film directors

[Only IN Hollywood] Director Marie Jamora’s journey from ‘Eat Bulaga!’ to Hollywood

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] Director Marie Jamora’s journey from ‘Eat Bulaga!’ to Hollywood
'Don’t wait for permission to make things,' Marie Jamora advises. 'Just tell your stories how you can.'

LOS ANGELES, USA – “It finally feels like the tide is changing and people are now more open than ever to our stories and our perspective,” said Marie Jamora, who began directing Eat Bulaga! commercials and music videos in the Philippines, and now helms CBS and FOX shows.

Serendipitously, Marie, who was born in Manila and raised in Quezon City, was recently tapped to direct an episode of FOX’s The Cleaning Lady, a new series featuring a Filipino family. And she megged an episode of CBS’ Good Sam with a Pinoy character.

The Ateneo de Manila University alumna, who immigrated to Los Angeles in 2013, is optimistic about Hollywood becoming more diversity-oriented: “I can see how the industry has grown and changed in the last nine years, now being open to having more women and filmmakers of color in leadership positions.”

Episode six of The Cleaning Lady, directed by Marie, who studied under esteemed Filipino directors Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Uro dela Cruz (both of whom we have sadly lost), airs on February 14 in the US.

ON SET. Marie Jamora on the set of ‘The Cleaning Lady.’ Photo by Melissa Carter.

The crime-drama thriller revolves around Thony De La Rosa (Elodie Yung), a Cambodian who was a doctor in the Philippines, and married to a Filipino.

Thony is forced to live in the US on an expired visa, because her young son Luca (played by Pinoy twins, Sebastien and Valentino LaSalle) is suffering from a rare and life-threatening illness which requires a cutting-edge bone marrow treatment that is available only in Las Vegas.

Thony, desperate to get her son treated, has to work not as a doctor but as a cleaning woman alongside her Filipina sister-in-law, Fiona (Martha Millan).

When Thony becomes an accidental witness to a crime, and is found by the criminal, Arman Morales (Adan Canto), she is offered a job by the mob as a cleaner and a doctor with pay that could cover her son’s medical expenses and take care of the family.

Thony takes the job and leads a double life, keeping what she does – cleaning up murder scenes – a secret from her family.

“I was so lucky to get the opportunity to direct one of the episodes of The Cleaning Lady,” said Marie in our email interview. Based in Los Angeles with her husband, Jason McLagan, and young daughter, Harana, Marie worked on her episode in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which subs for Las Vegas.

RED CARPET. Marie Jamora and husband Jason McLagan at the Jecheon International Music & Film Festival (Korea). Courtesy of Marie Jamora.

“It’s the first time I got to direct a Filipino family for television and I loved being able to add some cultural elements to my episode,” the Filipinx filmmaker declared.

Marie also shared, “Without any spoilers, I got to add adobo to a scene and the smell of the adobo being cooked on set was so wonderful that all the cast and crew’s stomachs were rumbling as we were shooting the scene. Elodie ended up eating the adobo for her lunch!”

“We also got to show Fiona’s bedroom for the first time so I was so kilig (thrilled) when the production design and set decoration team showed me the set. I got to see if the props and dressings were culturally accurate.”

“A lot of exciting things happen in my episode so I hope everyone tunes in to watch!” exclaimed the director, who earned her MFA in film from Columbia University and then went back to Manila.

The show’s creator, Miranda Kwok, is to be lauded for developing The Cleaning Lady, based on an Argentinian TV series, La Chica Que Limpia, and turning it into a mainstream opportunity for Asian talents in front of and behind the camera.

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But I asked Marie to clarify once and for all, since Thony is variously described as Cambodian, Filipino, or Cambodian-Filipino in several articles.

“Thony is Cambodian and she trained and worked as a surgeon in one of the busiest hospitals in Manila,” Marie set the record straight. “When she was in medical school, she met Marco de la Rosa, a Filipino who she married and had a son with.”

“When they discovered that their son was immunocompromised, they applied for medical help in America. After their donor backed out, Thony’s visa ran out, hence she became a ‘TNT’ (Pinoy slang for an undocumented alien) like Fiona and her family. Fiona is Marco’s sister and Thony’s bestie.”

Critics are praising Elodie and Martha, as Thony and Fiona, respectively.

“Elodie is a fantastic actor,” Marie said of the French-Cambodian actress, best known as Elektra Natchios in TV’s Daredevil and The Defenders. “Her process is very method and she dives deep into the emotions of every scene. I loved directing her.”

