The Long History Behind Erik Matti's Barrier-Breaking On The Job
This article was originally published in Esquire's August 2013 issue. With the announcement of a sequel, we saw it fit to post online, reminiscing the journey that director Erik Matti took to create this opus. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.
On any other night, this short stretch of 2nd Avenue in Caloocan would look like any other street in the city, lined with decaying low-rises, sari-sari stores, and below-minimum-wage shelters. But this evening, there’s something about the huge, harsh lights of a film set, and the presence of movie stars moving about that’s transformed this small, underprivileged patch of urban landscape into a place more alive, strangely alluring, even possibly dangerous.
Every random nudge from a stranger’s arm is cause to quickly turn my head, and I am reminded every five minutes of which pocket I deposited my phone last—if I’m not distracted by something or other, like the sight of a lifeless mouse caught in the bite of a passing cat. Or of a wrinkly streetwalker—which I connect to the old motel around the corner, inside which, in one of the convenient little one-car-only garages, my Poveda-schooled photographer parked her car. Safer there, anyway, and besides there are no parking spaces left on the street, partly because two of the biggest actors in the country are on set, and you know the size of trailer vans those guys move around in.
Everyone’s out on the street, in their shorts and slippers, their old-model camera phones in hand, waiting for something monumentally significant to unfold. Were they told they’re witnessing The Return of the Action Film in Philippine Cinema?
The light from a lamppost casts a reflection on a puddle near a gutter, which immediately strikes me as romantic, even when there was no rain earlier and the wet street is due really to the water hosed on it by a firetruck on standby. Just across, two pairs of hands peek through the second floor window grills of an unpainted building where, on the ground level, behind a rusty accordion gate, my father used to report for work in the ‘80s as a traveling motorcycle parts salesman.
It is the last Saturday of January and I am on the set of Erik Matti’s crime suspense drama On The Job. As is typical of the celluloid environments he creates, everything feels big in this set, almost festive, as if any moment fireworks will be jumping up towards the black sky. Everyone’s out on the street, in their shorts and slippers, their old-model camera phones in hand, waiting for something monumentally significant to unfold. Were they told they’re witnessing The Return of the Action Film in Philippine Cinema? Maybe not. Maybe they’re just out to catch a glimpse of Piolo Pascual who, with his enviably toned arms and model build, even from 10 feet away, stands like a beacon of everything that’s correct and disciplined and beautiful in all this unglamorous chaos of tarps and trash and exposed Meralco wires. The other big actor, Gerald Anderson, meanwhile, is in his trailer catching up on sleep, not to be disturbed until three hours after.
Matti seems obsessed with the idea of avoiding the “indie look,” although I get the impression he is less opposed to the products turned in by independent filmmakers as a whole, but more the small-mindedness of some of its creators.
It’s a multiple-camera setup, and in the scene at hand, involving a top-secret operation, a major turning point in the film, a stretcher is being carried onto an ambulance in the middle of an intersec-tion. Matti, wearing a baseball cap and an old orange shirt, a short black towel thrown over his right shoulder, is watching his monitors in a corner, unmindful of the bystanders little by little closing in on his personal space. He asks me, excitedly, to sit on the empty Monobloc beside him, but we barely exchange words, engrossed as he is in the spectacle in front of him, like an overgrown kid dropped off at a video arcade. The ‘spectacle’ is only Pascual and Rayver Cruz, really, repeatedly parking a car and climbing out of it, but Matti seems to relish every little gesture an actor introduces to a take—a turn of a head, for example, or a slight change of speed.
From one of the monitors, I spy smoke coming out of a Pajero’s open window—from a lit cigarette which, I am told, is caught between the fingers of the actress Vivian Velez. Elsewhere on the set are fathers carrying babies way past their bedtime, middle-aged women occupying every space of a long store-front bench, locals coming home from a weekend on the job to discover their street has been taken over by movie people. A yellow banner appears to float some 10 feet above the ambulance, emblazoned with the image of the President endorsing the congressman Egay Erice, two months and five days before official campaign period begins. Its slogan reads, “linis barangay, kaunting hanapbuhay.” I tell myself the man running this set clearly has bigger ambitions. Even if he appears like he’s just coasting about and being friendly with his actors and crew, calm even in activity, squeezing in a smoke every now and then.
