Moviemaking in Manila: Eight Tips for Shooting in a Developing Country

Shooting in a developing country, as I did with my feature Hello Forever, can be wonderfully cost-effective for an indie budget—but you can fall into some traps.

I first thought of the story of Hello Forever when I was working in Manila. I would see these beautiful girls flirting with older foreign men; I would also see a high proportionate of trans prostitutes. I wanted to explore this story more. What happened to these girls when they got home, when the stage lights and tips were gone? I wanted to explore the psyche of what these girls went through.

I had shot a few commercials in Asian countries. The longest film I had ever made was a 48-minute short. I thought, how hard could it be? I mean, I had been directing now for over 11 years. I thought I was experienced enough for all the possibilities that could be thrown at me. I found out very quickly I wasn’t.

I’m not going to tell you my horror stories. Instead, I’ve made a list of the most important things a filmmaker should remember when producing your first indie film in a overseas country

1. A local DP is worth their weight in gold.

I like to think I’m a pretty loyal guy—I’d used the same DP for five years. So when he wasn’t available for Hello Forever, we were at a loss. When I was living in Manila, a friend of mine had introduced me to a rising DP called Noel Tehankee. He was available—and the movie would not have been made without his knowledge and insight. He saved us travel time by introducing us to shortcuts off the map. His local knowledge of great locations, light and process was invaluable. The relationship he built with the local crew through his fluency with Tagalog was brilliant. I strongly recommend hiring a local DP—one that is fluent in English and the native language of the country.

A street in Manila, as captured by the Hello Forever crew

A street in Manila, as captured by the Hello Forever crew

2. Find a solid production company to partner with.

It’s so important that you have a home base: somewhere to manage data, run gear, view dailies, rehearse and coordinate your production. This cannot be done from a hotel room. Before landing, build a relationship with a local production company. Be crystal clear about what you need and how much your budget is. Assess their previous work and what they have done. Yes, their presence and assistance will cost more, but having, gear, rehearsal space, editing facilities and Internet all in one location saves time and money in the end.

3. Reputation is everything.

Try to identify the people who are most highly regarded in the local film industry. Seek them out, and ask to partner with them in some way. You’ll be surprised—just having their names to drop will open up so many doors and validate your production within the local industry.

4. Adapt to differences in filmmaking cultures.

One of the hardest things I had to let go when shooting Hello Forever was my strict understanding of call times. “7 a.m.” didn’t necessarily mean 7 a.m.; it meant anytime between 7 and 9 a.m. There was no point getting upset about this, so we built in contingencies to accommodate the shooting schedule. Of course, respecting meal times is of paramount importance—a cultural necessity wherever you’re shooting.

5. Hire a good fixer.

A fixer is a production manager who understands the differences between the production’s needs and the approval process—someone who knows who to pay off and the right people to speak to. He or she uses the right amount of tact and money to get doors open and permits approved. You will need a budget for the fixer that he or she can access regularly, and you will need to brief them daily on what coming up and what’s needed.

6. All that said and done, in a country where you don’t speak the language, be prepared to receive wrong information on pretty much everything.

7. Manage post-production in the country you film in.

After losing one whole drive of footage which was supposed to have been sent to Australia, I decided that I would do all the offline editing in Manila. I didn’t rely on shipping footage and drives around—I kept them with me at all times just to be safe. Another related point: Have back-ups of back-ups.

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America’s Next Top Model contestant Isis King (right) plays a transgender prostitute who works the back streets of Manila. Trans prostitutes are not allowed in bars and the industry involves a high ratio of violence and murder

8. Sometimes all you can do is laugh.

Things will go wrong on any shoot, but this principle is compounded when you’re in another country. Once during the filming of Hello Forever, we were stuck in traffic for five hours. A city of 19 million had come to a complete stop. Rain was pouring and we couldn’t move, couldn’t go back or forward. (That was when I started planning the shoot based on the weather forecast.)

My best advice here is just to go with it. Sure, everything seems to be going wrong. But having a healthy sense of humor is invaluable, no matter what country you’re shooting in. MM

Hello Forever will be released in 2015 by Champion Entertainment. In the top image, actress Jennifer Blair-Bianco plays Jinky in a scene with a potential client.

 

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