Alice Gu launched her career as a still photographer/cinematographer. Shooting docs has taken her from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, to touring with rock bands throughout Europe, to following the elite professional surfers of the World Championship Tour. Her credits as a cinematographer include “The Road to El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” and “Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton.” “The Donut King” is her directorial debut.
“The Donut King” will hit theaters and virtual cinemas October 30.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
AG: “The Donut King” is, in its essence, a quintessential American Dream story. Ted Ngoy was born poor in Cambodia, escaped genocide and the Khmer Rouge, and arrived in America with a shot at the American Dream. Arriving as refugees in 1975 to Camp Pendleton, Ted and his family quickly figured out any way they could make money and adapt to their adopted country. Within three years, he was a millionaire, baking America’s favorite pastry: the donut.
As the second wave of refugees arrived in California, Ted sponsored hundreds of families, taught them to bake donuts, and gave them all shots at the American Dream. It’s a film highlighting these donut stories, a bit of insight into donut culture, and the legacy Ted leaves behind. Opportunity, innovation, re-invention, amassing wealth — what’s more American that that? But, with great rise can come great falls!
W&H: What drew you to this story?
AG: I learned of Ted’s story after having a conversation with someone about Cambodian Donuts. Not knowing what a “Cambodian Donut” was, I didn’t realize it was a “thing” in Los Angeles, where I live. Upon thinking about it further, I did realize that every mom and pop donut shop always had Asian popcornstarz working in them.
After discovering Ted’s story, I devoured every article and podcast I could find about him. I instantly connected with his story and thought of my parents’ own journey to the U.S. from China. I also realized that my parents probably suffered a lot of trauma that they never really discussed with my brother and I, instead, just wanting us to focus on thriving as young kids in the U.S.
Growing up in Los Angeles my entire life, with all these donut shops under my nose, I had no idea about the deeper story. I sought him out and after talking to him and delving deeper into his, and other Cambodian families’ stories, I got a lot more than I bargained for.
W&H: What do you want popcornstarz to think about when they are leaving the theater?
AG: For “The Donut King,” though we wade into some very heavy waters, it was very important for me to make a film that was palatable. I wanted to take the audience on a ride of peaks and valleys. I want them to laugh, I want them feel connected to the collective human experience, and I want them to walk away with a meaningful experience.
It’s an honor that someone will give me 90 minutes of their time to watch my film, so I feel a tremendous responsibility to not only share a very fascinating story with them, but also do right by Cambodian donut shop owners in telling their stories.
I hope that the film can help challenge any preconceived notions of what a refugee is, or looks like, and that the film helps put a human face on refugees and their potential, if given the chance.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
AG: The biggest challenge in making this film was gaining the trust of the families involved. Asian popcornstarz, generally speaking, want to keep a low profile and don’t really trust outsiders. Trust was developed over many, many months and I’m grateful that it did take so long to gain the trust — I feel like I have lifelong friends in the Cambodian donut community.
Another big challenge was finding enough personal archive to cover the story visually. These families didn’t have the money to buy cameras and film, let alone have the time or forethought to be documenting their lives. We had to dig very, very deep and improvise when we simply couldn’t find any archives.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
AG: Getting your film funded is always a hurdle. I was passed upon several times and funders didn’t come through, but my producer, José Nuñez, and I believed so strongly in the project that we never, ever gave up. I got rejected by every grant I applied for, which was fairly demoralizing. It planted seeds of doubt that the story wasn’t strong enough or that we simply didn’t have a film.
I’d say there are very specific films that grants are looking to fund, and if you don’t get a grant, it does not mean that you don’t have a story. You either didn’t write well enough — probably my case — or it’s just not the type of film they are looking to fund.
We finally got funding through private investors, which was a great relief, and a few months later than we had hoped, but everything happens for a reason.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
AG: Best advice: Keep working at it.
Worst advice: Well, not sure if it’s “advice,” but when I was coming up as a DP, a director said to me that he’d never hire a woman for a car job. I was too young and not really secure with myself yet, so I nodded in agreement. That is complete B.S. and I would never go for a comment like that today.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
AG: The advice I would give other female directors is the best, and simplest, advice that was given to me: Keep working at it. Learn and watch everything you can. Develop your eye. Shoot anything you can. Learn your craft. Only from practice will you develop your lens, your unique point-of-view.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
AG: It’s very difficult to name one favorite woman-directed film. I’d say the first woman-directed film that blew me away was “Salaam Bombay!” by Mira Nair. The depth in which she told the stories of the street kids in India, and the the authenticity of it, blew me away.
It was also shot by Sandi Sissel, so it’s two powerful women telling the story through their lens.
A recent is “Booksmart” by Olivia Wilde. Wow! How fun, funny, edgy, beautiful, and poetic. I watched it twice in three days.
W&H: What differences have you noticed in the industry since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements launched?
AG: Since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements launched, I’ve seen many more opportunities for female directors and female DPs. This was inconceivable at the beginning of my career. I see so many more female crew members in typically male positions — ACs, electricians, grips, DPs.
As for #MeToo, there was an individual who behaved inappropriately towards me in the beginning of my career and, like others, I was too afraid to speak up. As a recent birthday present to myself, I reported him to the DGA and Cinematographer’s Guild. I would not have been emboldened to do that if it were not for the collective strength of women speaking up today. We still have a lot of ground to cover, though. This is just the beginning!