Young director helms Gen Z series 'The Seniors'

Leah C. Salterio

Posted at Feb 26 2022 07:10 AM

'The Seniors' cast: (from left) Andrea Babierra, Awra Briguela, Julia Barretto and Ella Cruz. Handout
'The Seniors' cast: (from left) Andrea Babierra, Awra Briguela, Julia Barretto and Ella Cruz. Handout

Filmmakers Antoinette Jadaone and Dan Villegas have been training younger directors to work at the helm of film projects or a drama series. 

Not that the award-winning couple are no longer directing. They are simply giving the chance to new megmen to work on new film projects.

Last December, Jadaone and Villegas produced the fantasy-comedy, “Mang Jose,” directed by Rainier Brizuela, with Janno Gibbs as star. 

This time, Jadaone and Villegas present the original youth comedy-drama series, “The Seniors,” focusing on the highs and lows, the pains and joys of teenage life of the graduating class in Pacaque Rural High School.

“The Seniors” is a coming-of-age story about four mean girls in a rural high school struggling to survive in a meaner world. The story is an eight-part series starting March 20, with Julia Barretto, Ella Cruz, Awra Briguela and introducing Andrea Babierra.

At the helm of “The Seniors” is young director Shaira Advincula-Antonio. 

Although the inspiration were the Hollywood film, “Mean Girls” (2004) that starred Lindsay Lohan and youth-oriented local shows in the past like “Tabing Ilog” or “Gimik,” Jadaone transposed the story of “The Seniors.”

“Instead of a new student from the province going to Manila, bakit hindi natin pagpalitin?” Jadaone said. “Gawin nating galing Maynila na pupunta sa probinsiya. Ang bida naman, mga high school students sa province.

“Since hindi na ako Gen Z, I know mas magagawa ng isang filmmaker na mas malapit ang high school sa edad niya. We chose Shai Advincula-Antonio. She started as production assistant, script continuity then assistant director. Finally, it’s about time for her to direct this series.”

Antonio is a 25-year-old filmmaker who hails from South Cotabato and graduated from the University of the Philippines, where she took up Film. 

Her award-winning short film, “Tembong” (2018), travelled to international film festivals to date. The film was shown in the Guanajuato International Film Festival in Latin America, International Inter-University Short Film Festival in Bangladesh and Short Cut Film Festival in Serbia.

In the Philippines, “Tembong” won the Best Short Film Award in the 2019 Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival and the Gawad Urian Awards.

Since 2018, Antonio worked as apprentice for Jadaone and Villegas. 

“Lagi lang akong sumasama sa shoot nila,” Antonio recalled. “Nagsa-shadow. Nakiki-isyoso. Then they started giving me roles, like script continuity, creative associate, writing stints.

“From there, Direk Tonette asked me kung ready na akong mag-direct ng isang series. To be honest, parang hindi pa. I thought the next thing that I would be asked to do was another short film na art house, kasi doon ako galing.

“Direk Tonette said the story is about Gen Z sa province. Who else would be better to direct it from our company but me, na galing din mismo sa probinsiya? I believe I belong to the eldest Gen Z. I’m only 25.

“I also told them maganda rin ‘yung gagawin na story. I grew up watching teen shows na Pinoy. Ang setting lagi sa Manila, but never in a place where I can truly identify with as a probinsiyana. Sa sabi ko, ‘Sige, let’s do this, Direk’.”

Most of the sequences in the series were based on Antonio’s personal experiences. “Kung ano talaga ang na-witness ko sa school. Cool mag-0budots. Hindi siya jejemon for us.

“I don’t think that it’s right for anyone from the province na tawagin nating cheap dahil nakaka-angat ang mga taga Maynila.”

After she made her directorial debut in “Tembong,” it has taken Antonio quite a while to direct another project. “In 2019, my dad died and hindi ako makasulat dahil nagka-writer’s block ako,” she shared.

“I couldn’t create things. But after finally dealing with grief, I started to write for Direk Tonette and she encouraged me to direct ‘The Seniors.’”

