Interview with Marlon Rivera, Director of “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (The Woman in a Septic Tank)” conducted on Oct. 4, 2011 during the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) @ Vancity Theatre, Vancouver, BC
“Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” is Marlon Rivera’s first feature film. It is about 2 aspiring young filmmakers who are dead set into making their masterpiece and have already started counting the awards that will roll in without having yet recorded anything on a memory card. The movie is a satire on Philippine Cinema and how the world sees the Philippines through its cinema.
On a separate article, I included the “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” post-screening Q & A, since there are some topics that I asked that were mentioned in last night’s Q & A.
The interview turned out to be very extensive and I have to thank Marlon Rivera for being so generous and open during the interview. We tackled a lot – from his background, his history, of course the making of “Babae sa Septic Tank” and his views and insight on Philippine independent cinema and what the movie meant to its development.
Michael Edillor: Who are you?
Marlon Rivera: Okay, who am I? I’m Marlon Rivera and I am generally known to hold a lot of careers. I have a day job, which is really a career. I have been working in advertising since 1988. I am a copywriter by profession. So right now, I am the chief creative officer and the president of Publicist Manila. It’s a French company that has a subsidiary in Manila. I also teach at the University of the Philippines. I teach Visual Communication. I’m a fashion designer. I show twice a year at the Philippine fashion week. I am a make-up artist, production designer, I have been through theatre. I have directed plays, made costumes because I took Philippine costume design, I also do that. I sit of course at the board of trustees of PETA (Philippine Educational Theatre Association) and I have a flower shop and events company called Bluebarn. So I actually do weddings and events and everything, you know like launches of cellphones and product launches.
ME: You are like the Philippines’ version of James Franco.
MR: Well he goes to school a lot…
ME: Well he has like a lot of things going on.
MR: Yeah, God I know. He has like 28 degrees of something. Yes, that’s who I am.
ME: Do you get tired with a lot of things going on at the same time?
MR: Well, it’s really just time management. People always ask how do I multi-task? I always tell them you have to get into an industry that you really like because I think passion just carries you through, right? If you really like what you are doing, even if you are tired, like I wake up early in the morning I go to the shop, the clothes shop and then I talk to the sowers and then I go to the office. Lunch time, I meet for events and things. In the afternoon, I’m still in the office and then at night, my UP class will be about Tuesdays and Thursdays, that’s in the evenings. By the time I get back, by the time I go home, it will be around 9 and then I will check on the things done for the day at the shop and that’s it. So for this film, I took a 15 day leave from the office, I mean I took a vacation leave from the office and did this and shot it for 10 days. Of course it was spread out and did the post in a week. If you really like something, you’d get up for it, right? It’s not a job; it’s not a chore if you like what you are doing.
ME: So the post for “Woman in a Septic Tank” was done in a week?
MR: Yes, in a week…
ME: That’s the editing and sound, everything?
MR: Editing, sound, everything. Because I shot it as I saw it as an edited material. That’s how I did it. At the end of the day when you get your dailies you roughly put it together, so every time a day is done we just chunk them and lay them out and then when everything was done, we refine the edit and started editing it really fast, really quickly and then that’s about it. We didn’t have money for color grading. We just did it on the rough and then the sound was made, the soundtrack we did it for about two nights. So, yeah about a week.
ME: Wow, I’m amazed how quick it is. If you look back at your work, would you do things differently if given the time and budget?
MR: Yes, yes. I wish I had more time. There were days or most days when I only had one light. When we were shooting Eugene’s house that was the longest shot, I mean longest sequence we did. That’s about 8 hours. So we had a lot more coverage there because it was a controlled environment and when night fell we had all this glass windows. We couldn’t light the whole scene, so we had to push people against the background so that we have enough light falling on them and we couldn’t show anymore of the windows or the long shots. We just have to be inventive. It happened very quickly because we don’t have a lot of resources, that’s why because we pay people per day.
So yes, I wish I had a bit more time. The musical section was shot in about 8 hours. You do it outside and you have a lot of people, we have the crowd. I was shooting blind because we didn’t have monitors that day. I wish I had a bit more resources, just a bit more and maybe two more days. Two more days would have helped a lot.
