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“On the Last Day We Needed That Driving Scene”: Sing J. Lee on The Accidental Getaway Driver

A young man wearing a gray t-shirt smokes a cigarette while an elderly man in a white tank top leans on a chainlink fence behind him.The Accidental Getaway Driver, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Having amassed an impressive CV of high profile music videos and commercials with A-list talent, director Sing. J Lee makes his feature debut with The Accidental Getaway Driver, a narrative based on true events. Not the only film at Sundance this year based on an article from a major publication, Lee’s film takes as its inspiration a 2017 GQ article that recounted the night an elderly Vietnamese-American cab driver picked up three customers who, unbeknownst to him, were recent escapees of the Orange County Men’s Central Jail. As the evening quickly devolved into danger and chaos, the driver was held hostage, unsure of when and if he would be allowed to walk free. Rather than a strict retelling of those events, the film uses that narrative to explore loftier themes and amp up the emotional gravitas.  

Winner of the Directing Award in this year’s U.S. Dramatic section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Lee spoke with me a few days before The Accidental Getaway Driver was to make its world premiere in Park City, Utah. Below we discuss the Little Saigon community in Westminster, California, the filmmaker’s influences and shooting extended scenes set in a car. 

Filmmaker: Knowing that your film is somewhat inspired by a true story, I was wondering about the background of that event, as well as when the idea for turning this into a feature began percolating in your mind.

Lee: I had been working on a couple of other projects at the time (I think it was October of 2020) when my manager, Jairo Alvarado at Redefine [Entertainment], told me to read a 2017 article in GQ from Paul Kix that, he felt, encompassed many of the themes that I’m inherently drawn to. I read the article and immediately saw an interesting angle that spoke to me deeply. Beneath the veneer of what you might think the story would be about— the kidnapping of an elderly cab driver by three fugitives from an Orange County prison— there was a poetic and human story, a tenderness and a fragility, to all four characters. I thought, “Well, I’d love to fight to make that version of the story”—an immigrant refugee story, specifically of Vietnamese-Americans, that focused on the fragility of four men, not just the [elderly man], Long Mã. I also felt that this could be an opportunity to observe the misperception we have of incarcerated people. These three [incarcerated] men all exist in a kind of purgatory and each is a fragment that, [put together], assemble a broken portrait of someone’s search for belonging. That’s what really took hold of me in this story and that’s when I began writing.

These four men, in their fictionalized versions, could represent certain themes and be vessels for something far greater to comment on than just their [real life] counterparts. For me, Long Mã represented so many elder generations, including my parents, although my family is not from Vietnam but Hong Kong. What I found compelling was that, while I’m not a Vietnamese-American, I discovered many personal resonances and parallels that I could empathize with and see where and [how] these characters could exist. Long Mã reminded me of my father and grandmother on my paternal side, [as Long Mã] is someone losing several ideas of what home might be for him, whether it’s a physical or symbolic one, and he’s now [discovering] what it feels like to be constantly reduced to developing a fear, a lack of trust, and becoming an island onto yourself. I saw a lot of that in my own family, in certain relatives who were fearful to step out and integrate into any kind of society. 

For the character of Tây Dương (Dustin Nguyen), I named him [that] because his name in Vietnamese translates to “west,” and, for Long Mã, Long translates to “dragon” in Vietnamese and Chinese. Therefore, we get this East and West synergy between the two of them and they come together to perform a duality, to become the soul of the film. Tây is the one closest to existing in some kind of duality, whether that’s inbetween languages or cultures. He hasn’t forgotten where he comes from. He too lost his home when he was young, but he was young and eventually able to navigate another sense of existence that wasn’t afforded to Long. An interesting commentary on filmmakers like myself—and, beyond filmmaking, people in general from immigrant cultures and all other cultures—is that we’re in a fortunate position in which we are able to reflect. As filmmakers, we’re offered a moment to idealize and forgive and allow characters that represent our elders the chance to heal or connect or let go of their tribulations in a way that in real life they weren’t afforded the opportunity. 

For the character of Aden (Dali Benssalah), I wanted to name [him that] because I wanted a name that could be mispronounced or spelled differently in many ways, i.e. Aden, Aiden Aden, etc. He’s the polar opposite of Long Mã in that he’s somebody who has tried so hard to assimilate into another society that he’s now forgotten what his origins are. I never wanted to allude to where he came from. I wanted the viewer to feel a complete sense of emptiness that extends into Aden’s perception of what he’s looking for in life, what motivates him. I wanted to comment on or observe that his idea of justice, of carving out an existence, was shattered from a young age. He weaponized his own attributes in a way that became negative, but it was his way of trying to carve out an existence in which to survive. 

