If you’re a local filmmaker with a big dream and a tiny budget, you want May May Luong on your team.
What does a movie producer do? Better question: What doesn’t one do? “You do everything,” says May May Luong, an award-winning producer of local films. “You have your hand in everything, you get to talk to everybody on the set, you’re there from the very beginning to the very end.”
Luong, a Las Vegas native, has been producing independent films shot here by a tight-knit community of directors and filmmakers since 2006. She’s worked on five features, as well as a host of short films, commercials, marquees, and web series. Her filmography includes the acclaimed 2 Little Monsters, about two young boys who murder an even younger boy, which first aired on the Lifetime Movie channel in January 2015 and drew double the normal ratings for its Sunday evening time slot. It continues to be featured on the channel. She’s good enough at this work that, in March, at the Nevada Women’s Film Festival, she was named Nevada Woman Filmmaker of the Year, the festival’s highest honor.
If the producer’s role is often unclear to your average moviegoer, it’s crucial to the success of any film, especially the indie movies made locally on tight budgets. Luong manages the budget, organizes contracts, secures locations — everything that has to happen so that the movie can be filmed. She also breaks down the script and determines what needs to happen for the movie to be made. Sometimes, that means making the decision to change or even remove certain elements.
Luong jokes that producing is like doing homework, but in reality it means that she is the driving force behind the movie. As she tells me about her films, it becomes clear that the role requires a balance of empathy for the passion of the writers and directors working to make their dreams come true, and the practicalities of creating a movie with tight and conflicting schedules and minuscule financing. “I rarely run into problems during the production process because I have all my bases covered, plus plan Bs and Cs.” (She even budgets for stationery and uses family and friends as extras on tight-budget projects.)
She says it helps to be objective, even though you’re emotionally invested in the project. “You need someone who’s in the process to maintain objectivity and say, ‘Well, okay, this just doesn’t work, we have to take it out even if it costs X amount of dollars.’ The story has to come first, the audience reaction and their investment into the story has to come before all of the things that they don’t know about,” she says.
It’s easy to see that Luong is suited to the producer’s role. She punctuates our conversation with easy laughter and lighthearted jokes; when the conversation turns serious, Luong makes that shift subtly and easily. You see why she can be convincing, and why she is not only well-respected by her colleagues, but also well-liked.
“It’s a very difficult thing to get all the tiny, little details right while at the same time planning for the big picture,” says Mike Thompson, writer and director of Luong’s first feature production, Thor at the Bus Stop. “May May is great at that. She sees what’s important at the right time, somehow. She never loses focus of what the big picture is, but she also sees what little details need to get done. It’s a difficult thing to learn or teach or even understand, but May May gets it quick, effortless.”
Director Brett Levner, who worked with Luong on the feature The Track, agrees. “May May defies stereotypes,” she says. “She’s incredibly smart. That goes without saying. But she also has a knack for producing that is unmatched. She will go to the ends of the Earth to make your film happen while still managing to be the kindest, most generous, honest, dedicated, and unwavering person you’ll meet.”
THE MESSAGE MATTERSLuong wasn’t always on the path of production. Her career started in Silicon Valley, where she spent three years working for a tech startup — but, she says, she just wasn’t invested in the work. So, in 2002, she sold all her belongings in California, moved back in with her father in Las Vegas, and enrolled in UNLV’s theater program. Eventually, she began working toward a degree in cinematography. Then a professor, David Schmoeller, asked her to produce his short comedy film Spanking Lessons.
“It was just something I naturally fit into, because I am interested in learning about everything that I can, so I never feel like I want to limit myself to learning just one job,” Luong says.
Today, Luong teaches undergraduate classes in film production at UNLV. She is also working towards an MFA in Writing for Dramatic Media, and reading through a few scripts to decide on her next project.