ME: What would you change if you had those two days?
MR: It’s not really change. It’s really more like I wanted to – the café scene it was our first day and I thought the kids were very slow in their pace and their beats and I wanted to shoot it again because it was rather slow. I felt it was slow. But we didn’t have time because we had to do the driving shots that day, the same day, the café in the morning and the driving shots in the afternoon and it’s my first time to shoot with a car mount and we only had permits for a very specific place in Manila. Of course it was crazy. There were variations in the light and sometimes it’s dark and sometimes it’s cloudy. Those little things I wish I had more time because I think it will greatly improve the product. Of course I also wish I could use the RED camera for the rest of the shoot. Some parts we just use the P2. So there were days when, “Can we have the RED today?” “No direk, you can’t have that today because we don’t have budget for today.” “So ok, let’s use whatever camera we have.”
(Note: The RED camera body can go from $25,000 – $58,000, that doesn’t include the accessories. It has a recording resolution that ranges from 4520 x 2540 to 6000 x 4000 pixels depending on the camera body. While a Panasonic AG – HVX 200A P2 camera costs $4,300. It has a recording resolution that ranges from 1280 x 720 to 1920 x 1080 pixels.)
ME: How did you collaborate with the look of the film with your cinematographer, Larry Manda?
MR: I worked with Larry on “100” and also in commercials. Larry is great because he is so relaxed and is so calm. We have a pre-prod, we do a pre-production meeting per day. So before we go to shoot, we talk like, “We only have an x number of hours to make this work. Let’s do it this way. Do we have grips? Do we have tracks? We don’t have tracks for today. Ok, we’ll cover it this way.” We discuss the coverage. This is the space, so we actually go to the location. I guess preparation actually helps. This is the location so I will cover the actor from here to there and I want the following shots. Let’s put it in the can and if we have enough time then we can do a bit more but most of the time obviously, you’re running out of time. The cinematographer did help a lot.
ME: There are 4 segments in the movie within the movie: the drama, docu-drama, the musical and finally the Star Cinema version. How did you differentiate between each segment? Did you use different cameras on each segment?
MR: I wish we could but we didn’t even have a lot of lenses. So like for example the melodrama, we just decided to play on the conventions of over-acting. Every beat is hit, it’s like a pregnant pause, she’s crying a lot, her hair is blown out. So we had to rely on a lot of these little tricks that would translate that kind of style because if we had more resources we could have shot it, especially the musical, we could have shot it with cranes but we didn’t have a crane. We didn’t have all those things. So it’s really just deciding on which filmic things would communicate the style we wanted to. So the docu-drama’s like that.
ME: From my perspective, I think it worked. There is a distinct look to each segment.
MR: We tried. Yes.
ME: Like the drama one, I got it right away. It has that indie style that you commonly see in Filipino independent films.
MR: That’s the easiest to shoot actually because you don’t cut; you take it from action to cut. You don’t have a lot of coverage because that’s actually the esthetic that’s coming out of Filipino independent films because of the resources that you can shoot/cover a lot of the script in one day, you don’t do a lot of cuts, you don’t do cover, I mean you don’t do your masters, your tie ups, you don’t do your two shots, you don’t do all that. You just follow the actor and do it. You don’t do a lot of takes, you don’t worry about the focus, you don’t worry about those things.
ME: I love how each one has a different look, especially the Star Cinema segment. Right away, I got it. Do you think the inside jokes and the digs on the indie filmmakers and their styles are too esoteric? I personally got it since I have a film background and I understand how it is to make a movie. I know these things but some people may not get it.
