In 2010, I interviewed James Nguyen, the writer and director of Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Entertainment Weekly has called Birdemic the “best worst movie of all time”. The transcript below is unabridged and unedited.
Could you talk a little bit about the production timeline for Birdemic? When did you come up with the idea and write the script? How long did it take for you to raise funding?
I came up with the concept for Birdemic: Shock and Terror way back in 2005. So I started writing the script then and I really started beginning the casting in 2006 and 2007. But I had two false starts: I had a cast, and things, people didn’t work out, for other reasons. I spent the whole year of 2007 trying to find the right cast. In early 2008, I got lucky with Whitney Moore who plays Nathalie, and Alan Bagh who plays Rod, so the whole production really begins in February 2008.
How long did you guys shoot for?
Actually, production, principal photography starts February 2008 all the way to August 2008 and we did some extra shooting - you know, the thing with the Half Moon Bay art festival, that was done in October.
So I think many people heard about this movie a month ago, but the Amazon listing says it was made in 2008 - how long was it out on DVD before Severin picked it up?
Initially, I tried to sell it through self-distribution, and it was too much work. It cost a lot of money, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. Basically, I struck a deal with Severin at Sundance, and the rest is history, you know?
I actually watched the movie yesterday - it obviously carries a very strong environmental message.
I mean, I really don’t want to send a message - if I wanted to do that, I’d use the post office. But I just want to tell a story, and often there’s an element of - I mean, the twist of the movie is “Why did the eagles and vultures attack?” And as you go through the movie, the first thirty to forty minutes, there’s romance between the protagonists but there’s foreboding, foreshadowing.
There’s something awfully wrong, and it’s there. You know, I don’t want to give away the story, any spoilers, but it’s there. And perhaps with your question, if you look closely, the elements are there - you know, environmental and so on.
I noticed on your website that you’re labeled as the “master of romantic thrillers”. What attracts you to that combination of genres?
I always loved romantic films, and the first romantic movie I really liked was Somewhere In Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. And the 1960’s Romeo and Juliet. But romance is not enough for me, you know, I’m not interested in a chick flick. There’s got to be some mystery, suspense, a thriller to it. And I found that in Hitchcock’s cinema, in the genre of romantic thrillers.
Even though Mr. Alfred Hitchock never called them “romantic thrillers”, I sensed it and kind of formalized it. An example of a Hitchockian romantic thriller, his greatest romantic thriller, is Vertigo. Other examples: Rear Window, To Catch A Thief, North By Northwest, Notorious, and even his first film in America, Rebecca. I became obsessed with the genre eleven years ago, and that’s all I’m focused in, that’s all I watch, and I’m very lost in this genre. And so I formally started calling them “romantic thrillers”, and my first three films are all romantic thrillers.
And to define what is a romantic thriller, in my definition, is that you have this feature film, a 90-minute film, and the first part of it, you have the two protagonists, like in Birdemic, you have Rod and Nathalie, there’s romance between the two protagonists, but there’s foreshadowing, there’s foreboding, okay? And perhaps there’s deception, maybe not in Birdemic, but in other romantic thrillers, perhaps there’s deception between one or two of the protagonists. There are elements, forces that turn the protagonist’s life upside down, you know, a friction: forces twist and turn. You mix all this up: romance, mystery, suspense, and what you have here is a romantic thriller.
Really, there’s the whole thing when I started watching these, it started out as a joke, as the year passed it got a little more serious, and now that Birdemic has taken off I’m taking it very seriously, you know? And I’m very knowledgeable in that genre of romantic thrillers.
I read that you drove a bloody Birdemic-themed van down the street when the movie was rejected from Sundance. Can you get a little more in-depth about your marketing strategy for this movie?
Well, you know, Birdemic got rejected at all of the festivals - I mean, it did not get accepted. So you spend three years of your life making this movie, why don’t you try to get distribution? I did what you’d call kind of like a cinematic football Hail Mary - get my van, the production van, put some posters on it and put some blood on it, and go up and down Main Street in Sundance and make some noises of eagles and vultures, thinking perhaps we may get lucky with a movie distributor.
It created a lot of attention and awareness, and actually I was pulled over by a police officer. Two cars, they pulled me over on Sundance, and said, “What are you doing?” So I said, “Oh, I’m just trying to promote my movie.” And so the officer looked at the van, the blood, checked out my ID… and the last thing I remember that he said was, “Hey, good luck with your movie.”
So I got lucky, I spent eight days sitting in a van, because I couldn’t book a hotel, ten degrees below zero, but I got lucky and met Severin Films at Sundance, and the rest is history.
And I heard you’re working on a sequel…?
