“I’ve heard it’s hard to be an artist,” an aunt says to Christine (Haven Everly), back in her hometown in “The Girl Who Left Home” after she’s called back from Los Angeles for her father’s funeral. It’s a difficult time for many reasons, though less so because of grief for her dad, who in part prompted her to leave, than for the uncomfortable questions her return invites, having to explain herself and her desire to pursue a career as a singer to people who she likely feels should be asking themselves some questions about the lives they lead. Quite a bit more of her is demanded as well in Mallorie Ortega’s family drama when she joins her tito Tony (Paolo Montalban) and her mother Mary (Emy Coligado) to save the restaurant that their patriarch left inches away from eviction upon his passing, making Christine one of the few to actually return to a small town to be a waitress rather than bus tables while pursuing her dreams of stardom.
Although she is still awaiting her big break when she gets the unfortunate news about her father, right in the midst of rehearsing for a promising show when she gets the call, Christine finds a use for her impressive set of pipes when it’s one of the only ways she can express all the feelings stirring inside of her as “The Girl Who Left Home” will occasionally burst out into a full-blown musical. Whether or not songs are involved, Ortega allows the huge emotions simmering beneath the surface for all involved spill out in her grand feature debut, leaving an audience to surrender to them as readily as the characters on screen have to. Working with modest means, the passion behind the production is what gives it an explosive quality as well as a galvanizing turn from Everly, who may play an aspiring artist but clearly establishes herself here. A year removed from premiering virtually as part of the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival when last year’s edition was reconsidered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the film is finally making its debut in front of a live audience tonight in Los Angeles at this year’s LAAPFF and to mark the occasion, Ortega spoke about finally getting to see her film on the (really) big screen, pulling off a musical on an indie scale and her own homecoming to make the film.
How did this come about?
I went to USC for grad school for film and television production, and they’re always talking about, “You should have a feature script in mind when you leave.” At that point, I didn’t consider myself a writer, but I knew I wanted to be a director, so I had to write something and the scene where the two girls and the mom go out for a night out, that was the first scene that I wrote. I was just like, “I wonder what it would be like if I took my mom out to LA.” [I could hear her saying] “We’re going to get kidnapped. Why are you drinking?” And my mom is so sweet and she doesn’t drink, but just imagining her in those environments was really funny, so I just took that idea and ran with it. After I wrote those scenes, I was like, “You know, there’s something to be said about this and I just want to see where this goes.”
Did you immediately envision this as a musical?
I knew that I wanted to make a musical. It is deep inside my heart. I grew up in theater and when I went to film school, I wasn’t able to make musicals, and after a while I was like, “I am so tired of drama. I want a comedy, I want music. I just want to feel good.” So I knew that music was going to be there somewhere, and I was thinking, “Oh, it could be like a jukebox musical, but then I was like, “No, I really want to create something special for the story and for our characters.” An original musical was a big decision for us, but I enjoyed making it.
I thought, “Oh my God, they were making a musical in North Hollywood and I had no idea” when I saw the Federal Bar as a location.
They were really nice at The Federal Bar specifically, and that was the only real location we used here in LA, maybe two or three months after we shot principal photography in Maryland. It was literally just five of us and the actress in North Hollywood for that one day [to shoot exteriors], but it was fun to get back into it and be like, “Okay, we’re filming the beginning of our movie now.” And we really had to just go with the flow with the opening number where we had a certain amount of dancers, but then one was like, “Oh, I’m not feeling good. I really pulled my shoulder” so we were reblocking [the scene] and then Haven is a star. She learned the dance the day of, and when we thought we had a 12 hour day, it actually went down to like a four-hour shoot because of the rehearsal and blocking, but we got it. My DP and I were talking about all the shots that we wanted and we’re like, “Okay, that’s out the window. What do we need?” And then we ran up and climbed up on the catwalk and we’re like, “Yeah, this is great.” And it was very stressful because there are so many people, we had people in the audience and on stage at the same time, but you just feel the energy of everyone, “Like yeah. Do it, do it.” The audience was literally cheering us on as we’re running around the stage.
What initially sold you on Haven?
Aside from her amazing voice, she really stood out and there’s so many, there’s so many good people. It makes me frustrated when [you hear], “Oh, there’s no Asian actors,” and there were so many submissions, it was ridiculous. For what we were looking for as far as age and then we knew Emy and Paolo were on board, so we were [looking for someone whose] personality would mesh the best and then we were right. When we were on set with her, she was so focused. She really went above and beyond all expectations and really brought a different sensibility to the character that I wrote, which was very exciting. You want that.
