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From ink to streaming: The road to building the ‘Trese’ universe

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The creators of "Trese" trace the origins of the komiks and discuss how the animated Netflix adaptation finally came to be. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX PHILIPPINES

Recently, billboards have sprouted across the country promoting the release of “Trese.” These became viral as they got “vandalized.” Pictures and videos of these “vandalized” promos were uploaded on social media sites, and created buzz, good and bad, for the highly anticipated animated adaptation of Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo’s komiks series.

“It’s the sort of thing that we used to do on the other side of the table, to pitch and try to convince clients to take over this spot in the city for a thing to happen, but they would usually reject or say there’s no budget; to see it happen because of ‘Trese’ is just amazing for us to see it all happen like this,” says Tan, who worked in an advertising agency while working on “Trese” and is now the creative director of Lego’s in-house agency in Denmark.

The overwhelming feats that would be accomplished by the international release of “Trese” on Netflix is not lost on its creators. “Even me saying, ‘oh, it’s amazing,’ it still hasn’t really sunk in with all of these things,” Tan says in conversation with CNN Philippines Life.

“I guess we were too focused on the 13 books, so while this was happening, ‘Oh, this should be a bigger deal,’ but since we have a goal, the Neftlix adaptation is one of the best side adventures we’ve had,” says Baldisimo. “Oh, we’ll take a break with the books for a weekend, enjoy this for a moment.”

“[The name of Anton Trese] had the same feeling when I heard the name John Constantine, it was very Pinoy, but somehow you could already sense this link to mystical supernatural stuff, and that’s why I thought it was perfect for a supernatural detective,” says Budjette Tan. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX PHILIPPINES

"Many more minds melding their skills and creativity together to reach a simple goal; entertain and awe. Then, maybe, inspire more storytellers to create their own eventually," says "Trese" co-creator Kajo Baldisimo. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX PHILIPPINES

Origin story

Baldisimo and Tan go way back, as early as the mid-'90s when then high school student Baldisimo stumbled upon an Alamat Comics exhibit in a mall after playing Street Fighter in the arcade.

“It was exciting for us at that time, we thought we could become the next Image, Vertigo, 'X-Men,' Marvel, it was just exciting to be with people who were as passionate as you to do comics,” says Tan.

Tan, second from left, and Baldisimo, far right, at the 1994 Alamat Comics Exhibit in Robinsons Galleria, where they first met. Photo taken by GERRY ALANGUILAN

“Alamat was really just there to help out, promote, network — but I don’t know if they were the best [in making] business decisions,” he shares, as he recalls releasing books in Club Dredd, hanging out with rock bands, attending the NU 107 Rock Awards, among others, ”But I don’t think we sold anything. But we were there!”

RELATED: 55 Balete: The studio where Pinoy comic book legends were made

One-hour exercise

It was years after, when both Baldisimo and Tan were busy with their careers as ad men, when Baldisimo sent THE message that started it all. “Working for an ad agency, it was happy, but the daily grind of creating new ideas and concepts only to be rejected, of course it had a toll on one’s psyche,” he says. “I think we needed an outlet and since we loved komiks, it’s what we turned to even if we’ve moved on from that and to the real world.”

“Budj was the one from Alamat that I knew was still active with writing komiks, so I tried to ask if he wanted to make one even if our circumstances were seemingly impossible at that time,” says Baldisimo.

“Kajo had a plan of finishing [it], he gave me parameters,” says Tan. “It needed to be a 20-page story, because he then mapped it out and said he can draw it in 20 days.”

“It just so happened that I had an old script which I could never finish — the Anton Trese script,” Tan shares. The character Anton Trese, conceptualized by Mark Gatela, was the narrator of Budjette and friends’ horror radio show.

“There’s only so much you could fit in six episodes, and I think we fit a lot from the original first couple of volumes. I remember calling Tanya as we were wrapping up episode six and said ‘I really wish we had a bigger order with this!’” — Jay Oliva, director and showrunner 

The first line of the acknowledgements for the first collection, “Murder on Balete Drive,” thanks “the skeleton crew who cobbled and conjured ‘The World of the Unknown.’” He adds, “Funnily enough, the other guys from that show were guys that I created comic books with later on, like JB Tapia, Bow Guerrero, and Arnold Arre.”

Over the course of this conversation with the creators, all mentions of the character always came with quips from everyone saying things like “such a nice name,” not only because we shared it, but also because of the vibe it gave. Tan says, “It had the same feeling when I heard the name John Constantine. It was very Pinoy, but somehow you could already sense this link to mystical supernatural stuff, and that’s why I thought it was perfect for a supernatural detective.”

