Interviews · Movies

Diane Paragas’ 15 Year Journey to Direct ‘Yellow Rose’

We chat with filmmaker Diane Paragas about how she always knew ‘Yellow Rose’ was the right film for her narrative feature debut.
Diane Paragas
By  · Published on June 28th, 2021

Yellow Rose is a movie bursting with soul. There’s an intense passion on display in filmmaker Diane Paragas‘ narrative feature directorial debut. It’s a story she has been living with for a long time, and it shows. For 15 years, to be exact.

Prior to stepping behind the camera for Yellow Rose, Paragas was directing a variety of projects for years. She didn’t attend film school, but once worked in Hong Kong, as well as Europe, where she gained experiences richer than studying in a classroom. “Those are two things you need: to live in the world, see the world, and live your life, and then, learn your craft,” Paragas said. “From that point, you can be a storyteller.”

Paragas was raised in Lubbock, Texas, where both the short film and narrative feature film, Yellow Rose, are set. The director studied at the University of Texas, but it was gigs, such as her job at MTV, where she got her film education. “My world expanded,” she said. “I eventually lived in Hong Kong after that. My worldview changed because of it. Seeing that young people’s voices were important, as well as expanding my mind that the world is bigger than America, was important.”

After launching MTV Asia, she went on to work with Discovery Asia. For the company, she not only directed docs but edited her own material. From there, she shot commercials for a series of major companies. In 2011, she co-directed her first feature-length doc, Brooklyn Boheme, about the black arts movement in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

During all that time, Paragas was thinking of the movie she knew she wanted to make her narrative feature debut, Yellow Rose. She faced a long list of challenges along the way, but in the end, she co-wrote, produced, directed, and even wrote original music for the drama.

During a 19-day shoot, Paragas told the story of 17-year-old Rosa Garcia (played by Tony-nominated Eva Noblezada). She’s an undocumented immigrant shattered by the loss of her mother, who is imprisoned and deported. Through country music, Rosa finds an outlet to express her pain.

The film reconnected Paragas to music. She’s a musician as well as a filmmaker. She’s currently working on a musical project with music producer Scooter Braun, as well as a “pretty out there” pop opera musical set during World War II. For Yellow Rose, she had country musicians such as Townes Van Zandt, Emmy Lou Harris, and Loretta Lynn on her mind. Recently, the filmmaker and founder of Civilian Studios took us behind the scenes of creating the music and more for her drama.

It’s been a long journey for this movie. 

Yes, it has.

If the movie was made 15 years ago, how do you think it would’ve compared to now? 

First and foremost, I’m a better director than I was then. I think one of the things that makes you a better director is just living life and going through hardships. By the time I made it, I became a mom. My daughter is in the movie. She’s the little girl in the movie. I had an understanding of what it’s like to be a mom, which is such an important part of the story. In the course of making it, I had the opportunity to work with a lot of actors in commercials and other formats. My relationship with actors was different by the time I made it.

I think the most important thing is the politics of the country. By the time we actually filmed the movie, the country was in sort of an immigration crisis. We had a president that was very anti-immigration and wanting to build walls. The film took on a more relevant tone. As we’re filming it, we knew this was happening all around us. It took on a deeper meaning. Personally, professionally, and politically, it happened at the right time.

What did year one look like trying to make it?

Well, your site is Film School Rejects, and I am one of these people who didn’t go to film school. I learned on the job. When I wrote it, I didn’t have a lot of experience. I was naive. I just thought I’ll get a Hollywood producer. I did get some interest from people early on, but no matter who it was, there was always some compromise involved. Like, they wanted to change the lead character to a different ethnicity. There were various compromises I wasn’t willing to make. Those obstacles were clear. Most people were like, “There’s no market for this kind of movie.”

I worked on it for a couple of years, but then I put it on hold and pursued other films. I came back to it a couple of years later. So, there was a whole middle part of the journey where I was a filmmaker. About seven or eight years ago, that was when I pushed for it and didn’t stop. At one point, I gave up like a lot of people do and didn’t think it’d ever get made. As I continued working and had a few things under my belt, I came back to this film.

