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Q&A with Kim Nguyen, director of The Hummingbird Project

In advance of this Friday's wide release of director Kim Nguyen's The Hummingbird Project, Gazette reporter and film critic Scott Hayes had an intense, rapid fire Q&A phone call with him. The interview was much like what Jesse Eisenberg's Hummingbird character Vincent Zaleski would likely have.
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If you haven’t yet heard of Kim Nguyen then just wait five minutes. Sure, he's already directed a movie that has the “Oscar-nominated” stamp on it but he’s also moving up with new works that involve some very recognizable faces and names. 

On Friday, his newest effort comes to wide release. The Hummingbird Project (see my review here) is the story of two cousins – one filled with ambition and more, the other a kind of computer wizard – who are trying to beat the system. Their big idea is to create a perfectly straight 1,000-mile underground tunnel that’s four feet wide for a fibre-optic cable to run from Kansas to New York. Doing so will give them an incredibly infinitesimal fraction of a second’s advantage over their competitors in the high stakes world of high frequency stock trading. We’re talking millions in a blink.

Looking back at Nguyen’s smaller films taking place in the battleground of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Rebelle) or the frozen tundra of the Canadian North (Two Lovers and a Bear), it might seem odd to suddenly find him directing Jesse Eisenberg, Salma Hayek and Alexander Skarsgård, but Nguyen has it all under control, and he has yet to produce something that isn’t deeply compelling, or deeply moving.

SH: I’ve been going over some of the films in your catalog – Rebelle (a.k.a. War Witch) and Two Lovers and a Bear, both of which are fantastic in their own ways but very different, and now the new one – The Hummingbird Project. It has some very recognizable actors and a decidedly Hollywood story about people trying to one-up the stock market. Gone is the small drama heart of the first two as we enter into a much more mainstream North American plot. We always talk about motivation when it refers to actors, but I wonder what your motivation is with the films that you choose to write and direct, and how does it change from project to project to The Hummingbird Project?

KN: They’re different for each, but I think at the heart of it and – you're allowed to laugh – it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the final product. At the heart of it, I’m trying to find compelling stories that could potentially make a difference in the world and bring awareness to something I think is important. That can be anything. About my taste, I feel like I believe in Greek tragedy in things that have an overarching quality to them, which is the reason that I chose to tell the story the way I did for The Hummingbird Project.

SH: We’ve been seeing a lot of movies about the stock market in recent years – I’m thinking of The Big Short, Wolf of Wall Street, Margin Call … it’s probably because stocks have caused a lot of strife in the world. These movies might have happy endings but they still involve people getting screwed. I hope that you’re not one of those people …

KN: Actually, you know, I do find that we blame so many things for the state of our world right now, but the truth that’s at the heart of it is our financial system, whether it’s through the stock market to the way banks are helped out when there’s a big crash and it’s all paid with our taxes. There’s something about it. We get the same amount of money, but that money is worth much less and there’s a new oligarchy that’s being created and it’s kind of sucking. It’s kind of hard to explain but that’s how I feel our financial system is orchestrated right now. People are inventing the commissions inside of that dollar, and that dollar is not worth as much as it used to, and our middle class and lower, less privileged classes are being hurt by it.

SH: With a movie like this, I presume that you’re not already intimately familiar with the workings of stocks and the market and such, so I feel like you must have had to immerse yourself in that world. That, or you had some really great technical advisers to kind of guide you along because the language in the dialogue, the details, it was all incredible gibberish to me but I’m sure it was true to reality.

KN: It was a little bit of both. When I started writing the script, the way I did it was I felt really there was an emergency to it. I was inspired by that madness of the premise of these guys who are building a thousand mile-long tunnel and installing something that’s as thin as a hair. So I started writing the story with the overarching structure. I decided that whatever very technical stuff that I don’t know about, I would try and Google it or Wiki it, and if I don’t get really detailed specific information, I would just invent a “black box,” quote unquote, and literally there would be in the script, there’s this black box that does this and bring this data to this point or whatever. Or there’s this machine that digs the hole and I didn’t know what the machine was. Then when we got into pre-production, we brought in all of the experts – fibre optic digging, stock market, high frequency trading – and really the script was literally rewritten from A to Z in pre-production. That is the first time this happened. You remember that there’s a “positive shift story” in the car? That was a true story told to me by one of our experts.

SH: But otherwise the story is fictional.

KN: Yeah. That’s what’s strange about it. Everybody ... that is the one thing that people ask me. It’s so weird that it’s a fictional story. You know what? It’s strange because it’s the first time I hear this so often, and I don’t exactly understand. I don’t think I exactly understand what people mean because most fictional stories could be real. So I don’t understand to what level what confuses people. I don’t understand exactly yet how in which way it’s confusing. All I can say is that it’s true that it is completely fictional, but it’s based on so much. I had read many articles about people who are trying to build a fibre-optic tunnel to gain an edge on stock markets earlier on. This was based on so much research and independent experts so maybe that’s why it seems real. It’s so weird that it can’t not be real.

SH: It’s like that that concept that the more far-fetched your lie the easier it is for people to believe it.

KN: I’m going to write that down.

SH: I love the movie. It really is a great idea that these guys are trying to build a perfectly straight, 1,000 mile-long line underground in order to get a fraction of a second. You know, that makes so much sense. Still, for such a film like this to have a cast with such great energy. I think you did really well getting Jesse Eisenberg for the main role of Vincent. Alexander Skarsgård is marvellous as Anton, and the rest of the cast as well including Salma Hayek, who plays the villain of sorts. I see a lot of big names. I’m wondering if this is you feeling your oats towards becoming more of a Hollywood director.

KN: It’s not necessarily being a Hollywood director, but definitely, I guess that when you’re in film school, most of the filmmakers … well, there’s two schools. There’s maybe like 75 per cent of us directors that our fantasy was to have indie movies with independent scripts, and cool, compelling stories with budgets anywhere between $15 and $25 million. That’s the dream, and for some reason, it’s weird. It’s like now I’m at that zone. I never take it for granted because it could go away in a second. So I feel it’s good to take each film as if it was your last, but I never anticipated I would have had the privilege of doing indie movies with reasonable budgets and with cool actors, you know? It’s like I can’t ask for more right now in my career. It’s still very confusing and hard when I’m writing stories you know nailing the story is still the one thing that I love doing it; at the same time, you feel like just killing yourself but I’m getting better with it. I’m kidding. It’s a metaphor, but getting the script right … it’s still one of the hardest, most haunting things I find in the business and it’s still the most fascinating thing to do.

SH: Do you mind if I asked then what was your budget was for this movie?

KN: It was anywhere … in the end, because there’s interest and insurances, so I think it would be a good $16, $17 million Canadian.

SH: And it’s still considered an indie movie?

KN: Yeah, a high-end indie movie.




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