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By Rachel Galvin
At this year's Palm Beach Intl. Film Festival, some of the cast and crew of the comedy "Toto" flew in from as far as the Philippines to attend the screening of their film. "Toto" features Antonio "Toto" Estares and his goal to make it to the United States. Haunted by his father, who was an actor who drank and gambled away his money, and concerned about his mother, who has Cancer, he does everything he can to make his dream possible. His hope is to be a big star, like Tom Cruise, and send money home to his mother. Unfortunately, getting a visa is not as easy as he thought and he goes overboard to make it happen with comical result. IS had a chance to talk to a few of actors and crew behind this award-winning production.
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Talk with Writer/ Director/ Producer John Paul Su
Q. Why did you choose to do the cartoon animation in the beginning? How was that created and how long did it take?
A. The cartoon animation was inspired by the Filipino comics and graphic novels that are still popular among the working Joes in the Philippines. Most of the local comics usually depict the dreams and aspirations of every Filipino, be it in love, career, or simply friendship. Since Toto’s story is like a comic book fable, I decided to use it to set up the tone and visual aesthetic of the whole film. This decision also opened the opportunity for us to solve one key issue: How do we establish the U.S. embassy without having to resort to guerrilla filmmaking? As in most countries, shooting the facade of the U.S. Embassy (or any embassy at that) is prohibited, so my team and I had to find a creative way of introducing the location. To create those cartoon animations, I chose specific shots in the film that we captured as a still photo. Then our artist recreated it as a comic book artwork. It took around a week or two to make those cartoon animations.
Q. How long did it take to shoot and did you find it easier or more difficult shooting in the Philippines versus the U.S?
A. The principal photography took 17 days. In the Philippines, the lack of infrastructure and best practices in film production posed as a big challenge for me. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to work on an independent film in the Philippines prior to my directing debut. That experience definitely prepared me for the challenges ahead. In addition, I had a crew who was eager to learn new things. So my cinematographer (Clarissa Delos Reyes), as well as my sound recordist (Shiho Miyazawa) and I — all U.S.-trained filmmakers — took the opportunity to share our knowledge with them.
Q. What drew you to do this film in the first place and what was your favorite part about filming it?
A. As an immigrant myself, I am deeply attracted to Toto’s story for the way it speaks to the tension between integrity and compromise in the journeys of all outsiders. In moments of self-doubt, ‘do you give up or do you soldier forward in pursuit of the dream?’ is a question that, as a filmmaker in a new land where I was a complete unknown, I was constantly forced to ask myself time and time again.
Q. How did you get your cast?
A. Except for Ms. Bibeth Orteza (Remedies) — who I’ve worked with in one of my short films — it was my first time to work with everyone else. For the lead actor (Sid Lucero), I saw him in one of his films that played in San Diego Asian Film Festival. His performance in that film struck me and I knew that I wanted to work with him sometime in the future. Then came "Toto". I was looking for an actor who would have the depth to make the character more three-dimensional. That’s when Sid’s name came into the picture. Most of the people I talked to found my choice to be quite odd (or “interesting”, at best), due to the fact that Sid is known as a dramatic actor in the Philippines who has never done a dark comedy. The rest of the actors were recommended to me by my local producing team (Bibeth Orteza, Manet Dayrit, Ruth Racela, Tess Fuentes). I just had to audition them and decide if they fit the role or not. As for Blake Boyd, he was recommended to me by my co-writer/co-producer Donald Martin.
Q. What awards has the film won?
A. The film received eight nominations in seven categories and won four in the recent Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) New Wave Section. The awards were: Special Jury Prize, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Thou Reyes as Yam) and Best Supporting Actress (Bibeth Orteza as Remedios).
Q. Have you won awards as well personally?
A. Aside from the MMFF Best Director and Special Jury Prize, I’ve also won the Directors Guild of America Best Asian American Filmmaker prize for my short film "Pagpag" (The Refuse). The same short also won the Silver Medal from the New York Festivals International Television and Film Awards, and the Best Dramatic Short from the NewFilmmakers Los Angeles. Currently, the short film is now airing in KQED and all PBS-affiliated stations across the U.S.