Villegas admitted a material like “The Seniors” is no longer suited to his age as a director. “I’m already 40,” he said. “Parang hindi ko na kayang mag-direct ng ganitong klaseng material.

“Si Shai, from the get-go, it’s a given that she’s very talented and she knows how to tell a story. But she’s also very passionate in making films.

“It’s one thing to be talented, but if you don’t have the passion and discipline to do the gritty stuff. Nakitaan namin siya ng talent. Nakita namin when she started out as a PA [production assistant], as an intern, todo ang trabaho niya. Talagang kumakayod.

“We realized those are the traits of someone who’s going to be a great filmmaker. Talent, honestly, is common. Pero ‘yung grit and willingness to do hard work, plus discipline, I think that’s rare at meron si Shai noon.

“Even if we knew she was a fresh graduate then, given na ‘yung talent niya. Shai has a story to tell and she wants to tell that story also. That’s very important for a filmmaker. She has to have the passion to want to share it to the world. I think she deserves more and bigger projects in the future.”

Jadaone and Villegas were both very hands-on supervising the filming of the series. “Our role here in ‘The Seniors,’ we are the producers and we are the creators,” Jadaone explained. “The role of the producer is to find the right people to tell the story, from the cinematographer to the production designer, even the cast.

“When we got Shai as a director, we only wanted what’s best for the series. Ganu’n din ang inisip namin when we were choosing the cast for the roles of Diana, Jennifer and Fifi [played respectively by Barretto, Cruz and Briguela]. Lahat ‘yun magka-come together sa pag-buo ng kwento.”

Antonio cannot be more pleased with her cast members who were all versatile. “Lahat magaling, lahat exceptional,” she commented. “All of them were like a gift that keeps on giving. Everyone was so generous.

“Considering this is my first series, they didn’t treat me as a new director. They treated me with respect. They listened to me when I was giving directions. If there was a surprise in the cast, si Andrea Babierra. Sobrang nagulat kaming lahat sa kanya.

“Andrea was so good. She’s the newest in the cast, pero ang galing niya. Sina Julia, Awra and Ella, they were saying, ‘Direk, kailangan naming pantayan si Andrea.’ Ni-level up nilang lahat ang acting nila with Andrea.”

Interestingly, the shooting locale, Pacaque, for the public high school, is like a “microcosm” of the Philippines, according to Antonio.

“Kulang-kulang ang gamit, hindi sapat ang pasahod sa teachers, sira-sira ang facilities, mabagal ang processing, may twisted values. ‘The Seniors’ is something that’s raw, real and something we heard stories about.

“It will talk about teenage pregnancies. How to deal with complicated relationships of adults. Sexuality, discovering virginity. In a way, siyemre maingat din kami how we will tell the story to younger audiences.”

Meanwhile, Jadaone insists they are “unapologetic” when it comes to their storytelling. The characters are vulgar and use foul language not because they wanted to.

“These are how our characters really speak,” Jadaone said. “Ganitong magsalita ang mga kabataan na sinulat namin. We didn’t start with the idea that this would be a teeny-bopper, cute show. Gusto naming maging totoo lang at realistic.”

Putting their trust to a young director like Antonio was quite easy for Jadaone and Villegas. “Before Shai became our director, she was our intern, apprentice, production assistant, script continuity and writer,” Villegas said.

“Shai and I had the same trajectory with how our life in film started,” Jadaone added. “I worked with Direk Joyce [Bernal]. I was script continuity for her for five to six years before I directed my first film. 

“Ganu’n din ang nakikita namin kay Shai. We both came from UP Film. In a way, I saw myself in her when I was starting. Hindi rin siya ‘yung tipong nagmamadali na filmmaker. Alam niya na kailangan niyang tuntungan ang bawat stage ng production.

“Naka-ikot na siya sa production. Hindi siya parang bibigyan ng break. Bibigyan siya ng trust na kaya niya. Kung magkamali man siya, ganu’n talaga. That was part of the process.

“Natapos na naming edit ang lahat ng episodes. Ang gagaling talaga ng cast. They say that when you have the perfect cast, as a director, 90 percent of your job is done. Ten percent na lang ang kailangan gawin ni Shai.”