Run and Gun Interview with Josabeth Alonso, Producer of “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” and “Bisperas”

A run and gun interview with Josabeth Alonso, Producer of “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (The Woman in a Septic Tank)” and “Bisperas (Trespassers)” conducted on Oct. 5, 2011 during the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) @ Granville St. and all the way to Vogue Theatre, Vancouver, BC

Josabeth Alonso came into Vancouver International Film Festival with 2 films that she produced, “The Woman in a Septic Tank” and “Trespassers”. Her first film as a Producer was the Cebuano language film “Minsan Pa (2004)” which was an extremely rare film since all films produced in the Philippines are in Filipino. She later found international success with the film “Kubrador” (The Bet Collector) (2006). The movie won awards in the Philippines and in the international film festival circuit.

She reminds me of a Philippine version of American independent film Producer Christine Vachon who mostly produces films that tackle tough subject matter or are mostly filmmaker driven movies. Like Christine Vachon, Josabeth Alonso has carved a place in Philippine cinema with her independently produced, filmmaker driven and thought provoking movies.

me with Josabeth Alonso (taken after the screening of “The Woman in a Septic Tank” Oct. 3, 2011)

This is by far the most fun I had in an interview, mostly because of the challenge and situation. After the 6:30PM screening of “Trespassers”, Josabeth Alonso was in a hurry to meet up with Marlon Rivera and Eugene Domingo at the Vogue Theatre. She didn’t have time for a proper sit down interview and her schedule was fully booked.

I asked if I can interview her as she walks to the Vogue Theatre. Luckily she agreed and I was off to the races. The adrenaline was on and I was flying by the seat of my pants. I only had 4 blocks from the Pacific Cinematheque to the Vogue Theatre and I didn’t know if I can continue interviewing her once she got inside the theatre.

This is the first time I conducted this kind of interview, so I didn’t know how it would turn out. We were walking on Granville Street, Vancouver’s busiest entertainment district on a surprisingly busy Wednesday night. It was cold and there was a slight drizzle. We were weaving in and out of the crowds and traffic. I was holding a tape recorder on one hand and my question cards on the other. As I was conducting my interview, I was secretly praying that it won’t rain by the time we reach the theatre. I was worried of getting my tape recorder wet.

Once we reached the Vogue Theatre, Josabeth Alonso went in and decided to wait in the lobby until the movie ended. Marlon Rivera and Eugene Domingo were watching the movie “A Separation” at another theatre. Anyway, I said to myself, “Fuck it, I’m going to follow her inside and finish my interview.” Luckily no one stopped me. So I finished my interview inside the lobby of the Vogue Theatre until the movie ended 10 minutes later.   

Michael Edillor: Who are you?

Josabeth Alonso: Who am I? I’m a mom of four. I’m a lawyer by profession and I’m just a film fan. In the past I used to write scripts and direct plays and that’s how everything started. In 1994, I did a movie for television and then in 2004, I finally decided to do a full feature film. That’s me.

ME: In 2004, what made you decide to produce the film?

JA: It’s been something I wanted to do for a long, long time. Like I said, I did a movie for television in 1994 and I told myself, “Maybe 10 years from now and I have sufficient funds to finance a film that I can finally do it.”

ME: Where were you born?

JA: Cebu City, that’s in the South. I grew up there until high school.

ME: As a lawyer, what kind of practice do you do?

JA: Well I have a firm and there are seven lawyers in the office and we do all kinds of work, we have a number of corporate clients, some really big companies. I was among the bar top notchers in 1988, so I guess coupled with 25 years of practice, you know, you somehow get to earn the trust of clients. We handle all kinds of cases, criminal, civil, administrative, labor.

ME: How about you? What do you do?

JA: Me? I was trained to do everything. I have to start with all kinds of stuff.

ME: Do you still practice law?

JA: Of course, I do.

ME: So this is not a full time gig for you?

JA: Which one?

