Hot on the heels of Trese’s recent Netflix debut, NewsFeed 360 talked to the comic book’s creator Budjette Tan about how Alexandra Trese made it into mainstream pop culture, the potential of Philippines’ creative economy, and his thoughts as a storyteller in today’s landscape.
If you haven’t heard of Trese, you must have quarantined under a rock
(only to be welcomed back with another round of strict quarantine rules and a brand new COVID variant – but I digress).
The regular and unorthodox promotional activities leading up to the launch of Trese – a fantasy crime-horror series based on a comic book written by Budjette Tan and illustrated by Kajo Baldisimo – on Netflix have been nothing short of amazing, setting the social media and Internet world abuzz. It also helped that the production recruited celebrities such as Shay Mitchell, Liza Soberano, Darren Criss, Nicole Scherzinger, Lou Diamond Phillips, Jon Jon Briones and Dante Basco to lend their voices in this milestone project.
Ahead of its premiere on Netflix, the publishers of Trese have also shared that the graphic novels sold out, prompting them to reprint. When the animé adaptation finally streamed on Netflix in June, it charted on the top 10 watched shows on the streaming giant in 19 countries and dominated the Netflix Philippines list for three weeks.
Its pop culture relevance peaked when it also gave birth to popular memes such as greeting your 4’11” friends with “Magandang gabi, nuno” or offering Chocnut to people who would gossip.
It’s what Trese, the Philippines’ first ever Netflix animé series, deserves.
Trese: The origins
While Trese means the world to us now especially with how it showcased Philippine mythology and Filipino culture to a global audience, it actually started off on a very simple journey. For a start, going beyond its comic book platform wasn’t in creator Budjette Tan’s mind.
“Back in 2005, that was never the intention. It was just me and Kajo wanting to make a comic book for fun,” Budjette, a veteran creative director in the local advertising scene who has since moved to Denmark as senior brand creative for Lego, begins.
At the very least, Budjette said he tried to make it more fun and experimented on a multiplatform format, inspired by The Matrix promotions, by creating a Twitter account for Alexandra Trese and telling stories of the side characters on the blog Stories of the Diabolical. On Twitter, Alexandra Trese would comment on the news and put a supernatural spin to it like relating an earthquake to the movements of lamang-lupa. It didn’t last long and the Twitter account remained untouched even when the animé version came out.
“I found it interesting and so I was trying to do it in my own little world but syempre I can’t do animation and live action so I never thought of making a video for that. Eventually the thought of ‘Can this become something else?’ only started to happen when people like Tanya (Yuson) approached me and said ‘Do you want to make this into a film?’ Doon lang namin naisip na parang pwede,” he shares.
Tanya Yuson, the executive producer and writer for the Netflix Original Trese, was indeed instrumental in the comic book’s Netflix iteration.
“As for how the Netflix deal came about, Tanya Yuson would be the best person to answer. She is our executive producer and we met 10 years ago. She used to work for Disney in the US and Warner Bros. and was part of the production side of Hannah Montana: The Movie and Smallville,” he proudly states.
“Then in 2009, she came home and her thought was ‘Can she find a Filipino story that can be pitched to a US studio?’ She really wanted something very Pinoy for a global audience. Iyon talaga ang intention nya,” the writer added.
Tanya asked friends and contacts around for material or a writer she can work with to fulfill her mission. Eventually, someone recommended Trese and she liked it. Initially, because of Tanya’s background, the plan was to adapt Trese into live action. Later, she got hold of Budjette to express her interest to adapt the comic book into a movie.
And that began the 10-year journey of bringing Trese to life beyond comics.
Tanya eventually partnered up with producer Shanty Harmayn, an Indonesian who was based in Manila at that time, in this endeavor. Shanty was about to leave the Philippines that year and so the meeting with Tanya felt like a serendipitous moment.
“There was a chance they could have missed each other. They met and talked about it and have decided to partner up. All those times, it was exciting. It felt like every year, they would give me an update on people and studios they’ve met with. Parating nakaka-excite and at the same time, every year hindi matutuloy. For some reason or another, it wasn’t the right fit or it wasn’t the right ingredient. Finally, they discovered through their many meetings that Netflix Animé was looking for a new story and a new content. After 10 years of pitching it, they said let’s try. They pitched it and after several discussions and meetings with Netflix, Netflix said yes. That was in 2018, the same year it was announced,” Budjette narrates, sharing the hard work and the colorful journey that went behind Trese’s Netflix debut.
From live action to animé, Budjette felt that it ultimately headed into the right direction.
