Viewer Discretion Advised (Tape 96): From Seed to Screen

by: E.B. Romero

At the start of the New Year, the short film adaptation of my one act play, Viewer Discretion Advised (Tape 96), got distribution through Frameline Voices. Anyone on the planet who has an internet connection can now watch it for free.

If I were to describe how I feel in one word, it would be a tie between “grateful” and “fantasmagasmic.”

In all seriousness, though, I am eternally indebted to all the people who joined me along the journey in bringing this story to life.

And what a journey it was. If you’re interested in the behind-the-scenes story of VDA, as it’s come to be known, read on. (Be warned – here be spoilers.)

Seeds

For lack of knowing where to begin, I’ll start with my favorite topic: I ❤ Tori Amos. I own every LP. I bought her book. I’ve seen in her in concert during every tour for the last decade. She does not fart without my knowing. Such is the extent of my geekdom.

Anyway, in 2008, Image Comics released an anthology titled Comic Book Tattoo, which is a compilation of short graphic stories from fans who were each inspired by a song from Ms. Amos. It was so popular that, soon after, it was rumored that there would be a second volume. Eager to get my geek on, I was wondering if maybe I could contribute something.

One song came to mind – Digital Ghost.

Sample lyric:

“Take a closer look
At what it is that’s really haunting you
I have to trust you’ll know
This digital ghost
But I fear there’s only so much time
‘Cause the you I knew is fading away”

Yeah, I don’t know what it means, either. But a story started coming to me, one that dealt with an incomprehensible loss, and the impact that the loss could have on the ability to look forward in one’s life.

This story stuck with me all the way to 2010. By then, I had moved out of the San Francisco Bay and into Boston, where I had an internship. Every morning, walking through the cold winter snow, passing by Fenway Park and the Citgo sign on the way to work, I would think about this amorphous couple. They were young and in like (as opposed to being in love), but one of them was hanging on to the memory of a past lover, who died at war in Iraq.

The only memento left of the deceased was a videotape. No goodbyes. No funeral. Nothing.

Was this a heterosexual couple? Was this a straight couple, where one of them was bi? Were they lesbians? Ultimately, I made the story about two gay men, if for no other reason, that was the frame of reference I was the most familiar with.

AND THEN – I realized that added a couple of layers to the onion, in which I could address Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, intergenerational conflict and other issues.

These were things I thought about for years, ever since I saw the first reports on the news of Iraq War II veterans coming back from overseas. These were the run-of-the-mill news segments of soldiers being greeted with hugs and kisses from their parents, their kiddies and their spouses. Then I thought, Wait a minute – if one of these soldiers was queer, who would be waiting for them at the base? Their partner? Do they embrace openly and in public, or do they have to get in the car and drive to some place private, hiding behind closed doors?

I kept wondering, because the latter is an incredibly despicable demand to make on someone who just put their life on the line for their nation.

Detour

So in Boston, I had my story. Could I find an illustrator? Well, hold that thought.

Bindlestiff Studio, a Filipino American community theater in San Francisco (and the place where I cut my teeth as a creative writer), put out a call for scripts for its second edition of The Bakla Show, an LGBT-themed showcase of one-act plays, dance and music, tinted with the Fil-Am perspective.

I remembered participating in the first edition in 2007, which was filled with so many amazing artists and stories. The show was very popular and left people wondering when the next production would be. I was happy to hear about the second edition in 2010, but wondered about what I could contribute.

That’s when I decided to turn a potential graphic short story into a one-act play – all written from the kitchen table of this crap apartment I was renting in snowy Boston (and in the process, I gave a shoutout to my mother’s hometown of Bagac).

I emailed it to the producers and informed them I’d be back in San Francisco for part of the spring. Once I came back, they told me they wanted to produce my piece, with Guerrilla Rep’s John Caldon directing.