MR: That was my biggest fear with the material because when the script was finished I thought it’s too much of an insider film. For Cinemalaya, it came out in a film festival, we didn’t worry about it being too much of an insider film because I mean all the audience they are purposely there to watch it and they are all Filipinos. We didn’t have a problem with that. My biggest fear then was when it goes on commercial release there will be a problem because most of the people that would see it of course haven’t been to an independent film festival. So surprisingly and lucky I guess that we have Eugene, I think Eugene was the one that communicates and engages the audience on that surface level. So they do get some of the bits and pieces. When it was shown in Cinemalaya and there were foreign audiences, I mean they got other things. So I think it was more of a gift because some people got other things and of course they didn’t get some of the nuances like when you end a teleserye shot before the commercial gap, you are supposed to look at [one of] the four corners [of the frame] and hold the emotion before you give the tear. That is a very specific shooting style in Philippine telenovelas. I guess some parts of the material had to carry through.
ME: If you noticed during the screening last night, the general audience started getting into it once it got into Eugene’s house. That’s where everything picked up.
MR: Yes, that’s where everything actually makes sense because the first portion, the first part of the film, the indie portion – we had a lot of arguments, especially with the monitoring board of Cinemalaya because they thought, “Why is it so slow? Why is it so dark?” We of course wanted to shorten it but in the end we said, “This is what we are trying to spoof. This is what we are trying to look at on this kind of filmmaking style. Let’s just keep it.” In the end, maybe because you are tired or maybe because of your convictions as a filmmaker you just say, “This is what I wanted to say so just keep it there, keep it there.”
ME: It takes a lot of courage especially the first 10 minutes where like…
MR: It was very, very slooowww… It’s so slow.
ME: Yeah and when you read the write-up, you expect something that is laugh out loud. It started to pick up in the café scene and then it slowed down with the musical scene.
MR: Yes it does and that’s a long portion. I wanted to trim the musical scene actually, honestly. But I’m under-covered; the movie is only 87 minutes. I didn’t throw in a lot of scenes. It was shot as I imagined to be edited. So if I trimmed it down, I would have taken out at least 9 minutes. It will be too thin. So let’s keep that. I wanted to take a lot of things out but I didn’t have a lot of coverage.
ME: I love how you use Jocelyn as our eyes. She is that silent witness throughout the movie. The actress playing Jocelyn is so full of expression. I wanted to know what she’s thinking.
MR: Jocelyn really represents the audience and of course she also typifies the production person who has to make everything work. The director and producer, the director especially, he doesn’t really care on the production parameters and he just wants to shoot things and that’s it. Someone has to make it work and that’s Jocelyn. On a more universal and fundamental level, Jocelyn is the audience because she is the limiting factor. I mean the sections that you see are only limited by her imagination. It’s her imagination and that is really one of the key themes of the film is that what you feed your audience is what they will imagine. I couldn’t do a lot of tricky things with the sections because this is only as far as what we see in the local cinema. She becomes a limiting factor. If you pull that out, a foreign audience would only have that kind of imagination depending on what they see. So if they see a lot of poverty porn and a lot of these things coming from the Philippines, if you say Filipino cinema (Marlon snaps his fingers), that’s what they see.
ME: Yes, I totally agree. That’s one of the frustrating things as a Filipino to see that this is not who we are.
MR: It’s not. NOT AT ALL!
ME: The problem I have with poverty porn is that the background, the poverty, they make it the foreground. That should be the background. The foreground should be the characters and the story. People forget that. I don’t know why.
MR: That’s actually the difference with Lino Broka. That Lino Broka shot in the slums but Lino’s stories is about people. There is a human story, it just so happen that the condition which they live in is actually in the slums. “Insiang” is that. It’s not about them being poor; it’s about the relationship between the mother, the daughter and the mother’s lover. I guess when it becomes the point and I’m sure there are films that would tackle poverty as its main point, but when it becomes the point and it becomes the point over and over again, that’s when it builds a language of clichés.
ME: As the audience, I get it; you don’t have to hammer it to us. We get it that they are poor. I find it funny that there is a shot in the beginning of a kid taking a dump and a cat coming in the frame.
MR: Actually it was not part of the script. But I thought I needed a kind of a key frame that would sum up the thesis of the film. What could be lower? Its symmetry, you have the septic tank and of course the shit at the start. If you notice there is a Philippine flag waving on the left corner.
MR: There is. Yes, there is. It’s supposed to sum up things and I know for some people they found it a bit “eww”. Well I said, “How low can we go? This is the lowest that we can possibly go.”
