Arts & Entertainment

Raya Martin on Why 'Smaller And Smaller Circles' is a Film For Our Time

The director on moving from indies, the 'Heneral Luna' effect, and making a film that smells like Metro Manila.
IMAGE Jilson Tiu
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Few, if any, local films in recent memory have had to live up to greater expectations than those set on Smaller and Smaller Circles. The movie is an eponymous adaptation of F.H. Batacan's critically and popularly acclaimed novel, which tells the story of Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero—two Jesuit priests who find themselves investigating a series of grisly murders in Payatas.

Over the years since Smaller and Smaller Circles was first released in 1999, the book has won various awards, and has also been published internationally. It's widely considered to be the first modern Filipino crime novel, and has gone on to inspire its own following.

At the helm of the adaptation is director Raya Martin, who holds the distinction of being the first Filipino to be selected for the Cinéfondation Residence du Festival de Cannes, which he participated in when he was just 21. He has since gone on to make several independent, even experimental films, including Autohysteria, Independencia, and How to Disappear Completely. But the herculean directorial task of translating Smaller and Smaller Circles to the big screen is his first foray into mainstream filmmaking for a broader audience.

So far, critical reception from the festival circuit and from previews has been positive, so fans of the original have much to look forward to.

We spoke with Martin just two weeks before the national release of Smaller And Smaller Circles.



ESQUIRE: How are you feeling, just days away from the premiere?

RAYA MARTIN: 
It’s super nerve-wracking, because first, there’s a huge fanbase. A lot of people know about Smaller and Smaller Circles from school, even ten years ago with the novella. And you have the new fans of the novel that was published two years ago, which sort of sparked this new culture of reading the way [we did] back in high school, with Harry Potter. But this is amazing because it’s a local novel, by a local author. Also, it’s a relevant story. So for people to be talking about it in [those] terms, it’s pretty amazing, but of course, nakakakaba, for me. A lot of people have been asking me about the kind of treatment I gave it. And people see it in different ways, eh. Sometimes, when you read, it comes off an action movie or suspense thriller, but it’s also a psychological drama. Also, I wanted to do my own version of it. So in the end, I tried to see where I can make everyone happy, but at the same time, where I’m completely at peace.

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"It’s a story that you can smell. It’s the smell of Payatas, it’s the smell of Taft, the smell of lining up at NBI, the smell of hanging out in Ateneo, or the smell of Christmas."

ESQ: Of all your films, this has got to be the one with the broadest audience.
RM: It’s my first commercial film. I’ve been doing films for a while now, for more than a decade. But it’s mostly been what people would call indie. My films before were historical, experimental, avant garde—whichever you want to call it. And it’s mostly been screened outside of the country. So for me, it’s a different gauge from the way I worked before, because there’s a completely different niche market for those films, where it’s a bit more academic, with film critics and cinephiles and cineastes. I grew up working around that world. But here, it’s communicating to a larger audience—and I realized, more and more, that films have to be seen by a broader audience. There are stories like Smaller and Smaller Circles, which is an important story to tell nowadays, with what’s happening in the country. When people go out of the cinemas, I want them to be thinking about the characters, what happened in the story, but also connect it to what’s happening around us. I want that kind of conversation.

ESQ: Was it difficult at all to make the transition from making indie and experimental films?
RM: You know I have to admit, it’s so much harder to make a mainstream movie. With mainstream kasi, you have very particular words or language that you have to hit that’s already in the [existing] film culture. So you know, you do certain things that make people laugh, cry, react a certain way. It's more meticulous. That’s what I learned, making the movie.

ESQ: Do you think that your experience with making indies has influenced SASC?
RM: One of the things we were discussing before with the producer, Ria Limjap, is that when they were looking for a director, they were asking me: Who would be good to direct? So I was giving all these mga names of directors, but in the end, I sent them a Facebook message saying I was meant to direct this project. I was saying na nung bata ako, I wanted to be a priest. But also because I grew up watching a lot of slasher films, horror films, like Wes Craven or John Carpenter. These elements are things that I learned and put in Smaller and Smaller Circles, because I grew up watching all these slasher '90s films. It also going back to the thing we discussed earlier, about mainstream being harder. There’s a sense of rigor to how things are made. It’s more of a craft, I would say. Building something. It’s more practical. ‘Yun ‘yung fun thing sa set. I get to play that kind of filmmaker.

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"When people go out of the cinemas, I want them to be thinking about the characters, what happened in the story, but also connect it to what’s happening around us."

