The 2021 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF) is underway through October 2, featuring a number of Filipino American films. Since I have never seen a contemporary Filipino musical before, I was interested in watching The Girl Who Left Home. A tragedy brings Christine (Haven Everly) away from L.A. and back to her hometown, interrupting her aspirations for an an acting career. Christine needs to have some tough conversations with everyone, while she’s trying to save the family restaurant. The cast of this live-action film includes Paolo Montalban, Emy Coligado, Lora Nicolas, Liz Casasola, Russwin Francisco, and Mitch Poulos.
Mallorie Ortega served as the film’s writer, director, producer, and lyricist. I spoke with her to find out more about her influences in filmmaking, the aspects of Filipino culture she wanted to spotlight, and where she sees her film in the tapestry of Asian cinema.
Which musicals have been memorable and inspired you?
Definitely the songwriters [Benj] Pasek and [Justin] Paul, who wrote Dear Evan Hansen, The Greatest Showman, and La La Land. Their lyrics and simplicity inspired me and helped me navigate lyric writing. They bring so much energy and say so much in so little words. They are very clever. This film is the first time I’ve really sat down to write lyrics.
As far as my favorite musicals, I would have to say The Last Five Years. It’s a two-person show composed by Jason Robert Brown. Comparing to Pasek and Paul, he does so many intricate and clever things, not only with his lyrics but also with his music. That’s something I wanted to try to keep in our whole musical in general.
How do you bring themes from a certain song back to a song later in the show? I used that as part of a way of storytelling, not just for fun but to understand where each character was emotionally and where they grow. Our main theme of The Girl Who Left Home, you’ll hear that melody change throughout the musical. It’s very subtle but if you really listen to the melodies of each song where our lead character is, it changes every now and then until the end.
The generational jokes jumped out at me while I was watching. Was any of that inspired by actual conversations you’ve had?
Absolutely. I don’t know about exact conversations, but you get the stereotypes in the culture. There’s always the one auntie who is over the top. There’s always the uncle or your father who is corny and tries so hard.
Or the mom who asks if it’s safe to do this or that.
When I wrote the script, the first scene that I wrote was [the one] where the mom and the girls go out in the Uber and to the bar. It was me imagining taking my mom out. My mom would totally be like, “Why are we getting in a car with a stranger? We’re going to get kidnapped.”
After I wrote the script, we had a couple of table reads. My parents were there for it. They were visiting me in California. I think my car had broken down, so I had to put them in an Uber and send them somewhere. It was exactly what happened; my mom said, “What is this? We’re going to get kidnapped.”
I said, “No, I can see you on my phone. You’re going to be fine.”
I know Ellicott City, MD, was hit hard by storms within the last few years. What was it like to film there?
Ellicott City has a special place in my heart. I went to UMBC for college. That was where we would go to hang out. It was bittersweet because a lot of the shops I remember were closed down. I wanted to show that in the film too, but my editors were like, “Okay, Mallorie, are you trying to make a historical piece or a film?”
They were right. I should not be showing all the shops. It was nice though to be able to share this location with people who flew in. They got a sense of my history and to love the area, too. Everyone in Ellicott City was nice in letting us use their shops. The community was strong and supportive.
Filipino food was another thing on showcase. What’s your favorite dish?
Kare-kare. I was just talking to my friend about it. I miss kare-kare. Why is it so hard to make? It takes forever. (Laughs)
I liked how you integrated the social media aspect during the food scenes. Where did you get the idea?
I watched the movie, Chef, with Jon Favreau. It was when social media was—not new—but no one had really figured out how to integrate it very well, except showing a phone. They did a really great job integrating Twitter.
I wanted to make sure we weren’t doing a lot of phone shots, that we were seeing what they were doing on the screen. It felt more lively. It was a lot to prep for because I’d never done this before. I had to get approval from Instagram and use their user interface stuff. Luckily, our effects artist handled all of it. It was more work than I thought it would be, but it definitely paid off.
Which aspects of Filipino culture were you most excited about highlighting?
It was the generational relationships. My goal was to show different aspects, that being Filipino was very different than being Filipino American. Even one small difference in beliefs can cause a big conflict. I wanted my piece to open the doors to conversations that are more difficult and help us understand one another.
This piece is not autobiographical, but there are situations I pulled from myself and my friends. While making the older generation more believable [in the film], I realized so much about where they’re coming from and how they view the younger generation. Conflict can be alleviated if we take a moment to think about what others have gone through.
You don’t get to see a lot of it in film or TV for Filipinos specifically. It gives us an opportunity to see how human and complex we are. Making this film is only the beginning for me, and I hope, for a lot of filmmakers.
We saw a lot of conflict through the lens of what Christine saw. What do you appreciate about what Haven Everly brought to the role?
She is a gem and a go getter. She worked so hard to get to where she was. Haven and I had very different upbringings. Her parents fully supported a singing and an acting career, whereas my parents were very much [about] business, the military, or go be a doctor.
She brought a sincerity that I didn’t write, but when she was doing it—wow, that is the character. She would be more sincere in those moments. She would be quieter in these moments. Having her experience embody Christine—she stands out and made the character even more complex.
She put her all into it. For those dancing scenes, she didn’t have any rehearsal time. She had a day to learn the dance. She’s a trooper. I don’t know how she was able to keep up all that energy. She was so focused. I don’t think anyone else could have done a better job.
Where do you see your film in this great tapestry of Filipino and/or Asian cinema?
I think it’s just the beginning. When I wrote this five years ago, there wasn’t Crazy Rich Asians on the slate. To be part of the forefront of Asian cinema is an honor. It’s been stressful to know that you’re part of the first batch. When people see the film and reach out to me, they are inspired. They can’t believe there is an original Filipino musical out there. They’re excited and they want to do that, [too]. It’s been so rewarding.
It surpassed the fear that [the film] is part of history and it’ll be out there. Having people wanting and having the courage to do it after seeing my film was something I didn’t think about or expect. It’s been pretty wild, but I’m happy to be part of the first group of filmmakers to tackle a feature and make it happen to us.