Q&A with Qui Nguyen (’99), writer of Disney animated feature film “Raya and the Last Dragon”
Qui Nguyen, a 1999 Louisiana Tech speech and theatre graduate, has co-written the newest Disney animated film “Raya and the Last Dragon,” adding to his rapidly growing list of accomplishments and successes.
Nguyen was born to Vietnamese refugee parents in El Dorado, Arkansas. Since his graduation from Louisiana Tech, he has made a name for himself in the playwrighting, television writing, and screenwriting industries.
In this Q&A session, he discusses finding his passion at Louisiana Tech, his writing process for a Disney movie, and how important it is to see heroes who look like him on the big screen.
Q: Co-writing an animated feature film for Disney does not seem like a small feat. How did the scope of this project differ from your past works? And how did you approach it compared to writing for the stage or the small screen?
Nguyen: Well, I think the biggest detail is the fact that it’s a Disney movie, so I know right away that the mandate on is going to be a lot larger than a play that, obviously, in its very nature, is kind of community-driven or localized. Or a TV show that’s, you know, built for a network. When you’re writing a big, busy film, it’s global, right? But not only that, you’re very, very aware that these characters are going to last forever. They’re going to be in the pop culture pantheon. They’re gonna be on lunchboxes, toys, blankets. There’s gonna be things at Disney World and Disneyland, so you’re aware of that amentity every time you’re writing. But I think at the same time, working at Disney is literally nothing like TV or the stage or even a live action film. Because in those mediums, you usually finish a script, and then you hand it off. You’re like, “Oh, I wrote the thing, here’s the blueprint for the thing,” handing it to a director, and then they take off with it and interpret it. But with animation, because it takes like six years to make, you’re in collaboration the entire time. I was writing all the way up to, basically a month ago, when we had to finally unlock the film and show it to people. My director always says, “Our films are not so much completed as as much as they are released.” Because there’s so much to see and explore, and you’re always trying to push to make sure that these characters are more relatable, more charming, more everything, because we know what they’re gonna mean to kids around the world forever.
Q: What was it like working with Adele Lim who you’ve said that you’ve looked up to for a long time?
Nguyen: Oh, absolutely. Adele has been one of my heroes for a long time, before I even got into TV and film. Most recently, she did “Crazy Rich Asians,” which was a very big film for the Asian-American community. But just as a writer, as a person in the industry, she’s been such a good advocate for diversity and for finding more opportunities for writers of color to get into the room to be seen and to be heard. So she as a figure has meant so much to me in the industry. They say “never meet your heroes,” you know, but in this instance, it was the sheer opposite. Working with Adele… she was everything I hoped her to be. She’s smart. She’s funny. She’s quick-witted, she’s a great collaborator. It was a true dream to be able to collaborate with her in making this film that means so much to both me and her.
Q: This film has an all-star cast, a predominantly Asian-American voice cast. And the film is rich with Southeast Asian influence. So how important was cultural representation to your writing process? And what is it like to see these heroes that you helped pen come to life?
Nguyen: Well, unlike Adele, who grew up in Malaysia with a lot of film and culture with people that look like herself and kind of empowered her, I grew up in Arkansas, literally an hour away from Ruston in El Dorado, where I didn’t obviously get to see that. It wasn’t part of my upbringing. So when I looked at the films around me, the ones that loved, there weren’t any big movies that, you know, that had heroes that look like me. And I knew when we had the opportunity to make this film, I knew it was a big deal for my kids to be able to have heroes on this giant screen that they can always look up to. This is a gift to them. They don’t have to go through what I went through, where I never got to see myself on a big screen. There’s something super empowering to being in a movie theater or seeing on TV a character that looks like you, that not only you enjoy, but your friends that might not be of the same race enjoy too. There’s something very empowering when white kids love Black Panther, for a black kid to see that. Same thing here, when white kids and black kids and Latinx kids see and appreciate and celebrate Raya, that says a lot to the self esteem of an Asian kid. Especially an Asian kid growing up in an environment where they’re like myself. Where you’re like, kind of like the only one, where there’s not a lot of representation. Not just on screen, but even in the community that you’re growing up in. It’s a very powerful thing. So it’s really a dream come true to be able to give that gift to my kids and to kids around America that might not be able to see themselves that often in their pop culture.
Q: The idea of a Disney Princess has changed a lot over the years. And they obviously have huge impacts worldwide, captivating and inspiring people of all ages, not just children, so what does it mean to you to see Raya next up in that lineage?
