LAAPFF Interview: Director Diane Paragas, Actress Princess Punzalan, and Producer Cecilia Mejia on ‘Yellow Rose’
Rose, an undocumented 17 year old Filipina, dreams of one day leaving her small Texas town to pursue her country music dreams. Her world is shattered when her mom suddenly gets picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Rose, facing this new reality, is forced to flee the scene, leaving behind the only life she knows, and embarks on a journey of self-discovery as she searches for a new home in the honky tonk world of Austin, Texas. —Written by Cecilia Mejia, IMDb
Where did the idea for the film come from? Diane had mentioned in previous interviews that this film is one that is years in the making: Were there any production troubles? How did the film finally come about?
Diane: I sort of had this idea to make a movie. I wrote a script, just probably not that good early on, and I didn’t have that much experience so I kind of put it aside, and then I directed [other projects]. I became a better director and I gained a lot of experience. And it was about 7 to 8 years ago that I met Cecilia [producer], and I think at that point we really were solidly trying to pursue this movie. It was after my first feature documentary film, and so it’s kind of like, “What am I going to do next?” I’m like, “I need to go back to Yellow Rose.”
It was a long road, but it was a little bit more regular and purposeful. We, like any film, decided to make the feature script into a short film as a proof of concept. So we did get funding for that, and it took a couple of years. In the process we met Princess [Punzalan] and cast her before the short, so she had to wait a little bit. The short enabled us to win a grant, which is the Cinematographer Grant, and it was put out by ABS-CBN, the largest film and television company in the Philippines. They had this goal to have an international film. So their first way to do that was to put a competition out for all the Fil-Am and Filipino Diaspora. We luckily won that first grant, but unfortunately, [the film’s crew] had to wait for me on this one because I had decided to cast Eva Noblezada. We had to wait for her to finish her Broadway run of Miss Saigon.
So it’s always been a little bit of hurry up and wait, and then wait, and then it’s happening and then it’s not. But I think this is a great time for the movie to come out because of its themes of immigration and music and Crazy Rich Asians opening the door so that a movie like this won’t just be relegated to some specialty art house. It has the potential, which is our dream, to have a wide audience. And that’s why I made the movie. I wanted to tell a universal American story that happens to have a Filipino lead.
Within the film, there are two very distinct strands: there’s Rose who is trying to become a country singer and there’s the whole issue of deportation and ICE getting involved.
Were any of those themes inspired by your own life experiences or knowing someone who has had that happen to them? Do the film’s topics come from a place of reality or is it a work of fiction?
Diane: I grew up in Texas and I was a teenager in a Texas high school as the only Filipino. So that part of the story is very much a personal experience, and as Filipinos, I don’t think a single one of us has a relative or friend who is not undocumented. We all know people that are undocumented. We’re the third largest immigrant group so that’s a natural thing, so I knew very many people who are in a similar situation. As far as the music goes, it’s probably the one thing that wasn’t something that was clear cut–I had to learn about it.
I played music and was a musician when I was in high school, but I played punk music. I shaved my head; I thought I was Bow Wow Wow, and I just thought it was cool to be cool. But I wanted to sort of flip that side of my story and have this girl love country music, which is the most Texan thing. I thought that by having something that would not love her back, it’d be more tragic, and a great place to start a story. I took it upon myself to learn about country music and found a kind of country music that I could respond to which is a more old, classic type of country music, and I think for that reason we made that character be kind of an old soul. She’s a very soulful person that harkens back to the old classics. And then when I found Dale Watson, he just rounded things out.
I think one of the factors of the film that makes it very, very special is how it deals with the rarely explored dynamic between Filipino Americans and country music. It’s a very interesting cross-section.
[To Princess:] Was this genre something that was completely new to you? Are you a fan of country music?
Princess: Well, I’m not really into country music really, but in the Philippines, Filipinos like sentimental songs. The classic country music has sentimental storytelling, which is very Filipino, and I can relate to that. I remember when I first moved to Michigan, and we still had no TV, I just turned on the radio and I heard country music and thought, “This is nice!” In the Philippines we would listen to these types of sentimental songs so I liked it.
Why did you all choose to focus on country music over something like, say, punk music? What went into that decision?
Diane: Well, the story is a Texan story, I wanted to tell a Texan story because that’s where I came from, but as a movie goer, as a film fan, country music in films is probably the best genre of music in films.
