Manila to the Moon: An Interview with ‘Blush’ Director Joe Mateo

Imagine if you will that you’re a minority in the entertainment industry. Picture yourself working proudly on some of the best, most well known animated projects of all time, and then — BAM! — a studio asks you to tell your own story. What would be the story you’d want to tell? For Filipino animator, Joe Mateo (a 25-year veteran artist and animator who worked on Zootopia, Big Hero 6, and many other classic Disney Animated works), that dream came true.

They say the greatest stories you can tell are the ones that are the most personal. And with his directorial debut, Skydance Animation’s inaugural short, Blush, Mateo was given the chance to tell a hugely personal, beautiful story about love, family, and culture. And he just knocked it right out of the park!

Check out the trailer for this gorgeous short right here:

The Nerds of Color was recently given the opportunity to talk to Mateo for an intimate conversation about Blush, the differences between working at Disney versus working at Skydance, and, of course, injecting Filipino culture in his film. Here’s what Mateo had to say:

NOC: Thank you so much for meeting with us! Being able to talk to you was a huge deal and it got me so excited. Especially once I finished your short. This is not just a fantastic story, but it’s inherently a Filipino story. And for someone like me, who is a Filipino fan boy, it meant the world to me seeing a Filipino character and Filipino roots embedded in this story. So thank you for that.

Mateo: Oh my God, Mike! You’re making me cry saying that. Thank you so much! Wow!

Of course! Can I ask – you could have just easily gone the way of making this a straight up sci-fi story. There’s astronauts and aliens; all of that. But in addition to being a sci-fi story, which it is, how did you get inspired to really input that Filipino culture in there? Making your character look Filipino, adding in mango trees, and even the way you sliced up the mangoes too. You infused that in there. Can you talk about that process?

Yeah. From the very beginning I wanted to have that flavor in the short, right? For me to be able to really tell my story, I need to include all of those details. All of that. It’s part of my life and our lives. And it is the opportunity — I get to direct this! I had great support from everyone at Skydance and Apple to really infuse this with who I am! I don’t know if you noticed the chest piece of the astronaut? But I don’t want to be too [obvious] and just put the Filipino flag there. I want people to discover it. Because I think it’ll be more special when they discovery it for themselves… Because I love seeing those kinds of things in movies. Where I go, “well that’s familiar to me.” And I can explain it to my friends about why it’s cool!

For the record, it’s going to be familiar to everyone out there who is Filipino. And quite frankly there’s not a whole lot of stories out there being told from Filipino filmmakers. So you being out there and really putting our culture on that screen means the world to us.

Thank you for saying that Mike! I really appreciate it.

Of course! So you’ve been a long time veteran of animation dating back to the Disney days, working on some of the best films that they’ve come out with — Zootopia being one of my personal favorites. So given that, how does it feel working for Skydance? Has the process been similar or different?

Yeah, in a lot of ways it’s kind of similar. I think Skydance Animation because it’s newer, they’re still trying to streamline a lot of the process. But what I can say about Skydance is they’re so good at creating a space for diversity and inclusion here. And that’s a big part of why Blush is the way it is. Because for me it’s so important to have a safe space to be vulnerable. And it’s very encouraging for me to share my voice and be heard because of that.

I wanted to ask about the stylized designs of the astronaut and his family. It’s adorable but no less human. Where did you come up with the designs, and what inspired the look of the characters?

I think I just kind of like drawing in that style. I love drawing cute characters. And it came out at me. And when I was trying to figure out where I’m going to set this short, on a tiny planet, it just kind of fit right in. The cute looking characters on the tiny planet. I purposely wanted to make it stylized too. Keep it charming. But I know that it’s gotta look realistic. So I love that in CG you can push the style and it makes you feel like that world could exist even though it’s stylized thanks to lighting and surfacing. So it’s a good mix.

One of the things I’m loving as a trend in Hollywood is that Asian stories are finally getting told. In addition to yours, Domee Shi did Bao as well. And not just in those forms (shorts) but we’re also getting features. I think Domee is coming out with Turning Red which has a lot of Asian influence to that. And then Raya and the Last Dragon came out earlier this year. Which was phenomenal. Having experience working in feature animation, and now sharing our cultural Filipino influence in Blush, do you think you’d be interested in a feature-length movie, but revolving around Filipino culture? Because I think we’re due!

Oh I agree, Mike! That would be a dream project, definitely. I’m toying with ideas and stuff. But yeah, there’s so much in our culture that the world hasn’t seen yet. And I’m excited to tell stories about growing up in the Philippines that’s special to our culture.

Yeah! We got a lot of really creepy mythology you can create stories around! Like Aswangs? You know?

Yup! Oh my god, yes. It’s so rich. You have to do something with all those islands!

I’m hoping we get to see a feature Joe Mateo Filipino story!

Appreciate that, Mike! If it happens I’m going to remember you’re the one who said it first!

There’s a scene in the short that made me hungry, with mangoes. And how they were sliced was exactly how we do it in our home!

I know right? Real quick, the way the dad is peeling it from the top. It’s a specific thing. That’s the way my grandma used to do it, so we can hold it from the bottom and not have it get messy.

That’s really cool! If I can also ask, one of the benefits of having a company like Apple put this out on Apple TV + is that it becomes available for everyone. They don’t have to go to a movie theater to see it. Have there been any differences working in streaming versus theatrical based on your experiences here?

No. From my experiences making the short, not really. I’m super excited that this will be seen globally through Apple TV+. It’s a director’s dream come true. Especially a first-time director. For your film to be seen by so many people right away! I’m super excited.

Well I’m super excited. And I’m super excited that this is going to debut as a kick off to Filipino Heritage Month. And since this is coming out in October, the start of awards season, I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing Blush on the ballots of many, many prestigious awards coming, including the Oscars for Animated Short. This touched my heart, and it will touch the hearts of the world. And I think you did your wife, Mary Ann proud. So thank you so much for sharing this and through a Filipino lens with Filipino aspects!

Thank you Mike! That’s very sweet of you!

And don’t miss Mateo’s directorial debut, the beautiful and touching Blush, debuting on Apple TV+ this Friday, October 1!