Osaka 2015: VIOLATOR's Dodo Dayao Talks Demons, Saints And The State of Filipino Horror
Travis Bickle said, "Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets", but quite the opposite happens in Violator. When a storm arrives in Manila it brings only darkness and, quite possibly, the devil with it. A series of disconnected snapshots into the lives of various people in the Philippine capitol reveals a deep, dark, dread engulfing the city. Death and religious fear permeate every scene before the film focuses on a police station and the struggles, both internal and external, of the men within. Things go from bad to worse when a young man said to be the devil himself is brought into the station and all hell breaks loose.
While in Osaka I got the chance to sit down with the director and talk about his debut feature, Todd's review of which can be seen here.
Can you tell me about your background as a critic?
I started blogging around 2005, film blogging mostly and then (renowned Filipino Canadian film critic) Alexis Tioseco started reading my blog. He put me and Oggs (Cruz, ScreenAnarchy's very own!) and another critic, a blogger rather, Richard Bolisay on his wish list. And that legitimized us from then on and I started writing for magazines and stuff but mostly the concentration of my writing is still the blog. Eventually I edited the Filipino New Wave book and the rest is whatever you call this!
So what got you into filmmaking? Did you always have the desire to make your own film?
Yes, well, I used to work in an ad agency. I quit to direct, primarily to direct commercials but I always wanted to try out making films I only got involved with the film community in around 2007 or 2008, hanging around with them, stuff like that. And from then I started making installation pieces short, short films, experimental stuff, but not really writing any screenplays, or at least finishing any screenplays until I did this. This has always been what I wanted to do. The criticism was just supposed to be a stopgap but it found a life of its own.
When you were working in criticism and blogging was there a particular genre you were focused on?
Not necessarily, but I would choose like... I started blogging about any kinds of films, but mostly foreign ones, then I started writing about Filipino cinema and I tried to make that the dominant feature of the blog. I would seek out the weird shit and the more renowned stuff. So I tried to run the gamut of genres and all types of films. But, I do have a fondness for B films and genre, that's always been my first love. I do tend to seek out particular Filipino filmmakers who have a bent for this kind of thing.
You said you made installations; it's interesting because Violator does have that kind of art-house feel to it...
Yes, I sort of, my installation stuff is more ambient images. One of them was actually scheduled as a short film in London so it actually works as a short film, but its kind of boring as a short film. There's a very narrative element to the installations, like the last one Entropy Machine was about a caveman, an imagined primitive Filipino but it was also like the last man on earth, it had that sort of dichotomy and stuff. But yeah also I was sort of leaning towards that but I don't know if it's deliberate or if its just... I just sort of fused the two.
Where you working on the Violator script for a long time then?
I originally submitted it to Cinema One in 2012. It started out as a short film, a friend of mine who was asked to pitch for a production company wanted to produce another Shake, Rattle and Roll (Filipino horror anthology series), another horror anthology, and so he asked me for a couple of stories to pitch. I gave him two, and while I was writing those two I came up with this one. I requested if he could pitch the third one. We weren't supposed to pitch more than two, when he pitched the third one and it got rejected I took it back from him, expanded it, submitted it to Cinema One in 2012, didn't make it, I abandoned it for a year and when I had nothing else to submit last year, I went back to it and this is what came out. So roughly it's been two years, but not the whole time, I was dipping in and out of it.
Are you going to continue in the horror genre for the time being?
For a while I think. Personally I don't think horrors a favorite genre in the Philippines but it's a big money maker. I feel there's something lacking in horror cinema in the Philippines. I can only think of one or two people who actually do something really interesting with the genre, and I sort of want to join them and try to grow the genre up a bit. So, I probably will stick around with it.
It's not just the Philippines though, I think globally the general consensus for 2014 was that it was a poor year for horror cinema, where stuff like Annabelle was a huge hit but was killed by the critics, but then you did have things like The Babadook that was really special...
For me I think it's worse in the Philippines because we're sort of retreading the same old shit. It's always vengeful spirits, it's always tricking out mythological creatures... some of them work but for the most part it's just lazy, lazy stuff. And there's nothing stopping us from dipping into our folklore so I don't know why no one is doing that, like I say I only know one or two people who are going somewhere else. So yeah, it's particularly bad, and in fact the thing about it is they make money.
What were your inspirations within the horror genre when it comes to Violator? Or were you looking at anything outside of horror?
Violator is sort of a tribute, an homage to Assault on Precinct 13 that's why I called it (the police station in the film) precinct 13. And the whole idea of them being cooped up it's very Hawksian, Howard Hawks. Other than that, I think I was more influenced by these rapture comics from the Philippines in the 50's and 60's. I think Chachik wrote these trading cards, they sort of warned you about sin and stuff like that. Very well drawn, but creepy as fuck. I was reading up on that a few months into working on the first version of this and I think that was sort of like a big influence. And yeah, I'm a big fan of Kiyoshi Kurosawa also.
Yeah, I noticed that influence, the whole film is drenched in darkness and there's the constant feeling of dread, very much along the lines of Kairo or Cure.
It's sort of there. I didn't have the kind of scope that I wanted but I was aiming for that with the long shots of industrial areas, because we have a lot of those in the Philippines. It reflects the country as well.
