LOS ANGELES – A Filipino-American college student, whose winning video bought him the chance to be called onstage and present those gold statuettes in last Sunday’s Oscars, said he had an “exciting” time at the Dolby Theater. Abe Diaz, whose parents’ roots are from Cebu and South Cotabato, got to hand the trophies to presenters Jack Nicholson, the cast of “Chicago” (Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Queen Latifah), Paul Rudd, Melissa McCarthy, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington and Mark Wahlberg.
The DePaul University (Illinois, Chicago) student was among aspiring filmmakers who submitted 1,100 video entries to the Oscar Experience College Search, mounted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and mtvU (MTV’s 24-hour college network). Oscars show producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan came up with the idea of having six college students who “have a passion for film and its future” hand the trophies to presenters, a job previously for beauty queens and models.
“There is no better way to inspire young filmmakers than to make them part of film’s most important night,” said Meron and Zadan in a statement. Abe, who hails from Duluth, Minnesota, and five others—ChaRon Brabham (New York), Jennifer Brofer (Texas), Hearin Ko (China), Tatenda Mbudzi (Zimbabwe) and AJ Young (Arizona), won with their videos that addressed the question: “How will you contribute to the future of the movies?” Abe’s humor-tinged 40-second entry paid tribute to some filmmakers that he admires.
Abe and his fellow winners’ Oscar experience was not limited to that special night on Feb. 24. They met this year’s short film nominees in an event hosted by Jason Schwartzman (one of Abe’s favorite actors), toured studios and visited the Academy Library to ogle at its prized cinema memorabilia.
Abe, 18, said his dad Josefino was born in Cebu and raised in Antipolo, while his mom Gina (nee Butawan), hails from Norala, South Cotabato. The US-born Abe understands Ilonggo (both parents speak the dialect) and Filipino “to some extent.” He has never been to the Philippines. “I’d like to go at some point,” he told us.
We teased Abe that we read how his parents almost chose to just record the Oscars and watch his first appearance in one of the most popular shows on earth later, so they could be with his sister Alyssa at her Duluth East Nordic ski team banquet. It was reported that Alyssa told their parents that they didn’t have to attend the banquet so they could watch Abe during the live telecast. “I don’t know what to say,” he replied. “My parents make their own plans. I’m not offended.”
In a cool shot he tweeted, Abe, in his Brooks Brothers tux (“Yes, I had to return it”), was doing a Michael Jackson move solo on the Oscars stage. He captioned the photo: “Now, I can cross off ‘Moonwalk across the Dolby Theater stage’ from the bucket list. He admitted that he was “not too familiar” with Philippine cinema, but that he had seen “a few Vhong Navarro movies.”
Excerpts from our e-mail interview:
What was that like—being on stage, directing winners and presenters around and off the stage?
The idea—being on the same stage as these famous figures and telling them what to do—was very nerve-wracking. I was anxious right up to the moment I went onstage.
This was my first appearance on national TV and I wanted to make a good first impression.
But right after I handed over [a trophy] for the first time and escorted the winner offstage, I was more relaxed and ready to do it again.
Who among the celebrities were you most excited to meet?
Jason Schwartzman—he is one of my favorite actors. Other than him, I had no one particular in mind. But I was happy to meet all of them who were there.
How was your Governors Ball experience?
It was a lot of fun—beautiful ballroom, good food, music. We talked to several celebrities, including Ben Affleck and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and I even got a picture with Ang Lee. The five other student-winners and I tried to meet as many people as we could since the Governors Ball was a perfect networking opportunity.
What are some of the memories that you will cherish many years from now?
To be honest, I can’t pick one that stands out from the rest. The entire experience will stick with me forever.
What was the most surprising thing that you saw or learned?
One of the most surprising things I witnessed was the amount of fine-tuning that went into each rehearsal—from the timing of dialogue to the exact framing of the camera. The director, stage managers and crew in general were so picky about making the show perfect. That really paid off.
The most quotable quote?
Rich Moore, director of “Wreck-It Ralph,” told us that if we wanted to make it in this industry, we should stay in it, no matter what. He said we had to focus on improving ourselves and not giving up—until we succeed.
What did Ben Affleck say in his pep talk?
To the best of my memory, he said something like: “You gotta just go for it. No one gives a s**t about you in Hollywood. When I got here, I was by myself. You gotta stick with it and make videos.” That was not an exact quote.
Why do you think your video ode to your favorite directors (did you get to include all of them?) was among the few ones picked from hundreds of entries?
I think it was because I showed rather than told. As a filmmaker trying to prove my worth to other filmmakers, I felt I should do it visually. I had less than a minute, so of course I didn’t get to include all of my favorites.
What are your earliest memories of being fascinated with cinema?
I don’t remember exactly when I became a film-guy. It was probably in my second year of high school. I started watching movies and applied what I learned to the videos I would make. I’m constantly in [that] learning process to improve my filmmaking skills.
You are taking chemistry and film in college—what a combination. Has this Oscar experience made you lean closer toward film?
That goes without saying… although, at this point, it’s still unclear to me which one I’d really end up pursuing.
How supportive are your parents of your passion for cinema?
They see it as just a hobby of mine; I don’t think they realize how much this hobby has consumed me and taken over my life. But I know that they will support me no matter what I do. I hope.
What were your thoughts as you landed back in Chicago from Los Angeles?
So far, college has been bothersome. It’s been the same routine—go to class, work, waste your time. The Oscar experience was one of the most thrilling things I’ve done in my entire life. So going back to the doldrums was really a disappointing change.
Do you now have new insights on how you will contribute to the future of film?
At this point, it’s hard for me to determine exactly how I’ll do that. But I know that it’s going to take a lot of hard work and perseverance.
(E-mail the columnist at email@example.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)