A Conversation with Ato Bautista
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco
AT: Did you enjoy working here or was it just to earn?
AB: I enjoyed it because itís still directing, instead of working in a call center. This is not the States that you can be a Pizza Hut [cook] and end up being Billy Bob Thornton. Or a truck driver and end up being James Cameron. If Brad Pitt could be a mascot of Pollo Loco, and heís Brad Pitt now, well this is my Pollo Loco job. This is my Pizza Hut job; at least itís still directing.
AT: Did you learn anything here?
AB: A lot, man, I can never deny that. The quickness, the pressure, the pipeline, pacing. This used to be the number one network, and it still the largest network here in the Philippines. All the training that you can get, may it be technical, the strength of character, when your co-workers are treating you badly, youíll learn everything, even corruption. But, you need to apply the corruption, the politics. I used to be quiet before man, the type that would stay on the sidelines. But you canít do that if youíre the director.
AT: You have to kind of be in command.
AB: That kind of command is the hardest thing to learn because you canít be taught that. You just have to acquire it, all of a sudden. When I was working as an AD, they would be disrespecting me, even the utility guys. Utility is the one who fixes the coffee, the food, [even] theyíd be disrespectful. Thatís the culture here: if youíre new, they roast you; they give you a hard time. As time passes, youíll learn. How you can order someone around without looking bigheaded. I learned a lot, the enormity of whatís placed on your shoulders. When youíre on the set, thereís a crane there, thereís all these people; youíre commanding about 60 people or more. For a novice, youíll really be shaking [in your shoes]. Besides the deadline you have to meet, you have to be quick. If youíre quick, youíre good--thatís the equation here. And if it rates well.
AT: What you said about control on the set, did you not feel that when making your shorts?
AB: When I was making my shorts, I had that, man. I believe and many have said I have a strong personality, I have command. Though I donít know how to make people move. Itís different from just knowing how to do what you do; letís say youíre good at what you do compared to those who are around you and just follow you. It used to be that before I passed it on to someone, I would do everything myself. Thatís the tendency of the indie filmmaker, to do it all. Iíve learned that it canít be like that here in the network, in the mainstream. Thereís a breaking point to your energy, thereís a breaking point to your patience. [The thing is to learn] how theyíll obey you, without getting surly, without getting mad at you; itís a Filipino thing.
AT: You had that when you were making this film?
AB: I think so. But more than that, I found the people I am supposed to be with. People who give me support and believe in what I believe in, who turned out to be my friends. Thatís why I told you that I was surprised that they were all there. I didnít notice that the people I was hanging out with, my friendsóI hate the word butócould be used, could be taken advantage of, could be utilized. I didnít expect that. If you just met me today, Iím the type of person who youíd know right away likes making films, because thatís all I talk about. Arnel Ignacio, for instance, said Iím autistic because every time I see him, ďFilm, man.Ē This guy only talks about film. Iím kind of like that, man. When you talk to me, you might mistake me for someone bigheaded; who is this person who talks like this. The gauge of intelligence isnít in what you say or whoís saying it or even in who has the right to say things like that. I think that the reason why a lot of people join me in my work, what I sell to them is more than anything else, isnít money because thereís no money there; itís not camaraderie. What I know Iím selling is dreams, man. Dreams. To make something. I respect those people around me because Iíve seen that theyíre artists themselves. The one who did the titles is Ivan Despi, a graphic artist. What he really wants to do is work on comic books. Cedric Hornedo, whoís my friend is also a painter. Heís the CG director, animation director here in ABS. Thatís not all they want to do. They also want to do something that they could be proud of and call their own. And there are a lot, Shugo, everybody. All of them have entered the mainstream already. The difference with [these guys and other people who do] indie is that weíve all done mainstream [work]. Weíre done. Weíve penetrated that. From an amateur turned professional, you penetrated ABS-CBN, thatís okay. So what else? Is that the end-all, be-all? Itís not. So you want to do something. You only pass through this. So the unifying factor is that all of us want to do something else. All of us are exhausted. Itís like that, but we need to live.
AT: Whatís your deal with Unitel? You say theyíre going to distribute it in the theaters locally?
AB: No. This is what happened. I approached Tony [Gloria] and we watched the film. They liked it. The deal is 70-30, they donít give us any money. We didnít have any money yet. The deal is whatever they earn, if they manage to sell it abroad for co-distribution or show it abroad, we get the 70%, they get the 30% minus the expenses.
