Raya and the Last Dragon's Qui Nguyen on Getting the Fights (and Food!) Right for Disney's Fantasy Epic

Plus, the groundbreaking Vietnamese-American writer shares how Raya made his dad proud and inspired his own kids by expanding the Disney canon.

by | February 26, 2021 | Comments

In a nation where a movie called Crazy Rich Asians breaks theatrical records, K-pop albums can hit #1 on the Billboard charts, and anime and vintage Japanese pop songs connect online communities together…violent hate crimes against Asians have skyrocketed. Where Minari is “foreign” according to the Golden Globes, despite being written and directed by an American filmmaker, telling a story set in and about America. It’s a movie that exists within an enormous entertainment industry which pushes progress, yet regularly reports its box office demographic breakdowns by defining Asians as literally “Other.”

In this moment of achievement and anger arrives Raya and the Last Dragon, releasing simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ on March 5. Kelly Marie Tran leads a majority Asian-American voice cast as Raya, who resurrects a legendary yet juvenile dragon (Awkwafina) to assist undoing a spell that has rendered her father and kingdom-people to stone. The rest of the cast — including Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, and Benedict Wong — reflect the eclectic, imaginative world of Raya, which draws influence and inspiration from Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines, and more Southeast Asian countries.

We spoke with Qui Nguyen, who co-wrote Raya and the Last Dragon with Adele Lum. A Vietnamese-American playwright who got into Marvel’s writers program, and has written and worked on stories for Incorporated, The Society, and Dispatches from Elsewhere, Nguyen gets his first credited movie screenplay with Raya. Here, he talks about how he got into the Disney fold, the opportunity of helping create something that will inspire the next generation, and making sure the fights (and all the food!) was just right in the new film.

Raya and the Last Dragon
(Photo by Disney)

Alex Vo for Rotten Tomatoes: So I’m pretty sure you’re the first Vietnamese-American writer to be credited for screenplay on a major Hollywood production.

Qui Nguyen: That’s crazy. I didn’t know that. I mean, it’s been a complete blessing to do this. This goes down to the big dream: Being a writer and to be able to tell a story like this for my kids.

I grew up in Arkansas. I didn’t ever see anyone who looked like me. And I didn’t really get to see myself up on screen except for Vietnam War movies. So we were either sidekicks or we were victims. To be able to be part of this film and create characters who celebrate Southeast Asian cultures — specifically one that is voiced by Kelly Marie Tran — which my kids can see and feel empowered by is such a big deal. I got to affect and change and shape a character that will be part of the Disney canon forever.

What was the process of joining Disney and this project? What was it like once you got into the studio?

Nguyen: I was actually already working on the lot across the street from Disney over at Marvel as part of the writers program. And I came across the street just as a general meeting that happens out here in LA. I met with one of the execs here and she was like, “Hey, would you ever want to do something like this?” I was just very, very honest with her: It would be a dream to be able to make a big Hollywood film. To make a movie as big as something like this that I know everyone will see that would celebrate us.

Ironically, I came back and interviewed with Don [Hall], the co-director of Raya, on a different project. And I ended up working with him on that. I still am working with him on that movie. And then about a year-and-a-half ago, Raya was coming up and they were at a point where they wanted to solidify the script. Adele was shaping the world and the characters at that point. And then I came in and they teamed me up with the Adele to officially write the script with Don and Carlos [López Estrada] as directors. And we created something that I think both Adele and I are very proud of.

Raya and the Last Dragon
(Photo by Disney)

An initial script had already been written by the time Adele and you joined. How much was changed or developed from there?

Nguyen: At its inception, Disney wanted something that celebrates Southeast Asian cultures. They wanted to do an epic fantasy film, and they wanted to base it around a female warrior who is basically bringing a whole bunch of fractured countries together to save it through unity. A part of that first pitch that still exists to this day. And through that, there were iterations that Adele worked on. She wrote different scripts of it, just exploring the world, exploring the characters, before you’re like, “Oh, this is the plot.”

And then by the time I came in, a lot of the DNA is there. The father-daughter relationship is there. A lot of the character archetypes that were there. When I came in, I had the chance to shape the characters. I was like, “Here’s the personality that we should give Raya that’s different than the lone warrior that we’re used to seeing.”

It was stuff like that, helping shape the specificity of the world. We knew that the movie was always going to be about unity. But unity isn’t a verb. It’s really hard to do that. So the one extra step was going, “Well, how do you achieve unity?” You have to find the bravery to trust, especially trusting people that perhaps wronged you. And so what does that take? It was the active thing we tried to imbue Raya with throughout the journey in this film.

Being Asian-American is not a monolithic experience. Japanese-American history is very different from Korean-American history and that’s different from Chinese-American history. Is there anything about being Vietnamese-American, or Vietnamese history, that you brought specifically to Raya?

Nguyen: It’s hard to go into specific details without spoiling it, but the things that were important to me was definitely the chance to create these characters that someone that looked like me could see and be very, very proud of.

