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Dante Basco on The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and creating a blueprint for Asian cinema

Dante Basco tells us about directing The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, voicing Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars, and his ambitions in Asian filmmaking

Dante Basco interview

Dante Basco has had a prolific career. From working with Steven Spielberg on the family movie Hook, becoming part of Star Wars, to voicing animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and American Dragon, he’s been involved in several pillars of pop culture.

His latest production is something much closer to home: The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, a comedy movie directed by Basco, starring him and his three brothers, Dionysio, Derek, and Darion, and his sister, Arianna. Centred on a family wedding, we learn about each sibling through vignettes, showing us around Filipino life and the myriad ways each has struggled to find love in adulthood.

It’s a slice-of-life rom-com Basco’s been working on for quite some time. Eager to capitalise on the recent surge in popularity for Asian filmmaking, Basco uses this as a way of showing people his community and inspiring others to be the tastemakers of the future. He spoke to us about making the film, as well as his journey to date, and why it’s all in service of moulding the next generation of Asian artists and creators.

The Digital Fix: I really enjoyed The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, I thought it was really charming – how did this project come about?

Dante Basco: You know, we got it financed by a studio in the Philippines called Signal Entertainment, and it’s something I’ve been developing for a while. I’ve been an actor for over 35 years, but I started producing about ten years ago, and exclusively Asian-American content or like this, I call it new Asian media.

With the internet now, I feel like there’s borderless Asian media, so I started going back in Asia to fund things, and to create bridges with the artists here in America that are Asian in front of and behind the camera and connecting with artists over there in front of and behind the camera. We got one of the biggest stars in the Philippines, Solenn Heussaff, to come and star in the film with us.

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I’m an artist. It’s been a long time, I’ve been developing this for a while. This is a really personal story. It’s a comedy, and it’s a fiction, but it’s also inspired by my family and stories from my family and serves as a love letter to the Filipino community that I grew up with in Pittsburgh, California, and also my actual family. So it’s really, really special film for me.

The monologue makes the movie seem like a guided tour through Filipino culture. Did you always have that narrated structure in mind?

I don’t know, it’s hard to say, because every film is a minor, minor miracle, complete. I knew that I had the vignettes in mind, and I had my brothers in mind, and then my sister came in another draft. Even other things in the film, things happen for a reason, and then it really explains things later on. You look at the film, and actually, some of the things you wrote, some of the things you shot mean more, and wasn’t your intention at the time.

Funny story about that: I love my sister, and she’s a brilliant artist, but she’s younger than us boys. Part of what she’s saying, when I wrote that monologue for her, is part of her story of her life, that people didn’t know we had a sister. Even when we wrote this film, my mom came to me on the side, like, ‘You’re doing this movie, is your sister in the movie?’ I’m like, ‘Mom, this is not a movie about us. This is just a fictional film.’ And you know, pressures of family, and then I was like, ‘OK, you know what, maybe she’ll narrate the film’.

Then, again, taking a risk of breaking the fourth wall with her at the end, there was a lot of conversation and debate about which way to go, this or that. But in the end, like I said, these minor miracles happen, it all works out somehow.

Dante Basco and his brothers in The Fabulous Filipino Brothers

I could really feel the chemistry between the brothers. What was it like working on-set and producing this movie with your siblings?

Yeah, it’s brilliant, man. It was lovely. Well, my brothers, they’re brilliant actors. We left our hometown over 35 years ago, came to Hollywood together, and we’ve all had separate careers, and they’ve had great careers in their own right. I’ve become the most quote-unquote ‘famous’ because of certain characters I’ve done that became iconic, but we still share the same journey. Our family has been on this journey together.

In a lot of ways, this film is one of those unique projects where it feels like everything you’ve ever done in your life, especially creatively, it all leads up to this moment, and us putting it on this film. Even though the fiction is inspired by really true events, and our family, I could have put ‘Inspired by true events’ at the beginning of the film, but I wrote the original first draft with my brother Darian, and then we brought my brother Dionysio in the film.

You know, Danny’s, he’s so funny, a great comedian in his own right, he came in and helped out with a lot of the comedy parts of it. Then my sister, we brought her in, especially around a lot of the female voices and perspectives. So it all worked out.

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We also knew all of the real personal stories that we were touching on in the project, which, with all families, it could be very sensitive subject matter, even though it’s a comedy, and most of the world will never know what we’re talking about, only our family knows that we’re talking about.

So we had to be, and I had to be very cautious going into it. I wanted to go in and make it a family project and let everybody know, we’re here to have the whole family talk about this, celebrate this, look at it, have fun, and, and honour it, pay homage to some of these stories that made our family.