What was it that made you keep coming back to Yellow Rose?

I think the reason I wrote it is the reason I kept coming back to it, which is I never saw my own face on the big screen. For all those years in between of me wanting to make the film, I kept waiting for something to come along and fill that gap. It never did. Although it took me so long to make the film, I’m proud to say we’re the first Filipino film picked up by a major Hollywood studio for a theatrical release.

I think that motivation to represent my community in a real way is what kept me going. It’s not just a passion project for myself, but to see my community represented. Knowing as a young woman growing up and throughout my life what that means not to see yourself represented in media, it does a lot to you, in terms of you feeling like you belong when you don’t see yourself in the media. It’s what drove me to keep going.

During the festival circuit, how was it seeing people feel seen?

It’s funny, it’s a movie that elicits some deep reactions. I made the movie to be watched in a theater. We were at maybe 20 festivals. At the end of every screening, someone would come out crying. The movie would relate to them in a personal way, but not always what you expect. Sometimes it was a middle-aged white guy, an immigrant, or a Filipino. People were either moved by the fact they never really thought what it’d be like to be an undocumented person or never thought they’d see themselves on the big screen. It was a combination.

This is a movie that would’ve been great to experience fresh on the big screen, especially the final image and those close-ups.

I shot a lot of the film in close-up. One, I had an actress who could hold it. It is about interiority. It is about her reaction to this. We’ve seen news stories about people when they’re discovered as undocumented. Rarely do you see the human reaction. When does that mean when your mother gets taken away? What does that mean when you get left behind? What does that mean to watch your mom picked up like a criminal and thrown in a police van and carted away? I think when you see that blown-up on a big screen, it amplifies the emotions even more.

It’s a shame. We did have a theatrical release. We had 900 theaters. It’s considered a big release, but nobody was going to the theaters. I’m glad we had the festival run because I’m glad I got to see it in a lot of theaters with a lot of people. We were the opening night film of a festival in LA  festival with a thousand people, where we won the jury prize. We won the jury prize at almost every festival we were at. It had a good run. I got to get that experience. There’s nothing like it. It plays well in a theater.

Hearing those songs in a theater, too, I imagine would elevate the experience. How’d you and your sound team approach the songs, especially when it came to the live music scenes? 

I worked with the great sound mixer Tom Paul, who’s here in New York City where I live. He’s done tons of films, and he’s a musician himself. I’m a stickler for sound. We mixed that meticulously over six to eight weeks. We mixed it 7:1. Every little corner of a room is felt. We really tried to emulate the sound of a bar and live performance. Some of the songs were performed lived. The only song we did playback was the final song. Even then, she was singing live and the band was playing live, so it was a combination.

Obviously, given her experience in theater, Eva is very in control of her voice. What conversations did you two have about the tone and sound of Rose’s singing voice?

My cinematographer, August Thurmer, who’s amazing and we can talk about later, told me after a screening, “I remember you having to direct Eva to be bad in the early scenes.” She had to make her voice sound unsure or have stage fright. She’s a woman who’s played the lead in two major Broadway productions, both in London and LA. She has the opposite of stage fright. For her to play a 17-year-old girl singing in her room and not very good at her voice, that was an acting thing. For her final scenes and songs, we just let her go. It was incredible.

It was important for me to cast an actual musician. I play music and I write music, as well. When I watch a film where I don’t believe it, I get taken out of the story. In the casting, it was important the actors really play music and music was a part of their lives, whoever it was. I cast a real musician, Dale Watson. We shot in his house and recorded in his studio. All the interior scenes of the recordings were our real recordings. It’s them playing as musicians. I buy it because they are actually doing it.

To me, one big inspiration for the musicality of the film was Once. I think that film was clearly two musicians just being musicians. There’s nothing more wonderful than seeing that.

As you said, you’re a musician yourself. Was that the first art form you got into?

I always had a piano in my bedroom. I have one right next to me now. It’s always been a part of my childhood and life. It’s a release. I write music. Later on, I had a band, but not a very good band.

What was the band called? 

