INTERVIEW: Director of Bruce Lee Documentary ‘Be Water’ – Bao Nguyen
Be honest: Do you know Bruce Lee? Seeing how he tends to be the first name folks think of when talking about martial arts, how statues of him have been built and more, the answer would be “Yes.” Easy. But Be Water, the ESPN’s 30 on 30 documentary on him from director Bao Nguyen, wants to challenge that. It agrees that you do possess knowledge of Lee — the issue is much of it is on him as an icon rather than a human being. As a rapid-punching, high-kicking action star and not quite a friend, a father, a teacher and a soul-searcher.
After its debut at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Be Water is currently one of five nominees of the Outstanding Research: Documentary title at the upcoming 42nd Annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards. The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) made the announcement on July 27.
JumpCut’s Nguyen Le got to chat with director Nguyen — about the documentary, the Asian American experience and being a Vietnamese American creative — in the run up to the ceremony, which for documentary categories is planned for Sept. 29 at 8 p.m. Eastern U.S. time.
So, what was it like finding out Be Water is nominated for an Emmy?
It was surprising because, you know, the film came out last year, and I’ve sort of been working on other projects, developing other projects. When we got the nomination, it was a pleasant surprise. A lot of hard work went into making the film, it was sort of a five-year process. Everyone says, “To be nominated is an honour,” and that’s a really true statement because we’re quite honoured to be acknowledged — in any way.
Did you start out with the accolade in sight, or was it more important to let the content be known? Or a combination of both?
Personally, as a filmmaker, I try to take it like one step at a time, one day at a time. Not to be drowned by the noise of how people respond to the film, how people will react. I trust my vision, the intention of the film, and why it was made. And that’s all I can hope for, that I can execute that part of it. Anything that comes after the film being made and being released is sort of a bonus. That’s how I look at these types of nominations, and again, as a team, we’re very grateful for these nominations. But I don’t think when we’re making the film we think about in those lenses, through those perspectives.
Personally, every documentary has a call to action, this “let’s change this” signal. Is there one in Be Water?
For me, it’s about unpacking the myth of Bruce Lee. I think there’s a lot of mythology that surrounds him as an icon, as a martial artist. So to understand him more as a human being, as a father, as a son, as a brother, as a teacher, and as an Asian American, right? And an immigrant. If you are to think of that as a change, it’s like changing the perception of him from a martial arts icon to someone with a little more complexity. Normal, in many ways. He was just a human being living his life, like we all are, so to kind of demystify that idea that he was a demigod or a legend.
That was one of the purposes. But also, to kind of change this perception that he was always sort of a big star, that he had a straight line to success. Very much, it was not that way. Because he faced a lot of challenges, a lot of obstacles, being an Asian in America at that time. I wanted to present those challenges to an audience that maybe didn’t know about them. At the same time, [you can] think of the film as sort of this Trojan horse where you think you’re learning just about Bruce Lee, but you’re also learning about Asian American history, American racial history, the “model minority” myth, and all of these things that sort of act as the contours of who we are as people as Asian Americans.
This reminds me of First Man where the focus was on the person rather than this mythical-esque thing the person did. But how did you try to balance your approach to the documentary so you can accomplish all that you’ve said and, say, “working around” people who can think that you are minimising their idol?
Hey, that was a good question. I think, we all, as people, for the most part, didn’t know Bruce Lee personally. We all have these entry points into who we think Bruce Lee is, and what our relationship is to Bruce Lee, right? I wanted to take all that away, I wanted to get back to the most personal narrative of his life. And that meant talking to people who knew him. I think only through that method of talking to people who knew him intimately can you get down to the personal, almost molecular part of his narrative, rather than the grandiose part.
I’ve watched a lot of documentaries on Bruce Lee, and there are a lot of documentaries who talk to people who didn’t know him at all! They talk about him almost theoretically, right?
Theoretically in the sense that it’s based on what they’ve heard from other people, or what they see from films based on a physical interaction, like a real interaction with someone…
One of those “I heard from my uncle who heard it from this other uncle…”
Exactly! All myth-building. But when you talk to someone who was taught by him, who slept in the same bed as him, who was, you know, all these things that are the intimate moments that make up anyone’s life — then you create a story that is deeply personal.
I really like how the first person to speak in the documentary is none other than Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter. Was that something you’d planned, or was it a choice made through editing? Many retrospectives or documentaries on stars I came across would start out with a renowned critic or film archivist/historian.
For me, every choice was very intentional. We knew we wanted to make a film that was, again, through the perspective of the people who knew him best. To have someone who didn’t know him, or who was more of an academic felt disingenuous to the thesis of the film. But, you know, I would say that, it takes a long time to sculpt documentaries. You have to see what works, what doesn’t work. Shannon is the one who reads her father’s writings, and so to have the film start with her voice was important. Because she has, you know — unintentionally, maybe — become the voice of her father in many ways. That was sort of the thought process behind having Shannon be the first voice.
Did you have any “kill your darlings” moment while assembling Be Water? Something that you really wanted to include but ultimately couldn’t?
Sure! It’s a silly scene that I wanted. I just thought it was always a funny anecdote of Bruce Lee. You know, one of our subjects, I forgot who it was, told us in the interview that they came in when Bruce was working out and he had like a dumbbell in one hand, and then a sandwich in the other. He would alternate between the sandwich and the dumbbell. It helps show him and how dedicated he was, how much, I guess, of a multi-tasker he was. But I felt like that story went on a different tangent than what the main message and narrative of the film was.