Whatever she works on next will have a high bar to clear: Thor at the Bus Stop received the Narrative Feature Special Jury Recognition for Independent Filmmaking at the Austin Film Festival; Popovich and the Voice of the Fabled American West (which Luong jokingly calls Popovich and the Extremely Long Title) won awards at the annual Dances with Films festival and the Austin Film Festival. Her most recent feature, The Track, won Best Local Feature film and Best First Time Feature Director at the Las Vegas Film Festival in 2016.
That’s quite a range. While she prefers comedies, Luong values the important messages of 2 Little Monsters and The Track, which addresses sex trafficking in Las Vegas.
“ The Track really has a message that needs to be told, and we have support from community organizations that help too because you learn about how prevalent this problem is here in Las Vegas and all the major cities,” she says. “I don’t know if people realize … that there’s this alternate world in which there are people who are exploited.”
“I like being able to make something that will affect a lot of people, whether it’s to make them laugh or to make them think,” she adds.
The most important factor Luong considers before signing onto a project is whom she’ll be working with. A film can take two to three years to make, too long to spend with people you don’t work well with, she says.
“It might seem cheesy, but I do think that life is really short, and the people you meet and the way you treat them and the way you interact with them is important,” she explains.
That is a big part of the reason Luong prefers to work in a freelance capacity: the freedom to choose her work. But she has not been immune to the lure of stability. She took jobs at UNLV’s information technology department and at MGM Resorts International, but eventually quit both to pursue film production.
“I think that a lot of us have doubts a lot of the time, because you never know from day to day whether or not there’s a project that you have coming up or whether or not that project is something you even want to take on or if it’ll pay off,” she explains. “I think it’s better to make sacrifices personally and be able to do the projects that I want to do than be constrained by what other people are working on or what other people think that you should be doing.”
MAKING IT WORKFor Luong, Las Vegas has proven to be a better place for her to pursue her passions than, say, Hollywood. “I don’t know if I would be able to do the projects that I want to do because there’s also the cost of living in L.A.,” she explains. “In Las Vegas, sometimes you can take jobs that aren’t going to be … as financially viable as the ones in L.A., because you don’t need to have that in order to live.”
UNLV has also been a boon. “I love UNLV, I have been there forever and have never left,” she says, laughing.
“One of my favorite places to shoot is UNLV because (it) has a lot of locations that you might not think about that work for many different things,” Luong explains. “We shot 2 Little Monsters a lot at UNLV, and Brett’s film, The Track, because for The Track we needed a couple of alleyways … it has a dining commons and a restaurant and bar.
“There are locations that you may not think of; you just have to be creative, know the techniques of filmmaking so that you can make alternative locations work,” she says.
She recalls producing and editing a 2007 Schmoeller short that required a scene they didn’t have in the can: a bride walking across a bridge in Singapore. Though Luong had no formal training in post-production effects, she helped improvise a solution: “In a green screen studio, we set up a top angle shot of my sister in a wedding dress, and then I superimposed that shot with a scanned image of a bridge postcard that Schmoeller brought back from Singapore. It was a short shot and it ended up working out in the final edit.”
That creativity is what earned her the Nevada Woman Filmmaker of the Year Award. “We look for women in our community … who not only possess impressive resume credits in film, but who have shown leadership in the community and are role models for women in the arts,” says Nikki Corda, the festival’s executive director. Previous recipients include director Rebecca Thomas and filmmaker Robin Greenspun. The day she received the award, March 24, was proclaimed May May Day, an honor that left Luong stuttering in surprise onstage as she accepted the certificate signed by Mayor Carolyn Goodman.
The award, the special day, the praise of her colleagues — it’s a validation of all the work she’s done over the years, on a path that has often been bumpy.
“I used to tell my students sometimes that (filmmaking is) like going into battle, because everybody has a goal in mind, and you have limited resources, and there are long days, and you’re put with people who, some of them you get to choose but most of them you don’t, and you have to get to the end goal in a certain amount of time,” she says.
“Hopefully you come out of it as better people, and hopefully our relationships with those people are better too,” she says.