Erik Matti wrote: “Finally, I have made a film that waited for me without the hounding of a playdate. Finally, I have produced a film that respected its creator despite its weaknesses and flaws, its arrogance and conceit.”
In the 10 or so films Matti’s done in the stretch of just a little over a decade, he has been known to build sets, nay, entire worlds that never before existed, as in the mythical universe of the sequel to Pedro Penduko, and the monster-infested, largely-CGI-conjured vista of Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles. Or, he fully embraces an existing locale, as if setting up site-specific installation art, at once engaging the intrinsic characteristics of his chosen environment while also enhancing its atmosphere, like in the sleazy Recto dormitories of Scorpio Nights 2, and now the wet, smoky streets of On The Job—movie sets that didn’t only come with the necessary extras but with all the gritty trimmings. You can almost smell the piss of an entire city, they used to say about Lino Brocka’s films set in the Manila slums. I think to myself, this is probably what it looks like. Although knowing Matti, his ambitions are far different from anything Brockaesque.
The first time I got a glimpse of On The Job was in more controlled surroundings. At the CCP Main Theater to be exact, in 2009. The director had decided to open the screening of his then first-film-in-years, The Arrival, with an eight-minute trailer starring Joel Torre and an unknown actor, which I would learn later on is the actor’s nephew Andre. The main feature, a coming-of-age tale of a 46-year old loner who leaves his job in the city to find the girl of his dreams, turned out pretty and charming—much like the personally written four-page letter of invitation Matti sent to 500 of his colleagues and friends which came in a black envelope sealed in wax bearing the filmmaker’s initials.
[The On The Job trailer] was the coolest eight minutes Philippine Cinema has seen in years.
“Finally,” he wrote then, “I have made a film that waited for me without the hounding of a playdate. A film understanding enough to let me be and not rush me in my erratic and laidback ways.…Finally, I have produced a film that respected its creator despite its weaknesses and flaws, its arrogance and conceit.”
There was applause by the end of the movie—but it was the front-act eight-minute trailer that was the evening’s clear takeaway. A single sequence that begins with two guys seated on the edge of a sidewalk waiting for god-knows-what. And then, suddenly, a shootout, in broad daylight, unfolding on the screen in pain-fully graceful slow-motion, while in the background Sam Cooke is singing, “A Change is Gonna Come.” It was the coolest eight minutes Philippine Cinema has seen in years.
After CCP, screeners of The Arrival were sent to festival organizers abroad, with the On The Job teaser attached to it. The editor Todd Brown of the influential film webzine Twitch got wind of a copy. He thought Matti’s full-length feature was “okay,” but it was the attached trailer that caught his attention. “What’s happening to this?” he asked the director, who then told Brown he only shot the eight-minuter to spark interest from financiers who could help transform it into a full-fledged feature. Brown asked if there was a script. Matti admitted he hadn’t even thought of writing it yet.
“Sabi niya, ‘Write it, we’ll look for financing for it,’” the director tells me one afternoon in June 2013 at Uno, his favorite restaurant in Quezon City. “Ako naman, si Eager Beaver, sinulat ko, di ba?” Matti, whose last film was the 2004 comedy-fantasy Gagamboy, took six-month off from directing TV commercials and toiled on the screenplay.
But Brown would have a difficult time finding the money. “What [investors] keep telling him was,” says Matti, “‘What have we seen from the Philippines that’s like this?’ ‘How can I be sure that if I bring in the money this will get made?’”
Point taken. We haven’t indeed shown the world anything quite like the promise contained in Matti’s teaser, the promise of a highly sophisticated crime suspense film in the tradition of The Departed, or any of the Hong Kong-made action films that paved the way for the Martin Scorsese flick. We’ve shown them our social realist dramas from Brocka to Brillante; our small, quiet, coming-of-age narratives (Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros); our socio-political and historical meditations by Lav Diaz and Raya Martin. But a sure-handed guy film, an action flick, a crime suspense drama with multiple storylines—do we even know our way around such a thing?