“We discovered a lot together in our conversations and rehearsals. She is also so charismatic and magnetic to watch onscreen. I am so happy that she is getting the recognition that she deserves.”

As for Martha, Marie commented, “She is an absolute delight. I was surprised when I first met Martha and heard her Australian accent! I initially thought that she was Filipino-American with an impeccable Pinay accent.”

DUO. Marie Jamora on directing Elodie Yung and Martha Millan in ‘The Cleaning Lady’: ‘It’s so wonderful to see two empowered Asian actresses sharing the screen together and leading the show.’ Courtesy of FOX.

“But her family immigrated to Australia when she was a kid and she uses her parents’ accents to characterize Fiona. Martha is the type of actor who loves playing with a scene – performing it a bunch of different ways and exploring if I ask her to.”

“We had a lot of meaty scenes for my episode so I got to work with her quite a lot. She is also super bubbly and her positive energy permeates throughout the set.”

“Martha has amazing chemistry with Elodie. Their friendship is the real deal. In between takes, they are BFFs just giggling together. It’s so wonderful to see two empowered Asian actresses sharing the screen together and leading the show.”

“And it also felt awesome getting to speak to Martha in Tagalog sometimes in between takes!”

And it turns out that Marie has a personal connection to the Filipino twins, Sebastien and Valentino, who alternately play Luca.

MOTHER. Elodie Yung and Valentino/Sebastien LaSalle in ‘The Cleaning Lady.’ Courtesy of FOX.

The young filmmaker, whose feature film directing debut, What Isn’t There (Ang Nawawala) won the audience award in the New Breed section of the 2012 Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival, enthused, “Yes, I was so happy to be able to work with both Seb and Val for my episode and to be able to chat with their wonderful parents, Ronnie and Angele, in between takes.”

“We actually have a mutual friend connection, Kate Torralba (singer-songwriter), who we bonded about. Kate is the twins’ auntie!”

“Anyway, one of the twins is great with dialogue and the other twin is great with physical action. Please don’t ask me which one because even I am still confused who is who!”

“For being so young, the twins are super professional and used to working and waiting on set. I love working with kids so it was fun getting to direct them, which is basically like role-playing and using their imagination.”

I asked Marie, who has vowed to amplify Filipino stories, to sum up her The Cleaning Lady directing experience – working with several Filipino actors, co-producer (Pretty Little Liars actress Shay Mitchell), co-writer (Celena Cipriaso) and with some songs by Ruby Ibarra (Fil-Am rapper).

She answered, “Having Melissa (Carter, executive producer) tell me, ‘Ruby can compose a song for your episode with Mark Isham, if you want,’ sounded like a fantasy to me since I’ve been a fan of Ruby’s for a few years now.”

“Seeing Ruby get the spotlight and the mainstream platform to share her music is wonderful. Celena co-wrote the episode after mine so it was so great getting to spend time with her in Albuquerque on and off set.”

“Since we’re so used to always being the one Filipino in the room most of the time, it was great being two Pinays in the same space. People thought we even looked like sisters because we’re the same height!”

“It’s also awesome that Shay Mitchell co-produces the series. I wish I’ll get to meet her someday soon.”

On her experience directing episode 106 of the brand-new show, Good Sam, with a cast that includes Sophia Bush, Jason Isaacs, Skye P. Marshall, and Sendhil Ramamurthy, the daughter of a doctor replied, “Since I come from a family of doctors, I was pumped to finally direct a medical show and get to access that part of my brain.”

STARS. Marie Jamora on the ‘Good Sam’ set with Jason Isaacs and Sophia Bush. Courtesy of Marie Jamora.

“Since I’m a fan of Sophia Bush and Jason Isaacs’ work throughout the years, it was a dream come true to get to direct them, especially because our episode was so ambitious.”

“It was also my first time to direct internationally outside of the Philippines and America so getting to shoot in Toronto was amazing. The crew is one of the kindest I have ever met.”

I asked Marie if she hopes that someday, medical dramas will reflect diversity in the US and include more people of color – doctors, nurses, medical technicians, and more. From my experience, I couldn’t walk into a hospital or clinic without encountering a Pinoy medical worker, for example.

“Yes, of course!” she answered. “I always try my best to have the background extras reflect the diverse world around us and to showcase more Asians in the roles that I can help cast.”

“You will definitely see that in my episode of Good Sam. Luckily, I got to have a Filipino featured on my episode, and although he is not a nurse, you definitely will see him and how authentic he is in his role!”