ME: Do you think that it’s not that we make too much poverty porn but international film festivals choose poverty porn over other movies because there are good films in the Philippines that don’t get released internationally?
MR: There are a lot of films in this festival that are not themed on poverty. There is a film called “Amok”. It is not about poverty, it is about violence, testosterone exploding. I think it is a wonderful, wonderful piece of film. That’s why the film [Woman in a Septic Tank] happened because a lot of people are now making this poverty porn kind of film because they think it’s the one that gets picked up. So if you reward that kind of filmmaking then you’ll have a lot of kids trying to make that kind of film, right?
ME: Have you seen that spoof made by Lourd de Veyra on how to make an indie film?
MR: No, but I know Lourd. He did that?
ME: Yes, it was a three part series. He put in every cliché there is on Filipino indie films, like they spoofed Raymond Red’s Cannes winning film “Anino” saying an indie film has to have a “taong grassa” (greasy man).
MR: We actually have a “taong grassa” but you didn’t see our “taong grassa” but he is there. We used a woman. It’s like a BINGO sheet, you tick off all these things and it was fun. There are more references underneath the obvious references. The outfit of Arthur Pongbato, you exoticized (sic) people and filmmakers.
ME: Are you talking about the filmmaker that won in Venice?
ME: I don’t know. He kinda looks like a mixture of Khavn dela Cruz and Kidlat Tahimik.
MR: He’s really a composite. But we really pushed the idea that this is a Filipino filmmaker and his costume is really ridiculous, right? You don’t see that anywhere. But you do see parts of that and maybe it identifies them in a film festival, like “Oohh, that is an exotic kind of a person”. You tend to be attracted to things that are not within your milieu. I don’t think Vancouver has that kind of environment of where we shot. These things attract him. Same for Arthur, we just gave him the bells and the whistles. You know the stereotype.
ME: I read a review of the film and it says that the reason “Babae sa Septik Tank (Woman in a Septic Tank)” was a hit because it catered to the taste of the middle class. Since the middle class appreciates this mix of wit, timeliness, and familiarity.
MR: Whatever it is, I don’t know honestly. I’m an advertising person, I study target markets, I study typologies, we do market segmentation and I don’t know – we don’t have a big middle class in the Philippines. I don’t know what that person is talking about because we don’t have that. 8 out of 10 Filipinos fall into the poverty line. That is about 82%. Where’s the middle class? After the middle class, there are people in Greenbelt 5, right? You don’t have anyone in between. It is a very, very narrow segment. So I don’t know if the person who is researching would understand that we don’t have a middle class. It is a very narrow band of people. The reason why it appealed I think is because of timing and momentum, it is at the right place at the right time.
As I said last night, it is a tipping point. It is not THE independent film to make. I mean I think people should make better films than this one. Septic Tank has a lot of flaws. But I think what happened was [we’re] on a steady diet of a particular film in the Philippines, something new came out and to be blunt about it, Eugene is the access point for the general public because people came in thinking it was a comedy but of course they were disappointed in the first ten minutes of the film, what’s happening, people got bored and then the punch lines happen. So if you look at the segmentation of the people who watched it in the Philippines, actually there is a lot of A, B crowd went in but mostly students. So it is more telling that a lot of students came in and watched. White collar people, people from Rockwell, Makati – it was a big hit in those venues. I think it is really not just because it appealed to the middle class. It is because nothing was in the landscape for such a long, long time.
ME: I like what you described in last night’s Q & A where you said if you keep eating the same thing you’ll get sick.
MR: Yes you will. It’s not healthy, right?
ME: Yeah, it’s nice to get something good. The director and the producer in the movie, I love how it encapsulates the current environment in Philippine independent cinema. From what I heard from people back in Manila, there are a lot of people who think they can make a movie by just having a digital camera, even with a still camera like the Canon 5D.
