Legend. Virtuoso. Prodigy. Master of his craft. No matter what title you choose to bestow upon director James Nguyen, the fact remains that he is the man responsible for one of the most unimaginable feats of moviemaking in the history of modern cinema: Birdemic: Shock and Terror. The cult movie sensation that defined a generation. Now, following a prestigious, sold-out run across North America and Europe, this extraordinary film is coming to DVD/Blu-ray via Severin Films, with extras including deleted scenes, interviews, featurettes, and audio commentary courtesy of Nguyen and stars Alan Bagh and Whitney Moore. In anticipation of the release, B-D was recently afforded the opportunity of chatting with Nguyen – unquestionably the “Master of the Romantic Thriller” – to discuss in great detail his breathtaking modern masterpiece of killer bird horror. See inside for the full interview.
To be in the company of greatness is a rare thing indeed, but I couldn’t help but feel I’d been afforded a rare opportunity whilst interviewing Birdemic director James Nguyen, truly one of the freshest faces in 21st century filmmaking. Sure, I’ve chatted it up with such masters as Craven and Romero in the past, and that was certainly an honor – but this, my friends, was something truly special.
This, lest we forget, was the man who penned such mind-altering lines as: ‘It’s the human species that needs to quit playing cowboy with nature. We must act more like astronauts, spacemen taking care of Spaceship Earth’ and ‘That was a great movie, An Inconvenient Truth.’ This was the man who had the cojones to open his film with a strangely lyrical, seemingly endless ride through Silicon Valley traffic, accompanied by a constantly repeating 50-second loop on the soundtrack. This was the man who made the bold move of doing away with tired cinematic constraints like plot coherence, proper character motivation, competent acting, professional sound quality, convincing special effects, and scene transitions lacking awkward audio drops. Or, as Nguyen himself might say: ‘Why did the eagles and vulture attack? Who will survive?’ Exactly.
Bloody-Disgusting: A lot of people don’t realize you had two films before ‘Birdemic’ and struggled for a long time to finally make it in the industry. Talk about those years of struggle and how they informed ‘Birdemic’.
James Nguyen: I started in the movie business back in 1999, the beginning of the dot com revolution…I founded this thing called Moviehead.com. It’s like an online movie theater. It was the first YouTube, really…before what you see today. But it wasn’t successful, so I decided to make a movie called ‘Julie and Jack’, my first film, my first romantic thriller. By the way, it’s being re-released March 28th.
Then I went on to make ‘Replica’, another romantic thriller. It was never completed. It was the most expensive storyboarding I ever did…$20,000 storyboards. I made a mistake in bad casting. So I never released it, it just sat there. I just look at it to remind myself that when you make a movie, you’d better spend plenty of time to get a good cast. And good casting, that’s what saved ‘Birdemic’ and helped make it a hit movie. Despite all its imperfections, ‘Birdemic: Shock and Terror’ became a hit because of good casting. 60% of a good movie, a successful film, is in good casting. That’s what I had with ‘Birdemic’.
So prior to ‘Birdemic’, to answer your question quickly…I make movies because I love making movies, like a painter who loves to paint. I love making movies. Making movies is my passion. That’s why I made it. So even if it didn’t make money, if it was a failure, like ‘Julie and Jack’ and ‘Replica’…I was disappointed but at heart it didn’t really matter to me. I didn’t make it to make money. I made it because I love making movies. But it was a struggle, like anybody who wants to be discovered, to be recognized. So I went on to make ‘Birdemic: Shock and Terror’. I love making movies. And by accident, by chance, it became a hit. It was my breakthrough movie into Hollywood.
BD: Talking about the casting for a second: Whitney and Alan. The same way this became your breakthrough movie, they also gave their breakthrough performances in it. How did you discover them?
