietnamese-American screenwriter. The Wall Street vet. A local real estate billionaire. The Australian pilot. The Indian restaurant owner. The Filipino TV personality. The Czech hedge fund manager. The Japanese tire factory manager. The South Korean businessman…and many more. 

To date, the story of Vietnam in popular Western imagination is almost entirely War movies: PlatoonBorn on the 4th of JulyApocalypse NowFull Metal JacketThe Deer Hunter (not everyone will agree, but Tropic Thunder is also a classic).

The most visible video content we have of Vietnam in the 21st century is probably Anthony Bourdain’s CNN travel show, including that memorable episode when the late author and President Barack Obama ate together in a Hanoi noodle shop. 

Enter Early Risers, a modern story about Vietnam told by people who lived it. In addition to working on the project with Vincent, I’m one of the show’s main characters. In another world, I’d be playing the role of “Trung” but I failed my own audition. On the bright side, your boy finally has an IMDB page. Whuddup, Producer Trung?

What’s next? We need to film the rest of Season 1. And also line up some distribution. So, if you’re a content guru (or Ted Sarandos) looking for fresh Vietnam content, reply to this email.

For everyone else, here’s the story of how this all went down: 

  • Moving from Canada to Vietnam
  • Expat life and selling a movie called The Lose
  • Making Early Risers

Moving from Canada to Vietnam

Let’s go back to 1867. That’s the year my paternal great-grandfather Phan Boi Chau was born. Ten years after his birth, the country of Vietnam was colonized by France and renamed French Indochina.

By the turn of the 20th century, my great-grandfather was the country’s leading anti-colonial revolutionary (side note: his personal politics never intersected with Communism). In addition to an epic ability to grow facial hair, he:

  • established Vietnam’s diplomatic ties with post-Meiji Japan (including trips to the country to raise money and secure weapons)
  • co-ordinated with Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen (the provisional first president of the Republic of China)
  • plotted to overthrow the French occupation of Vietnam, but was captured by colonial authorities 

​​The French charged Phan Boi Chau with treason and planned to execute him. However, after realizing they might create a martyr, they backtracked and forced him into house arrest in the city of Hue for the final 15 years of his life. 

He died in 1940 as World War II was engulfing the globe. Both of my parents were born within the decade and they grew up in a country that fought three global powers in succession: Japan, France and America. The third conflict was, of course, the Vietnam War. 

In the mid-1970s, my father was a young doctor and my mother worked for her family’s hospitality business. Separately, they were able to leave the country before the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. My mom went to Quebec. My dad went to do post-graduate medical training at the University of Auckland with help from New Zealand doctors he worked with during the war. By the early 1980s, my parents — like hundreds of thousands of other Vietnamese refugees — settled in North America. And I was born in Calgary in 1985. 

Keep my family’s history in mind while reading the next paragraph.

When I graduated from McGill University in 2007, I saved $5000 working construction and did the complete opposite of what my parents wanted for their kids when they built a life in Canada: I moved to Vietnam, a country they sacrificed everything to escape.

My parents were very confused and probably thought, “Is this guy an idiot? Is he not aware of what we gave up to leave Vietnam? Is this guy an idiot?” 

They had a point.

Expat life and selling a movie called The Lose

The year is now 2008. I’ve lived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) — or as the OGs call it, Saigon — for a few months. Formerly the French capital of Indochina, HCMC is the country’s commercial and cultural hub.

At the time, Vietnam was being anointed the “next Asian Tiger”, set to follow in the footsteps of 20th century Asian economic miracles such as Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. The country of 90 million people was attracting $10B+  of foreign direct investment a year (~10% of the country’s GDP). 

I personally attracted zero of that money. And my meager $5000 savings had been extinguished on cheap beer, trips around the country and a comical amount of pho. 

Efforts to find work were thwarted by the fact that my History degree was completely useless in the country. And also by the fact that I couldn’t get the only job I was actually qualified to do: teach English (as a double insult, locals described my Vietnamese language skill as “sounding like a caucasian who read a few chapters of a Vietnamese language book.”)

As it turns out, most Vietnamese parents didn’t want a Vietnamese person teaching their kid English. 

It was a great slice of humble pie. But eventually, I got a job — in the loosest use of the word possible — as a “journalist” working for a local English-language magazine. 

My daily routine was was:

  • interview expats 
  • write soft-hitting non-think pieces
  • drink cheap booze
  • party
  • repeat

I lived in a tiny 400 square foot flat and subsisted off of $0.50 banh mi and $1 pho (of course). All of these luxuries fit snugly into my high three-figure USD salary. Well, actually, I was paid in Vietnamese Dong and the local currency was regularly devalued. 