MR: Everyone now uses the Canon 5D Mark 2. So technology has a lot to do with what is happening right now. The access to technology is great. I believe even if they make films that suck or they don’t finish their films, as long as there are more people interested in making films I think that is the big point. I think the big points would be to hit the variety. We have to have a lot more types of films with different voices. We don’t have to have a love story. We don’t have to have a young matinee idol; I mean we don’t have to have that. So I think the variety is important. The second bit is I think right now in the Philippines kids are interested again in cinema which was not there for a long, long time – the interest to do films. Law of statistics, if there are a million of them wanting to do I’m sure at least one of them that turns out nice.
ME: Do you find that for some of them their heart is in the wrong place? I would like to quote the late Alexis Tioseco, “In Manila there a lot of filmmakers who don’t like each other; a lot of filmmakers who have a crab mentality. There isn’t a very healthy discussion of films but there is really a ‘festival fever’ among a lot of the filmmakers. I had a filmmaker talking to me and saying, “Oh, Alexis, make me famous!” Certainly he was joking but there was a bit of seriousness in his part about it. Not about me making him famous but about helping him getting into this kind of thing. A friend of mine was telling me about a filmmaker who went to show her film to Yasmin Ahmad and asked her: “What can I do to make this film more appealing to festivals?”
That’s why those two characters in the movie encapsulated that attitude. They are not in it for the passion but for fame.
MR: It’s sad. I would like to go back to the dialogue about film. I hope we have film criticism. But we don’t have that. I mean we have reviewers, obviously and very few people who actually really critic films. This is interesting, these is the perfect example of the difference on what’s happening back home and here. When you go to film festivals, the filmmaker becomes the central person, the central focus. People are actually interested on what you have to say. Perfect example last night; when you are in the Philippines they ask you about how your stars are and how was it to work with Eugene and can you greet her happy birthday. No one asks you about your thoughts on cinema or the subject matter you just did, that you tackled in your film. So no one is talking about cinema – the content, the intent, the trajectory…
ME: The filmmaker’s voice.
MR: No, we don’t do that. We don’t do that. And we only find it in the [film] festivals. As I said, I’m sure there are a lot of kids who are clueless and their heart’s in a different place and it’s a misguided heart. But I’m sure there are also people who just want to make good films. As I said on my two points we need to hit, at least there are 10 more kids doing it, maybe 8 of them want to be famous but at least there’ll be 2. So it is important to have the numbers coming in and giving them access to cinema. So at least one would turn out nice and that’s good enough. At least one would be nice.
ME: How did you end up becoming the director on this film especially for someone involved in a lot of things?
MR: Chris Martinez (writer of Woman in a Septik Tank) and I used to work together in advertising for such a long, long time. He was one of my copywriters. He wins Palanca’s all the time.
(Note: A Palanca Award is like the Philippine version of the Pulitzer Prize.)
He has a lot of plays. He is a really, really wonderful writer. Chris and I, when we created Martinez-Rivera Films, as a single proprietorship company where the company address is my house, he directed the first one “100” and then he said you direct the next one. It’s as simple as that. Sure I’ll do the next one. So when it came, it was my turn.
ME: The first movie you got involved in was “100”, how did you end up getting involved as a creative consultant/supervisor and what is a creative consultant?
MR: It is really just the creative conscience. Chris and I are used to working in that kind of a dynamic. We talk about it. You need a second head; I guess a second mind to talk about things and to work things out. That became me.
ME: You became a sounding board.
MR: Yes, we brainstorm on the film. We put together the bucket list, what does she supposed to do, maybe he should turn down the sound here, it works better if he turns off the sound on the last section, maybe it’s better if you do a bookend here; it’s really a lot of collaboration. Chris is very collaborative but he is also very specific when he writes. I have not encountered anyone with that kind of gift for dialogue. Chris’ gift is dialogue. He can really nail a line. He has a rhythm. He sows and he reaps and he would foreshadow a theme and he would do it again. He is very clean that way, when he writes his scripts.
ME: Was he on the set when you were making the film? Were there changes on the script on the day?
MR: No, I didn’t change the script much. I added some things in the coverage like the “How is Eugene” sequence because I thought I wanted to prepare the kids and scare them before they even meet Eugene. He wasn’t there all the time. He would come and visit or he’d ask if I shot the facebook of Arthur Pongbato. He’ll remind me of the things I need to hit.