It was called Avant-Garde. It was so bad [Laughs]. We were not good, and we were not avant-garde, either. That was my thing, though, I played in a band. The other thing I did pretty seriously is painting. I even sold some stuff in galleries. Clearly, mixing all those mediums, it made sense I ended up in film. Of course, I love storytelling and writing. I’m very visual and musical. Somehow, all of it gets made together, and I became a filmmaker.

You’re working on a musical, too, right? A pop-opera musical about World War II?

I just completed my second draft. I’m starting to create the music for it. I did write a few songs, but I’m collaborating with a great rapper, Lisa Yaro. We’re going to write some hip-hop songs told by this group called the Guerrilla Bitches. It’s a fictional group, like my version of Inglourious Basterds, but there were real female soldiers when General MacArthur abandoned the Phillippines in the famous, “I shall return.” It’s what kept us still fighting. A little-known fact is, a lot of women were soldiers, which is what this film is about. We’re going to write some rap and hip-hop songs for that period. I love the idea of creating an opera for a film using pop music to tell this non-part of US history with a bit of magical realism. It’s pretty out there. It’s called Lizards. We have some people interested.

Do you think being a musician largely influences your choices and vision as a filmmaker?

Definitely. I just finished making my next film, which is actually a musical. Music is a time-based art. Being a musician, I understand editing and pacing. Particularly in a movie like Yellow Rose, the music is where you get to experience her interiority. I fell in love with that. Being able to shape the music itself as the artistry of telling a story is everything. I think painting and photography, which I took up later, as well as DP’ing my early documentaries, makes me careful and knowledgeable. I am one of those directors who will pick a lens. I know how I want it to look and what it should feel like. I think all those different interests of art influence your voice as a filmmaker.

It’s always a little surprising how many filmmakers, even very good ones, don’t know the differences between lenses. 

Who are very good, yeah. I don’t think it’s a problem. You just need to know how to communicate with your cinematographer. I think when you’re doing commercials, which is something I did a lot of before Yellow Rose, it’s a very technical type of directing. Everything is shot-listed and storyboarded. It’s a very deliberate medium. That also trained me about composition, lenses, and lighting. You’re right, though, a lot of the best directors don’t know a thing about it, but they don’t have to, and they’re still great.

Having grown up in Texas, how did you want to depict it?

We definitely tipped our hat to John Ford and The Searchers. A lot of the shots of Rose are these heroic John Ford-style shots, where she walks into the frame, we’re in a wide lens, and you see all of the skies behind her. Visually, Ford was an influence. Of course, Terrence Malick for the exteriors. Nobody has filmed Texas more beautifully than he has with the respect for the sky and the light, particularly in the summer. They are very long days, which was lucky for us. We shot all the exteriors in magic hour, except for when she’s alone in the streets and in the high sun, where you feel the oppression of the sun. Otherwise, it’s a magic hour pallet and tone I wanted to capture.

Because I’ve lived in New York for so long, my vision of Texas is sort of a romantic, idealized memory of it. The interiors and everything in the bar, we used natural light. I’m a big fan of [cinematographer] Chris Doyle (In The Mood for Love), and how he uses natural light and neon light as your source light. We tried to do that. It was natural, too, because we shot in real bars and honky-tonks. The whole thing is lit up by beer signs so it’s both beautiful and ominous.

Rose experiences a lot of empathy from residents of Texas in the film, even from a member of ICE. What was the motivation behind showing that side of Texas?

That was a bold move. If I got any criticism, and I did, it was for that. Some people say it was a white savior trope. I knew I was going to get that. For me, it was more important to portray an idealized version of what Texas could be, and in my opinion, was.

I experienced a lot of racism growing up, but I also got a lot of sympathy from people. It was a choice to show something prescriptive as opposed to critical. I felt that is what we needed more in the world than the opposite. It was a deliberate decision. I think it’s important to show what actually makes America great, which is the ability to empathize with people who have less than we do or who are disadvantaged. To show you can take a stand, no matter what position you are in.

I thought long and hard about it, and I made that choice. Obviously, it’s in the script. There was a scene I cut, in which Rose and her mom attack the white racist. The white racist was being very clearly white racist to them. We shot it, everyone in the scene was amazing, and some of the acting was the best in the film. To me, it still felt too on the nose. It didn’t feel like the movie I wanted to make.