It’s called Birdemic: The Resurrection, and it’s “What if the eagles and vultures attacked Hollywood?” It’s a compelling reason, and so I’m waiting, being patient - just seeing how well the original one does within the next 12 months. If it does really well, there’s a very high chance that I can get a Hollywood studio to back it with at least $20 million in 3‑D. So that’s my plan, really do it with a real budget, with a crew, in 3‑D, and I think it’ll be a hit. And it takes, you know, what if the eagles and vultures attacked Hollywood, and there’s a really awesome, compelling story behind it, and just a hint: The Resurrection, the name right there, so it’s going to be fun.
If things work out, you’d think Birdemic could be a franchise just like Final Destination or Terminator or so on.
Is there a specific reason you want to see it in 3‑D? Is there a specific movie that inspired you to want to make that choice, or do you just like the trend of studios remaking blockbusters for the third dimension?
So Birdemic, it really fits into 3‑D perfectly because if you imagine in the sequel if the eagles and vultures are kind of like coming at your face in real 3‑D, it’d be awesome, you know? Or if somebody got chopped off, cut off by a claw, or a platoon of eagles coming at you, you know, the whole thing coming at you in 3‑D, it’d be truly shock-and-terrifying in 3‑D. And with a $20 million budget, I can have really realistic, Avatar-looking eagles and vultures.
I know you’ve done a few movies before this… and you’re also working on The Fire as your next feature.
So there’s two movies I’m working on right now, they’re in preproduction.
The one right now that’s being funded by Severin Films, that’s called Peephole: The Perverted. Yeah, with backing by Severin Films, we struck a deal last week. So basically, it’s a romantic thriller, it’s about a serial killer, he goes around Hollywood and kills the beautiful actresses in Hollywood. And there’s a detective and there’s a fine actress, there’s a romance between the fine actress and the serial killer. So there’s twists and turns for 90 minutes and you’ll understand - you know, I’m just not interested in making another slasher film. The reason I wanted to make this film, what’s unique about this thriller is that at the end of the 90 minutes, you empathize with the serial killer, you know? And it’s called Peephole: The Perverted, so I’m sure there’s gonna be some nudity, but we’re going to do it very tasteful and romantic, not in any way - it’s going to be done romantically and tastefully, any nudity in the film.
The Fire is actually partially based on real events. It’s about a series of car arsons that took place in the streets of San Francisco. There’s a detective that goes around, trying to investigate… there’s a TV anchor, and a romance between the detective and the TV anchor at the end of the 90-minute film you understand why the arsonist did what he did, and so on.
I was just wondering what you felt your artistic progression as a filmmaker and an artist, leading up to Birdemic and going forward.
Oh, I think I’ve matured. You always learn something with every movie, with every movie I’m still learning, you get more experience, but you get a little more confidence with every movie that you make. But you really don’t know because the movie business is very unique and uncertain… you just make it the best you can, and hopefully you may get lucky, like I did with Birdemic: Shock and Terror, but sometimes you make a movie, you think it’s a thing, and in the end it may not be accepted. The movie business in many ways is halfway luck, you have to be lucky.
Have your interests changed at all from feature to feature, in what you’re interested in exploring creatively with the characters or with the subject matter of the thriller elements?
For now, I stay focused on romantic thrillers, and like what I was saying with my current projects, Peephole: The Perverted and The Fire, they were partially inspired by watching TV news, you know, and what happens in real life. Like Peephole: The Perverted was partially inspired by the Erin Andrews peephole thing, from last year, remember? She was a TV anchor, there was a Peeping Tom, so that was inspired by that but I fictionalized it.And The Fire is partially inspired by real, true events - a few weeks ago there was an arson fire in the streets of San Francisco and as of this minute detectives are still investigating it - they don’t know who [did it]. So that’s a real true event but I fictionalized it and turned it into a movie. What I’m saying is that it just comes from the environment and I get inspired by it.
The special effects in the movie are pretty distinctive. Could you give any insight into how they were created and how you visualized them during production? Did you hire an outside effects house? What direction did you give the actors when you were shooting scenes with the birds?
That’s a good question. Well, you know, I made this movie with very little money, self-financed from my day job, so work with what you have. The animation is done by animation students from the Academy Of Arts in San Francisco. And you know, at least I gave them their first job, okay? I think that, here’s what we had, they went very far with those eagles and vultures. I think from a distance I think those eagles and vultures look pretty shocking and terrifying. And if you come a little closer, I think they may be a little more shocking and terrifying. And when you do get a close-up of them, even a Hollywood or a movie close-up, it’s something unique or something you’ve never seen before. Maybe it’s art… or whatever! And that’s how I put it.
