'Gameboys': Raymund Isaac On His Witty Take On The Filipino BL Sensation
The award-winning photographer Raymund Isaac passed away last September 4, 2021. He left an indellible mark in the luxury publishing industry, in which he was one of the pioneer photographers and creative forces. Few months ago, his last photoshoot project was with The Ideafirst Company for its film Gameboys. This was his last interview.
There is one sub-genre of romantic-comedy or drama series that took a long time for the entertainment industry in the Philippines to fully tap into: Boys' Love, popularly called as BL, which originated in Japan in its manga and animé culture. This is no surprise, knowing that Philippine television and cinema has represented LGBTQ+ characters diminutively ever since. Either they are siblings and best friends to the lead protagonists or confidantes to the scheming villains, homosexual characters have been thrown on the sidelines. Fortunately, we have a number of powerful films in the past that had LGBTQ+ characters in the spotlight like Markova: The Comfort Gay (dir. Gil M. Portes, 2000) and Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (dir. Auraeus Solito, 2005), to name a few. But despite their countless awards and critical acclaim, they were not enough to spark a social change about LGBTQ+ representation in mainstream media and genres.
The BL genre is different from the 'gay films' that we used to watch in the past—where promiscuity covers most of the screenplay. The basic formula: two boys meet and suddenly form a deep friendship bond, eventually falling in love not because they are secretly attracted to the same sex but because they truly love the person. It's always about self-honesty and acceptance, that a great love is possible for two straight boys because they admire each other as persons.
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Over the decades, this sub-genre developed in Japan, China, and most significantly in Thailand and has been well received by their respective markets, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. BL later on had legit LGBTQ+ characters and sometimes even actors, with coming-of-age and/or coming-out storylines. Now, we also see storylines that have stemmed out of teeny-boppy characters to fully grown yuppies. Eventually through the developments of technology, BLs like the Thai series 2gether grew to worldwide success, thanks to the vloggers and video reactors who have indirectly helped the fan bases multiply exponentially.
When 2gether was nearing its final episode for its first season last May 2020, there were talks in the air that the renowned The Ideafirst Company was cooking a BL show for Filipino fans. Given its track record of critically acclaimed LGBTQ+ relevant films like Die Beautiful (2016) and the film/digital series Born Beautiful (2018), the netizens were assured that the Philippines would finally have a BL series that is true to its formula.
On 22 May 2020, the first episode of Gameboys dropped on YouTube and was succeeded by numerous Filipino BL series from various production companies. History has been made.
"We've always wanted to do a BL story, even before 2020. But back then, we were more focused on doing films and did not know also how to market to the Philippine audience a 'BL' series, that is true to its formula," Perci Intalan, The Ideafirst Company's president and co-founder, shared. He also said that before, they were not very much invested in digital though it always had huge financial gain potential. "But, our company has done a lot of LGBTQ+ projects, so we really wanted to do that," he said. When the pandemic happened, Intalan and his team were browsing through their old story pitches and their writer Ash Malanum, who is a big fan of international BL series, braved to write Gameboys.
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Directed by Ivan Andrew Payawal, Gameboys was originally slated to have four episodes, then was expanded into full 13 episodes with an additional (called as "Episode 13.5: Alt Gameboys") dedicated for the series' two antagonists. While talks have been made for the highly anticipated second season, the production company decided to give it a film cut which premieres on 30 July 2021. Meanwhile, the creators of the show also released a spin-off series for its other significant character, Pearl Next Door, a nine-part show also available on The Ideafirst Company's YouTube channel.
Almost the entirety of the series was shot with mobile gadgets at each other's homes, like how in the series the characters would speak among each other via video conferencing calls applications and social media platforms. With the quarantine restrictions, the production staff had to do things remotely, which includes coordinating with the actors and teaching them to set up their own productions. Given the work ethics of Elijah Canlas (Kalel, 15 and Edward) and Kokoy De Santos (Some Nights I Feel Like Walking and F#*@bois), the production companies' homegrown talents, Intalan was assured that they will not have second thoughts with the project and be able to perform in this kind of production setup.
A self-confessed massive fan of Gameboys, acclaimed photographer Raymund Isaac stayed true to his promise with Intalan and the two lead stars of the show—that he will do a photoshoot for them which led to being the promotional posters of the show's upcoming sequel. Since the beginning of the month, the production company has been releasing these posters inspired by iconic Hollywood blockbusters from the '80s to 2000s, and fans couldn't get enough of them.
