July 14, 2015

My Inspirational Teacher: by film director, writer and producer Steve Nguyen

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

Steve Nguyen film director, writer and producer

As part of our My Inspirational Teacher series we talk to Steve Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American film director, writer and producer. His Studio APA specialises in producing short films and music videos.

Who was the teacher, or person, who really mattered in your life?

Someone whom I considered an instrumental person in my formative years was my middle school science teacher, Mr Carl Pawl. He was a combination of Carl Sagan and Steven Spielberg.

Not only was he a brilliant science enthusiast but he also happened to teach an elective course for film production that I had enrolled in around the seventh grade. I remember there fewer than 10 kids in this class.

It was a few weeks into it when I pretty much grew to love everything about the film scene. I just wanted to be around the equipment and computers all the time.

The way Mr Pawl conducted his teaching was nothing like a standard classroom environment. It was more like a creative workshop. It had everything about the learning experience that I loved.

We had freedom to do whatever we wanted in and out of Mr Pawl’s class time, which was incredibly unusual. We could go outside and film whatever we saw with the school’s JVC cameras or we could just sit in class and doodle.

Our only task as a class was to broadcast the live weekly video bulletin. In essence, it was a great team-building exercise to teach us kids to think on our feet. There was no room for error since it was live on the air. Mr. Pawl would put me in charge of all the behind-the-scenes work from producing, writing, and directing.

That’s when I got my first taste of lights, camera, ACTION.

What did they say or do to make them so special?

At the time, I wasn’t doing great in school. Every teacher I had problems with dealt with me the exact same way. Either they sent a referral notice to my parents telling them my grades were way below average or they would organise a parent-teacher conference to discuss my behaviour in class.

Mr Pawl did none of that. He told me that as long as he was around, he was going to help me get through my classes and graduate. And you know what? He was true to his word. He arranged an after-school session just for me. What teacher would do that?

It was never about reprimanding with Mr Pawl. He was always about encouraging and motivating. That’s what made him special in my eyes.

What was the moment you realised this person was influential to you?

There was a fear I had about change that I couldn't shake for the longest time. Leaving familiar surroundings, friends and teachers always presented a huge challenge for me to start over again and get into my comfort zone.

After I graduated the eighth grade, all that fear had left. Mr Pawl’s personal lectures put me at ease going forward. I started going for auditions and open casting calls in high school, got commercial bookings at 17 years old and got into an emerging summer writers' programme sponsored in part by UCLA and Touchstone Pictures.

Steve Nguyen with award from Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood

Would you have been successful without this person’s encouragement?

I can honestly say that none of the success that I’ve seen today would have been a reality without the mentorship of Carl Pawl.

Did you stay in touch with them?


Unfortunately, a year after I graduated from middle school, Mr Pawl passed away after battling an inoperable brain tumor. I don’t think he wanted his news to go public because he was never the kind of person to get everybody all worked up about his well-being.

I found out about his passing weeks later from his fiancée, who just so happened to be my seventh grade math teacher. It was definitely one of the saddest times I could remember as a kid.


Did you ever tell them what they meant to you?

I gave him a big hug at my middle school graduation. I told him thank you for everything and how much I appreciated him being there for me. That was the last time I ever saw him again.

Who in the world today would you describe as inspirational?

Artistically, I’m inspired by everyday people. Visually, I’m inspired by the youth. The element of film-making comes from humanity and the personal narratives created by their actions, and it’s amazing to be able to draw pure motivation from that energy and use it to create your own story.

How would you hope to inspire young people today?

Children need creative discipline and guidance. They need a creative outlet. And they need someone to be there when they mess up.

For a while, arts organisations and schools across the country have been having their funding cut and I can’t understand why. It seems like creative development has been taken for granted. So for this reason, I want to be able to provide the kids with the same opportunities that I was given.

It’s an ambitious goal, but in the future I would want to establish a resource center in California for the youth that will integrate a variety of programmes delving into art, music, technology, design and media.

For now, I’m taking this wonderful opportunity to work with wonderful nonprofits such as A World At School in order to send a positive message to children all around the world that they deserve the right to a proper education.

Follow Steve on Twitter here.

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