A sure-handed guy film, an action flick, a crime suspense drama with multiple storylines—do we even know our way around such a thing?
Matti had pursued the guns-and-goons route before (Ekis), yes, but not in the magnitude of On The Job. He had dealt with a huge ensemble, with several story arcs woven into one plotline, i.e. the Regal film, Mano Po 2: My Home.
Landing on his lap in the early days of his career as director, it was not the most interesting of tales—the death of a prominent Chinese tycoon shakes up the lives and relationships of his three families—but he took it on, told the stories as best he could, made sure all conflicts were solved in the end. Furthermore, he made two hours of Mother-Lily-mandated fake Chinois eyes and ridiculous accents engaging by investing it with a rich visual style, a softly gilded grandeur the first Mano Po lacked (although, more than a dozen beautiful people in this sequel’s main cast didn’t hurt).
"There is a killer inside you and you have have to embrace that. You are capable of millions of emotions." –Joel Torre
Matti is one of those guys who, apart from having an ingrained understanding of film as visual medium, is equipped with the language to effectively express it onscreen. He reminds us of those old-time directors who believed movies need to feel and be larger than life. You see it in the long and populated one-take sequences that open and close Scorpio Nights 2; the slow pulling up of the camera after the murder in the second Mano Po, magnifying the tragedy of a philanderer’s death, his body left alone on a muddy street as rain continues to fall; or even in Dingdong Dantes’s arrival in the beginning of Tiktik, where the background of a vast, empty horizon (from the pre-CG version I saw) looks like it’s going to eat the actor alive.
Maybe, like many of us, the guys who refused to fund On The Job in the beginning haven’t seen enough—or any—of Matti’s works. Or checked out his IMDb credits. Because if there’s anything Matti’s filmography will tell them, it is that the man behind it delights in a challenge, and seems to have never backed out of any. His body of work, while young, proves that not only is Matti unafraid to tread unfamiliar territory, he thrives in the process of exploration—whether he’s testing his range as a filmmaker, or probing the characters he fleshes out onscreen.
On The Job is not out to be a commentary on society, even if the stories and personalities that populate the film echo the ones we come across in the headlines.
But before I start sounding like I’m making too much of Matti, let me just say that he’s also set a limit for what he can do: he only makes films he likes to watch. And he likes fun things, exciting things, accessible things—things we usually go to the movies for.
“I didn’t grow up naman watching Iranian films,” he says, giggling, and maybe impliedly poking fun at the obscure themes and dark atmosphere he’s come to associate with local independent movies (or, as he puts it, “explorations of cinema as form in the realm of mood and abstraction”). His filmography is a happy, eclectic mix of disparate genres. He’s done sex (Scorpio Nights 2, Prosti, Balahibong Pusa and last year’s Rigodon), drama (Mano Po 2), horror (Pasiyam), action-fantasy (Pedro Penduko Episode 2, Gagamboy, Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles), even the small quiet in-die project (The Arrival). His “most notable achievement in film,” however, at least according to Wikipedia, is Magic Temple, co-written with its directors Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes, two major influences in his visual storytelling.
Matti hails from Bacolod where, growing up, his father would bring him to the cinema to see Bud Spencer and Terence Hill movies. “Inabot ko pa nga yung mga Jim Brown, Jim Kelly na mga karate-karate dati.” Later in life, films like Marathon Man, All The President’s Men, and The Insider, inspired a fascination. “Yung may mga political conspiracies pero exciting thriller din siya, may konting aksyon.”
Which is the kind of film On The Job is, really—a crime drama with a couple of chases, gunshots here and there, a serving of sex, and a simple yet intriguing premise: two prison inmates find renewed value and sense of purpose as assassins hired by powerful political forces—until one botched assignment turns their world upside down. It’s not out to be a commentary on society, even if the stories and personalities that populate the film echo the ones we come across in the headlines.
It all started with a service driver on a Matti set 10 years ago. The driver was an ex-convict who worked as a gun-for-hire, and was allowed to secretly slip in and out of prison when an assignment was called in.