In the show, Anton Trese told ghost and monster stories that were always set in Manila. “We were big fans of ‘The X-Files,’ ‘Tales from the Crypt,’ ‘Twilight Zone,’ ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker,’ and if you look at the shows, they always start with a setting. It became a template of sorts that we wanted to set each story in a specific spot,” he adds.

The radio show did not last long, but the script was always just there. “I had the main ingredients of the book: he was investigating the death of the white lady of Balete Drive, I knew what the crime was, I knew that I wanted a detective to investigate it and use magic spells or contacts from the supernatural underworld to do so,” Tan says.

The iconic Alexandra Trese look

“I designed Anton first, and at that time, I was a skinhead,” says Baldisimo. “I was in the CR, looking at my reflection, and thought, ‘What is this with my hairline? It’s something awkward... like horns?’ So I thought it was cool and a distinct facial feature.”

“After seeing the initial sketch of tough guy Anton Trese, it just felt like we’ve seen it all before. We’ve all seen that hard-boiled detective that can beat up any bad guy and it just clicked in my head, what have we not seen before?” recalls Tan. “We haven’t seen a female protagonist or a female detective for that matter investigating these really tough crimes.”

Alexandra Trese's coat was inspired by Jose Rizal's iconic overcoat. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX PHILIPPINES

“After we decided to make Alexandra Trese, I put in the same distinct hairline which I thought fit her well,” says Baldisimo. “I then added this [over]coat that Jose Rizal wore, if you Google images of him, it would be easy to see him wearing this certain trench coat with white piping. That’s my inspiration behind Alexandra Trese’s costume.”

And thus began their self-imposed deadlines. “As soon as Budj gives me a script, I read it from start to finish then work on the pages,” says Baldisimo. “I aimed to finish a page in an hour, because that was the only time we could allot on top of our hectic workload. I think the exercise worked because we didn’t overthink the first few stories, it just flowed naturally.”

“There was a sense of fulfillment because after an hour, you could see what was done,” he adds. “I liked it, although it wasn’t up to the quality we imposed on ourselves, but at the time as a hobby, we were happy with it. We were the only ones reading, we had no editor, no audience, until we photocopied it for Komikon.”

“We gave it to a few friends who would get the free copies, ‘Here’s what we did, try it!’,” Tan recalls. These ashcan copies are considered as holy grail among collectors now, with several posting their treasured copies in the ever-active and ever-growing Trese public group.

“It was around case number six or seven when I realized that there were people reading our komiks, so I thought I have to put in more effort, as people were paying ₱30 per copy,” says Baldisimo. “By then, I stopped the one hour per page exercise, it became around three hours or three lunch breaks.”

Budjette shares that this was also the time that they sold it as a set, with five issues sealed in a sandwich bag from the grocery. “Not Ziploc! Just clear bags because those were cheap!”

“While you could see Kajo’s style starting to shift and change in Book 2 (''Unreported Murders”), I felt that it was something bigger when we released Book 3 (“Mass Murders”). I knew we had a good following with Books 1 and 2, but when we had the launch for Book 3 in the 2009 Komikon in Megatrade Hall, that was the first time I felt that I was just signing all day.” He shares that even while signing, he was receiving messages from people who had read it, and that was an eye-opening moment.

The ten-year pitch

It was the holidays of 2009 when U.S.-based producer Tanya Yuson chanced upon a copy of “Trese.”

“I’ve been living away from Manila, but I know this place,” Yuson says as she recalls what she felt after reading the first three books. “I know the monsters and creatures they’re talking about, and it’s there in such a different and new way. It’s noir, it’s a very modern twist on the tikbalang, manananggal, kapre, nuno sa punso.”

"'Trese' is an example of how an authentic, riveting and innovative story from the Philippines is also accessible to a global audience and we hope it paves the way for more stories to come," says Tanya Yuson, the show's writer and executive producer. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX PHILIPPINES

“So in the format of a police procedural, which is a very Western kind of structure, I said, ‘This is something that audiences both in the Philippines and abroad could connect to.’ I wanted to see that world come to life, and then started working on it with my producing partner [Shanty Harmayn of BASE Entertainment].”

“They spent ten years pitching this,” shares Tan. “There were a lot of times when the opportunity was there and they said no to it. So I knew that they would do their best to make sure it is still true to the essence of ‘Trese.’ They could’ve gone for a lot of other opportunities in the past, but there were tradeoffs.”

In 2018, during the “See What’s Next Asia” event in Singapore, Netflix announced the animé adaptation of “Trese.”

“Partnering with Netflix was able to give them as much freedom as needed to properly adapt our story,” Tan says.

The animated world of Alexandra Trese

Jay Oliva, the showrunner of “Trese,” has worked mainly in the art department of big franchises on animated and live-action adaptations, both on T.V. and the big screen — from “Justice League,” “Wonder Woman” to “Thor: Ragnarok.” And in those years, he had never gotten to work on anything related to his roots.

