“Mannequin” Film Unites Alumni, Students and Bay Area Professionals

by | Jun 11, 2024 | Community Engagement, Featured

Filmmaker Mark Tran, ’07 RTVF, and actor Paul Yen on the set of Tran’s new film “Mannequin.” Photo courtesy of Thierry Lu.

A man lingers in an auto body shop bathroom, trading words in Vietnamese with an older gentleman while glaring at his own reflection in a streaked mirror. The atmosphere is dim and haunted, the light yellow and murky, as if conjuring a distant or tragic past. A crew member in black holds a boom microphone overhead in the converted bathroom stall, which in actuality is one of the several rooms the film crew has rented from Mac House, a studio space just off highway 680 in Fremont. 

The protagonist, played by actor Paul Yen, repeats the scene a few times at the director’s instruction, each time making small adjustments. Screenwriter, director and filmmaker Mark Tran, ’07 Radio-Television-Film, consults with Yen and the crew members on set before stepping out of the room to watch the scene unfold on a screen nearby. Once the scene is captured to everyone’s satisfaction, producer Rob Ernst of 10watt Productions cups his hands to his mouth and bellows, “Lunch!”

Writer, director and filmmaker Mark Tran on set of

Writer, director and filmmaker Mark Tran on set of “Mannequin.” Photo courtesy of Thierry Lu.

The 50 or so employees and volunteers — many of them San José State alumni or current SJSU students — have dedicated four days to filming “Mannequin,” a psychological drama film Tran wrote in 2020. He and his wife welcomed their first child during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the isolation created by quarantine was exacerbated by a frightening uptick in hate-motivated crimes against Asians and Asian Americans. Tran, a Vietnamese-American artist and creative producer at Meta, remembers the panic and anxiety of walking his infant daughter around his Oakland neighborhood in the early days of COVID-19. Filmmaking provided an important outlet during that stressful time.

Set in Oakland’s Little Saigon, the film follows Minh, a sleep-deprived father raising his infant daughter Hien while his wife Trang is away for a family funeral in Vietnam. In an effort to comfort his child, Minh dresses up a mannequin as his wife, eventually forming an unsettling obsession with it as his mental state blurs reality and hallucinations.

“This is a story that aims to depict a deteriorating state of mental health and desperation at its very core — both primal and visceral,” Tran says. “‘Mannequin’ is an exploration of love, grief and the fragile state of the human psyche.”

When Tran completed the script, he reached out to Barnaby Dallas, ’00 MA Theatre Arts, director of production for film and theatre at San José State, to see if any current students or recent alumni would be interested in contributing to the project. Production Support Technician Jake Ohlhausen, ’17 RTVF, ’26 MFA Creative Writing, agreed to find student assistants and volunteers to help make the project come to life. Many of the film’s crew members, including 10watt Productions’ Producer Peter Lindsey, ’08 RTVF, second assistant camera Jennifer Gonzalez-Arias, ’17 English, ’17 Journalism, and producer Frank Facio, ’21 RTVF, joined the team to complete Tran’s vision. Many of the props were donated or loaned from the RTVF props department, managed by scene shop manager John York.

“One of the things about making a film is that it’s really hard to know what a person’s experience level is,” says Ohlhausen, explaining that the production requires a number of different skill sets and trades, from electricity to carpentry, costume and set design to cinematography. Many of the production assistants help with administrative tasks, such as organizing scripts, or ensuring all employees and volunteers are provided lunch.

“The students are learning a lot, and in exchange they get good experience and film credits. People have come together really well on this project,” explains Ohlhausen. 

The ultimate group project

SJSU alumni, students and Bay Area professionals composed the crew for

SJSU alumni, students and Bay Area professionals composed the crew for “Mannequin,” a short film written, directed and produced by Mark Tran, ’07 RTVF. Photo courtesy of Jake Ohlhausen.

The collaborative spirit is alive and well on set. Selina Du, ’25 RTVF, serves as second second assistant director — each of those “seconds” indicating the various roles she plays helping the directorial staff, whether that means assembling props on set, tidying work spaces or helping manage the schedule. Although she has worked on film sets previously, “Mannequin” is especially meaningful to her as an Asian American.

