Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we bring you a writer producer who’s worked on a number of legendary independent films, including Smoke and Welcome to the Dollhouse, before she moved over to one hundred acre wood as a writer on My Friends Tigger & Pooh. She was a recipient of the Disney Writers Fellowship and has most recently been doing the festival circuit with her award winning short Basurero, which she wrote, produced and directed. We are talking about Eileen Cabiling. Like many working filmmakers, Ms. Cabiling went to film school, but it was her time in the trenches of the 90s New York based indie film scene, which deepened her understanding of what it takes to make a project happen.
Eileen Cabiling: I’ve worked for a lot of indie filmmakers in the 90s. I kind of yeah, I guess when I was in New York, it was kind of indie film scene. So yeah, I worked with Todd Solondz and I worked with I worked with Michael Apted, Lydia Pilcher and Forest Whitaker. I was his assistant on his first movie that he directed for HBO called Strapped. And I think Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse. And I worked on Buffalo 66, which is an interesting – so, yeah, I’ve worked in those fields. Yeah. I think that was very it was kind of a gift in a way to be around these filmmakers who had such strong voices and wanted to make the films that they wanted to make. Yeah, I mean, I definitely was very struck by Todd Solondz, for example. He’s such an eccentric character who really is an auteur filmmaker. And I think during that time it was a very in there still is to this day auteur filmmaking, where the films are really coming out as if it’s their own personal novel that they’re writing. And so to be around that sort of motivation and that drive is very different. Then I also I also worked as a writer for Disney where – Disney, as a writer there, you definitely want to write from a personal place when you’re given an episode to write, and I was writing for Winnie the Pooh, but they’re also very concerned about yeah audience and testing your episode. And every department gives you notes for marketing to the legal department, to the executives. So indie auteur filmmaking, you don’t really necessarily have that unless it’s already attached to a studio. So different, a whole different world.
Eric: Yeah. Disney is a far cry from the idiosyncratic world of Welcome to the Dollhouse, which for me is one of the best indie films that come out of the 90s. And Eileen Cabiling’s own voice was further shaped by her previous work in documentaries.
Eileen Cabiling: Well, with documentary, right before I made my film, I was working for Jigsaw on Death Row Stories and for documentary that I would say is a kind of an entertaining doc series, but very compelling and real, but almost indie film like in process. And then my film. Yes, is inspired by true events, but it’s definitely fictionalized. I think the difference obviously is with fiction, you have way more liberties to explore. And in that sense you can sometimes explore issues that perhaps weren’t part of the original situation. And with documentary, I think I mean, it depends on the kind of documentary, but you do want that integrity of it being as factual as possible. And as true to what is really there. Yeah, I guess within the doc world there are different realms of documentary. You know, like there is a documentary that a colleague made of mine out of the Philippines that’s getting a lot of attention, I think, winning a lot of great awards. And she made it mostly off of stock footage and interviews that she had made. And it’s about the Yolanda typhoon. And I think that was very creative. But it really gave you a sense of how people were affected by that typhoon. I mean, whereas something like Death Row Stories we’re actually taking cases and trying to humanize the case, you know, people who have been put on death row, they’ve been exonerated because they were never guilty.
Eric: It took all of these work experiences to get this building ready to take on her short film Basurero.
Eileen Cabiling: My path to this specific story was inspired by an Al Jazeera report that they were interviewing fishermen. And this one fisherman was saying that he has been on the side dumping bodies for, I guess, authorities in the current administration’s drug war.
Clip: These waters may look peaceful, but this fisherman we’ll call Manuel says Manila Bay harbors an open secret.
Eileen Cabiling: And how he had already dumped like 20 bodies, I believe. And then he came across a body that he had to dump of someone he knew.
Clip: We usually throw them out in Manila Bay. Sometimes we put weights on it so it doesn’t float up. Once I saw the body of a friend. I’m scared and I wonder if I could be next.
Al Jazeera. Manila.
Eileen Cabiling: And that really struck me, first of all, with just what’s happening in the Philippines with the killings. Just to put some context in that, Duterte the current president when he became president, two thousand sixteen, one of his big promises was to eradicate the drug problem. And so they went right into a pretty bloody drug war. And it’s definitely a human rights, human values situation where they were just – it was a killing spree at first. So for me, what really struck me about the story was it was an opportunity for me to make a short film, to work with that very specific actor who we were already planning a feature film together. And then also for me to explore the themes that I want to explore as an auteur filmmaker or stepping into auteur filmmaking after working on many other people’s films for many years. So it really gave me that space and that opportunity and also to continue my vision as a filmmaker as to what I want to speak about. I’m very interested in – I’m a bit of an activist filmmaker. Most of the work that I work on is social impact stuff. Even documentaries that I’ve worked on and such.