JN: Well, I have a history of discovering beautiful, young talented actresses. And after seeing more than a thousand headshots, at least a hundred auditions and beyond, I came across Whitney Moore. I saw she was beautiful, she was talented, she was gifted. She’s a natural actress, she’s gifted. I wouldn’t be surprised…if she’s cast in the next Hollywood movie, you know? The next hot blonde actress. I wouldn’t be surprised. She’s that good. No matter how much time is spent trying to find a good actor, a small percentage of it is through luck. And I got lucky with Whitney Moore.
And I came across Alan Bagh. You know, I had a few actors, one or two final candidates, I even made an offer, but they were difficult to work with, they wanted to see the script, they would’ve just been trouble in the production. They flaked out. But Alan…he keeps evolving to be a better actor. He’s gonna evolve. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s gonna make it in Hollywood, because he’s evolving, he’s doing all the right things. He’s taking the classes, doing all the auditions. But the most important thing about Alan I like so much is that he has the right attitude: personality, determination, perseverance, so that one day he’s gonna have that chance. That elusive Hollywood movie break. That’s what I like about Alan, you know?
So all the supporting cast…I used like LA Casting, I used Now Casting…all the online casting sites. So that’s how I found the cast. But just through years of experience, of knowing actors, from ‘Julie and Jack’ and ‘Replica’, since 1999, I just learned how to cast better.
BD: I think it’s fair to say that ‘Birdemic’ is a movie that has it all: acting, cinematography, scenes, dialogue, locations. How did you manage to balance all those elements?
JN: The best I could, with a very limited budget of less than $10,000. What’s written in the original script…was changed to meet the budget of less than $10,000. For example, originally in the script it’s supposed to be an RV, one of these $100,000 RVs…but I could not afford to rent an RV or even buy a used one. So it became that van that we saw in ‘Birdemic: Shock and Terror’. That was a Ford Aerostar, it was a $300 van that I bought. It was parked in front of the Chevron gas station that was used in ‘Birdemic’, when Rod drives into a gas station. It was parked there…so I bought that. The van became the RV.
And near the ending, it was supposed to be a house, somebody’s house, and the birds were supposed to attack, breaking down windows and all that. I couldn’t afford to rent a house, break some peoples’ window, none of that. So I decided to use the van at the ending. The van replaced the house. So I worked with what I had. That’s including taking advantage of beautiful locations, the scene in the redwoods with the Tree Hugger, and the [scene]…with the bird expert on the bridge. So I took advantage of nature, the outdoors that made it real and cost me very little money or nothing, next to nothing. So I had to work with what I had. I got lucky, and the movie was completed.
BD: There is CGI in the film that I would go so far as to call “unprecedented”. Talk about creating the exploding killer eagles.
JN: Well, because of the limited resource thing, I couldn’t get a real animation house or even a pro animator. So I hired a student animator from the Academy of Arts in San Francisco. They just got out of college, I gave them their first job…so they’re still working. So I think, despite all the very limited budget and resources, I think they did a great job in bringing those eagles alive. From a distance, I think those eagles and vultures look pretty shocking and terrifying. And they come a little closer, maybe more shocking and terrifying. And when you get close up to them, they look different. It’s something new, something you haven’t seen before. Maybe it’s art.
BD: In the grand tradition of existentialist cinema, this movie forces the viewer to question everything they once believed to be true. Is that something you intended going into the film?
JN: No, no. I mean, you cannot intentionally go out and make a cult movie. It doesn’t happen. It happens by accident. ‘Birdemic: Shock and Terror’ was supposed to be a serious Hitchcockian romantic thriller. That was my intention. I went to the film school of Hitchcock cinema…but because of its limited budget, and also the sincerity in the story. It’s a very serious story about man and his CO2 emitting machines and the harm they’re doing to planet earth, and good casting. [Through a] happy accident, the movie became a cult sensation hit.
BD: Your film has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’, which I actually think is selling it short because in ‘The Birds’ there is not a single exploding eagle, awkward sex scene, or interminable opening shot through a car windshield. So I guess, how do you feel about the comparisons between your film and Alfred Hitchcock’s film?