I’m sure [the character of] Eddie (Phi Vũ) resonates with people in specific ways. For example, when I was young, I grew up in a predominantly white town in Wrexham, North Wales. We were the only Chinese family there so, as a young person, I tried to become as invisible as possible as a means to fit in. But then when my family would go back to visit Hong Kong, the people there now viewed me as an outsider because I was no longer “from there.” You find yourself excluded from both of the places you’ve tried to find a home in. For me, it was important for Eddie be a vessel through which to softly comment on that. Even the way he changes his hair shows a Westernized idea of beauty and image that’s prevalent [in society]. 

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that I saw a depth in all four of these characters and thought they could be a home for observations I’ve had throughout my life. I also felt excited by the idea that viewers would be be able to find, within these four characters, homes for their own fragments of memories and personal experiences. I think that’s much more important than restricting the story and the characters to the “real events.”

Filmmaker: So much of the film is confined to Long Mã’s car. Obviously, you get the characters out of that car throughout the film, including into a hotel room and other locations, but were you storyboarding everything out for those car scenes? There are numerous claustrophobic close-ups of the flashing speedometer and shots of the rear-view mirror serving as the eyes for Long Mã to show different versions of confusion and fear and things of that nature. How did you ease your way in and find new ways to shoot a car scene through framing and other means?

Lee: When I was growing up, my means of escape was absorbing myself in different kinds of cinema, searching to find a voice or identity and to observe all different kinds of people. That’s something I was always searching for before finally finding a home in the Taiwanese New Wave, the Hong Kong New Wave and British kitchen sink realism. While these [waves] are from different parts of the world, the shared parallel I was drawn to was their beautifiing of the ordinary, the tempo of real life, and the observing of it. Thematically, that was interesting to me. 

The Taiwanese New Wave reached a watershed moment [beginning in the 1980s] where it [found itself] between the modernity of Taiwan and the cultural traditions of Taiwan. Filmmakers like Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien always commented on this in some way. There would be a beautiful contrast where one character would be one [of these things] and the other one was not, like in Edward Yang’s Taipei Story. The two characters would represent two cultural shifts of society and the disintegration of their relationship was like the handover of modernity or antiquity. I found that to be a beautiful vessel for exploring certain themes. This also extended into British kitchen sink realism, which focused on the working class and served to elevate the imagination we could have in ordinary life and, in turn, elevated reality in different ways. These waves also taught me a lot visually, with their use of composition, framing, and stillness, where you’re given less of a subjective view. It felt like you were just observing those characters, which also allowed for exploring how to tell a story that isn’t being driven by plot. I love (and try to nurture) the idea that characters will lead us to where the story is going rather than we needing to create a shift in plot. 

I’m also very intentional with composition and these details pair beautifully with my cinematographer, [Michael] Cambio [Fernandez], whom I’ve worked with for the last four years on several projects. Going into this film, Cambio and I had already developed a shorthand and so many things were left unspoken, as we already knew where our starting point was. We talked a lot about Cambio’s growing up and how he learned a lot from Latin cinema and found a beauty and a soul in the vérité of real life. In our wanting to create an elevated reality for this film, the lighting would play an important role, so we used natural, practical lighting which Cambio’s ability to sculpt was a sensibility we didn’t really need to overexplain.

When it came to filming scenes in the car, it wasn’t easy, especially since we were working on a tight schedule. Yes, I did storyboard, but beyond that, every morning before the day’s shoot, we took the time to go over everything, like, “OK, these will be our frames and these will be the setups, so what’s the most efficient way that we’re going to be able to cover them?” We didn’t want to just get the coverage to shoot out the scene, because then we’d begin losing the visual language I’ve just described. There had to be a tension to it all, so there was a lot of briefing prior to the day’s [work].

You mentioned the close-ups on the speedometer earlier, which I love that you noticed, as it extends from the beauty of containing all of these characters. On one hand, it had to do with the intention of the framing, which was going to have a stillness and a preciseness to it. I said to the cast very early on, “You guys can exist freely within [the frame] but there are parameters, as the framing extends to the theme of the characters all being in a purgatory and confined in certain spaces.” When we go into those extreme closeups, that confinement becomes a little more claustrophobic for the characters and for the viewer. 

I also wanted to play on the idea that Long Mã doesn’t understand the conversations that are happening around him. When the viewer inhibits one sense, you’re elevating another. Long Mã’s elevation was his perception, so those details, those closeups, are his heightened sense of observation that contribute to the scene. Long Mã’ became an island [onto himself], as he’s in his own purgatory that he’s not stepping out of. Beyond that, I thought about the lucidness of the character as, while his mind is sharp, his physical body [isn’t] and there’s a conflict there. He’s not able to move as quickly as he’s thinking. The framing and the closeups helped give a sense of the separation between his body and mind.

