Trese Showrunner Jay Oliva on Moonlit Anting-Antings, Supernatural Manila, and Filipino Talent
“I believe that my career all led up to this moment,” said Jay Oliva, showrunner and executive producer of Netflix’s Filipino animated series, Trese.
A self-taught artist, Oliva swerved from medicine to animation when Marvel offered him a job after seeing the storyboards of his student film. He quickly rose up the ranks and, in only two years, became the director of the CGI series Roughnecks: A Starship Trooper Chronicles.
Working on the Superheroes of Marvel and DC
In 2012, he got a call from Zack Snyder to work on Man of Steel. Since then, he’s worked on DC animated series and movies like Batman: Under the Red Hood, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, and several episodes of the Young Justice Series, as well as the Marvel series The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
“Even though I worked on these big Western IPs, it kind of trained me and got me to the point in my career and in my talent so that, when something like [Trese] came along, I could do this as a love letter,” he declared. “It’s a project near and dear to my heart and I can do the best that I can.”
Saying ‘Yes’ to the Filipino and Family Values of Trese
Oliva first heard about Trese in May 2018, when John Derderian, head of Netflix anime, contacted him to lead the production of a series based on a Filipino comic book. “They sent me the pitch deck, which is basically the series broken down—all the characters—and I was like, this is great. It feels really great,” he explained.
Born and raised with Filipino values, Oliva associates with the culture, so he was quick to say yes. “Having a project that reached me culturally—to all the family values, the Filipino values, things that really resonated with me growing up. Who was I to say no to that?” he laughed.
Exploring the Mystic Streets of Manila
The production took two years in total, and it began with a trip to the Philippines. “We walked through Quiapo, we saw the pagoda, we went to Balete Drive—went to all the different haunted places, which I would never have known about,” said Oliva. He described how he and his art director, Jojo Aguilar, used what the Trese creators, Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, had crafted in the comics as a lens to tour the city.
“Seeing Manila in that way helped me and my team really capture it,” he said. He even purchased an anting-anting from outside an old church. “It was a real anting-anting and they were saying, when you want to activate it, you need to put salt on it and put it in the moonlight. So when I got back to L.A., I told my team, ‘Whatever you do, keep salt away from this and never put it by the moonlight because I don’t want to activate it.’ I just wanted to bring it back as reference.”
Turning the Supernatural City into a Singular Character
Manila is an old city with a history that dates back to wars and modernization. “It’s like a supernatural hotbed,” Oliva commented. “Ghosts don’t really scare Filipinos too much. Possessions and demons scare them a lot more. It’s funny—talking to my uncle who used to live in Balete Drive. He told me, ‘Yeah, I used to see the White Lady every now and then.’”
Despite being predominantly Catholic, much of what makes Filipinos and Filipino culture unique is how a lot of our pre-colonial beliefs have persisted over the years. Take the act of saying, “tabi tabi po,” for example. It draws from the assumption that there are elemental spirits in the ground, and we need to ask for their permission to pass or we’ll anger them. “There is a deep ingrained respect for the supernatural that is in all Filipinos even though the teachings of the Bible are the opposite. I find that’s really interesting,” Oliva said. “I wanted to make Manila [into] a character. It had to feel like that story could not be told in any other city except for Manila.”
Choosing the Filipino Monsters for the Series
Oliva always keeps the viewers in mind when translating the page to the screen. “The one thing I was afraid of was that people would watch it and think, ‘This isn’t authentic. This doesn’t feel like Manila,” he said. “I try to figure out what makes this work, why this particular story or character is beloved, and really try to bring out as much emotion from that scene. I look at it from a fan’s point of view—if I was a fan, what would I want to see on the screen?”
That sensibility played a role in selecting the storylines to fit into the six episodes. “That was kind of what I was doing with Trese—I wanted to find things that were familiar in the comics but give it a new spin and a new context,” he explained. “I started thinking about, okay, which of the mythological characters do we focus on, right? Do we do the tikbalang, the manananggal, [or] the dwendes?”
He eventually settled on the aswang as the first monster, who he refers to as the poster child for Filipino folklore. “What really kind of nailed it for me was the last volume. It was a story about the aswang, the one where they’re eating the people in the hotel,” he said. Oliva talked in detail about how the story had jumped off the page for him when he first read the comic, and he wanted that same effect for the series. “Something that transcends the medium,” he added, describing how he strives for each scene to be cinematic and feel like a live-action film. “[So] people will forget that they’re watching animation.”
Reconnecting with Filipino Culture
Working on Trese allowed Oliva, his team, and the English-language cast, which is composed primarily of Filipino-Americans and Filipino-Canadians, to reconnect with the culture. “I think that, to me, was the biggest thing that I got out of it—basically getting a reconnection to a culture that I’ve always loved.” He appreciated more where his family came from.
On top of that, the series, which premieres a day before Philippine Independence Day, is nothing short of historical. “The success of this show is going to open more doors not just for Filipino comics, but also Filipino stories, Filipino talent,” he said of showcasing the Philippines to audiences outside the archipelago. “There’s a lot of things the success of a Filipino anime is going to change in the world and the Philippines.”
Trese is now streaming on Netflix.