Writer Budjette Tan discusses Filipino folklore and the TRESE anime’s international reach

By: Michele Kirichanskaya November 12, 20210 Comments
protagonist Alexandra flanked by two besuited figures in masks

Budjette Tan is primarily known as the co-creator and writer of Trese,  the award-winning Filipino komiks series about a young detective named Alexandra Trese who fights to keep balance between the mundane and the supernatural entities in the streets of Manila. The series has been well-received for its dark and captivating storylines, bringing a new twist to the classic horror/crime genre with a dynamic female lead. Trese brings to life the incredible depth of Filipino folklore for fans around the world.

Michele Kirichanskaya recently had the chance to interview Budjette Tan about working as the writer of Trese and the series’ recent anime adaption on Netflix.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

First of all, welcome to Anime Feminist. Can you tell us about how Trese came to be, both as a comic and as an anime?

BUDJETTE TAN: TRESE is mash-up of our love for comic books like Batman, Hellboy, John Constatine, TV shows like CSI, X-Files, anime like Ghost in the Shell: SAC, and, of course, stories from Philippine myth and folklore.

The name “Anton Trese” came from my friend Mark Gatela. We used that name as the narrator for a radio show about ghost stories in Manila. That name stuck with me and I thought it would be great to use for a future story.

In 2002, I tried writing a comic book about “Anton Trese – Paranormal Investigator!” I struggled with that script for year and then put it aside.

In 2005, Kajo Baldisimo sent me a text message, inviting me to co-create a comic book with him. He said, if I could give him a 20-page comic book, he would be able to finish it in 20 days. So, I dug up that old Trese script and sent him one page.

He sent me the drawn-up page—which looked great!—… (but) when I looked at the character (another tough guy wearing a jacket, with a magical weapon, fighting monsters) I felt we’ve seen this guy too many times. So, I texted Kajo, “What if Trese was a woman?” And he replied, “That would make Trese more bad-ass!” And within the day, he emailed me a new sketch of the character that would become Alexandra Trese.

close-up of Alexandra's face and a bloody kris dagger

Me and Kajo met way back in 1995 and we were working on separate comic book projects at the time. But in the years that followed, I got some comic book assignments and got to work with Kajo on these work-for-hire gigs. Since we kept in touch through the years, I was one of the people he invited to make a comic book with him.

So, I finished the Trese script in a week or so and he finished drawing it in 20 days. By which time, he texted me, “Okay, where’s the next script?” And we just kept on going from there.

Back in 2005, we just photocopied Trese and sold it for Php 30 (about 60 cents in US dollars) at the local Komikon event. When we had enough stories, we started pitching it to publishers and we were eventually accepted by Visprint Publishing in 2008.

By 2009, we had released three volumes of Trese – two of which won the Philippine National Book Awards for Best Graphic Literature of the Year.

It was in 2009, when producer Tanya Yuson flew back to Manila, after several years of working in Los Angeles. She returned hoping to find a story that she could produce and pitch to the studios in LA. A friend recommended that she read TRESE. Thankfully, the nearby bookstore had all three volumes. After reading it, she was able to get my contact info through a friend of a friend. So, out of the blue, I got a text message from a complete stranger, saying she was interested in producing Trese as a movie.

We met up and that was the start of Trese’s ten year journey as Tanya and her co-producer Shanty Harmayn pitched our comic book to studios in the U.S., Asia, and Japan.

It was in 2018 when Tanya and Shanty learned that Netflix Anime was looking for new stories from other countries. So, despite many years of rejection and deals not pushing through, they once again did their pitch about the show and this time, got the green light!

photo of Budjette Tan holding up a paper mask

How would you describe your comic book making process?

When Kajo invited me to make a comic book with him, he said, “Send me a story! Any story – as long as it’s only 20 pages!”

So, I sent him a story that I’ve always wanted to write. And he’d draw it, with minimal changes to the plot. And after I get the pages from him, that’s when I’d write or re-write the captions and word balloons.

Since a typical Trese story is 20 pages long, I would write down in my notebook the numbers 1 to 20 on the side of the paper and I’d write one sentence descriptions on what happens on those pages. Sometimes, I’d start writing dialogue if the characters start speaking to him (and something they just won’t shut up) which is why they go beyond their designate(d) page count.

After writing this all down in a notebook, I’d type it up on my computer, which is when I do my first round of re-writes.

I send this version of the script to Kajo and he sends back the pages – which would be thumbnails. (I) check if we have all the visuals we need for the story. I then give him the go signal to continue drawing, so Kajo would continue to tighten the pencils or ink the pages.

While he’s doing that, I’d start adding dialogue or rewriting the scripts, which I then send to him for lettering.

After getting the lettered pages, that would usually be our last round of fixing for typos.

And then the story is done and we move on to the next one.

the cover of the TRESE vol 2 graphic novel

How does it feel having your comic series, Trese, being adapted into an animation series? What things surprised you about the translation from one medium (cartoons) to another (animation)? What parts have you enjoyed watching come to life onscreen?

It still feels like we’re walking in a dream! It’s great to see how they brought Manila to life in the show. The voice actors they got, especially for Trese, sounds like how I’ve been imagining she would sound like.

It was great to finally see her in action, see her move and fight through a gang of aswang!

And it was interesting to see them devote time to Trese’s childhood and her relationship with her father, which was only seen in one book in the series.

