EXCLUSIVE: “Hello Stranger” behind the scenes photos

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We talk to Petersen Vargas about making the "Hello Stranger," and a look behind the scenes. Photo by KRIS CAZIN

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — After a total of 10 shooting days (8 were done via Zoom and 2 on a live set), “Hello Stranger” is ending its series run. A movie has already been announced, to the excitement of XavMi fans. Eight episodes, after all, is too short for full season BL. But nevertheless, the show has earned a massive following, with an accumulated total 9 million views for its seven episodes so far.

It also catapulted its stars Tony Labrusca and JC Alcantara — who star as students Xavier and Mico (hence, XavMi), respectively, who develop feelings for each other while working on a finals project — to international recognition, requiring subs in Polish, Spanish, and Portugese, among many others. But the show is more than just falling in love, it’s a charming exploration of a queer life and all its wonderful trappings — including having a great support group like the show’s Young Padawans: Kookai (Vivoree Esclito), Junjun (Migs Almendras), and Seph (Patrick Quiroz).

Minutes before the finale’s premiere, we had a brief chat with director Petersen Vargas about the beloved BL show. Plus, a brief behind the scenes look at the shoow with photos from the crew.

Looking back, what was the most challenging thing about shooting HS and how did you overcome it?

I’d have to say it’s really about how we could pull off doing almost everything virtually. We had to invent a lot of things in the process as we went along with the limitations of our set-up. But I’m grateful for everyone in the team, because it was almost like going back to basics. There was really this ‘barkada’ spirit of filmmaking that we embraced, from the cast to the crew — everyone was helping each other even if it was about concerns outside of their respective departments.

The cast made their own group chats to build their rapport and chemistry in between shooting days. The on-site camera operators helped our production designer finalize set decorations. Vivoree Esclito even volunteered in making the illustrations you’ll see her character Kookai use in two important scenes.

I remember the first two shooting days were hell — delays caused by faulty internet connections, miscommunications brought about multiple messaging threads on-going in every sequence. But we breezed through it after getting a better sense of how we could do things more effectively and conveniently. It was just amazing to see how everyone in the team was beyond 100% committed to tell this story and get it out there.

How did your working relationship with the actors develop throughout the shoot?

I’m already friends with Tony Labrusca and Migs Almendras, and even Meann Espinosa who plays the memorable Tina Moran, prior to making "Hello Stranger," so there was already that. With Tony and JC Alcantara, we all decided that it might be good to have a group chat for the three of us so they could bring up whatever, whenever. But also, my producers also asked my help in breaking the ice between the two, kasi ‘nagkakahiyaan.’ The group chat did help build this lovely friendship between the three of us — especially during Wednesday night premieres of new episodes, where we could excitedly share with each other what the fans of the show would share online.

As for the Young Padawans and Gillian Vicencio, I always requested to sit down with them, to go through scene per scene, prior to each shooting day, so we could talk about what they really thought for each moment, for each of their characters.

What I love about this young cast is the amount of commitment and passion they have for the show. Most of them would even send me a PM to really confirm if they got each scene right — and some of them would even ask for what they could do better for the next shooting day.

How does it feel now that the show has ended?

I feel very, very emotional about the fact that we’re down to our finale episode tonight. There was just this certain sense of deep attachment not just for the show and its characters, but more importantly, the (online) community we’ve built and have gotten to know the past weeks since our pilot episode was released. As with every project that I do, I really pour a lot of myself in it, and for some reason, what we’ve told about Mico’s story hits really closest to home, so much more than I’ve expected. I’ve always yearned to finally present a queer character who will finally get his much deserved happy ending, after getting over the most difficult hurdle of breaking out of his own shell. And to see Mico, at the end of this series, finally ready to fight for the love he wishes for himself… that’s just something I’m extremely proud of to show.

An improvised monitor to check how an onscreen conversation would look like. Photo by MARTIKA RAMIREZ-ESCOBAR

Production designer Whammy Alcazaren with JC Alcantara. Photo by MARTIKA RAMIREZ-ESCOBAR

In the show, Xavier and Mico (hence, XavMi) develop feelings for each other while working on a finals project. Photo by KRIS CAZIN

JC Alcantara and Tony Labrusca's characters Mico and Xavier first meet in real life (left). Photos by MARKO YAMBAO

Production designer Whammy Alcazaren on set. Photo by KRIS CAZIN

The Young Padawans quiz night. Photo by PETERSEN VARGAS

"Hello Stranger" only had two days shooting in a live set. Photo by KRIS CAZIN

Tony Labrusca with director Petersen Vargas. Photo by KRIS CAZIN

"With Tony and JC, we all decided that it might be good to have a group chat for the three of us so they could bring up whatever, whenever," says Vargas. Photo by MARKO YAMBAO

Polaroids of Tony and JC on set. Photos by WHAMMY ALCAZAREN

Pulling off everything virtually was the biggest challenge on "Hello Stranger," according to Vargas. Photo by KRIS CAZIN

Director Petersen Vargas and writer Patrick Valencia. Photos by WHAMMY ALCAZAREN

"To see Mico, at the end of this series, finally ready to fight for the love he wishes for himself… that’s just something I’m extremely proud of to show," says Vargas. Photos by WHAMMY ALCAZAREN