Antoinette Jadaone on the Makings of a Writer-Director and the State of Local Cinema
In the mid-to-later half of the 2010s, director Antoinette Jadaone's name was synonymous with the sawi. She had been catapulted by the success of That Thing Called Tadhana in 2014, sending her into a stratosphere of celebrity she hadn't seen before. "It soared higher than I ever dreamed of," she says of the film.
Just three years prior, she made her indie directorial debut with the full-length feature, Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, a mockumentary about the queen of Philippine horror and the pitfalls of being typecast in our too-small-for-its-own-good film scene. Lilia Cuntapay played herself in the movie (she'd win Best Actress at Cinema One Originals, too) and so did Jadaone, taking on the role of a documentarist-slash-satirist of sorts. "It's pretty far from the genres I had been used to with Star Cinema and other studios. [That] was my love letter to the industry I always dreamed of. And when you get there, it's like, 'Ay ganito pala dito. Akala ko ganito siya. Hindi to tinuro sa film school,'" she quips.
Whatever that means is for us to decipher. Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, ultimately, would show us her range as a writer, with its sharp, witty dialogue, deadpan humor, and poignant look at the struggles of "minor" players in Filipino entertainment. "It's both a homage and a critique of the industry," the director tells Esquire Philippines. The film wasn't necessarily about just about disillusionment, but rather, about rebirths and a steady reflection on the cold-blooded realities of the art and the artist. In the end, it put her on a path toward the big leagues, in a way, something she's been preparing for all her life.
Meta as fuck.
When she wasn't directing, she was most definitely writing. She took up film at the University of the Philippines-Diliman. There, she would write and direct all her short films, which is a common practice for UP Film Institute students. Her six-minute short Tumbang Preso in 2008, for instance, gave us some early shades of what she'd be as a professional filmmaker (she says that describing her style is best left to the critics). A story about the haunting of childhood memory, the movie is an exploration of time and relationships. It's the same exploration we would get from her succeeding works. Of course, she would hone those sensibilities as a young wide-eyed writer in film.
"You have to trust your director: how they understand your script and characters and statements and intentions as a writer."
"Kapag graduate ko, I was a scriptwriter. Syempre hindi enough ‘yung sweldo ko so kukuha ako ng mga side hustles as a writer. So I would write scripts for other directors," she explains. I would be a writer for other projects. Pasa lang ako nang pasa sa Cinema One Originals at Cinemalaya."
Prolific writers like her are rarely given the kind of break she's had. That alone says a lot about her vision. She's a writer first before a director, we may argue. And as a writer-director, she's been blessed to make the most out of her visual language and expressions. She's been fortunate enough to have written all the films she's directed so far. "I guess ‘yung writing for other directors is always about knowing your place as a writer or [taking care] of the relationship between writer and director."
Her best tip for screenplay writers is to let people read your scripts. That way, you can reconfigure new perspectives in your writing, the way she did for her own. It's easy to get excited about a script, but what separates a good writer from a great one is knowing the limits of your artistic territory and creative agency, so to say.
She adds: "The director can go another direction and cast someone na hindi mo naman nakita in the first place sa sinulat mo. That’s not your place anymore and you have to trust your director: how they understand your script and characters and statements and intentions as a writer."
On Alone Together:
"I would go to Sunken Garden, to the AS steps. It was really a special memory for me doing that film."
As someone who's incredibly self-aware of her own weaknesses and strengths, Jadaone took a while before she got comfortable with the idea of directing. "Very insecure ako about directing actors," she admits. "So what I usually do is prep them before the project and do a lot of workshops and character studies. Para kapag dating ng mismong shoot, kilalang-kilala na nila ang mga characters nila."
If there was any actor in particular that surprised her, believe it or not, it was none other than that heartthrob James Reid guy, she says. "Kasi akala ko pogi lang siya." Actors, of course, should know their characters better than everyone on set, even better than the director at times. The thing that shocked her the most about Reid was his creative process. "Tinitingnan niya journey ng characters niya." The beauty of collaboration is as beautiful a part of the journey of getting a film made as the actual finished product, after all.
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Speaking of journeys, Alone Together, with Liza Soberano and Enrique Gil was a journey in itself for her. That film, in particular, Jadaone says, has a special place in her heart because it reflected her own days as a UP student. "When I was writing, I would write it and revise it. I would go to Sunken Garden, to the AS steps. It was really a special memory for me doing that film." Surely, the P370 million it made in the box office was pretty nice, too.
Sometime after all these hits, Jadaone would need to go on a self-imposed sabbatical around 2015 or so just to catch her breath. That sabbatical would then lead to Love You to the Stars and Back, with then-thing Joshua Garcia and Julia Barretto. Boom. Another hit was born. Interestingly, in the middle of that break is when the infrastructure for her 2019 meta film Fan Girl was built, which received some critical success and had Jadaone serving us commentary about "who we are and how we treat our idols—who we are as fangirls." The film, which was roughly three years in the making, was a departure from the usual romantic comedies she made. The excruciatingly long waiting time was worth the wait.
"We want to give filmmakers the same break that was given to us when we started. Gusto naming tulungan ang future storytellers na gustong gumawa ng dream projects nila."
Whether it's That Thing Called Tadhana, Alone Together, Love You to the Stars and Back, or teleseryes like On the Wings of Love (her first as a TV director), Jadaone has long been associated with the romance genre or sawi culture. And she's thrived because of the genius of her scripts and the vitality of the love teams she's dealt with. Although even she admits that she's trying to venture out and experiment more.
Right now, she's looking into doing more coming-of-age stories, like an in-development self-deprecating mockumentary project with a secret big-name actor (the timing is still off, she says; we'll know more about the untitled project soon enough), whether with other studios or with her very own Project 8 Projects, the Manila-based film production she founded with her fiancee and fellow critically accalimed-filmmaker Dan Villegas. We're sensing some Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach vibes here, aren't we?
That's another collaboration she can be proud of. With all the breaks she's gotten throughout her career, it only makes sense for her to empower younger filmmakers, too. "Nabuo 'yan (Project 8 Projects) noong gumawa kami ng Cinema One Originals. Gusto kasi naming as filmmakers na hawak naming ang pagbuo ng kwento, buo ang core staff, mula brainstorming to cause and development," she says of her studio.
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The biggest issue, she stresses, is not talent, but, like most things in this cruel, cruel world, funding. "Kailangan tayo mabigyan ng budget kasi mahuhusay talaga ang mga Filipino artists at filmmakers. We have colorful stories at sobrang diverse ng backgrounds. Given the right budget, kaya natin lumaban talaga sa cinemas ng ibang bansa."
At the very least, she has the luxury of creative freedom these days, with Villegas and Project 8 Projects (hey, they gave us Drag Den, by the way). She has the Ang Walang Kwentang Podcast on the side, too. She's producing, as well. The director, together with her has a flurry of projects lined up these days, including ones for Netflix and Amazon Studios.
More importantly, she spearheads an incubator of sorts for the Filipino filmmakers of tomorrow. It's a space where they can exercise the integrity of their stories and their uncompromising vision, just like the spaces given to her during the start of her career. "We want to give filmmakers the same break that was given to us when we started. Gusto naming tulungan ang future storytellers na gustong gumawa ng dream projects nila." Heh. We're guessing all that time in film school paid off.