ME: This is your first movie, how did you prepare yourself as a director?
MR: I don’t think you can. I should have gone to school for this. When I started in advertising, I also worked as an Assistant Director for commercials. So I know how to break things down and do set ups and I was also the Producer for commercials, so I had this little jobs happening at the same time. So being a Producer for commercials really trained you to do that. That’s why I guess we were under-covered because we have to be efficient about it. Efficiency added directness to what we did. I wish I could have more lyrical shots but that wasn’t the point, right? So it trained me to have an objective per scene. I said, “What do I need to do for this scene?” The experience would come in since I don’t know how to do it, right? So I said, “Ok, I need to show this kind of thing that it relates to this scene and to the next scene.” So I was trained to work on objectives and strategies.
ME: Were you confident when you started making the movie?
MR: Oh, not at all. NOT AT ALL.
ME: Like you know where the actors and camera are or where you learning as you go?
MR: I know them in theory. But I mean I was very insecure about it. In fact I told Eugene and Chris, I said, “I’m very insecure because you are experienced and I’m not.” The first production meeting I told everyone, “The reason you are here is because you know more than I do. But I know where I want to go. I just don’t know how to get it, so you’re supposed to help me get these things.” I would explain to them what I wanted and then they would say, “Maybe we could do it this way.”
ME: That is very smart of you.
MR: I have to be honest. How can you lie anyway, right?
ME: Well there are some directors who feel they lose their command by admitting that.
MR: No, I’m [not] like that. When I need help, I’ll ask for help.
ME: You are smart to get people who know their stuff. There is an old Hollywood saying from back in the old days of the studio systems wherein the director just hires the best of the best in their field and just let them do their thing and as a result the crew makes him look good.
MR: You have to do that. You have to do that. The only thing you have to be aware of is [you are] ultimately responsible for it. The failure and the success of the film will never be blamed on the staff or attributed to the staff. It will forever be attached to your name forever. So you just have to admit, get the right people and then you share the credits. I mean I always tell them, Larry (the DOP) and my editor (Ike Veneracion) they helped me a lot in making this look good. I don’t think there is a sin in hiring the best that you can hire with the budget that you have.
ME: This is a Cinemalaya co-production, why did you guys decide to go through that route, instead of doing it totally independently?
MR: It was a very conscious decision because Cinemalaya already has a built in audience. They give you 500,000 pesos, which is not so big. It’s about a sixth of the cost. But it is a big venue and it has a built in audience. People come to watch it. It’s a good place to be, it’s the most active film festival in the Philippines right now.
ME: Did joining Cinemalaya add more pressure in making the movie? I looked into it and you basically have 5 months to make the movie.
MR: On August you submit it and you get your approvals and then you will get a green light by January and it is supposed to be done by May. Yeah, that’s really, really quick. But you just have to do it which I really like actually. I like deadlines more than if I didn’t have deadlines because if you have a deadline you have to get off your ass and do it. If you don’t, you will always do something else if you don’t have deadlines. So I actually like having a deadline.
ME: How did you direct the actors?
MR: My style is the same when I do theatre. I actually talk to them extensively before the first shoot day. I talk to them on what I think of this and what I think of that. On the scene for example, I’ll ask Eugene, “Do we need to talk about this?” and she goes, “No, no, no, I got this.” or sometimes, “Yeah, why don’t you talk to me about this or walk me through it.” But more than anything else I’ll just ask the actors. I’ll explain to them the scenes, these is the whole coverage, this is what is going to happen from point A to point B, I take them to the physical steps, I’ll tell them, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll cover you some other way.” Very much like that and I will just correct after the take, “I’ll go, hmm… this is a bit too indicated. Can you do it more like this?” I don’t really over direct. Kean [Cipriano] is green, this is his first film (the one who plays the director) but I didn’t have to direct him so much because I thought that is exactly the point, right? He is supposed to be a ham. They are supposed to be hams. So it worked for them. He is very unsure about things, he’s brave when he’s alone but when he is faced with Arthur Pongbato or Eugene, he clams up. It is exactly what I wanted. I guess you direct for what is necessary.