"I started being a fan of Gameboys because of the show's production value," Isaac admitted. Being a film graduate himself, he was able to appreciate the show on the first round of watching for its technical qualities, including its powerful screenplay and treatment to such premise. "I was blown away by the fact that it's shot at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and admire Perci, whom I know from the way back, and the entire production for persevering," he said.
When he watched it the second time around, Isaac was smitten with the story and empathised more with the characters. "It's not because it is a hardcore advocacy of LGBTQ+ rights. No. The simplicity of the story makes you love 'love' for what it is. It does not sell you an advocacy, or raise issues of gender inequality, the show didn't even go there. It just tells you the struggle of young love, whether you're straight or not, and the participation of everybody around the couple given the situation of the health crisis. Galing! (Excellent!)," Isaac explained.
The collaboration was easy for Isaac and Intalan to pursue, they said. The lensman has been vocal about his passion for the said show and with this, he was determined to share his talent and creativity with them. "When you believe in a project that seldom comes along, you don't let it go. You show it to as much audience as you can," Isaac said.
Isaac humoured us during the interview, quipping that he forced himself to be part of this, being such a big fan. Intalan backed him up by sharing that the fans adored the lauded photographer since that live interview where he promised to do a pictorial, and even more now that they are seeing this witty take on the series. Going back to the treatment of the story, Intalan shared that they were indeed conscious of not making a BL series that would be an in-your-face advocacy show.
"Our goal is to make the wider audience appreciate this as a love story for what it is," Intalan said. "The moment you open with 'there's something different about the characters because they're gay and you're not', then you put a divide between you and the audience," he explained. Intalan shared that this might be the secret of the show, that it didn't highlight the differences but the similarities that the general audience would be able to relate to and be emotionally invested with. "It was only later in the series that Cairo had to come out, an experience that not everybody can relate to but by then, they already empathise with the character and his arc."
"They are really intelligent actors," Intalan shared. "They were able to find, in their own unique processes, the heart of the characters and bring them out. I daresay that it would be totally different if it was somebody else playing Cairo or Gavreel."
"I couldn't stay away from the fact that I am fanning over these two lead stars of the show that I love," Isaac admitted. "But there's a logical side of me saying that these two are just actors playing the part. And yet when you see them, there's this intoxication that you want it to be real," he continued. Isaac explained that their chemistry offscreen was so natural and genuine that one would not have difficulty to suspend disbelief.
"I just wanted to look at them, that's my turmoil and conflict during the shoot," Isaac admitted embarrassingly that he had a hard time having a straight face during the shoot because, "it was so overwhelming to see offscreen the symbols of what you believe in and people whom you admire the most. It makes me wonder if I missed a lot during my younger years because I wanted to have friends like them who are secured with their sexualities and able to pull off such powerful chemistry."
"Looking at the way they are to each other, you would see that there is professionalism, and much care and respect towards one another that has built up over this project," Isaac said.
Isaac parodied iconic romantic drama and comedy films from Hollywood for the promotional posters and said that Canlas and De Santos were very game to do it. There was one problem though: they were unfamiliar to some of the selections especially those from the '80s. When they were shooting for the Ghost-inspired layout, Isaac had to explain to them the premise of the film first. While Isaac was with the camera, he couldn't help but admire the actors for pulling off the classic Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze's pottery-making scene.
Intalan explained that the boys know or at least had an idea of the films but they did not come from the generation where films had iconic posters—another reason behind this pictorial's concept. Isaac shared that he originally wanted to craft something that would look excellently for a fashion editorial, which Canlas and De Santos already did when they landed on another magazine's cover at the peak of the first season's popularity. According to the photographer, Intalan said to him that though they had fun doing those, they are not really 'in their element' in that kind of shoots as it veers away from their 'branding' that their fans loved them with.
"'Let's highlight them as actors', Perci said to me as we are promoting them not as models but as actors. And then I thought 'how about classic love stories?'" Isaac shared. The actors were given pegs of iconic love story films that people still love to watch. "I was giving them poster ideas, almost all of which are not of gay films, because I wanted to show that Gameboys is not a gay film/series but a love story. These love stories had heart-wrenching storylines, just like what people would be expecting on the film sequel," Isaac explained.
