‘Otso’: Madness in the method
Another movie could be made of the heady, harried, hectic goings-on on the set of “Otso,” the comeback film of Elwood Perez, who took a break from the biz in 2003.
“Otso,” one of the entries in the recent Sineng Pambansa All-Masters Edition, proved to be a baptism of fire for the cast, composed mainly of theater artists from Philippine Stagers Foundation Inc., led by writer-actor-director Vince Tañada, and crew.
At a round-table discussion after a special screening of the film at the Inquirer recently, the filmmaker and some cast members recalled the method and the madness that resulted in “Otso,” the festival’s surprise hit. The film reportedly placed second at the tills to Joel Lamangan’s gay drama “Lihis.”
Perez, however, would rather not measure the film’s success in commercial terms (although he was known as the country’s box-office director in the 1970s and 1980s with hits like “Disgrasyada,” “Problem Child” and “Till We Meet Again”).
“My goal was to reach a younger audience,” he told the Inquirer. “I want to fascinate the youth. If you don’t attract the popular entertainment audience, you are not relevant.”
“Otso” will have four screenings on Friday, from 2 to 9 p.m., for the encore of the All-Masters fest at the Shangri-La Cineplex in Mandaluyong City.
Perez is also eyeing a theatrical release this month, before it hits the foreign film festival circuit.
In “Otso,” Anita Linda (who played herself) had to rush to the United States to be with her ailing son. Isn’t that based on real life?
Elwood Perez: Yes, some of the details in the script were culled from real life. Her son, Fred Cortes Jr., who was the star of my first film “Blue Boy” in 1970, is seriously ill.
Anita went to the US last year to visit him. It was because she was turning 89 and, she said, the elderly could no longer travel abroad when they reached 90.
So you added things to the script as the shoot went along?
EP: Yes. During the editing phase. That’s why I finished shooting ahead of schedule. With the help of my editor, George Jarlego, I studied the footage. If I felt that I needed to add something, I would reshoot. Luckily, Vince and his team were so receptive.
Why did the film shift from color to black and white?
EP: It reflected the gloom of reality. First of all, Lex, the lead character, is demented. He’s suicidal. Why did he become insane? Because the film needed a climax. It was already full of highlights so how could we still reach a crescendo? It’s all about dramaturgy and dramatic urgency. I read that in a book (“Writing Great Screenplays for Film and Television” by Dona Cooper) ages ago. They say conventional storytelling is now passé… that the narrative has become a roller-coaster ride.
You’ve always been obsessed with original thought.
EP: That was the first title of “Otso”—“Original Thought.” Because it’s about the auteur. The creative process.
What was the creative process like for you as cowriter, Vince?
Vince Tañada: It was fun even though Direk Elwood kept revising the script. That’s the challenge. I’d write and work hard on the script all night and then he’d change everything the following morning. He was a lot like Jun Urbano’s character (in the film).
EP: It’s all about finding the truth. The same principle applies to acting. When I asked them to repeat a scene, it was not because I was unhappy with their performance. I merely wanted to find the truth. Or it could also be because of technical problems: the lighting was off or the camera was out of focus.
VT: Direk Elwood enjoys shooting with a digital camera because it’s not as expensive as film.
EP: I was known for exposing 80,000 feet of film for “Shame” in 1983.
Is it true you can make another movie from the unused footage of “Shame”?
EP: Four movies, actually. In those days, I had free rein.
Why did you have that Hitchcock-ian cameo in “Otso”?
EP: I never wanted to appear in my films. That was the first time. The scene of the tourists in Intramuros was shot guerrilla style, without a permit. We kept repeating the sequence because of technical glitches. Finally, I had to go in front of the camera and guide the tourists so that I’d get what I wanted.
Shooting guerrilla style is nothing new to me. I did that in San Francisco, with Nora Aunor and Cocoy Laurel for “Lollipops and Roses at Burong Talangka” in 1975.
How did you get that shot of the airplane taking off?
EP: We kept missing the plane. So I found out the time of the flight. I had six cinematographers for this film. I assigned a cameraman who wasn’t able to do it. So I brought another cameraman (Randy Cura) with me to a subdivision in Parañaque to wait for the plane. I befriended the barangay captain. The cameraman had to shoot standing precariously on a ladder. He got scared because the airport police was there. I told him to ignore the cops and keep shooting.
How did you find the condominium that was like a major character in the movie?
EP: God gave it to us. Without that building, there is no movie. Without that elevator, there is no film. Actually, one of Vince’s friends owns that building.
What did you get from your indie experience that you will bring to the mainstream scene, to the Derek Ramsay-Cristine Reyes movie “Trophy Wife”?
EP: Making a mainstream film can be difficult at this point. Things are different now. There are Portalets and air-conditioned tents. Everything is served to you on a silver platter.
And you don’t like that?
