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Interview: Jay Oliva Talks ‘Trese’, Filipino Representation In Media & More

By Matt Fernandez

It’s normal for people in the Philippines to see ghosts.

“Filipinos aren’t afraid of ghosts, what they’re afraid of is demonic possession,” said Jay Oliva, storyboard artist, showrunner and owner of Lex+Otis animation studio. “You can go places and see a ghost and as long as they don’t bother you people are cool with that, but here in America, people freak out. In Bicol, there’s this graveyard that’s been there for hundreds of years with generations buried on top of each other and there’s kids playing around the graves.”

Maybe it’s that unquestioning embrace of the supernatural that makes the recent Netflix anime series Trese and its eponymous comic book source feel like a quintessential representation of Filipino culture. Both the comic and the show follow paranormal investigator Alexandra Trese as she navigates the tenuous balance between the human and supernatural worlds in modern day Manila.

Still from Trese. (Courtesy of Netflix)

“One thing that I noticed is that Manila is like a juxtaposition of the old and the new and in a lot of ways our Filipino culture is like that,” Oliva said. “For the most part, we’re a Christian Catholic country but what’s funny is that we also believe things that predate Spanish colonization. In Catholicism, you’re not supposed to believe in the aswang and the tikbalang, but to Filipinos, they’re like that’s part of our culture and who we are.”

Oliva, who served as the showrunner for the adaptation of Trese, was unfamiliar with a lot of these aspects of Filipino culture before he was approached by Netflix, having grown up with what he calls a “romanticized view of the Philippines” that still retained a “foreign, Old World” quality. One of his initial questions was if he received the offer on the basis of his Filipino heritage rather than the strength of his filmography in spite of having directed hit adaptations like DC’s Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Oliva had never even heard of or read the comics prior to visiting the Philippines to prepare for the show since they had not previously been available to American audiences.

Growing up as first-generation American in Orange County, Calif. during the 1980s, Oliva’s experience is different from what many Filipino American children today are likely to experience. Back then, Oliva said he experienced a lot of racism, citing, for example, that people often did not know what the Philippines was and instead assumed he was Chinese. Much of his experience as an Asian American back then revolved around gang life, which he said landing a career in animation working on Marvel’s Spider-Man cartoon at age 19 helped him avoid. 

Jay Oliva – Demo Reel

“At least in my case, it’s not like myself or my friends decided to join a gang, right, it was one of those things where, in order to survive, we had to band together,” Oliva said. “When my parents immigrated here, they were indoctrinated into the whole ‘you have to speak American or else you won’t fit in.’ To this day I can understand Tagalog but I can’t translate and I can’t speak it, but growing up and meeting other Filipinos, that was a common experience that helped us become friends.”

Conversely, having grown up in the Philippines, Budjette Tan, writer and co-creator of the
Trese comics, was surrounded by Filipino culture. At the advice of comic book artist Whilce Portacio, Tan and other creators formed the independent comic book publisher Alamat Comics, though according to Tan, the early work still had a heavy western influence.

“Our first comics were like ‘an American World War II superhero’ and we were scratching that itch of wanting to do X-Men or Indiana Jones,” Tan said. “I recently read a post that had all the different warriors from the Asian region, and it made me realize that we never really made a big push to talk about our datus (chiefs) and we now have more popular Filipino cowboys. We have films where they’ll walk into a saloon and have a shootout, but it’s like ‘um, we never had that.’  But that’s what was popular and what we pulled from American culture.”

Tan described creating the Trese comic with artist Kajo Baldisimo as an attempt to break away from the routine of their work in advertising with a project that was “different and personal.” Tan’s writing in the series was inspired by his love for paranormal and detective stories and by characters like Hellboy and John Constantine. Though his original concept was centered around Anton Trese, he felt that the trope of the tough guy fighting monsters was overplayed and changed the main character to Anton’s daughter Alexandra, a move which Baldisimo said made Trese “even more badass.”

The series features a whole host of creatures from Filipino folklore. The most prominent of these are what Tan calls the “Top Five Pinoy Favorite Monsters” which would be most immediately familiar to Filipino audiences through their appearances in film or popular stories:

  1. Aswang: shape-shifters that eat the flesh and blood of humans, similar to vampires
  2. Tikbalang: bipedal creatures with the head and legs of a horse but the body of a human
  3. Manananggal: a type of aswang that separate their upper bodies from their lower torsos then grow wings to fly at night and suck out the fetuses from pregnant women to eat
  4. Tiyanak: vengeful beings formed from aborted or unbaptised infants that appear as babies with sharp teeth and claws
  5. Nuno sa Punso: literally “old man of the mound,” they appear as dwarf-like old men that live in termite mounds and curse those who disturb their homes 

Some of these creatures Tan had direct experience with, having been threatened by his father with the prospect of an aswang outside his home ready to eat children who did not go to bed. 

“We were walking around our village and when we passed by a tree my tita (aunt) said, ‘You need to say ‘tabi tabi po,’ and ask for permission to pass by because there might be a nuno  living at that tree,” Tan said with a laugh. “In the 1980s, there were news headlines that a manananggal was seen in some in Manila.”

