Bao Nguyen is a Saigon-based filmmaker whose past work has been seen in the New York Times, HBO, NBC, Vice, ARTE, PBS, among many others. In addition, he has directed commercial projects for clients such as Google, Coca-Cola, the United Nations, McDonald’s, the US Department of State, and Hugo Boss.
Joe Sabia is the VP & Head of Development at Condé Nast, as well as a director, digital artist, musician, concept cobbler and International Pun Champion.
(This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)
Well that’s a good segue to the next clip…
How did you come up with that?
You just asked about the technology thing and I think a better, more relatable thing to say about it is that if you look at Google Translate, that’s basically a tool that we have at our disposal. Every single day, like on my taxi ride here I was actually taking out Google Translate and trying to communicate with the driver and…it was awful, I failed, I think he gave me credit for trying…but this is a tool that’s so familiar and we use it in such a predictable way. Hundreds of millions or billions of people use it.
So when you use this familiar tool as the central thing for an unfamiliar type of creative concept, you have an audience that understands what they’re about to experience and you couple that with the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, like the most iconic song around the world, you have the perfect storm of two familiar tokens coming together in a really fun experience.
And Samuel L. Jackson’s the same thing, like Google autocomplete is something that’s in front of us every single day. It’s the world’s brain on what people are thinking when they’re searching. So what if we had the people who are being thought of by the world come and answer the questions that are being asked about them. It’s just this familiar thing, it resonates because it’s just familiar.
Content is a tough word, I have a problem with this word. If it’s videos, it’s videos. But, you know, it’s true: I think what matters is when anyone’s making anything, is it a hobby. I think the best place to be making art is that you just want to make it and there’s no other incentive and if there are things like money and job opportunities that come with it that’s like icing on the cake, it’s really nice. How do you feel about that Bao?
I mean I am lucky enough where they overlap, but with Vietnam there are so many young filmmakers who are just making stuff without thinking about the bottom line. They’re just making stuff, they just want to tell their stories–tell stories from their families, from the neighborhoods around them. I mean nowadays with technology, it’s much easier as we all know, but I think there’s a level of filmmakers who don’t know about content or making…I hate to use the word viral but I mean what’s viral to you? Because in Vietnam, the term viral is used so liberally that it has kind of lost its meaning.
When was the last time you saw a video of an animal doing something funny on a kitchen floor that got 100 million views?
This morning. We got a this morning here.
I think the way that things spread on Facebook, there are actually companies being made to try and find animals doing funny things and these companies are having 20x more views than Condé Nast. But I think when it comes down to it there’s a different kind of value that needs to be placed on these videos than maybe watching a tornado come or an astroid fall in Russia. These are basically just like weird types of occurrences, but that’s not creating anything.
I think if you then look at the things that are created that then go viral, well, you can have an opinion, you can be talking about politics, you can be talking about culture, you could be a dubsmash artist, I don know…
When you think about those types of people like PewDiePie is a guy from Sweden who has over fifty million subscribers and everything he does gets 20 million views, so he’s getting more views than Condé Nast, but that’s not viral–it just has a big audience. There’s an element of viral videos that basically says: there’s something that you created that wasn’t dependent on an audience and then the spreading was really crazy.
I had this one idea where I wanted to watch every episode of the Office, do you guys like the office? So I watched the American one, but basically I found every single time that there was an expression on someone’s face that was happy or, in the show they look at the camera a lot and it’s really weird, so I found every time they looked at the camera. Like sad, happy, confused, angry, sexy–is one of the emotions–and I ended up collecting around eight hundred different 4 second clips in 192 hours of the show. I got them all together and I went to Aaron and he’s an amazing creative and a programmer and I said “what if we built something called the stare machine?”. Like this emotion machine where you type in an emotion and it calls up a supercut of all the characters staring at you in that emotion and it was mental.
I spent two years on it, Aaron spent two years programming it and in the end we put it up and the thing went crazy. Millions of people watched it, the Office put it on their Facebook page and every six months someone will post it on Reddit and say “this is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen”. And, I laugh. Because it’s such an example of, like, no one told me to do that. No one ever paid me for that, paid us for that. The Office didn’t reach out to us. It was just: this is something that needs to exist.
And if you guys find yourselves in a position where you have to make something, it has to exist in the world and you will put in all the hours to do it, then that’s what matters. That is the heart and soul of creating things: is it has to exist. So sometimes you end up killing yourselves to make it but in the end you get the same feeling too, when you make something, it’s like your child. You have such love for this thing, and you get to really enjoy people enjoying it and I think that’s what drives us.
You take a very traditional interview with a celebrity and you kind of spin it on its head, where did this idea come from?
I remember I got a phone call from someone who’s at my current company and they said: Joe, you make things, digital things, we have an opportunity with Sarah Jessica Parker. She was promoting her new shoe line so Anna Wintour had requested my division. She said “oh my God, you should make a video with Sarah Jessica Parker,” so they reached out to me and they said “what would you do?”. And if you guys ever got that phone call “what would you do with Sarah Jessica Parker” for me, like I was mentioning before, I’ve never seen one episode of Sex in the City in my life, I’ve never drunken a cosmo, and it’s for Vogue so I don’t consider myself, like, a runway fashion type of person. So this really felt weird and different, so this really goes back to what I’m curious in and it has nothing to do with Vogue. I was like: look, you have a famous woman in her home, um, I don’t know, go to her house and ask her 73 questions.
And she responded and said “this sounds like a lot of fun,” so four days later I’m like in her home, first celebrity I’ve ever shot something with, she’s so sweet, so nice, so talented. And we got it done in like three hours and it was great, and I didn’t know it was going to be received in such a way, all I knew that it was different, it was unusual. It’s impressive, it’s almost like a performance, it’s hard to do when you’re doing 73 question in one take. It’s mapped out in a certain way that makes it feel like it’s special, so now we’ve done like 25 of them and that’s crazy.
So just one more question before I open it up to the audience. Again, there are not many people like you in a position where you have this background, you have this experience where a brand will approach you saying “what would you do,” it’s most of the time the opposite. If you were on the opposite end and you were trying to fight for your idea, what advice would you give to people in the room, young storytellers to fight for their idea, fight for their concept, when they’re being the creatives.
Totally. I think that the most amazing thing about today is that we can publish things ourselves, for no one but ourselves, and show who we are on a Youtube page. Think about that. There was a time you could only make things when someone was paying you to do it, if you were lucky enough, and they basically told you what to do. And you just had to do project after project and wait year after year, until you can finally do what you want to do and make your film.
Now we can define who we are, in the videos we make. And if you get good at it, and you get attention, and you make videos that build an audience, and people kind of fall in love with you and with your creativity…then people will come to you. They wouldn’t want anything else. They would come to you for that thing that you’ve defined yourself as.
And I think that, as you know very well, it’s a connections game. The more people you meet the more opportunities you get to pitch, but in the background you should be sharpening your tools and refining your style and getting really, really good at different things.
Because when you eventually pitch your ideas it’s just natural, you’re just pitching who you are and what you are interested in. The point of what I’m trying to say is: make things! Make things all the time. And, specifically, learn how to edit. It is a skill that you will only get better and better at and after fifteen years you will just be so happy you did that because you’re never dependent on anyone else to do anything for you, you can make shit yourself.