“The bad guy of the film isn’t a person, it’s the system.”
Diane Paragas is the director of Yellow Rose, the first Filipino American film theatrically distributed by a major Hollywood studio. Her background in documentary film, has set the foundation for her exceptional debut narrative feature about an undocumented Filipino country singer. Diane’s Showtime documentary Brooklyn Boheme, which captured the African Arts movement that launched the careers of Hollywood’s leading African American artists, won the Black Reel Outstanding TV Documentary Award.
Yellow Rose has been 15 years in the making. Diane struggled to raise funding for the project and created a short as a proof of concept for the feature. This process discovered musician Dale Watson who helped write the soundtrack and plays the title character Rose’s mentor. “I was directing a commercial, and one of the creative directors was also a musician. I told him about the film’s character Jimmy Redburn, and he told me about Dale, who would be perfect for the role. He showed me this video of him, and I listened to all his music,” says Diane. The short takes place inside Dale’s tour bus. The feature required external shots of the tour bus, and “Dale Watson” was plastered in large letters on the side. Due to budget constraints, “we didn’t have money to change it to Jimmy Redburn, so it became this very meta thing where he ended up playing himself in the feature.”
Diane’s search for Rose nearly lost the film’s financing. She recalls, “when Eva Noblezada was discovered for Miss Saigon, I felt so strongly she was Rose. I auditioned hundreds of girls, but Eva was always in the back of my mind. Eva was the Rose I was looking for. My investors wanted me to make the movie in that calendar year, and I turned it down.” Principal financing couldn’t believe Diane was giving up the chance to make this film. Coincidently the last season of Miss Saigon was announced and Diane was able to offer Eva the part.
Eva’s star-making performance justifies Diane’s reluctance to move forward without her. Rose’s breakdown after witnessing her mother’s arrest is one of the film’s most harrowing moments. “It was so physically taxing for Eva running back and forth. That’s when I knew this was an incredible performer. She was able to do it over and over again and with the same intensity.” The film also features legendary Filipino American actress and singer Lea Salonga as Tita Gail, her first film in 24 years. The first days of filming were Lea’s scenes, the crew was, “at the top of our game because it was Lea.” Diane wrote the part of Gail specifically for Lea. “Eva was already attached, and that helped Lea’s decision. She really loved the script, and she believed in me,” says Diane. The film shot in just 19 days, “there were days we shot from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M, in 107-degree heat. The experience was exhilarating, it sealed us together as a company.”
The script also went through rewrites as Diane secured funding. The original story focused primarily on Dale and Rose’s relationship. Influenced by Trump’s presidency, anti-immigration sentiments brought the deportation aspect of the story to the forefront, “instead of leaning into her country music dreams, it started to lean more into her finding a home and this idea of what happens to families who get separated.”
Extensive research was done to accurately capture the experience of being detained and deported. Diane wanted audiences to see, “the bad guy of the film isn’t a person, it’s the system.” Diane partnered with FALDEF (Filipino American Legal Defense and Education Fund) to interview families in detention centers. Diane also worked with Jose Antonio Vargas and Define American to develop more realistic immigrant characters and immigration-related storylines. There have been comments that the film grossly exaggerates the experiences of detained families. Diane asserts, “when the mom gets picked up by ICE, it’s almost exactly the experience of a family I interviewed. ICE came into their home around two in the morning with no warning. You have two minutes to get your stuff and they don’t tell you where you are going or for how long.”
Diane was deeply intrigued by the irony of a character, “who loves country music and Texas but is rejected from even daring to enter the music industry and America.” Diane’s body of work incorporates social-political issues because, “the real issues the Asian American community goes through is not represented enough in our media. As a filmmaker, I am more interested in talking about the real issues because movies have the power to change people’s hearts and minds like no other medium. We let ourselves be taken over by the experience we see on screen and let it into our hearts and minds. So many people have come up to me and tell me that they feel seen or they never truly understood the immigrant experience until seeing this film.”
Diane started her career in advertising, working in commercials. Although she was always interested in filmmaking, she never believed it was a possibility. “There was a lack of Asian role models in the industry. I didn’t go to film school. I learned on the job,” says Diane. As you watch Rose race to the rice cooker after school and sing in front of her Prince and Dolly Parton votive candles, you realize how little you’ve seen the Asian American experience reflected in film. Like the film’s theme song about feeling like a square peg in a round hole, Diane is a filmmaker that doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional Hollywood director. Yellow Rose is an example of a promising future for film, where new stories that break the mold are finally being told.
Watch Yellow Rose now available via streaming platforms.
Photos courtesy of LBI Entertainment.