Did they have any time together before the shoot to coalesce as a family?
I had time with Emy and Haven. Before we shot the film, we did one last final table read in New York where most of our actors were coming from and Paolo was the only one that wasn’t there, so Emy and Haven had a really great rapport before coming on set. And Emy gave [me] a lot of insight to the mom character. Before we filmed, the mom character was more like my mom, and Emmy was like, “I don’t think I would say that,” and I was like, “Really?” She was like, “Yeah, no, it would be like this.” And I would rewrite a scene around all of that.
And then Liz [Casarola, who plays Bess] is one of the founders of Broadway Barkada in New York. And Paolo has done a lot of work with Broadway Barkada and same with Lora Nicolas, who is Megan, so they all are connected and they all kind of knew each other already, but they got to spend more time together, which was very, very cool. Paolo didn’t actually even meet us until the day of his shoot, but he just like fit right in. he’s been in a bunch of serious stuff, he was Prince Charming and that’s what everyone remembers him as, but he’s like really funny. He is so goofy, and there were so many times, he would ad lib or improvise and then he would be like, “Wow Mallorie, great job. That joke is really funny.” [laughs] and I was like, “Paulo, I did not write that. You’re being a fool,” but I kept it. There’s so many moments like that. And Emy too had a lot of really great improvised lines too. She’s just so funny.
You shot the bulk of this in Maryland – is this actually at your parents’ restaurant?
It was my parents’ restaurant. And my mom made all the food [you see on screen]. My cast and crew were so spoiled. You know the lechon? We ate that for lunch and we had two of them because we had to shoot the scene [where it has a starring role], so I was like, “You guys are the most spoiled cast and crew.” But my mom loved it, and even though she was making all the food for the actual scene, I had the crew living in my house, so in the morning she would be like, “Oh, you guys hungry?” And she would cook for everybody.
That’s the way to do it. When it’s your first feature, is it what you thought it would be?
It was definitely a lot harder than what I expected. I knew it was going to be hard, I didn’t realize how difficult and that’s just the whole learning experience of it all. It was purely independent, so I had the whole “Okay, let’s start my own business. Let’s get investors, the whole nine yards.” And when you are doing it yourself, there’s so much you need to learn and the decisions you make are very, very weighted. If I was only the director, I’d be like, “I want this” and another producer would be like, “Oh, okay, we’ll see where the money is.” But me being the producer as well, I’d have to say to myself, “If you want this, you got to go find that money somewhere.” So you are constantly working on this film. You can’t turn it off. And that surprised me when making this film, even now, and it’s been over five years. That is probably the hardest thing, making all the decisions, and the whole puzzle is yours in your head.
Obviously, it was worth it, but what made you sign up for this racket in the first place?
I always knew I wanted to make films. And when I was pitching this film – and this was before “Crazy Rich Asians” was even on the slate – it was just so apparent that no one was going to take it. They were like, “Oh yeah. Tell us how it goes,” and I’m like, “Okay. Why are we in this meeting?” So it was something I had to take in my own hands and I went through the Television Academy for directing and I was shadowing a lot of different directors and I would ask the producers like, “Hey, I want to be a director. I want to direct television or film, how do I get here?” And they would say, “You need a feature film,” and I thought who’s going to give me a feature film. So it really hit me hard that if you want to be a director, you have to do it yourself and if no one else believes you, then you have to continue to believe in yourself. That was really hard too – to keep telling yourself, you could do this. You have to be your own pep person. That’s how I got into this whole thing – I knew I wanted to tell our stories and no one else was going to give me a shot other than the people who also agree that we need this.
What’s it like getting it out there? I know this probably hasn’t come out to the world the way you thought.
Definitely not what we thought, but when it was our turn for festivals and COVID hit, there was a decision to make, whether to hold it or to just go with it. And for me and my team, this has been something that we’ve been working on for so long, we thought if we hold onto it even longer, we’ll be dating it. So we took the risk and went virtual and the world is scary, it’s unknown, but you just have to just go for it. And the LA Asian Pacific Film Fest has been so gracious to us for giving us an encore presentation in person [after it premiered virtually] and it’s so nice that we can finally share it with people in person. It was hard doing it during the pandemic, but throughout the whole year, when people felt it was literally the end of the world, we would get messages and e-mails saying how much it brought joy to them during a hard time and I’m happy that we were a part of that journey for them to get through COVID. Now we’re here with an audience who has probably seen it already and can sing along and anticipate where the laughter is and have a second chance of really seeing the film, so it’s very exciting.