"'Trese' is really a love letter to the traditions, heritage and culture of the Philippines," says director and showrunner Jay Oliva. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX PHILIPPINES

“I knew that this would be one of the first projects in my career that my parents would actually be able to understand and relate to,” he says during the Netflix press junket with the creators and showrunners of “Trese.”

“My team and I have worked on a lot of Warner Brothers and Marvel titles, so we’ve done New York, Chicago, Gotham, Metropolis, so it was one of those things where all of those different locations have a specific and different feel. I knew that Manila needed to be something special,” he says.

To capture the authenticity of Manila, Oliva and his art director Jojo Aguilar flew to Manila and met with the “Trese” creators for a briefing of the komiks’ style and its origins. “We made sure that all the characters, even the incidental characters, looked like Filipinos, dressing like you would see in the Philippines, wearing tsinelas,” he says.

And just like the huge distance between Denmark and Davao, the “Trese” universe will only continue to expand until they reach their goal of 13 volumes. “The world of Trese was really built issue by issue, there was no grand plan. We were just working towards a deadline, which made it fun,” shares Tan. “Every time we finished an issue, Kajo would say ‘What’s the next story?’ and that’s only when I would think of what I would do next.”

“It was going through a checklist — what are the stories we grew up with but never had closure? We never knew where the White Lady of Balete Drive came from, where nunos were living, where tikbalangs and manananggal were hiding in the city, so that’s how we built up the first books.” 

“So in the format of a police procedural, which is a very Western kind of structure, I said, ‘This is something that audiences both in the Philippines and abroad could connect to.’” — Tanya Yuson, writer and executive producer

“Budjette and Kajo created a world that is so diverse in so many ways, there’s so many things that I wanted to be touched upon, expand, or just add so much more,” says Oliva. “There’s only so much you could fit in six episodes, and I think we fit a lot from the original first couple of volumes. I remember calling Tanya as we were wrapping up episode six and said ‘I really wish we had a bigger order with this!’”

“Hopefully we get another pickup and can explore that, because to me the animated series is going to be separate and will exist on its own, to hopefully please the fans and bring in new audiences. The main thing is to spread the culture of the Philippines, show the pride that I have that this is where my family is from, focusing on family, duty and what it means.”

“If we get later seasons, I hope to pass Budjette and Kajo at some point, because that would be a great thing for the fans,” Oliva shares. “There would be fans debating about both versions, but it’s all good because it’s celebrating the world that they created.”

From Manila to the world

The opportunities and the doors this will open for creators from the Philippines is something that Tan himself experienced back when he was trying to pursue this dream.

“Whenever we meet readers or fellow creators that somehow attribute them wanting to tell a story because of us, we’re just thankful to see that we can contribute a little bit or give them a little push,” he shares. “That was the feeling when I found out Whilce Portacio was Pinoy. ‘Uy pwede pala, kaya pala yun!’”

A Filipino story, with Filipino characters, Filipino mythology and magic, attracted a cast that was more than excited to be part of it. “As soon as they heard about it, so many actors went out of their way to get roles,” recalls Oliva. “We heard a lot of stories from Filipino actors about them having been told to hide their accent or to act like they were another ethnicity, but now we wanted them to use their natural accent.”

For the Filipino dub, Liza Soberano is joined by members of the VocAlliance Community, a group dedicated to finding opportunities for our local voice talents.

Anton Trese has secrets of his own that his daughter will find out as she battles the forces of evil. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX PHILIPPINES

For the English cast, joining Shay Mitchell, who plays Alexandra Trese, are Jon Jon Briones, Manny Jacinto, Nicole Scherzinger, Dante Basco, Darren Criss, and Lou Diamond Phillips.

It is so surreal, say both creators, having this on such a huge stage.

“All of it came from influences and experiences when we were young, there was a time when it was a different horror show in every channel, and when I could rent comics from stores,”says Baldisimo. “Most of those were horror, so when we were making 'Trese,' those were the ingredients that all came together to produce this. I guess the people liked it so it became a show.”

“Now that it’s an animé on Netflix, I’m happy and hopeful that more people will now get to know the fantastic gods of Philippine myth and the frightening creatures of our folklore,” adds Tan. “I hope they’ll be intrigued enough to want to know more and seek out more Filipino stories in the future.”

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You can stream all six episodes of “Trese” on Netflix starting June 11.

"Trese" volumes 1 to 3 are available via their new publisher, Avenida Books, Volume 7 is scheduled to be reprinted in the third or fourth quarter of 2021, and Volumes 4 to 6 during the first half of 2022. International Versions available via Ablaze Publishing.