“It didn’t intend to be a Brockaesque homage. It never was,” says Matti. “It was more of a John Frankenheimer kind of thing, di ba? Na parang Manchurian Candidate, alam mo ‘yun?” It’s the kind of movie Matti would pay to see.
And it all started from the story of a service driver on a Matti set 10 years ago. The driver was an ex-convict who had made known to the director how he used to earn money behind bars—by working as a gun-for-hire, allowed to secretly slip in and out of prison when an assignment was called in.
Early on, Matti was already convinced a mentor-protégé relationship between two hired killers would be at the center of the film’s narrative. At one point, he thought it could also work as a character study exclusively of the assassin: how he fell into prison, the qualities he possessed that convinced his bosses they needed him on their side. By the time Matti wrapped up work for The Arrival and was ready to shoot the pitch/teaser for On The Job, he had decided the mentor-protégé idea was the way to go. Especially after finding out that hired guns from jail ideally work in twos.
If he was practically clueless about the whole gun-for-hire operation in the beginning, Matti came out of On The Job well-versed in the movements of the underworld, its intricate orchestrations, dynamics and nuances. He learned, he says, that a jail warden, a member of the military, doesn’t show his face to his “clients” outside, but is ably represented by prison police (played in the film by William Martinez). He learned that no one is allowed to come out of the Bilibid premises without the green light from a member of the military.
“Originally, when I was writing the outline,” says Matti, “it was just the politician that takes the prisoners out of prison. But then I was told na the warden will not trust—kasi the warden is a military [man], di ba?—anyone else except another military guy. So whoever is involved in the business of hitmen prisoners, it should be a military guy.” Thus was born the character essayed by Leo Martinez in the film, the dangerously influential general running everyone’s lives without their knowing it.
“[We had to consider local cinema] hadn’t had a serious action flick in the last couple of years, maybe a decade. And so with that kind of risk, and without the promise of big stars attached to it, we wanted to be conservative with how we budget the film.”
By the time the discouraging opinions from foreign financiers reached Matti by way of Todd Brown, he had done so much research and writing for On The Job, he was expectedly heart-and-soul invested in seeing it made. He offered the project to Star Cinema in 2010 but the film outfit declined, saying they were not ready to bankroll a movie whose genre is far removed from what they were doing at that time. Even the two actors he wanted for two of the three lead roles, both contract stars of the ABS-CBN film arm, couldn’t quite commit to the project.
Matti first sent the script to Piolo Pascual who was immediately drawn to it, and agreed to play the part of the NBI agent even if he was initially attracted to the character of the protégé. “It went through a lot of meetings and castings, and it even came to a point where I almost lost the role,” the actor tells me during the shoot for this story in June. So impressed was Pascual by the screenplay, he was at one time going to come in as producer through his own film company, Spring Films, just to make sure he was in.
John Lloyd Cruz was also offered the project, and was said to have fallen in love with the character of the protégé Daniel. It would have been a welcome breather from his romantic lead roles, the long overdue offbeat part he’s been dying to land for years. But his schedule wouldn’t permit him to take on the film. Meanwhile, on his own, Pascual had already discussed the project with Gerald Anderson, casually, backstage at a fashion show, and the younger actor immediately expressed his interest in the role of the young inmate.
But with significant funding still elusive, the script had to go back on the shelf. Even if Matti could produce it on his own through his film outfit, Reality Entertainment, he could only, in principle, invest so much—P15 million tops was his estimate (the finished film eventually amounted to P47 million).
“The way we produce films [at Reality] is that the cost of production per film should be equal to the kind of risk that genre has at the box-office,” the director tells me in reply to questions I sent through email. In the case of On The Job, “[We had to consider local cinema] hadn’t had a serious action flick in the last couple of years, maybe a decade. And so with that kind of risk, and without the promise of big stars attached to it, we wanted to be conservative with how we budget the film.”
“Box-office results are not a validation of my filmmaking skills. Everyone has their own taste in films and I am quite secure with my own taste...I never feel the urge to justify my work...But I remember all the names of those that bashed my films.”
