Consider that this year, the Philippines' entry into the Foreign Language category for the Oscars was directed by a 25-year-old. With Birdshot, which was screened to a local audience for the first time in the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino last August, Mikhail Red proved that he's one to watch. The son of Raymond Red, one of the architects of modern alternative cinema in the Philippines, Mikhail has begun to make his own waves and pave his own path as a filmmaker.
Now, Red's third feature-length film is coming up at QCinema, or the Quezon City International Film Festival. Neomanila is about a hitman named Irma (played by Eula Valdez), who finds a protege in Toto (played by Timothy Castillo), a young boy recruited to her notorious death squad. Set against the backdrop of Metro Manila and in the context of prevalent extra-judicial killings, Neomanila paints a picture of what our city could become if it continues down this path.
We spoke to the prodigious director about his new film.
ESQUIRE: You’ve got a new film coming up, but before we get into that, can you talk to us about the success of Birdshot? Especially now that it’s been selected for the Oscars.
MIKHAIL RED: To be honest, when we made the film, it was really just a passion project. The whole idea of Birdshot was born from, I guess the frustration from my first feature film [Rekorder], which was like a boot camp. I had to make a lot of compromises, I had to learn things the hard way. And with my second feature, we wanted more freedom, we wanted more time. We wanted to just pull off the vision completely, accurately.
ESQ: And now, Birdshot has been received quite well, both by critics and by broader audiences.
MR: We started with the festival route, and I was quite nervous bringing it back home, because you know, there’s a certain archetype of independent films. There are films that do very well in the international circuit—they’re very arthouse, they satisfy the European tastes, but then sometimes they have a hard time here, when you bring them home. Then there are films that do well here, and they don’t really possess that competitive quality to make it abroad. What we tried to do—I guess my hopes, my philosophy as a filmmaker, is I want to make films that have a very substantial message, that are socially relevant, but packaged in a genre shell. So we tried to balance that. And at first it was hard, because the festivals couldn’t quite place us: Is this an art film? Is this a commercial film? But later on, when we started gaining momentum, I was quite surprised that Birdshot was selected in both genre festivals and some arthouse festivals. So I think we found that balance. And then when we brought it home, it was well-received by a mass audience. A lot of them, they don’t really watch independent films, but for whatever reason, they were engaged by Birdshot.
"I want to make films that have a very substantial message, that are socially relevant, but packaged in a genre shell."
ESQ: What was it like to move from Birdshot to making your new film, Neomanila?
MR: Neomanila is interesting because, in a way, I’m kind of contradicting myself. We were really lucky with Birdshot and I really think that that’s the proper way to make a film: you need to spend two years on one film if you want to get that result, that standard, that quality. But then filmmaking has to be sustainable. And I just couldn’t risk waiting another two years for Neomanila [because] it’s a very relevant subject, the one tackled in Neomanila. If I waited another two years, it won’t be as important anymore. [So] when we heard that Neomanila got into QCinema, we took that deal [and] a lot of things came together really quick. [...] The only difference was that there’s a premiere requirement, and it’s quite tight in terms of the timetable. Different circumstances, different resources. But as a filmmaker, you have to keep making films, and as long as there’s an opportunity to make one, I’ll take it.
ESQ: Was that compressed timetable difficult for you to work with?
MR: Super difficult. Right now, we’re working on sound, and we’ve been working on sound for like four days. With Birdshot, we worked on sound for a month and a half. Offline edit [for Neomanila], we did in five days; Birdshot we did in two months. But I guess it’s also training for me as a director, with that amount of resources and given the conditions, parameters. I’m also curious about what kind of result I can put out there. And I’m contented. Birdshot and Neomanila are two different films, but I think that overall, my resource-to-result ratio has improved.
ESQ: Can you walk us through the production of Neomanila?
MR: We started in August and we shot for 11 days—almost every weekend because Eula Valdez has a soap. So we really had to adjust for her. And the biggest problem was that majority of Neomanila is at night, and she can’t stay up too late, because even if we shoot on weekends, she has a shoot the next day. It was challenging, but I was lucky that I was able to get the same visual package as Birdshot: cinematographer Mycko David, who I think is like the [Roger] Deakins of the Philippines. And then I got Alexa [camera systems], which are like the top-end. Then we worked with the same colorist from Birdshot, Marilen Magsaysay.