Other creatures, Tan was not familiar with and only discovered while doing research for “Trese.” Though Filipinos are a large ethnic group that has spread across the globe, the cultural myth and creatures are far less recognizable than those of Greece or Japan due to the far reach of Western pop culture. While content featuring Filipino stories has always been present, it has often been overshadowed.

“I guess because they have been around longer and  more books have been made about them, but It’s easy to go into the children’s section of a bookstore and find this large book about Greek and Roman gods,” Tan said. “ I cannot think of any pop culture intellectual property that talked about Filipino gods and goddesses which I only found because somebody had put them on the internet. In the same way American comics used vampires and werewolves to scare and entertain the audience, we were using our aswang and creatures from lower mythology through comics and radio drama, so it was featured, but never really discussed.”

Jay Oliva - Still from Trese
Still from Trese. (Courtesy of Netflix)

However, Trese seems to be a break in that trend. According to Tan and Oliva, Ablaze Publishing opted to leave many of the Tagalog phrases untranslated for the comics’ U.S. release and Netflix wanted to make the anime adaptation “as Filipino as possible.” The show’s spells are recited in Tagalog in all language dubs, the credits songs are in Tagalog, and Oliva specifically asked his English voice cast, most of whom were Filipino, to play up their accents. 

“When I was making it, it never occurred to me how important a show like this was to the Philippines,” Oliva said. “One of the things that made me feel really special is that some of the actors who were native speakers would say at the end of recording sessions that this was the first time they didn’t have to hide their accent. Filipino actors were bending over backwards to work with us because there was a pride about this show and we’d never really had that representation.”

Beyond the recognition the series has received, Oliva has gotten some of that distinction as well as the showrunner. He finds it funny that all of the interviews he has done for Trese frame him specifically as “Filipino American” even though that is a term he doesn’t use for himself.

“I’ve always said I am Filipino and never said I was Filipino American because I am full Filipino. I even have ‘The Last Supper’ and the giant spoon and fork at my parents’ house,” Oliva said. “I didn’t grow up in Manila but I was raised with all the values, the culture and the food. It’s not a knock on them, but I guess for the Philippines they wanted to have that distinction.”

Recently, it seems, Filipinos have been edging more towards the spotlight and more positive representation seems to be the going trend. Standup comedian Jo Koy is set to executive produce and star in Easter Sunday and Josep. Jacob Batalon, who plays Ned Leeds in the most recent Spider-Man franchise, is set to lead the upcoming Reginald the Vampire series while Olivia Rodrigo rocks the music scene. Industry veteran Darren Criss continues to land prominent roles and Dante Basco recently celebrated the premiere of his unabashedly Pinoy directorial debut, The Fabulous Filipino Brothers.

This wasn’t the case in the 80s. Oliva recalls that the term “Asian” was generally only used to refer to Chinese, Japanese or Korean people and that he was often assumed to be Chinese because of his eye shape. Oliva said that the only Asian presence he saw in the media growing up was Bruce Lee. Tan, who lives in Denmark but was growing up in the Philippines at the time, had a different situation regarding seeing Asian and Filipinos on screen, but recalls that whenever American films had roles for Filipinos it was always as “Waitress Number Five” and other background roles.

“The running joke in Manila is that even if you’re 1/4 Filipino, it’s suddenly like, ‘Yeah, he’s Filipino! You should be proud of that guy or that girl, they’re Pinoy!’” Tan said. “I remember in one of the recent award shows they said that all these medical dramas are not accurate because the nurses aren’t Filipino, so there is some recognition of our contributions in the U.S. The Filipino population is on the rise in the U.S. and it’s only a matter of time before the producers recognize there is an audience that wants to see themselves on the page and screen.”

Both Tan and Oliva hope that the success of Trese helps to prove that there is an appetite for Filipino stories and paves the way for new creators to tell them. Tan and Oliva are also in agreement that one of the most central characteristics of Filipino stories is the emphasis on family. 

“One of the things I wanted to make Trese about is family, not like Fast and Furious family, but in the context that we’re always at odds with our duty to family and to ourselves,” Oliva said. “I think a lot of Filipinos wrestle with the expectations of what your parents expect of you and what you as an individual really want.”

Tan added that one of the things he believes makes Filipinos unique is a culture of creativity and resilience. 

“The best example in a roundabout way is the jeepneys which were leftover jeeps from the war that the Filipinos took, fixed up [as public transportation], and in their glory days they were a sight to behold coming down the street. Now they’re the thing you yell at when you’re stuck in traffic,” Tan said with a chuckle. “It’s like ‘give me what you got and I will make something fantastic out of it.’  We take original material that has been left with us and make it our own and somehow that is where the Pinoy flavor comes out.”

Oliva teaches at Loyola Marymount University and is currently producing animated shows including Army of the Dead and Twilight of the Dead with Zack Snyder for Netflix and is the showrunner for ARK: The Animated Series. Tan is working on the eighth book in the Trese series, the third of which will be available in the United States in December. 


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