ME: The producing.

JA: No, not all.

ME: So when you produce, what kind of projects would you say, “Ok, I would like to produce this film”?

JA: Well in the past, it was something like doing everything that other people would not touch. But along the way, you start thinking of having to make some money. So last year I finally did a commercial film and the money I earned I used to finance more of these alternative films.

ME: Why are you attracted to these kinds of films, as a producer?

JA: Because it’s not something you see every day. It’s real. I like quite, poignant films. Films that are not preachy, films were it’s like watching real life unfold on screen, films that are intelligent, films that don’t insult your intelligence. Stuff like that.

ME: When you were a child, what film made the strongest impact on you?

JA: Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag [by] Lino Broka

ME: Why did it made an impact?

JA: It was a very powerful film. Actually that was one instance where I said to myself, “If there is anything more powerful than this medium, I’ll jump off a cliff.” I mean this is it.

ME: Can you tell us what is your first movie like as a producer?

JA: That was terrible. I lost so much money from that film.

ME: What did you learn out of that experience?

JA: Never to make expensive films ever again.

ME: What was that movie?

JA: Minsan Pa.

ME: Why did it fail in your opinion?

JA: Because the bulk of the dialogue was in Cebuano and people didn’t appreciate that, I guess.

ME: That’s sad to hear because it’s very rare to have a Cebuano feature film in the Philippines.

JA: Exactly. It was shot entirely in Cebu and you know, it was very good material. A lot of people didn’t appreciate it, I guess; even Cebuanos themselves.

ME: How did you end up collaborating with Jeffrey Jeturian?

JA: Jeffrey was the director of my television show. I host this TV show called “Legal Forum”. It’s like learning a law each day. That’s how it started, we became very good friends. When he started making movies, we had this unwritten understanding that we would work together someday on some movie.

ME: Ok, I think we passed by the Vogue Theatre. Wait, we could cross this way.

Granville Street at night

me with Josabeth Alonso (taken after the screening of “The Woman in a Septic Tank” Oct. 3, 2011)

(We cross the street on Granville and Smithe. I’m still following her and continuing with the interview)

ME: What are the challenges you normally face when making a movie in the Philippines?

JA: How to fit the budget to your film. That’s always the toughest thing to do because the director wants to do more things and you have to say no because you can’t afford it. I guess that’s the hardest part.

ME: Do you end up looking for funding for the film?

JA: It depends. If I see that a particular scene is needed then I do but if no, then I simply say “No.”

ME: Have you seen any movies during the festival?

JA: None. We were too busy waiting for our film and all.

(By this time we are at the Vogue Theatre and Josabeth is checking if the movie has finished playing. We enter the lobby and continue our interview.)

ME: What is your most satisfying moment when making a movie?

JA: It’s finally when I see the finished product shown on screen and you can see that everything is perfect, within my definition of perfection.

ME: What is your definition of perfection?

JA: Hahaha, it varies, it depends on the story that we worked on, the concept of course. Like for this film, this is already perfect. And for this one, ok with this kind of ending, with this kind of touch, it is really good. Something like that. I mean it’s not the perfection you think because I don’t think anything is perfect. It’s just within my own vision on how I saw the film on paper and now how I see it on the big screen.

ME: Have you made any memorable blunders?

JA: Blunder in the sense in my first film I delegated everything to my Line Producer. I should have gotten myself more involved and I would have had more control on everything. In that sense it was a blunder. But in so far as the artistic side of things; no. Every film I make, whether there was a mistake committed in the choice of the material or what not, I never really call it a mistake because I’m proud of all the films that I made and you know, it’s such a great feeling when someone tells you, “I saw this film of yours, this latest film that you produced because I know you only make good films.” I wouldn’t allow myself ever to attach my name to something that’s trashy or something that I wouldn’t be proud of. It’s tough because you have to maintain a certain caliber, a certain level and even to creating a mainstream material, it’s not easy to make something that’s going to be highly regarded because you know it’s mainstream or it’s highly commercial. Nonetheless I try. We keep trying that at the end of the day even if it’s commercial or mainstream, people will still say it’s different and I love the film.