Eric: The news report was only the beginning for Ms. Cabiling’s journey to understand how someone would resort to doing such a grisly job to make ends meet.
Eileen Cabiling: Well, I went in knowing what I wanted to accomplish on the level of what I wanted to explore. You know, I really wanted to explore the question of how can a fisherman dumping bodies for survival because he needs the extra cash, how can he find self value in a world that is already not valuing certain people? So I kind of wanted to put that question out there. And that’s, I think, a question that I personally also am always putting out there. How can we have a voice if we live in a system that doesn’t support our voice, but in the intricacies of making the film in the details, making the film from writing it to working with producers to working with a cast, working with how to design it, and my DP how to tell the story. That is a very collaborative effort. And I discussed these ideas a lot with them. And then they brought their own sort of voice to the table as well, or their own sort of essence to the table. Film is such a collaborative process. It’s not like it’s just all about me, me, me. You know, I think as a director and a writer, it really is about your team coming on board with you and bringing themselves into mixing their souls into the soul of this film.
Eric: Part of what drove Ms. Cabiling to tell this specific personal story was her own upbringing as a first generation Filipino American.
Eileen Cabiling: I think it just came out of my own personal path, like my own personal journey has been about exploring themes for myself to help me express my own voice in the world. I grew up in the United States as a minority in Richmond, Virginia, as the only Asian kid in my class. And we grew up in a world where in movies and literature, you don’t really see yourself and your stories. So it was always a bit of a hurdle for me or a mountain for me to climb. And it is, I think, a mountain for many people of diversity to climb right now in the United States. So I’ve always just been attracted to people and their stories whose voices aren’t being heard or they’re not being represented.
Eric: This past year might have helped change that story, to an extent. With the coronavirus pushing back several major studio releases, a diverse slate of filmmakers have now been populating the awards circuit, including Nomadland‘s Chloe Zhao, One Night in Miami‘s Regina King, and Minari‘s Lee Chung.
Eileen Cabiling: I think I’ve noticed that a lot in the feature film world. There seem to be themes like I think right now for people of color. There’s a lot of films about immigrants and the immigrant story. Like, for example, The Farewell is about the Chinese American girl who goes to China to deal with her grandmother who’s dying and her grandmother doesn’t know she’s dying. But that’s a very American story. And my from my perspective, even though I know I think it was the Golden Globes that didn’t really see it, I think they considered it a foreign language film.
Eric: To clarify, the Golden Globes placed the terrific Minari in American produced feature about a Korean family moving to Arkansas in the foreign language category. Now, it won, which is great, but still odd choice.
Eileen Cabiling: In short film, you really see a lot of different kinds of films because it’s a very almost like an art gallery exhibit, they’re curating films and there’s very specific types of short film festivals. My film world premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in Korea, which is a huge film market. So, yes, most of their eyes were on the feature films, but they do showcase 10 short films and mine was one of them. And the films that I was curated with, all 10 of them were all very different, but they were all Asian films. So there was film from Azerbaijan, a film from Kazakhstan, a film from Vietnam, a film from Japan, Philippines, and thematically, they were all very, very different, actually, the themes that they were exploring. So they tend to do like social impact films, comedies, more quirky. There’s a whole experimental film. So I think the short film platform and the festivals – it’s a great way to meet all kinds of filmmakers and it’s a great way to just see all the different possibilities.
Eric: These platforms can also help foster a sense of community. And as the saying goes, the rising tide raises all ships.
Eileen Cabiling: Right now, it really makes a lot of sense to, for example, within the Fil-Am community, the Filipino American filmmakers, we are really supporting each other. And a couple of pioneer filmmakers like Diane Paragas and Marie Jamora, they’ve started communities and have really initiated for support so that it’s not this crab mentality to help get our stories out into the mainstream of films in the United States and globally. So I think it’s important. But yeah, of course, it would be nice to us not to have to use the word diverse. Right? Or woman or Filipino or Asian American. I mean, it would be nice to be able to just see diversity as the norm, you know, but because it’s not, I think we need constructs to help us get there. I think it’s a step by step process.
Eric: Part of this step by step process is collaboration and mentorship, which can only help a filmmaker learn and grow provided they can accept and give honest feedback.