ME: Do you find it odd that the movie you made mocking filmmakers making films for international awards and film festivals have been chosen to be in a competition for international awards and festivals?
MR: (laughs) It’s a meta, meta, meta. It’s very Meta. You take it for what it is. Some festivals don’t like it, actually. Some festivals ask for a screener but they declined after watching it. Some festivals we sent it to didn’t like it. Some festivals liked it.
ME: How was the success of the movie impacted your life and your career?
MR: It’s got more busy (sic).
ME: Has offers started coming in?
MR: Yes, there are a lot of offers that have come in; about 8 of them. 6 are mainstream, 2 are independent. Of course I tell them I have a day job, it will have to wait until January because I have to replenish my leave of absence. I finished all my leaves; especially with the festival, I am already over drawn. So they have to wait until next year. Anyway the stars attached to them are also doing some other things.
ME: Are you thinking of doing a career change, like focusing full time as a film director?
MR: I don’t know. I don’t think so. At least, at least I want to do one to two films a year. Financially it is very difficult to transition from what I do right now. I’m an entrepreneur and I belong to a big company. So filmmaking won’t possibly match what I’m earning right now. But it is a great joy. I continue to enjoy other things, so maybe not, maybe not. But I wish I can do more films. It’s strange for me; I don’t make choices. I didn’t say, “Should I only do one?” In my mind it says, “Oh come on, if you can do it, if you can squeeze it in, squeeze it in.”
ME: What was your most satisfying moment when you made the movie?
MR: When it was finished. Yes, when it was finished. Submission was the best feeling I got. I was just overwhelmed. I was doing this and doing a lot of things. When I was doing this I was also doing the holiday collection for my fashion week. I was doing my fashion week show while I was doing this. I was doing a solo show and between the styling and the fittings and you know the most satisfying moment was when it was finally done and of course I showed it to Chris and to Eugene and to the team and they liked it. For me, that is good enough. If the people who made it actually liked it, I mean I think you have done your job. For me at least, I have done my job.
ME: Have you made any memorable blunders?
MR: Yes, well not blunders really. They told me after the shoot because when I am shooting I am always standing beside my Cinematographer, my DOP and I would say cut. I would just whisper cut. And one time, Eugene was walking away from the camera, she said “Direk, when you shout cut, you have to shout CUT because I’ll be going to Cubao by now.” I only tell my DOP because my DOP is the one supposed to turn off the camera, right? So I said, “Ok, you have to shout cut and you have to shout loud so that everyone hears it.”
ME: Changing subjects, where were you born?
MR: I was born in the Philippines, in Mindanao, in Iligan city. That’s in Lanao del Norte.
ME: Wow, so you can speak Bisaya? (Note: The language is officially called Cebuano).
MR: Very well of course.
ME: Did you grow up there?
MR: No, I grew up all over the place. My father was a Civil Engineer and we go where the projects are, where the roads are built. So Bataan, Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Mindanao, jumping from school to school. I grew up all over the Philippines.
ME: That must have affected how you look at things. Especially since you can’t stay long enough at one place to make friends.
MR: Yes, you realize you have to make the most of what you have in the moment because you never know, some years you are taken out of school after three months. So you are never sure and you make the most out of things and you have to adjust really, really fast because you are always thrown in like a first day in school, right? You have to read what’s happening. What works here, what doesn’t work here. Adapt really, really fast and do what needs to be done now.
ME: Growing up, what movies did you like?
MR: Growing up, I was born in an Adventist family. I have to watch Chity-Chity Bang-Bang, the safe ones. We are not allowed to watch movies actually in my religion and you can’t watch television and you can’t read comics and you have to read the bible. Your whole life is occupied with worship. And then I discovered cinema, I’m the child of the 80’s, late 70’s.
ME: How old were you when you discovered cinema?
MR: Probably around high school, 3rd year high school.
ME: Did you secretly seek it out and not tell your parents?
