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Marie Jamora: The ‘Ang Nawawala’ director finds herself in Hollywood

By QUARK HENARES Published Nov 28, 2021 5:00 am

In 2012, award-winning music video director Marie Jamora made a splash at Cinemalaya with her debut feature Ang Nawawala. The film went on to win the Audience Award and Best Musical Score, earn multiple nominations for the Urian Awards, and be the first Filipino film to ever be featured at the Slamdance Film Festival.

In the near-10 years since its release, fans of Philippine Cinema eagerly awaited Jamora’s next move. What most didn’t know is that she moved to the US, and has since then carved a solid spot for herself, not only in the Filipino-American film community but in Hollywood as well.

She started out doing workshops and a few short films, served as editor for the very excellent documentary The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?, created a community dedicated to bridging the gap between Filipino and FIlipinx-American cinema, and is now a TV director, impressively kicking this new chapter off with the Ava DuVernay-produced hit series Queen Sugar, currently on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Queen Sugar, now on its sixth season, is a drama about three estranged sisters in Louisiana who have to reunite after a family tragedy puts their clan’s struggling sugar cane farm in danger.

Directing Tina Lifford and Omar Dorsey (who play Violet and Hollywood, respectively) for an episode of Queen Sugar, the TV series created by Ava DuVernay for the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Entering the world of episodic television was a challenge for Marie, as it was a world away from both filmmaking and TV production in the Philippines (Marie had her share of TV work, showrunning and directing Project Runway Philippines S1 with stints directing Jollitown and Eat Bulaga. she also did an unscripted foodie series called Family Style in the US, now available on HBO Max).

This is what they teach us at the Warner Brothers TV Directors’ Workshop: You can’t say, ‘I want you to stand here.’ Alarm bells will ring in your actor’s ears because you’re saying, ‘I want.’ You have to say, ‘What do you think?’

To get ready for the series, Marie had to watch each of the 70 episodes that preceded hers. Unlike movies, directing for episodic television meant that your episode had to more or less look like every other episode in the series, with an established and well-documented style. She was given a lookbook of all the seasons until season 5, which contained around 50-plus pages of images from the show. She was also given a show bible for directors, another 20-plus pages of rules for shooting an episode. There were tone meetings, location scouts, tech scouts and consultations with a producing director, who made sure there were consistencies between the episodes of the season.

Directing a dinner table scene for a Season 6 episode of Queen Sugar: Jamora equates being a new director on an established show to being a house guest.

She equates being a new director on an established show to being a houseguest: “Most shows only give out episodes to newer directors when they’re deep into their seasons. But at the same time, actors are really deep into their character. This is what they teach us at the Warner Brothers TV Directors’ Workshop: You can’t say, ‘I want you to stand here.’ Alarm bells will ring in your actor’s ears because you’re saying, ‘I want.’ You have to say, ‘What do you think? Do you think your character would start over here? Would they go to the kitchen and grab a coffee cup here?’ You’re kind of talking to them and it’s collaborative, but it’s never dictatorial, because that would really bring their barriers up,” she shares.

“And then sometimes they’ll say, ‘My character wouldn’t do that.’ And I’ll say, ‘Where do you think they would go? You know the character best.’ It’s the same with the DOP (director of photography) and almost every conversation you have with everybody there because they’ve all been there a long time, and I’m a guest in this house. You have to bring some wine and don’t mess up the furniture. The job is to understand the show, to know the show and to work with the playground of the show.”

From ‘Queen Sugar’ to ‘Cleaning Lady’

Of course, this varies from show to show. Another series Marie just started work on is The Cleaning Lady, for Fox. The series is only starting its first season, so right now it’s a work in progress.

The TV work is what led to her to become a full-fledged member of the Directors Guild of America. This was one of her highest bucket list entries. In fact, she may be the first Filipino from the Philippines to be a member of the legendary guild.

“The showrunner Melissa (Carter), who’s had tons of experience and is really wonderful, started realizing she had a spiel she was giving directors so she wrote it down. She started writing it all into a document and kept on adding, so by the time I did my episode (6) she had a pretty comprehensive document already, which was still a work in progress. What’s great and different about Cleaning Lady is that the visual style of the show is still being established.”

The Cleaning Lady is a thriller about a Cambodian doctor who moves to the US from the Philippines for medical treatment for her ailing son but ends up becoming a cleaning lady for organized crime because the system fails her and pushes her into hiding. It’s a very different show from Queen Sugar, but Marie found a connection between the two.

Directing a scene from The Cleaning Lady Season 1 in the New Mexico desert

“TV is the hardest industry to break into, so luckily Melissa Carter, the showrunner of Cleaning Lady, worked on Queen Sugar season one. So she knew Anthony Sparks, the showrunner of Queen Sugar S6. She called him up and asked — because I think my name was submitted by my reps — ‘How’s Marie? How did she do?’ And he was wonderful; he recommended me because of the work I did on Queen Sugar. And because of that, I had an interview with her, the creator of the show, Miranda Kwok, and the producing director, Marisol Adler.

Marie Jamora on the set of The Cleaning Lady with PA Michael Session and writer Michael Notarile 

“They asked me what I thought of the pilot, and I delved deep into the themes of the show, the cultural significance, you know, especially as a Filipino and it has a Filipino family in the center and just kind of like talked about it to them. And she told me over dinner when we were in production — ‘You know, I don’t know if I ever told you this but you got this job because of your interview.’ And that made me feel great.

