TRIGGERED (TOPAKK) Interview: Richard V. Somes on Filipino Action Cinema and PTSD

Contributor; Slovakia (@martykudlac)
TRIGGERED (TOPAKK) Interview: Richard V. Somes on Filipino Action Cinema and PTSD

[Managing Editor's note: The film under discussion was produced entirely in the Philippines. Read more about the SAG-AFTRA strike.]

Filipino filmmaker Richard V. Somes unveiled his latest work, Triggered (originally titled Topakk), at the Locarno Film Festival last month. ScreenAnarchy chatted with the director about his bloody, high-octane action movie, the social dimensions of genre filmmaking, the role of women in action cinema, and mental-health issues. His two leads, Sid Lucero and Arjo Atayde, also chimed in.

ScreenAnarchy: I really like what you just said about action cinema and freedom. Is this at the core of your artistic expression? How to use action cinema to celebrate freedom?

Richard V. Somes (RVS): Yes.

What is the journey to this revelation or approach?

In the Philippines, where I come from, I was involved in painting, particularly focusing on figures. Whenever I gaze upon a canvas, especially the large ones I often work on, I'm deeply drawn to the movement and emotions portrayed.

Just like in Renaissance paintings, there's a sense of motion in everything. It feels like a dance with rhythm, fluidity in body movement, and rich facial expressions.

This personal connection is why I see action cinema as an art form. I genuinely believe in the intricate choreography, the physical demands placed on actors, and the authentic portrayal that captivates the audience. In the same way, I'm moved by magnificent paintings, from expressive human figures displaying subtle movements at a dining table to those deep in conversation.

Nuances play a crucial role in filmmaking. For instance, with the film Triggered, it might seem simple to opt for a handheld, single-take aesthetic or to incorporate drone shots. However, thinking about the aesthetics, the framing, and the choreography of each sequence adds layers of complexity.

Take, for example, the scene where Arjo confronts an opponent who's in a frenzied state. The action isn't random. I directed Arjo with the idea that he's facing someone more aggressive than him due to the opponent's heightened state. Yet, Arjo's character shows internal conflict as he grapples with conserving the single bullet he has left.

The goal in that scene was to captivate the viewers, immersing them fully into the action and emotions. What I particularly appreciate about action cinema is the collaborative effort it requires, harmonizing every element to produce visually stunning and well-choreographed scenes.

When you mention the paintings, how precisely are the fighting scenes choreographed? 

I always adapt to the capabilities of my actor. I won't ask them to perform something they can't achieve.

My primary role is to ensure my actor looks their best; that's where the true artistry lies. It's simple to instruct an actor to just fight or throw punches, but if there's no depth or care in that scene, it will come across as uninspired and safe. When you possess a specific vision or idea, you know how to highlight their beauty, even amidst chaos or intense situations.

But there are a lot of group scenes.

You must trust the process and trust your actors. I'm incredibly lucky that, back in the Philippines, I've worked with individuals who I consider not only among the most professional but also the finest actors of their generation. They know how to collaborate seamlessly with a director. You don't lose focus with them because once given instructions, they instinctively know what to do.

What truly thrills me as a filmmaker isn't just getting the shots I want. The most exhilarating moment is when actors bring something unexpected to the table. I can genuinely say that it's in these moments that you begin to adore them.

You need to develop this affection for your actors, viewing them with the same care as you would a child. It ensures that you capture their best, be it in a five-minute scene, a 10-minute one, or just a fleeting moment. Every minute in film counts. I firmly believe it's not about how long they're on screen but about seizing that perfect moment and presenting it to the audience.


Do you have a martial arts background or it was all acting?

Sid Lucero: It was all acting. What united us was our training in dance choreography. We harnessed that experience and adapted it to what Richard envisioned, leaning towards a more authentic martial arts style.

Arjo Atayde: I've had some Jiu-Jitsu training in the past, but this project was different. Right from the beginning, we were guided by an authentic ex-Ranger frontline scout who imparted real-life movements to us on set.

He posed questions like, “What would you do if someone is shot in the head?” His immediate response was that you'd naturally drop to the ground. There's no particular method; if a shot rings out, you fall.

We had to immerse ourselves in that scenario and genuinely believe in the authenticity of the gunshot to respond realistically. While there might be a correct way to rise, in the midst of chaos, 'proper' can become unpredictable. Even though we might have had our personal ways of getting up, we had to adhere to the training, aiming for maximum realism. If ever a take didn't look natural or raw enough, we would redo it to get it right.


The beginning of the film takes place in a region that is known for political tension and extremist groups. Did you use it deliberately?

RVS: Here's my perspective. In the work, I intentionally avoided referencing any specific groups or cultures. Instead, I opted for more generic identifiers like 'bandits' or 'religious militias'.

We're acutely conscious and sensitive about addressing political subjects. While we depict fictionalized scenarios reflecting known conflicts, we approach them with utmost respect and caution. Our goal is to avoid causing any emotional distress or offending any beliefs or political perspectives.

The film isn't focused on the political dynamics; it centers on an individual trapped in a devastating war, grappling with its profound impact on his psyche. While the script necessitated a recognizable identity for the antagonists, I can firmly state that we did not intend to make any political assertions through the movie.

