SUNDANCE INTERVIEW: ‘Raspberry’ director Julian Doan
When Sundance asked Julian Doan to give them his name’s phonetic pronunciation, he said he had an “existential crisis.” For most of the time, the Vietnamese-American director, writer and editor would have a person to say “Doan” in the same vein as “zone.” He is aware that it’s different in actuality (if I had to break it down: take the beginning of “dough,” the end of “bang,” then combine), but it represents his diasporic nature more.
As to why Sundance asked Doan for his name’s phonetic pronunciation? Among the many, many short film submissions to the festival’s all-virtual 2021 edition, his work was selected. Raspberry had earned a spot. He says, “For some reason, I thought they’d call to say, ‘Hey, you didn’t get in, but we really liked it. We also weren’t sure with COVID what was going on with festivals this year — for all of us we just want to watch this in a room with people, to feel the room when people watch this.”
In a total of seven minutes, Raspberry shows members of a Korean-American family (Vietgone’s Raymond Lee, Searching’s Joseph Lee, Lovecraft Country’s Alexis Rhee and Summertime’s Gihee Hong) trying to say goodbye to their bed-bound patriarch (Harry Du Young), with the son (Raymond Lee) finding the process the most difficult. The whole production was shot “four days before COVID happened,” Doan said.
If you’re wondering, the fruity title does work in tandem with the narrative’s coverage of loss and how one deals with it. Doan understands this — not only because he is at the creative helm, but also because Raspberry is based on when he lost his own father, Dao Doan, to cancer.
“It was shot in the same room where my dad died — my dad passed away, like, three feet to the right of where that bed is,” he said. “It was a little weird to shoot it in the same space, but I couldn’t picture it any other way.”
In a way, this is an incredibly family-centric production. That is Doan’s parents in the painting on the wall. His partner Brianna Murphy is one of the producers. His stepmother provided the home for the 30-crewmember shoot. His Bà Nội, who has a “Special Thanks” credit, let him borrow the hospital bed — a memento of his late Ông Nội. Raymond Lee, Doan’s friend and whom he is a big fan of, provided feedback throughout and brought the story’s tragicomic core home.
Yes, Raspberry has a funny layer to it. The reveal of the title’s meaning, chiefly. The polite and professional White undertakers enter the house with their shoes on. A fleeting shot of a how-to-grieve handbook spotlighting how not all cultures perceive loss the same way. “The front of the real pamphlet had this tall ship, I’d call it a Christopher Columbus-looking ship, sailing off in the water — I know it’s a metaphor for moving on and stuff like that, but to an Asian-American family it doesn’t mean anything,” Doan recalled.
Here’s an interesting detail: While this is Doan’s personal story, none of the cast members are Vietnamese-American. Time was a luxury at every step of the production, he said, so the casting process was fast and furious. Then when Raymond joined, Doan found it logical to fill roles appropriately (except for Du Young, a Hongkonger-American, everyone is Korean-American; that said, Doan noted “Alexis Rhee and Harry look so much like older versions of my parents”). Ultimately, though, Doan wanted to tell a story so distinctly in-his-culture that cross-casting would still bring forth the text and the subtext.
“I still want to tell a Vietnamese-American story with Vietnamese-American characters in the future,” he said, “but for this story, them being Vietnamese-American was not necessarily important. I think that being Asian-American has a really important component in the story.”
And now that Sundance is over, Doan will get back to working on his next project — a feature film focusing on the dramas within a family after their father’s passing. While thematically similar, it won’t be an expansion of Raspberry, although 90% of the first scene is the short, Doan revealed.
“I’m always interested in [letting the loss of] the father literally be the first thing you’d see and using that as a jumping off point to explore grieving,” he added.