Eventually, I parlayed this writing role into a financial research job at Vietnam’s largest private investment firm (while the pay was only moderately better, I got an inside look at how the foreign investment was being deployed across the country).

This firm also employed my future script co-writers Eric Gershoni and Michael Gray. In the standard “geez, it’s such a small world” trope, Eric was my former University roommate’s cousin while Michael was a (much older) alumni of McGill University.

Eric came to Vietnam in 2009 following a brief stint on Wall Street and an even briefer stint in Hollywood. Michael was an Indochina vet, landing in the mountains of northern Vietnam as an NGO worker in the 1990s following graduate studies at the University of London.

Shortly after I started the new job, the three of us realized that a) we liked watching movies; b) we liked making jokes; and c) there was a bounty of material to draw from. 

Soon, we were turning our Skype chat sessions into a writer’s room and knocked out the first draft of a comedy film built entirely around dumb jokes.

What is the plot you ask? Something like “a naive NGO worker travels to Vietnam and finds himself in deep doo doo when he is framed for murder and is pursued by Southeast Asia’s top cop.” To summarize, it was “The Fugitive meets Harold & Kumar meets Southeast Asia”. 

We ultimately called it The Lose after the first two film titles seemed…rough around the edges: Eurotrip 2: Asia Trip and White People In Asia.  

One running gag in the story was about “Backpacker Guy”, a tourist archetype with dreads and elephant-print pyjama pants who’s been traveling for 10 years on a shoestring budget (and only showers once a month). If you’ve ever backpacked, you know exactly who I’m talking about:

Our script eventually received professional advice from a Hollywood veteran that we met in Saigon. That person was Vincent Ngo. A film he wrote, Hancock, starred a pre-slap Will Smith and crushed it at the box office in 2008 ($630m). 

Vincent was splitting time between America and Vietnam, where he was helping to build out the country’s local film industry (“Vollywood”, if you will). 

After reading our first draft, Vincent said the script was like “a sequence of SNL skits loosely strung together” that “while funny, could never ever ever in the history of mankind be made into a movie.”

With Vincent’s guidance, we were able to write a proper film script and optioned it to Fox International.

We were obviously asked to rewrite the film. Some of the producer notes were pretty wild, including one that asked for “more monkeys”. Spoiler alert: there actually aren’t that many monkeys in Vietnam (that would be Thailand). 

Sadly, The Lose never got made (and the world never got to laugh at Joe and the Merry Backpackers). Fox’s option on the script expired and my screenwriting ambition was snuffed out.

By 2015, I had moved back to North America with my now wife, got an MBA/CFA and started working in corporate America.

None of us gave up on the dream of bringing a modern Vietnam story to the screen, though.

The Making of Early Risers 

Here’s the thing you have to understand about expats in Asia: there is a hierarchy. 

  • If you’re in Hong Kong or Singapore or Tokyo (or Seoul or Shanghai), then you had graduated with honors from school (probably Ivy League), you have an MBA or a post-doctorate degree, achieved success in the workplace with some distinguishing skill or specialty — this is why you’ve been chosen to represent your company at the center of international business in Asia. Life is good for you because the company you’re working for has a sweet expat package that includes a personal driver, a cook, a nanny, and a generous expense account.
  • If you’re an expat in Southeast Asia (i.e. Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines or Vietnam), you’re probably nursing a hangover right now and you’re also wondering, “How the f*** did I get here?” Well, to start, you did not excel in school. You did not distinguish yourself enough in the workplace to be recognized and deemed valuable. You’ve probably made a lot of bad decisions. And Vietnam is a place for expats to try and rebuild the narrative of their life.

The recreation of one’s story is a common theme among expats. By definition, you’ve left your old life behind. Unpacking this psychology against the backdrop of Vietnam is narrative gold. As Graham Greene famously wrote in The Quiet American:

“They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived.”

I enjoyed writing The Lose but the real story was about the day-to-day existence of expats in Vietnam. We started working with Vincent on the world of Vietnam circa 2009 during the Great Financial Crisis. And Early Risers is the end product, an amalgamation of people we met, dumb jokes we made and our own stories (including the failed making of The Lose). 

After years of shopping the project, we finally filmed the first two episodes in Ho Chi Minh City last month.

As mentioned, I literally couldn’t pass auditioning for my own part:

Luckily, Vietnamese-American actor Phi Vu has absolutely crushed it as young Trung. 

Next up: finish writing the rest of the season and finding the right distribution partner.

We’ve moved from development hell to development. And it feels great.