Nguyen: I think the basic DNA of any Disney Princess is a kind of character that kids can aspire to, right? An inspiring figure that kids will love to see and pretend to be, and I think that Raya definitely fits that mold quite beautifully. But the thing that obviously makes her different is she’s a warrior first and not princess first. If you had her in a room, you’d be like, “Hey, what are you?” She’d say, “I’m a warrior.” I think she is a princess, because it was important to us that she had the onus and the responsibility of taking care of people as a figure of leadership. But it wasn’t about pretty dresses or songs for her, it was about saving the world to help all the people that were on it. I think the other thing that I just love about Raya is the fact that, I’ll just say it, if you put her against every other Disney Princess, she easily kick all their butts even though she might not be able to sing a song as pretty as Elsa.
Q: There are obviously a lot of themes in this film; your writing process was very meaningful. So what takeaways would you hope a young viewer would have after watching this story unfold on screen?
Nguyen: Well, I mean, it’s essentially a superhero story, right? It’s not that different than say, movies from our friends across the street, from the lot over at Marvel. It’s a big superhero origin story, right? I think that the DNA of it, the surprising thing is unlike a typical action movie or superhero film is that the bravest thing, the strongest thing that the character does to save the world isn’t punching the bad guy to death. It’s not some big fist fight. Ultimately, the emphasis is what makes it Disney. It is a big emotional step. And in our movie, it’s about learning how to trust and how to believe in the people around you, even though you might not agree with them on everything. It’s just this kind of healing thing where, you know, when it comes down to our basic DNA, we all want the same things. We care about our families, we care about taking care of those that we love. And ultimately, though things might be different on the surface, whether it be our politics or where we come from, we’re all human beings. And I think that the true act of bravery in this film is something so much simpler and is a superpower that we all can have. And that is being brave enough to trust each other and to taking steps into giving each other benefit of the doubt and trying to work together.
Q: You’ve said before that your journey as a writer hasn’t always been easy, and chasing your dreams hasn’t come without struggle. So Qui, how are you feeling today with the premiere of your first film on the horizon?
Nguyen: I pinch myself every day, right? It’s something that I couldn’t… I’ve dreamt to this moment. I’ve wanted this moment. But you know, it’s one of those things where there’s part of me that kind of didn’t believe that would ever happen. My dream as a kid was to be like Stan Lee. To make up heroes that I could share with the world. And that’s what I did as a playwright in New York. And these, like, superhero shows for the stage for basically no money. And, as I think people discovered through my Twitter handle, I didn’t make very much money to the point where I was basically broke for a long time, up to about five years ago. But sticking with it and having tenacity to not give up and then finally doing all that, the scripts started to get out there. People started to love it. And I think they all kind of came from one play specifically called “She Kills Monsters,” that kind of just took hold and became kind of a cult hit. Louisiana Tech did it a few years ago with Mark Guinn. Then it kind of got the the interest of Hollywood, and then they brought me out. I got a manager and agent, all those folks, and I got my first jobs and opportunities. This wasn’t that long ago. From there, I was able to just kind of do the job and got these crazy opportunities, from working at Marvel to TV shows to finally getting this opportunity to be one of the writers on a big Disney premiere. My parents are always like, “When we came to America, this was the dream we had. Not that we would do well, but that our kids can do well. That our kids can be the things that they want to be and not have to be hindered by the world that they live in.” And to see myself be able to do that, and to see how moved they are by the fact that I’ve been able to do the kind of thing that they’ve always hoped for… it’s been, like, the one blessing that I didn’t realize happened. One most moving things with my mom was, “This is literally what we’ve always hoped for.” Not necessarily to be making movies, but the fact that you get to be what you want to be, and not something defined by someone else.
Q: How did your time here at Louisiana Tech helped shape you into the writer you are today?
Nguyen: Oh, man, it was instrumental. I don’t think I’d become the artist I am today if it wasn’t for my time in the theater program at Louisiana Tech. And I say that literally. It was Mark Guinn and Cherrie Sciro and, at that time, my acting professor, Scott Gilbert, and this great guy, David Wylie over the music department kind of going, “Hey, you have the spirit. You’re an artist, man. This is what you need to be doing. But we all noticed that your real passion” — because I was there to be an actor — “we can tell that your real passion is writing. What you want to do is tell stories.” So they were the ones who identified that thing. Then my junior and senior year at Louisiana Tech, I started writing plays because of that. That got me into grad school, that started to really be instrumental in forming the core of who I am as an artist. And, without a doubt, I think that a lot of my mischief just comes from working with folks like Mark Guinn. A lot of my tenacity comes from working under a teacher like Cherrie Sciro. And then, if it wasn’t for my acting professor… he’s definitely like the head coach that recruited me, right? Like, I saw him act and directing plays that I wanted to be in, so that’s what drew me to Tech in the first place. I credit Tech a lot for where I am today.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” will premiere in theaters March 5, with a simultaneous release on the Disney+ streaming service in response to COVID-19’s effect on the movie theater industry.