I know you’re thinking: How did this kid from New York end up making movies on the other side of the world—and being nicknamed the Werner Herzog of the Philippines?
To be honest, one day I just decided to pack up and go.
I started studying at the once stellar, now defunct New York University Tisch School of the Arts Asia in Singapore. There was so much risk-taking and bold filmmaking there, it was infectious. In every nook and cranny of Tisch Asia, students were prepping films to be shot in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia or Hong Kong. Experiencing all this made filming in a foreign language less intimidating.
Outside of Tisch, while in Singapore, I met the woman who became my wife and inspired the idea behind my film “Supot.” Karen introduced me to the Philippines, her home country. I found it to be such a nurturing environment for filmmaking that it’s hard for me to picture making a film anywhere else.
Below are my experiences living in Southeast Asia for six years, and making a film in a small rural province in the Philippines.
Investigate something you’ve never seen before.
As Frank Capra said, “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.”
In certain parts of the Philippines boys aren’t circumcised at birth. They’re circumcised at the age of 10; it’s seen as a rite of passage when a boy becomes a man. To be “supot,” or uncut, after this time is seen as cowardly or shameful. My film is about Rene-boy, 10, who refuses a ritual circumcision intended to usher him into manhood, so he tries alternate methods to remove this mark of cowardice.
Do street casting, work with non-actors, and film in the language of origin, even if it’s foreign to you.
Casting “Supot” was unique. Basically I hit the streets of Lipa City, Batangas with my producer Abby Sandigan and the Lipa Actors Company (LAC). LAC literally pulled kids off the street and sent them to me in a makeshift casting room in a small slum. When they came in, I’d give them a scene to improv.
Andre Fajarito was the first boy I auditioned. I told him, “Last night you stayed out late and your father is very upset with you. In this scene, apologize to him.” When I said, “Action,” the boy stood there, looking at the actor playing the father. He didn’t say a word. He just wore a terrified look. I told the other actor to say, in Tagalog, “I’m disappointed in you.”
Andrei instantly started crying. Tears were rolling down his face. I said, “Show him you’re sorry.” Andrei took a moment, slowly walked to the father, and tenderly gave him a hug.
I was absolutely blown away. It was fantastic, but part of me felt I had pushed the kid too far. I quickly said, “cut,” and instantaneously Andrei wiped the tears away and gave a huge smile. He was acting the whole time! He had tapped into something real, but he was doing a scene. And this was a kid straight off the street with no time to prepare and no acting experience. It was the first scene he’d ever done. There was so much raw talent in the Philippines, it blew my mind.
I don’t speak Tagalog—my producer would translate for me. Some people might worry about not speaking the language. My process is: I write the script in English, it’s translated into Tagalog, and then the actors change it and make the dialogue conversational. As long as the intention is still there, it’s all good. To me, dialogue is all “blah, blah, blah” anyway; it’s the subtext and how the characters are responding to each other that’s important. So if you allow the dialogue to be natural and the subtext to be strong, you’re in a good place.
Keep pushing to find better locations, and incorporate cinematic elements from nature.
I selected my crew based on their ability to collaborate; cinematographer Malay Prakash and gaffer Balaji Manohar were perfect examples (their previous collaboration, “Little Master,” won the Kodak Student Cinematography Award). We studied together at Tisch and I really value their input.
Days before filming, my script was strong in the story department, but some of the locations were feeling redundant. When we were on our tech scout, Malay and Balaji weren’t impressed with the woods locations I selected. They recommended we “drive around a bit.”
We found a farm with incredible mountains behind them. The farmers had just burned the entire field because they were about to plant new crops, so the whole field was charred, which had an effect I loved. Next, we found this abandoned Jeepney (a public transit van common in the Philippines) in a place where people throw huge bonfire picnics. Then we found this spot overlooking this gorgeous valley.
When you shoot in a small province there are things that you can get that in other parts of the world are impossible. These location options were available to us. People were so kind and welcoming. One owner was so honored that I’d selected his house, he asked if he had to pay for it to be featured in the film. The people I met were very willing to help out foreign filmmakers. I would say, “I need some chickens and ducks over here,” and two minutes later my art team had them there. Once I turned to my producer minutes before rolling and said, “I need a guy on a horse in this shot.” Moments later, a man on a horse is in my frame. I told my producer, “I need a 10-year-old boy driving a motorbike in the background,” and… he’s there, in the film.
We had a cockfight in my film, several spider fights, kids running naked around the province… we were also able to set things on fire for the purpose of the shoot, without a fire marshal as we would have needed in America.
Music is for wimps! Get great location sound.
I was greatly inspired by the sounds of my locations. There was so much richness in that province. Putting anything nondiegetic in just felt wrong, so my soundtrack was made entirely from location sound and minor sound design.
If you’re shooting in the Philippines, preferably in a small province, use the environment to create tone and mood. If you’re doing a short and you have wall-to-wall music, you’re wasting the rich natural soundscape. You might also be covering up story issues.
If you want to use a 33-foot Technocrane, use a 33-foot Technocrane.
My visual style for “Supot” was to tell the story from Rene-boy’s perspective. He saw this place as a child would, not as gritty, but as beautiful. Uniquely establishing the location where the circumcisions takes place was very important and I wanted to show how incredible the location was. For me the best way to do this was with a huge sweeping jib shot. Enter the 33-foot Technocrane. (This is how I became known as the Werner Herzog of the Philippines.)
The location I picked was situated at the bottom of a steep mountain. It was so steep and narrow that we had to walk single file. It was so difficult to bring gear down, that we had to rent a horse from a local farmer who strapped the equipment to its back.
On the day of the circumcision scene it took the local crew five hours to bring the 33-foot Technocrane down the mountain, which had to be carried piece by piece and reassembled. Because of this Herculean effort in support of my vision and my refusal to compromise, I earned my Herzog nickname.
For me, making “Supot” on location in a small province was the most eye-opening and creatively satisfying experience of my life. It has forever influenced how I make films. MM
Phil Giordano is narrative film and commercial director living in Singapore. He received his MFA from New York University Tisch School of the Arts Asia. His NYU thesis “Supot” was a finalist at the Starz Denver Screenwriting Competition, a semi-finalist at the Showtime Tony Cox Screenwriting Competition and Grand Jury Prize winner at the New York Screenplay Competition. It will have its world premiere at the 2016 Busan International Film Festival on Oct. 8, 2016.