“Not only is this a particularly Asian American story, but all of the leading actors and members of the crew are Asian American,” she says. “That’s really amazing to see.”

Those choices are intentional. Tran sought out native speakers of Vietnamese for all of the film’s roles and even hired a dialect coach to support the actors.

“I think Asian American media in general is super important,” Tran says. “I’ve lived in America my whole life, but I think our presence is very small in film and media in that regard. Films like this help create more awareness and offer humanizing stories, as opposed to just offering bit roles. We’re far from the days of Long Duk Dong in ‘Sixteen Candles,’ and we’ve seen a lot more great films [created by and featuring Asians and Asian Americans] win Oscar awards and finally gain recognition. I love to help push that agenda a little more because I think there are a lot of great, diverse stories out there to be told.”

Fellow Spartan Sydney Freemyer (she/they), ’25 RTVF, adds that the experience is beneficial for the production crew and students alike. The project has allowed her to test out various roles in the art and costume department while working under the tutelage of seasoned professionals and SJSU alumni working in the field.

“I love working with people like Jennie [Gonzalez-Arias] and Frank [Facio],” they say. “I like the way that both of them have really uplifted us and given us confidence to work on these sets. It’s cool to work with people who are a step or two ahead of us because they still remember what it’s like as students.”

Divli Bhat, ’26 RTVF, president of SJSU’s Film Production Society, says the “Mannequin” set has offered a truly professional experience for students. She serves as the project’s production coordinator, helping Ohlhausen and others harness the appropriate tools, props and resources for the cast and crew. The experience is critical for the aspiring filmmaker, who earlier this year wrote and directed a queer horror film called “Carnage.” 

“We usually work on mostly student-dominated sets, where maybe 90% of the crew are students,” Bhat says. “But in this case, only about 10% of us are, which means that they are pushing us to that professional level.”

Crew members Gonzalez-Arias and Facio were impressed by the students’ professionalism and commitment to hard work. The Spartan pair now run an independent business, The Common Bunch, which provides high-quality cinematography services across the Bay Area and beyond. They have often collaborated with Ohlhausen, who Gonzalez-Arias describes as a tremendous resource for students and professionals alike.

“The students definitely want to learn and be useful,” says Gonzalez-Arias. “Even while we were building the sets, they were very eager and excited to participate, asking ‘How can I help? What do I need to learn?’ The students have a very good understanding of set etiquette, which is important. They’ve helped with everything from pulling props to building out the production, which is a lot.”

Facio is pleased to see that Fremont is quickly becoming the “indie darling” of the filmmaking world, with studios like Mac House offering freelancers space and time to develop projects.

“The sheer fact that this is being filmed in our backyard, and that we’re using all local people, is special,” Facio says. “It’s a grassroots effort; we use every resource. I find that exciting.”

Next steps

Once filming is complete, Tran and his team will dedicate time to editing and post-production, with hopes to share the completed short film later by early fall. Though the project is very much a labor of love — a haunting, provocative one at that — Tran credits his time at San José State with laying the groundwork for his career.

“I had so many profound and career defining  experiences as a student filmmaker at San José State,” he says. “I wrote, directed and produced a feature film, ‘All About Dad,’ with the support of Barnaby Dallas and Nick Martinez, and had the rare opporurtunity to really cut my teeth as a filmmaker. Working on films during my time at SJSU as an undergrad resulted in countless meaningful friendships and collaborations over the years. 

“Peter Lindsey, one of ‘Mannequin’ producers from 10watt, was a fellow student at SJSU. I remember his work blowing me away at a student film festival. Jeremy Castillo, the DP [director of photography] of ‘Mannequin’, was the editor of ‘All About Dad.’ There was something really special happening on ‘Mannequin’ where I got to see SJSU students and recent grads, working together to make a film with the same openness and excitement that I had 20 years ago. I don’t think they realize this, but they’re also forging friendships and collaborations that will last a lifetime.” 

Learn more about “Mannequin.”