There’s so many great iconic films that play country music and that was something I looked at–Nashville, Tender Mercies, Crazy. Because of the story-telling aspect of country music, it lends itself well. There’s a poetry to it, and there’s a sentimentality to it that lends itself well in cinema. Especially the kind of country music that we focus on.
Since it took so long for the film to come into being, were there any rewrites or changes from the initial version of the film? Throughout the years we’ve had things happen like the election and a lot of immigration reform, so how has the film evolved with the times?
Diane: There’s got to be like twenty versions or more of this script. It was so many versions and storylines and types of stories. But on this last push, after we did the short, we looked at what was going on in the world. Donald Trump had been elected, the Muslim ban, all these things happening, not renewing DACA, so we just had to make immigration a bigger part of this story. It was always the inciting incident that the mother and daughter would be separated by ICE.
It was so long ago that before we started the short, [ICE] was called INS, and they changed the name of it when we were making it! But I think it become more a focus of finding a home. And my co-writer Annie Howell helped give a fresh perspective because there were so many versions running around in my head. It helped to take what was happening in the world and tell the story from that kind of context.
Cecilia: It’s interesting because the story of immigration is actually not just relevant now, but it’s actually been a long time issue that people are sort of waking up to because it is a broken immigration system. The last real reform for immigration happened in the early 80s, which is funny because I think Diane had a script that was set in the 80s, so it would have been interesting to kind of do that in that time. But it was the last time that there was real immigration reform. So ever since then there hasn’t been anything that’s changed and that’s why the immigration system is so broken; because it has always been abandoned. There’s never been anything that sort of healed or fixed anything. It’s talked about now because it is a problem. It is a problem.
What was it like working with each other on the film, especially for a film as sentimental as this one?
Diane: My philosophy on working with actors is I really want to collaborate with them. I listen to them, I workshop the scenes with them, and I want to know what they bring specifically to the role. So I’m very collaborative like that. [To Princess:] I don’t know if you agree with that!
But Alfred Hitchcock said that the biggest thing in directing is casting. So you kind of know these two people will have a sort of chemistry, and you hope they do. That’s why you cast them. It’s not just their amazing acting skills, but that they would have some more between them. In the case of Princess and Eva, it was like an instant love. You guys just had it–I think the first scene, you were holding each other in the bed and the bond was real.
Princess: It was easy working with Eva because she’s very open and I didn’t feel any wall between us. Because some people just have that. And it’s hard to penetrate–sometimes you need to spend more time with each other to break through, but with her, she’s very open. Wide open.
Now going back to Diane, I loved working with her because it was easy for me as an actor to know “where do you want this scene to go?” She’s like setting the temperature, “Do you want it this hot or this cold?” She has a very good way of communicating what she wants and when something doesn’t taste like what she’s imagining, she would say, “um, ok let’s try it this way,” or, “how would you do it if it was in real life,” and she would ask questions. That was how we worked and it really helped make the scenes more human and believable.
Ultimately, what do you want your viewers to take away from the film? What does home mean to you?
Karen: That’s a good question: we want people to watch the film and have fun watching it and relating to it in any way that they can. You can’t relate to everything, but I want people to understand that home is where you make it.
For me, home is with other people. I never really felt like my house is a home, and I’m not saying I come from a broken home, but I just never felt that. I always felt home was where I felt close with my friends. Even on set I felt like home because it felt like a family. So home is just wherever you make it for me.
Princess: For me, home is where you can find your security. Home is where warmth is, where you feel love and acceptance.
Diane: Yeah, I mean the theme of the film was finding home. And that was a great question, and in the beginning it’s shocking to her that she doesn’t have a physical place to go. It’s heartbreaking for her and very quickly she realizes that’s not what it’s about. I won’t give the plot away too much, but throughout the course of the film, the definition of home changes for her.
I think that’s really what the theme of the movie is–is that if we have compassion for each other, even in situations where your family is taken away, you have the opportunity to form a new and different home. Maybe it’s not what you had before, but with compassion we can all find a home.
Follow the film on Twitter: @YellowRoseFilm
This brief interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu during Press Day at the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Special thanks to Jonathan Liu for transcribing this interview, and to Derrek Chow for providing the featured image.