WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
I was raised in Tacloban Philippines and Sydney Australia – though whether I grew up is another question entirely.
AT WHAT AGE WERE THE ARTS INTRODUCED TO YOU?
I don’t know. I guess I wasn’t cognisant at the time. I think the first time you experience love is also the first time you experience art. To experience one is to have your emotions shifted to a point of feeling something at a new and sometimes alarming depth. Love is moving, art is moving, and to be moved by one is to be moved by the other. But if it’s a question of the arts in terms of a professional occupation, I can only answer by pointing to my family tree which bristles with a great many storytellers – we have journalists, poets, award-winning novelists, presidential speech writers, and a few painters and sculptors. I suppose a profession in the arts was inevitable.
DO YOU REMEMBER WHAT YOUR FIRST MOVIE EXPERIENCE WAS?
As with most migrant kids starting out poor in the 90s, the VHS was effectively my babysitter; my mother bought my brother and I a copy of “The Adventures of Mark Twain” – a claymation feature directed by Will Vinton. My mother’s purchase was likely informed by its seemingly innocuous cover of a cartoon man in a cartoon flying machine. But had she seen the movie first, in all its darkness and gloom and thematic underpinnings of time and death, I’m certain she would have left it in the bargain bin.
WAS THERE A “MOMENT” WHEN YOU KNEW YOU WANTED TO BE A FILMMAKER?
No one instance comes to mind, but I knew I wanted to tell stories. Growing up, I was the loquacious kid in my friends group who had to explain to everyone’s parents why we were all coming home so late. One by one we would drop kids off at their houses, and I’d be like, “Sorry, Mrs so-and-so, I know we said we’d bring Christian back by 9, but the party was a bit of a mess and we volunteered to stay back and clean up and so on and so forth.” Of course, everything I said was a big lie, but looking back, this ritual served as rigorous practice for story structure, plotting and fleshing out narrative. To this day, I’m still friends with some of these kids whose excuses I fabricated. Not Christian though. He borrowed a DVD and never gave it back.
DID YOU HAVE A SUPPORT SYSTEM EMBARKING ON YOUR CREATIVE JOURNEY?
It fluctuates. My parents are at times very supportive, but other times they do the whole Asian parent thing where they’ll unfavourably compare me to their friend’s children. “Did you know so-and-so is an anaesthesiologist? Did you know so-and-so got married to a runway model? Did you know so-and-so just bought their first house?” I tend to quip back, “Did you know so-and-so is a meth addict? Did you know so-and-so is in jail for stabbing her husband?” It comes down to perspective. No matter where you land in this world, things could always be better and things could always be you stabbed your husband.
DID YOU HAVE FORMAL TRAINING?
I have a bachelor’s degree in media and a bunch of short course certificates, but much of what I learned in technical proficiency has slipped gracefully into obsolescence; I was trained on mini DV tapes and Final Cut 7 and redhead lights and microtrack recorders. I was taught to cross rivers by rowboat only to find that it’s now feasible to fly helicopters to the other side. All this, however, laid the foundation for technique and equanimity and, just in general, an appreciation for the craft – which is arguably the most important thing. And life itself presents an endless well from which to drink. For example: so verbose is my talk of film that even those that know me best tend to forget I also have a Masters in Political Science. So it’s always particularly invigorating when that world collides with my film world, and I get to flex both intellectual muscles, however limited those muscles may be. I recently directed a politically themed short covering West African politics, and I was able to draw from my knowledge as a political science student. That’s what I adore about filmmaking. Every bit of experience, every scrap of wisdom, every inch and iota of accrued knowledge, counts for something in the process.
EVERYTHING IS UPSTREAM is part animation – part documentary. Was animation something you were always interested in?
Yes, but not acutely. It’s like when you first start dating someone. At the outset you’re fascinated in that person – and to get better access to that person’s heart, you find out what they’re interested in; and so your fascination in that person necessitates a fascination in their interests. Now with filmmaking, Story is where my obsession lies – and if a certain means of expression suits that particular story, then my obsession will expand to cover that certain means of expression. And in this instance my story was about dreams – and the means of expression? Rotoscope. The interest had to be born of necessity.
You are the Writer, Director, Animator, Editor and Cinematographer of this Award Winning short film. In the summer of 2016, you conducted a series of interviews with Buddhist practitioners from around the world regarding dreams. When did this idea come to you as the writer and what was your inspiration behind it?