Meanwhile, Matti had to begin work on his horror-fantasy movie, the fantastically ambitious Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles, a passion project that stems from the director’s fascination with supernatural beings indigenous to Philippine folk tales. The film cost more than P80 million to complete. But when it opened October of last year, according to reports, it figured very poorly at the box-office. Not so in the director’s calculations. Reality and his co-producers were able to earn money from it, says Matti, and were happy about how the movie performed in the theaters.
Matti rarely gets depressed, he says, when I ask how he reacts to news such as an underwhelming box-office outcome. “I feel bad for a couple of days and then I move on.” The film that followed Tiktik, the psychological drama about adultery, Rigodon, even with its low budget, never made its money back—but this barely put a dent in the director’s always buoyant disposition.
“Box-office results are not a validation of my filmmaking skills. Everyone has their own taste in films and I am quite secure with my own taste, that whether it gets critical acclaim or not, whether it’s bashed or hated, I never feel the urge to justify my work on social media or anywhere else. But of course, I remember all the names of those that bashed my films.”
Yet even if he was so inclined, Matti would have no time to wallow in distress. By July last year, three months before Tiktik opened, he had already gotten a call from the people at Star Cinema asking if they could take a second look at On The Job’s screenplay—three years after they turned it down. “At that point, we were already trying to produce it again,” says Matti. He sent over the script to the Mother Ignacia offices anyway. “Three days later,” Matti tells me, “they called and said, ‘Let’s do this!’”
"No matter how hard life is, you have to have a dream. You have to have that ambition. That's what I learned from Daniel." –Gerald Anderson
With a co-production deal sealed, things began to roll for On The Job by third quarter of 2012. The screenplay, too, at that time already on its ninth draft, was shoot-ready. Matti’s partner, Michiko Yamamoto (Magnifico, Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros), had come in as co-writer for the final drafts. By the time the movie was done, the script had gone through a total of 13 revisions.
Anderson officially came on board as the protégé Daniel by September. “When Gerald came in, he was already about to start a soap,” Matti recalls, “but they pushed the soap back and told us we can shoot Gerald in two weeks’ time. So we only had two weeks to prepare for the movie. Wala man lang kaming pre-prod na maayos.”
As for Pascual, he almost didn’t make the cast. “Actually, when I found out they were pushing through with the project, I said, ‘So am I in it?’” the actor says. “Apparently, they were gonna do it with another actor—but with Gerald pa rin [as Daniel]. So I said, ‘I thought I was going to be in the film?’ And they called Direk Erik, we almost had a falling out pa nga in the process.” While the guy had been especially taken with On The Job from the get-go, he also had increasingly become attached to the character arc of Francis, the straight-as-an-arrow son of a former NBI chief, and who is now himself a high-ranking NBI officer. To make matters more complicated, Francis is also married to the daughter of a powerful congressman, which leaves him all the more trapped in a world he isn’t quite resolved to be in.
“I was already visualizing what I was gonna do,” says the 36-year old star. “I didn’t wanna give the role up. I didn’t want it to go to another actor. I would’ve really felt bad.”
Unlike the case of Pascual, there was not a chance Joel Torre would have been scratched off the movie. Torre was one of Matti’s non-negotiables from the beginning. “He stuck with me, fought for me. And that gave me a lot of confidence,” says the veteran, who took to his role of the highly observant, perfectionist mentor Tatang with the focus of “a Bushido Blade samurai.” Matti offered him the part four years ago and the actor says it has been inextricably part of his system since.
Torre was one of Matti’s non-negotiables from the beginning. “He stuck with me, fought for me. And that gave me a lot of confidence,” says the veteran, who took to his role of the highly observant, perfectionist mentor Tatang with the focus of “a Bushido Blade samurai.”
While casting was an important concern for Matti, it became the least of his worries when all the actors he wanted agreed to be in the movie (although Derek Ramsey was also initially attached to the project, as well as Richard Gomez who had to relinquish his role to friend Joey Marquez because he was going to run for office in faraway Ormoc). Done with budget worries, Matti was now able to concentrate on filming, which did not come without its own set of challenges.