I had known John for a few years at that point, and was familiar with him as both a writer and director. I knew my script was in good hands. Not only was John innovative, but he was also respectful, pitching ideas to me about how he would want to tweak a few things and asking for my opinion. In fact, I almost greeted John on Mother’s Day because, as I told him, he was bearing my seed.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be around to see the final result, as I had to head back east for another internship in Cleveland. It didn’t matter to me. All I wanted was for as many people to see the Bakla Show as possible. And from what I heard, we sold out the entire run.

One of the ticket holders changed the course of my little story forever.

Cows

In June 2010, during the first weekend of The Bakla Show: Myths Retold, Realities Unfold, Drew Stephens, the brother-in-law of co-producer Dianne Chui, got in touch with me about wanting to adapt my script into a short film. Drew was a member of Scary Cow Productions, a filmmaking co-op in San Francisco that allowed people of all skill levels to come together and make movies.

He saw my play, and he loved it.

Needless to say, I was very intrigued by the idea of reaching more people with this story, but Drew and I both discovered the conversation was difficult to have 2500 miles apart. So we held off on discussing things further until I returned to San Francisco, and we can talk nitty gritty in person.

Once we met, the thing that struck me the most about Drew was his passion for filmmaking. I knew this would be a great asset. He wrote the adaptation of my play, and told me he wanted to produce. Ultimately, I wanted him to direct, as well. He said yes, and asked me to be an assistant director (EEP!).

That left us with the task of rounding up the cast and crew. With Drew’s history working with Scary Cow folks, aka the Herd, it didn’t take long to find a really skilled group of folks who cared about making movies and telling a good story. All unpaid volunteers. All bad mammajammas.

As for the actors…well, we scored, and we scored hard.

* Cesar Cadabes reprised his role as Jerry from the original stage production. He was the one who broke everyone’s hearts, and we were happy he wanted to come back and do it again on camera.

* Melvign Badiola, a fellow Bindlestiffie, earned the role of Vince after we realized we needed to recast the role following the stage production. I knew he had the right energy – strong, but not afraid to be vulnerable – to bring Vince to life.

* Vicky Nguyen reporting the news. Because Drew is awesome.

* Jed Parsario as Francisco. Jed auditioned for Vince and read two scenes with Cesar. Ultimately, we went in a different direction, but we never forgot about Jed. And, fortunately for Bindlestiff Studio, he has since become a part of our theater family.

* Rosita “Tita Rose” Almario as Francisco’s mother. Because the Almario family is awesome.

We started principal photography in April 2011.

Blur

You know that phrase “running on fumes?” I don’t know what it’s like to run on fumes, but I know what it’s like to run on nothing but a handful of grapes, one of those turkey roll things from Costco and a can of sugar-free Red Bull.

That is what I was running on during the entire 15 hours of our second – and FINAL – shooting day. (The San Francisco Giants won the World Series the previous season, and the half-Filipino Tim Lincecum got an endorsement from Red Bull – so I had to show support to one of my boys.)

Apart from the news segment, the events of the story unfold in real time. The challenge was shooting the entirety of one long scene in one day in order to make the most out of what resources we had.

At this point, I don’t know how to describe the shooting day (my grape-roll-Lincecum combo may have had something to do with my memory problems). So let’s make like the Trivia page of an IMDb movie entry:

* The movie was shot in a house rented by a fellow member of Bindlestiff Studio because the space was ample enough to include room for both the actors and the film equipment. This took place without the landlord’s knowledge.

* The couch in the movie belonged to the tenants. The moviemakers did not anticipate that the fart-like noises of leather-on-leather cushions would be a problem for the sound mix. After post-production, writer/director Drew Stephens, who was also the editor, cheekily said that he could add “de-farting a couch” to his list of skills.

* It may not be obvious on camera, but both cast and crew had problems with the heat, as the lighting equipment made the set exceedingly hot.

* The refrigerator in the background was so noisy that it had to be shut on and off in between takes.

* Second assistant director Wes Fisher was in charge of creating the fake labels for the beer. He included the Scary Cow logo in the design.

* In the behind-the-scenes photography stills, writer/first assistant director E.B. Romero can be seen wearing a “Digital Ghost” t-shirt, which was a Tori Amos tour shirt from 2007. He says the song was one of the sources of inspiration for the story.

