The celebrated, Philippines born and bred director, started his long career in the late nineties, adopting numerous and diverse roles behind the camera. As Erik transitioned into the ’00’s, he directed acclaimed international hits including On the Job, Honor Thy Father, and Seklusyon. Having racked up numerous awards, screening his films at notoriously competitive festivals – such as Cannes – and garnering a reputation for both critical and commercial success, Erik has cemented his reputation as one of the most important voices in South East Asian Cinema.
His latest work BuyBust might just be his most ambitious film yet. Set in one of the grittiest Barangays in Manila, the film pits the elite ‘PDEA’ (Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency) against violent gangs, drug lords and mistreated slum settlers. BuyBust seamlessly blends together nonstop, sweat inducing action and striking, franetic set pieces with a poignant and timely message aimed at the current socio-political landscape of the Philippines.
We had the chance to talk the lauded director before two special Sydney screenings of his latest highly acclaimed effort.
Buybust started during the shooting of On The Job. We were in a slum area of 2nd Avenue in Caloocan when someone under the influence of alcohol started making a scene. I thought to myself that if something happened here I don’t know how to get out because the place can be very confusing with its labyrinth-like structure. After that incident, I talked to PDEA and they pointed me to a specific place in Tondo (Isla Puting Bato) where it has a one way in and one way out set-up. And after several research meetings, we developed the story from there.
I’ve always shied away from big epic films, fantasy CG-heavy films, and full-on action films. Primarily because as a filmmaker coming from a third world country, budgets are always an issue. For lack of budget, we always turn to making the film campy or compromise on execution. With BuyBust, I felt I was at a stage where I could marry ambition with the resources of the film. And the challenge for me was, given the free reign to do the film my way, was it possible to make it work? I’ve had hints of action in my films here and there. But BuyBust is the only film I made that has action from start to finish, with the dialogue totalling only probably around six-eight pages in the entire script. (FHM)
We were careful on making sure we execute this film well. I watched a lot of the action counterparts in Asia, old and new films, just to slowly sift through what’s out there and find out what action film we can contribute that’s unique to us as Filipinos. After watching so many action films, I realised that there’s so much focus on choreography and style and not enough immediacy, reality and guttural punches emotionally. So that’s where we went for the more cinema verite style of film making, almost like a found footage, documentary style where it’s not so much about how perfect the choreography and precise the editing is but more about how real and raw the fights happen. We scanned through so many real-life shaky cam Youtube videos of brawls and fights in neighbourhoods and I felt that no matter how clumsy the fights were (and they always were), it just gives off a strong tension making the viewing experience very unpredictable to the point of harrowing.
We built the set for Gracia ni Maria and did several set checks as it was in progress. We needed that so that we can design the fights specific to the sets being built. Some sets were adjusted for choreography but some of the choreography was also adjusted for the set. We are not a martial arts movie. So when we had sets that had narrow alleys, we worked around that and made the fight adjust to how narrow it was. And I think it worked really well.
For casting, we were conscious not to cast The Expendables. We wanted a group of PDEA agents that can be real PDEA agents in real life. We asked if they had some martial arts training as most agents have but we didn’t look for the Jet Li’s or the Jacky Chan’s as we know that as much as the PDEA agents have martial arts training, they are not at all martial arts masters.
The challenge with BuyBust is to do a zombie film without the zombies. I’m not just dealing with a set number of actors fighting their way through an equal number of villains—we have the whole barangay going after a PDEA team. Imagine the auditions we had to do for stunt people, not to mention training to get rid of the usual Pinoy action moves. And as if the action sequences weren’t enough, the film happens in one night, where it’s raining on and off to simulate how crazy our Manila weather can be.
We did storyboards, rehearsals and pre-visualizations with the stunt/fight director and his stunt team. We shot the movie for 53 days but we also had probably 40 days of rehearsals with the actors.
We have one action sequence where we did six-day rehearsals with full actors and crew. We shot it for three days, but the whole scene plays out for only three minutes in one continuous shot. It’s of Anne weaving through alleys and rooftops, fighting a mob with rain and lightning effects. I think this is the first time in a long time where a full-on action film is being made in Philippine cinema and the biggest hurdle in the first part of production is calculating the amount of time it would take to do the scenes properly. So there were miscalculations at the beginning, where we scheduled one action sequence (the gun battle) for three days and ended up shooting it for six days.
We initially wrote several drafts of the screenplay designed mainly as a real horror popcorn film. But then, Duterte happened in 2016.
Somehow, as a responsible filmmaker I just cannot stomach doing a film that doesn’t take into consideration the present conditions of the country in relation to the story I’m doing. Since I’m doing a buy-bust-gone-wrong movie, it’s hard not to put it into context.
But it’s easy to just make a film that points fingers or a film that collates Facebook rants and putting it into a story to make it socially relevant. The challenge was to clear my thoughts of all the opposing views regarding the present drug war and dig deeper to find out what’s wrong with it without being prejudice to either the government or the opposition. Having a script from my writer and with the research coming in as we were in production, I was writing BuyBust on the fly using our PDEA consultants, our military consultants, and everyday news. Yes, Barangay Gracia ni Maria, the setting of the film, is an allegory of this country and its people.
To the Australian audience, I hope you enjoy this crazy chaotic film of ours!