Filmmaker: As this is a location-heavy movie, did you ever have to steal any locations or was everything secured in advance? Given the scenes set in parking lots and on various roads, were you pretty much set in having those exteriors, which are very live spaces, secured ahead of time?

Lee: For the most part, it was all predetermined and that goes back to the specificity we were looking for. If we tried to adapt or shoot on the fly, we would lose that considered [visual] language, and if we began losing it, the viewer would notice. For the most part, everything was very dialed in—with the exception of our last day. All that was left were some important scenes from Long Mã’s fever dream, where he’s looking at this expressionistic or impressionistic version of losing his home, then the post-fight scene where they swerve out of the way of that pickup truck. My intention for shooting in daylight and in the memories was to always shoot on the cusp of twilight, as I wanted to it to feel like light was slipping away from these memories or, when we were in the present, that there was a feeling of a half-life or, again, a purgatory. The characters are never truly free in the openness of day; they’re always on the cusp of being neither here nor there. 

For us [as filmmakers], that meant that we only had a finite amount of time to shoot, and on the last day we needed that driving scene. There turned out to be some complications pertaining to the road location we had pre-planned to use for the car stunt, so it became this mad scramble to find [a new location]. My producers Andy Sorgie and Brendon Boyea, first AD Josh Montes, and [key assistant location manager] Neil Napier all suddenly needed to secure another location within the next 30 minutes and it was this chaos of trying to find another road that we would be able to obtain a permit for and all that. However, we finally did it—an incredible team effort, but having a new location meant we had to tweak the stunts. We asked Jeff Imada, stunt supervisor, “how are we going to do this? It’s a different road than we’ve rehearsed!” Jeff then spoke with the stunt driver that’s playing [Dustin Nguyen’s character. Tây, and as we were talking through it, there started to be some onlookers. We were telling them, “It’s a pretty easy stunt, the car swerves off the road and is supposed to land in a ditch,” and the sun is going down and I’m just standing there, smiling, thinking, “what is going on?!” I then see our production designer, Hanrui Wang, and her art team in the distance trying to build that final fever dream that’s very close by and it’s just this scrap of soft soil, and it was like, “oh my God, what’s happening?”

I spoke with Cambio about putting a zoom lens on the camera so that we could be further away and create some extra dynamism, while Jeff Imada recommended that we “flip the road around, A to B” [changing the direction of the driver], because it might be easier if we’re not driving towards [and into] a ditch but driving away from one. In the fury of all these conversations, somehow we got the shot on the last take and it was beautiful. We then ran over to the fever dream area and, because of the lack of time and with the sun literally about to go down, we still needed to paint out a lot of stuff. So, after everything Hanrui and the art team had done, I was looking at the time and thought, “Maybe we just remove everything and shoot it clean [with no VFX]. Maybe the sparseness will make the fever dream more poetic as there won’t be anything around Long Mã.” But before I could even finish saying that, Josh Montes cleared the whole area in 30 seconds, had everyone in the crew grab a green and we got the shot. That was the only time I ever felt we were at risk of losing the intention of the scene, but we were all so dialed in and no one wanted to sacrifice the intent.

While most of our sets were on location, one of the most integral scenes was not. I’m referring to what I I call “Long’s third fever dream,” his passage around his wife’s house, watching the idea of his family grow up without him. Because of the considered nature of the world of the film and the technical aspects involved in creating the feeling of a seamless shot and the passage of time changing within the interiors, we needed to build this house on a stage. Hanrui Wang observed this on the first day I spoke with her and it became something we all discussed from the beginning of pre-production as a main point to solve. What Hanrui was able to achieve with her team without sacrificing the qualities and texture of the world was very impressive. The design of the house and the depth of the frame worked seamlessly with the way Cambio and I wanted to shoot that fever dream.

Filmmaker: This is the first producing credit for [actor] Joseph Hieu, a performer who was brought onto the project, per the press notes, for “being the gateway to the Vietnamese-American community and helping the film get embraced by Orange County where it was filmed.” I was curious as to how you viewed the connection between the film and its community and, as the film gets seen by a larger audience over the next few months, how you anticipate the response will be. Of course, no film can be a reflection of any one group of people, but how do you anticipate the Vietnamese-American community reacting to the film?

Lee: As the film finds its audience, hopefully it reaches a broader resonance and I hope its success comes out of the film being really intimate and specific to a certain community. And in that specificity, I feel that, for those who watch it, I hope they find resonance in the film even if it’s not about their own community or culture. Fundamentally, we all share the same emotions and if we’re driven by those emotions, that’s where the universality comes from, rather than using an identity as the story’s driving force. I hope that approach opens up the universal nature of who could come and watch and feel something from the film. 