The scouting of locations alone was a tremendous hurdle—over 70 locations for a 33-day shoot, when most local films are limited to a few major sets and minimal additional locations. For the prison scenes, plex in Marikina into a cramped underworld not unlike any of the overcrowded jailhouses in the country, squeezing in some 200 extras. There are days when they had to shoot in three different venues, each a busy public area. But Matti hardly sounds like he’s complaining when he recalls these challenges.
“This is a Manila movie,” he says. “We wanted to show as much of the cross section of Manila as we could.” There are scenes shot in spas, golf courses and government buildings inasmuch as there were scenes in cheap motels, slums and train stations. “This is I think the most ambitious attempt at putting together as much variety [on a local film] in terms of look and feel.”
“This is a Manila movie,” he says. “We wanted to show as much of the cross section of Manila as we could.”
Matti’s next concern was how to give his movie a modern noir feel, to carefully balance its lights and shadows, and keep the gritty, moody atmosphere without sacrificing the sleek quality he wanted—and “without anyone thinking that we didn’t have enough budget for lights.” Employing the magic of a Red Epic camera, which is able to work exceedingly well with available light, the director was able to light an entire set at once, without having to bother adjusting degrees of brightness when a scene requires moving to another part of a location.
Matti seems obsessed with the idea of avoiding the “indie look,” although I get the impression he is less opposed to the products turned in by independent filmmakers as a whole, but more the small-mindedness of some of its creators. Because in contrast, On The Job is all kinds of ambitious, with every single detail fully thought out and given complete, undivided attention.
“I was probably born in a different era of filmmaking where we were taught to design our films based on the ambition of it, in relation to the resources, and not just shoot it where the compromise dictates how the film should come out,” Erik tells me in writing. “I was born in an era where films were made for the moviegoing audience, where the film can touch a nerve of a big audience and not just [its maker’s] peers and family. On The Job is good old-fashioned filmmaking, where not a single element of the process was taken for granted.
“We probably did 15 edits of the film. We did more than a number of edits for our montage sequences. We pushed our music to go beyond Mickey Mouse scoring and gave it a very fresh take on how to use music in film.”
"As an actor, you come to a point where you want to do something different. I like how I was able to even surprise myself. How I turned out to be in the movie. It was the kind of film I wanted to see myself in." –Piolo Pascual
If Matti only makes the movies he likes—and he likes the same kind of stuff I would assume most of us expect from what we watch—it only logically means we should be going more to his movies, right? The tragic thing is that not nearly enough of us have seen his films. And, really, we should. Maybe not all of them are great, but not one of them you’d feel shortchanged by. At best, they are masterful, as in Scorpio Nights 2 and Rigodon (and some say Pasiyam); at their worst, they’re engaging and pleasurable. Why he’s not as popular as, say, the Olivia Lamasans and Cathy Molinas and Joel Lamangans of this world boggles the mind.
Maybe because he doesn’t work within the studio system, where money and machinery may be at his beck and call but his vision would be at the mercy of the company’s creative committees.
Or, maybe because Matti started making films at a time when the heterosexual man’s perspective in Philippine cinema was on its sorry way out. When the big-budget Hollywood action spectacles had practically banished our local action efforts, and our action heroes were getting way too rusty, and are finding their second careers in Congress.
In the last decade or so, it seems all that mainstream cinema produced were the romantic comedy You Changed My Life, its sequels, and its ilk, and the Tanging Ina franchise—films that demanded little from their producers’ coffers (and even less from their audience’s minds), films manufactured specifically to bring in not just the younger audience but their entire family to the theaters. A situation that, understandably, shut the doors at the blood and gore, and the boob shots and, says Matti, the big ballsy themes of betrayal and survival, honor and morality—the man themes, themes he’s interested in. All these find their place again in On The Job. It may not have Hollywood action movie pyrotechnics, but even without them, the film is a rollercoaster ride that never lets up, from its snazzy opening to its stylishly chaotic end. The kind of movie Matti would pay more than a hundred bucks to see.
Why he’s not as popular as, say, the Olivia Lamasans and Cathy Molinas and Joel Lamangans of this world boggles the mind. Maybe because he doesn’t work within the studio system.