JN: Oh, I love it. Because the main inspiration for ‘Birdemic: Shock and Terror’ was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 ‘The Birds’. In fact, there’s a little cameo by Ms. Tippi Hedren in ‘Birdemic’. But ‘The Birds’ was Hitchcock’s last masterpiece because it was so prophetic. It was made in 1962, it was released in 1963, but it dealt with environmental issues – even global warming. It was the first film to ever address environmental issues and global warming in a major way. And the scene in ‘The Birds’ where the little girl, Cathy, the character, asks ‘why are birds attacking?’ And the bird expert, the old woman, says ‘birds have been around for millions of years, Man is doing bad for planet Earth’.
This was 1963, you know? In a major motion picture. It was Hitchcock’s last masterpiece.
So that was the major inspiration. And in ‘Birdemic’, it’s contemporary. It takes this homage to Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’, with a little cameo by Ms. Tippi Hedren herself in ‘Birdemic’. But the scene [where] the [man] gets his eye pecked out, just like the original ‘Birds’. There’s homage here and there…so the plot is similar, but it’s updated, it’s contemporary. It’s eagles and vultures, which is much more shocking and terrifying. And the global warming element is much more defined.
Remember, the eagles and vultures, they’re the good guys. They’re the heroes of the movie, you know? The attack of the eagles and vultures is a global warming metaphor, an abnormal force of nature like Hurricane Katrina or giant jellyfish that attack people on the beach in Japan or Spain.
So yes, I welcome that comparison because I went to [the school of] Hitchcock cinema. I learned how to make movies watching Hitchcock’s movies. My favorite director is Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense. Sir Alfred Hitchcock, you know? In fact, I have my little Hitchcock connection in my first movie, ‘Julie and Jack’, I directed Ms. Tippi Hedren. The last great Hitchcock blonde. She did a little cameo in my first, and [one] in ‘Birdemic’. So I’m grateful for the comparison, you know?
BD: Did you approach Tippi about acting in this film? She’s in archival footage, but did you approach her about actually portraying a character?
JN: Yeah, but she wasn’t available. So, uh…I had to work with what I had, you know? But uh…
BD: In the spirit of ecological movies from the past, ‘Birdemic’ boasts a powerful message about man’s effect on the environment. This is really ‘The Birds’ meets ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ in a lot of ways. Do you consider yourself an activist?
JN: Yes, now I am. But I was not an environmentalist activist prior to ‘Birdemic’…but after making ‘Birdemic’ and living through it, making it, and living through the storyline, and making the movie and all that, I became one…
I try to reduce my carbon footprint as much as I can, meaning I drive a hybrid car, a Prius. You know, I can’t afford an electric car yet, but wait a few more years and I’ll probably buy one. I have solar panels just like Rod at my house. I use a solar charger to charge my cellular phone and my laptop. And I have clothes made out of bamboo. Bamboo absorbs CO2, it’s like a sponge, to reduce global warming. I use LED lights in my house. And what is it…to reduce the use of energy, I have solar lights in my garden, my front yard…the lights are powered by solar panels in them.
So I try to live my life as green as I can. So it did inspire me in a way. And I hope that when people watch ‘Birdemic’, that perhaps ‘Birdemic’ will inspire us to live a green lifestyle. Because we have to do something…the human species, Man, his CO2 machine has to basically change in a natural way to reduce as much as we can…so we can have enough time to fix this global warming crisis.
Because if you ask any global warming expert right now, even if we stop emitting CO2 right now, all the cars, everything…we are still heading toward an environmental disaster because of the industrial age of the last 150 years…I’m originally from Silicon Valley where high-technology…Facebook, Google…I’m really optimistic about the future. I think that 20 years from now, there will be new technology that can help fix the global warming crisis.
BD: Do you feel that if we don’t change our habits as far as the environment is concerned, the world actually will be infected with a Birdemic?
JN: Oh yes, yes. I mean, it’s already here now. Hurricane Katrina is the biggest example. The abnormal, the aberration, the abnormal force of nature. Giant jellyfish, they’re huge! They’re at least 200 pounds. They attack people on the beach. In Spain, in Japan…don’t be surprised if they show up on the beach of Santa Monica Bay…
In ‘Birdemic II’ there’s a scene of giant jellyfish attacking people on the beach of Santa Monica Bay…that’s where it’s heading. There’ll be more. Weather, storms, animals…unless we do something drastic, we will all be underwater. The Arctic Sea [ice] is melting. In another ten, twenty years, with the way we’re going, the sea level will rise, New York will be underwater, Santa Monica will be underwater. Anything, like San Francisco, near the waterfront, will be underwater. That’s where it’s heading.
So the only way we can fix it right now is to…slow down the process by living a green lifestyle in every way, like I just mentioned. Second is to find a new technological means, whatever, a spaceship or some kind of thing that sprays something up in the atmosphere to reverse the whole CO2 effect. You know? Whatever, I don’t know yet. But something’s gotta happen to reduce it or substantially slow [it] down so we have time to fix it. It’s a scene out of one of those Hollywood disaster movies, you know? I think there was a global warming movie made a few years back. That’s where it’s heading.
BD: Your films seem to be of a very personal nature, in that your lead protagonists are unfailingly software salesmen. And I’m wondering how your own background as a software salesman has informed your filmmaking.
JN: That’s my nature…to pay my bills I still have a day job. I wish…I could get a break from a Hollywood studio. We nearly…a major studio, we were that close to closing a deal. ‘Birdemic’ was screened on the Paramount lot…we were that close, last year. But they decided to pass. I was totally disappointed, but I didn’t make ‘Birdemic’ to get a Hollywood deal, I made it because I love making movies.
But I would love to…be a respected Hollywood director, and do it full time. But I can’t do that yet. I’ve still got bills to pay, and I have my day job. I’ll go and make my movie ‘Birdemic II’ with what I have, maybe some money from investors. Maybe some donations from ‘Birdemic’ fans. And so be it, you know? Working as a salesman, you know…[in ‘Birdemic’ Rod is] a software salesman, you see Rod in the car, it’s a hybrid but still emitting CO2, and you see the Silicon Valley…driving on the freeway in the beginning of the film, and even when he drives to work.
It’s basically showing what Hitchcock called ‘pure cinema’. Without talking, you show pictures. Hitchcock always said if you show moving pictures and people understand what you are communicating and expressing, perhaps you have made a good movie. So that was what I was trying to show, the man and his machine, success, civilization, Google, Yahoo, Intel, Facebook…man and his machine. But at what price? Planet Earth. If we don’t fix this, we are heading toward extinction. That’s where it’s heading.
BD: I was looking on the IMDB page for the movie, and there’s a user review that boasts the quote, ‘You don’t simply see ‘Birdemic’, you experience it in the same way you would a colonoscopy.’ How do you interpret that?
JN: I think that…I understand exactly what they’re saying is that…um…[at the] 2010 Hollywood premiere at the Silent Movie Theater with Tim and Eric last year. That was sold out, [and] at least 20 more sold-out screenings worldwide. New York, Canada, Europe, London, Paris…and I see a similar pattern, is that the audience really likes the film. I think the majority of the audience [are] really laughing with the movie, and they were really experiencing the scenes of the film, scene-to-scene. It’s like they were sitting at the midnight showing of the ‘Rocky Horror [Picture Show]’. You know?
There was a movie critic from the [unintelligible] Channel, and he was calling ‘Birdemic’…the ‘bird’ version of the ‘Rocky Horror [Picture Show]’…[he said he] actually felt a similar experience sitting with ‘Birdemic’, with an audience and their participation, dancing with scenes in the film, Damien Carter’s ‘Just Hanging Out’ and all that.