AB: Yeah, promotional tools, shipping, that sort of thing. As for the DVD rights, thatís theirs as well. 70-30, no cash out. The film is theirs for seven years; theyíll be the sole distributor.
AT: What parts did Unitel cut out? Erwin  mentioned that there were some cuts.
AB: What you saw is the directorís cut. When we submitted the film to Unitel, I hadnít gone to the MTRCB yet. I didnít have a screening yet. They suggested, over the phone, Ting Nebrida [of Unitel] suggested lessening the conversation, the first part, Ketchupís establishing scene. Instead of four women being talked about, I trimmed it down to two. I took out the adlibbed parts, but I kept the ones in the script. Itís still seamless, you wonít notice that there was anything taken out or not. But the toughness of the person was lessened, of Pogi. So we agreed. They said it might be too trying for the audience. They said it dragged on too long, that people wonít be able to watch a Filipino film thatís full of cursing from the start. To fill it with cursing like that right at the start, no one is that brave. Although they really liked it, Ting said it might not be the same in other countries. What I showed MTRCB was my cut. If it goes through, if itís approved, at least itís my original cut. They liked it; the panelist even congratulated me, ďWhen are you making the next one?Ē Itís weird, man. Making a film should be filled with tension, but it was the [rating of the] MTRCB that made me nervous. I thought they would give it a X Ėrating. They understood that I didnít put anything exploitative. Their review was, R-18, ďIt has sodomy, foul language but it deserves public exhibition because it deals with the seamy side of societyÖĒ, something like that. Then I was congratulated by the reviewers, three of them. Maybe I was also lucky with the reviewers. Hernando, Mario Hernando. Lanot, the wife of Pete Lacaba. And Bengzon. Then they congratulated me, the film was good, when were we making the next one. They said the scripting is tight.
AT: That was all they cut, Unitel, just opening bits of dialogue? Nothing else?
AB: Thatís it. Nothing else. Thatís also why I agreed to it. I thought they would ask me to cut out the part with sodomy. I figured, if I compromised that, fuck it, I hadnít shown it to the MTRCB and I was already being screened, but it wasnít that. They reasoned that it was too long, the audience might get bored. The term they used was Ďtoo trying for the audienceí, which I didnít understand. When Tito Velasco and I had a meeting, it ended with me bringing my master or digi-betacam to transfer. He was surprised because he thought that what was passed to the MTRCB was their cut, what they suggested. What I gave them is the directorís cut, they thought that their cut was the one to be screened in Glorietta. When I had the premiere, the audience kept laughing, they were reacting to the opening part. I call that the Quentin Tarantino sequence, a long sequence where the characters talk nonsense. Whatís being established is the psyche of the characters.
AT: When I first watched it, it was with my friend, well, two friends. One of them is a filmmaker, John Torres, the other is Jean Tan, a graphic designer. She was laughing and laughing during the opening sequence. And during the dialogue between Ketchup and Taba [in the parlor], she was laughing.
AB: Because itís funny. I talk like that. When youíre all guys, all of you are friends, youíre really crazy. Youíre only different when youíre with other people. I told Ketchup that itís only a script, itís just a guide. I make it a point that theyíre acquainted with the character, that they know who you are. Beyond the script, you should know what the character eats, what he wears, what he smells like, what perfume he uses. They should know so that whatever comes out of your mouth, in your dialogue or whatever actions you do goes with the character youíre playing.
When we were shooting that opening scene with all the cursing, I broke into a cold sweat, there were so many people watching. I donít know why Pinoys are conscious with cursing when we hear that everyday in Hollywood movies. Itís nice to hear when itís in English. But if itís in Tagalog...
AT: Like what Johnny Delgado's character said in La Visa LocaÖ [voice gets softer]
AB: Yes, Iíve been saying that for a long time. Why is it offensive when you say vagina. Look, youíre even lowering your voice. Maybe thatís how our culture isóconservative. When I was shooting that, I was breaking out in a cold sweat, fuck it, there are kids watching. But thatís what came out, I canít do anything. If I was filtering the material as early as that point, I would be fooling myself. Why else did I go independent? As for the scriptóthe stabbing, the part of Kuya Bodjie, the blowjob scene with on the bed, what was in Shugoís script was OSóoff-screen. That means you only hear it. But when I was there, it wasnít like that; I felt it had to be seen. For the blowjob, my original design for that was for only the door to be seen. You [only] hear the sounds but you know thatís whatís happening. A lot of people were surprised why the callboy was the one doing the blowjob when it was supposed to be the gay one. Thatís what you think, thatís why youíre renting the service. Thatís why youíre renting, [for the other person] to do you.