I like to tell people it was because of an article I read, but that’s just a conversation shortener. In these matters, you start by what’s in front of you. First off, I read. A lot. If you can’t see me in front of you right now, I’m probably reading or sleeping. And it’s entirely possible that I read something somewhere. I’m also a bit spiritual and I practice Yoga and meditation, so Dharmic contemplation is often deferred to. I’m also terrified of my dreams, which explains why I’m so proactive at finding some kind of mental balance (a pursuit at which I fail so consistently). And I also love that Ah-Ha music video for the catchy Take On Me. These myriad things swirling in my brain must have just come together somehow, colliding with each other and forming some monolith in my mind. And in many ways, that mirrors how we as living organisms came into being. The exact combination of the exact people had to merge throughout a lineage of billions of years for you to be talking to me right now. When you factor in time and geography, the odds of us not existing are so much greater than the odds of us existing. The inexplicability of how we came into being is as random and rapid as the creations we manifest.
How far and wide did you travel to do these interviews?
Thankfully no exhaustive travel was required; the monks I interviewed were itinerant in nature and when their transience brought them to Sydney, it was only a matter of aligning our schedules. Which is not to say I wasn’t prepared to embark on an epic poem, because I most definitely was! Multiple times I’ve driven to Canberra and Melbourne (3 and 8 hour journeys from Sydney respectively) just to buy cheap film equipment. I’d go even further, for much less, if the actual making of a film was at stake. And I’m one of those rare people who absolutely hates travelling. My biggest fear is flying on airplanes. But if a film is being made, I’ll board as many planes as you want.
How did you choose who to Interview?
It wasn’t so much a case of me choosing who to interview as it was interviewing who was available. In my pursuit of Buddhist monastics, I was met with a lot of no’s. But then, I’m used to getting no’s. Arts grants, festivals applications, women. Exposure to this outcome has left me with either one of two things: genuine resilience, or a form of denial which I am currently mistaking for resilience. Whatever the case, I got through all the no’s and eventually procured four yes’s. For structure, I knew I wanted no more than four interviews, so I stopped searching after I obtained the fourth. Good thing, too, as I was feeling pretty drained at that point.
You choose five dreams in the film. How hard – or easy – was it to cut down over ten hours of recorded footage to the five dreams in the film?
Translation can only communicate so much, so there was a lot I really had to tune into. Vocal delivery starts to waver when things get emotional, so I leaned in when the interview subjects were at their most timorous. That’s when I knew there was gravity. I also picked some of the more aesthetically demanding dreams, because while dreams of one person talking to another person are common, they weren’t going to avail themselves visually.
What was it about the five dreams that made you want to visualize them for the audience?
I have a theory about dreams. They’re dress rehearsals. Mental preparations for terrible situations should they eventuate in our conscious waking life. That’s why dreams of running away from beasts and creatures are so common. It’s mental preparation in the event that we’re ever chased by someone from whom we are tying to escape. Fallings, drownings, breaking free, surviving deserts – all mental fire drills for dire situations. As such, I thought they would be most relatable.
Rotoscoping is the animation technique you used. How familiar were you with this technique before making the film?
A classmate of mine from University did a rotoscoped short for his thesis film, and that’s where I guess you could say the seed was planted. From him I learned about Richard Linklater and proceeded to consume as much Rotoscope works as possible – shorts, features, music videos; I was well versed by the time shooting came around.
The use of black and white color palettes along with splashes of color throughout make for a simplistic and stunning visual. How – and why – did you decide on this look for the film?
In many ways, that’s how life works. We see something that strikes us and everything else blurs, or, in my case, desaturates. For example; You see a banana you want, and the world gets split into 2 categories: that banana and things that aren’t that banana. You fall in love with someone, and all the people in the planet get split into two groups: that person you love and all the people on the planet who aren’t that person you love. There is a logical selectivity to what I coloured, and it centres on focus, but then there were also moments where the instinct just grabbed me – and I certainly wasn’t going to deny my instincts in film, especially when I deny so much of it in life, especially when it comes to food.
How did you go about finding your crew to work with?
Friends would be a better term than crew, as they definitely earn the name. These are people whom I have known for the better part of 10 years. It isn’t important how I met them insofar as I somehow preserved a meaningful connection over the years. Too often we meet someone, forge a bond, get some projects off the ground, and as time passes we see less and less of that person until eventually they became just another face on our Facebook. It’s sad, but that’s what comes of living in a world with lots and lots of people on it. What can you do?
What was the editing process like?
I love editing. I live and breathe editing. I love editing my films, I love editing other people’s films. I edit for a living. I wish I could edit more. I wish I could edit life! Director Peter Greenaway famously quipped that he shoots just to get to the editing room, and while I’m not entirely of that rigour, I can see where he is coming from. Editing is where the film takes shape, where the blur of your vision finally resolves into focus – how can you not love that?
How long did it take you to make this film?
10 months. One month for every minute.
What was your biggest obstacle – biggest surprise during the making of the film?