Some filmmakers I’ve talked to about telling their own personal stories, particularly when it comes to portraying racism, have said that’s just not the only part of their experience they want to show. 

That’s how I felt about it. She’s experiencing it by the nature of her condition. They’re getting deported. They’re in a position of being otherized. It’s already there. I didn’t think we needed more of it. You have to make what you believe is true. You have to stick by it and then prepare to take the criticism.

How was filming in the Philippines? 

We had a second DP, a Fillipino cinematographer because our cinematographer couldn’t make it on the days we went out there. We shot on vintage Kowa anamorphic lenses, which are uncoded, have a particular look and style I love, and were used on a lot of ’70s movies. We couldn’t source those lenses in the Philippines, so it was challenging we had to match back to a lot of what we had shot in the states. It worked out, though.

I felt it was important to shoot in the Phillippines. I wanted to show the physical distance. You just can’t fake it. I wanted to shoot outside. I wanted you to see the people. I wanted you to feel the people. I wanted you to see how different their worlds are. It’s only five minutes in the film, but it was really important to me.

During those 15 years of working and waiting, did you end up with a stockpile of potential songs for the movie?

Quite the opposite. We had written “Square Peg” for the short, which I wrote with Dale and the young woman in the short, Thia [Megia]. As it goes, the film took longer to make. I recast the lead with Eva. Even when we got Eva, we had such a short window because she was finishing Miss Saigon and going to London for Hadestown. We filmed it in a small pocket of time. We didn’t have a lot of time with her to write music.

What happened was, a lot of the songs were written by Dale. We already knew we wanted him to reprise his role from the short. In the interim, he had written a few songs. The original song you hear in the film I wrote during the shoot. I didn’t feel there was a song to represent the period in which she watches her mom go away. We had the end song and “Square Peg,” but I needed a song for when Dale tells her, “Write your feelings. Write your answer to the question whether you want to stay or not.” To me, we were missing that song. After the shoots, I was writing the song quietly in the night. We recorded it after we wrapped. Eva stayed around and recorded the song.

You’ve previously said watching the actors perform influenced your choices as a filmmaker. How did seeing Eva’s performance influence that song, as well as your camerawork?

Completely. When I cast Dale, he said, “I’m not an actor. I’m a reactor,” which I think is so great. I think directing should be, in part, reacting to what you actually have on the day. We always say “on the day” in film. You can do all the preparation you want. You can do everything in preparation. On the day, you have what you have. Often, the scheduling changes, the actors are in some weird place, you lose a location, and always something goes wrong. You, as a director, need to still somehow adjust, react, and capture the magic. Maybe make something better and say, “Hey, this is really interesting over here.”

For me, that comes from my documentary background. You’re trying to capture the moments that are cinematic. In cinema, you’re trying to create those cinematic moments. For me, I feel like there’s someplace in between, where you find moments in what you’re given. I find that very exciting when that happens. How you make that work is really great.

After all the waiting and hurdles involved, how’d the shoot go in general? Was it smooth sailing or were there nightmare days?

It was one of my Eminem 8 Mile moments, where I had just waited so long to make this movie. I was just the happiest person on set every day making this movie. I knew you’d never have your experience of shooting your first narrative film ever again, so I just wanted to cherish every moment. I was excited to do it. The entire company and crew were on the same page. It was just one of those artistic collaborations that come once in a lifetime. Were there tough days? Absolutely. You make it work, and that’s the kind of director I am. I thrive better when you have problems because you make them work, and it makes certain magic happen.

There’s one shot in the movie in which Rose is walking down a suburban road. The sun was coming down. People were yelling. We only had one shot. Then, this deer and baby deer came across the frame. It’s in the film. See, that’s whatever the powers that be handed down to us. It was such a beautiful thing to happen. It was completely out of nowhere.

I just love the process of filmmaking. I’m happiest when I’m on a set. It’s the happiest place for me. To see characters actually realized by the actors, to see the cinematography, to hear the sound, and have it all come together, I just love it. I love it. I loved every day of our shoot.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.