Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen appears as one of the child extras, and his sister Le Nguyen is credited with the role of Mai. In the early scene showing the Vietnamese family dinner, their grandfather says grace.
As outlined by show-business trade paper 'Variety', the movie is based on "the conflict between refugee Vietnamese and local fisherfolk around Galveston Bay, Texas, circa 1979[-]81". Film critic Roger Ebert stated "the stories were about a blood feud on the Texas Gulf between the veteran local shrimp fisherman and new arrivals from Vietnam who were, the locals said, invading their traditional grounds and, spoiling the fishing".
The background to the real life events that inspired this picture were outlined by Vincent Canby in 'The New York Times' and published on 03 April 1985. Canby wrote: "After the collapse of the United States-backed Government in Saigon in 1975, more than half a million Vietnamese refugees made their way to this country [the USA], approximately 100,000 settling in Texas and many of these along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. They fished and shrimped and, by being willing to work harder and put in longer hours than the white Texan - or ''Anglo'' - boatmen, they prospered. Because of the language barrier, the Vietnamese, most of them Roman Catholics, kept to themselves in their own makeshift communities. Initially times were good, but as prices for fish and shrimp fell, competition between the Vietnamese and the Anglos intensified until, in 1979, an undeclared war broke out. It was an ideal situation for the Ku Klux Klan. The next couple of years were marked by firebombings of Vietnamese boats and houses and the destruction of their fish-traps, with the Vietnamese retaliating in kind. There was no denying the urgency of the confrontations when, in 1980, a young Vietnamese shot and killed an Anglo fisherman named Billy Joe Aplin. To the economically beleaguered Anglos, of lot of whom had fought in Vietnam, the refugees were ''gooks'' and Communists who, according to the Anglo way of seeing things, had been saved by the United States Government - and by American blood - only to be able to take the food out of the mouths of good, solid, native-born patriots. To the Vietnamese, America had become a nightmare of violence and bigotry".
At the time the film was made, more than half a million refugees had relocated from Southeast Asia to the USA since America's involvement in Vietnam ended in April 1975. They migrated there in search of peace and opportunity, but very often, what they found was suspicion, resentment, and outright hostility. For them, the American Dream was elusive, its price high. The film's director Louis Malle said: "It is one of history's bitter ironies. These people were refugees because they fought next to the Americans, and fled from the Communist regime; but when they came to this country, they got into trouble with the same people they fought side by side with in Vietnam". For these new immigrants, one war was over, but another kind of war had just begun.
The picture was filmed entirely on location near Rockport, Texas. For nine weeks between March and May of 1984, the film crew shot in the towns and fishing villages where the actual real-life violence had erupted between the Texas fishermen and the Vietnamese refugees around four years earlier. Director Louis Malle said: "Many of the people we cast locally had actually been involved with the events we were treating in the script. lt became difficult sometimes to separate [the] reality from [the] fiction".
The particular interest of director Louis Malle in Asian immigrants in Texas, USA was prompted by news items he began to see about five years prior to this movie debuting in cinemas. It was an April 1980 article in The New York Times Magazine that inspired Malle to actively pursue the story. Written by Texas based writer Ross Milloy, who would later become executive producer of Alamo Bay (1985), the piece told the tale of two cultures at war. In the spring of 1981, Malle got in touch with Ross Milloy, and arranged to meet him in Galveston in Texas. The pair traveled by car to town after town, interviewing local fishermen and public officials about the tension between the Vietnamese and the Texans along the Gulf Coast. They found anger, confusion, and frustration on all sides. Malle said: "The Texas fishermen were not necessarily anti-Vietnamese. They just couldn't understand why all the refugees had been allowed to settle in their midst. They felt betrayed by their own government".
