Mikhail Red triumphed at Tokyo Film Festival at the back end of 2016 when he picked up the Asian Future Award for his sophmore effort, Birdshot. Mikhail, along with producing partner Pamela Reyes, has now returned to Japan, bringing his film to Osaka Asian Film Festival as part of the New Action! Southeast Asia Special Program.
Birdshot is a mystery-thriller centered around two violent events. In one, Maya, a young girl raised by her elderly father on an isolated farm shoots and kills an endangered and protected Filipino eagle. In the other, rookie cop Domingo investigates the disappearance of a group of farmers who had protested the stealing of their land by corrupt government officials. As Domingo is increasingly compromised by the corruption and police brutality he encounters, Maya is touched by the supernatural, otherworldly elements of her countryside home. Both characters paths will ultimately lead to a terrifyingly violent conclusion.
Mikhail proved an interesting young talent with his experimental, city-set debut, Rekorder. In Birdshot he relocates to the mysterious beauty of the Filipino countryside for a film that proved one of the highlights of Osaka’s diverse program.
I caught up with Mikhail for the first time since Rekorder to talk about the road to getting Birdshot made, the film, and his upcoming projects.
Why the long break after REKORDER?
Mikhail Red (MR): Well, with Rekorder if you remember, I went through the whole local film festival process which is where you submit a script and they give you seed money. It was very micro budget, so with my second film I wanted to try something else. We wanted to go the whole international grant route, so we went to project markets and took a long time developing the script.
Pamela Reyes (PR): And in terms of developing the budget, it’s ten times the size of Rekorder, so it’s really ambitious. It took some time just to find money. And, I think in terms of Mikhail’s writing style, you take some time right?
MR: Yeah, but for Birdshot it was actually quite fast compared to Rekorder. But we also took our time with the technical side. Rekorder is a bit more guerilla, more gritty. This one’s a bit more conventional and classic, and so that’s why we took our time with the post production with the sound and the grading.
How did you handle the step up from guerilla-filmmaking to dealing with a bigger budget?
MR: If the scale is bigger, the problems are bigger, so it’s still challenging for a young filmmaker. It doesn’t get easier with more money.
PR: For me if you have more budget, it shows more in the film. I guess if there’s more budget there’s more problems but it’s easier than having none at all!
Will you go 10 times bigger again on the next one?
Actually, we might be scaling down a bit. For me, there were too many people this time around on set and it kind of slowed things down. On Rekorder I was used to just moving around the city with a small camera and no permits, but this time it was my second feature film but my first time shooting with a two-camera setup so it was difficult for me.
How did you get the idea for Birdshot?
I saw an article years ago, I think maybe even during the time for Rekorder I had that idea in my head, where a father and son shoot and accidently kill an eagle. But over the years it has happened again and again, and people get jailed for it.
In fact, the eagle used in the movie is kept in captivity because it’s a gun-shot survivor so that’s why it can’t fly and that’s why it was easy to shoot from distance. The eagles are kept in a sanctuary on an island and we had to film there, so that’s why the budget is bigger and more ambitious; we had to jump to different locations to shoot those scenes.
And the bus incident was also taken from a real-life incident?
Are you familiar with the Maguindanao Massacre where a bus full of journalists were stopped in the middle of nowhere? They disappeared and were eventually found in a shallow mass grave. I think the perpetrators even used mud and soil to put over the convoy and the bodies.
It was very disturbing for me and it kept lingering in my head. In fact, I had a short film that also dealt with themes like that and I incorporated the two themes together.
And the script was co-written with your cousin?
MR: The way I work is I start with a very detailed sequence treatment. I usually write it in English, and it goes straight to the pitching and project markets because it’s already translated. Then I get a cowriter to help me flesh it out and work with the Filipino dialogue.
It’s always easier to bounce around your ideas instead of checking it yourself; you know to get a different perspective on it. And there’s a female character in the movie, the main character, so I wanted a female perspective, so I worked with my cousin. I like working with different people depending on the style of the project and the story.
REKORDER was very much a city movie, set in Manila, where you’re from and dealing with situations and locations there but this film is set deep in the countryside, did you have to a lot of research on the area and the customs of the farmers there?
MR: The way I see the story of Birdshot is almost like a parable. You have these very symbolic characters and this isolated environment, so I wanted something like that where you have this strange fictional land that doesn't even have a name and then you have these two characters, four characters actually [Maya and her grandfather and Domingo and his tough, veteran partner], it's a two-on-two tug of war. I wanted that sense of isolation, there’s also magical realism. It was an intentional choice to do something different and as a young filmmaker I’m still exploring and trying things with each film.
For the location we had to ask around with a government agency, the department of agriculture, because we had a very specific…
PR: ...he had a very specific look in mind for the farm and we had to look all over the Philippines and eventually they found it in Isabela, which is like a 10 to 12 hour drive from Manila. So when we got there we had to drive to bring 100 people there.
