Chau, Beyond the Lines: Interview with Director Courtney Marsh
19th May 2019 by Will Stewart
Chau, a teenager living in a Vietnamese care centre for kids disabled by Agent Orange, struggles with the reality of his dream to one day become a professional artist.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Courtney Marsh and ask her a few questions about her film, Chau, Beyond the Lines, and about herself as a film maker. If you’d like to see your film on MadeGood.tv, then please feel free to make a submission.
MadeGoood – Please tell me a bit about yourself as a film maker, and how you got into film making. Is Chau, Beyond the Lines a typical example of your work?
Courtney – I got into filmmaking during high school, when I ran the behind the scenes tech at my school’s theater plays. I had always enjoyed writing and making movies for school projects, but I was never one of those kids who was always making movies. Instead, I was a prominent athlete in Florida, and athletics took up a lot of my time. But running tech at these plays were something not a lot of people wanted to do, so they would let me come late and run a spotlight or help with a special effect. Nothing filled me with such joy and life: I loved it. However, I kept up with sports because that was my identity and I was scared to break it.
It wasn’t until I was seventeen that I suffered a tragedy and decided I needed to do what made me happy in my life. I had always loved writing and movies, and always flirted with the idea of turning books into movies but never told anyone. At this point, I had already been accepted to UCLA on an athletic scholarship, but sports felt like a dead end. I spoke with my coach and applied to UCLA’s undergraduate film school, where I was accepted and my film education truly began. However, I would say it was working first-hand on professional film sets that gave me my real education.
As a filmmaker, I would consider myself interested in the perspective of the “other”. I tend to make films that seek to empathize with the perspective of someone or something, we often have limited or no access to. Perhaps this is why CHAU fits into my style of work. However, I do not think CHAU is a typical film of mine stylistically. CHAU is the only documentary film I have done up until this point and had a very uplifting arc. My narrative fiction films often deal with a intense style, moodiness, and can be esoteric. So I would say while it’s thematic of films I make, it definitely was a departure in content and style.
MadeGoood – How did you find out about the care centre, and what made you want to make a film about it? Or was it a case of having previous knowledge of the damaging effects of Agent Orange, and wanting to make a film about that? Or from the very beginning was it specifically Chau that you wanted to make a film about?
Courtney – In 2007, I traveled to Vietnam with a classmate to make a documentary on the plight of the street kids in Ho Chi Minh City. However, not too long into our trip, we were introduced to a small care center for kids disabled by Agent Orange, tucked away in the back of a maternity hospital. When I entered, something struck deep inside me and I decided to volunteer there for a week, becoming close with the kids almost instantly. I asked them if I could film their lives, and thus, began a two month journey that would span out into my eight year endeavor.
When I started the film, what really struck me was that kids are kids, no matter what label the outside world gives them. The children in the center were poster children for Agent Orange, a chemical they didn’t really know or think about. They cared about candy, soccer, toys, and their own dreams. It was those children’s perspectives that transcended the gravity of the Vietnam War for me. That’s the story I wanted to tell.
Chau stood out because of his determination and spirit. So I naturally gravitated towards him. The film was supposed to be a feature, following this lives of six or so kids. It ended up being a film following Chau because he was so animated and passionate.
MadeGoood – Chau is an amazing person in his own right, not to mention the adversity he’s had to face. He has a very positive, almost single minded attitude, and is managing to support himself as an artist. That’s an incredible feat for anybody to achieve. As a professional artist yourself, do you feel like you were able to learn anything from your time with Chau?
Courtney – Chau taught me that if I focus on what I have rather than focus on what I don’t have, I can transcend my limits.
MadeGoood – Quite deservedly, the film seems to have done very well, and was even nominated for an academy award. Please tell me a bit about how you promoted the film, and what advice you have for other film makers wanted to push their film as far as possible?
Courtney – We were approached by a distributor at the Florida Film Festival. From here, they suggested we qualify our film for the Academy Documentary Short Subject shortlist. Having seen my short film on the big screen with audiences, I knew there were editorial changes that needed to happen to make it stronger. Thus, we went into a slew of editing all the way up until the deadline to submit. Before the shortlist was announced, we researched the top three PR companies for documentary short films, reached out to them, but no one would take us. Some said they just couldn’t help us and others said our chances were slim for the shortlist because we had no track record.
We had made posts here and there on Instagram saying we had finished the film, but nothing more really. Then when the shortlist happened and CHAU was on it, the PR firms we reached out to called us back offering to represent us. We went with a team of three women (Dish Communications) and while it cost a pretty penny, they took us to events to meet Academy members, got us interviews — really, it’s like running for office. We were shaking hands, pitching our movie, etc. It was definitely not something I was crazy about doing, but quite an experience I am happy to have had. From then on, I posted every interview about the film and just tried to spread the news on social media platforms.
Once the nomination happened, everything happens for you really. You are pushed again into a slew of handshaking and “watch my movie” to high profile actors and Academy members. At a point, I was getting too competitive and stopped enjoying the experience. I became focused on winning where being nominated was already such a big win. That title sticks with you forever. So, here I was, nominated, and just glued to voter polls and predictions and reviews. It wears on you. So, my producer and I decided we wanted to enjoy the experience, so we stopped competing and just said, whatever happens, happens. And because of that decision, we had an amazing time. We posted pictures of our events and things like that, but moreover, we just tried to be ourselves and get to know our fellow nominees.
Pushing your film as far as possible depends on the film and the circumstances. I know it sounds cheesy, but I just say follow your gut. If you find you are trying to control something out of your control and it’s eating you up inside, take a step back. Let the movie be what it is and let people react to it as they will. Keeping your followers updated about your film is important, but at the end of the day, letting your film breath and live (as well as yourself) is what I have always come back to.
MadeGoood – What are you working on next?
Courtney – I am in the final script stages of my first narrative feature film, which I am looking to shoot next year. I am also producing another feature film that should also release next year. And, of course, I’m always on the look out for my next documentary subject — but a feature this time.
MadeGoood – Thanks Courtney! Good luck finishing your feature projects, can’t wait to see them.