Los Angeles Times

Written by Emory Holmes II

It took screenwriters Gene Cajayon and John Manal Castro more than seven years and 21 drafts to bring their teen comedy about Filipino American culture and identity to the big screen. The result, the aptly named The Debut, arrived in theaters on Friday. Told in the style of American Graffiti, the film is set at a debutante party at a suburban high school gymnasium and introduces U.S. audiences to such Filipino movie legends as Eddie Garcia and Tirso Cruz III as well as emerging Filipino American stars such as brothers Dante and Darion Basco.

The Debut also signals the arrival of the turbocharged Filipino American filmmaking duo of Cajayon and Castro, both 30, whose grass- roots promotion techniques and in-your-face fund-raising strategies have garnered them cash, acclaim and a certain cachet in the indie film world. The filmmakers, for example, personally introduced their film to audiences at each of its Los Angeles-area screenings.

It's hard, but we think it's important that we introduce the show in every single theater we've been to," explains Cajayon, who is the film's director and co-writer. "The theaters love it because they see it as a 'value add.' So we introduce the show and take a couple of minutes to say thank you and please spread the word to your family and non-Filipino friends as well, and tell them that we really need their support.

"We put ourselves in really, really big megaplexes smack dab in the middle of mainstream America where they have enough screens to really fit a film like ours in, and then we maintain a physical presence. We're making a statement: 'You know what? This isn't just a Filipino thing. This is an American thing."'

This grass-roots approach, no doubt, helped The Debut capture the audience award at the Hawaii International Film Festival last year, where it topped 90 films, including Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That victory gave them the confidence to enter the film in the San Francisco Film Festival in March, the most competitive Asian American film festival in the country. With The Debut scheduled to screen on the final day of the festival, Filipino American volunteers fanned out across the Bay Area all week, knocking on doors, sending faxes, pasting posters--and once again sold out the house.

"To keep our cash flow going for the several weeks before the checks came back from the distributor, we printed up T-shirts, a CD and a book, just to get by," Cajayon says. "And it ended up that we were able to use the money from that merchandising to keep expanding the film from one theater to another. Eventually we had eight mainstream theaters all across the Bay Area where our film was being shown. Now, the merchandising has become a real critical part of the operation."

They're smiling now, but the journey hasn't been easy. "We went through hell to get the movie made," Cajayon says over lunch recently at Pinoy Pinay, a Filipino fast-food restaurant in Cerritos in the midst of a burgeoning Filipino American community. "The idea is that the movie is supposed to be a film about the Filipino American community made by the Filipino American community. But when we started out, we were turned down by every major Filipino American business person, man or woman. And every millionaire you can think of that's Filipino American in this country we hit up, and they all said no.

"They didn't think there was an audience for the film," Cajayon continues. "And the concept of empowerment of one's community through positive representation in the media, that was too obtuse, too obscure for these people to understand. That was one of the most frustrating parts about the entire experience. Here are these people who have millions of dollars who wouldn't donate anything. So it was the blue-collar working-class Filipino Americans that got this movie made."

The Debut chronicles the events that unfold on a single day and night of a party celebrating the 18th birthday of a Filipina American (Bernadette Balagtas). The events surrounding the party will inevitably transform the life of her younger brother Ben (Dante Basco), who has rejected his heritage and is caught between his family's aspirations and the ever-competing currents of American popular culture that surround him.

Cajayon says it was crucial to him to tell his story from a distinctly Filipino American perspective. "When you see yourself on the big screen, it's such an intense, almost a borderline spiritual validation that you do exist. Unfortunately we've got this entire generation of Filipino kids, my generation especially that grew up on MTV and BET [Black Entertainment Television], with both white and African American pop cultural images as the defining things in their lives, but never seeing anything positive that was Asian."

When Cajayon first met Castro in 1994, The Debut was little more than an outline. "The project was my film school thesis at Loyola Marymount in 1992. I had the basic structure, the basic concept of the party and all these different things that happen to the main characters," Cajayon says. "But the execution wasn't there. I had shot a little 10-minute 16-millimeter trailer of my film idea to try to get funding, and John had seen it the year before."

Castro not only saw the trailer, but he had also become captivated by it. "It was the first time I saw a film like that-- about Filipino American teenagers," Castro recalled when he joined Cajayon after lunch at a nearby mall to continue their unending promotional campaign, passing out fliers, shaking hands and talking up the release of the film. According to Castro, within a year of seeing Cajayon's early cinematic effort, he had written, directed and produced a film of his own--the highly regarded satire on Filipino hyper-masculinity, Diary of a Gangsta Sucka.

When Cajayon saw Diary, it couldn't have been at a better time. "I had writer's block and didn't know where to take the script," Cajayon observes. "My problem was that I had a limited point of view. I grew up in Orange County, whitewashed and living among white- bread kids, and he grew up in San Jose, blackwashed, hip-hop and urbanized."

So Cajayon asked Castro if he'd like to co-write a feature based on his 10-minute trailer. "I thought it was going to be a couple of weeks' work," Castro deadpans. "He knew that I'm good at adding cuss words as you may notice. But I didn't know it was going to take this long. When Gene approached me, I was fresh out of college and had plans to go to grad school at NYU to study more film. My heart wasn't in it, though. When the interviewer asked me why I wanted to go to NYU, I said, "Uh, I don't know. Didn't Spike Lee go here?"

Castro jumped at the chance to form a partnership whose aim was to faithfully portray the Filipino American experience on film. According to Castro, "Since this was one of the first films ever made about this experience, we had all this baggage to air out. It wasn't like there were other films out there that told these stories before. Personally, I wanted to put everything in plus the kitchen sink because I just thought this might be the last chance we will ever have to do it."

The pair developed a collaborative system that allowed them to develop the script as they simultaneously constructed the folksy, if aggressive, production and promotion techniques that would bring their film notoriety. "We broke everything down to categories: mom- and-pop businesses, universities and high schools, churches, fraternal organizations," Cajayon says. "We'd pass out hats and people would put change in them. That is why I say that this movie got made through the blood, sweat and tears of the working-class Filipino community."

There was at least one influential Filipino American who came through for them big-time. In 1996, they landed a meeting with writer-producer Dean Devlin (The Patriot, Independence Day, Godzilla), who is half Filipino.

"These kids knew people who I knew and they had been recommended to me, and I thought it was kind of interesting because I don't meet many filmmakers who are" Filipino American, Devlin recalls. "So they came into my office and they said, 'Well, we wanted to meet you because you are the most successful Filipino [American] movie producer in history.' And I said, 'Wow! Thank you.' And they said, 'Don't be so complimented! You are also the only one!"

"Can you believe it?" Devlin says, still amazed, "These two punk kids coming into my office.... But I'm glad they did."

They scolded Devlin. "There are so few of you out there who have done well and you guys don't even talk about being Filipino," Devlin recalls, "And they asked me: 'What are you ashamed of?' I felt terrible when they said that to me, because I think they were right. I had not really talked about that part of my life. I had not really dealt with it internally."

Devlin became one of the project's many angels. When the word got around that Devlin had given the screenplay his blessing, their fortunes seemed to instantly improve. "Once Dean Devlin came on board, everything was a whirlwind," Cajayon says. "Dean basically gave us a shot of legitimacy when we needed it, and that got us the grant from public television that allowed us to get all the remaining financing together from family members and my credit cards and other people who came on board to finally get the film shot."