This is very hard to write since Stephane Gauger was one of my closest friends. It is with great sadness that I bring the news that Stephane has passed away. He died yesterday in his current residence in Saigon from an apparent heart attack. He was 47.
Like many overseas Vietnamese (Việt Kiều), Stephane returned to the motherland to help build and work in the booming entertainment industry, which I chronicled years ago in a blog series about the making of the film SAIGON ELECTRIC. Like many Vietnamese American filmmakers, Stephane was bi-coastal between Saigon and Los Angeles, where he was an integral part of SoCal’s indie film community. A journeyman filmmaker, he worked on countless indie film projects, from grunt P.A. work — grip, lighting, camera operator — Eventually producing and directing. He was instrumental on Sundance hits and seminal Vietnamese American films THREE SEASONS (1999) and GREEN DRAGON (2000), which were written, produced and directed by Timothy and Tony Bui.
He was also a sometime actor, and filled in crucial roles when needed. This included playing “Death” in the Sundance indie darling SIX STRING SAMURAI and also as the main French speaking baddie in Charle Nguyen’s martial arts period epic THE REBEL (Dòng máu anh-hùng) starring Johhny Tri Nguyen and Veronica Ngo (Page Tico in THE LAST JEDI). Whatever was needed to be done, he was your man.
But it wasn’t until his Dogme 95-inspired feature film debut OWL AND THE SPARROW (Cú Và Chim Se Sẻ) (2007), where he was thrusted into APA cinema as one of the premiere indie filmmakers of that year. Aside from snagging the LA Film Festival’s Audience Award for the film, Stephane was also nominated for an Independent Spirit Award that year. He would also be a fixture on the Asian American film festival circuit throughout the years, traveling with this film as well as other films he directed and films he crewed on (ranging from Ham Tran’s boat people refugee saga JOURNEY FROM THE FALL to Derek Nguyen’s horror film THE HOUSEMAID).
His follow-up to OWL was a return to Vietnam, where he wrote and directed the indie dance film SAIGON ELECTRIC (Sài Gòn Yo) in 2011. It had a successful film festival run and also continued Stephane’s knack for telling humanist stories about people on the fringes of society. But, he wasn’t portraying poverty porn. On the contrary, Stephane’s work had an almost Frank Capra / fairy tale quality to it, usually with children and young people as leads. This was tied into Stephane’s noble charity work, mainly raising money every year for Vietnamese orphans through a family member’s non-profit organization called Assorv.
Stephane was a tall guy, probably around 6’3”, but he was a gentle giant and a big teddy bear. Although his looks leaned more on his late father’s Germanic roots, he was Vietnamese to the bone. He spoke the language fluently, was an integral part of the SoCal Vietnamese American community and also a pioneer working in the Vietnamese film industry. His latest film, KISS AND SPELL (Yêu Đi, Đừng Sợ!), which was released theatrically this past fall, was his foray into Vietnamese commercial cinema. It was definitely a different type of filmmaking for Stephane, but he still showcased a knack for tugging the audience’s hearts with this popular Korean remake.
Stephane was a charmed spirit who lived life to the fullest and was always the life of the party. For me, as a new transplant to Los Angeles over a decade ago, he introduced me into a community that would forge life-long friendships for me. He belonged in so many different circles — the Vietnamese American, indie film and Asian American communities in particular. He was the center of a Venn diagram and it is amazing to realize how many people he knew and was the conduit for so many others. In his Vietnamese pride, he defined “anh em bà con” or #AEBC (family), as we close-knit Vietnamese friends called one another.
He loved cinema and cinema-making and we constantly argued and debated over late-night hookah. We were broke in different times of our lives, and always supported one another. He crashed on my couch for a while and as nocturnal animals, we ventured into late-night L.A., especially haunts of K-town. We sang our hearts out in countless karaoke rooms, hung out and smoked in said dank hookah lounges, drank whisky in even danker bars, and had lots of cheap AYCE BBQ.
I will always remember his lame, cheesy pickup lines — “So, Yvonne (or insert name of random young, attractive woman alone at the bar)… What are your hopes and dreams?”
Many times, Stephane was a hot mess (hey, he followed the drum beat of an artist and was never destined to be an accountant). Case-in-point, Stephane rarely prepared for anything and was rarely on time. I recall taking a road trip with him to Park City to attend Sundance and he drove his beat-up SUV, saying he would take care of everything, while friends and I would chip in for the gas. He didn’t bring any snacks, which he was supposed to do, and the only music we had in the car was the CD for the new-age ‘90s band Enigma.
We listened to their one-hit wonder “Sadeness, Part I” for ten hours, but by the end of the trip, we were trying to do our best Gregorian chant and breathless French girl whispers from that song.
At times, he was a little too laid back, forgoing work for a cold Heineken. I recall during the production of SAIGON ELECTRIC, when the shoot day started at 9am in a night club scene and he was more excited about the free, ice-cold beers rather than setting up the next shot. But, Stephane got it done. He just rolled with it. He was a tree of a man and everyone loved him. You could never get mad at the big lug. We could only shrug and say, “That’s Stephane!!!”
Reflecting now after his untimely death yesterday, he touched so many people’s lives. I took him for granted many times, and I feel robbed of the time that I will never spend with him. He was a journeyman filmmaker, a tried-and-true artist, and sadly, he still had a lot of road ahead of him.
If you haven’t seen Stephane’s debut film, the award winning OWL AND THE SPARROW, then you can view it here (in Vietnamese with English subtitles):
This film best encapsulates the spirit and humanity of Steph, as an artist and a human being. The style is total run-and-gun Dogme 95 (shot on the bustling streets of Saigon with Mini-DV cameras in 2006), but the story is very endearing about three lost souls looking for human connection, and by fate or happenstance, find each other.
I don’t like to share pirated links, which this film is, but this is an exception for a truly exceptional human being. OWL is an artistic imprint of a man who was not only a gifted filmmaker, but someone who cared for people, especially young orphans. This film is his love letter to Vietnam, a country that he unconditionally loved.
It’s a film that is rough around the edges, but with a touching story with great performances and lots of heart… Just like Stephane, gruffy, Chewbacca-like gentle giant, who wore his heart on his sleeve. I, and I am sure many, many others, have realized how lucky we were to know him. Stephane was many things to me: My roommate, my hookah buddy, my karaoke cohort, my director, my fellow RUSH fanboy, a great friend, and most of all, my brother.
Rest In Power, Steph. This song’s for you, bud.