You started producing movies with Hang Loose in 2012. Has the Asian filmmaking scene evolved since then?

Totally different. I, from an actor, became a writer, became a poet, and then became a film producer, and I started making exclusively Asian-American content at the time, and now it’s Asian world content, because it’s not just America now. But at that time, ten years ago, a lot of my friends in Hollywood were like, ‘What are you doing’, because it’s a business, they’re like, ‘There’s no money in that’.

They’re not being racist, they’re just thinking, my friends in the business, that if you look this way you can get this role, we can get this much more budget, we have this much more. And I’m like, ‘Yo, I’m an actor, right?’ You guys know, I’m an actor, right, and now at a certain place in my life and my career that I can put on the next generation.

It’s very important for me to have Asian leads, and to have Asian men and women kissing by the end of the movie. There’s something in me that I need to pay it forward to the next generation, certain aspects that I didn’t have in my generation of coming up in Hollywood. A lot of them didn’t always understand what I was talking about, didn’t really get it, because again, it’s all about ‘This is a business. This is a movie business’.

The cast of The Fabulous Filipino Brothers

But when things like Crazy Rich Asians happened, and the conversations that led up to that a lot of my friends were like ‘Oh, I get it, you’ve been helping to set this up, what’s going on now’. Now we’re at this pioneering time. I mean, Asians are the highest-profile they’ve been in the history of Hollywood. Parasite wins the Oscar, Squid Game is the number one show in the world.

The thing that’s happened now is we’re at a place where authenticity matters more than ever. All of our stories matter, and people want to hear us tell our story. They want to hear us tell our stories from our perspective, and it’s really beautiful. It’s my way of also helping my community, the Filipino community, add our stories to this great movement that’s happening in cinema. We’re filmmakers, let’s tell our stories.

I really just took my own advice that I give young film school students, I tell them to write what you know, right? Start there, write what you know. Unless, of course, you’re brilliant, you’re a hell of a researcher, I met young filmmakers like that, that research the heck out of a war or something, or they’re incredible world builders, and they have this kind of mind where they can create Harry Potter. There’s a special, you know, a George Lucas-type head that can do that.

But for most of us, hacks as we may be, write some poetry about your life and tell that story. Make it personal. I found in making The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, what was really important for me was, like, ‘Yo, we’re Filipino, let’s talk about it’. Somehow it got to premiere at South by Southwest, which is one of the biggest festivals in the world, and 1091 Pictures picked it up, an American company, and it’s as personal as you get. Sometimes that personal story can become universal for everyone to share, which is great.

You worked on Hook with Steven Spielberg early in your career. Is there anything from that production that you carry with you in your own filmmaking now?

Of course, man, to a degree, I mean, so many years ago, but I was a young artist and he definitely impacted my life. I would come into the set on days that I wasn’t working to watch the legends work. So many times, you talk to the artist like, ‘Yo, man, you got to understand when you’re in the presence of greatness and have the wherewithal to just sit there and listen and take it in, try to understand why they’re so great’.

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I would come to the set on the days off from work, or I’m not shooting and come to watch Robin Williams do improv. I’d come to watch Dustin Hoffman do character work and just sit there, and the whole time I’m sitting right next to Steven Spielberg. Then, of course, Steven’s watching me, and Steven is telling me what he’s doing, the camera movement, the lenses, he started telling me about lights. For young people, it’s the equivalent to having the opportunity to sit in the room to watch Picasso paint a stroke, or Beethoven conduct a symphony.

That’s who we’re taught. These are the guys we’re talking about. These guys are gonna live in legend forever. Of course it had an effect on me, and I love Spielberg movies. I love Spielberg. So great that I got to be in one of his films, and I’m a student of film and student of filmmaking and art. I know him and his whole crew, De Palma and Scorsese and all the guys from the ’60s and ’70s that he rolled with, and all the films that they did collectively that impacted and changed our industry.

But Steven definitely was a commercial director. He was doing something that was different from Coppola and all those dudes, right? They were a clique, and yeah, I think that rubbed off on me. And I talk to my brothers too, you see them in the film, and you see different things in them, guises, deep, dark, more dramatic. At the end of the day, I want people to learn about my culture, and my family, but I want people to be entertained. Hopefully, at the end of the day, anyone can just be entertained by the mad-cat-ness going on in this family, and be touched too, but also be entertained.

You were part of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which helped Asian representation in its own way, becoming an entry point for many people. When you started that show, did you think it would become such a cultural pillar?

