Director Petersen Vargas wants to redefine BL for Filipinos

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The director talks about “Hello Stranger,” how working on “Hanging Out” helped him prepare for the new series, and how the pandemic changed his approach to creative work. Photo courtesy of PETERSEN VARGAS

Creative's Questionnaire is an interview series where artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creatives talk about their work, the challenges that they face, and their inspirations.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — As the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to stay indoors, many of us have turned to entertainment to get by. In the past few months, “Boys Love” (BL) served as a welcome distraction. BL is characterized by fictional romantic (even homoerotic) stories between male characters, which are generally written by women for women. The genre is captured across all media, from yaoi manga to its most recent and popular iteration: T.V. drama. The most popular recently was the Thai drama “2gether: The Series,” which took the Philippine market by storm, trending on Twitter every week upon its release on YouTube. Whether due to its accessibility over YouTube, its release (the first episode aired on February 22) overlapping with a pandemic that left audiences searching for light-hearted content to lift the spirits in this bleak time, or something else entirely, “2gether” sparked a seemingly insatiable hunger for local BL.

Director Petersen Vargas is among the first to try and fill that gap with a new series called “Hello Stranger.” Starring Tony Labrusca and JC Alcantara, the series follows the familiar jock-nerd love story — only, this time, it’s set in the midst of the current pandemic, where the characters meet and fall in love entirely online.

Vargas, whose work includes the 2016 Cinema One Originals Best Picture winner “2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten” and the first Filipino gay web series, “Hanging Out,” describes his body of work as “centered on the experiences of youth: how one ‘comes of age’” — particularly queer youth. “It was only very recently that I realized that I’ve spent — and well, devoted — the majority of my twenties pushing for all these deeply personal queer narratives to materialize onscreen.”

He adds, “I feel like, in their own beautiful, sometimes messy and chaotic ways, that all queer stories are coming-of-age stories.”

But with the way the story is told, it’s hard to ignore the present realities for film and T.V. workers. Like others, Vargas admits that the pandemic has put the industry in a “rather bleak” situation. “So many people have lost — [and] are losing — jobs,” he says. “The silver lining in all this is that somehow, during the pause caused by this pandemic, a lot of concerned people in the industry started organizing themselves into respective guilds and groups. [...] This is all built on the premise that in the midst of this crisis, we had to look [out] for each other. I hope the existence of these united fronts would allow radical shifts in problematic industry practices. I wish we could transform our norm into something that benefits all kinds of film workers, not ever leaving anyone out in the picture.”

Despite the dismal situation — or perhaps in defiance of it? — productions like “Hello Stranger” have persisted, with crews finding ways to circumvent and adapt to the new normal. For Vargas and crew, that meant doing essentially everything over Zoom, from brainstorming to chemistry tests to shooting.

“In some ways, in all of this, I find myself longing for human connection and interaction,” he says. “The raw energy you feel on set with your team, and with the cast. But for some reason, having spent a considerable two months with the ‘Hello Stranger’ team, I’ve learned that there’s also this different sense of wonder and magic that we’ve all created together, despite only having met everyone online.”

Here, we spoke to Petersen Vargas about “Hello Stranger,” how working on “Hanging Out” helped him prepare for the new series, and how the pandemic changed his approach to creative work. The interview has been edited for clarity.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

“Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent,” says American indie director Jim Jarmusch. Everything I do is a collage of all the things in my head at a given moment: an emotionally charged snippet from a Richard Siken poem, the jangled vocals of a Perfume Genius track, a David Hockney painting of a half-naked young man in bed. An iMessage conversation with an ex-lover. An illuminating Letterboxd musing on a film I hated. Movie memories of teenage boys riding bikes in tandem. A creative person knows how to take things from basically anywhere and take them somewhere that magnifies a persona — a point of view.

What is the core philosophy that guides your work?

Out of all the wise and life-changing things Ricky Lee, the living Philippine cinema legend, had said during our weekly scriptwriting workshop sessions, there’s one that always stuck with me: “Lumabas ka at hayaang masugatan ang mga mata mo.” It’s not enough that you watch movies, consume art, read about issues — although of course all that is essential — but eventually, you’ve got to step outside and live life. And more importantly, see life with wounded eyes.

And how does that relate to your current project, “Hello Stranger”?

