‘The Sympathizer’ Showrunner Unpacks That ‘Emotional’ Episode 1 Escape Sequence

“It’s certainly a moment and a sequence really indelibly ingrained in the Vietnamese community,” Don McKellar tells TheWrap of Saigon’s fall

Warning: Spoilers for “The Sympathizer” Episode 1 ahead

HBO’s “The Sympathizer” closed out the final moments of its premiere, titled “Death Wish,” with a visually stunning escape sequence, in which The Captain (Hoa Xuande) and his friend Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) are attempting to escape Vietnam during the fall of Saigon while weaving past gunfire and explosions.

“It’s not only one of the things people remember from the book, it’s something people remember from the war and from history. It’s certainly a moment and a sequence really indelibly ingrained in the Vietnamese community,” coshowrunner Don McKellar told TheWrap. “Everyone in cast, everyone with Vietnamese heritage had very specific memories and associations with it. They’ve either talked about that night with their families since when they were kids, some of them came over that night, or alternatively, they never talk about it in their family because it’s a night of infamy.”

From both an emotional and visual standpoint, McKellar admitted it was a “challenging” sequence to shoot.

“For me, coming from an independent film background, I was like, ‘Can we even achieve it? Can we even get that kind of impact?’” he said. “We really wanted to feel it. So that was exciting, giving myself the courage to go for it, to say, ‘Oh, helicopters getting blown out of the sky,’ that kind of stuff. But we really wanted the audience to feel it. We really wanted to feel it on an emotional level. And director Park [Chan-Wook] is very smart. He’s not indulgent of emotions but he’s not afraid of them either and he really wanted the emotional impact to be major without being sentimental. So that was a big one. We storyboarded it and worked really hard. We had to make it work.”

During the escape, Bon’s wife and child are killed, an incident that Khan teases will heavily influence the decisions he makes moving forward.

“After that incident, Bon literally loses all of his will to actually live. He’s basically waiting to find an opportunity to die and the only thing that’s keeping him from just killing himself really is his friendship with the Captain and making sure that the Captain is okay,” Khan told TheWrap. “That’s something that will always play in his mind. It drives every one of his decisions going forward.”

Khan admitted he was “very nervous” during filming, which was done over the course of four nights.

“I remember in my calendar I had written this is the week of the tarmac and I was so nervous leading up to it. I was like, ‘Oh no, it’s coming up soon. What are we going to do?’” he said. “And then it was like, ‘Now it’s here. Let’s just shoot one thing at a time. It’ll be good.’ It was good in the end I think. After that scene, I felt OK.” 

Duy Nguyen, who plays Man, said that while he wasn’t in the sequence, he came to set during filming to support his fellow cast members.

“It was very personal moment for all of us,” he told TheWrap. “The energy on set that day was palpable.”

Based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, “The Sympathizer” is an espionage thriller and cross-culture satire about the struggles of a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy during the final days of the Vietnam War and his new life as a refugee in Los Angeles, where he learns that his spying days aren’t over.

Chan-wook, who serves as coshowrunner, writer and executive producer alongside McKellar, directs the first three episodes. Fernando Meirelles and Marc Munden are the other directors. Robert Downey Jr., Susan Downey and Amanda Burrell executive produce for Team Downey. The limited series is a coproduction between HBO, A24 and Rhombus Media, produced in association with Cinetic Media and Moho Film.

New episodes air Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and stream on Max.


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