The kind, too, that could signal the return of the male gaze—and voice—in Philippine cinema. If it’s successful in the box-office, it could also seal the arrival of Matti in the big leagues (not that that would be of interest to him). Members of the foreign press who caught On The Job at the Cannes Film Festival in May seemed to have taken a liking to it. “A boisterous and pacy thriller,” wrote the Screendaily.com. “The atmosphere proves as engrossing as the narrative,” said Variety. “Explo-sive stuff,” said Lesinrocks.com. And from The Hollywood Reporter, “[OTJ’s] debut in the eclectic Director’s Fortnight sidebar marks the biggest international exposure yet for director Erik Matti, whose muscular handling of fast-paced action sequences consistently impresses.” The film’s North American rights have already been snapped up by WellGo USA, and Baltasar Kormakur (contraband, 2 guns) has made public that he is directing the U.S. remake.
The Pinoy action film as we know it may be a thing of the past, but it looks like Matti has reinvented it. “I think also that we didn’t evolve,” he says. “The kind of action movies we made didn’t evolve. We were all hell-bent on doing hard action movies [that] we totally forgot about the rich material we have for crime thrillers.”
Which brings back mental snapshots of my visit to the set in January. The tiny sidestreet that leads to a dark, muddy creek and the three levels of shanties that circle it. The trio of old drunks who sit like bulols, looking at the painted name of then incumbent Caloocan mayor Recom Echiverri on a wall across. The paint was already blurred and is chipping on the edges, like it’s clued in on what’s to come five months down the road when the ballots have been counted.
Near the police community precinct where some of the actors take temporary refuge, there is a cramped barangay chapel where a coffin is bookended by tall bouquets of days-old white flowers. Two houses down, a man is singing the Renz Verano ditty “Remember Me” on a videoke machine. Somewhere there, surely, Matti could find his next crime story. Or, if we go by his track record, his first—who knows?—musical.
When no one seemed up to producing it, he knew he was willing to do the film independently, lean and mean, even with a cast of indie actors. He knew that no matter the odds, it would work.
For the director, On The Job exceeded all his expectations. When no one seemed up to producing it, he knew he was willing to do the film independently, lean and mean, even with a cast of indie actors. He knew that no matter the odds, it would work. But he is thankful to Star Cinema, with its stable of big stars and its machinery, which turned everything around.
He was able to do more than what he thought he could do with his material. He wanted a movie with very strong production values. A film that may turn out small but should never look like it’s wanting—not in the eyes of local audiences, not anywhere else in the world. Matti never had Cannes in mind in the beginning, but he knew the film should be able to compete internationally.
"Meaning,” he says, “through years of reading and looking at the landscape of films in the world, the common denominator is that it should be crafted well. There should be a really good story, but it has to be technically well-made.” He knows his film is terribly ambitious, but thank heavens this time—because he’s gone the ambitious route many times before—his resources matched the movie in his head.
The next project, he tells me, will be the sequel to Tiktik. A choice which, if you consider its weak box-office turnout, reflects the kind of wild abandon and strange sense of humor Matti employs when picking the films he’ll take on. He’s like the tempered version of the heroes in his films this way: regular guys who like to throw themselves recklessly into an abyss, grandly letting their obsessions/weak-nesses dictate their fate. They either come out of it a winner, or they end up in a pile of trash, feasted on by flies—and in drag, as in Albert Martinez’s character in scorpio nights 2.
He’s like the tempered version of the heroes in his films this way: regular guys who like to throw themselves recklessly into an abyss, grandly letting their obsessions/weak-nesses dictate their fate.
Matti’s next Star Cinema gig I presume would have one of these guys at its center. John Lloyd Cruz is expected to take on the lead. I haven’t been informed about the role just yet, but the film will be set in the world of networking scams. Matti, who is telling me this excitedly despite the flu he’s nursing, says he just thought of a great parallel milieu to the sphere of the main narrative: organized religion. In my head I see cramped fly-by-night offices in the little eskinitas of Ermita, vis-a-vis shots of magnificent church buildings in Manila, a couple of chase scenes, some tender lovemaking, police interrogations, bible study sessions on the vacant CCP grounds climaxing into speaking in tongues. I think it’s going to be big. But Erik Matti will make it even bigger.