Early in [the] development, one of the things I brought up with the show’s head writer (Patrick Valencia, also my co-creator for “Hanging Out”) was how we could place and define the BL genre within a local Philippine context. Having already seen a few BL shows, I understand the prerequisite that in order to make it feel like BL, it has to feel like, well, “fantasy.” But within those representations of fantasies (mostly, as in its long-standing tradition of for-female by-female consumerism) in existing BL content, I made it clear that there were a lot of things that didn’t sit right with me, that some aspects were going to do more harm than good in the context of making LGBTQ+ lives visible and represented.

So I say, in 2020, if we were to define Pinoy BL, may it stray away from problematic depictions of sexual consent. May it open the floodgates in creating a healthy discourse on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and not just tiptoe around it. May it equally represent women not just as vessels for conflict, but also as well-rounded characters that are as empowered as the queer characters at its forefront. May it show love that needs no defining, that is comfortable in its shapelessness — but is just as real, relatable, and essential as all the love stories Pinoys have already seen in heteronormative counterparts.

How do you think working on “Hanging Out” has prepared you for this project?

One of my early conversations with Team Mag’s Paolo Lorenzana was the realization that our own formative “coming of age” years was spent navigating a rather Western idea of queerness and growing up through shows like “Queer as Folk,” and even the more recent HBO series “Looking.” So we wished for something more immediate that could really hit closer to home. So much of “Hanging Out” was built on raw impulse. All we had was a deep-seated hunger to make the kind of show that young Filipino queer kids could call their own. Or somehow, at least, see bits and pieces of who they are in a character, in a moment, or even just in a line of dialogue.

What we didn’t expect later on is ending up with a small, passionate community that believed in the show more than we did in the beginning. Without heavy marketing machinery, we were able to capture a humble online audience that, to this day, still champions the merits of our six-episode season. The entire experience revealed that there was a market — queer or otherwise — that was just as hungry as we were for this kind of content: queer people living their regular, day-to-day lives.

Do you look back at your past work? Why or why not?

I do. Who doesn’t? [Laughs] But, yeah. Mostly, as a reminder of who I was from a moment in time, to compare the way I process and understand certain things now. Films are like time capsules: they belong, as a cultural artefact, in the time they were made. But also, films could outlive us, both audience and filmmaker. They could birth new meanings and grant fresh discoveries as they age and interact with the current world and status quo.

Do you have a mentor? Do you think it's important to have one?

Sometime in 2011, I remember, then as a film student, seeing “Zombadings” and thinking, “Who the fuck did all of this crazy shit?” That eager fascination and lowkey obsession over the movie led me to director Jade Castro, whom I’ve always considered my mentor ever since.

I mean, it’s a tough call, and it’ll always be up to you. The films I made from “Lisyun qng Geografia” and beyond wouldn’t be what they are without Jade. For that, I’m thankful. You shouldn’t deny yourself of the experience — especially when you find a kindred spirit and eventually a dear friend in a mentor.

How important is social media in your work?

Social media has provided a way for us to read feedback almost immediately after anything is released. It’s essential to learn how to filter through all that noise, and hopefully engage in the conversations that could elevate the purpose and meaning of a certain work.

What skills do you wish you had?

I wish I could graduate from human-stick-figure storyboards so my team could understand me better.

What myth(s) about your field of work would you like to debunk?

What a difficult question to answer when I still believe in the power of offering eggs — sometimes, as a funny tradition, we’d even draw a smiley sun face on them — at the start of a shooting day so the gods wouldn’t dare bring rain to our set.

What have you learned from work that you've applied to other areas of your life?

If you can fix something in pre-production before the shoot, fix it. If you can fix something in production prior to post, fix it. If saying, “We’ll fix it in post,” makes you feel like an asshole, then don’t be that asshole. There’s so much room to make things right if we only step back and allow ourselves that space, always.

How is this pandemic changing how you approach your work?

You eventually learn what really matters. From the stories that you still badly want to tell — despite all of this.

What kind of changes do you think are essential to ensure the kind of work that you do can thrive, while still protecting the people who do it?

While the number of cases in our country continue to rise, people in the industry should always guarantee everyone’s safety first. We need protocols that consider all the aspects of a production, hopefully duly noted by our own community of practitioners. We need to keep looking out for each other.