Yellow Rose Director Interview

Once a resident of Lubbock, Texas, Filipino American Diane Paragas had her head in the clouds like the young harmonious heroine of her new movie, Rose Garcia. 

Now matured into a filmmaker, Paragas has her feature film debut with The Yellow Rose, which was warmly received at its New York premiere at the 42nd Asian American International Film Festival. Wrought with the weighty subject matter of the immigration crisis, The Yellow Rose drops into a tumultuous era to offer a window into the life of a young undocumented Filipino coping with the separation from her detained mother while crafting her own country music in Texas.

I talked with Paragas on recruiting Eva Noblezada and Lea Salonga, depicting detention centers, and finding Texas landscapes.

The Yellow Rose was more than 15 years in the making. How did it evolve, especially with the Trump era?

It went through every conceivable idea. It started more as a comedy drama, funny and conceptual. After Trump got elected, we shifted the focus into seriousness. We focused more on the mother’s story, on what happens when you go through incarceration. In this last draft which I co-wrote with Annie J. Howell, we structured it to be Rose’s journey of finding her home and voice. 

There was a big period after I was trying to get the movie made, I took a break and put it on the shelf without knowing if I would come back to it. But what was good during the course of those years is that I became a better director and I became a mother. Those helped me understand the story more. By the time production started, I had clear ideas in directing it.

Eva Noblezada was already a music star on the Broadway stage. This is her feature film debut. How did you reach out to her? 

In the last couple of years, we got financing to do a short film first. I was looking at a movie called Whiplash, which also had a short film first. From the short, they were able to finance the whole feature. 

When we were starting to raise money for the Yellow Rose, I got financing to do the short with a different lead, Thia Megia, who is great and wrote one of the songs “Square Peg.” When I did the short, it was the perfect opportunity to cast for the feature. I saw all these girls and around that same time Eva Noblezada had just gotten cast in the revival of Miss Saigon in London. 

We thought we had to do an international search like the original Miss Saigon production did for Lea Salonga. Then the Miss Saigon revival was announced with Eva Noblezada cast as the leading Kim.

After the short, it took a couple more years to get financing for the feature. I saw Eva leading the Miss Saigon revival and was blown away. I met with Noblezada right after the show with her manager and offered her the part right away.

When I saw her on stage, I looked to see if Noblezada could translate into film. The transition from theatre to film is not always a natural one. When you’re in theatre, you’re acting for the back of the room. What was extraordinary watching her on stage is that she’s a natural actress. She acts in a cinematically way. I sent the script to her beforehand, so when I met her, she accepted the role of Rose on the spot. We talked about her being a musician. She writes music and strums the guitar. 

Part of my financing came from the grant I won through Cinematografo Originals. That particular grant required I made the film within a calendar year. But I knew Eva wasn’t going to be available for that year because she needed to finish Miss Saigon at the end of its run. So I passed on the major grant. Luckily, the grantees admired my conviction and let me keep the grant. They actually financed more of the film.

Then there was the process of attaining Lea Salonga, a Filipino superstar and the original Miss Saigon on Broadway. She can be considered Eva Noblezada’s predecessor. She’s on The Yellow Rose, 24 years after she has shown up on film. How did you reach out to her?

We had sent the script to Lea’s manager. She really responded to it. She’s an incredibly supportive person, a superstar. She’s sold out at arenas, from London, Paris, everywhere. She’s also a big supporter of Filipino and Filipino American artists. She was there when Eva was in the revival of Miss Saigon. She’s a voice coach back in the Philippines. Helping Filipino artists is her thing and she liked the script.

She was doing Once on this Island on Broadway when I met her. After her one of her shows, she met me. We had a drink and talked with her manager. She said yes on the spot.

A little backstory, I directed Lea before a long time ago in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. It was my first directing gig. She was hosting for the Discovery Channel. I was directing her hosting parts. When I met her for The Yellow Rose, she said, “Oh my god, I totally remember you!” I couldn’t believe she remembered because it was so long ago. 

As a Texan, I loved the landscapes. How did you find those Texas landscapes and landmarks? How did you scout out those locations? 

The film is a love letter to Texas, to the people, to the landscape. We did not have a long pre-production time. We just drove all over Austin. Because we were a SAG film, if we were to shoot outside Austin city limits, we would have to pay extra. So we had to find a town near enough Austin that looked like a small-town. We found this amazing town, Bastrop. You see it in the opening when Rose is riding her bike. It’s got a beautiful bridge, these old houses, and those beautiful Texas sunsets.

