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Interview With Director Samantha Lee (Rookie)



Conducted By: Blake Simons

Filipino director Samantha Lee has made her name on hopeful and warm sapphic coming-of-age films such as Billie and Emma (2018) and Baka Bukas (2016). With her new film, Rookie, she brings that romantic spirit to the volleyball court of a Catholic school, where teens Ace and Jana meet, compete, and fall in love. Here Lee discusses the influences on her work, the importance of representation, and her experiences making LGBTQ+ cinema in the Philippines.

There’s a lot of soft focus and soft lighting in Rookie. I love its use here, and it’s something that’s become quite common to sapphic dramas. Why do you feel this is, and what inclines you towards that aesthetic?

Well, for me personally, growing up in the Philippines, there wasn’t a lot of queer representation. And whenever there was queer representation, it was either they were the butt of the jokes or acts of violence were being forced upon them. And even treatment-wise, they were always in their shadows. It’s super dark, super gritty. I tell my DP, like, I know you love shadows because it looks super cool, but I can’t have them kissing in the shadows ever. So it’s a conscious decision that they’re always in the light. We go from extreme shadow to extreme light.

What challenges have you faced making queer films in the Philippines? Has the landscape changed from the start of your career through to now?

Sadly and interestingly enough, I haven’t felt the change yet. For example, in terms of casting, I still get a lot of feedback that oh, you can’t cast so-and-so because a lesbian role is going to hurt her career.

I do not take my position lightly considering that I’ve made three films and a series in the last seven years. And they’ve all been queer. I think I’m super lucky to have done them in the way that I wanted to do them. I hope that I get more opportunities to make gay things in the future.

I really love how you centre the sapphic gaze, both from your character’s perspective and, of course, from your own directorial perspective. But I’m A Cheerleader and a few other films came to mind, but it’s still rare to see.

I don’t think it was like a conscious decision in the sense that, you know, it’s kind of like asking like a gay person how you can make gay things. You make gay things because you’re gay! This is my lived experience or experiences I wish I’d lived, so I think that’s what makes it super authentic.

And if we talk about collaboration – people always consider collaboration as people who are in the same room as you or people who are in the same call sheet as you. But for me, the audience is very much in the room as I’m making the film, as I’m editing the film, as I’m writing the film. I can anticipate when they’re going to be screaming their brains out, what’s going to make them squirm in their seats. So there’s this heightened awareness of prioritising what’s going to make my audiences happy.

There’s a lovely tempo to that. Watching it feels a bit like riding a rollercoaster.

Yeah! Some of my producers are cishet people. There was an argument about the romance going a bit too fast, specifically. Why is she giving this girl chocolates on the second time they’re hanging out? And I was like – oh – I mean, I get that you guys are in a committed straight relationship all the time, but this is how lesbians work!

But you can’t really fault them for that, because traditionally rom-coms follow a super specific plot structure – that isn’t Rookie. And so there are just those moments where you’re like, no, no, no, we have to. I understand and respect you guys as my producers, but this is the truth that sapphics live out. And this is the pace it’s going to take.

I think that’s what’s interesting about Rookie and other lesbian films, that you don’t have the end point be cutting to black as soon as there’s the clear-cut start of something. You have something develop and it ebbs and flows and you get to explore where it might go. Is that a challenge for you?

I think we can use the word challenge, because a lot of my audiences actually hate my endings. Because they’re so open-ended. I think part of me is hyperaware that traditional cishet rom-coms have always emphasized that happiness equates to people ending up together versus, you know, maybe happiness is them going into their own, doing their own thing and being a whole-ass person without the other person. That can be happiness too. So there’s that POV of it.

Do you write love stories that you feel are true to sapphic life or do you feel they’re more fantasies that you’d like to see happen in the world? Do you feel this is ‘realist’ lesbian filmmaking or not?

I think that I am a highly romantic person and it’s realist in my POV but I understand how they can be aspirational to someone else. Like that whole prom scene, I would have done it personally! But I understand how that’s ridiculous to someone else.

Could you tell me about your thinking on the use and choice of colour in the film? It’s lovely and very pastel – you have a very nice colour palette at play here.

There’s no profound, deep answer to this. It’s just that yellow and blue look really good on cinema. Also my basketball team uniform was yellow. So there’s a memory element. The bag that Ace uses for the entire film was my high school basketball bag.

I feel like when queer people make art we sometimes speak to ourselves to speak to other people. Do you feel an element of that with your films? Are you making your films more for yourself or for a potential audience of people like yourself that you’re hoping to reach?

Growing up I didn’t have a lot of representation, and this affected me so much to the point that I didn’t come out till I was 23. These films are films I needed to see when I was a lot younger. So it’s also wish-fulfilment in a sense. I just want people to not be more accepting of who they are.

What queer films were formative for you?

This isn’t a film answer, but The O.C. Season Two when Marissa Cooper got a girlfriend was really important to me. And what was even more important was when I googled Olivia Wilde, because she was the love interest, and the Wikipedia article said that Olivia Wilde was bisexual.

I want people to be able to google my actresses’ names and see them with a girlfriend.

Was sports anime an influence at all, or the yuri genre even?

There’s a lot of Haikyu!! references in the film. Down to the last shot of the ball hitting the line! Even the score in some parts is very Haikyu!!.

I feel like your films speak to an ‘online’ generation of queers, in that we’re plugged in to media like anime. We’re very international. I know people whose queer identity formation has come about through anime like Haikyu!!. How do you feel about the media diet of the generation that your films speak to?

It speaks to the lack of queer media in general. I think the fact that queer people need to find their representation in whatever bits and pieces and scraps that they can tells us a lot about the things that need to still be done and the work that needs to be done.

It’s not like we can open up a book and automatically find a queer character. Or prior to these last few years, even queer singer-songwriters and things like that. It’s great that we share all these cultural codes that not a lot of straight people get. Like a secret language.

I think those moments when a film clicks with us as queer people are so important because you can create such an emotional bond with it. Have you had audiences come up to you that have experienced that? That the film’s changed them or helped them see themselves?

Those are actually my favourite types of DMs to get. It’s like ‘oh, you made me come out to myself’ and things like that. But what I love getting is that people would message me being like ‘I met my girlfriend when I watched your first film and now we’re celebrating our seventh anniversary watching Rookie’. So now I’m like a godparent to all these queer relationships.

There should be more films like yours. There’s another great film this year called Backspot, a Canadian film with similar vibes. It’s interesting because I feel like I’ve seen a lot of films in this vein, but actually you can count them on both hands. So it’s very refreshing.

Actually, that’s one of the things that I’m advocating for because I’m hyper aware of the queer people in the West being like, why do the lesbians always die? We deserve a happy ending. And I’m out here kind of screaming into the void being like- I’ve been doing this for the last seven years but I’m just hidden behind a subtitle and shitty distribution.

It’s my secret wish that more people in the West would seek out different kinds of media across the world because there is queer media if you want to find it.

There’s a popular Letterboxd list called ‘Sapphics With Happy Endings’. Your films are on it, but it’s a relatively short list despite being fairly comprehensive and global. Would you consider making a film that doesn’t go in such a happy direction in the future, or is that very much what you want to continue doing?

The world is hard. People just need to be happy for 90 minutes. And I feel like if we do ever get to a point where real life is less shitty, I would allow myself to maybe explore that path. But at this moment, I know what my audience needs. Because I need it too. I need comfort. I need happiness.

Rookie is currently seeking worldwide distribution and screens at Inside Out Film Festival in Toronto on May 26th.

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