Ilonggo filmmaker Peter Solis Nery talks about love… in time of the Bakunawa.
As told to Ronelo Ladiao.
Ilonggo love story
Earlier in April 2012, Los Angeles-based Ilonggo polymath Peter Solis Nery (he insists he’s a Dumangasanon artist) came home to Iloilo to shoot his film, Gugma sa Panahon sang Bakunawa, a classic love story in Hiligaynon that touches on contemporary issues like literature and myth-making, economics and colorful local festivals, love and its modern-day complications.
From Western Visayas to Singapore
On Sept.5, 4PM-8PM at Cinema 3 SM City Iloilo, writer-producer-director Peter Solis Nery returns to premiere his 2-hour obramaestra in Iloilo City, and tour it all over Western Visayas, before finally showing it in Singapore on September 9.
Shot in 6 days
Meanwhile, here is a short interview with the amazing Ilonggo director who made magic in six days:
Ronelo: You constantly amaze your critics and fans by endlessly reinventing yourself. As a multi-awarded writer, did you enjoy the transition into film directing?
Peter: Just because most of my accolades come from writing, people tend to forget my other showbiz talents, namely: acting, dancing, and directing.
For this movie, I wore more hats than just being its writer, producer, and director. I was also the production designer, costume designer, casting director, acting coach, location manager, finance officer, payroll master, and hell, yeah, I also acted in this movie!
So, this is more than just transitioning from being a writer to being a film director for me, but I love all the challenges involved in it, knowing that I still could control many things, and turn an at-least-2.5-million-pesos-script into a high quality movie with a budget of less than a million pesos. So, think of me when you talk of art, high quality standards, and efficiency!
Ronelo: What were the risks that you took as an artist in making this movie?
Peter: The biggest risk for me in making this Bakunawa movie was taking on collaborators. As a writer, I basically work alone. I like total control over my materials. As a stage director, I am also pretty authoritarian because, by experience, that’s how I’ve always gotten the best results.
Cameras rocking ‘n rolling
But for this movie, because I am also the director AND PRODUCER, in addition to being the writer, I had to trust my cinematographer, and film editor, big time. I also had to compromise with some of the acting, bearing in mind that most of my cast members are non-professional actors.
With a limited budget, scarce resources, and time constraints (we worked with a deadline for the national film competition), I could not be nitpicking. Otherwise, we could have been stuck with Scene One.
As a writer, I can afford to take my time to revise and repeatedly revise until I produce perfection, but as a filmmaker, I have to respect other people’s time (especially if my actors and crew have other projects to work on), and my co-producer’s money.
Ronelo: There is inherent beauty in the exploration of literature, art, culture, myth-making, and art-for-economics in your Bakunawa story. What inspired you to write it?
Peter: You’d be surprised if I tell you that there is not so much inspiration in the WRITING of the bakunawa story compared to the audacity of turning it into a movie. I think the story of making it a movie was inspired lunacy, but I’m so glad I ultimately did it.
As for the writing, I’m always trying to write stories at least for the yearly Palanca competitions, bakunawa is just one of them. If it was not the bakunawa story for this movie, it could be any one of my other stories: gay stories, magic realist stories, search for God stories.
I mean, right now as we speak, I have at least seven ready-to-shoot movie scripts in my possession, and I have at least ten good stories that can be turned into movie scripts, if there are interested producers out there.
Ronelo: How did you motivate and inspire your actors to portray their roles?
Peter: It was all in the story. Since the roles where clearly written, the characters’ motivations are smartly real, I thought it was fairly easy for actors to identify with the characters.
Jet Alcantara was pretty sure that my story was foul-proof so that he decided on the butt exposure and scenes with nudity without qualms. He played his part to the hilt as it was written, no questions asked, and convincing him was not an easy feat for me considering that he only had minimal screen exposure.
Discovering Ilonggo talents
Even when I had no idea who Eman Abatayo (the Ilonggo singer is now an actor) was while I was writing the screenplay, he swears the story is almost a blow by blow retelling of his own life story.
As for Priscilla Fontana, I just reminded her that this is her big break, that her future career in the film industry rests on her performance in this particular, and mind you, her launching, movie.
The other actors in the movie, mostly my townmates from Dumangas, already knew my work ethics and artistic integrity, so that they trust me so much that when I ask them to bend over or jump off the cliff, they just willingly do so without any question.
Ronelo: Your movie is almost perfectly cast. How did you go through with the casting of the movie since you are actually based in L.A.?
Peter: By now, it is no secret that the movie’s lead stars were cast online, specifically via Facebook. I posted casting calls, asked friends for recommendations, and I started chatting up complete strangers for the roles.
I private messaged Eman Abatayo, sent him the script, he sent me links to YouTube videos of his performances.
Jet Alcantara is another online blessing. It was just sheer luck on my part that he agreed to do this movie with me. When you come to think of it, other than me being a super nice person, why would Jet Alcantara even respond to my Facebook friend request?
I gave Priscilla Fontana an acting workshop in May 2010, so I knew her from way back, but I did online interviews with her, and even had her audition key scenes from the movie via webcam.
But believe it or not, most of the other actors with speaking parts only had something like three days to study their roles. I just grabbed most of them from the street.
I think great credit should go to my intuitive intelligence as casting director, and as “crash course” acting coach. I certainly think I did very well choosing and coaching the actors for my movie.
Ronelo: Your movie has been dubbed as the definitive Ilonggo film of the new millennium, if not in history. What makes this movie significant for Ilonggo culture?