Eileen Cabiling: I really recommend people when they make their films. And I did this with myself and I saw this for the filmmakers that I worked for in the past to have mentors like real mentors, not mentors who are just going to make you feel good, you know, but mentors who are going to be very honest about your work and honest about how they feel, but also mentors whose work you appreciate. So you guys know that you’re in the same field of the type of stories you like to tell and the type of characters like there’s no reason for me to have a mentor who works in a whole other field, for example, or works on a completely different kind of storytelling like voice animation or something. For me, it’s a different mindset. Unless the writer and I know his or her work resonates with my kind of work. And we have a good dialog together. But I think it’s a lifelong question. When do you know you’re done? When do you know you’re finished and when do you know it’s just ready to put out? For me, it was me really knowing my footage, trying everything. I tried everything. I also tried people’s suggestions when I was feeling confused instead of rebelling against it. Even though it sounded way out there, I went ahead and gave it a try, like we cut the film a whole different way. And then I did have people see the film and give me their honest opinions about it. I tend to like to be around people who really will tell me how it is like how they feel. But I also had to learn how to get used to being critiqued harshly. And that’s really happens to you when you work for the studios as a writer, you get critiqued left and right and you – you build a tough shell because you realize it’s not about you personally. It’s really about the work. And I think that really shows a sign of being at a certain space with yourself in your work. But it’s always going to be a little bit. Sometimes you just need to take space when you get a very harsh note or note that you just don’t understand, you know, just take space for it and just process it. And maybe a lot of times just ask questions to the person who gave that critique, because a lot of times we will hear critiques from our own traumas or our own lenses or what we’re insecure about. And it may not even be about that at all. So it’s definitely an art form.
Eric: It’s also a balance. Listen to your own instincts, listen to others. And listening to the work itself.
Eileen Cabiling: I’ve gone through phases in life where it was about protecting the work first. But yes, I mean, you want to protect the work and make sure. But you kind of have to trust that you’re already protecting the work by listening to the critiques and realizing that you can take some and leave the rest. You know what I mean? Take what you think works for you and works for the piece. And I like taking stuff sometimes that is completely way out there that I was like, well, that’s not what this film is all about. And I use that as an opportunity to practice asking questions, to learn how to confront critique that might be uncomfortable because again, it’s a collaborative process, storytelling. And it also it helps me learn to get to know my own story because I think we learn our stories as we make the piece all the way until when you’re showing it out in the world, all through the editing process, the writing, the shooting, casting, you learn about your characters more when you’re casting as well. And you have that actor in front of you, you know, bringing himself to the table and his ideas.
Eric: Ms. Cabiling cites director Andrea Arnold’s approach to American Honey as an inspiration for how to deeply connect with a project to make it truly authentic.
Eileen Cabiling: I really love Andrea Arnold’s process. I know that she had an essence of a story or an idea of story with the article that she had read about kids that were selling magazines around the US. And but then she just went traveling around the US and wrote the story that way, physically going to these locations, spaces and finding her actors on the beach in Florida. And just I work that way as well. Like I believe that as I step forward, the story will come to life and make sense. So as I start putting ideas on the page or for example, with Basurero, this short film, I definitely started shifting things as I was visiting the fisherman and hanging out with fishermen and also visiting where they live and and then also envisioning the day of the fisherman, you know, moving through the slums and going into the nightclubs at night where they hang out. And I think it’s a very organic process. So, yeah, I mean, I know in writing, for example, in the training of writing, you know, a lot of times there’s tools to try to get to the drama of it. Right. So what’s the irony in your logline and what’s his problem and what does he want? And that’s all very important to have. But sometimes also you want to feel your story. You want to feel it out and organically let it hit the page. And a lot of times those questions will be answered. But it’s really about finding your own process and then just trusting yourself. It’s perseverance to not giving up.
Eric: And part of that perseverance is dealing with the inevitable problems that will arise on even the most well-organized production.
Eileen Cabiling: When you’re on the set, as you know, you have time constraints and budget constraints like you have to finish your day or else everyone will get pissed off at you or you’ll go into overtime where everyone will be, like, not know what they’re doing because you haven’t made a decision. What I do is, well, with shooting. What I’ve done is I just again, go in knowing the scene that I’m shooting, having a plan. I mean, being super prepared. As you know, a director has to be super prepared for any because if you have a very clear plan of how you’re going to run that day and what you’re going to shoot, you know, you have that at least because everything is not going to go according to plan. When you’re shooting, all kinds of things happen. Like someone doesn’t show up or something breaks. So you just have to really be reliant on yourself and your teammates to problem solve. So everything is about problem solving. With editing if you have the luxury, sometimes it’s good to take space from your edit because it’s like writing too. You’ve seen it so many times, so many times. And then you just like I just got to get it done and I’ll get it done. But you kind of know in your gut that that’s not the answer, but you’re just going to make it happen. But sometimes if you just take a step back, take a couple of days off, a week, maybe, maybe a month if you can, you know, the answer will really come to you.