ME: You have been doing this since 2004 and with “Kubrador’s (The Bet Collector)” success and with these two Cinemalaya entries (The Woman in a Septic Tank and Trespassers) under your belt, how has the success of those films impacted your life and career?

JA: I guess there has been a change because when I first started out it was like, “Who’s she? What can she do? What kind of films can she make?” And then slowly you earn the respect of people not just from the moviegoers but even from the movie scribes, people who write about your films. And that’s not something that’s easy to do. It takes a lot of time and in a span of 5 years, oh no, since 2004 for 7 years rather, it’s been pretty good. Like I said earlier, some people have approached me and said they like the films that I do, that they look forward to the next thing that I come up with because they know that it will be something good. You don’t get a comment like that every day.

ME: Now that you are known, do people come up to you with projects that they want you to produce?

JA: Yeah, a lot of them. They think I have so much money, which is not the case. For “Bisperas” for example, we lacked funds and when we were lacking funds I had to borrow money from the bank literally and I’m still paying for it up to now.

ME: So you made the movie out of your own pocket?

JA: Yeah. Everything’s from my own pocket.

ME: Wow. What is the definition of a Producer in the Philippines? Because a Producer here is defined as someone who does what it takes to get the movie made. But from talking to people in the Philippines, they would say you’re a Producer because you put money into the movie. But that’s defined here as an Executive Producer. What is a Producer in the Philippines?

JA: It’s exactly the same thing as you described it but in my case even if I am a quote unquote Executive Producer, I always make it a point that I read the script in and out, I know the sequences from one to the end, I even memorize some of the lines, I imagine the story in my mind how it’s going to come out, I mean that’s how involved I am. I let the Director and Writer choose their actors, although I make suggestions every now and then. But unlike other cases where Producers have the final say, I let them do their thing.

Marlon Rivera (Director), Eugene Domingo (Actress), Josabeth Alonso (Producer) (Oct. 4, 2011)

ME: Wow, you’re like a prototypical North American Independent Producer. Which filmmakers or Directors past or present do you admire?

JA: They’re all good. All of the directors I worked with are all good. Jeffrey of course, my relationship with Jeffrey is special because he’s been my friend for so long and in the case of Marlon, I worked with him for the first time on Septic Tank but he’s so gifted. He’s really, really smart and he knows what he’s doing. He’s good at it. Same with Chris Martinez. I like working with intelligent people. I don’t think I can work with someone who is dumb.

ME: Well that’s a good place to start. Do you have any favorite genres or a genre you would like to try?

JA: Nah, nothing. You just have this gut feel when you read a concept paper or a sequence treatment or a script itself that you have something good in your hands. You just feel it.

ME: What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

JA: Best professional advice I’ve ever received? Don’t be so trusting.

ME: Who was the one who said that?

JA: I don’t remember. A lot of my friends tell me that because they always say I’m too good, I’m easily abused, blah, blah, blah.

ME: Well I don’t think there is anything wrong with believing in a person’s goodness.

JA: I do believe that sometimes I trust people too much and there are people who don’t deserve it.

ME: From your experience, what do you see are the common mistakes that always happen in a production?

JA: The budget. Sometimes the budget is not enough. There seems to be, something lacking to finish it. So that becomes a problem. I think they’re done.

(By this time, the movie is done and people are leaving the theatre.)

ME: To wrap it up, what’s next for you?

JA: I have 4 films lined up next year.

ME: Does that conflict with your job as a lawyer?

JA: No, not at all. I’ll die if I don’t do many things at the same time.

ME: Do you produce a movie based on the script or on the filmmaker?

JA: Nah, I usually take it up with my mentor in filmmaking Bing Lao. We go over things and we choose together.