Andy DeJohn (M.A. '03) is a filmmaker with one heckuva story on his hands.
After graduating from the Divinity School with a masters in the history of religion, DeJohn took a job teaching at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School on the University's campus. DeJohn has since left for Los Angeles and USC's School of Cinematic Arts, but he took at least a few things from Chicago with him: an interest in mixing film and spirituality, some knowledge of moviemaking gleaned from his time with Fire Escape Films, and perhaps most of all, the memory of one of his students at the Orthogenic School, whose astonishing life story began in rural Vietnam, stopped off at UChicago, and then continued on to the Las Vegas strip.
Since he met her, much of DeJohn's work has been inspired by that student and her story. This summer, DeJohn is in Vietnam, where he is shooting a short film titled Mother's Milk, which is based on her childhood and will serve as his thesis film at USC. While there, DeJohn spoke with the Maroon about the creation of Mother's Milk, meeting the student whose life changed his, and his experiences and the U of C and afterwards.
Chicago Maroon: So how did you go from an M.A. in history of religions to filmmaking?
Andy DeJohn: It's funny, it's Cornell [where DeJohn attended undergrad] leading me to Chicago. My last semester I had a lot of free time on my hands, like many seniors do, so I started watching a lot of movies and I took a class on film and spiritual questions. We watched films dealing with religion, but also spirituality on a more fundamental level. That was the first time I was exposed to film and religion as a topic. Once I got to Chicago, I got this interest in film as I went through my studies, and thought of myself as an academic studying religion, who wants to think about film also.
Eventually, I kind of flipped that on its head, and decided I'd rather be a filmmaker who thinks about religion. A big part of that was not anything academic at the University of Chicago, but the student filmmaking group, Fire Escape. I randomly went to an activities fair that they have every fall, and I saw this filmmaking group, and I thought, "That's kind of interesting." And I got some info, and that was the beginning of actually making films.
CM: Part of the story of how Mother's Milk came about is that you were teaching high school in Chicago, at the Orthogenic School.
AD: Once I graduated with my masters, I did a job search through the University of Chicago, and I knew I wanted to teach something, and I ended up applying there.
CM: And while you were there, you met a Vietnamese student whose story is similar to what's shown in the film. Could you say a little about how you got to know her, and came to know her story?
AD: The Orthogenic School is a special school, in a way. It's a residential school for students with emotional troubles or difficulties, and so it's very small, there are only about 60 students, and they're in about six classrooms. I was the teaching assistant in the English classroom, and we would teach them whatever subject, but then we also served as counselors or mentors. I was lucky enough to teach a British literature class, and I had known the girl a little bit before then, and then she was in the class, so I got to know her on a one-on-one level.
She had written down her biography in a sixty-page document where she told about her life, and I read that, and it was this amazing story of incredible hardship and trauma. She and her family lived in the countryside and her parents both died of malaria, I believe. So at the age of four or so, she spent time taking care of her parents while they were sick, and then she was left parentless and had to look after her little sister.
CM: So she was orphaned at age four? In your movie, Anh, who's taking care of her sister, is seven. To be taking care of another child at age four is even more remarkable.
AD: And for "Hollywood purposes," it didn't happen quite that way. She wasn't left fully in charge. She had older siblings, an older sister and brother, but they were taken somewhere else, and then she and her younger sister were taken another route. They lived with family who were kind of abusive, and then in an orphanage that wasn't great either. So when it came time to make it into a film, I made them a little older because there was no way I'd be able to direct a four-year old and a three-year old. You hedge your bets. The sentiment, the moral of the story was still there.
CM: And have you been in touch since teaching her?
AD: It's interesting. I wrote her a letter of recommendation for college, for the University of Chicago, which she didn't get into. She was very smart, so after she graduated she did a semester of college and got straight A's, and then moved to Las Vegas and became a professional poker player. And she's won over a million dollars playing cards around the world, and I didn't know that until much later. I hadn't talked to her in about five years, when I was out at USC, and I was taking a feature scriptwriting class. One semester I had to write a whole script, 120 pages, and I decided to do something about her. I didn't really know much about her, other than her life as a child, and the feature script is mostly her as an adult.
So I started writing it, and during that process, coincidentally, I was on my computer writing it and I had my Facebook up—and this is after four or five years—her name pops up. She chatted me, she'd tracked me down through Facebook and said, "Hey, I'm trying to get in touch with people, what are you up to?"
I said "Hey, I'm in Los Angeles, doing film school."
She said, "Oh, I'm in Las Vegas, gambling."
That was what started our contact, and over the past year or two, as I've been developing this project and the feature-length script, we've become kind of friends, just chatting mostly. We've met up a few times in Las Vegas. It's kind of like this older brother–sister relationship, where she has these questions and I'll give her life advice.
CM: Is she able to give you input as you develop this movie, setting scenes and things like that?
AD: Yeah. She's come to Los Angeles for tournaments and things like that, buying me drinks. Which is very surreal, your former student buying you drinks and saying, "Oh no, it's on me." We had lunch this one time where she said, "Oh no, I'll cover it, you're a student."
But we had some great meetings where I would ask her what she remembered about this time—the smells she remembered, the sights. She would tell me these little glimpses of things. She remembers cornfields, she remembers the crickets chirping, she has this vague remembrance of the small shanty they lived in. I've used that as a guideline to how the house looks in the movie. She's been very giving and helpful.