Eric: But for that to happen, a visionary filmmaker still needs to be open enough to where an idea can take them.
Eileen Cabiling: Everything is a process. And I think it’s about brainstorming it first and not putting everything that you think about in stone. It should be fluid and flexible, your ideas. So if you want to write about motherhood or being single woman or if you want to write about what it was like to be in the army or about war, you know, a lot of it is just treating paper or treating your laptop as a sketch pad, because I think sometimes we tend to get scared if we put our ideas down on a piece of paper, that has to be it. And then that can be very paralyzing. But when it comes to thinking about my own themes in life, a lot of it is like just journaling about things that I care about or hearing other people’s stories or what’s happening in the world or what’s happening to me personally. Because a lot of times you may come across something like my short film where it’s like, what do I have in common with a fisherman? Right. But what did resonate with me, with the fishermen was that he was put in a situation where he’s super stuck because he has to survive. But his voice doesn’t really matter because he’s living in a system that doesn’t really support him. So I can understand that actually, or at least put part of myself in that situation, because I felt that way many times in my own context. So I think characters are so important these days as a storyteller, maybe because we’re so big now, you know. So how do we find the universal in an individual and how and it can be so, such a different individual, but what do we all still have in common? So, yeah, I believe in character sketches. I think my short film is really a character sketch.
Eric: Research can only help turn these sketches into fully three dimensional characters in movies.
Eileen Cabiling: I interview people a lot. So right now I am developing another film about drug rehab in the Philippines. So I’m just really interviewing a lot of people who have moved through that experience. Drug rehab is a very new thing in the Philippines. It’s a very new concept. New idea. So I’ve been really just talking to the people who’ve been moving through it and are who have been trying to create that for the Filipino people that are addicted to drugs. And then same thing. I’m writing a kid’s movie right now for another company. And I went and interviewed a lot of the kids in this world and this situation where they want the story to be told and just hung out with them. Yeah, I believe in that. I just that’s the kind of writer I am.
Eric: And the more a filmmaker can learn about their subject, well, not only does it make the work more honest, it also means the storyteller doesn’t have to create as much out of thin air.
Eileen Cabiling: Whatever you can do to get inspired to create. Right. And a lot of people, at least for me and I know a lot of my colleagues. It doesn’t come from just me. And I think that’s the same thing when you make a piece, if you’re just making a piece all by yourself and you’re not getting input from your team or your producers or being open to being critiqued to make it better to have a conversation, and you’re kind of just making something in a fishbowl, you know what I mean? Like, by yourself. But I always feel like if you have someone that really relates with your work colleagues or producers or obviously your own team, hopefully you should be able to have dialog about your work to make it better.
Eric: Even now, with the world still dealing with the coronavirus, artists can and must find a way to be inspired to keep creating.
Eileen Cabiling: Well, I mean, covid is a real opportunity to be creative about how to make a film, especially as an indie filmmaker. And yes, I have been thinking about the short film format a lot during this time because I’m like, when am I going to I have a feeling to make an indie feature film, maybe another year or so. So, yeah, I’m thinking about the short film format again, and I have a couple ideas that I’m working on hoping that I can just make something this year. One is my family has all this amazing. My mother had saved all this amazing Super eight footage and I have all of it. So I think that’s an opportunity like a cattle video of your family or old videos you had just in your garage, whether it be Super Eights or VHS. And there’s footage there to make something. So there’s that. And then I find it interesting how people are making film within the Zoom format with movement. So I am talking to an old modern dance colleague of mine about creating some modern dance pieces.
Eric: And if Eileen Cabiling didn’t have filmmaking as a creative outlet.
Eileen Cabiling: I think I would be a painter. I think that’s how I make films and that’s how I write films. And so I love the idea of creating images and they just start to come to life with a paintbrush. But then I also have this strive to just put out questions in the world and start looking at things underneath the surface of our state of humanity, human value and human rights. That’s a big passion of mine. So, yeah, I guess there would be a way to do that through painting.
Eric: Let’s call that a lesson for everyone. Find the canvas you need and go create something that you want to see come to life. We want to thank Eileen Cabiling for sharing her story with our students. And thanks, of course, to all of you for listening.
This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated by Liz Hinlein. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon, Helen Kantilaftis, and myself. Executive produced by the New York Film Academy with a special thanks to all our staff and crew who make this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcast or wherever you listen. See you next time.