A Conversation with Lav Diaz
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco
AT: Heremias, your work-in-progress that you hope to finish this year, looks to be a very long work as well. Perhaps even surpassing the length of Ebolusyon. Explain to me the reason for the length of this film.
LD: Heremias will be another long film. I’ve shot roughly forty or fifty percent of the film already. Right now, I’m watching and studying the footage. I don’t know how long it’s going to be but it’s definitely going to be long. Again, this is not deliberate. The story is evolving; the characters are growing; new threads are appearing; doors are opening. I can’t do anything about it; I have become a slave to this organic process. Being a slave to the process doesn’t mean I’m trapped; on the contrary, it is autonomy, letting the canvas grow and fulfill some truths.
AT: You told me in previous conversations that Heremias is also the title of a Balintataw TV drama that you wrote in the early 90’s, if I remember correctly. Tell me about that script. What was it about? How similar are its themes and characters to the Heremias that you are making now? How does it differ?
LD: I wrote a teleplay called Heremias for the television series Balintataw in the late 80s, around 1989, if I remember right, when I was still writing for the now-defunct Jingle music magazine and freelancing as a film and music critic for the then-fledgling Manila Standard newspaper, and also, writing for popular comic magazines. It was a very personal play, an offshoot of my harrowing experience with polio. I was stricken with paralysis when I was about eight years old and I couldn’t walk for more than a year. I struggled to relearn how to walk and when I was finally able to walk, I had to deal with a very dysfunctional body motor system--the pain in the bones of the left side of my body, particularly the left foot, remains a recurring problem until today, especially in severe cold and humid conditions. The trauma and shock and stigma stayed with me for so long. It was hell, I tell you. I created a character based on that. The Heremias film that I am shooting now is quite different from the teleplay in terms of character background and the age level but the theme is quite parallel in terms of personal struggle—post-trauma-cum-Socratic-perspective. The Heremias of Balintataw is a young man while the latest incarnation is middle-aged. So, the obvious difference is on the level of wisdom. And the length, of course. I know that there’s still a copy of that episode somewhere because after the series ended its run on television, Balintataw continued to tour the episodes in high school campuses as part of an audio-visual educational program. I remember my eldest daughter telling me that she saw Heremias in their school.
AT: I visited the set of Heremias. While watching a particular long take on a monitor, its duration felt correct; though while standing there during the actual shoot of the scene, a certain impatience grew in me. Does the same happen to your crew?
LD: Impatience is inherent in every film production. It’s always there, whether it’s my shoot or other people’s shoots, whether it’s my mise en scene or an action director’s style of shoot or the so-called full coverage [of] directors’ insecurities. Filmmaking is hard work, whether you’re working in a big budgeted studio production or in a low, low budgeted independent work. The conception or the pre-production alone eats [up] so much time, then the shoot, and then the postproduction, and then showing it. Hollywood or big studios would shoot a scene with a lot of preparation and profligacy. I lived in a street in New York City before where one day, Hollywood shot a scene of Wesley Snipes. They started coming at dawn, the big trucks and hundreds of crew [members]. They covered two blocks, big lights all over, big cables, lots of policemen, lots of noisy assistant directors and production managers who were all trying to be busy, noisy and gaudy. It was like a whole day of chaos that disoriented us all living there, just the set up. I woke up and went for a walk at 4:30 a.m. while they were starting to set up; I came back after two hours, took a bath, cooked my breakfast, read the New York Times and some magazines, went to Barnes and Noble to check a new book, had coffee with a friend, visited a sick painter friend, went home at 2 p.m., they were still setting up and were a lot noisier. I slept for two hours, woke up and went to have lunch and coffee, went to work in Jersey City, back in New York at around 7 p.m., bought a dirtied book for a dollar in the street along Washington Square Park, had coffee with a friend, and finally, they shot the scene later that night. HMI lights screaming all over town, camera on crane, Mister Snipes comes out of the bar, he walks, Cut! Some more retakes. And then they packed up. It was a very brief shoot, but the preparation took them ages.
The process of film production is a test of patience. It’s never a breeze. Patience is a virtue in this medium. The story of Heremias has been with me since the late 80s. I started shooting it only last year. I shot Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino for eleven years, all in all, I worked with seven cinematographers and ten designers to be able to finish it. I wrote Batang West Side in 1996 and was able to shoot late 2000 up to 2001. Pre-production alone took eight months.
