Rising Star Filmmaker Van Ditthavong: “Why diversity in film and TV helps all of us all evolve”

Authority Magazine
Aug 24 · 8 min read
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We are all unique individuals with our own stories, voices, and experiences. Diversity in film and TV helps all of us all evolve and become more empathetic. The viewing audience is a mix of different backgrounds and it’s important that we keep pushing the industry to be more inclusive of marginalized communities.

It leads to acceptance and empathy. When we see someone of another race or gender play a main or prominent character, or have stories created by POC, we see a different perspective and point of view. It helps break stereotypes.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Van Ditthavong.

Van was born in Vientiane, Laos and immigrated to the US when he was 4 years old. He began his career as an award-winning still photographer before transitioning to filmmaking. ALL ROADS TO PEARLA is his feature filmmaking debut. It world premiered in competition at the 26th Austin Film Festival and was nominated for the 2020 Texas Independent Film Award by the Houston Film Critics Society. Van is the founding partner and executive producer of goPOP FILMS, a creative content studio and production company representing some of the most exciting directors working today. He has taught at the New York Film Academy (Los Angeles) and UCLA Extension, where he received the 2015 Outstanding Instructor of the Year honor in the Visual Arts Department.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Van! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I was born in Vientiane, Laos and came over to the States when I was 4 years old. I grew up in Northern Virginia with a family of musicians. My childhood was filled with weekend get togethers where uncles, aunts, and cousins were all singing, playing instruments, cooking and eating! My father Voradeth Ditthavong also happens to be a popular Lao singer and his music is enjoyed by Lao communities throughout the world. Unfortunately, my musical talents were nowhere near his level or any of my relatives’ abilities. Not even close. I was more of a daydreamer. The tambourine guy trying to keep beat. I was probably daydreaming and wishing I could sing and play the guitar. I guess I really wanted to become a professional daydreamer!

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was 18 years old I didn’t have the courage to pursue what I really wanted to in college, but instead I stuck it out and got a business degree. Even though I secretly pined to be the next Emily Dickinson, Charles Bukowski or Edgar Allen Poe, I knew the realities and blamed it on circumstance, laziness and wishful thinking. When I was 25 years old I didn’t have the passion, so I quit my corporate job and spent the next decade trying to find it. I worked as a busboy, a floral designer’s assistant, a delivery person, a caretaker and then an editorial photographer. My path was getting clearer as I discovered that creating visual stories was like writing poetry — it was all based on rhythms, compositions, message and living life. I was moving towards a purpose and it felt great. When I was 34 years old I finally didn’t have the fear, so I woke up one day and told my wife I wanted to make movies. Even though I didn’t know how to make a film, I knew I had something to say and that’s all that mattered. So I would spend the next decade writing, reading and working on becoming a better filmmaker.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Like most filmmakers you start out creating short films using your closest friends and family, doing everything you possibly can to tell a story. You really don’t know what you’re doing but you have good intentions. Fast forward years and years later, I’m in Oklahoma about to shoot my first feature film. I turn around and I now see a crew of over 15 people and a host of professional actors, extras and a craft services table. Then a barrage of questions, problems and ideas come flying at you. I’m thinking to myself how did I get here?… and I how do I hang on and enjoy the ride?

Oh… and then 2 1/2 years later COVID-19 came….

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I make them all the time — some bigger than others. But a funny or rather embarrassing mistake happened during a shoot for a celebrity chef: my brain must’ve have gone south, and I called him a different chef’s name that I must have seen on TV. He simply responded nicely saying I’ve mistaken him for his good friend and corrected me. I apologized and continued with my tail between my legs. The lesson I learned was simple: it’s all in the details, learn the names and BE MORE RESPECTFUL!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Currently, I have a feature film ALL ROADS TO PEARLA (formerly known as SLEEPING IN PLASTIC) which world premiered at the 2019 Austin Film Festival. It will be released by Gravitas Ventures in limited theaters and on demand September 25. It stars Alex MacNicoll, Addison Timlin and Dash Mihok. I’m really excited to get that out. I’m also developing a few other projects, one called JESSE GARON, a psychological thriller about a fractured musician who tries to overcome the death of his girlfriend but falls prey to his declining mental health. Additionally, we started a commercial division of goPOP FILMS that represents some of the most exciting commercial directors today.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

We are all unique individuals with our own stories, voices, and experiences. Diversity in film and TV helps all of us all evolve and become more empathetic. The viewing audience is a mix of different backgrounds and it’s important that we keep pushing the industry to be more inclusive of marginalized communities.

