In a first for Hmong-American commercial filmmakers, Abel and Burlee Vang have sold the foreign rights of their first feature film to a significant Hollywood distributor, Voltage Pictures.
The Vang brothers, who wrote, produced and directed the horror film “Bedeviled” in an extremely short 21-day shoot for well under $1 million, are in good company. Voltage also distributed Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Dallas Buyers Club” and Taylor Sheridan’s “Wind River.”
Their good fortune didn’t end there. “Bedeviled,” which tells the story of high school friends eliminated one by one through their smartphones’ new killer app, was almost entirely financed by the Hmong community in St. Paul, one of the largest Hmong populations in the country. Like St. Louis Park’s Coen brothers before them, the California-based Vang brothers were launched nationally by contributions from supportive Twin Cities small business owners.
“It was a big leap of faith” for the community to crowdfund first-timers making a supernatural horror film, said Fuabkuab Yang of St. Paul, as was his headlong decision to be the project’s fundraising executive producer. The film’s supporters “were all small business owners, some just regular people. It was really a community effort.”
The movie, which is rated R, is showing daily at 4:30, 7 and 9:15 p.m. at the New Vision Oakdale 20. The Vangs will be present at the 7 p.m. screening on Aug. 11.
A fateful meeting
A longtime movie fan, Yang met the Vangs in the summer of 2014, shortly after he graduated from the University of St. Thomas. He caught word of their visit to connect with Minnesota filmmakers and attended, little knowing that three years earlier the brothers had beaten 7,000 hopefuls to win the Motion Picture Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriters. Nor did he know that they intended to shoot a feature here.
“We didn’t have much growing up and we were very sheltered by our parents, so films gave us that escape from reality” of life in Fresno, said Abel, 33. When the brothers’ script about the secret U.S. war in Laos during the Vietnam era (“The Tiger’s Child”) won the fellowship, “we sold our family-run sci-fi-themed pho noodle shop, U.F. Pho, and decided to move to L.A. to pursue a filmmaking career.”
Yang arrived at the brothers’ small St. Paul meeting in 2014 “expecting these ‘California filmmakers’ to look a certain way. Clean shirt, well-kempt hair, business casual almost.” It wasn’t until five minutes into their presentation that he began to realize that this pair in black graphic tees of their favorite films with casual Vans on their feet and long, spiky hair were the directors.
“They just don’t look the part of a Nicholl award winner, some might think. But that’s what makes them great. What you see is what you get. They’re genuine, down-to-earth people who put their love of film first.”
The Vangs’ goal was to make a supernatural shocker. “We love the genre to death,” said Burlee, 35. “Growing up, our parents prohibited us from watching horror films,” but at 9 and 7 years old they sneaked out of the house while their grandmother was napping, went to the corner video store and rented their first horror film, Sam Raimi’s 1981 creepshow “The Evil Dead.” “That changed everything.”
Yang had never considered working in the film industry. But he found the Vangs’ pitch impressive and the opportunity to help launch their project with local funding irresistible. He was drafted by the Vangs to serve as their executive producer. He had never attempted anything like it, and “a lot of people simply weren’t interested or buying the idea of this movie getting made. I had no idea how it would go, honestly. I just told them, ‘Let’s try. I’ll pull something together.’ I told them to fly over to Minnesota and I would make something work.”
Yang arranged meetings to build a community effort with the owners of mom-and-pop day cares, health care services, restaurant owners and “friends and family of friends and family. Anyone we could get to listen” as the Vangs repeatedly returned to St. Paul to meet potential partners, show a short film they made to showcase their abilities and sell their vision. “I got a lot of no answers and non-responses. Fortunately, I also found the people that loved the idea.”
While the team tried bringing production to Minnesota, they eventually decided to do the filming in historic areas of Los Angeles.
“Typically, a film with our small budget is set in one location,” Burlee Vang said. “We knew we wanted our film to look grand and glossy like a studio production. That required going after multiple locations that were grand to make our film ‘feel big.’ ”
Filming began in November 2015, and less than a year later the film was finished and sold to distributors.
“Bedeviled” has been screening all over the world in places such as Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Italy, Poland and Argentina, Abel Vang said.
“We hope it gets the same success here,” he added. “That would get us thinking about the sequel.”