Well, the film looks incredible; particularly certain shots were the camera is static on a powerful and deeply unsettling image. Did you know the cinematographers, Albert Banzon and Gym Lumbera? You mentioned you had gotten into the film scene, were they friends?
Yeah, Albert's sort of like a best-kept secret of cinematography, he doesn't get that much props but he's one of our best. He's an old friend of mine. We don't hang much because he's always busy. From the beginning I wanted him to work on this. Gym was my cinematographer for my last installation and we were really good friends. I wanted to get him for the VHS scenes but we sort of end up doing the whole film together. Albert would light it, Gym would frame it and sometimes they'd just switch places.
Were the cast also people that you knew?
All of the people we got were our first choices. And what I wanted at the start of the casting... it was so easy to cast, because it was like five men and in the Philippines there are so many character actors, indie character actors, but you see them everywhere. Really good actors but you see them everywhere. So I said I wanted to avoid easy casting, stereotypes, and I wanted Joel (Lamangan), who plays the old man; I've always wanted to work with him. He's a very big director in the Philippines, a famous actor, but I've always loved him because I've seen him in films in which he's acted and I've always loved them. And the second guy the corrupt police officer with the gangsters, he used to be an action star. I wanted a 90's action star for that role. All the rest I was just trying to cast against type. The old man, the janitor was a comedian.
You'd never guess!
Yes, and he's gay, he flamboyantly sings and he totally switches on and off. I don't mean any offence by that, but on set he's always singing and dancing and then in the role he transforms, the song at the end the ballad he sang that. He was my first choice, even the kid was my first choice we didn't get them all at once, there were schedule problems, Victor Neri was unavailable at first so we had to find someone to replace him then when the second choice backed out he was suddenly available so it all fell into place in the end. It was difficult casting but we got everyone we wanted in the end.
The film felt like it was separated into two halves. The first, a series of disconnected images and scenes in which the meaning is unclear, leading up to that brilliantly creepy section of 8 mm footage after which the film takes on a more classical narrative structure. Was this something you wanted to do from the start?
Yeah, the original script for Violator was just the precinct, just that third act, we call it the third act but one of the problems that Cinema One had with it was that it was too short. So while I was thinking about it I expanded the characters a little bit but I didn't want to do like a first act, second act, third act structure. And I really wanted the cult somewhere in there. So yeah, I decided I wanted to make a triptych instead of just traditionally tying them together in a traditional structured three-act piece. But we do actually call it the first act, second act third act ourselves just to avoid confusion! But yeah, it was very intentional to do that.
I liked how you leave with the sense of satisfaction that comes from traditional narrative cinema but then there were all these loose ends...
A lot of people were picking up on stuff in the first act, back when it played in the Philippines, people were coming up and picking out their favorite suicides, which was like, wow, that's cool!
In Filipino literature or folk tales have storms traditionally been associated with demons or the coming of evil?
No, there's no real connection between storms and demons except that storms are very relevant to the Philippines. Storms happen sort of regularly but when they hit Manila they really devastate the city. The storm that I was influenced by was the last one where the whole city was literally flooded, so it's part of the landscape. But there's really no connection or myth with storms bringing demonic... whatever. The precinct was actually influenced by a real precinct I went to, the guy in the film who had his car side swiped, that happened to me! It happened to a friend actually and I had to come to her rescue because she couldn't deal with the cops and when I saw the police station I thought this would make a good movie. That stuck with me for years. It's all just picked up from stuff around me.
There's so much religious imagery in the film especially in the first half, the conversations are peppered with the names of saints...
That was also intentional. Especially in the case I was building the characters I wanted to put that as a layer. They all essentially don't believe, except the worst of them, so that was interesting. I also wanted to give some kind of heft to the demon by using the religious imagery. The whole idea of it was I had never seen a demon possession film that was also like a Faustian film and I was sort of wondering why that never happened because you already have the demon there and he can offer stuff. So that was like the germ for everything but the Catholic thing was very insidious because it's part of my life and practically every Filipino's life. I don't know if there's some repressed religious hate in there but it was at first a very subconscious influence to make it like that.
Are you a religious man?
Not really, but when I was schooled, in my first grade and second grade I was sent by my mom to a school of religious nuns and they gave me crap, they gave me hell and I think that stuck with me a little bit.
But we were never... my family's catholic but we were never very religious, yeah I had those experiences.
It seems like the characters are at varying levels of belief, like they could believe at any time they just need a little push...
I think that's the psyche of most Filipinos whether it was handed down to them or they were born with it, it's so casual, Catholic religion is so casual. You're just a Catholic, there's nothing strict about it, you can be a little stricter than usual or less strict but you're still saved essentially, and that's weird because there's nothing there, there's just that casual sense of being in it, for whatever it's worth.
In certain scenes it's hard to be sure if something supernatural is going on or not.
The one thing I didn't want to do, was cop out and say this is just a kid playing tricks. I wanted it to be real hardcore supernatural shit going on. The whole pulling back and withholding information at some points, that was deliberate on my part. There where more, the first drafts had more overt instances of supernatural stuff earlier on but I took them out because I wanted them near the end.