“The goal is you want whoever you work with, if somebody calls them on the next show that you’re applying for, they’re going to sing your praises. The director is a coveted position, and so you have to be the most prepared person in the room,” Jamora candidly shares.

  With Filipino-Australian actress Martha Millan, who plays a role in The Cleaning Lady

The TV work came on the heels of the Warner Bros Television Workshop, an intensive course where only eight to 12 directors are chosen. She was already on her way to directing Queen Sugar when the pandemic happened, and so she saw the workshop as a great opportunity where she could better herself and be more equipped for the medium.

“Actually, Warner Bros taught me about TV prep and post, and they really teach you stuff they don’t teach in film school. So that was really valuable. That was life-changing for me.”

First native Pinay in the Directors Guild of America

The TV work is what led to her to become a full-fledged member of the Directors Guild of America. This, according to her Instagram post, was one of her highest bucket list entries. In fact, she may be the first Filipino from the Philippines to be a member of the legendary guild.

“I know that there's definitely Filipino-Americans. You know, like David Maquiling, right? There's Heather Jack the Superstore director, and she's half-Filipino and she's does comedy. But in terms of Filipino from the Philippines? I don’t know. And I asked the guild. They won’t tell me!” she says, laughing.

Marie Jamora is now a member of Directors Guild of America

In the past 10 years TV work hasn’t been the only thing keeping Marie busy. She’s actually the founder of Cinema Sala, a non-profit organization dedicated to showcasing Filipino and Filipino-American work from the film and performing arts industries. What started as a small potluck-slash-screening between friends has now grown into a full-on community of Filipinx filmmakers, actors and film fans.

It’s actually Cinema Sala where Marie met Ava DuVernay, director of Academy Award-nominated movies Selma and 13th, as well as creator and producer of Queen Sugar. DuVernay was doing a film series at her campus in Historic Filipinotown featuring classic filmmakers of race and gender like John Singleton and Agnes Varda. To pay homage to the location, she wanted to do a Filipinx Day.

The programming director Mercedes Cooper chose to collaborate with Cinema Sala for this program. Marie shared Cooper’s motivations behind doing such: “When they taught high school kids about different cinemas, they noticed that the black kids knew the black filmmakers. The Chinese-American kids knew the Chinese filmmakers, but the Filipino kids knew nobody. That didn’t seem right.”

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A post shared by Marie Jamora (@marie_jamora)

The program, which included Filipino classics such as Kakaba Ka Ba Ka Ba? and Moral, as well as important new films like Call Her Ganda, was one of the best-performing programs of the series, so when DuVernay’s company ARRAY held a small summit for 14 community leaders, Cinema Sala was one of them.

“They taught us the tools to build organizations and make them sustainable. And at the end of that, they gave everybody a $10,000 grant. And then all of us were crying because we're like, ‘We're seen, we're seen!’ and that's where I got to know Ava personally. She's really a champion. She really talks the talk, walks the walk and just gives opportunities to people.”

Teaching at the American Film Institute

Marie also teaches at the prestigious American Film Institute, alma mater to such luminaries as David Lynch and Darren Aronofsky. Her recruitment happened after the #MeToo movement, when the institute decided to do a push for diversity in their faculty. In many ways this is an extension of her work as an Ateneo professor, and she continues to work with a number of her former Ateneo students based in LA.

“I remember I was hanging out with Gino (Jose) and Luigi (Gonzalez, her colleagues and former students) by a food truck, and they pointed out to the person we were talking to that I was their teacher. I told that guy, ‘Yeah, I never want to teach again,’ and then the next day I got a call from AFI,” she says, amused by the irony.

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Because of all her work she might have to end her stint soon, but still finds teaching very fulfilling.

“The AFI kids are doing thesis films right now. It’s nice because this is the first class where I know every single director. I met them in their first year where they shared their goals. That was my first class with them, about their voice. And now we see what they’ve become and how close to their goals they are.”

We haven’t discussed the real reason she moved to the US — which is, of course, love. Marie met fellow filmmaker Jason McLagan at the Slamdance film festival and the two have been inseparable ever since. Both moved to Los Angeles (Jason is originally from upstate New York) and lived and worked together before finally tying the knot (in xx:xx Makati, of all places) in 2018. They have a beautiful baby girl named Harana who seems to be the perfect mini-me for her parents. At the tender age of two she loves taking AR videos of herself parachuting and sending them to random parents’ friends, and during the interview she wouldn’t stop demanding for coffee.

Wait — did Harana really just ask for coffee? “She has baby coffee, while I have mommy coffee. I’ll tell you what it’s made of later.” (It’s actually prune juice)

  All in the family: With husband and business partner Jason McLagan and two-year-old daughter Harana

McLagan, a very charming and warm fellow, already seems Filipino at this point. “I’m really lucky that Jason is really a partner in both the companies and in terms of the marriage. He’ll tell me that ‘When you go on the jobs, I will be the one at home.’ I’m lucky that he’s very progressive. You don’t meet men who say that and, you know, he loves it. He’s a great dad and he manages our businesses. The reason why we expand businesses is because of him and his vision.”

Marie and Jason also have a production company, Indie Pop films, which has been working on a few productions outside of her directing work as well. We didn’t get into details as the interview wrapped up, because Jason had to go to softball practice and Harana, well, really wanted her coffee. “Marie! Give me my coffee!” Harana demands, toppling over a few of her toys.
“Did she just call me by my name?” Marie asks, incredulously. “That’s the first time she’s ever done that.”

It’s funny that, after a feature film, three series in the US, a film organization and tons of awards, there are just some people Marie can’t say no to.