“Finding out that it was going to be animé made me feel more excited. It made sense na gawin syang animé. When it was still a live action discussion, it was always a question of – and one of – the things we weren’t sure of was ‘Will we get enough production money to produce it properly?’ Parating may trade off. Pwede lang may isang tikbalang or isang aswang lang ang pwede mong gawin. But with animé, we don’t have that discussion, right? Doing CG or special effects or practical effects whatever it is – that is not suddenly part of the things that will stop you from doing it. Again, animé was a big influence in Trese so it just made it feel right,” he confesses.
Did he feel that, given Trese’s concept, it would also appeal to audiences outside of the Philippines?
“I think I started to get a feel of that when we started to get email from foreigners. When we started Trese, my primary audience was Kajo. I wanted to give a script to Kajo and he wanted to draw a comic book that I would find exciting and interesting as well. Syempre, when it came out, we were happy when fellow comic book geeks started to enjoy it, too. Then we got published by Visprint and we started to get more feedback from people. If you look at the book, we never even took the time to explain to you ‘Ano nga ba ang tikbalang o white lady?’ Because the assumption is our audience would be a Pinoy who grew up with the same stories,” he explains.
Budjette says there were two ways that they were able to capture non-Filipino readers — one was deliberate, the other was just incidental. First was when he uploaded the first three stories of Trese online for free just to promote the comic book. He also started seeding it in message boards, on Twitter and anywhere else on the Internet where he can spread and share the link.
“And then the other thing that started to happen was, especially after Book 3 came out, we started to get stories about how Pinoys would buy a complete set of Trese (Books 1-3 back then). Tapos Trese ang pasalubong nila kapag pumupunta sila sa ibang bansa. So it would somehow end up in the hands of foreigners. Because of the free stories online and the pasalubongs, we started to get feedback from foreigners who said ‘Oh, this is interesting; I’ve never heard of Filipino mythology before; Can I learn more? Where can I read more about it?’ That’s the time when we started to realize na parang may appeal nga sya to people who didn’t grow up hearing the [Pinoy folklore] stories,” he happily shares.
What was true for the Trese comic book also ended up becoming accurate for the Netflix adaptation as it ranked in Austria, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia, Germany, Jamaica, Kuwait, Lithuania, New Zealand, Nigeria, Oman, Philippines, Qatar, Serbia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, UAE and the USA.
Of creativity and PH creative economy
When NewsFeed 360 brought up the subject of creative economy since Trese became a beacon of hope for the Filipino content creators and creatives, Budjette was modest and humble enough to clarify that there are people who can speak with more authority on the subject and that even before Trese, there were efforts to shore up the country’s creative economy.
“Even before Trese, the good thing about Netflix is that they have started to put more Filipino content on their platform. I guess that’s also one of the reasons why Liza Soberano ended up being a top pick for the voice of Trese because Netflix saw that her movies on the platform are doing well. Even years ago, Erik Matti’s films started to get into Netflix. Simply put, it’s great that there’s now a platform like Netflix where it is open and it welcomes Filipino content,” he says, thankful for the arrival of OTT (over-the-top) platforms like Netflix.
Budjette feels that the OTT platforms are the risk takers of the industry which is good news for young artists and young directors.
“As for our creative economy, I think maybe this will hopefully give people a more focused approach on what to do. But I also hope that it doesn’t mean that people think that this is a formula to follow. It’s normal naman to think na what’s the next Filipino comic book that can be turned into an animé or live action? But I think it would hopefully mean that more people would look at comic books and realize na ‘Uy, meron palang bago sa Pinoy Komiks!’” he opines.
Budjette also recalls how Philippines in the ’70s and ’80s was the go-to place of big studios in the US and Japan when it comes to animation.
“Even now, Japanese studios have production units in the Philippines. A lot of the best and our favorite animés are being produced by Pinoys funnily enough. So skill-wise and talent-wise, we have it in the Philippines except no one is taking the risk to produce as far as animation is concerned. There have been attempts in the past couple of years pero parang pasulpot-sulpot. I guess it still goes back to the mentality of studios and producers of wanting to earn the quick buck. Ano nga ba iyong patok? Let’s do another love story or whatever it might be. I don’t know how many of them have the patience of like Tanya and Shanty to go through it for 10 years,” he says.
