Following Rookie’s headline-making splash at Cinemalaya 2023, director Samantha Lee and lead star Pat Tingjuy reflect on their queer volleyball movie.
Given how volleyball-crazy many Filipinos are, with games often becoming community events in themselves, it’s quite surprising to see that we haven’t had many movies set around volleyball. The type of stories that can be told through volleyball is boundless. And one such story came when Samantha Lee introduced to the world her latest film, Rookie, during Cinemalaya 2023.
Right off the bat, a film about two women who are part of their school’s volleyball team falling in love was destined for something special. From giving space for queerness in sports to turning its rookie lead star into an award-winning actress, Rookie is the definition of a success story.
A SPORTY LOVE
Rookie, which was produced by ANIMA, KUMU, and Project 8, follows Ace (Pat Tingjuy), a new student who is asked by her school’s volleyball coach to try out for the team. While Ace initially feels awkward as part of the team, things begin to change when she meets Jana (Aya Fernandez), the team captain, and the two begin to form a friendship that turns into something special.
“If Lorde’s Ribs and Haikyu had a love child,” is how Samantha Lee would describe Rookie, the first sports film of her career, in an interview with NYLON Manila. It’s not every day that queerness is explored in sports, so, Rookie was a breath of fresh air for the local film industry. But more than just breaking new ground, Sam saw her latest film as another narrative to depict a love story where queerness is the norm. It’s this kind of world-building that has helped her stand out as one of the industry’s most exciting new creatives.
But the love story at the center of Rookie wouldn’t hit as hard as it did if it weren’t for the two actresses who brought it to life. And it’s an even more impressive feat considering Pat Tingjuy’s life before getting cast in the film. While her praised performance in Rookie may not show it, the film is Pat’s debut acting role. “Someone shared [the casting call] in one of my volleyball groups,” recalls Pat in an interview with NYLON Manila. “What pushed me to audition was my friend personally sending me the photo saying, ‘Go mo ‘to.’”
According to Pat, what attracted her to the role was how Ace spoke to her as a character. “While reading the script, I was so entertained and I related to Ace since we’re both awkward, and some things have happened to me that have happened to her.” As for Sam, the rookie actress proved to be a promising fit for who she wanted to play as Ace. “When I saw Pat’s video, I knew I definitely wanted to see her read in person. Once we locked down our Ace, it was a matter of trying to find who Pat had the most chemistry with and that was how Aya came on board.”
NINE DAYS OF MAGIC
Once everything was in place, it was time to make the movie, which translated to less than two weeks of filming to bring together one of Cinemalaya 2023’s breakout entries. “We only had nine days to shoot it and shooting a sports film requires so much coverage so that’s where the difficulty was,” shares Sam. The short timeline also meant Pat had to get her feet wet fast in her first-ever lead acting role, which, believe it or not, she only realized during her audition.
“I had absolutely no idea it was for a lead role, so it came as a surprise to me when I read the script.” On her biggest challenge during the shoot, Pat says it came from the initial awkwardness of the acting workshops. “I’m actually very shy and at the start of the workshop, I’d feel super awkward with the things I’m asked to do. But, she adds, “[Acting coach] Ms. Marj Lorico was there in every step and I’m super grateful. What changed is what Direk Dan [Villegas, producer] said, ‘wag na kayo mahiya, magkakasama naman tayo hanggang shoot’ and it hit me ‘oo nga’ and they’ll see us act anyway so I got to incorporate that thought with my acting.”
Just like any athlete who takes to the court for a big game, Pat felt the nerves during her time on set. “I was absolutely nervous! The last thing I wanted was to be a burden to everyone in the set so I had to give my best.” But, looking back, she sees the shoot as one to remember.
“The experience was amazing. Everyone on set was encouraging and kind.” Oh, and it also does help to play a volleyball player when you’re an actual volleyball player in real life. “I never imagined [playing a volleyball player] on screen,” she shares on the meta moment. “My original dream was to play professionally but I never thought I’d be playing volleyball for a movie. I just think it’s funny and amazing how volleyball has gotten me to where I am today.”