* The switch that Cesar Cadabes flips off toward the end of the movie does not control the circuit for the nearby lamp. Key grip Bill Spafford is hiding in the staircase, out of view of the camera, waiting for his cue to unplug an extension cord.

* Vicky Nguyen’s news cast was added in post-production. When Cesar Cadabes is using the remote control on the TV and crying, he is reacting to associate producer and prop master Ilena Ferrer, who was reading Vicky’s lines off-camera.

Screen

While Drew had his nose to the grindstone in post-production, I was rubbing elbows with the media. Kind of.

Granted it was all sort of by accident, when my fellow Bindlestiffie/Bakla Show Co-Creator and Co-Producer Shannon Lee L. Pacaoan came to San Francisco after having won tickets to the GLAAD Media Awards in May, and asked me to be her escort.

As luck would have it, we were seated next to someone from Frameline Films. Seeing as how Shannon has WAY more game than me, I was happy to get lost in my tart as she worked her charm and bakla magic. Ultimately, Shannon was able to finagle a business card for me. But more on that later.

Before we could think about the festival circuit, we first had to screen in front of our peers in the Scary Cow co-op. On July 2, 2011, they held a screening of the latest round of self-produced films from members of the Herd, which included our movie.

How did the Herd respond? We received awards recognizing the directing, writing, acting, cinematography, score, editing, sound and lighting, plus praise from the general audience and the cinematographer of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street.

I was verklempt.

Over the next year-and-a-half, thanks to Drew, we got into close to a dozen film festivals around the world, including Spain and the Philippines (I took pleasure in both of these because it felt like we were reclaiming and queering the cultural history).

I was only able to afford to travel to one film festival – the San Diego Asian Film Festival. This was my first time watching my work with an audience that wasn’t mostly made up of my peers, like at Scary Cow.

Here’s what the audience reaction sounded like throughout the movie: Laughter, laughter, more laughter…DEAD SILENCE. After the credits stopped rolling, for what must have been the longest split-second in the world, no one applauded.

I nervously thought to myself, This is good, right? Right?! They’re stunned in a good way, RIGHT?! Finally, somebody applauded, and the crowd joined in. Phew.

So after a year-and-a-half on the festival circuit, and a few awards (Best Short Film at the St. Louis Q Festival), we’re ready to take the rest of the world. That contact we made at Frameline? Came in handy: Contact A, led to Contact B, led to Drew, our fearless leader, negotiating a tremendous deal. As of Jan. 1, 2013, we are available all over the planet, and honestly, I hadn’t looked forward to waking up on any morning, with this much anticipation, ever since I was a little boy, waiting to see what Santa brought for Christmas.

I’m happy that people all over the world can see this for free. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is dead, but its legacy of forced silence still lives on. The Defense of Marriage Act still excludes loving, tax-paying Americans (including service members) from having their relationships recognized by the federal government. [EDITED: Since I wrote this, the Defense of Marriage Act was repealed! Although we’re still 32 states shy of marriage equality everywhere.]

I can only hope that this story my friends and I have told can illustrate the impact of what will ultimately be viewed by our nation’s descendants as an embarrassment in our country’s history.

There are several things I’ve taken away from this experience:

* Inspiration is divine. If you’ve got an idea that’s grabbing you and refuses to let you go, that’s because it demands you give it concrete life and form. All you have to do is not f*ck it up by letting your ego get in the way.

* It doesn’t matter how inspired you are. As Ms. Amos would say: Your work is only as good as your crew. So pick a good crew and treat them well. I consider myself indescribably fortunate to have worked with the people that I have.

* As a minority – racial, sexual, etc. – you cannot wait for people to tell your story for you. If you are unhappy with the representation of your community, or lack thereof, in mainstream media, it is not enough to get angry. You need to find a way to create that representation yourself.

Please – Watch. Share. And don’t spoil the ending for anyone else!

Click through to RDM Studio’s website to watch Viewer Discretion Advised (Tape 96) on Frameline Voices.

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