1. It leads to acceptance and empathy. When we see someone of another race or gender play a main or prominent character, or have stories created by POC, we see a different perspective and point of view. It helps break stereotypes.

2. We get stories from all sides, not just one, which leads us to a more balanced and better reflection of society. Addressing the lack of inclusivity will allow a wider audience to see more of their own challenges and hopes on screen.

3. It has a positive impact on our younger generation. By having more underrepresented voices heard, our youth is exposed to correct messaging, which then allows for better understanding of other cultures and the differences that exist between them. This inclusivity creates a ripple effect that can help eliminate institutionalized racism and bigotry.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Be better at maintaining and keeping in touch with friends and family. Because what’s really more important than that? Ok, maybe health, which that leads me to number two.

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff. This will help with your emotional and physical well-being. Try to stay active and live in the present. Work to not let the little things distract from a meaningful life.

3. Trust your instincts and gut more. Be yourself! Yes everyone has opinions but you have opinions too and more importantly you have a vision. Stick to it.

4. Nothing happens as fast as you want it to. You think you’re a pretty patient person? Well, be even more patient. Like 50 times more patient.

5. Think more about others than yourself. All the anxiety, suffering and angst comes from you wanting something for yourself. Try your damndest to get out of that and think of others. Balance your career-driven mindset with less ego-centric endeavors. In other words, stop thinking about what you want all the time!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I think pursuing anything creative and trying to make it a sustainable career involves a bit of delusion, a lot of perseverance, and weird determination to keep any momentum you generate alive and going. There are a lot of chances to quit in this industry. And a lot of voices that want to make you stop, including your own. But there’s really no one way to go about it. Everyone has their own process and motivations, and hopefully in the end you don’t turn something you love into an albatross.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Make daydreaming a required course in our educational system like math and science.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am lucky to have two women in my life who continually help push and guide me through with their support. One is my mother. She loved the best things in life: family, cooking and sports. If my dad was a dreamer, she was the doer. She got things done. Unfortunately she lost her battle with breast cancer 16 years ago. I was her caregiver for her last 4 months and our relationship really grew close during that time. She taught me a valuable lesson: Life can be wonderful and cruel but life is beautiful, warts and all. Sometimes I feel like I’m living for two people, so I try to soak in everything even if I don’t want to.The other person that I owe a tremendous amount to is my wife. I am fortunate and grateful to find a partner who is just as crazy, adventurous and offbeat as I am. Her curiosity and thirst for learning is contagious, but her capacity to understand and empathize is what makes her unique. Plus, she puts up with all my kooky ideas with a smile.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Work Hard. Be Nice.”

Sometimes I succeed, sometimes not, but I try to follow these four words. Because who wants to walk around being a jerk? There’s plenty of them out there anyways. We certainly don’t need more. And for hard work: talent can only get you so far. Putting in the work is the satisfying part. For all you Stephen King fans out there, here’s one of his quotes: “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I would absolutely love to have lunch with Phil Jackson the great basketball coach who lead the Lakers and Bulls to multiple championships. I would pick his brain about life, leadership, managing personalities, expectations, and his coaching philosophies.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can reach me on instagram @runvanrun and you can visit gopopfilms.com.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Authority Magazine

Written by

Good stories should feel beautiful to the mind, heart, and eyes

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Authority Magazine

Written by

Good stories should feel beautiful to the mind, heart, and eyes

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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