If Rookie spoke to audience members with the stories and scenes it depicted of young women in school, so too did it for Sam and Pat. “I was the captain of my high school basketball team who was supposed to move to a high school with no basketball team so most definitely a lot of aspects of Rookie ring true to me,” reveals the writer-director. As for Pat, she too also came from an all-girls school and was deemed a star player in volleyball after intrams. “It’s also really funny how this one scene where a girl in the hallway was pushed by a friend to Ace, that happened to me.”
And without getting into too many spoilers, Sam cites filming the locker room scene where the Angels talk about their girl problems as her favorite moment on set because it was “so much fun to shoot.” As for Pat, she goes with the intrams scene. “It brought back so many memories, especially the part where Ace gets to spike in perfect form for the first time.”
THE ACE AND JANA SPARK
As early as the first screening of Rookie, it became clear that a highlight of the film was the chemistry between Pat and Aya Fernandez with the scenes between Ace and Jana eliciting kilig from audiences. Sparks were flying whenever these two were on the screen and it was a chemistry that Pat felt was reflected off cam. “She’s very kind and supportive of me,” she shares on getting to work with Aya Fernandez. “We both agreed our chemistry is organic, very natural ever since the day we met at the first round of auditions. Direk Sam even requested we don’t connect at the beginning to keep the awkwardness because our chemistry is just too much.”
And while all this was going down for the first-time actress, Pat was also reviewing for her Architecture Licensure Exam (which she passed, by the way). As she explains, “Before the shoot, I would do my review, reading and taking up online review classes. I had to pause my review for the shoot and I continued in mid-April for it.” Luckily, her employers were supportive of her acting endeavors and gave her time to attend events during Cinemalaya week.
A movie about two women a part of their school’s volleyball team falling in love from the writer and director of some of the most talked-about Filipino queer films of the 2010s was always bound to get people talking. But when Sam Lee dropped the poster of Rookie on X to thousands of likes, she was caught off guard by the reception. “One million views in 24 hours for an independent film with first-time actors is insane. It was a pleasant surprise.” The poster’s virality on social media proved to be a harbinger of the success that would follow Rookie in its Cinemalaya debut.
Not only was the movie met with positive reviews and deemed a box-office success by the independent film festival, but it also bagged three awards from Cinemalaya, including the Audience Award. “Winning this award is a good way to show producers that films like this can be a good investment for them and they should continue funding projects like these,” Sam expresses.
On a deeper level, a queer sports movie taking home an award voted on by viewers was another sign of validation that means the most to her. “I make my films to speak to a very specific kind of audience and to be able to receive that love and appreciation back is the only validation I ever truly need.”
As for Pat, it’s still a bit of an adjustment period for the first-time actress and newly licensed architect after taking home Best Actress. “It still hasn’t sunk in since I haven’t had the time to process everything. The awarding was on Sunday, the morning after, I went straight to work, got home late (because of the traffic), and I’m just too tired when I got home. But I am aware that this is a huge thing! It’s real and it happened. I’m truly honored and thankful to have worked with the amazing people of Rookie and everyone who supports it.”
THE AUDIENCE HAS BEEN READY
Sports is filled with success stories that are the stuff of, well, movies. And in a way, Rookie is that kind of success story of the queer independent film that could. The film’s moment is yet more proof that Filipino creators and audiences are ready for more Filipino LGBTQIA+ stories in media and that the industry just needs to catch up. “I hope that Rookie is able to be a bridge for more opportunities for more storytellers and actors to be able to have more opportunities to create,” shares Sam.
Filipinos deserve good Filipino movies that delve into all kinds of stories, themes, identities, and more that should be told. The space has room for these kinds of narratives as local creators, and local cinema, deserve the support. To that end, Sam and Pat implore audiences to show their love for the local industry by buying tickets, streaming legally, and posting about what they watch on social media.
And, as for their advice to the people at the heart of Rookie, young women navigating through change and still on that journey of finding themselves, they want to make it known that this is your journey of discovery, no one else. “You’re on your own timeline, don’t feel pressured or worry about anyone else,” says Samantha. Adds Pat, “You do you, do good, take your time, and more importantly love yourself.”
Photos courtesy of ANIMA.