In terms of Joseph Hieu and the Vietnamese-American community, it’s something that we cared greatly about and the work started much earlier than pre-production, even before the finishing of the script. I had actually gone down to Little Saigon a year before even knowing about the true story and was researching something else, just driving around and being open to observation. I came across this little café on Bolsa Avenue called Chez Rose and was drawn to the tables outside lined with elderly Vietnamese men all playing Chinese chess. I began visiting every day just to sit, smoke, have a cup of tea and observe. One day, one of the men noticed me and asked that I come over to his table to have tea and share cigarettes. I spent the following week talking with him as he shared stories about himself, his past and the other people who sat at these tables, their history, and their stories. What really stuck with me was something he said in passing, something I don’t think he wanted to make a point of but of which he was saying as a [matter of fact]. He told me that “A lot of us here don’t really call each other ‘friends.’ We gravitate to coming here because we know that others like us will be here and we get to play and converse. Maybe we’re just companions, but a lot of us are forgotten by the community, just by our age, generation, and time.” That really resonated with me and reminded me of my own own grandparents. 

Sadly, the man passed away before we started coming back [to the area] for pre-production during the pandemic. As the film began to take shape, Andy Sorgie and I would regularly go down to Little Saigon and meet with Joseph Hieu to acquaint and familarize ourselves with the location and the community within the location. We didn’t want to feel like we were “outside the window, looking in,” but that everything would come from the heart of this place. Joseph was a huge advocate and conduit for that. Our co-producer, Jes Vũ, was also a cultural consultant on the film and played a big part in [identifying] certain cultural specificities and [making sure] that the people joining our team would understand and champion the sensibilities of the community. 

Andy Sorgie’s assistant and associate producer, Linh Nguyen, and our translator and associate producer, Quyên Nguyen-Le, were also huge in this effort. Nguyen-Le translated the whole script into Vietnamese, a great academic translation that preserved each intention of the characters’ dialogue. While I’m not Vietnamese (and do not speak Vietnamese), I know Cantonese from my parents. Cantonese and Vietnamese are tonal languages and, if you understand that there are tonal elements to the speech, then there’s a wealth of things to be mindful of, but also to play with. For example, Long Mã comes from a certain generation and is going to speak a certain way, as if he’s a kind of time capsule. I see that within my own parents too; the way they speak is a time capsule of how they spoke before they left Hong Kong. The vernacular of their social conversations are different now as they’ve separated themselves. 

When we were getting close to production, we set aside time with each actor to go through their lines and ask, “what would you feel is more natural for your character? Generationally, colloquially, what’s interesting? What would be more propulsive for you to say?” We did the same thing with Dustin Nguyen [who plays Tây Dương] and Gabrielle Chan [who plays Lan Mã] and it was a fantastic, fluid exploration of the idiosyncrasies of the Vietnamese language, generationally and culturally, that doesn’t specifically play to [a] Western audience, but the heart and soul of it is there for those who understand it. That philosophy was maintained all the way from a year before pre-production through our wrapping of the film and going into the edit. 

Earlier I mentioned the importance of the Taiwanese New Wave, the Hong Kong New Wave, and British kitchen sink realism to me as a filmmaker. However, when we got into the edit we needed to ask if those sensibilities were going to be maintained all the way through. It’s important for an editor to understand your influences, as it’s hard to converse about sensibility if one doesn’t inherently understand them. Because of this, early on when we were discussing who to bring on, Yang Hua Hu’s name came up and I had a conversation with him. Yang Hua had previously edited a film, Fran Kranz’s Mass, that had played at Sundance in 2021 and takes place all in one room. Andy was like, “You should watch that film. Maybe you’d enjoy the tempo of an edit that’s confined to one room.” When I eventually spoke with Yang Hua, I said to him, “look, these are my influences and this is what the tempo of the film is going to be. It’s very delicate, and if you start to reshape it, you lose it. If we start to reshape it a certain way, we’re going to lose the fragility of some of its observations.” I remember saying to him, “I want to point out an extreme, obscure version of the type of film I’m [going for], which is Goodbye, Dragon Inn by Tsai Ming-liang,” and I was halfway through saying that when Yang Hua was like, “I had a poster of that film in my bedroom when I was 15.” I told him that nothing more needed to be said: “If you’re drawn to that film, then we won’t need to talk about what it is that makes films like that, and we can elevate this film based off the foundations of what we both share as a common influence.” That tempo was something that continued to grow throughout the edit.

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