The biggest obstacle was in procuring access to the monks. As stated, there were a lot of no’s and in the end I managed to weather the rejection well enough to land a few yes’s. And if that was my biggest obstacle, I’ve really got nothing to complain about. The seas were calm.
What dream affected you most personally and why?
The fifth dream. In its brevity and simplicity and depiction of death. From an early age I’ve been dogged by the uneasy feeling that I would die young. While I hope this won’t be the case, in the event that it is, the virtues expressed in this dream have given me some perspective on the matter. Time, pain, love, death, everything that agonises and enriches is in equal parts impermanent – knowing this truly eases my unsettled heart.
You also have an upcoming web series coming out entitled LUNCH ROOM. Tell us how this project came to be.
Lunch Room is an ensemble comedy that follows the antics of staffers at a low-end supermarket as they try to get through each day together. So a little more than a year ago, Sydney Film Base grad Mark Nunnari cornered me in a coffee shop to pitch a short form idea stemming from his years of retail work. His previous pitch to me had fallen through, and I had already moved on mentally and was ready to make 2019 a film-less year with a sharpened focus on meditation and videography. So when Mark insisted on a meeting, I could only demur with excuses of work emergencies and temple visits. In actuality, I was going to my third, fourth and fifth screenings of “Roma”, and a sixth was in the offing, but I eventually relented when the requests had mounted and Mark showed little signs of wavering. So finally we sat and he talked and I listened – and I have to say, the pitch was alive. A webseries set entirely in a supermarket lunchroom – an environment where service-bound personalities could cut loose their duties, decompress and essentially morph into more earthy, empathic versions of themselves. It was specific enough to be relatable but vague enough to cover a range of topics and approaches. Characters wouldn’t be limited to rehashing the days events, but would bring their own hopes and insecurities to the room, as well as serve as symbols for wider issues. It reminded me of deeply philosophical one-set tv dramas like “Abigail’s Party” and “Horace & Pete”.
The film is set in a lunchroom of a low-end supermarket and follows the antics of retail staffers just trying to get through each day together. You are one of the creators – as well as the Director, Cinematographer and Editor. How do you juggle wearing all these hats without compromising any of the work?
I’m also one of the writers and sound technicians. There was no deadline so this kind of juggling was pretty easy. If we had a clock ticking relentlessly and a pile of money at stake, it would have been a different story. But the hats came on and off with consummate ease given the lax parameters. And it also helps that with filmmaking there are a lot of thin lines. Director/DOP, Writer/Editor. There may have been many hat-changes, but the hats themselves are not too outwardly different. Also, we had the luxury of time – a luxury so rarely afforded in both film and life.
The trailer also has a black and white palette. What look/feel are you going for with this?
I really don’t have an answer for this except to cite a long list of black and white films I absolutely adore. Where black and white was once the form for which filmmakers had no choice, now it has become something of a stylistic decision, hence why my film-watching scope finds its field within the recency of 20 years. So I’m talking about films like “Embrace of the Serpent”, “Francis Ha”, “Ida”, “Tetro”, “Roma” and so on. And they tell you in school to resist landing on stylistic decisions just because it’s something to do; there has to be reason behind every brush-stroke…but all I can say is, I like the look. I really do. Black and white speaks to me for reasons I cannot verbalise let alone emote. The aesthetic has enamoured me. With little in the way of explanation, I’m just drawn to the aesthetic. Our series also shares a spiritual cousin in “Clerks”, which is famously black and white, and retail based.
How did you go about casting?
I don’t believe in bad performances. I believe in bad casting. If you see a bad performance, it’s not because the actor is bad, it’s because the casting is bad. He or she was wrong for the part.
I will never again audition people for a part. For Lunch Room, I avoided auditioning people to suit a role, and instead found people and then wrote roles for them. By approaching things in this way, not one single person was miscast because every single role was specifically tailored. Why buy a jacket for someone in the hopes that it will fit, when you can first learn a person’s measurements and then purchase them the jacket? That’s casting.
When will LUNCH ROOM be released and where will audiences be able to see it?
We’ll be releasing the first ep this month. But you can keep track on our Instagram and Facebook.
The biggest hurdle for many Indie Filmmakers is finding financing to produce the film. How did you go about financing these two films?
Self financing was certainly a struggle ten years ago. Paying 8 grand for a HD canon with an in-built lens. It wasn’t even DLSR in those days. Now 6 grand can get you 2 4K cinema cams and decent zoom lenses. So much is eminently affordable now. Not to say that it’s cheap, but it’s better.
Lastly, of all the hats you wear, which one is your favorite and why.
As much as I love writing and editing, I have to say directing is where I feel the most control over a story. I don’t know if I’m any good at it, I know I just relish in the task and do my utmost to ensure the story being told is in good hands. Or hands as good as I can make them.