|Poster by Dina Gadia|
May 2013. Director’s Fortnight, Cannes.
A GENRE BUT NOT REALLY
I had the germ of the movie about ten years ago from a service driver who told me that he has worked as a hitman when he was in prison. The idea intrigued me.
As the years went on, I was able to gather from different news materials, stories about politicians hiring prisoners to do hits for their rivals in the election. But more than the prisoner story, what really got me interested was the fact that the police cannot find the hitmen doing the kills because the criminals the law is looking for are already locked up in prison.
What I discovered, as the concept started to percolate in my mind, is that I am more interested in the process of the whole prison-hitman system. Who is involved? How do they do it? Who’s eligible? How do they learn to do it? Are they amateurs or professionals?
On the surface, ‘On The Job” seems to be just about this controversial story inspired by true events of prisoners given a day pass as contract killers and the whole system of corruption that run it.
Easily, it makes for a good genre film. But given this exciting premise, I, as a filmmaker, wanted to go beyond the shock value of this Third World corruption story and challenged myself to give the story something that appeals to me on a very personal level but at the same time, still having a strong universal theme hoping to give a fresh take on what could be just another formulaic genre action film.
Such is the basis of the title “On The Job”. I wanted to explore a modern day tale of people being “on the job”. The competition, the ambition, the sacrifices, the self-preservation and the dedication demanded from each one doing the job. And by dissecting this personal insight, me and my co-writer Michiko Yamamoto were able to go beyond what could be a predictable plot driven story and come up with a film that is as much a study of different characters on the job as it is about Philippines as a country with a bizarre sense of governance.
Rather than risking having a one note, point A to point B story, we were now able to tell a complex story that works on one level as a crime drama, a political thriller on another, a hard boiled action and a character-driven film all at the same time.
And with that in mind, we were able to veer away from the clichés of the genre and just work towards a fresher, more unique view of a modern film noir. We even took out the procedural stuff that are common in most police stories. We also opened up the prison conflicts and avoided the usual prison plots that are familiar in other prison movies.
Our only guide: Keep everything about the characters. The character story will eventually be a much more engaging story than the plot itself. The characters are the story.
THE WORLD IS GRAY
If I were to pick a color that would best describe what OTJ is, it would be gray. In the world of OTJ, everything is gray. No solid blacks or whites. No right or wrong. Just different shades of gray.
The city is gray. The government is also gray. The characters are gray. It is about ironies and role reversals. No clear cut protagonists and antagonists. No arch villain or super hero. Just ordinary individuals making choices that result in dire consequences.
I was attempting to tell a story where we dissect a couple of individuals from a cross section of Philippine society without passing judgment no matter how dark their gray characters get. With the choices they make, it snowballs into a web of events that end up ruining lives and…well, mostly, just ruining lives.
THE LANGUAGE AND THE COLLABORATORS
Cinematically, we wanted to bring out what Manila really is. Not just the gritty, underbelly of the nook and cranny of the poor Manila but also the plush, cold and empty walls and buildings of the rich and the old classic structures of the government institutions that the Spanish and American colonization left behind. Being from the countryside, I wanted On The Job to pay tribute to how cinematic a city Manila is using it as the backdrop to this noir tale and representing not just the gritty side of it but also the rustic and the modern.
If one would take a closer look at every scene of the film, one would notice that we only lighted the settings and never the actors. We are photographing the city and the characters are incidental. All our sets are general lighted. And wherever the actors end up in doing the scene, whether there is enough light or not, we let it be. This way, we depict a more realistic portrayal of the city we wanted to celebrate. This is the third time I collaborated with my cinematographer, Francis Ricardo Buhay III. And I think it’s his best work to date.
My designer is my nephew, protégé and fellow filmmaker, Richard Somes. Although he started as a production designer, he has not designed a film from beginning to end for maybe 3 years now. We collaborated on this knowing fully well that he would be the only one who could bring out the real Manila without going over the top or being too generic at it.
Visually, the film contrasts two worlds. The world of the prisoners is mostly set on places where the spaces are smaller than the people in it. And the parallel world of the agents of the law and the government are set on places where the spaces are much bigger and sprawling with fewer people in it.
It is worth mentioning, too, that our main major set, the Bagong Yugto Provincial Jail (New Chapter Provincial Jail), was built and dressed up from an existing location. Given the sensitive topic of the film, we presumed that we would not be allowed to shoot in a real prison.
The prison was a major chunk in the visual narrative of the movie. Locally, everyone can be familiar with the set-up. Internationally though, some may be surprised at the surreal, strange and bizarre set-up of prison camps in the Philippines. Looking at the jails in our country is like looking at the microcosm of what’s wrong with the entire country. And visually, this is juxtaposed within the entire movie.
From our research, the jails in the Philippines are like little cities. There are mini-zoos, wet markets, tennis courts and even massage parlors. Prisoners are allowed to do business inside the prison. Having entrepreneurial prisoners mean more business for the jail officials as well. Those who can afford can open small cafes and serve sandwiches, even sell phone credits (even if mobile phones are supposedly illegal). One can rent rooms for their wives and girlfriends to stay overnight. For those who want long term, they can rent a more permanent room where one could bring their spouse to live indefinitely. But, of course, for every perk, you pay.
BEYOND THE THIRD WORLD NOVELTY
I and my business partner Dondon Monteverde have been trying to get this project off the ground for three years now. I remember about two years ago, we were hoping to get international distributors interested with the project and we always hear them say that they like the idea of the movie but since they haven’t seen a movie like this come out of the Philippines, they are not sure whether it will be worth the financial risk.
Our vision at Reality Entertainment is to bring Filipino films out there with well-crafted, relevant, smart but also entertaining commercial films to make it competitive with our other Asian neighbors doing well in the global arena.
The attempt with our company Reality Entertainment is to do movies for the local domestic audience using themes and stories that can cross over internationally without necessarily eyeing only the film festivals. The world already knows we have good filmmakers. It’s about time we show them we are universal. If China, Hongkong, Korea and Japan are doing this, why can’t Filipino movies? Fame and prestige is good but we need cash. Sustainability is the key.
On The Job is a unique case given that there are no films of this nature that are produced in the Philippine mainstream cinema for maybe more than a decade now. And to give it a boost in the local market, the biggest film studio in our country, Star Cinema, decided to co-produce this with us, take the risk and gamble on this project we all believe in.
As a fan of the modern film noir and its masters Melville, Audiard, To & Ka-Fai and the Coens to name a few, “On The Job” is my thesis as their diligent student of their films.
We are honored to bring a different kind of Philippine cinema to Cannes. We hope you enjoy it.