My staff and crew think I am a fast director, in terms of shooting a scene. I do make those long, long takes but my ratio would just normally be one is to one or just one take or at the most three takes for every scene. Oftentimes, newcomers on my set would be shocked. What? Just one take? Just three takes? Just one angle? No full coverage? You know, a lot of filmmakers practice the “full coverage” directing—shooting a scene in all angles, top shot, tilt down, tilt up, pan right, pan left, zoom in, zoom out, the dolly, the crane shot, and then do all the close ups, the medium shots, full shots, long shots, establishing shots, cut-aways, lots of reaction shots. They do that on every scene. They call it the sigurista  directing; you have everything; let the editor suffer the pointlessness of it all. The usual practitioners of this kind of filmmaking are movie industry people. And oftentimes, to be able to achieve this, people would shoot for 36 hours straight killing themselves to exhaustion. And they would light their sets like there are twelve moons at night and twelve suns in the morning. I am not saying that this is not valid, this full coverage exercise. It is still filmmaking indeed. But talk about impatience, man. This is fucking film school. This is a fucking television commercial shoot. This is a fucking product shot shoot. But then it works for them, so ya, man, let’s do the take 35 for that fucking close up, apply more make up and open the three HMIs to the maximum.
AT: How important is it for you that the people you are working with understand what you are trying to achieve, and the vision of the work as a whole?
LD: It is very important. But you are talking of the ideal set-up and condition. How cool would it be to have people who truly understand and embrace your vision. But in practice, specifically in filmmaking, it doesn’t work that way. Most often, meeting of the minds can only go as far as following a schedule, deadlines and fulfilling a process. Or, some people would want to work with you because they admire your work, would want to experience your process, or simply would just want to work and learn. But as far as vision is concerned, maybe yes, if you are working with a scriptwriter, a producer, a photographer, a designer or an actor who would go that extent—truly understanding what you are trying to achieve.
Always, always, pursuing a vision is a lonely path. You are alone. Even discourse and discussion wouldn’t work for you. Your thesis could fail. Your premise could blur. But ultimately, your work will speak for you. Your work will make them understand. Your work will make them realize eventually why you are such a fool.
AT: I understand that, in Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino, the great actress Angie Ferro, who plays the grandmother, is a Marcos loyalist. What was it like working closely on that film with someone whose viewpoint of the period it tackles is directly opposed to yours?
LD: Angie Ferro is one of the greatest actors of our time. She could delineate any role with her brilliance, with her madness, with her darkness. I worked closely with her not just in Ebolusyon but also in the television drama anthology Balintataw when I was starting. I was also lucky to have seen some of her theatre works and performances. She’s truly one of the greats. Her role in Ebolusyon, Lola Puring, is a simple apolitical barrio folk; her concern is her family, the education of her granddaughters, the return of a lost grandson, the ideology of the soil. It would be different if the character is anti-Marcos or an activist during the period. I’m sure Angie would object. Yes, she is a hardcore Marcos loyalist. I was shocked when I learned that she is one. I learned about this when I was still in Balintataw. Through the years, we had had heated and exhausting confrontations and shouting matches about the matter, about the sins of Marcos, about her blind faith. At first I was really frustrated and disillusioned because I love and respect her, but then I struggled to understand her. To her, Marcos is a great Filipino, maybe the greatest, and Imelda is the greatest patron of the arts. That stand is her greatest contradiction. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile these things—greatness and contradiction. But think of Wagner, Heidegger and Nazism; Dostoevsky and gambling; Rilke and sexism; Van Gogh and the prostitute; Nora Aunor and shabu; Frank Sinatra and the parrot.
AT: Are there certain positions in the crew/cast that need to understand more than others?
LD: On a conceptual level, working as a team means everyone must know. But in practice, specifically in filmmaking, of course, the levels of discourse for each member of the team will be different. The scriptwriter’s perspective will be very different from that of the cinematographer and the designer and the actor. The level of understanding and knowledge that each of these very unique individuals will have for the work at hand will definitely be on different levels also. A director is not just a playmaker who fanatically pursues his mise en scene; he must also be a psychologist who probes his milieu, and a psychiatrist who conducts discourse with his ward. On the human side, I always look at people on equal terms. The director, the utility man, the photographer, the extra, we are all on the same level. Nobody plays god or diva or spoiled ass in my production. Each and everyone’s position and functions are clear and important. We struggle to work with dignity.
ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino