Most recognizable for his work in front of the camera with Wong Fu Productions (watch Psychic Roommates) Chris Dinh is a fixture on the new media filmmaker landscape, but he thinks of himself as more of a behind the scenes type. He’s a writer, actor, and occasional producer of web series and short films. His work includes the 2010 NBC Universal Short Cuts Film Festival winner Crush the Skull, co-written with writer/director, Viet Nguyen. We got a chance to discuss his role as the silent fourth member of Wong Fu Productions, writing “mediocre” pilot scripts, sandwiches and what makes The Newsroom so good. But first things first:
Courtney: What did you eat for lunch today?
Chris: I did not eat lunch today.
CJ: That’s fair. You’re a busy guy.
CD: I sometimes forget to eat lunch.
CJ: That’s ok. I do too sometimes. You’re a very, very busy person. And a lot of what I feel is happening—especially out there in LA—there’s this multihyphenate thing going on. Everyone out there is doing something else. So how do you order your hyphens? Are you an actor-writer-producer? A producer-writer-actor? What’s your hierarchy?
CD: I would go writer-actor. I don’t really produce that much anymore. On the rare occasion I do, it’s writer-actor-producer. In that order.
CJ: Was producing time consuming? Was it just exhausting? What made you switch to two hyphens instead of three?
CD: Well I was only producing projects because when you believe in something so much, you just want to do whatever you can to help make it happen. Like Long-Cuu Phan’s This Will All Make Perfect Sense Someday or Ted Chung’s I.D. But once you put yourself out there with that title, people start coming to you to produce other stuff. That was never a goal of mine. You know what I mean? So I just decided that I didn’t want to have to turn anyone down. I think you should really reserve that title for people who really want to do it and know how to actually produce. I just recognized that it’s its own thing, and very hard to do.
CJ: How would you define a producer? For people, like me, for instance, who never quite fully understands what that means. How would you define what a producer does?
CD: You know, there are parts that even I don’t understand. But if you’ve talked to a producer, they would tell you that there are a number of different kinds of producers. Some that find the money, and have nothing to do with the physical producing part of the movie, and there are some on the ground level, day to day.
CJ: Someone who makes the sandwiches?
CD: Right. And a trait that they all have is that, they’re really good problem solvers. They have to put out fires and problem solve, and work with people.
CJ: That’s a good definition.
CD: Yeah. It’s basically, making sandwiches, and getting money.
CJ: Love it. So you have a writing partner, Viet Nguyen. What do you think goes into finding a good writing partner, and also, how do you and your partner manage workflow together?
CD: Have you ever played team sports?
CJ: Um, about ten seconds of fencing in high school. I don’t think that really counts.
CD: Well, I think a lot that comes into play. Number one, you have to like those people. Especially since you’ll spend so much time together. And then you have to have a system or style of communicating or a more complimentary style of communicating. And you know, it’s not too different from a romantic relationship, where communication and compromise and trust are the key components. Going back to the sports metaphor, there’s a lot of non verbal communicating… you don’t want someone that’s exactly like you either, because it doesn’t add all that much. You want someone who kind of gets you, but there’s also some resistance needed and a little bit of compromise that results in a really nice balance. Also someone who isn’t afraid to tell you that you suck. Which we all do from time to time. Viet tells me my ideas are not funny all the time. And he’s usually right. But then it makes me come back with a bunch of different versions. We find one that we both like and it ends up being the right choice.
CJ: And how long have you been working together?
CD: About three years.
CJ: You guys notably won the NBC Shortcuts film festival award for Crush the Skull. And I recently saw Things You Don’t Joke About. You guys seem to have this really great dark comedic sensibility. Umm… what are you trying to tell us, Chris?
CD: That’s good. That’s a good question.
CJ: Do you consider yourself a dark person?
CD: Well, when you look back at the more hurtful experiences in your life. They’re pretty funny.
CJ: Not funny in the moment, but definitely later on.
CD: There are certain things that come through in various childhood memories of mine. For example, when I was about 9 years old, my 6-year-old brother ran away to my grandmother’s house. It was only two houses away, but the point is that he just disappeared. The neighborhood kids told me that they saw a strange man kidnap him. I was devastated. I cried. I had these horrible images of what would happen to him. And then a few hours later my grandmother brings him back to our house. But I still had this fear that he might get kidnapped for real one day. So I ran these anti-kidnapping drills for him. For example, I would trap him in my mom’s car trunk until he could open it from the inside efficiently. I would just do that for hours. It’s hilarious. But it came from a dark place.
CJ: And it’s something to pull from.
CD: Yeah, and when I work with Wong Fu, I get to work on another end of the spectrum. And it’s nice to be able to do a full range of comedy.
CJ: It’s a good range. You have a nice range. Since we’re talking about Wong Fu Productions, are you the silent fourth member of Wong Fu Productions? People always ask about you in the comments pages on Youtube whenever you appear in one of their sketches or behind the scenes vlogs.
CD: Well, the relationship is that I’m a bit like a staff writer for Wong Fu. I enjoy doing sketches with them. But there are other people behind the scenes like Christine Chen, Sam Bay and a few others. But I think they ask about me because I show up more often than the others.
CJ: Show up in front of the camera?
CD: Yeah. But I don’t mind. That’s kind of cool, “the silent fourth”. Like James Bond, has what’s his name. Q?
CJ: Q? You’d like to be Q?
CD: Yeah. Behind the scenes, kind of hidden, but he comes out every once in a while. But I like that. Phil, Wes and Ted are amazing guys. So I’ll take the compliment. I like what they do. What they stand for. And I really admire, and respect them. We’re doing some really, really exciting things at Wong Fu and I can’t wait to share it with everyone.
CJ: I know you can’t go into specifics with any deal you might have with NBC as a result of winning the short cuts film festival, but what do you think goes into a good script? Or, what’s your favorite thing on TV right now?
CD: Well I just got into The Newsroom. Have you seen it?
CD: I just finished the last episode two nights ago. Jerry [Ying] and I also write together, and we’re always referencing It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s a show where we don’t really care for the characters at all, but it still makes us laugh. I was kind of into Community for a while, and Modern Family. It’s sort of all over the place, but I’m pretty excited by these three for now. As to what goes into a good script, I wouldn’t know, because our scripts are mediocre.
CJ: Ugh, you’re so modest.
CD: I like comedies. Even Newsroom can be pretty funny.
CJ: Yeah it can be pretty hilarious.
CD: They even have the whole running into glass doors thing. We were actually having that conversation the other day, where we had some characters running into glass doors in our web series Away We Happened. And someone said “No, that’s too dumb”. Then I watched Newsroom, and they had this whole sequence where they were running into glass doors.
CJ: Exactly. It’s universally funny. Running into a glass door, pretty hilarious.
CD: Always funny no mater how many times you do it.
CJ: So how do you balance all of the projects that you’re apart of? Does it stress you out? Or do you like the pressure of having multiple things going?
CD: I think I’d rather not always have so much going on. But because that’s kind of like the standard now, everyone has like 5 or 8 or 10 things going on, you fall behind if you don’t. I would be nice to have one thing. But the pressure of knowing what everyone else is doing inspires me. It’s still a good pressure to have.
CJ: Is there anything else you want to shout out, or say is up coming, before we wrap up the interview?
CD: Just a shout out to you guys at the National Film Society, and thanks for your time.
CJ: Oh yeah! Not a problem. Thank you so much for doing this.
Courtney Jones is a writer and book reviewer in Chicago(land). Follow her on Twitter @shymoxie.