Peter: Gugma sa Panahon sang Bakunawa is significant for no other reason but that it is a grand movie production, done in the Hiligaynon language, shot in Iloilo and Guimaras, with Ilonggo actors, made BY ME, the often discounted, but always unsinkable Ilonggo artist extraordinare!
Except for the particulars of the language and the bakunawa character, which is distinctively part of Hiligaynon literature, I do not think of this movie just in terms of Ilonggo culture. I think that it is VERY FILIPINO. This is a smart, entertaining, and, say-formulaic-if-you-will, but truly Filipino movie in the most glorious Hiligaynon language!
Ronelo: What are your expectations in making this movie a vehicle of introducing and endorsing regional filmmaking?
Peter: Although the movie was made primarily as part of the 1st Sineng Pambansa National Film Competition of the Film Development Council of the Philippines, in all honesty, I wasn’t really thinking about advancing any regional filmmaking agenda. I was just trying to make a damn good movie.
Since I am a passionate consumer of world cinema, or the so-called foreign language movies, or simply movies that are not from Hollywood, I make no distinctions about regional or national cinema/filmmaking.
Because I live in the U.S. that has access to all kind of movies, there is really no strict distinction between Hong Kong movies and movies from mainland China or movies from Taiwan; or among Indian movies, between Punjabi movies and Hindi movies or Tamil movies. Hell, there is not even a distinction between Chinese movies and Indian movies; they are all ASIAN movies! And if you push it, they are all foreign language movies!
Ronelo: Much has been said about the phenomenal speed of how you made the movie in six days. How did you do it?
Peter: Phenomenal it was, indeed! I don’t really know how we did it, but I know I could never again make a movie of this magnitude in the same way of SIX CONSECUTIVE days.
I really thank God for how everything just fell into place. It was a miracle! Just weeks before my week of shooting, it was raining like hell, and the hot summer sun was most vital in the movie’s story.
During our shoot, thank heaven, there was only one day when it rained, and fortunately, it was a day for mostly interior shots.
As for the cast and crew, I know I pushed them so hard making them work from 7 a.m. to maybe 1 a.m. of the next day, but they saw that I never asked them for sacrifices that I was not willing to make myself.
Everyone on the set knew and saw that I was the first man up, and the last man down. I woke up two hours before call time to prepare the scenes for the day, and I stayed up at least an hour later than everyone to review the day’s proceedings, and to make sure that adjustments were made in shooting schedules if we missed anything at all.
I really congratulate myself for the strategic planning of the shooting schedule so that no actors or locations where lying around paid and wasted. Our shooting schedule was grueling but, in fairness to me as schedule manager, most of the actors were given enough time for catnaps during the day. It was the technical crew and I that didn’t have the luxury of rest periods.
Ronelo: Was shooting both in Guimaras and your hometown of Dumangas really part of your plan?
Honoring historic hometown
Peter: Surely, Dumangas was in the plan. Not only because it would be cheaper to do it there, but especially because I wanted to honor my hometown with a historical undertaking of making a movie there.
I am not the first Dumangasanon filmmaker, I can name at least three others right now, but it’s pretty clear that I am the most “homegrown,” having lived in Dumangas for well over 35 years, or, at least, I am the one name that puts Dumangas prominently on the filmmaking map. (Two nationally recognized filmmakers are actually called “Ilonggo” filmmakers, not Dumangasanon; and the other one is neither nationally recognized, nor truly Dumangasanon as he only had claimed “roots” from Dumangas.)
I have always insisted to be identified as an author, filmmaker, and artist FROM DUMANGAS! To be sure, I wanted to be the first homegrown filmmaker to make a movie of this scale in my hometown.
So yes, I am very grateful for the support of Mayor Ronaldo Golez, the local government, and the good people of my hometown for making my dream come true. As for Guimaras, it is a cheaper substitute for Boracay, what can I say?
Ronelo: How do you want this film to be remembered by Ilonggos and movie enthusiasts?
Peter: I just want them to remember that this is “a film by Peter Solis Nery,” that this is my first full-length feature film. I think that should say a lot; say, for example, that it is truly representative of my romantic and lyrical vision of the world, and that I gave my all on this major opus because I wanted to make sure that I get noticed as writer and director.
I wanted this movie as an outstanding highlight in my resume, as my reference material, my demo tape, my diploma film to get future projects.
I think, by now, Ilonggos should have learned that the name Peter Solis Nery is synonymous to quality, artistic integrity, and, at least smartness, if not down right intelligence.
Ronelo: You have always been a trailblazer as a personality and local celebrity, a genuine “living Ilonggo icon,” and an unwitting inspiration for many Ilonggo young artists. How can you inspire the young filmmakers specifically, and generally convince Ilonggos to support regional films?
Peter: I can think of no better way to inspire young filmmakers and to rally Ilonggos to support regional films than by giving them an excellent example of what you insistently call regional cinema.
In all seriousness, my movie, Gugma sa Panahon sang Bakunawa, is, I can’t say it with false modesty, an excellent movie to begin. It has a simple, easy, formulaic even, but foul-proof story that greatly entertains.
Despite the limitations of Iloilo, which has no movie-making industry (Where do you get an experienced grip, or sound recordist, or a boom man? Where do you rent additional camera or lighting equipment? Is there even a casting/talent agency in Iloilo?), it was produced with superior quality and technical brilliance.
Should my example not suffice, I pronounce there is no hope for young filmmakers, nor for regional cinema!
Nery is a multi-awarded Ilonggo writer, newspaper columnist, medical nurse, director, producer and a true icon of Ilonggo arts.