Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lights! Camera! Vietnam!

Now I know how Brad Pitt must feel. After three days of wearing microphones, getting cameras shoved in my face, and repeating the same lines over and over to ensure every angle has been covered, I've had my taste of the famous actor's life (for a fraction of his money).

I think I'll stick to my day job.

Not that my ego didn't appreciate it. I was the star of the show! While I didn't get my own trailer, or a personal assistant, the only reason a director, cameraman, and sound engineer flew to Vietnam from New York City, and hired a local production company, van, and driver, was to watch me to go through the motions of pretending to find a home in Hanoi.

Background
For those who haven't been following our story, some months ago I wrote about my lovely new apartment in Hanoi. A few days later, a New York producer contacted me to see if I wanted to be on a popular US cable TV program called House Hunters International.

The program follows US expatriates as they look for properties to buy or rent overseas. I was familiar with the show's format: the expat looks at three properties, the audience gets to guess which apartment is chosen, and then there's the reveal.

What the hell; it sounded fun! And because Hương had basically found the apartment, and the show wanted me to have "an advisor," it was agreed that she and I would do the show together. So Hương and I filmed some camera tests on her digital camera, mailed them to the producer, and after some weeks the producer wrote back to say the project was on.

The Crew
I was asked to block out three full days, Saturday through Monday, from 8:30 AM to roughly 7:00 PM, for the shoot. The plan was this: I would pretend to look at three apartments, including the one I actually chose. Two of those apartments would be with a local real estate agent; the one I chose would have been found by Hương through the Internet – as it actually was. That way, we could tell a fairly truthful story, but still fit it within the program's format.

Saturday morning. Hương and I met the crew near the Hanoi Opera House, a few blocks from my home. They were all young, hip, New York City white guys with a solid blend of professionalism, humor and attitude:

  • Tom Langan, the director, a low-key bald and bearded 30-something: the guy who makes the creative decisions, tells us what to say, and tries to keep everyone happy.
  • Joe Lipari, the cameraman, thin and fit from carrying a big, heavy $120,000 camera all day. Joe is up for two Emmy awards this year...a definite pro!
  • Dave Scaringe, the sound man, responsible for sticking microphones on people's bodies and boom mikes in their faces, and trying to get a clean sound amidst Hanoi's incessant noise ("a sound man's nightmare"). He handled with humor what would have driven me up a wall!

In addition to the NY crew, we had Nam, the local media company rep, who served as translator and general support, and a government censor named Joe, who despite speaking no English, was supposed to ensure that nothing we did besmirtched the name of the glorious Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Regardless of his presence, within minutes we were all cracking wise, dropping "F"-bombs, and it all felt very much like home.

Filming
The next three days are a blur. The first day, we hooked up with Adrien Bouriaud, a young Frenchman who was cast as my realtor. After some shots in his office, we went off to look at the two apartments he was supposed to have shown us. Adrien, Hương, and I worked well on camera; we successfully feigned interest, suppressed our grins, and more or less did whatever Tom told us to do, and had a fun time doing it.

The second day was shot mostly in my apartment. The crew loved the place, and it looked GREAT on camera. We hid some of my stuff so it could look like we were seeing it for the first time. My friend Phuong was roped into coming over and pretending to be my landlady. An inside joke was, despite the fact that Phuong is one of the most fluent English speakers I know, she was supposed to have limited English ability, so Hương would have to translate. I haven't stopped giving her shit about it yet.

On the third day, I was left alone with the crew for the morning, which was mainly about "Hal enjoying life in Hanoi." In the afternoon, to shoot the "back story," we went to my friend Kevin's house, and pretended that his room was my old apartment. I had originally wanted to use the actual place, but my old landlords had refused to let us shoot at their house because, like everyone else in Vietnam, they fear their government, and were concerned that a camera crew would call attention upon themselves. I feel very fortunate that Kevin, his wife Keiko, and their landlord stepped up to let us film in their house.

Conclusion
In all, it was a gratifying, exhausting, and somewhat surreal experience. For me, it was less an opportunity to play movie star than a chance to showcase Hanoi's charms. Given that, for many Americans, Vietnam remains a war and not a country, I also hope that showing an American blending into daily life – learning the language, buying groceries, navigating traffic – might help some Americans to see Vietnam as a modern nation, in all its humanity and chaos. I was the face on camera, but my hope is that, in the end, Hanoi itself will prove to be the star.

The show is expected to air toward the end of the year. I'll keep you all posted! Meanwhile, if you want any autographs, you'll have to speak to my agent, thenkew, thenkew, thenkew...

13 comments:

  1. That guy in the red shirt is the NKVD agent, making sure the reputation of the rental market was not besmirched? Hope you all broke a leg. An interesting read, as always. TLB

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  2. I hope all this movie star fame doesn't go to your head, it's already a bit large as it is:)

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  3. wow that sounds like a blast. i love that show and can't wait to see you on it.

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  4. we're editing your footage at this very moment!
    -Assistant Editor on house hunters

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  5. My teacher is a star now WOORD!

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  6. Thanks (i think!) for the insight on one of my favorite shows, Hal! Just so you know, we're going to have a Viewing Party on Fisk when it airs, so keep us posted!

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  7. would love to see it so please keep us posted. And yes, thanks for trying to show America the charm of Vietnam - totally agree with you that a majority of people here still thinks Vietnam as in Vietnam war rather than a country

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  8. Interesting...to say the least. Now here is the pitch. I too am a New York Guy..The skin tone is reversed and its my first time in Ha noi., so I have no clue as to what when how and where. The first of which is a night sleep. Background fill in. Ive been to Vietnan 7 times but never made it past Nha Trang ( before the hotel and what not boom..in 92 it was just a promise)and what I saw then I liked. Now is now and what is the deal,yo.? I will be in Vietnam for a bit more than 3 months sssssssssoooo.,whats the deal?

    van

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  9. Yo Van -

    Welcome to Hanoi! Always good to meet a fellow New Yawker on the road. Give me a call if you want to hook up:

    (84) (4) 0125-400-6353

    I'll be happy to point you in various directions, depending on your interests.

    Peace,

    Hal

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  10. Thanks Hal,

    I will contact you when I arrive...in two days or so.

    van

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  11. Fascinating read, Hal! Really enjoyed your episode and saw a link to your blog post on televisionwithoutpity.com (http://forums.televisionwithoutpity.com/index.php?s=&showtopic=2936103&view=findpost&p=13486490).

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  12. Hi Hal, I am working for a media company in Amsterdam (www.africa-interactive.com) and I've traveled to Vietnam myself a couple of years ago. Super nice place!

    At the moment we are looking to produce a video in Hanoi and I read through you story (nice!) and hoped you could possibly connect us to Nam, the local media company rep, who served as translator and general support during the shoot you did together with the New York crew?

    Best! Anna
    (Please reply to: annamara@africanews.com)
    We mainly work with local media in Africa, so that's why I am asking you...

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