I first met Alice Gu on the beach at Malibu a few years ago. She’d just come back from a trip to Fiji where she’d shot the locals and the CT surfers for a Waves For Water short film. The lefts at the top of Third Point were only waist high and the water temp was chilly, but as Alice flew across them I caught the afterglow of balmy, sparkly, well-overhead Cloudbreak. In her eyes, too, was that buzz you get from traveling to far-flung locales and mixing with the unfamiliar.
A Los Angeles native, Alice is an award-winning director and director of photography. She’s worked on a slew of great projects, among them Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton. Recently she had a career breakthrough with The Donut King, her feature directorial debut. A documentary about the rise and fall of a Cambodian refugee turned donut tycoon, The Donut King inspires, cautions, entertains, and whets the appetite. It’s an American Dream story—as is Alice herself. She is the daughter of middle-class Chinese immigrants. In 2020, The Donut King won the Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Documentary Storytelling at SXSW, the One in a Million Award at Sun Valley Film Festival, and the Grand Jury Prize at the Bentonville Film Festival. Alice lives with her husband, Fernando, and four-year-old son, Joaquin, in a Pacific Palisades home designed by architect/Malibu surf legend Matt Kivlin. She is a goofy foot.
My response to watching The Donut King was to find the nearest Yum-Yum Donuts and go and eat about five donuts.
Yes. Good. Good reaction.
I enjoyed it so much.
Thank you. It’s so near and dear to my heart, and so personal.
How did you find your way into directing?
I was a DP before I was a director, working in the commercial space. And people just started asking, ‘Hey, do you want to direct this one too?’ So I said, ‘Sure.’ And that’s how I tasted from the golden goblet of directing. And I really loved it.
Did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker from a young age?
A young-ish age. I would say from high school/college on I knew I wanted to be in film.
Was there a particular moment when it all became clear to you?
Well, this sounds kind of cheesy, but when I was a PA I went into film, and being a very visual person, I thought I wanted to be a production designer. So that’s what I kind of worked towards: trying to get my way into the art department on set. And on one of the very first commercials that I worked on as a PA—and this is a huge faux pas, a big, big, big no-no—when the crew had broken for lunch and the dolly was sitting there with this big old Panavision 35-millimeter camera on it, I was like, ‘Oh, what’s it like to look through the eyepiece?’ Again, it’s cringe-y to even say that, because again, it’s a very big no-no. But I looked through the eyepiece and it was just this feeling of, ‘Oh, this is what I’ve been searching for my entire life.’ Everything just felt completely right.
I love that. And what year was that?
That was 2000.
You’ve worked with Stacy Peralta, Werner Herzog, and Rory Kennedy. What was that like?
I feel so lucky to have worked with these masters of documentary storytelling. I’ve been able to work with Stacy on short-form projects, and I feel like I’ve learned so much from him behind the camera. His way of connecting with people, his warmth, his curiosity, his super earnest and candid demeanor is so comforting to be next to. He’s a true master and a wonderful person who I just can’t get enough of. And Werner Herzog was the complete opposite, but in a wonderful way. He was completely terrifying every single second that I was with him. I worked with him on a project called Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. I feel like I’m smart-ish, and I feel like I can hold a conversation with most people, but with Werner I was completely intimidated. He’s the smartest and most intense man I’ve ever met. But I would just sit there and listen to his approach and the way that his brain would work and how he would word questions and get answers out of people. And Rory, too—also very different. She has that warmth and that genuine demeanor. She’s very smart and well-researched in all of her questions and her way of connecting with people. So, yeah, three very different filmmakers, and much respect to each and every single one of them and their styles.
Talk to me about surfing.
Surfing is my reason for being. But I didn’t start until I was in my early 20s. I grew up in Palos Verdes—some of the best waves here in LA County. But surfing is not something that my Chinese parents encouraged me to do at all. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, let me take you to buy a surfboard, and you can go and shred.’ It was like, ‘The beach is something good for you to do, but we’re certainly not going to really expose you to surfing.’ But I had an older brother, I went to UCSD, I lived in La Jolla, and was very much around surf culture. I loved the ocean and the water, and then I finally went for it in my early 20s. There’s nothing quite like it in the world. If it weren’t for filmmaking, surfing is really what I’d want to be doing every day of my life.
You’ve done a nice job of fusing the two.
Yeah, I’ve been very fortunate, and I’ve been intentional in that. What’s the Waves For Water motto? ‘Do what you love, and help along the way’ What I’m trying to say is: do what you love, and the passion for it will show, and the money will come. It’s like Field of Dreams: ‘If you build it, he will come.’
What’s your biggest takeaway from making The Donut King? What did it teach you?
I guess it taught me how this is absolutely what I should be doing. It’s like that mother’s hug without a shred of doubt in the universe that this is what I’m meant to be doing. What else did I learn from it? I love the unscripted medium so much. I love nonfiction storytelling. I love the people we meet. You’re only richer in your experiences the more and different kinds of people you meet. And I feel so, so, so incredibly grateful.
For more Alice Gu go to http://www.alicegu.com