John Paul Su and the struggles of indie filmmaking


Independent filmmaking is arguably the most exciting and also the most challenging project a filmmaker can get him or herself into—at least for the young blood in the industry.

Armed with artistic ideas without the backing of major film studios, independent filmmakers often find themselves producing movies that don’t draw in enough audiences, as they would like to.

“Making a feature film is just half the battle. If you want to show your work to a larger audience, you have to go through the most challenging part of the process—distribution,” Filipino-American director John Paul Su intimated to The Manila Times in an interview on October 25.

The young filmmaker invited members of the press to talk about the commercial release of his independent movie, Toto on November.

Director John Paul Su

Director John Paul Su

Shot in the Philippines, Toto follows the story of Antonio “Toto” Estares, a young Filipino hotel worker who does everything in his capacity to obtain US visa to fulfill his family’s “American Dream.”

The dark comedy-drama swept the awards at the 41st Metro Manila Film Festival’s New Wave competition, bagging the Special Jury Prize, and the awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Bibeth Orteza), and Best Supporting Actor (Thou Reyes).

Su then took his movie in the international festival circuit, among them the Hawaii International, Newport Beach, Palm Beach International and Rome Independent film festivals. His efforts, and that of the talented cast—led by Sid Lucero in the titular role—were soon rewarded on the global stage when Toto won the Audience Choice Award for Best Film at 39th Asian American International Film Festival; as well as the awards for Best Foreign Feature Film and Best Actor (Lucero) at the 19th LA Comedy Festival.

Despite all these achievements, Su and his team had to make the rounds of cinemas to find a distributor for Toto’s local run. They eventually sealed the deal with OctoArts, which paved the way for the movie’s commercial release beginning November 23.

Reflecting on his journey from creating his first full-length feature until his anticipation for this commercial release, Su nonetheless considers himself lucky to have joined the industry at the present time.

“I’m lucky I came at a time that indies are booming here. There’s a captive market, yes, but the problem is, it’s only limited in Manila. Independent films that have thrived in provinces is quite unheard of,” Su noted.

Asked why he chose to pursue independent filmmaking, Su replied, “Because it’s the breeding ground for future blockbuster filmmakers.”

‘Toto’ is a story of a young Filipino worker—portrayed by Sid Lucero— who does everything in his capacity to fulfill the ‘American Dream’

‘Toto’ is a story of a young Filipino worker—portrayed by Sid Lucero— who does everything in his capacity to fulfill the ‘American Dream’

He elaborated, “In the US, there are also indie and Hollywood blockbusters and I believe they need both. You need blockbusters to create funding but you need indie as food for the soul of artists. In indies, that’s where you find new voices that will make your blockbusters in the future. There has to be a balance. Otherwise, what’s the point of theater if there are only a few blockbusters to see?”

One might ask why Su is still gung ho to release Toto commercially in the Philippines when it had already succeeded internationally.

Life imitating art, the director’s challenge almost mirrors Toto’s predicament.

On the surface, the movie’s hero seemed like he only wanted to go abroad to support his family financially, but as the movie digs deeper into his character, it turns out that at the heart of his goal is the redemption of shattered dreams.

Similarly, Su could be deemed as a director who wants to make a living, but when asked where he gets his motivation, he reveals a desire to enrich the Filipino audience.

“Showing more independent films, I believe, will help the audience develop a more sophisticated taste in movies,” Su explained.

But whereas Toto had to put the lives of his loved ones in danger just to realize his dream, Su said that from his experience, he has made it a point never to step on anyone’s toes in pursuing his art.

A dreamer at heart, the Philippine-born and raised Su brings to his filmmaking the skills he developed while working for major media organizations around the world, including BBC World and Google. Add to that a Master of Fine Arts degree in Film and Television at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

He further confessed that the subject of Toto is loosely based on the challenges his-co-writer’s husband had to face as a US immigrant in the 1990s, and not necessarily his own experiences.

“After watching Toto, I want people to be inspired to reach for their dreams but at the same time realize that you don’t have to do it at others’ expense. Remember to work hard, be sincere and truthful. If you do, somewhere along the way, there will be one person who will help you reach your dreams,” the director ended.


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