I have kids and it’s something I always think about a lot. It’s one thing for me to tell them to be proud of who they are and the cultures that they come from, because I’m their dad and that’s what I’m supposed to do. But it doesn’t land the same way as when you get to see it on a big screen. There is something very empowering because for the longest time, we’ve always had to put our faces on people that don’t look like us. I was like, I have to pretend to be Captain America. I had to pretend to be Peter Parker. I can pretend to be Black Panther, but I’m putting it on their face. It’s something else to have the kid next to me who has blonde hair and blue eyes, look up, and go, “Oh, I want to be Raya.” Or this person who’s Black say, “I want to be Raya.” That positive influence is something that is really, really important, to give that context for my kids.

(Photo by Disney)

You’re a martial arts advocate and beyond writing you also helped ensure the accuracy of the fights in Raya, that even though it’s a fantasy movie, the action is grounded and realistic. Anything you’re particularly proud of?

Nguyen: I was one of the five consultants on this film, and it was a big pleasure of mine because it’s a big passion. I’ve been a lifelong martial artist. Like, if you loved Karate Kid, you could go study Kenpo karate. If you loved Bruce Lee, then you could go study Wing Chun or Jeet Kune Do. I wanted it so if you saw Raya and you loved it, you could actually go study the martial arts. Pencak silat, Muay Thai kickboxing, traditional Vietnamese wrestling, Arnis, Kali — those were the martial arts that I really wanted to show off.

But I think if I’m being super selfish about it, there was a part of me that wanted to do this because martial arts is how I connected with my father. One of the central relationships in the film is about Raya and her dad. Her dad turning to stone and that desire to save him is the thing that’s going to drive her. And I was like, “Well, what is something that I personally connect with — Raya’s dad teaches her how to fight, and my dad taught me how to fight.” These traditional martial arts of our cultures is a very visceral thing. And now it’s something I do with my kids. I’m now teaching them martial arts that I grew up with.

There’s a fight in the movie where you could tell that it’s a Pencak silat fighter and a Muay Thai fighter. They’re throwing knees and elbows at each other. That’s not something you often see in an animated film. There is a version where you can amp that up and make it into a hard R action movie if you wanted to. Obviously, we don’t ever cross that line. But it is something that I think that I’m excited for my dad to see, because obviously I want to make a movie that my kids will enjoy watching, but I also want to watch a movie that I can sit with my parents and go, “Hey, dad, this is for you and mom. This is a celebration of all of us and the achievement of the American dream that you set up for me.”

When I started out to being a writer, they thought I was going to be a bum my whole life. And for 15 years of my life, I probably was a bum. And now to be here doing this, they finally get it. And they’re so proud. It’s also just one of those things that I got to connect with Kelly Marie Tran a little bit about that stuff.

This movie was created remotely. What were some of the benefits and hardships making Raya when you people couldn’t all come together in a room?

Nguyen: Definitely the drawback was not being able to be in the room with my collaborators. Because unlike a traditional film, it’s not like I write the script, give it to them, and they’re like, “All right, thanks, Qui. High five. We’re going to make the movie now.” In animation, you’re working throughout the whole process. You work on a sequence, it works, you lock that down, you can still write around it. And so it’s ever evolving, changing, growing. I was writing all the way up to a couple months ago before we finished our last piece of animation, before we started having to lock things down. So the script is not locked all the way to the very end and it’s nice to be with my collaborators.

But I think the good thing that came from working remotely was because we were working so intensely during production, there was many a all-nighter I pulled. And so it was really nice to be able to sleep to the very last minute — when I got sleep — to be able to turn in a draft, have them read it, wake back up, get the notes, go back to writing again, to making sure that the writing reflected what the animators needed, if it was something that we could give to the actor, how the actor responded. It was a huge collaboration on all levels to make it work.

Food bridges cultures and it’s great to see Raya take such care and detail animating all of its dishes. Do you have a favorite food scene in the movie?

Nguyen: There’s so much food. There’s several moments of great food that celebrate Thai food, that celebrate Malaysian food. But there’s this one little moment where Raya is doing a prayer and she’s making a little offering plate, and it’s some bun thit. It was such a very special thing because one of the movie’s visual themes is water. And culturally, the Vietnamese during Tết , make a whole bunch of bun thit and throw it into the river. And it was like, “Oh, that’s an element.” Though we didn’t throw the food into the water in the movie.

But that was something that was very special to me because it was something that I shared with my parents. Because food is culture. My parents being refugees, once they were able to make Vietnamese food, that became their taste of home. They couldn’t buy anything from home. They could make something that tasted and reflected home. One of the things I loved when I was a very, very little kid was bun thit. I loved making it with my parents and its taste immediately always makes me proud of being Vietnamese.

Do you have a favorite food scene from another movie?

Nguyen: Everybody in the studio are huge Hayao Miyazaki fans. So a lot of the inspiration came from Ponyo, all the way to Princess Mononoke. This was a chance for us to celebrate food, much like he does in his films. And Don was like, “We want to make food be a truth metaphor.” And everyone was like, “Yes.” So that was really special because I think we all love Miyazaki.

Raya and the Last Dragon premieres in theaters and Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5.

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