The narrative is about soldiers globally, carrying the emotional and physical scars of combat. We're conveying a universal message: soldiers across the world endure pain, face death, and those who survive often bear deep-seated traumas. We deeply respect and honor all brave soldiers, not just in the Philippines but globally, for their unwavering commitment to peace and freedom for all.

But as you mentioned, the film deals with PTSD, which gives the film a social dimension. And lately, genre films tend to have a social awareness if not making a social statement. 

RVS: We are well-aware of PTSD, and many of us grapple with mental health challenges. The reason we might not appear to emphasize this particular ailment isn't because we disregard it or deny its presence.

In the Philippines, our close-knit communities and strong bonds of camaraderie and family act as buffers. We're surrounded by expansive networks of family and friends, fostering a deep sense of community, which provides support and comfort. Additionally, promoting mental well-being is an advocacy close to the heart of one of my actors.

Arjo Atayde: Data clearly shows a generational gap. In the Philippines, many, including those in government, struggle to comprehend this divide. Instead of seeking understanding, there's a tendency to misinterpret or dismiss newer perspectives. This lack of understanding can be gravely consequential, as seen in instances of suicide.

I'm proud to mention that our film is the first Filipino action film to address mental health issues. Typically, our films showcase heroic protagonists – flawless figures seeking revenge for one reason or another. It's a recurring narrative, not just in our region but in international markets as well.

This film is groundbreaking for us. To my knowledge, it's the first Filipino war film that delves into the concept of "topakk", which translates to 'crazy' in Filipino.

Often, people misinterpret war trauma, labeling affected individuals as merely 'crazy' rather than understanding the profound impact of war. This misunderstanding, combined with denial, hinders acceptance and support for those affected.

We crafted this story as our form of advocacy, emphasizing that such mental and emotional states are real. Although the script is unapologetically raw, I wasn't concerned about potential issues with laws or screening standards in the Philippines. While the film's action scenes are graphic, they serve a deeper purpose, shedding light on the mental turmoil soldiers endure.

At its core, the movie revolves around this theme. We hope to enlighten Filipinos about this pressing issue, and since it's a global concern, we're optimistic about its reception both locally and internationally.

A propos the social dimension, you also give a space to women, which is not that usual in the testosterone-laden action movies. 

RVS: I deeply admire women, their strength, and their capabilities. I don't see them as objects, but as powerful forces.

Much of this perspective comes from my personal journey as a filmmaker and being raised by a single mother. I saw both the masculine and feminine strength in her as she faced immense challenges to bring me to where I am today.

In my work, female characters symbolize strength, resilience, and grit. Amidst a world that can be unreasonable and unapologetic, these characters stand as a beacon, holding things together. They serve as examples, leading and guiding others, exemplifying that with the support of a woman, you can overcome insurmountable challenges.

And seeing your actress in those scenes covered in blood it reminded me of those 80s and 70s American splatter horror movies. Was there any actual influence from American horror?

RVS: My primary inspiration, especially for this project, is Tony Scott's True Romance with Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater. I've always been captivated by Patricia Arquette's character — a seemingly ordinary woman who, when cornered and mistreated, rises above, defending and standing up for herself.

I've always admired action films with women in the lead role. In cinematic language, it's incredibly powerful to portray an actress as someone who can face adversity, get wounded, and yet emerge triumphant. Physically, women may appear more delicate than men, but their resilience and tenacity, when showcased, bring about a triumphant feeling.

This portrayal not only amplifies their beauty but also adds depth to their performance. Furthermore, in cinema, this portrayal brings a unique sensuality to women, making them all the more compelling when they're shown battling adversity, be it through blood, fights, or wounds.

I see. But in action movies, you see punches and kicks, but in your case there is a lot of blood and even gore coming out of people. That´s why I was wondering whether a horror genre had some kind of influence on your work.

RVS: I'm definitely a fan of zombie films and have always admired the works of John Carpenter and Dario Argento. Triggered is our tribute to the 80s action cinema, characterized by raw blood, guts, and violence, coupled with adrenaline-pumping practical action, rather than an over-reliance on CGI.

During the filmmaking process, you could genuinely feel the essence of traditional cinema. Everyone was deeply involved, and we adopted hands-on, practical techniques. For instance, in the scene where intestines fall out, we used real animal intestines. I've always been inspired by the gritty realism of 80s action cinema. Additionally, I have a strong affinity for the horror genre.

And in this case, when you are talking about social issues and then you with over-the-top extreme violence, why did you make this combination like you?

RVS: I understand your perspective. It's indeed a delicate balance to depict serious social issues like PTSD within the framework of an action film. If something is not addressed properly, it could make the film seem out of place or even disrespectful. From the very beginning, it's essential to set the right tone without being preachy. We approached PTSD matter-of-factly, as our narrative had a broader story to convey.

It's also crucial to be considerate of the audience's engagement. If we constantly hammer on the point of PTSD, it could potentially disrupt the viewer's immersion in the story.

We were acutely aware, even from the scripting stage, that PTSD and political undertones were not our main subjects. Instead, these topics served as backdrop elements, influencing our lead character's personal journey.

Our intent was to use these issues as contextual layers, enhancing the depth of the protagonist's story for the audience.

The film made its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival. It also screened recently at FrightFest, where it had its UK premiere, and will enjoy its North American premiere later this month at Fantastic Fest

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Arjo AtaydePhillipinesPTSDRichard V. SomesSid LuceroTopakk

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