Well, it has become that for sure. When I started voicing Prince Zuko on Avatar, I’ll be honest, I had no idea. We don’t know. It’s gigging. I’ve been in this industry for over 30 years, and whatever gig comes your way you love to do, you put your heart and soul into it, you do it, and you’re excited to do it. We don’t know. We think we know everything. We don’t know anything.

I’ve told Mike O’Brien and the creators over the years, ‘Dude, I had no idea what the show was gonna become’. I was like, ‘What are we doing?’ This is an epic, Asian-inspired, anime-inspired tale about balancing the world, and it’s on Nickelodeon in the afternoons with Spongebob. We all do pilots, and we all do different projects that never see the light of day. Part of me was like, ‘Oh, nobody’s going to see this, it’s not the one for Nickelodeon’, you know? Then it becomes, whatever you want to say, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings for a certain generation, and you go, ‘Wow, I got to be a part of one of those from the beginning’.

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My character has become one of the most favourite characters of the whole audience. I go on this great redemption arc, and it’s literally like this new Star Wars, and I’m like, ‘Am I? Who am I? Am I Han Solo? Like, what? What’s going on?’ It’s like one of those things. It was so fun. Then the way it’s impacted generations, man, Asian mythology, the thoughts of balancing the world, we’re living in such a crazy time. I’m still very engaged with the fanbase, because I get to go to half a dozen or so comic cons throughout the year. You really talk to the fanbase in a very intimate way.

One kid came up, he kind of freaked me out at New York Comic Con, he was like, ‘I grew up watching it’, and I say ‘Yeah, man. Thank you. I love that’, and he goes ‘No, you’re you don’t understand’. He’s like, ‘Avatar programmed our generation. It programmed everything going on, the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests going on, it’s our generation trying to get back in balance, you helped programme our minds to see the world of what’s going on, where we should be, and how to get there’. And I’m like, ‘You’re freaking me out’.

Art can do that. Art has impact. That’s the beautiful thing. I talk to other filmmakers and artists and media folks. Our job is to make movies but if you really, really do a great job, your movie is no longer just your movie, it becomes their movie. Yeah, once an audience adopts a movie as their own film, which we’ve all done with our favourite films, whether it be Godfather or Star Wars, you’re talking about the film transcending, it no longer just belongs to you, it belongs to everyone. It’s their film, they speak of it as their movie, and that’s it.

With Netflix’s live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender, do you see that as another generation pushing that conversation forward?

Of course, I mean, I’m in the Avatar family for life. It’s impacted my life profoundly. I always root for it to do well, root for the story to carry on, because it’s such a strong story. So I look forward to what they put together. I got to talk to the new Zuko, Dallas Lou, he’s a cool kid. He wanted to ask me questions about the character, some acting stuff. I feel like I became Uncle Iroh talking to him about passing the torch.

I was like, ‘Look, man, we’re small with you, me now, and Dev Patel that got to play him. We’re a small group of actors that got to play this role. It’s your turn, I’m here for you anytime you need me, but at the end of the day, it’s your turn to play it. Go have the time of your life’. The story is amazing, so I look forward to it, and I wish them the best in the whole endeavour.

You were part of Star Wars: Rebels as well. What’s getting the phone call to do Star Wars like?

Well, doing Jai Kell was great. For most people, Star Wars is the first fandom. I mean, Star Wars or Star Trek. You know how it goes, you’re either on one side or the other. To even have a little piece of Star Wars world that’s an original character that really blew my mind. Hanging out with Dave Filoni in between recording and talking, he’s a keeper of the lore, and he’s just telling you what your character’s doing outside of what we’re seeing on the screen during this time. He’s doing this; he’s over here.

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You get back to the childhood wonderment and fantasy about moviemaking, and you just sit there and listen to him talk. I love that they also brought me back, and I got to all the online stuff for Galaxy of Adventures. I got to narrate all that stuff. They did animations for all these things, setting up the stories of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and Yoda. And I’m like, ‘You guys, we all know that stuff?’ They said, ‘No, it’s for the next generation that hasn’t necessarily watched all the movies’. Here’s like little shots on who these people are. I got to narrate all that stuff. It’s like you’re a kid, it brings you back to being a kid, and takes you back to why we started doing all this stuff in the first place.

This is possibly an obvious question, would you return to do Star Wars again in live-action? Voice-actors jumping to live-action isn’t unheard of in the franchise.

Oh yeah, of course, I would love to make my way into any of that stuff. I came from film and I still do on-camera stuff all the time. I’ve a few films coming up. I was fortunate to kind of stumble into the voice-acting world, and right before it became so popular. Now everyone wants to get into the voice-acting world, like ‘How’d you get in there?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know either’. I got lucky at that time, where I got into the voice-acting world, and some great things happened, Disney with American Dragon and then Nickelodeon with Avatar, and then the Comic-Con scene blew up at the same exact time.