What’s your general reaction to the newfound popularity of Birdemic over the past month? I know that Tim and Eric hosted the premiere a few days ago… how do you feel about your newfound success?
Oh, I’m very excited, and I’m still pinching myself that all this good stuff is happening to Birdemic, and me. And the premiere in Hollywood with Tim and Eric hosting was fun and hilarious… we had a lot of fun. With all the press that Birdemic: Shock and Terror is getting - I mean, the Hollywood premiere is the first time I really watched Birdemic with a full house. It was sold out, both in Hollywood and over the weekend in Austin, you know the Alamo Drafthouse? It sold out the night - I’m flying to the 10pm screening today. I was just surprised by the true appreciation, the genuine appreciation of the people watching it - they’ve become big fans of it, and enjoy the entertainment, laughing - they liked it, you know? And some of the scenes, some of the lines, and they were laughing - with it, not at it, but with it.
Hanging out with my fans, and singing and dancing, and this happened too in Austin, and I was just kind of like, “Wow.” This movie’s supposed to be a serious - even 1% as good of the original murders of Hitchcock - and now it’s going to be a cult indie film, it’s going to be a classic and all this - and I was surprised and at the same time very happy by the whole thing.
The main protagonist is a Silicon Valley software salesman, and I know you worked the same job as well - I was wondering how autobiographical his story is.
Birdemic is kind of like half-biographical of me. “Write what you know.” That’s the rule to any writing, really. Rod is kind of like a half-autobiography of me - the events are fictional… I mean, some events are true, the companies, but I mean, right now, I just got out of a meeting before you called me, I’m a senior sales staff with a start-up called piXlogic, and I just got out of a meeting at Warner Brothers headquarters - yesterday was Sony Pictures, today is Warner Brothers - telling all these IT people how they can better visually search for their videos and images - so we’re like the Google of visual search. So we’re about six blocks away from Google and we’re just kind of sitting there, thinking maybe those guys at Google might buy us out. We might get lucky, and hey, if that happens, I’ll probably walk away with a few dollars more and maybe I don’t need a day job anymore. I’ve not necessarily achieved becoming a millionaire or having a ton of stock options, but that’s my initiative. So that’s why I’m sitting on this day job while working for this big budget.
I mean, it’s the Silicon Valley dream, you know? But the reason that I did this story inside the romance with showing the Silicon Valley - the technology. Man and his machines. Civilization, success and all that. You saw the Silicon Valley, you saw the cars, the technology, man and his machines, but at what price? What is he doing to other species, and so on?
There is a big price to pay for civilization and man and his machines. That’s what I was trying to say, but in between you see the foreshadowing and the foreboding, and the movie unfolds, but even in the first 45 minutes you saw that I tried to suggest some kind of solution to the problem of the man and his machine-
Like the solar panel [that Rod installs on his roof].
Yeah, solar technology and so on. And it’s there. And you see Rod going green, you know, he drives a Mustang, it’s a hybrid, it gets 100MPG.
Do you have any other creative inspirations besides Hitchcock, either in film or other mediums?
Well, right now I’m very focused. The only thing I’m interested in is the movie, the filmmaker’s element, that’s what I do, that’s what I’m used to seeing, especially in the genre of romantic thrillers. But I do have one thing that I’m doing, that I’m producing, not direction, it’s called Hitchcock and Romance. It’s a 90-minute documentary about - and we ask two questions, basic questions. Number one, Is Vertigo Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movie? And the second question asked, is Vertigo Hitchcock’s greatest romantic thriller?
So in this documentary I’m going around and we’re going to interview famous directors like Peter Bogdanovich, who is the most respected commentator of Hitchcock cinema and also a close friend of Mr. Hitchcock. [And] David Lynch, Brian de Palma, Martin Scorcese and so on… and ask them their opinion. So that’s what I’m doing, and it’s not a romantic thriller, even though you can view it as a romantic thriller documentary. There’s suspense in it: what would all these talented directors say? How are they going to answer those two questions?
Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers who are interested in entering the independent film scene as well?
First, tell a good story. Don’t just tell any story, tell a story that compels you. What’s your thing that compels you to sacrifice your time, money and energy to allow you to do it? Number two, work with what you have. Try to get the budget, if you can get a crew, all that stuff, see if you can successfully raise some money to finance your film. But if all fails, work with what you have. I mean, finance it with your paycheck or whatever. So that’s my advice.
Not a lot of people have actually seen Birdemic. Would you like to give a pitch to readers who might be interested?
Sure. Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Why did the eagles and vultures attack? And I hope that after viewing this film, that beyond a few good laughs, they’ll walk away thinking.
(Photograph of James Nguyen by Mitchell Gerskup, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)