But I knew that we couldn’t shoot like we did for Birdshot, which was all controlled motion. We had to be fast, we had to be mobile. It’s going to be a grittier film. The whole film is handheld, with just a few moments on tripod. With Birdshot, I also had a storyboard, so it was very visual, like a comic book. Here, since we were shooting in locations that we couldn’t fully control, I only had a shot list. Then we had to adjust on the fly, depending on the situation.
ESQ: How did that affect the visual identity of Neomanila?
MR: It’s handheld, but I give importance to film language, where you conceal and reveal information with your shots. Every shot you see in the film, you know is designed, is deliberate. So it’s not your usual handheld approach, where you let your actors act and you just record it, cinema verite. There’s still film language used: cut to close-up, cut to the gun, cut to the target. You can still create tension. There’s still this very comic book feel to it, like Birdshot.
ESQ: I suppose that works for the film too, considering the context and situations.
MR: Yeah, it’s very gritty, it’s urban. I guess Birdshot feels more like a parable, like a storybook fable. Neomanila is more real.
ESQ: Tell me about the themes of Neomanila, especially with regards to its EJK context. Is the film political in any way?
MR: I guess what makes it different from most EJK-themed films—and there’s a lot being done now—is the perspective. It’s basically about people caught in the middle of the drug war, literally, because they’re the middlemen. They’re morally ambiguous. I’m always interested in that, where you have very likeable criminals, going up against corrupt cops. It’s very gray. You don’t know: Who’s good? Who’s bad? Is this justified? I wouldn’t say it’s political because even the characters themselves, they’re unaware, oblivious to the politics of it. They don’t talk about the politics of the whole situation. They just do it for the money. It’s like a lens, looking at the whole situation, and it keeps throwing questions at the audience. It’s up to you to decide: is this moral? It’s up to you to question yourself.
ESQ: So it’s more of a personal story than a political one?
MR: Yeah, it’s very contained, because it’s about a mother character and a son character, who are not really mother-and-son. There’s this unique family dynamic going on. It’s like a reverse Leon: The Professional, with an older female assassin and a younger boy. And in a way it’s almost like Blade Runner. They’re hunting down police assets, rogue assets, drug pushers instead of Replicants. And then they question themselves.
ESQ: Was there anything that inspired the story of Neomanila?
MR: The whole subject started with a BBC interview. They were interviewing a mother assassin. During the day she has a side job but at night she works as a hitman with her husband. That went viral and I was really fascinated with that character, so I developed a story around her. I guess an interesting note is that every hit in this film, every assignment where they actually kill a target is a reference to an actual news event. It’s still fictionalized, but everything from the situation, the location, the number of targets—they’re based on an actual EJK events. In fact, for research, for a couple of weeks, I was with the Manila Police District every night. We would hang around near the police station—Nightcrawler level. We would go to the actual crime scenes, and I recorded a lot on my phone.
"Every hit in this film, every assignment where they actually kill a target is a reference to an actual news event."
ESQ: How do you expect your audiences to respond to this film?
MR: It’s actually double-edged—the effect of Birdshot and this film. There’s pressure, because they’re going to compare it, obviously. But at the same time, it’s helping us, because a lot of people are looking forward to Neomanila because of Birdshot, and we are sort of playing that card. We’re trying to build a filmmaker brand, that people will watch your film because of a certain filmmaker. It’s sort of working. I think this one is less contemplative, it has more momentum in terms of pacing, it’s a bit shorter, there’s more action—so it should be more audience-friendly than Birdshot.
ESQ: You mentioned that Neomanila doesn’t really get political. But does it make a clear statement?
MR: I think so. Especially the final shot. I think it should reflect my statement. But I think it’s still the type of film that’s not preachy. You don’t hear the filmmaker telling you what to think. Sometimes, you can hear the filmmaker talking through the characters—that’s not what we did. The characters in Neomanila are so oblivious. They’re focused on what matters to them: their family, their livelihood, trying to survive. That’s all they think about. It’s up to you as an audience to reflect.
I always prefer that my films have strong social commentary. I use genre to deliver my message. It’s easier that way to reach the masses. And in a way, you’re slowly smuggling in something important, something meaningful. And then they absorb it, even subconsciously. They still enjoy the film—they’re engaged. It’s a better way of reaching more people and getting your message across.
Catch Neomanila in the Quezon City International Film Festival from October 20 to 28 at Trinoma, Gateway Mall, Robinsons Galleria, and U.P. Town Center cinemas.