Thank you so much (laughs). Wow. Hmm…
You weren’t expecting that story, right?
No, absolutely not! And I’m visualising it now. But back to what’s in the doc. I feel like a notion that has a lot of prominence is the definition of “home,” or the reassessing of it. Did you mean for it to be highlighted that much?
I think like any arc of the immigrant story involves this constant search for home. One is a departure from home and then the discovery of a new home. I think it would be disingenuous not to include that as a motif, in a way. This was obviously about a man stuck between two separate worlds and then trying to find his footing in between that — and then never necessarily finding it, in a way. I think that’s almost the tragedy of Bruce Lee’s stories — he had so many things that he wanted to accomplish, even though he obviously accomplished a lot in his lifetime. But, who knows, what else he would have accomplished… And having that real anchor of what home was, you know? He went back to Hollywood after Enter the Dragon — like what that would have meant. He always dreamt of going back to Hollywood, right? All these themes are almost like cut short because it reflects like the sudden death in his own life.
A whole lot of internal conflicts, cultural clashes, partial fulfillments, all painful in the end. The moment that really shocked me the most is seeing his much-lower pay for The Green Hornet? Did you have a hard time accessing the document?
It was part of the research processes, trying to comb through every important document in his life. Bruce Lee kept a lot of records, he had all those pay stubs, he has so much of his writings, photographs… I mean, I remember seeing that, discovering that pay stub. I knew it existed because I had read about it in the books, but to see it physically is something that’s really illuminating. Like, when you compare it, if you read a sentence about it and you see those two numbers right next to each other. You see what that pay disparity looks like.
From there, I want to ask you why it can be hard for certain populations to consider other populations in a holistic way? As in, sometimes I’d just like to cooperate, to come together, but then it’d be interpreted as an invasion or a “I will put you down” moment. Even until today?
This is an opinion, obviously. There has been these narratives about different races and different ethnicities, different nationalities that solidify in our minds and our psyches right? In our consciousness. There are many communities, especially the Asian American community, we’ve been misrepresented in so many ways, culturally speaking, that that becomes ingrained — how other communities, other individuals see us. I think that helps perpetuate a lot of these stereotypes, and they perpetuate this idea of us being foreigners, and then that added with xenophobia that creates this mentality of what you’re talking about.
Right? And it’s tough. I’ve been in environments like that in my writing career. It’s just scary.
I think we all need to be more aware of it. Even myself, we all have all sort of biases that we have carried with us. We all have to reckon with that and see where the roots of these biases and prejudices come from, in a way.
I’m sure you have received recognition for the documentary from your coverage of the subject matter. Now has there been any recognition for you as a Vietnamese American filmmaker through this?
I’d like to focus on the work as much as possible, whatever I create. But I understand, for us in the community, it’s not often that we see people who look like us creating certain kinds of work. We’re still, sort of, playing narrative catch-up, cultural catch-up in many ways to other communities. It warms my heart when I get messages from Vietnamese American, Vietnamese from all over the world, really, saying how proud they’d feel seeing a Vietnamese person directed Be Water. I am eternally grateful to those individuals. I remember when I was younger, I never felt like being a filmmaker was a career path that I could follow because I didn’t see enough people who looked like me, had my last name. If I can help, kind of, make more space for other young Vietnamese filmmakers to see that this is something that’s viable. It’s something I am very grateful to do.
So when did you decide to become a filmmaker, was there any support? Or did you have that “Come here and sit down and talk to me for a bit” scenario? I had one when I chose to be a writer.
Are you talking about from my parents?
Any figure that you respect, but obviously parents would factor into that.
(laughs) I’m actually very strategic person. I don’t think I ever told my parents, explicitly, that I didn’t go to law school like I was planning to, but then I got my graduate degree. I told them I was studying media. That’s such a broad term, not “studying film” necessarily. Over time, I think they just had to force themselves to accept the fact that I was going to be a filmmaker.
But now they’re very proud. They’ve expressed it verbally, which, as we all know, is very rare for a Vietnamese parent to do.
I’ve been lucky that I was growing up where I felt like there was definitely a challenge to follow a career path that wasn’t “stable.” I think that maybe I had a delay, like how early I would have become a filmmaker, but at the same time those experiences in my youth also informed who I am as a filmmaker. And informed how I think about the ways that I make film, the way that I approached a story. So I think, as you mentioned the idea of a holistic approach, I think it’s a holistic approach to becoming a filmmaker is forming that tension early on in your life and then finding ways to balance that tension.
A lovely way of putting it. I kind of wish now that I had met you sooner so I can be inspired to strategise my way to actually becoming a filmmaker. That was my initial dream, but then folks would go, “Are you sure? Your cousin is a doctor and she’s doing well.” Ultimately I chose to be a writer and I felt like saying sorry!
It’s never too late. If you if you wanted to pivot to becoming a filmmaker.
I certainly hope that’s the case! After all and apparently some of my favourite filmmakers started out as writers, film critics. Like Hideo Tanaka or Park Chan-wook. So there’s hope for me, I hope! Finally, do you have anything else you’d like to share to our readers?
I just want to thank the community for their support of the film, given how tough this past year and a half has been. It’s one of the silver linings of this whole pandemic for me is always receiving this overwhelming support from people all over the world. Again, I’ve talked about how grateful I am, but I am sincerely grateful.
Awesome. Cám ơn for taking the time to chat again!