MR: No, you don’t tell. Of course this is the time of “Oro, Plata, Mata” and all those things started happening and you have “Jaguar”, “Insiang”, “Manila sa Kuko ng Liwanag”, “Kakabakaba”, really wonderful, wonderful films. Of course going to college, I went to Communication Arts in Ateneo. So we started watching all these films, you have film 101, you get to see all the classics, even as obscure as “Battleship Potemkin” and you study the Odessa steps structure and later you apply it to “Untouchables”. When the interest came in I have a very strong intellectual framework for understanding film. It was filtered directly with the school. So I see it and I can break it down and blah, blah do the whole jive with film criticism if I wanted to but I also like watching popular films, my favorite film is “Hellboy”, I like all the “Harry Potter”. I like all the summer franchise, I love all those things.
ME: What movie made the strongest impression on you?
MR: “All That Jazz” 1979 and “Fame” 1980
ME: Why those films?
MR: I was into science. I was a geek. I’m still am a geek. I was into science and I wanted to become a doctor and that’s what you’re supposed to do. By 1979, I saw “All That Jazz”. Oh my gosh, it changed my life. I wanted to go to theatre. I wanted to become a performer. I wanted to do dance. Then 1980 came and you have “Fame”. Oh my gosh! Those two films made a turning point in my life. I said, “This is what I want to do.” Not as a filmmaker, I want to be a performer. That’s why I went to CCP and I took acting workshop and ended up directing the plays and that’s what shifted my life.
ME: The course you took at Ateneo de Manila, why did you decide to take that?
MR: I wanted to take Theatre Arts in UP (University of the Philippines). But my parents did not like for me to go to UP because at that time it was very militant because of the Marcos era. They wanted to be safe. The said, “You can get the closest thing but you have to go to Ateneo.” But of course we still went to the rallies and we still went to the EDSA revolution.
ME: What was the first job you got after school?
MR: Actually I was already working when I was still in school. I was working as a Props man at CCP opera. I was a researcher for the Cory Aquino constitution. They label it the constitution in 1985. I was researcher for that, content analysis; it is part of their class anyway. It’s a manual job, you look at content in all the media, you do assertion analysis and then I went to production assistant, clapper, get water for people, get their food.
ME: How did you get into that? Did you went straight into production or you know someone who got you into that?
MR: We have a friend working for that team and said, “Would you like to come over.” I said, Ok. I did that for a year and then advertising came and then I stayed in advertising the longest time.
ME: What made you stay in advertising for a long time?
MR: Well it is fun. Advertising is fun. I was lucky to work in a company that allowed me to do whatever I wanted. During that time I was in that company, I was a Copywriter, I was a Producer, I teach at Ads school. I took the 1st batch and I was the trainer for everyone else for years and years. I was the HR of Dev. Vice President for the company for about 4 years concurrent to what I was doing. They let me do all those things. So how can I not stay?
ME: Do you believe in the Philippines that “Serious” films don’t quite have a mass appeal, especially films dealing with social problems. That Low-income Filipinos complain that life’s hard enough without having to be reminded about it on the silver screen?
MR: That’s hogwash. I think that’s really hogwash. That’s the rationalization that people put in because they don’t want to do those things. Filmmaking sometimes becomes marketing, meaning you do what succeeds, right? It’s called about repeatable success. So when you do that you end up ticking off the things that worked before and putting it on your next film. In the end you have a list of two hundred things that worked and after a while it doesn’t work anymore.
Of course there is investment and I do agree that we have to safeguard the investment and we want to have some degree of predictability of success. But it also kills everyone in the end. That’s the problem; you make money for a bit of time and then everyone fails after that. It’s commodity and people look for replacements. I was saying last night, I hope the indie film doesn’t become the next trend, you have action, bomba and by time they wouldn’t like it again. I’m really hoping for diversity. So I don’t believe that the masses can’t appreciate things that they already see in their lives. That is not true. A good story is a good story. A great human drama is a great human drama. Whether it’s set here or there, it doesn’t matter, right? I think the people will come when the story is good.
* There were more questions but I only realized after the interview that my recorder ran out of memory. Oh well, you live and learn.