In previous interviews, you had mentioned that the lead character, Alexandra Trese, was originally conceptualized as a male character. What did making her character into a woman do for the story and her as a character?”

In my mind, I really wanted to tell a Batman/Sherlock Holmes story that’s set in Manila, but with supernatural and mythological elements.

Like I mentioned earlier, the typical detective story seems to usually star the typical tough guy. So, I wanted to do something unexpected and maybe that’s why the thought of a female detective came to mind.

I do feel it was partly inspired by Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, as well as comic book characters like Miranda Zero and Jenny Sparks, who are the leaders of their respective “superhero” teams.

It’s also the type of character we rarely see in Filipino pop culture, which made it more interesting for us to explore such a character.

protagonist Alexandra flanked by two besuited figures in masks

How do you believe Alexandra’s gender expands Trese as a work within its genre, supernatural noir/horror, which is usually dominated by male protagonists? What other female characters stand out to you in the series?

Now that I think about it, the first female detective I ever followed was Nancy Drew (and I was also a Hardy Boys fan). I was also a fan of the tv show Murder She Wrote. So, maybe those characters helped plant the seed in my mind for Trese.

I feel that Alexandra’s character is made more interesting because she’s a Pinay in Manila. She’s not just the outlier as far detective protagonists are concerned, she’s also a character that has a sense of duty to her family, fulfilling her role in the family business, but she’s getting it done in her own way, bending the rules where needed.

I think Ramona is another female character that stands out for me. She believes in the cause that she’s fighting for and she’s also protective of her children. Doesn’t matter if she’s up against a god of war! She will fight and protect her kids!

The series features several characters and creatures from Filipino mythology, including the aswang, the tikbalang, and the White Lady of Balete Drive. What would you say is the relationship between the supernatural and the human world in the Philippines?

For me, living in the Philippines feels like we’re living in a story set in a “magic realism” novel. For Pinoys, it(‘s) normal to talk about supernatural encounters; everyone has a ghost story to tell! Everyone has a relative that supposed(ly) saw a duwende, aswang or manananggal. It’s “normal” to go to the market and find “magical amulets” and “magic potions” being sold, alongside bread, fish, and vegetables. It’s normal to have a magical encounter or experience when you’re living in the Philippines.

image of the aswang, a vampire-like creature

Without too much of a spoiler, some of the biggest villains in the series are revealed to human, related to political corruption and police brutality. Was this intentionally done as commentary on human evils, versus supernatural ones?

I was never conscious that it was (a) running theme of my stories. Corrupt government officials and police brutality are the common headlines of newspapers and topics on social media. In my mind, I am writing a crime story, set in Manila, as viewed through the lens of a supernatural or paranormal case. Instead of looking for the logical reason behind a crime, I look at it from a different angle and try to imagine a supernatural reason for why that incident happened.

In addition to a majority Filipino production team, the Trese series also features many voice actors of Filipino/a descent, including Manny Jacinto, Daren Criss, Dante Basco, and Shay Mitchell. Were you surprised by the strong enthusiasm by the Filipino community overseas to Trese?

Our show runner and executive producer, Jay Oliva, has mentioned in several interviews … how surprised he was to discover so many Filipino talents who wanted to be part of the series. It’s surprising and mind-blowing to see the names of the TRESE cast! I’m so happy that they all became part of bringing our story to life.

As creators of a Filipino-based project being recognized on an international platform like Netflix, how does it feel to you reaching non-Filipino audiences as well as Filipino American audiences?

As early as 2009/2010, we started to get fan email from readers from U.S., Canada, Sweden, Germany, Japan, and the Middle East. We discovered that Filipinos were buying sets of TRESE and would give them as “pasalubong”—as welcome gifts—to their friends and relatives in other countries. So, that was our first batch of feedback from foreign readers and how intrigued they were of Philippine mythology and folklore.

After the series started, we started to see so many YouTube reaction videos and review(s) about the show! And it was surprising and delightful to see them react to the characters and creatures. And they’re all saying that they want to see more! Which makes us very happy!

Alexandra looking out the window at night at a large city

Did you intentionally set out for such recognition, or were you simply focusing on making something by Filipinos for Filipinos?

When me and Kajo started this, we were just thinking of ourselves! Hahaha! We were doing this as a fun exercise in creativity! We didn’t have a grand business plan of selling thousands of copies and getting global distribution. We started with the intent of telling a story that we enjoyed creating.

Which is why, in the story, there are a lot of thing(s) we don’t explain or overexplain, because we’re assuming the readers will be Filipino who are already familiar with these urban legends and myths.

We are just so happy and surprised that our story is able to travel and be understood by a global audience.

What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives?

Start your story. Give yourself a deadline. Get it done. Rewrite it afterwards. Share your story with as many people as possible. Start on your next story.

If Trese were to hopefully get another season, what things would you tell fans to look out for?

Oh wow! In the Philippines, we now have seven volumes of the comic book and three spin-off titles. If we get a second season, Jay and Tanya would have a lot of stories to pick from! So, hopefully, we get more than six episodes! Hahaha!

In the other books, we’ve introduced a hunter who presents a big threat to Alexandra. We’ve also introduce(d) a very powerful political figure that Trese needs to confront—she’s like our Kingpin and Lex Luthor rolled into one character. And in one story arc, we finally get to meet her brothers and they all team-up to deal with a bigger threat to the city, which all happens in the middle of a typhoon!

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