Q. Anything that was particularly difficult during filming?
A. The opening scene was one of the more challenging scenes to shoot. Around 95 percent of the people in that scene were spot talents pulled from that neighborhood. From the students walking on that alley to the kids playing with soap bubbles and street games … to the gamblers and the people passing by, they were all extras that needed to be blocked and choreographed. Coordinating and blocking them was quite a challenge because they were all non-actors who had never been in front of the camera. And because that whole sequence from the alley to the title credit was originally shot as a long moving master with no cuts, I had to rehearse them a couple of times so that every element, including the background talents (aka the non-actors), were in synch. Another scene that was quite a challenge to me was the love scene with Toto (Sid Lucero) and Eve Porter (Liza Diño). Given the nature of the scene, it was very important for me to make my actors feel comfortable and safe. I didn’t want them to feel exploited. Fortunately, Sid and Liza were very professional and collaborative. I’d explain to them the blocking and my intention for every shot, and they would throw in their ideas to help execute my vision. One other challenge was shooting the scenes of the Jelson Bay, a.k.a. Fracisco “The Toothless Hobbit”. Jelson was so funny in all his scenes that every time the camera is on him, everyone just finds it hard to control themselves from cracking up while the camera rolls.
Talk with Screenwriter Donald Martin Q. What made you decide to create this film?
A. I first met Francisco Castelo [my husband] in the year 2000 in Los Angeles. He used to regale me with stories from Manila – of his life there and his own experiences, as well as the lives and the experiences of other people that he knew, and stories that he had heard about how difficult it was to get a visa to go to the United States, and about the lengths that people would go to in order to get such a coveted “tourist visa”. I remember thinking, all those years ago: Wow. There are the elements here for an amazing movie. And, so, eventually, Francisco and I collaborated on writing the story -- upon which this screenplay is based.
Q. What was it like working with a director and bringing it to life?
A. I have had over 45 films produced in my career so far, for the big and small screen. Working with director John Paul Su was a wonderful experience. We had a great sense of collaboration and creative give-and-take. I had written the original script on my own, but when John Paul entered the process, he brought a sense of magical realism to the story that I had not envisioned. He also brought to the table his own experiences as an immigrant, someone who had a dream about coming to the U.S. I can say, without hesitation, that working with John Paul Su has been one of the best creative collaborations that I have experienced thus far in my career.
Q. What did your husband think?
A. Francisco was truly touched to see that his own story and the stories of so many people he has known were brought to the screen in this film. After seeing the first cut, he realized just how universal this story was and how any immigrant to the U.S. would be able to identify with [it]. He believes that this country is a land of immigrants, and that the story of "Toto" is the story of all of us. To him, that is the American Dream. For me, it is the dream that people from all over the world can share: the aspiration to be a part of something bigger than all of us.
Talk with Actor Blake Boyd
Q. I know you have worked in Philippines before ... What is the experience like as an actor to work there?
A. The experience of making a movie in The Philippines is quite different from making a movie in the U.S. Over there, the hours are longer, there are no unions, and the pace for the actor is much more hectic, since the local actors often race from one set to another. A Filipino actor can work on a TV series at the same that he's making an independent feature, so one must work around such a schedule. That said, the level of focus and commitment of everyone involved in making this film was most impressive. I’ve made three movies in The Philippines and I can say without hesitation that making "Toto" was the best experience of them all. We Americans could learn a thing or two from the intense focus and commitment of my fellow actors in The Philippines.
Q. You have worked on more mainstream films ... What do you see the difference is working on an indie like this versus a mainstream production?
A. Whether a movie is “mainstream” or “indie”, for me, the most important thing is to find the truth in the story. Of course, when you make an indie film, you don’t have the luxury of trailers and all of that stuff, but let’s be honest – none of those things are crucial to making a good movie. It all begins with the story, the screenplay. Then, when you add the director, the crew and the cast, the focus must be on telling the heart of the story, the truth, be it a big studio picture, films that I have made such as "First Kid" and "Rocketman", or a low budget indie film such as "Toto".
Talk with Thou Reyes
Q. Was playing Yam different than other characters you have played in the past?
A. Yes, I've done a lot of firsts in this film. The difference would be the approach they required from me in terms of the comedic part of Yam. It was the situation that made the scene funny. I needed to be open-minded and observant to deliver and yet keep the Filipino traits of Yam intact.
