For Dean Devlin, the idea of the new WGN America series Almost Paradise came about 14 years ago during his honeymoon in Hawaii. He connected and was intoxicated by island culture, island justice and island spirituality — and wanted to make a show set in Hawaii. His soulful connection to island life made sense considering he is of Filipino descent. With that in mind, the idea for the show shifted.
“As the years went on and I kept thinking about it, there was something there that wasn’t authentic to me,” Devlin told Deadline. “It was only a couple of years ago that the idea came to do it in the Philippines and then it changed everything. Then I got really excited about the project.”
Devlin is known for working on series such as The Librarians and Leverage and blockbuster features like Independence Day. It’s no surprise that he has found a career in Hollywood; his mother was an actress who appeared on the original Star Trek — the only Filipino actress to appear in the series (as far as we know). That said, Devlin is making history on his own as he created the first American TV show entirely shot in the Philippines.
The series stars Christian Kane — who Devlin previously worked with on The Librarians — as Alex Walker, a former DEA agent forced into early retirement. After going through obstacles including betrayal and health problems, he decides to uproot to Cebu in the Philippines. But it isn’t long before he is pulled into the dangerous world of the Asian archipelago’s criminal elite.
Devlin recently wrapped Almost Paradise, and the production left the Philippines right before airports started to shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak. He says telling a story connected to his DNA is something he has never done before, and the fact that he got to employ Filipinos for the series made it even more exciting.
The series also includes Filipino actors Samantha Richelle, Arthur Acuña, Nonie Buencamino and Ces Quesada. On top of that, Devlin directed episodes alongside fellow accomplished Filipino directors including Irene Villamor, Hannah Espia and Dan Villegas.
Devlin talked to Deadline about shooting Almost Paradise (which debuts tonight on WGN America) in the Philippines, the under-representation of Filipinos in film and TV and how the series showcases the Philippines like it has never been seen before.
DEADLINE: Was the majority the cast and crew of Almost Paradise Filipino, Filipino American or a combination of both?
DEAN DEVLIN: Mostly Filipino. We partnered with ABS-CBN as our production services company and we did casting out of Manila. The white actors that you see in the show were cast mostly from either Manila or New Zealand.
DEADLINE: Many famous actors in Asia don’t necessarily cross over into Hollywood because they are already established and it feels like there is no need to — and for many, they feel like it would put them back at square one. However, do you think a lot of the Filipino cast and crew could cross over if given the opportunity in the U.S.?
DEVLIN: I absolutely think we could have several breakout talents from the show, should they decide to pursue it. That’s kind of a big question because they’re in a comfort zone, but I would encourage them to. About a year ago, I was asked if we’ll ever see a Filipino superhero, and I said, “Not until we start supporting Filipino artists. We need a Filipino movie star before you can have a Filipino action hero.”
They’ve got the talent, they’ve just got to get out of here and be seen in front of people, and that’s one of the things we’re hoping to do in the show is to showcase. When people start seeing Samantha Richelle, they’re going to lose their minds. She’s amazing. Art Acuña is amazing. We have some talent there that could really break out in the right parts, they just need to be exposed. Our hope is that these directors, our DP, our actors, that they’ll get these opportunities, again, if they’re willing to pursue it. I think, once you see this level of talent, it’s kind of irresistible.
DEADLINE: Why was it important for you to shoot this entirely in the Philippines?
DEVLIN: We have wonderful talent — and that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do. We are trying to show that the filmmaking community in the Philippines has evolved so much in the last 12–15 years, beyond what anyone really knows. This is the first international television scripted series ever done in the Philippines. I think this is really an opportunity to show what amazing talent they have both in front of and behind the camera.
Growing up Filipino in the United States, whenever you told someone that you’re Filipino, all they really knew was Imelda Marcos’ shoes and Manny Pacquiao. Anytime we’ve seen anything in film or TV about the Philippines, it’s always some kind of poverty porn — it’s the Philippines as “the other.” The Philippines is very much like [American] culture. One of the things that was really important in our show is that we didn’t want to make it this weird, exotic world. We wanted to really show how similar we are and that we’re not “the other.” We’re part of the culture. I think that’s one of the great successes of the show, is that when people watch it, it doesn’t feel like an odd, alien world. It is exciting in that you’re looking at things and seeing people you’ve never seen before.
DEADLINE: Many shows tend to want to have more control of the casting, which can lead to issues when it comes to the authenticity of the narrative. Did you have any pushbacks or obstacles to overcome in order to make this as Filipino as possible?
DEVLIN: We were very fortunate in that we are the studio behind the show. We’re financing the show, so there’s really no one we have to go to. In my very first conversations with WGN, I said, “You’re going to be seeing things you haven’t seen before, but the show, in its storytelling, is going to be a very comfortable old shoe and I think people are going to feel that this is something they’re going to be able to wear with great comfort while they’re discovering things they’ve never seen.” They embraced that idea. Throughout the entire process, there was never really a conversation with WGN about changing the authenticity of the show. We all bought into the idea from the beginning and it was really remarkably smooth sailing.
DEADLINE: The show is very refreshing when it comes to Asian-American representation because oftentimes when Hollywood thinks Asian, they think East Asian. South Asians and Southeast Asians tend to be overlooked.
DEVLIN: You’re 100% right. This is an area that has been very interesting to me in that we’ve seen a wonderful advancement of diversity in our entertainment in the last few years, which is great, but for some reason, [Filipinos have] kind of been left out of it. I felt like, how do we move that ball forward? What is the way to say, “Hey, take a look at us. We’re interesting. We’ve got a lot of interesting talent and, frankly, we’re going to surprise you with what we can do.”
DEADLINE: We are in a time when there is a knee-jerk reaction to the representation of marginalized communities. Some people will praise it, while others will put it under a microscope — and it’s even more prevalent in the communities being represented. That said, this is a Filipino show and a non-Filipino actor, Christian Kane, is the lead. There may be many in the Filipino community that raise their eyebrows. Do you feel this pressure or this need to explain yourself or are you bracing yourself for backlash?
DEVLIN: I think if the show were a more serious examination, I would think differently about how to cast the lead. But this is a genre show. Like I said, this is a comfortable old shoe, and for me, the Christian Kane character represents the United States. He’s the eyes of the viewers in the U.S. going on this adventure. To me, what was really more important was, who does he encounter and how do they behave? How are they represented? How is their spirituality and morality represented? That, to me, is where the real test is and I think we passed that test with flying colors. The way in which we deal with the government, the police, the individuals, the store owners — I think that it’s authentic without diving into the individual politics of the moment. This show is more about seeing this culture from a completely fresh point of view and looking at it.
Christian’s character in the show is a very damaged person and the theme of the show really is about healing. I do think that Asia Pacific islands have a kind of magical healing power that’s really unique. It comes from the people. It comes from the culture. It comes from the tropical weather, but all of it comes together in kind of a magical way. So I needed this damaged outsider to come in and experience that for this arc to work.
DEADLINE: You briefly mentioned politics, but considering the current climate in the Philippines, are there any precautions if the show veers toward the politics of the country?
DEVLIN: Well, I think we’ll have to see where the show goes and how people react to it, but the stuff at the moment is really an introduction. If we get too inside baseball with people, then we become the other again. Again, I think there are other shows that can delve very deeply into what’s going on, but as we also know as Filipinos, things change rapidly in the Philippines. You wake up one day and it’s completely another environment. So we don’t want to get too mired in any individual issues or things like that. This is more of a window into a world that we haven’t seen yet and looking at it from a perspective we haven’t seen. As that develops, we’ll have to see where that goes.