EP: I am more of a collaborator and a coworker now. This may sound phony… I was away for 10 years and things have changed a lot … But then again, even in Hollywood, they have what they call “the suits.” They meddle in everything. They want to see the dailies. I will have to adjust.
Did you doubt your skills as a filmmaker after your long hiatus?
EP: I always felt inadequate about my aesthetics. I still feel that way. I hope it will do me good. Great thing [is] I enjoy reading. I found out recently that Woody Allen and Cate Blanchett had the same insecurities. Now, I wear it as a badge.
Before I go to the set … I would go crazy. I would get angry at myself. I want to be a virgin when I reach the set. After constantly rewriting a script, you’re bound to get bored with it. You ask yourself: What else can I do?
That’s what I love about working with young, talented people. They can come up with all sorts of fresh approaches that can be better than my interpretation.
VT: It was like he played with us. We didn’t know anything about filmmaking. Tabula rasa kami.
So, will you do this again?
VT: Yes. We are working on a new script together.
Before working with Direk Elwood, did you know much about him?
VT: Not much, but I am a fan. I watched his films “Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit,” “Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M.” When I introduced him to my team, they ignored him. I had to explain who he was.
Monique Azerreda: I Googled him and found out that most of his movies were bold!
What lessons have you learned from this experience?
MA: Film acting is really different from theater acting. Big movements, which work onstage, don’t look good onscreen. It’s also hard because scenes are not shot in order. Sometimes I would ask: What is this scene for? It’s not in the script. Bahala na lang.
VT: In Philippine Stagers, I am the boss. But in “Otso,” I was just one of the actors. If Direk Elwood asked me to do something, I had to do it.
Including a shower scene with Vangie Labalan?
VT: I was really nude in that scene. I got disappointed that Direk didn’t show everything. (Laughs)
How were you convinced to show some skin?
MA: It took a lot of convincing. At first, I wore undies and they were supposed to be erased in post-production. Then, I used [adhesive] plaster. But it still didn’t work. We kept reshooting and reshooting. It was already three in the morning. I was tired, so I just took it all off.
What did you learn from this film?
Chris Lim: In theater, we stick to the script, which is like our Bible. There was a lot of pressure but Direk told us to simply act out whatever we were feeling. Raw emotions.
Cindy Liper: We are used to big movements onstage. But you couldn’t move at all since you played a paralyzed stroke patient.
Liper: Direk said I should act as if I were dying. As if my veins were popping. But when I saw the film, my face was completely hidden. (Laughs) He kept telling me that I should feel gorgeous even if no one could see my face.
Patrick Libao: We are used to seeing the audience’s reaction in theater. During the shoot, I had no idea whether my performance was good or bad. Now, every time I watch this film, I can’t help laughing. I had never seen myself act, until now. I enjoyed myself and I am grateful that I got to work with Direk Elwood who is the idol of my mother and grandmother. When I told my mom, who is based in Japan, about Direk Elwood, she said: “I’m a fan! Is he still alive?” (Laughs)
Kevin Posadas: There were lots of adjustments. Onstage, if you make a mistake, you just adlib. In the movies, you have to start all over again. Take 2, take 3, take 4. Once, it reached take 40!
Adelle Ibarrientos: I was nervous on my first day. I didn’t know what to do. I was too shy to ask Direk Elwood. It was scary, but also fulfilling because this movie was shown all over the country.
Art Cabrentina: We are a small group. We are used to doing things on our own. If we need to build a set, we can do it ourselves. One time, Direk Elwood asked us to build an office and then a condo unit, in one day. Our training in theater helped us a lot.
Cencherry Bagtas: I couldn’t shoot one scene with Art and Patrick. But, through the magic of editing, Direk made it appear as if we were together in one room.
Jerie Sanchez: Theater actors should know how to shift characters quickly. We should know how to adjust swiftly off stage, too. I was also the makeup artist in this film. But I had to tone down what I knew about makeup by 100 percent.
VT: Jerie wanted to put eyeliner and false eyelashes on me! (Laughs)
Jordan Ladra: At the end of the day, we are actors. Even if it’s impossible, we have to do it. I just looked at it as a chance to grow as an artist.
VT: When we make our next movie, we would know what to do. Direk Elwood is the silent type. He didn’t explain things to us. He wanted to take us on a journey, but it was up to us to sink or swim.
EP: We would waste time if I had to explain everything. There are different styles of directing. Alfred Hitchcock treated actors like cattle. Some regard actors as puppets. Some directors prefer to shoot numerous takes. Others, like Clint Eastwood, are very economical. Don Siegel was happy with just one or two takes, as well. Some directors are needy. There are so many approaches.
How about you? What is your approach?
EP: For me, a director should be judicious and discerning. Erudition and genius are not synonymous. But erudition does help. If you are not informed, if you don’t have a broad perspective, if you don’t have a sharp wit, you will have a hard time. It’s also important for a director to know the meaning of tasteful, tacky, refined, rough. A director needs lots of adjectives in his brain.