“The formula usually is if you have a moneymaking business and you know that by making one love story, you will earn an X amount of money. Part of that money can be used to experiment and produce something else. I think that’s what this requires: for more people to take risks before we can say we’ve got a really strong creative economy,” Budjette observes, noting that turning around the Philippines’ creative economy is not something that would easily take place but could be a 10 to 15-year journey for the Philippines to see a return on investment. He says what Filipinos can do is to prepare for it and build our creative pool of content.
He also made a great point on how Japan and Korea looked inward first and created contents for the domestic market which helped shape their distinct creative economy and pop culture identity as a country.
“When Japan created an animé industry, they didn’t think of this as something that will be like, ‘Oh, this is going to be our soft power and it will go out to the world.’ No, they were thinking of the Japanese people. When Korea started these whole K-dramas, they weren’t thinking of ‘Ah, this will conquer the world.’ They were thinking this is what we need to make for our people. The more they focused on how can we make something really entertaining for us, the more it became very distinct that made it just unique and special the moment the world started to see it,” the author states.
Though there’s a lot of work to be done especially since House Bill No. 1801 (the Philippine Creative Industries Act) – which seeks reinforcement and support from the government to promote Philippine creative industries – is yet to be approved, there is certainly no doubt in Filipinos’ abilities as creative powerhouses.
“I think we have so many talented people who are now working for foreign companies and creating work for them. Again, just putting my focus more on like American comic books, a lot of Pinoys are drawing stuff for Marvel and DC and Image comics. Definitely, talent-wise we’ve got it. It’s just now a question of how can we encourage them and of course, everyone else to start making their own,” Budjette says.
TheTrese creator acknowledges the role of digital and being online in inspiring possibilities for the creative industry.
“Getting government support like tax breaks, subsidies and grants are fine to encourage creation but there are other ways where individuals or companies themselves can also encourage content creation and make it rewarding. It has to be continuous and sustainable rather than just giving a one-off prize. So maybe that’s the other missing piece we’ve got that we need to find and fund. How can we make this [creativity] not just a passion project for Pinoys but a way for them to earn a little on the side? Or for them to actually earn enough that they can quit their day jobs and really focus on creating things and it’s more than just getting exposure? I think platforms like YouTube and Naver Webtoon have found a way to encourage creators to just keep making by enabling them to monetize it,” he adds.
In light of Trese’s success, the author generously shares updates on what he and co-creator Kajo have been working on.
“Obviously, part of the wish list is for us to be given a season two by Netflix. As for the comic series, me and Kajo are still working on the next book so we’re working on Trese Book 8 now. In the US, we have a US publisher and they have just released Book 2 and by September, they are releasing Book 3. We’re hoping that for people who have watched the animé, now they can start getting into the comics sana. I hope that we get more readers. I hope that, especially for the new readers whether they are in the Philippines or abroad, that they would want to learn or read more Pinoy stuff. Sana it gets them curious and want to support and buy more local comic books,” he fervently wishes.
Budjette concludes the exclusive conversation with NewsFeed 360 by sharing pieces of advice that worked for him and his creative journey to fellow creators.
“Do it for fun and that the biggest reward you can get is finding an audience that likes your work. If you’re making a comic book, the goal shouldn’t be ‘I wanted to get into Netflix.’ The goal should be: ‘I want to tell the next story.’ I will use the cliché term — if you follow your passion, your passion is like the torch. It’s like the light that attracts other people. Though it might not happen overnight,” he laughs, recalling the 10-year Netflix journey of Trese.
“Do it for fun and get it done. Finish the project because it’s normal for us to want to keep rewriting and revising it because we hope it will be perfect. It never will be so get the story done. And after that, the next piece of work to do is getting it out there. The second part of it is promoting the work and even if you have a publisher or a team like Netflix, we did our own little part in helping promote it ourselves. Most especially if they are a new creator or a self-publisher, they have to take the time and energy to promote it themselves. That’s how they will find new readers for their works,” the award-winning author declares.
About the Writer
Grace C. Diez
Grace Diez started as an AM/FM radio traffic reporter and broadcast supervisor of Trapik.com before pursuing a 5-year career in advertising and a 9-year (and counting!) career in public relations. With 17 years of experience as a writer, her works have been published on People Asia, Metro.Style, ABS-CBN Lifestyle, Star Studio, Metro Magazine, Manila Bulletin, The Philippine Star, Working Mom, Chalk.PH, League Magazine, Sense & Style, Woman Today and Manila Standard with editors entrusting her with cover stories and CEO/celebrity profiling assignments. She loves IU, Taylor Swift, coffee, milk tea, Dr. Pepper and cookies.
Searching for stories isn’t always easy.
We are here to help. You can utilize these stories on your platforms.