CM: It sounds like there may be a sequel in all of that.
AD: Yeah. In the feature script, the short film I'm shooting now almost functions as a flashback to them as kids, and the feature is mostly them as adults. If I play my cards right, I was thinking I may be able to get a short film, a feature film, and then a documentary about her, all out of one person. [laughs]
CM: You're shooting this film in Vietnamese. Are you yourself fluent or conversant?
AD: I'm actually a quarter Vietnamese. No, but I tell everyone that, and even over here, my friend Linh will tell everyone I'm a quarter Vietnamese, and they'll go, "Oh, really?"
No, I'm not conversant. It's a difficult language to learn because it's tonal. Like Chinese, one syllable means six different things depending on whether it goes up or down. I hung out a lot with groups of Vietnamese people, got some books, and learned the basics. I can ask where the bathroom is, I can understand certain things, but I'm not fluent by any means.
CM: So why choose to shoot the movie a language you're not so great with?
AD: When I got my producers, who are two of my classmates who both graduated from USC, they're both Vietnamese. They were my friends beforehand, and I asked them to produce this and they said yes. The two basic questions we had to figure out were, Are we going to shoot this in Vietnamese or English? And are we going to shoot it in Los Angeles or Vietnam?
They nudged me towards going to Vietnam to shoot it, for many reasons. We decided we'd go to Vietnam, and of course there we'd shoot it in Vietnamese. Coming from my anthropological background, and knowing how important language is to a culture—if you're immersed in another language it's like you're in another world. So with that appreciation of Vietnam and this being a Vietnamese story, I wanted to be as authentic as I could be about that world.
CM: You mentioned the American perception of Vietnam being outdated, not reflecting the reality of modern Vietnam, but then the film is set in an area of rural poverty and privation. Is there a significance to that setting, besides it being true to the real life story?
AD: Originally, I had the setting way off. What I originally thought from reading her biography was that she and her family were in some kind of re-education camp, which is essentially a prison camp. And the early versions of the script had guards with machine guns, and they had to sneak by them, and then as I talked to my Vietnamese friends, they said, "Women didn't really go to the re-education camps."
And then I talked to the student, and she said, "Really it was in the countryside. It wasn't a prison, we weren't fenced in or anything." So I decided to change it to that rural setting. In the eighties, Vietnam had "economic zones," and it was kind of the equivalent of "forty acres and a mule." Some people went there willingly, some people were forced to go there. And if you survived and were able to develop the land, you prospered. That's the location where it took place, so I've tried to get as close to that as possible.
CM: The film is set in 1989, and you've mentioned wanting to raise awareness of contemporary issues faced by Vietnamese and by Americans. What is it about they story that you're hoping will still be resonant, despite it taking place 20 or so years ago?
AD: One of my goals is helping Americans update their image of modern Vietnam. Most Americans think Vietnam and think of people working in the fields, these peasants with the round hats. And this film is kind of that, so it's something we've seen already. So it works against my purposes to some extent, but the big thing is that it's not just a story of war. It's a similar setting, but it's not a story of military and fighting. It's this intimate, small, humanistic story that any viewer can identify.
CM: When you were involved with Fire Escape Films on campus, were the projects you did there anything like this?
AD: No, they weren't. To get involved with Fire Escape when I was involved, you had to do an introductory project with some other new members. So I got together with these freshmen, and I was 26 or 27 at the time, and they were kind of clueless, and I had to corral them into focusing. We did a re-enactment of a scene from Casablanca that we directed. I really liked that, and I kind of became the de facto director.
The other undergrads of Fire Escape were very knowledgeable, and it was humbling to be learning all this stuff from kids five or seven years younger than me. Once we did the first project, I decided I really liked the creativity, so I did a couple other larger-scale films.
CM: Is directing where you want to work within the film industry?
AD: Yes, it is, but the reason I hesitate when I say that is because so many people say it. Ask any incoming class at USC, "How many of you want to be directors?" And 95 percent of the people raise their hands. The good thing about USC is that you learn a little bit of everything. So yes I do want to direct, because I like working with actors, but I've never been a strong visualist, like Tarantino. I'm much more simple, organic kind of drama. But from being exposed to other things, I love writing, I like producing.
And besides directing narrative film, I'm very interested in documentary. That partly stems from what I did at Chicago. A lot of the history of religions curriculum is anthropologically based. So even though I don't use my master's degree directly, it still influences a lot of what I'm interested in doing in film.
CM: Anything else?
AD: My favorite thing about Vietnam is not the food, not the natural beauty or the history of the places, it's not the massage parlors. It's a very cultural thing: Everyone relies on motorbikes here. Anywhere outside the U.S., motorbikes are huge. One of the most amazing things is you see all these motorbikes going by, and you see these little kids on the motorbikes with their parents. And they either stand on the front of the motorbike, peaking out over the handlebars, or sometimes the two parents will stand there, and this little two-year old will stand straight up between them on the seat. And they'll be zipping in and out of traffic and the kid is just like, "Do do-do do-do." This is a completely different culture from mine, and that's one of things I've come to appreciate.
To learn more about Mother's Milk, visit www.MothersMilkFilm.com