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Cinematographer on the Rise Finds Connection in Urban Oasis

Quyen Tran, DP for HBO’s 'Camping’ and Netflix’s ‘Unbelievable,’ transformed her life and career after a brush with terror and tragedy.

Quyen Tran’s
Michael Buckner/Variety Content Studio

Being an eyewitness to history can change anyone’s life. The 9/11 attack on New York changed Quyen Tran’s.

On that sunny fall morning, Tran was a still photographer, living with her boyfriend in lower Manhattan, close to the Twin Towers. Some 18 years later she has a new home, Los Angeles; a new career, cinematography; and a family that began after she and her boyfriend married and moved West.

Her cinematography career is taking off. She shot HBO’s “Camping,” from creators Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner; the feature comedy, “The Little Hours,” with Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon; and several episodes of Netflix’s “Unbelievable.” She made Variety’s 10 Cinematographers to Watch list. But the repercussions of that day linger still.

In the grassy expanse of the Silver Lake Meadow, the park she often comes to with her young children, she tells the story of that pivotal day.

She was in bed in the high-rise Battery Park apartment she shared with her boyfriend, adjacent to the Twin Towers, when they heard a loud crash. “I jumped out of bed and thought it might be a ship crashing into the harbor, that’s what it sounded like,” recalls Tran. From her apartment window, she saw the North Tower on fire. She began shooting photos, like the still photographer and photojournalist she was. As she paused for a moment, she saw the second jet plow into the South Tower. The explosion threw her across the room.

She and her then-boyfriend made their way down 18 flights of stairs and by the time they reached the bottom floor of their building, the South Tower collapsed. “We thought, ‘We’re being bombed,’ we had no idea what’s happening.” They fled through the dust cloud amid the deafening roar of the tower’s collapse, afraid they would die where they stood.

She says she’s incredibly grateful that both she and her partner survived, but the trajectory of her life was altered for good. “That single event has influenced pretty much every decision I’ve made since then,” she says. “When you face the light at the end of the tunnel, there’s no going back.” Since then, she says, happiness is her benchmark.

Tran grew up in Virginia, in a poor family that favored camping vacations and beach time. She and her husband moved to L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood a decade ago. It’s a hilly section that has long been a magnet for artists and entertainment creatives, not as posh as Beverly Hills or Bel-Air, more urban than the Hollywood Hills.

Silver Lake Meadow, a crescent of green bordered by native plants, didn’t exist when they arrived, but it’s become a retreat for them. “We bring our Frisbees and football and soccer balls and play with the kids. It makes the kids really happy and it makes me really happy to spend this unadulterated time [with them]. No cell phones. We have a strict rule about that when we can; dinner too.

“For Father’s Day we met six other families here and brought our picnic blankets, and we actually ordered pizza to be delivered. It’s so beautiful. It gives you a sense of community, which is hard to find here.”

After 9/11 she applied to film school and was accepted to UCLA. That’s when she and her partner headed west.

She is on board to shoot an upcoming FX series produced by Jason Bateman. There are enough offers coming in that she has the luxury of selecting projects, which wasn’t always the case, especially starting out as a woman in a male-dominated field. Beginning her career, “I wasn’t focused on the fact I was a woman, I was focused on trying to be a cinematographer and that alone is really hard.”

Though she now shoots moving images, she’s retained lessons from her first career.

“In still photography you have one frame to tell a story. When I’m designing shots, working with a director, I’m trying to pack as much story into one frame as possible.” She shoots documentaries, and that style informs her narrative work. “In documentary, you don’t get a take 2, so you have to really nail the moment, and know where to put the camera to capture that essence of the scene.”

One film she’s very proud of is the Peabody Award-winning documentary, “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” about the Detroit-based, Chinese American social justice activist who lived to be 100 before dying in 2015. Tran says Boggs truly shaped her life; just speaking of her, she momentarily is too emotional to continue. Because of that documentary and her own travails, she says, “I’m trying to seek out projects that are meaningful, relevant and substantial.”

Boggs taught her about urban gardening so Tran put those skills to work at home. She built her own vegetable garden planters and transformed her cement-covered backyard into a fertile fruit orchard with lemon, lime, fig and other trees. “I’m an avid gardener: I love it, it’s my Zen.” She installed a gray water system and drip irrigation lines to conserve water. She’s passing her gardening expertise on to her children, as well as teaching them camping. It’s these hands-on, real-life experiences — rather than expensive gadgets — she wants to share with them.

The Silver Lake Meadow is a place where she shares those moments. “I want to give my kids that foundation, the same one I had growing up,” says Tran, taking in the breeze and beauty of the spot. She recognizes the work-life balance is a struggle. Work often takes her away from home. But it’s a challenge she’s not afraid to face. “As parents we try to do the best and we want our kids to be happy.”