Growing up in working-class Seffner, Andy Nguyen, 24, was a shy kid with stellar grades whose Asian features sometimes made him feel out of place. He often was at his happiest writing stories and creating videos with his two younger brothers at home.
Over time, he channeled these experiences and those of his Vietnamese ancestors into films with a depth and sensitivity that belie his age and continue to reap awards.
Last month, Nguyen, at work on a master's degree in filmmaking at Columbia University in New York City, learned he had captured yet another national prize for a short film. The winnings include a trip to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, which runs through Jan. 29.
"Boomerang," which took one day and $200 to make, also fetched a $3,500 prize – a meaningful amount to a guy with plenty of student loans and an apartment without a bed.
"The money is fantastic, but more important is the chance to go to Sundance and to show my work to someone other than my classmates," he says.
The film will be shown at a private event, and Nguyen will have mentoring sessions with a director, a talent agent, a manager and a film studio executive, says Alex Miller, spokesman for the Playboy Shorts Series: BOMBAY SAPPHIRE Imaginative Filmmakers Spotlight, which sponsored the contest.
Nguyen was transfixed by movies and how they are made at an early age. At 14, he penned a sensitive screenplay about a Christmas meeting between a young Buddhist monk and an American soldier in 1972 Vietnam. The era resonated with the young teen, because his parents were among those who escaped the country as so-called "boat people" after the war.
By age 16, Nguyen was ready to direct and edit the short film on location in his parents' native land, casting a younger brother and his Vietnamese cousins in key roles.
Nguyen learned more than how to wield a camera. Filming in a communist country meant providing a fake script to the authorities and smuggling the real version out.
"It was very nerve-racking to go in as a foreigner wanting to make a film. They kept turning me down. You worry all the time that all your work will be for naught if you are caught."
He slipped the completed DVD – his only copy – into his CD-player for the trip home. Even though he describes himself as "very frightened," no one batted an eye at the quiet teenager with his bogus tunes.
"A Silent Night" has since been shown at 30 international film festivals and has won more than a dozen awards, including the Jimmy Stewart Memorial Crystal Heart Award in 2005. He was the youngest recipient of that honor.
Nguyen originally wrote and directed "Boomerang" for a film class and decided on a whim to enter it into the Playboy contest. The length was right and it filled the other contest requirements.
"Boomerang" features an ambivalent young man dating a woman everyone says is too good for him. Nguyen's script calls for a film crew to interrupt the man as he ruminates on the relationship, offering commentary on his thoughts and actions.
All of the actors were friends and filmmaking students, who he says are now ruing their missed opportunity to enter their own work in the contest.
Nguyen says his parents, father Anphong and mother Phuong Nguyen, have supported his career along the way. So have his father's uncles, who are leading filmmakers in Vietnam. On the family's summer vacations there, Andy Nguyen started out in front of the camera as a child actor.
"I kept laughing," he recalls. "Film is expensive there, so they finally just put me on the other side of the camera where I would do less damage."
The Nguyens, who have lived in Seffner for 20 years, say their three sons grew up making movies, creating Claymation, or stop-motion, videos for their amusement.
Anphong Nguyen works as a software engineer, but his passion is painting portraits. Like many parents of creative offspring, he worries about his son making a living.
"I tell my sons to work hard at whatever it is they like to do," he says. "They see us doing that."
He says Andy has a good balance of traits that should help him succeed.
"He's very determined, very organized, very hard-working," he says. "But he also has that artistic side."
Phuong Nguyen, a retired software engineer, says she encourages the boys to pursue their dreams. Their second son is finishing pre-med studies at the University of South Florida and is applying to medical schools. Their third just headed back for his second semester at Tufts University in Boston.
"Whatever they do, we tell them to go all the way," she says. "For us, we didn't have that opportunity."
Phuong Nguyen escaped Vietnam at age 15 with her family when the country fell in 1975. Anphong Nguyen tried 22 times before successfully getting out at age 22. With friends in common, they met and later married in 1986.
Anphong Nguyen says he grew up near the DMZ, so war and turmoil were part of life.
"When we got to this country, we felt sorry for the Americans in Vietnam because they had to leave such a peaceful place," he says.
They say they admire their son's work, as do others in Vietnam, because he brings a fresh set of eyes to their homeland, seeing it as someone who was raised in the United States but with both Vietnamese and American sensibilities.
"So much of what is made in Vietnam is commercial, just taking the U.S.'s romantic comedies and making them in Vietnamese," says Andy Nguyen. "It's a disservice to the people there."
The young filmmaker, who says he knows enough Vietnamese "to understand it when my parents yell at me," graduated from the International Baccalaureate program at King High School in Tampa. From there, he attended USF and Florida State University.
He says being a filmmaker is more than finding the right camera angles and getting the most out of actors. It's taking what's in the heart and in the mind, and conveying that, often in few words.
"I've found that you cannot be shy as a filmmaker," he says. "This film stuff – it changes you."
About three months ago, Nguyen wrapped up "Forever in Hiatus," another serious film set in Vietnam. The trailer can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/31253670.
"Boomerang" can be seen at http://www.talenthouse.com/creativeinvites/preview/abe55a051ad6397adf17667e269dfe85/277.