ESQ: The novel itself is already very cinematic. Did that make it easier or harder for you as a director? 
RM: 
I think everyone who has read the novel automatically says that it’s very cinematic. I think one of the first drafts of the movie is literally just copying the book and seeing if it works—like, which parts work and which don’t. Because in a way, the book reads like a screenplay. It’s really visual. But also ‘yung mahirap dun is that the book kasi can play with the element of time. You can stop reading a book and go back to it, whereas a movie is just one thread. It’s a thing that you have to sustain in one sitting. In the book kasi, you go in and out of the characters’ background, what happened ten years ago and what happens in the future. You’re sort of limited to the 2D-ness of the movie.

ESQ: How closely does your final output interpret the novel?
RM: It’s very close. There are a lot of lines that I wanted to retain, that I just copied from the book. But also, it’s very different. When Ichi [Batacan], the writer, saw it, she’s like, I really, really like it, but it’s different. I never imagined that the book can be imagined this way. One of the examples is Father Gus: Father Gus is completely different from the character you read in the book. [In the book], he’s tall, he’s thin, mestizo, rockstar—and Nonie Buencamino is the complete opposite. But a lot of people comment that once you see that combination [with Jerome, played by Sid Lucero], you just can’t imagine any other actor to be Father Gus. In fact, when the priests saw it—we had a private screening with Jesuits—oh my god—it was overwhelming, their [reception]. I felt like they were watching a barkada movie. They’re seeing themselves on screen. They had a joke nga na parang, outside of the theaters, they should put up a desk [for] Jesuit sign-ups. (laughs)

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ESQ: Did the author, F.H. Batacan, have any input as you made the movie? 
RM: The first thing that Ichi said was that it’s a story that you can smell. And that was also a challenge. I hope people can smell Manila [in the film]. It’s the smell of Payatas, but also, it’s the smell of Taft, the smell of lining up at NBI, or the smell of hanging out in Ateneo, or the smell of Christmas.

"Let’s talk about our own stories. Let’s tell our own stories. And let’s do it in the best way possible."

ESQ: You mentioned that you want people to relate the movie to current events, to what’s happening now.
RM: Clearly the movie is not a political statement. The story is set in the late '90s. But there’s something to be said about a story that’s set in the late'90s that still rings true today. There must be something going on with our society that it keeps on coming back—that certain things that happened decades ago still happen today. And I think the film tries to look deeper into that, beyond personalities, beyond politics. It’s more about the culture, how it’s also systemic. How we’re all connected to that and how we become complicit, but then also how we can  be part of the solution. But also at the same time, it’s an investigative story—I don’t want people to take the joy out of enjoying a genre movie. I want people to be entertained and to think.



ESQ: Talk to us about the current state of Filipino cinema, and how Smaller fits into the scheme of it.

RM: People think that local cinema is flourishing—and it is, in a way, in that people are going to the cinemas, and there’s finally a healthy film culture. But I see the problem of a lot of filmmakers [doing] the same thing over and over again. There seems to be a formula. And I think it was proven wrong with Heneral Luna, kasi a film like Heneral Luna—historical, didn’t have stars—made money, but also created that very important dialogue. And that’s the real power of filmmaking. When you reflect the truth in the movies, then the film works. Heneral Luna challenged the culture.

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ESQ: It proved that there's an audience for more substantial films.
RM: 
The irony is when studios try to call out these kinds of films as elitist. Actually, it’s the complete opposite. All these productions that stick to a certain formula and say that ito lang yung kaya ng Filipinos eh, ito lang yung limit ng brains nila, and this is the only thing they can understand. That’s more elitist than exploring more topics or more characters. Let’s talk about our own stories. Let’s tell our own stories. And let’s do it in the best way possible. We always shortchange ourselves. Why do we always have to be second to these foreign productions?

ESQ: If Heneral Luna opened up a dialogue, what does Smaller And Smaller Circles hope to add to that conversation?
RM: I like conversations that are beyond movies. I think a big theme in the movie is that it’s a cycle of violence. But we have to be conscious about this cycle, because otherwise, we’ll keep on making the same mistakes over and over again. So once you start to notice what’s wrong and you call it out, then change will follow. These things, they just need a few voices brave enough to say it, and people will realize: Oh, we can say it. We can say the truth. The truth is being silenced. So we have to speak out against it.



ESQ: What's your favorite thing about the movie you've made?

RM: 
What I liked most about the film as a viewer is that it puts me in a certain milieu or atmosphere, and I sort of can navigate around it. It’s also the joy of seeing Manila in a completely different way. Eighty to 85 percent of our locations are new—they haven’t been showcased in films or even in TV. I like being in a new place. It’s also like the book—you read, and you feel like you’re elsewhere, but it’s Manila.

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Catch Smaller and Smaller Circles when it comes out in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, December 6.

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Miguel Escobar
Assistant Features Editor for Esquire Philippines
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