Paragas changed her screenplay a few times, and almost gave up until an encounter with filmmaker Mira Nair at the Toronto Film Festival inspired her to stay true to telling the story she wanted to tell. The film stars Broadway star and Tony Award nominee Eva Noblezada in her feature debut as Rose, a young undocumented immigrant in Texas who watches as ICE captures her mother. Rose struggles as she straddles pursuing her dream of becoming a country singer or facing a return to the Philippines to be with her mother.
Below, Paragas talks with Variety about the journey, her casting and why she chose country music as her genre.
Making any film takes a village, but for you, this took 15 years. Why did it take so long?
This is my life’s work and there’s no other way to put it. I came up with a story over 15 years ago. I hadn’t made a movie when I started writing it, but it was loosely based on my experience growing up in Lubbock, Texas. It was always about immigration, which is something that I think people that watch the film might think it’s a reaction to the current politics. But it’s always been an issue, and it’s certainly one for the Filipino community in this country. So, it was just very close to me.
Back then, everyone said, ‘No, it has a Filipino lead who wants to be a country singer whose mom gets deported.’
Then I reworked the script about a white guy going to India, and I had no relationship to that, and I just gave up on it.
Eight years ago, I was at the Toronto Film Festival supporting Mira Nair’s “Reluctant Fundamentalist,” and in her Q&A she said something about making all these films about making films with American casts, no one was making films with South Asian casts and she said, ‘If I don’t do it, then it will never get made.’ And that’s what motivated me to tell this story.
The heart of the film is about the music, with the immigration story woven in. But how did you get to cast Eva Noblezada AND Lea Salonga?
When we were casting for the short about three years ago, I wanted someone who was going to be the next Lea Salonga and with that talent. Around that time, Eva was cast to play Kim in “Miss Saigon” in London. I thought she would be so perfect.
By the time I got financing, the show was on Broadway, and I saw Eva there. We went to dinner and I offered her the part. We had to wait for her to finish the run, but it was definitely worth the wait.
My DP, August (Thurmer) said, “Her eyes are this big moon of emotion and they catch the light.” You don’t know until you’re on set, but she is a movie star and we felt it in the first frame.
Why did you chose this style of country music to be the emotional heartbeat of the film, were you a fan of old school country music?
I grew up the opposite. I shaved my head. I had a mini mohawk. I was in a band, wore eyeliner and had dog tags. I didn’t like country music, but then I started writing the script.
When writing the script, I thought, ‘What if this girl loved Texas and country music?’ It would be a great starting point for the character.
There’s something about pairing country music in films that’s deeply cinematic. I was trying to take the elements of country songs – such as authenticity, simplicity and melancholy and turn that into the movie.
The emotional heartbreak comes early when Rose’s mother is taken away by ICE, and then you have the scene following in the Hayfield showing Rose’s realization that her life has now changed while showing her mother being taken into the detention camp. How did you land on that edit?
That was my Macguffin. I always had that in the script where Rose is running into a field and the mother is going into a prison. They’re both in some kind of prison. I wrote the script around that.
But if you didn’t buy into that scene, we wouldn’t have you for the rest of the film. If your heart isn’t breaking when you’re watching these two characters, the mother and daughter and what they’re going through, you’re not going to come along for the rest of the film and the ride. So, it was really important to get that right.
I love the “Crazy” needle drop, was it easy to get the song?
It’s Loretta Lynn’s version of the song. We had to raise money to get a lot of the music in the film, but it had to be Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson playing in the background or you’re not doing the film right.
“Crazy” was a song that I listened to growing up and my mom listened to. Everyone knows the song, and it had to be in the film no matter what.
What do you hope people get from the film?
I hope people come and see the film with an open mind because it sheds light on the undocumented experience.
There’s been a great deal of maligning in the last four years and I hope this allows people to see the humanity of what happens when families get separated, and I hope it restores the dignity of the immigrant experience.
Cinema is the one medium that has the power to change people’s hearts and minds, and I hope people use the film to understand the immigrant experience and how it impacts the children who have no say in the matter.