So I think first it starts with a good story, and the music, and the environment, and the tone it’s in…I think the people just experience [it]. Because it’s a romantic thriller, the music is romantic at times. There’s little twists, foreboding, foreshadowing in the first half of the film…[then] it becomes a romantic thriller. Then you understand why the eagles and vultures attack, with character like Dr. Jones, the bird expert, and then, what’s the other character? The Tree Hugger.
I think it’s the element of structure, cinematic structure, Hitchcockian romantic thriller. That’s still there. Half the movie is still there [with] my original intent. A serious romantic thriller. It’s still there. But because of the limitations with the budget, the other half…perhaps through a happy accident, good casting, a good story, sincerity to the story, a story about a man and his machine and the harm it’s doing to the planet Earth…and other species. I think combine all that, all the elements I just mentioned to you, I think the movie became a hit and made what they call the ‘Birdemic’ spirit, you know?
Some people have mentioned that it’s hypnotic. And I understand what they mean. I think maybe part of it’s…by accident. My favorite Hitchcock movie is ‘Vertigo’. ‘Vertigo’ to me is Hitchcock’s greatest romantic thriller and his greatest film. But ‘Vertigo’ is also a very hypnotic movie. When you…become a ‘Vertigo’ fanatic, it becomes an experience. I must have watched ‘Vertigo’ at least a thousand times.
I don’t know why. That movie just…when I watch it, it’s so romantic. The most beautiful city, San Francisco, James Stewart [as] ‘Scottie’ Ferguson…and Kim Novak, who plays ‘Madeleine’ and ‘Judy Barton’. So that movie, it’s very hypnotic. Maybe ‘Vertigo’ kinda like…inspired or…brought some of that hypnotic [feel] into ‘Birdemic’. I did not intend to make ‘Birdemic’ a hypnotic film, it’s supposed to be romantic. But it became partially hypnotic and romantic, you know? So um…
BD: So, ‘Birdemic II: The Resurrection 3D’. It boasts the intriguing synopsis: “A platoon of eagles and vultures attack Hollywood, California. Why did the eagles and vultures attack? Who will survive?” What can you tell me about the movie? Where in the process are you and when can we expect to see it?
JN: I’m in production of it right now. ‘Birdemic II: The Resurrection 3D’, it’s got a great storyline, as good or better than the original, that compels me and motivates me to make it. I have a little small office at the corner of Sunset Blvd. and La Brea Ave. In Hollywood, they call that corner the Billy Wilder Square, named after the great director Billy Wilder and his greatest film, ‘Sunset Boulevard’, and his great movie career. Do you know what the Spanish word ‘La Brea’ means in English?
BD: No, I don’t.
JN: ‘La Brea’ means ‘the tar’ in English. You know, that thick, sticky oil.
BD: Like the La Brea tar pits.
JN: Yep, right. The La Brea tar pits. And so that’s the hint. The La Brea tar pits, the tar is the hint to the whole sequel: why do the eagles and vultures attack Hollywood, L.A.? It’s got a great storyline. Part of it is kind of like…you asked me at the beginning of struggling to make it in the movie business as a director since 1999. Part of it is about that, too. But the main story is the attack, the eagles and vultures, you know?
This character called Phil, he’s a…director. He wants a second chance at the Hollywood studios, you know, he made a bomb and Hollywood was kinda like, ‘adios’, you know? And there’s a character called Gloria, she’s a struggling actress who’s a waitress who works on Sunset Blvd. So it’s a very Hollywood, kinda like ‘struggling Hollywood’, in a very small way revolving around why the eagles and vultures attack Hollywood.
Everybody that I’ve told the plot to, they’ve said ‘awesome plot!’ It’s being shot in 3-D as we speak here. It’s still low-budget, I do it low-budget…if there was a deal with Paramount…it would’ve been a $20 million Hollywood-style [movie]. I work with what I have, a $100,000 budget. And I think I’m gonna pull it off.