On the movie's source real life events, the picture's production notes state: "Of the 100,000 refugees who settled in Texas [in the American South of the USA] after the Vietnam War, many of them gathered along the Gulf Coast. Drawn by the mild weather and the hope of work that was familiar to them, they found an underpopulated expanse of tidal flats where, for the price of a hook and line, they could enter the local fishing industry. They prospered. Frugal, determined, and relentlessly hard-working, they became proficient fishermen, and quickly accumulated sufficient cash to buy bigger and better boats than their Anglo neighbors could afford. These 'Anglos', as they called themselves, already felt threatened by increasing government regulation and falling prices; now they saw this sudden influx of Vietnamese as even more competition for an overly scarce resource: the fish and shrimp of the local bays. The personality of the immigrant community didn't help either. They hardly spoke English and tended to keep to themselves as families rather than mix with their American neighbors. They schooled their children in obscure customs and rituals and ignored local fishing laws. Tensions simmered until one night in August 1980 when they boiled over. In Seadrift, Texas, a young Vietnamese refugee, fed up with what he claimed was continual harassment and intimidation, shot and killed a local fisherman named Billy Joe Alpin. From that point on, the controversy exploded into overt racial violence. Three Vietnamese fishing boats were set afire and destroyed that night in a sea drift and a Vietnamese house trailer was fire-bombed. In Kemah, [Texas] 100 miles north, two more refugee boats were torched, and others were set adrift in the bay. Police officials up and down the coast reported dozens of incidents involving violent attacks on Vietnamese fishermen. The Ku Klux Klan appeared and became an active, outspoken and highly visible opponent of the refugees. They staged a series of demonstrations in seaports along the coast and signed up hundreds of new members among local shrimpers. At [Ku Klux] Klan rallies, Vietnamese boats were burned in effigy while robed Klansmen yelled 'Death to the Gooks' around the roaring flames. Although many of the refugees were fiercely anti-Communist, and had traveled thousands of miles to avoid a Communist regime, Anglo fishermen branded the immigrants as Communists. Encouraged by Klan agitators, they sported bumper stickers that proclaimed: 'The American Dream is for Americans first'. And [Ku Klux] Klan Grand Dragon Louis Beam told The New York Times: 'They don't have to send us 12,000 miles to kill Communists. We can do it right here in our own backyard'."
The film was made and released about twenty-five years after the unrelated famous Texan battle picture The Alamo (1960) though both pictures shared the name "Alamo" in the title and both are set in the same state of Texas, USA. The film does reference the famous battle of the earlier movie by way of the racial conflict depicted in the picture.
The film's director Louis Malle had long been interested in doing a film about immigrants and pointed-out that he was something of an immigrant himself as Malle had moved from France to New York, USA in 1977. Malle said: "The moment you become an expatriate, you are bound to investigate your new environment. What is unique about America is that it's a country of immigrants, mixing people from all over the world. It's always difficult for these immigrants, especially the newest wave of them, to assimilate...".
In the movie's press kit, producer Vincent Malle, brother of the film's director-producer Louis Malle said : "The thing that I like most about Louis' work is that each time, he tackles something completely different".
Director Louis Malle said of this film: "I also saw a chance to deal with authentic and complex American characters. I had always wanted to film a story taking place in [the] American heartland where the plot would unfold like a country song, you know, all these lyrics about husbands cheating on their wives, drinking, guns, pool bars and loneliness. If you add the Vietnamese".
Although director Louis Malle was intrigued by the human and political complexities of the controversy that this movie is based on, Malle was originally engrossed at that time in another film, "Moon Over Miami", which was to star the late John Belushi. In April 1983, Malle began pre-production on Alamo Bay (1985). Malle says the best work he's done is the work he's thought about for years. In this case, "I knew we had a terrific setting for a film; we just needed great characters and a great story. [Screenwriter] Alice Arlen created them".
Introduced to New York screenwriter Alice Arlen by their mutual friend director Mike Nichols, producer-director Louis Malle chose Arlen to write Alamo Bay (1985). Malle had been greatly impressed by the script Arlen and Nora Ephron had co-written for Silkwood (1983) which was subsequently Oscar nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen).
Screenwriter Alice Arlen recalled her first conversation with director Louis Malle very well: "The phone rang one morning and it was my agent, and he said, "'I'm sitting here with Louis Malle. Would you like to talk to him?'." Arlen added: "I was absolutely stunned and I remember saying, 'It would be an honor'. Then Louis got on the phone and I said, 'I'm honored', and that's all I could think of to say". The pair met to discuss the project. Both agreed that they had great sympathy for both sides of the conflict, and they wanted that reflected in the story. Whoever the Vietnamese were up against should not be a stereotypical bad-guy character because the Texas fishermen in this controversy had their point of view, too. After a trip to Texas in the American South, Arlen wrote Alamo Bay (1985). Arlen stated: "It is basically Dinh's story [Dinh is played in the film by actor Ho Nguyen]. A story about what the Vietnamese character wants and why he can't have it. Dinh wants an identity in this country, he wants to earn a place here, and he wants to grow up to be a man. It's a rite of passage. And the reason he can't have what he wants is because standing in his way is this Anglo fisherman, and everything this Anglo fisherman represents".
As director Louis Malle supervised screenwriter Alice Arlen's work on the script, Malle was simultaneously scouting locations and trying to arrange financing for the film. In an unusual effort to preserve his creative control, the director personally financed the development of the script and the cost of pre-production. Malle said: "I believed so strongly in this story that I was willing, if necessary, to finance the whole film myself, to shoot it in 16 millimetre [16 mm], to live in a tent, anything, just to insure that the film was done right".