AT: This is the heavy question. While itís still recording, [Iíll ask about the] film: what are you saying with it? What is it that you want to say?
AB: Wake up. Actually, thatís the easiest thing to answer because I know that already. Wake up, man. When I told Shugo the title itself, [he said] it seemed quite lengthy. I said no, thatís really it. Sa Aking Pagkakagising Mula Sa Kamulatan (ďMy Awakening From ConsciousnessĒ) is an oxymoron. My awakening from consciousness, nobody can be awakened from consciousness because youíre already conscious and thatís how we are, what we are here in the Philippines. Iím speaking for myself as a Filipino, we see things, we see all these things and we donít care and we donít even recognize it, because youíre used to it. So wake up. It presented these characters, this life, theyíre there, they know their situation but cannot see it, cannot realize it. Filipinos are passive, theyíre very passive; the character of Rey comprises, generalizes the character of Filipinos that explodes in the lives of these guys. Itís the character of Filipinos who hang out all the time. I can bet you that if we go around right now, there are people drinking at the store, playing basketball, and every street you visit will have a court, a store. Filipino culture.
AT: But then in the film, is there a character that wakes up? Is it Carlo Aquinoís character? Is what he did the right thing?
AB: No, Iím not saying he did the right thing. Itís just a mirror, you just reflect what really happens. Thatís why itís ĎSa Akingí, The Ďmyí, the first person, is important to me because every time you say or you read the title, youíre saying it to yourself. My awakening from consciousnessóĎsa aking pagkakagisingí. I could have entitled it ĎPagkakagising Mula sa Kamulataní but ĎSa Akingí is very important. Because when you say, ĎSa aking pagkakagising mula sa kamulataní, it might make you think, you might wake up and realize things.
AT: ĎCause thatís what youíre intending to with the filmófor the audience? Not what any of the characters do?
AB: For the audience. The reason why you liked the film is because you saw yourself in it, in one or several of the characters. Thatís what I want to say: this is enough; we have to wake up; weíve been like this for so long; film is dead. Itís still the same; there was EDSA Dos, there was even EDSA Tres; weíre still the same. Wake up. What happens is a vicious cycle.
AT: For me, itís an angry film, talks about violence but I actually thought that at the end of it, the characters are a lot more sad than anything else.
AB: I donít even know why itís violent. Is it violent?
AT: Definitely, thereís violence in the film. When they start to beat up Rey and then when Pogi kicks him and tells the other people, this feels good right, itís actually sad.
AB: Itís supposed to be sad. Look at it this way, Alexis, the effect of what happened in the basketball court [the brawl at the start of the film] should be far more enormous, because it was more violent. But what I did was I tried to make that simple beating up of Rey heavier. The one in the basketball court is more of a riot, but the feel of violence is greater when one person was being beaten up.
AT: A lot of the other scenes, the violence, at least for the main characters, a lot of it is very reactive. When Cholo and all of them start attacking Rey, when the dad kills the nephew, a lot of it is reactive. Except for the basketball scene.
AB: But if you think about it, that should be more violent since a lot more happened. I tried to treat it so that it would be inferior, you wouldnít notice it much compared to a stabbing or beating. Whatís the question again?
AT: Sad part in the violence.
AB: Youíre right, itís supposed to be sad.
AT: For me that was the undertone of the film.
AB: Like in Taxi Driver, Scorsese said in his biography, he tried to watch one of the screenings in the theaters and he was surprised that when De Niro took out his gun and began shooting, people were saying, ďBring it on!Ē He was surprised because it wasnít supposed [to elicit] that kind of reaction. His ambition was for you to be struck by what happens.
AT: How do you feel about that? Do you think he didnít succeed?
AB: It depends on the times. Then, it succeeded. Thatís my favourite film in the whole world.
AT: How did you react to that scene?
AB: I was quiet. What I felt wasnít the Ďbring it oní type.
AT: Because for me, it was also like thatóquiet. But how do you reconcile that when half the audience has a very, very different reaction and half of them completely get mixed by the message.
AB: Well, even Woody Allen didnít like 2001: A Space Odyssey of Stanley Kubrick until 2 years later, until he viewed the film the second time. Different times probably. There are some films wherein the reaction of the audience changes depending on what the trend or the norm is. I donít know what the reaction is, although most of what Iíve heard is sadness. Itís hard to comment on the reactions of people, I canít judge that.