Isaac shared that one of the comments via Twitter came from a random straight person who liked how this concept felt normal... that it is possible for a production company to be courageous with the idea and let the Filipino market receive it warmly. Since Pride Month, the production company has been releasing the posters and have become viral sensation over social media, including the photographer himself.
The two shared further that in between takes during the pictorial, De Santos and Canlas would still express their 'bromance'. "I've always wanted to highlight that relationship that they have offscreen and be captured in a conceptual photoshoot effectively," Intalan said. They went on sharing about the two's kulitan (fun bonding) moments that made the shoot a breeze and lots of fun.
Another insider information that they shared is how proud they are of themselves for pulling off a day-long shoot with 11 layouts with just a handful number of crew, which already includes themselves and the lead stars.
Intalan shared that when they offered the roles to the two, it never crossed in his mind that they will disappoint the audience for having negative issues between them. He said that he knew they are good actors, both on and offscreen, and would be very professional with the work they are offered with. "They are like yin and yang persons," Intalan said. "Kokoy is like a fire person who is always passionate and mischievous. Elijah is like water who takes a long time to warm up, but when he does, he is very comfortable. So it fits, they complement each other. Plus, Kokoy is older than Elijah which gives him the seniority advantage. This helps Elijah to see a brother image towards his onscreen partner. Ultimately, it's serendipity," he explained.
Talking about what could have brought Gameboys the phenomenal success that it has now, Intalan was humble enough to admit that they didn't expect it. "We were nervous when the first episode was uploaded on our YouTube, which only had a thousand subscribers back then," he said. In a few hours, their number of views reached 80,000. As of date, the pilot episode has garnered around 2.2 million views and the series is now available on Netflix and being broadcasted on GMA network. He credited this wide success to the loyal video reactors, who in a way marketed their show at no expense.
Isaac also shared his insights about the successes of the show, saying that it diverted from the usual LGBTQ+ related films that are watched by audiences for their sex and nudity content. "I was appalled by how some audiences received these beautiful films," Isaac said, naming different vulgarities that some audiences are keener to see. When finally, a BL show is being made in the Philippines, Isaac was one of those who were reluctant because of his knowledge about the local audience and of some of the BL shows from other countries. When Gameboys happened, he said that he had straight friends who watched and was surprised by the story treatment, most especially where the kissing scene was placed at the very end of the series and used as an integral part of the show.
"I think that's the reason why Gameboys had such a success. It didn't have the marketing ploy of showing skin or doing innuendos of sexual acts. It's a story. I like those films for their artistic value but I don't like how the majority of gay people (and I'm gay) react to nudity. I was like, 'seriously? He's a kid and this is how you view people?'" Isaac strongly said, talking about De Santos' portrayal in the Cinemalaya 2019 film entry, F#*@bois.
Intalan seconded this statement. In their experience as a production company, he said that it was easier for LGBTQ+ related films to sell if you add scenes showing skin. "But our co-founder Jun Robles Lana, being a storyteller, sticks with the principle that 'no scene should take over the story'. If a particular scene takes all the attention, then you fail," Intalan said.
In spite of this malfeasant reception towards previous gay films, the production company's co-founder felt that it was time for a story like Gameboys. "Slowly, through the help of other film productions that came before us, we are getting out of those LGBTQ+ representation tropes in films and television—the gays being the clowns, the voyeurism because such romances are taboo, and tragic endings because society tells us that it is forbidden," Intalan said. "We have come to a point where a gay clown character like Vice Ganda's could also fight for what is right, where a transgender character like Paolo Ballesteros' could pull off dramatic acting chops, and LGBTQ+ characters in a family-oriented film. In 2020, I think the audience has now more respect towards our people and they have become more open-minded. Now they are able to remove their prejudices or not see these characters as beneath their stature."
Although having success on many fronts, Intalan clarified that Gameboys did not spark a social change but he is honoured that they are part of it. Though being the first of its kind to be watched for free while most of the country was in quarantine, it has sparked hope for this kind of story to be accepted. Now gearing towards its film sequel, we talked to its lead stars Kokoy De Santos and Elijah Canlas about their version of their Gameboys journey, the show's impact on the industry and what the audience should look forward to.