Marie, who became one of a handful of Filipino or Fil-Am members of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) in 2021, reflected on being a Filipino and a woman blazing the trail in Hollywood.

“It is my dream to pave the way so that more Filipinos can be in leadership positions in the industry. So we can have the power to create more content that shows our stories and voices. And being a Filipino from the Philippines, a new immigrant getting to achieve these things means the world to me.”

“I want to set an example where people will not hesitate to give more of our kabayans opportunities and so we can have more of us in the DGA.” Marie, who also directed an episode of Oprah Winfrey Network’s (OWN) drama series, Queen Sugar, estimates that there might be less than 10 Pinoy members of that guild.

To help nurture more stories being told by Pinoy filmmakers, Marie founded Cinema Sala, a platform spotlighting Filipino and Fil-Am work in film and the performing arts.

Growing up in a household of film lovers, Marie was already making films as homework assignments in high school, Immaculate Conception Academy in San Juan. Her credits include many video shorts, music videos and short films. Among the latter are Flip the RecordHarana, and Isobel.

FLIP. Marie and cast of her short film, ‘Flip The Record.’ Courtesy of Marie Jamora.

Also a musician (she plays drums), Marie looked back on those days when she directed videos of artists, from Gary Valenciano to the Eraserheads, and campaigns for various products, from Maybelline to San Miguel Beer.

She recounted, “In that decade where I got to direct commercials and music videos, it was an amazing time for me because I got to play with different genres of cinema and music, work with all kinds of actors and cinematographers and also teach myself how to edit and produce and how to collaborate and please clients.”

“All these skills that I learned back home I use until this day. Plus, being on hundreds of shoots before moving to America has really benefited my career because people tell me that they see that I am so at home when I’m on set.”

Aside from directing the first season of Project Runway Philippines, Marie helmed Eat Bulaga!, the longest-running variety show in the Philippines.

“It was a short and fun time,” Marie recalled about directing the noontime TV show. “I want to thank Direk Poochie for believing in me and getting me to work with them.”

“I remember directing a musical episode and getting to write an Iskul Bukol reunion inside of it, bringing in Quark Henares, Erwin Romulo, and RA Rivera to the Eat Bulaga! writers’ room with me. In those sessions, we also got to help brainstorm what was to become Pinoy Henyo.”

From being the first Filipinx director to be accepted into the American Film Institute’s (AFI) directing workshop for women to being on the directing faculty of AFI, Marie treasures every break she’s had.

“I appreciate that I have had many adventures in my career thus far. I never said no to opportunities so it led me to direct music videos, commercial campaigns, and noontime shows, to teach directing at my alma mater, Ateneo de Manila University, to showrunning the first season of Project Runway Philippines, to making a movie and immigrating to America.”

“It gave me the skill set to build a career from scratch in Los Angeles, from editing and directing web and unscripted content before I finally got success in directing narratives and got to teach at the AFI.”

Asked for the most practical advice she can give to young, aspiring filmmakers in the Philippines and around the world, Marie gave a tip that she has obviously followed herself.

“Don’t wait for permission to make things,” she began. “Just tell your stories how you can. A filmmaker friend told me that she was sick of not being invited to the table so she built her own table.’”

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“I also advise people to do things the (Mark and Jay) Duplass brothers’ way – get a cheap camera (now you can use your phone!), get your friends, and shoot something over the weekend.”

“Once you polish your craft by making a lot of films (and failing), you will find out what your voice is, then you can have something to contribute to this wonderful global art form we call cinema and television.”

“I also work harder than anyone so that no one can judge me on my appearance or question my authority. The work will speak for itself and the way I graciously collaborate is what they remember me by.”

Marie shared what she’s doing next: “Right now, I am prepping for my episode of All Rise, which is season 3, episode 2. It will be on the Oprah Winfrey Network and a lot of cool things happen in my episode. We’ll get to meet some fun new people.”

Fil-Am actor Reggie Lee stars as head deputy district attorney Thomas Choi in the legal drama that aired on CBS for two seasons.

But Marie rued, “Even if Reggie Lee was one of my fave characters in the past seasons, I’m so sad that I won’t get to work with him on my episode!”

The girl who made video shorts for school homework in Manila and now directs TV shows in Hollywood is still fired up by her ardent dreams and goals.

“I would love to be able to create Filipinx content for American television, to write and direct more feature films and to continue to produce and champion other Filipinx filmmakers with my production company, Indie Pop Films, and my community organization, Cinema Sala.” – Rappler.com

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.