Kim Nguyen’s latest explores the absurdities of warp-speed finance

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Hummingbird Project
Opens March 22

The history of Canadian cinema is full of first-time filmmakers who never had the chance to do a follow-up. More power to Montreal’s own Kim Nguyen, who has premiered a movie in each of the last three years.

The writer/director’s latest is The Hummingbird Project, a heist movie of sorts in which the goal is to shave a fraction of a second from stock trade communication, providing an edge worth millions of dollars to investors.

The brains behind the operation, Vincent Zalesky (Jesse Eisenberg) and his cousin Anton (Alexander Skarsgaard, playing against type), soon realize the task requires laying fibre-optic cable from Kansas City to New York via tunnels. To succeed, the Zaleskys need to deal with financiers, land owners and natural barriers, plus get the lines going faster than their former boss (Salma Hayek), who wises up to their scheme and develops a parallel project.

While the exploits of these venture capitalists are compelling on their own, there’s a second layer to The Hummingbird Project that eventually overtakes the pursuit of financial gain: the absurdity of chasing indescribable speed while losing sight of what surrounds you.

Nguyen is known for mining seldom-explored material in his films. His Oscar-nominated feature, War Witch, was one of the first films to portray the life of young girls in African conflict areas. He followed that with Two Lovers and a Bear, a love story unfolding in Arctic Canada in which the setting works as an uninvited third wheel, and Eye on Juliet, a drama set in North Africa in which security drones foster romance and understanding, not quite their original purpose.

I talked with Nguyen over the phone about Hummingbird. I knew we would get along when we commiserated over our names: me getting called “George” and him being mistaken for a girl.

How do you pitch a film like this?

I’m horrible at pitching. In this case ­ I wrote the script, had it read to get an appreciation report and a nice one-liner, and made a look-book with my production designer.

How attached were you to the script? Did you allow the actors to make it their own?

I do that a lot, especially being French-Canadian. When writing the script, I make sure to listen to the (appropriate) culture, for the dialogue, background, general relationships and humor.

Just from watching it I can tell The Hummingbird Project was a difficult shoot. What was the most challenging scene, logistically?

In general it was really, really hard. It was almost as if I was the lead character in the film. We had to go into these places, bring a 20-ton machine into the middle of the forest, go on the river… One of our closest calls was when we were on a raft with the camera, filming. It was below freezing, yet the river was still running. Every drop of water that got into the raft would freeze. We had an inch of frozen water on the raft plus two or three tons of weight, so we started sinking. We were scared because once you fall into that water, you only have 15 to 30 seconds before someone has to get you out.

Do you feel The Hummingbird Project is relevant today?

It brings up how absurd our financial system is. People are making money out of fiction while others are starving and facing real hardships. A lot of this money is given to the new oligarchs in our society. It can’t go on like this.

An equally pressing question: is Alexander Skarsgaard using a bald-cap throughout the movie?

It was a combination. We tried a couple of things, but in the end it was shaven. Later, Alexander volunteered to have his hairs plucked. It was a very painful process. (Our stylist) could only pluck 300 hairs-per-hour, for eight hours.

Which one of your films would you say didn’t get a fair shake?

I would love to go back to editing and explore the first third of Two Lovers and a Bear, maybe find clearer stakes and a more consistent tone. Of all my films, I find the ending the most powerful. I see Tatiana (Maslany) doing that scene and I’m still so moved.

You have managed to get a movie out every year for the last three, a rarity for Canadian standards. Can you pinpoint a specific factor that has made this possible?

Fear of not being able to do another one [laughs]. Since I direct my own scripts, there’s a whole process of negotiation, acquiring rights and discussing it with someone else that’s bypassed, and that saves a lot of time. I don’t know how many more features I’ll get to make that will get theatrical release, so every movie I do, I do it as if it was my last one.

How would you say your directing style has evolved?

From script to concept to film there are fewer “bad” surprises than when I started doing films, especially with kinetic action sequences. The acting has to be there, it has to be credible and the spectator needs to understand what’s happening.

I imagine you have a 2019 project going.

I’m going to need a bit more time. My favourite films this year are Roma and Cold War. Those movies took six months of preparation and that’s what I want to do. I’m in the middle of rewriting a script and I was offered a couple of projects, so I don’t know what’s next, but I hope to start pre-production in autumn.