Of course, the Broken Spoke is really the Broken Spoke. It’s that legendary honky-tonk bar. We worked closely with the family who owned it. We shot in the hours it wasn’t opened. We even shot a concert. Dale Watson is a regular artist at the place. Some of the footage is his concert inside there. Some of his concert scenes were real, some were staged. We staged to final scene at C-Boy’s, an amazing venue, dreamy and glitzy. 

Real locations were important to me. Dale’s house in the film is really Dale’s house. We shot the Chicken Shit Bingo in Dale’s backyard. Those locations inspired scripts and I would change the script around the locations we found. We only had a tight 19-day shoot. It’s really hard to shoot a concert when you have one camera. We have arrests and raid sequences. But we pulled them off. I’m lucky we have an extraordinary cast and crew that powered through a 110-degree weather in August. We shot summer for summer, in 100% humidity.

Can you talk about shooting the detainment sequence and researching its environment, especially in a time where we know the worst that can happen?

I was involved in the Filipino Legal Defense Fund and Philippine Consulate. I visited detention centers and interviewed detainees in New Jersey. All of the ways that Rose’s mother was arrested and treated was almost verbatim with my interview with a Filipino family who was arrested and detained for seven months. When we got to Texas, we looked at the current conditions of its detention centers. They are more packed and more brutal to its people. When the mother is taken into the center, there are aluminum foil blankets. They squeeze as many people as they can into the room.

Journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas was a consultant on the film. He wrote a book about his experience detained in Texas. He wrote about those Mylar sheets and the way they treated detainees like animals. We were careful to be authentic and consulted the immigration lawyers. 

Where did you shoot the detention center?

We shot in an Austin Amory. It’s an abandoned building on the outskirts of Austin. We recreated the detention center in that building. 

We also see the Philippines in a montage. Talk about shooting the Philippines.

The Philippines was the last shoot. We shot it after a couple of months after we wrapped up in Austin. I was able to know what to shoot. It was important for me to shoot in the Philippines to show the pain of separation and their different lives. I wanted to show that the Philippines were not a horrible place, probably better when the mother left the country. 

You spoke about receiving plenty of refusals, some “nos” from distributors. What kind of nos did you get? 

A lot of the nos were “we just don’t know what to do with the film.” One, even though Lea and Eva are icons on Broadway, they’re not the average American household name. They’re not what Hollywood considers bankable stars to drive box office. Two, there’s the Filipino experience. It feels too small to Hollywood. When the film was finished, almost everyone said liked it, loved it, but couldn’t figure out how to release it. Those are the kind of nos that we got. 

I showed it internationally in Mexico last week. The mostly Mexican audience was moved. We had a predominantly white audience at an Arkansas screening gushing about the film. The reality is that it plays as a universal film. But people tend to pigeonhole it because there have been so few Filipino characters in the media. That and combined with a lack of, quote unquote, stars.

You and Dale Watson wrote some of the music. What was the process of writing country music?

It was always my intention to cast real musicians so they can write the music in character. There’s Dale Watson, the face of Ameripolitan, a mixture of country music, swing, and rockabilly to honor the traditions of classic country music. His sound influences the sound of the film.

We wrote our big song “Square Peg,” when we were rehearsing the short film with Thia Megia. She’s an amazing musician and American Idol finalist. We had two or three days to rehearse. On her first day when she arrived, Thia, Dale and I sat down. In a couple of hours, we wrote “Square Peg” and recorded in the one week of production.  

There’s Dale’s song “My Circumstance.” He wrote that based on a scripted line that got cut in the final product. 

I also wrote “Quietly into the Night” during production of the feature film. We recorded it on the last day of production, before Eva flew off to rehearse for Hadestown in London.

Where do you hope you take this film and what you hope this film will do for the Trump era?

As of now, we do have offers for distributions and we’re just trying to work through those before a theatrical release. We hope to be in theatres soon. I hope they enjoy the music. The message of the movie is almost secondary to the young girl’s growth as a musician. I hope they glimpse into the lives of people affected by immigration, family separation, and watching your back with uncertainty. 

I wanted to create a new kind of hero. I wanted Rose to be a role model for young girls regardless of where they come from. A lot of the trailer responses are from young women who relate. So many men have responded to the film. Men come up to me after the film to say, “I love this movie.” I do hope it starts a conversation and gives another perspective to an experience that is infuriating because there are people who agree with the brutality on immigrants. My goal as a filmmaker is to entertain the audience and hope they come out moved and hopeful.

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To find screenings of The Yellow Rose, visit http://www.yellowrosefilm.com/screenings

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