MR: It’s a strange coincidence because in my head I was imagining vast cornfields. It’s rare for a Filipino film to feature cornfields, it’s usually rice paddies, so I wanted something more alien. And behind the cornfields I wanted a mountain range in the background so with that very specific image in mind I communicated with the Department of Agriculture and they pointed to the map, to Isabela which coincidentally has a very small population of Filipino eagles, up north. Because there are only two islands where you can find them, Isabela I think has 34 pairs of eagles left and Davou where the majority of eagles are kept. So it was this strange coincidence that what I was imaging visually turned out to be the real habitat of these eagles.
What was it visually about that farm?
MR: Well, I was thinking about that climactic scene and I wanted a shootout to happen in the cornfields. I also wanted the scarecrow in the film as a silent witness to things. If you think about the first scene he’s the one who sees the bus pass by the farm and that's like one of the locations where scarecrows are used. It was more of a cinematic choice and then turned out to be accurate because that's where the eagles actually live.
Is there a Hollywood influence in there too?
MR: Exactly, there’s this Western theme to it, which plays a big part in the films I watch. I watch a lot of Westerns. And also Korean cinema, Memories of Murder is one of my favourite films, so there’s this whole police story running parallel to this more ethnic local story.
Talking about different genres, there’s a classic horror element to certain scenes, was there horror influences at work?
Yeah, in fact I have a few ideas for script developments, one about an American serial killer, so that’s in development, and going around project markets. It has a horror vibe but with a very socially relevant backstory because it’s set under martial law, so yeah I like to mix genre with socially relevant subject matter.
On the subject of socially relevant subject matter, the police in this film are particularly brutal…
MR: For me that’s how it is in the Philippines, I actually tried to make them a bit more neutral and put a good police character in there. You can sort of see that Mendoza (the veteran cop) has become this morally grey character, he wants to survive, he’s not really a bad guy, he treats Domingo sometimes as a partner. So I didn't want to make them all villains, in fact everyone’s a victim of circumstance in this film. Everyone is a victim in this story.
Did you want to make a statement and directly criticize the police?
You can see that even in Rekorder I have an issue with authority. Rekorder’s main character is the same as Domingo, he’s not really a bad guy but ends up being chased by the police due to circumstance. And that's really one of my worst fears, the good guy getting into trouble and ending up being the bad guy.
You found this new actress, Maya Joy Apostol, who’s fantastic in the film.
MR: We wanted a fresh face because these veterans surround her in the film. I mean John Arcilla is well known because of Heneral Luna and Metro Manila, he was even in The Bourne Legacy. And Arnold Reyes, you might have seen him in Graceland and he’s done a lot of independent films. So we wanted this fresh youth. And she was a big hit, even in Tokyo on the red carpet! We still haven’t shown this film locally so we hope it helps her with her career.
Her distinctive costume, that striking red color, what was the thought behind it?
MR: The color red appears a lot in the film, which has this almost desaturated look. The film is all earth colors, but red is always striking and if you want to pay attention you can see that color everywhere. The shirt she has around her neck is red, and in the forest you can see this red shape moving. Even the ghost, and the evidence that Domingo finds is red.
PR: In terms of purpose, the farmers in the fields wear that kind of shirt, so you can put it over your head because it’s very hot, so you have to cover your face with it, and they wear long sleeves to cover there arms.
MR: We were very precise with this film, compared with Rekorder. Rekorder is more what happens naturally, it’s what you see in the city, and what we ended up recording, that's it. In Birdshot, we purposefully designed everything from the props to the color scheme.
What are you working on next?
PR: We’re working on Mikhail’s third feature. It’s called Neo Manila and it was actually part of the South East Asian Film Financing Forum where we pitched the project.
MR: It’s about a mother and a son, they're unrelated, and they’re involved in this drug war in Manila. I guess you can think of it as a reverse Leon the Professional, this time the older character, who is involved with the death squad, is a women and instead of the young girl you have an orphan son. So yeah, it's a mother/son story in the Philippine drug war.
PR: We want to shoot it soon because of the subject matter; the drug war and the extra-judicial hearings in the Philippines, which are very relevant.
MR: I think either way it’s happening this year because we have a lot of different options for financing. In terms of scale I guess it's a bit smaller than Birdshot, but it’s more bleak, a bit darker, closer to Rekorder but there’s more action in it.
And the horror film?
Actually, that's been around for a while, almost as long as Rekorder. It has had a few different titles, it was originally a period film then we made it a contemporary film so you know things started changing, but the basic concept was there, it’s about an American serial killer in the Philippines, the Black Dahlia basically.
There was a prime subject in the Black Dahlia case in Hollywood, then there were rumors that he stayed in the Philippines. During that time there were very similar murders. You confuse it with the martial law killings, so you’re not sure what’s going on. It’s interesting because it's great cover for a serial killer to thrive in a third world society. So we’ve been developing that for more than a year, it's a bit more ambitious so it’s taking longer. Neo Manila is the more urgent film.