Cinema Asian America: Q& A with ‘The Debut’ Filmmaker Gene Cajayon

"The Debut."

In 2000, the Asian American and independent film worlds were finally treated to long-rumored film that had been in the works for a number of years, Gene Cajayon’s Filipino American coming of age drama, “The Debut”. Through what has now become a classic in Asian American cinema, and one of the highest grossing self-distributed films in the US, “The Debut” galvanized a movement of Filipino American performing talent and redefined how community-based filmmaking can be done, and how it can succeed. “The Debut” tells the story of Ben Mercado, a young, aspiring artist, who must navigate his own dreams, and those of his immigrant father’s. When tensions near a boiling point, the 18th birthday celebration of Ben’s sister brings all his worlds together into one place, and force him to confront not only his family but himself. Cajayon sat down with us to discuss his film, and its impact twelve years later.

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When watching “The Debut”, it’s clear that you had a very personal, coming-of-age story to tell, but were also drawn to the amazing talent – actors, singer, dancers, DJs – that you saw in the Filipino American community. What was your process for developing a film that would speak to both of these inspirations?

GC: “The Debut” started out as my thesis project at Loyola Marymount University. At the time I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I just thought it would be cool to make a movie about all my buddies, most of whom happened to be Filipino American. So while researching the script, I started taking all sorts of Asian American studies courses, and the floodgates opened. The film was very much a reflection of my own political awakening as well as the tremendous energy coming out of the Filipino and Asian American youth and student organizations in the 90’s.

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Next thing I knew the project had grown from a student film to a feature film, and while looking for financing in the Filipino and Asian American communities, I discovered all this amazing talent. So we put as many of them into the film as we could, knowing that not only did it make the film better, but it also served to give them a platform to showcase their talent. All of that good karma was key to helping us get through a very difficult 8-year production ordeal, as well as 3 years of self-distribution in theaters across the country.

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In the decade since “The Debut” was made, it has become a cornerstone in the Filipino American arts community, having brought together an incredible cast of talent, and launched the careers of many. Where are some of your actors and performers today?  What is exciting now in the Filipino American scene?

GC: The Bascos (Dante, Darion, Derek and Dion) are working all over the place, and continue to support the film and speak at university screenings to this day. Dante Basco (who played the lead role of Ben) was the voice of Prince Zuko in the TV show “Avatar“, as well as starring in a number of well-received feature films like “Take the Lead” and “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Bernadette Balagtas (played Ben’s sister Rose) was working a lot as a stand up comedienne but I believe she’s taking a break now to focus on motherhood. And Joy Bisco (Ben’s love interest Annabelle) worked on the soap “Port Charles” and has appeared in a bunch of commercials and films.

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Some of the most exciting work in the Filipino American filmmaking community is happening in the world of music videos, especially the work of Rik Cordero and Patricio Ginelsa, who was also the Associate Producer of “The Debut.” Both are exceptionally prolific and their work can be seen all over Youtube and at their websites.

And of course, anyone who’s watched “America’s Best Dance Crew” on MTV has seen Asian American dance crews dominate the competition every year. In fact, Kaba Modern, the UCI based crew that choreographed our modern dance sequence, placed third in the inaugural season of “ABDC.” That was the same year Jabbawockeez, another primarily Filipino American crew, won the title. Jabbawockeez now has their own permanent show at the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas. I saw it a few months ago and it’s great. A multicultural dance crew with a show on the Vegas strip! How cool is that?

Read the entire collection of interviews with Cinema Asian America filmmakers.

It seems that in making “The Debut,” you saw yourself as not just a filmmaker, but perhaps more importantly a community organizer, an activist and a catalyst. This was apparent through the incredible grass-roots approach you took around not only making the film but also distributing it. Tell us a bit about the kind of philosophy you used in the creation of the film.

GC: The unfortunate reality is that if a community is absent or misrepresented in mass media, then that community is disenfranchised and its needs are often ignored. “The Debut” was meant to be a way to empower our community by giving ourselves a voice in one of the most powerful forms of mass media, motion pictures.

With that in mind we tried to have the community intimately involved in the making of the film. Community-based filmmaking is what we called it. And so we figured if this is the only chance we get to make a movie like this, let’s get as many voices as possible into the piece. So we used that philosophy every step of the way, from fundraising to casting, to music, and of course, distributing it ourselves in movie theaters all across the United States.

All of that good karma came back to us many times over, and “The Debut” remains one of the most successful self-distributed films of all time. It grossed nearly $2 million at the box office at only 53 theaters in major markets like LA, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. This is unprecedented for an Asian American film, and eventually led to an international distribution deal with Sony Pictures.

We motivated people to come out by pushing the empowerment message, which was very effective not only in getting them to come out, but in spreading good word of mouth about the film. It was a celebratory experience going to see “The Debut” in the theater, because at most screenings the filmmakers were there at the theater to introduce the shows, answer questions and sell merchandise.

Another great example of how the community supported the film was how Chi-hui Yang, the curator of Comcast’s Cinema Asian America series, gave us the Closing Night slot at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. That festival is the largest, most well-publicized Asian American film festival in the world, and we knew that we would get a ton of publicity if we got Closing Night. We used that publicity to launch our theatrical self-distribution tour in San Francisco, and had such a successful run in the Bay Area that we were able to expand the release nationwide.

What are you working on now?

GC: I’m in development and packaging on several feature films, all of which have diversity as a key component. “Saturday Morning Christmas” is a sweet coming-of-age story about a 9-year-old boy who loves Saturday morning cartoons. I like to think of it as a thematic prequel to “The Debut.” “Jesus of Shaolin” is a zombie/kung fu mash-up that satirizes the religious right. It’s what you would get if you updated “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” for 2012’s hyper-partisan political climate. And “Seducers” is an interracial romantic comedy about a nerdy guy who transforms himself into a world-class Pick-up Artist, causing havoc with his relationship with his best female friend.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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