A major casting problem proved to be the main Vietnamese character of Dinh. Director Louis Malle and casting directors Juliet Taylor and Ellen Chenoweth surveyed Asian theater and film circles, but could find no one appropriate to play the role. Malle said: "Vietnamese television and film had almost completely disappeared, and trained actors were difficult to find. Most were too young or, having been schooled in the stylized theater of Indochina, used a much different technique than we needed for film acting. A lot of them were also too Americanized. This character was supposed to be new to this country". They eventually decided to advertise, in Vietnamese, on the radio and in local newspapers. They also passed out handbills in Vietnamese grocery stores. After holding open casting calls in elevem cities, they settled on Ho Nguyen who was a native Vietnamese 25-year-old DNA researcher, who was working toward a medical degree at a Houston university in Texas when he saw the advertisement. Though he had no previous acting experience, Nguyen to Chenoweth requesting an audition. Nguyen said: "I knew from the moment I saw the ad that I had to play the part". Chenoweth was immediately impressed by Nguyen's audition but it took Malle slightly longer to decide. Ho is sof't-spoken and physically slight, Malle wondered if he would be able to convey the energy and intensity of the character. Malle said: "But once I saw him in the screen test, I knew we had stumbled onto an extraordinary natural actor. Ho has an intriguing presence on the screen and he moves with the precision of a cat. He projects an incredible intensity. He reminds me of a Vietnamese James Dean". Moreover, there were other problems in finding other Vietnamese actors for the movie.
Although the Vietnamese and the Texas fishermen had essentially apparently made their peace by the time the film was made and released, tension was still thick at the start of pre-production. Both sides felt they'd been victimized by the media. But while the Texans would vigorously try to make their viewpoint known to whoever would listen, the Vietnamese withdrew and maintained a low profile.
Many Texan Vietnamese were vehemently opposed to the film at first. Cultural and generational aspects of Vietnamese society contributed to the refugees' resistance. James Bruce, who functioned as both editor and extras casting director on Alamo Bay (1985), explained: "In Vietnam, movie actors are looked upon as belonging to a lower social class. Though the younger children had been sufficiently Americanized to be excited about the prospect of appearing in a movie, their parents and grandparents thought of it as a social embarrassment".
Both director Louis Malle and producer Vincent Malle marveled at how integrated the Vietnamese children had become. While their elders clung to old customs, the kids spoke perfect English and generally did well at school. Vincent Malle said: "The local high school quarterback was Vietnamese. Its amazing, but in less than one generation, these kids will be completely americanized".
Because the majority of Vietnamese along the Texas coast were Catholics, Vietnamese lead actor Ho Nguyen was one of the few Buddhists, director Louis Malle eventually asked Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Bishop Rene Gracida to help him convince the Vietnamese to cooperate with the making of the film. Through a fortunate coincidence, Gracida was a French film devotee, and knew of Malle' s work on similarly sensitive topics. The Bishop had also already been active in efforts to ease Vietnamese settlement in America. Executive Producer Ross Milloy said: "The situation among the immigrants turned around after Bishop Gracida met with leaders of the Vietnamese community Whereas before we were treated with suspicion and mistrust, now we were slowly able to recruit Vietnamese assistance".
While the native Texans in the Rockport area were talkative, they also were initially suspicious of the movie makers in their midst. Eventually, director Louis Malle was able to convince them, too, that the film would show both sides of the refugee controversy. After that, the townspeople contributed enthusiastically to the production. A member of the local Ku Klux Klan was so enthusiastic that he offered his ceremonial robes to the wardrobe department but the offer was declined.
Vincent Malle, an accomplished producer of more than a dozen feature films in Europe and America, concentrated on the logistical aspects of production. Although the project was very straightforward on the surface, there were some enormously complex hurdles to overcome. They had to shoot within a certain time period because once the Texas shrimping season started, they would lose both their Anglo and Vietnamese shrimpers, who could make more money fishing than filming.
The weather was a constant problem during the principal photography. Producer Vincent Malle said: "They have a saying in Texas that we found to be very accurate. If you don't like the weather, wait an hour, it will change. We had to be ready to alter our day's production schedule on a moment's notice".
The political content of the film also posed difficulties for the film's producers. They had to be careful not to detonate an already tense situation. Vincent Malle said: "There was a lot of discussion about whether we dared film the KKK [Ku Klux Klan] demonstration at the beginning of production for fear the local townspeople would rise up and run us out of town, or worse, that the Vietnamese would become frightened of the film's content and local reaction, and back out of the project".