Gene Cajayon Discusses His Journey in Filmmaking and the Making of “The Debut”

By Lauren Lola

When director Gene Cajayon thought about the fact that it has been 18 years since his film, “The Debut,” came out, the word “surreal” came to mind, as he found himself in San Francisco’s Kabuki Theatre, for the Cinematografo Film Festival’s centerpiece screening of the film. It was the exact same venue the film had its Bay Area premiere in 17 years ago, when it was the closing night film for CAAMFest (formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival).

“[It’s] surreal because here we are in the exact same space,” he explained. “A lot of things feel familiar and a lot of things feel different; familiar because we have the cast and crew in the theater right now and they’re enjoying the film, but different in that my kids are here, and they’re in college, and they’re watching the movie in a theater for the first time.”

Its closing night screening launched its limited run at the Kabuki the following day. Cajayon remembered being there one weekend and saw something that he otherwise would have only dreamed of.

“I remember going downstairs – I want to say was Saturday evening – and how it was the old school digital marquee upfront, and it had all five of the screenings listed, but they were all flashing ‘sold out,’” he recalled. “That was pretty cool.”

“The Debut” is one of the first films to be set in and about the Filipino American community. Cajayon felt bittersweet when thinking about it, for he among others who worked on the film hoped it would pave the way for more Filipino American-centered films to be made in the near two decades since then. But when he considered the time now where diversity is much more valued, he acknowledged that it’s not just lip service anymore.

“I feel like in our own little way, we helped make a difference for that,” he reflected. “We did our own little thing that laid the ground work and allow movies like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ get made.”

“The Debut” is an independent film made in a time before the existence of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While there are a number of resources that many Asian American independent filmmakers can turn to nowadays, Cajayon argued how it doesn’t lessen the difficulty in getting a film made in general.

“You can even make the argument that it’s harder today, because there’s so much more content to kind of tear through and break through and to get people to notice your particular thing,” he pointed out.

But as someone who never thought he’d live to see a show like “Fresh Off the Boat” or a film like “Crazy Rich Asians,” Cajayon also noted that what we’re seeing should be happening.

As beloved as “The Debut” is by the Filipino American community, there are times where Cajayon will find himself cringing when watching the film, for he can’t shake away the lack of life experience some moments display.

“If I were doing this movie today, it would be something completely different,” he said. “Since then, I’ve lived a life, I’ve had children, I’ve had great things happen and horrible things happen like any life.”

“The Debut” remains to be the only feature film Cajayon has directed. While he has made attempts to get additional projects off the ground both in film and TV, nothing has come into fruition. He entered the advertising industry a few years, so as to support his kids who’re now in college.

“If somebody were to come along and say they want to work with me on a feature film, I’ve got a whole portfolio of scripts that I could sell them, or if they have a script they want me to direct, I would be honored to be considered,” he mentioned.

As for “The Debut,” Cajayon expressed his desire for people to continue watching it and enjoying it in the future.

“I’m glad that the film, for all its flaws, seems to still touch people in profound ways,” he remarked. “Hopefully that continues.”

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