Q. As an actor in film and TV, can you talk about the schedule for filming in the Philipenes?
A. We used to joke that there are no other actors who can function longer than us Filipino actors because that's how we roll -- 24/7 back home. We start rolling in the morning until morning of the next day. It happens both in TV and film shoots. It is a current issue back home due to long-term health effects of such working condition of the entertainment people. Fortunately, JP is trained in the U.S. and his team fully studied the schedule, making this project one of the easiest films that I've done in respect to time.
Q. I know you are debating coming here to the states. What draws you here and what is your ultimate goal?
A. I'm grateful that it is an option for me. It would be any actor's ultimate dream back home to be able to have an opportunity to make it outside the country. Filipinos have the mentality that you really made it if you've been recognized outside, particularly in the U.S., and here I am contemplating if I should try it out. My ultimate goal would be to penetrate the western entertainment industry and make good projects that will challenge, bring out the best in me and entertain any audience of any race and status.
Q. Was there anything specifically difficult for you during the shooting of this?
A. Prior to filming, JP and I had a talk about the intimate scene that I have to do in this film, for it was something new to me and I've never done anything like it. I can't say it was difficult but more of a challenge to make the character of Yam very endearing to the viewers. To connect Yam's coming of age in a society that is heavily influenced by religion is somewhat I carefully constructed.
Talk with actor Carlo Cruz
Q. What was that kiss scene like for you with Thou? How may takes did it take to get it right?
A. The scene with Thou was actually my onscreen kissing debut, as well as my first time kissing another man. Thou and I had developed a rapport since pre-production and in the days leading up to our “big” scene, we would often humour each other about how awkward it would be given our actual relationship as buddies. It was scheduled to be the last scene to be shot in the course of production, so one can only imagine how anxious I was. Given that, we both understood what the scene meant to the film and the audience members who could relate to the characters, and so we were eager to perform the scene with honesty and dignity. Thou and I had agreed that we would get the job done within four takes, but we ended up doing seven more, a total of 11 takes!
Q. Tell me a bit about your background and what you enjoyed most about being a part of "Toto".
A. I started acting six years ago and did mostly independent films and commercials back in the Philippines. I was fortunate enough to study Method Acting at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York in 2014 and 2015. I’m currently based in New York where I pursue acting and photography. Being a part of "Toto" was an incredible experience for me. Dreams such as being part of an international film festival, and working with actors whom I looked up to ever since I began, came true. I truly enjoyed working with every member of the production team, which was filled with talented, kind and light-hearted individuals who shared a common goal of telling a story about the beautiful side of humanity which is able to love, dream and persevere.
Talk with producer Rey Cuerdo
Q. How did you end up producing this?
A. Donald and I had just finished collaborating on another film, "Dim Sum Funeral" in 2008 when he showed me the script of "Toto". I was riveted, with a flood of memories of my own experience of moving to America overcoming me, I was taken. I asked Donald if I could have the honor and privilege of steering the project and trying to get the film made. Fortunately, he said yes.
Q. Where will this be distributed after festivals?
A. The performance of the film in the festival circuit will help us determine how and where it will be distributed. "Toto's" journey is just beginning. Notably, the film already has a worldwide sales representative, who will help us find distributors for the domestic (U.S. and Canada) and international markets.
Q. What made you want to be a producer in the first place and what makes this project stand out for you? What has been the best part of working on it?
A. I love cinema. My kind of cinema not only entertains but provides a voice for the improvement of the human condition. I've always been a big promoter of Filipino cinema, its filmmakers and talent here in the U.S . It's an exhilarating thrill for me to be able to help those who want to achieve the "American dream" in any way I can. "Toto" gave me the opportunity to do it all, i.e. help in all three categories, and to fulfill my love for my kind of cinema. "Toto" also is showing at the Newport Beach Film Festival April 24 and then will be at the LA Comedy Festival (which runs May 12-22). The film was partially funded by The Independent Film Project (IFP) Fiscal Sponsorship in New York City and it received grants from The Jerome Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota and New York, NY. For more information, find the film on facebook or visit www.totothemovie.com.