- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2002

The title of Gene Cajayon's movie "The Debut" describes his career at this point."The Debut" is the first feature from the 30-year-old director and co-writer. "It took eight years, from beginning to end," Mr. Cajayon says during a phone discussion of the film, booked locally at the AMC Hoffman Center 22 multiplex in Alexandria.
The "Debut" chronicle is far from over for Mr. Cajayon, who makes a point of attending the premieres. The openings are calculated to attract moviegoers from the Filipino-American community, an ethnic group seldom noticed in mainstream Hollywood productions. (His father was born in the Philippines.)
Mr. Cajayon is due to arrive in the Washington area today from San Diego, where he has been nurturing a sustained five-theater engagement of the movie. "I'll be around the theater pretty much all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday, making sure that everything goes smoothly and because I have no life," jokes the resident of Orange, Calif. (A family man, Mr. Cajayon has two boys, ages 3 and 1.)
He will be joined during evening performances today and tomorrow by one of his cast members, Bernadette Balagtas. The actress portrays teen-ager Rose Mercado, the slightly older sister of the protagonist, a somewhat rebellious high school senior named Ben Mercado (Dante Basco).
"The Debut," an enterprising low-budget production made independently, mixes domestic melodrama and romantic comedy. The story anticipates a moment of truth for Ben, presumably the filmmaker's alter ego, who has been concealing a decision from his proud Filipino-American parents. This comes as they prepare to host an 18th-birthday party for Rose, a beauty who seems to pose no problems.
Defying his father (Tirso Cruz III), Ben has enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts in hopes of pursuing a career as an illustrator. Dad expects him to attend the University of California at Los Angeles and go on to medical school.
This weekend's opening is the film's second expedition to Virginia. It surfaced last summer at a Regal multiplex in Virginia Beach. "The town has a very high concentration of Filipino-Americans," Mr. Cajayon explains. "Probably the most concentrated bunch in the country, if you break it down by zip codes. About 23,000 people in a relatively small area. That's small compared to the population in the Greater Los Angeles area, of course, which is around 400,000, or in all of California, which has about half the national Filipino-American population, 2.3 million in the last census.
"Our strength is on the West Coast, but we wanted to try Virginia Beach to get a feel for what the East Coast might be like. All the contacts we made there suggested that Washington would be a logical next step."
Mr. Cajayon hastens to explain that his movie is not intended solely for a Filipino-American audience. After all, it's an English-language film about immigrant families, with a smattering of subtitled dialogue in Tagalog.
"We do judge our release schedule basically on the Filipino-American population. That's our foundation," he says. "We do a lot of homework to pick the right theaters, which to some extent means the most accessible theaters. Almost all our advertising is also aimed directly at Filipino-Americans. But over the long run, about a third of our audience ends up being non-Filipino. We know it can appeal to white kids, black kids, Latin-American kids. The issues between kids and parents and kids and peers are similar in all communities."
Alexandria is envisioned as a central location for the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area. Mr. Cajayon's research found that the Filipino-American population from Baltimore to Northern Virginia numbers about 50,000. "It's difficult for us to play a lot of theaters profitably," Mr. Cajayon says, "so we decided to concentrate on one that looked plausible. We started out renting auditioriums in some places last year, but we don't have to do that any more. It was kind of fun in Virginia Beach, because we opened the same weekend 'Jurassic Park 3' did and managed to hold our own."
Although Mr. Cajayon's father is a native of the Philippines, he worked as an engineer in South Vietnam in the late 1960s. While there, he courted a young woman of French and Vietnamese extraction. The filmmaker, born in Saigon in 1971, is the eldest of the couple's three children. Two younger sisters, now in college, were born in the United States after the family immigrated to Chicago. The Cajayons moved to Orange County, Calif., in 1979.
Mr. Cajayon recalls growing up "clueless in suburbia."
"We were definitely the minority family on the block," he says. "An uncle on my mother's side of the family had been the pioneer. There was a Little Saigon in town by the time we arrived. We lived close to that neighborhood, but not in it. Our home would get vandalized every weekend by hoody white kids. At 8, I didn't understand that was racism. I thought of myself as an outsider but never particularly as a part-Filipino, part-Vietnamese outsider."
A filmmaking vocation beckoned at a fairly young age. "Like every other film school kid, I started making little home-movie things with a video camera," he says. "'Raiders of the Lost Ark' was a huge influence when I was in grade school, then James Cameron's movies when I reached high school.
"I thought I was white and that I could just go out and make popcorn movies. It was all a sheer entertainment mentality. It wasn't until I started college and saw Spike Lee's 'Do the Right Thing' that I began to think about filmmaking apart from Hollywood. It can be about empowerment and representation and helping a community rally together."
Mr. Cajayon envisioned attending the famous film schools at UCLA or the University of Southern California. He was accepted at both universities but ended up at Loyola Marymount. "Everybody at UCLA was just straight-up mean. I walked around the entire department for an afternoon, and no one could spare five minutes to answer my questions. USC freaked me out because everyone seemed very, very rich all dressed in black and leather and sunglasses. All I could see were sons of Hollywood," he says.
He decided to stop at Loyola Marymount on his way home and discovered a more welcoming environment. "The key thing, what sealed the deal, was that I could take film courses right away," he says. "The Loyola program in the long run, it really conditioned me for an indie mentality. Pretty much everybody in the program makes movies, and you sink or swim."
Mr. Cajayon's feature began as a 10-minute thesis project. He shot the first few scenes of an unfinished feature-length screenplay. After graduation, it took him about five years to secure enough financing to begin "The Debut" revised and completed by co-writer John Manal Castro as an actual feature.
Partly through Hollywood producer Dean Devlin, best known for "Independence Day" and a Filipino-American on his mother's side, Mr. Cajayon attracted enough interest to secure an initial production grant of $200,000 from an Asian-American arts group associated with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He estimates the production cost $1 million, a figure the finished film is approaching in gross receipts.
Most of the shooting was done in October and November of 1997. Having run out of money, Mr. Cajayon spent another year raising the relatively measly sum of $12,000, which permitted him to do some retakes and additional scenes. More time elapsed as he sought funds for finishing touches, such as a sound mix and titles.
Promising festival showings in San Diego and Hawaii led to the first theatrical engagements last year. "I'm proud that we've made a real effort to get into theaters and let the [Filipino-American] community see a positive image of itself," he says. "I think we can turn a modest profit when all is said and done. When people hear our story, they tend to respond pretty well. It's got a little bit of David and Goliath."

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