BD: You’re shooting that with the ‘Avatar’ cameras, right?
JN: No, no, I couldn’t afford that.
JN: That’s at least a million dollars. Each of those cameras…even though we use the same technique to shoot the 3-D, but his camera he enhances it, James Cameron. He didn’t invent it, he enhanced it. Each of those cameras…it’s computer-controlled. So he can do a lot of stuff that I can’t…I can’t move the way he moves. So we’re shooting on a much more economy 3-D rig, but it’ll still work…it’s gonna work, you know?
And I have a good cast…a great storyline, and I think it’s gonna be a hit. And it’s got great music…Alan Bagh, he’s back in the sequel. Dr. Jones, the bird expert, he’s back. And let’s see…the Tree Hugger is back…half the cast of the original movie is back in the sequel. It just takes place in Hollywood. As far as the movie, it takes place also on the Universal Studios backlot, on the ‘Jaws’ set. You know, here I am making a little movie for less than $100,000, I’m shooting right there…on the Universal Studios backlot, on the ‘Jaws’ set. Can you believe that?
BD: Wow. So how about the ‘Hanging Out With My Family’ guy, is he coming back?
JN: Yes, he’s coming back. He’s got a new song. He’s already working on it, Damien Carter. He told me it’s gonna be better than ‘Hanging Out’…even a better song…and [there’s] a heavy metal band in it too. I think part of the reason why ‘Birdemic’ became a hit is because of the musical element…’Just Hanging Out’ and the music. So I’ll make sure…I think the first half worked from the original, and the eagles and vultures are gonna be professional eagles and vultures. It won’t be all that imperfection like in the original. It’s gonna be as good or better than the original.
BD: As far as the ‘Birdemic’ DVD/Blu-ray, you have some deleted scenes on there. Talk about the deleted scenes and why you took them out of the movie. Did they interrupt the organic flow of the film?
JN: Yeah, the deleted scenes…one is the scene…remember when Rod and Ramsey are sitting in the van, Ramsey just woke up and they say, ‘where’s Becky?’ and he says ‘she’s taking a shit’. That’s a funny line, you know? I had another take where the two kids were laughing and they say, ‘oh, she’s taking a shit’. The two kids were saying it too, and it was funny as hell. But I thought it was kinda impolite…and I left it out. But that’s included in the deleted scenes in the Blu-ray/DVD.
There’s another scene where Tony…he’s a wild kid, so he walks around and gets lost in a cave on the beach. So he’s hiding from eagles in the cave. But Rod and Nathalie find him later on. That was left out because of timing reasons, a many-minute scene, you know? Those two scenes.
But [the DVD/Blu-ray] has interviews with the cast and crew, and somebody did a documentary…and my director’s commentary. You know, New Year’s Day, the birds were falling out of the sky. Birds were falling out of the sky on New Year’s Day, it was in the news. Arkansas, Louisiana…it’s like a scene out of a ‘Birdemic’. And many people, even the bird experts…are still investigating why they’re dying, Arkansas, Louisiana, Sweden…even Sonoma County, you know, near where I did ‘Birdemic’…near Half Moon Bay. I think in the DVD and Blu-ray, my director’s commentary, there’s an answer to why birds are falling out of the sky and dying. But to get the complete answer, you’re gonna have to see ‘Birdemic II’.
BD: Thanks so much for getting on the phone with me James, I really appreciate it.
JN: Sure. Well, first I want to thank you for taking the time to interview me. And I just want to make a last statement. ‘Birdemic’ fans out there, check out the Blu-ray/DVD, it’s got a lot of bonus material that you’re gonna like. And lastly: ‘Birdemic: Shock and Terror’. ‘Why did the eagles and vultures attack? Who will survive?’ I hope that after the audience watches ‘Birdemic: Shock and Terror’, that beyond a few good laughs and being entertained, that they walk away thinking.