Dante Basco and Solenn Heussaff in The Fabulous Filipino Brothers

For years, you felt like you’re a ‘has been’ going to a Comic-Con, right, and then it became this real buzz point place for fans to engage with us in a very intimate way. It was also a way for us as an industry to get into the fanbase, and the remarkable thing I love to tell the geekdom as it were, as it’s filled with a lot of kids that are self-proclaimed nerds, but also awkward and have their own issues with everything, I say ‘look, you guys, I get it, we’re all here, we’re of our people, but you have to understand that you’re the keepers of what’s next’.

San Diego Comic-Con, we’re here because we want to find out what’s the next Star Wars, what’s the next Game of Thrones, and guess who knows it? You know, you guys are the moderators; you’re the arbiters of taste for pop culture. As full as you feel about this, that, or the other. Never forget your tastes are shaping pop culture right now, and that’s amazing.

Back to The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, I noticed at one point one of the brothers is wearing a Napalm Death shirt. How did that come about?

We try to disguise it a little bit! [Laughing] It was actually a piece that was brought to me by our wardrobe designer Sulai Lopez. She brought me a shirt and talked about the band. It went with the character, and I didn’t know much about them, but she explained some things to me. I was like, ‘Yeah, because this is a guy that’s in this kind of dark part of his life, and doing music and it’s depressing the shirts look so cool’.

It’s a vintage shirt from a cool old school band, and of course, Napalm Death just sounds cool, so I was like, ‘Hey, that’s on the shirt. Let’s rock with it’. I’m glad you picked that out. It’s one of those things where I actually looked at the shirt at a recent screening, and it does go with where this guy’s at, which is beautiful. For sure – Napalm Death.

Definitely, as soon as I saw the logo, I understood where that guy was at.


You’ve been touring the movie around. What has that been like? Was that always part of the process, to take the film to audiences around the US?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, we sold the film to 1091 Pictures, and it’s coming out February 8 for download for everybody here in North America, and I believe parts of Europe. I’m excited for that to come out. But I always envisioned, pre-Covid-19, this tour because I really wanted to get the film to the audiences, I wanted to share the experience. Of course, Covid-19 has changed a lot of things up, but somehow we were able to still create some semblance of tourism.

I do have future ideas for how we’ve been doing Asian filmmaking, I don’t want our films to stay in these kinds of festivals all over the country that can be very elitist, not everybody goes to these film festivals. The Asian American film festivals are very good for awards, and I’m like, let’s not do it for awards.

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This film is for the people; we have to create a blueprint, an underground railroad for Asian cinema. So we know where to go, where the audiences are, that can support the film where they can see it and have the experience we can have with in-person Q’n’As. We can create celebrity filmmakers, actors, directors, within a subgenre scene. I almost took the idea from Tyler Perry, and what he did with his theatre thing going through the Bible Belt, or what they call the Chitlin’ Circuit of the South. African-American artists doing stage plays, which led him to do movies, which created what he’s doing.

I’m still formulating that – can we create a map where, if you make a movie, limited budget, you can make a certain amount of money back if you go directly to the audience. Then you can make more money when you sell it now to Netflix or whoever later on. We’re still working on it, but just the impact it had on me going to see this with audiences, talking with the audience, seeing what impact it’s having on them. It’s really inspiring.

One last question for you – whether they’re watching at home in a theatre, what do you hope people take away from The Fabulous Filipino Brothers?

I hope they just take the ride with us and they walk away entertained. Have a few really good laughs, and maybe you’ll look at a culture you’ve never seen before, and take note of it in a way that you might not have and appreciate it to some degree. There’s a lot of little things that are just stuck in there. It’s really about family. It’s about siblings. It’s about our relationships with each other, taking care of each other. I believe, and you know, Irish too, family is the anchor point for everything that we do. It’s the same thing with a Filipino family, you know, Catholicism is super big.

Then there’s little things, there’s a vignette where my character goes home, to where we’re from. We’re a land of immigrants, and it’s strong. It’s great. It’s great to be American. We’re American. But guess what? We’re also something else. Go there, connect with that. There’s a lot of power and a lot of knowledge you can get by going home.

Not just all the ethnic people, though. White people too, as you know, there’s a lot of Irish people who’ve never been to Ireland. There’s some questions to be answered that you don’t even know the question, because you’ve never been. So I hope people take little things like that on, but at the end of the day, I hope you laugh and have a good time.

The Fabulous Filipino Brothers is now available to rent or buy on Amazon, Apple TV, and Google Play. you can find out more via Dante Basco’s official site here.

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