A Surfing Movie Like No Other

I really wanted to tell a story about myths, and about how we create narratives in our heads about who we are. I think people are a collection of stories that we believe about ourselves, and we have to be aware of how those stories came to be, how they’ve been crafted and edited in our minds.

– Mario Cornejo, Best Director for the film, Apocalypse Child, at the QCinema Film Festival

A cloudless horizon sets itself from a distance. Shifting waves in a cadenced song and dance seem too inviting to not be heeded. The sun sparkles like crystals on salt water. It is a great day to surf in Baler – and Ford (portrayed by Sid Lucero) and Fiona (portrayed by Annicka Dolonius) cut into the deep with their surf boards untroubled. This opening scene of Apocalypse Child that just unfolded has set the calm and subtle tone that will weave throughout the film. I am visually drawn immediately; no, make that captivated.

Apocalypse Child won Best Picture, Best Director for Mario Cornejo, Best Supporting Actress for Annicka Dolonius, and Best Artistic Achievement in Editing for Lawrence Ang in the recently concluded Quezon City International Film Festival 2015 (QCinema).

“Apocalypse Child is about a man who’s been told his whole life that he’s the son of Francis Ford Coppola. Whether true or not, that narrative has come to define him. But aside from the stories he’s been told about who he is, he has also accumulated his own stories through the years. He’s a gifted surfer, best in town. He lives day to day, not worrying about the future, and at the same time he’s stuck in a past full of regrets”, tells Director Mario. And this man is Ford.

A Coming of Age

When asked about Mario’s inspiration in writing the narrative, he articulates his desire to tell tales about how each of us are made of diverse stories, how we believe those accounts and allegories – whether true or not – and how we recreate them in our heads as we grow up. How do these episodes that seem to chronicle our lives define us as individuals? How do these make us react to what life throws back at us?

After watching the film, you might think that the characters seem to be escaping from repressed feelings through one fantasy after the other. In truth, Mario is not exactly showing escapism as a recurring theme in the film. To him, “I am obsessed with truth, and people’s relationship to truth. I think maybe by examining that, I may have ended up exploring how people escape truth. But I was looking at the other side of the coin, and maybe by doing that I exposed the flip side.”

Apocalypse Child, as one of the producers depicts, is the coming of age of Ford’s character, a man in his 30’s, who grew up with the story of being Francis Ford Coppola’s son. Mario adds,”I think growing up for real means looking at the stories that define you and discarding the ones that are holding you back, no matter how attached you’ve become to the tired narrative.”

He further says, “You’re the pretty one in the family, the smart one, the black sheep. You’re the son of a famous, distant filmmaker, or the mom that lost a baby, or the girl who used to hurt herself. You’re your father’s son. You’re the worst thing that’s happened to you. You’re the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

“You can cling on to these stories if you want. But stories are happening all the time, and you can change your story, and edit if you have to.”

Dream Actor

The complex characters have emerged eventually in the story as Mario wrote along. For the lead role of Ford, he has no other actor in mind except for Sid Lucero. He has never met him, but has already become a huge fan, seeing him grow and hone his craft through the years. “As soon as we hit on the idea of having the character being Coppola’s son, he was the only known option. If he’d said no, we were going to look for an unknown”, Mario utters.

And Sid Lucero does not disappoint along with his co-actors. Their performances imbue vulnerability and truth that goes suitably with the bond and chemistry they have onscreen. “My cast was ridiculously good”, expresses Mario, “They trust us as filmmakers to find the truth of what they’re doing, to see the real person behind their characters, and to treat their art with respect.” And with the film involving nudity, drug use, and reprehensible behavior, the actors have given Mario utmost trust in not using their performances exploitatively.

“But much more than that, I asked them to be so very emotionally vulnerable, and no one backed down. Everyone said they’d rise to the challenge, and they did. Their performances are the movie. If I had any hand in that, the only thing I can point to is that I’m sure that I treated them and their work with respect, and I hope they could feel that. I’m so very, very proud of them”, Mario emphasizes.

In addition to Sid Lucero (Ford) and Annicka Dolonius (Fiona), Gwen Zamora plays Serena, Ana Abad Santos plays Chona, RK Bagatsing plays Rich, and Archie Alemania plays Jordan – all with equally outstanding performances.

Candidness on Set, and Up Dharma Down’s Armi Millare’s Involvement

It took about 19 days to shoot the film in breathtaking Baler. Though there were days when there were no waves to shoot a surf scene, the real challenges faced were emotional according to Mario. “We had to find things, to look for the truth in moments and situations.”

There is also a lot of room for spontaneity, which gives the film a kind of rawness and an unconstrained impression. According to Mario, “We wrote a script, but we knew that would be just a blueprint. I wouldn’t call it entirely improvisation, since almost every beat is in the script. But when the beat didn’t work, we tried other things.”

When asked of a memorable story that happened on set, Mario prefers to say that the whole movie was a memorable story altogether. The work itself – watching an amazing cast and crew do all the acting, lighting, design – is the big story.

Though the film echoes a seamless chill atmosphere onset, there were difficult moments wherein Mario lost his temper a few times. “I’m not the most laid back person in the world, and putting a bunch of actors on a beautiful location like Baler and then expecting them to be always in work mode was a losing proposition. There were times that it was like herding cats. But when I actually got them on set and in front of the camera, the work they were doing was so pure that I’d forget all of the frustration.” And for a director like Mario, there is nothing like it.

Armi Millare, from the band Up Dharma Down, is also one of the amazing artists involved in this film. “Imagine receiving an email from Armi Millare with a beautiful song that she wrote specifically for your movie. Then imagine going to the studio and watching her craft that song, work with musicians and then go into the booth to sing her heart out”, Mario affirms. So yes, there were still some behind-the-scenes dramas while shooting. But who cares about them, when you have all these amazing things happening at the same time?

It’s More Than Just Pretty Pictures

As for the underwater shots that you won’t fail to fall in love with, in where a Sony A7S with a generic underwater housing and a GoPro Hero 4 with a dome housing was used, Mario worked it out with cinematographer Ike Avellana early on that they were not going to do a film with just pretty pictures. With very little planned, they aimed to tell the story as simply as possible while finding the apt mood of the film, and with a clear intention. Mario shares with us that he did not even do a storyboard with Ike. We see the same spirit of spontaneity that they had in the acting, which is woven through the entire process of filming. “While that was amazingly exciting, it was also scary as hell”, Mario quips.

Director Mario and his team have learned to trust their instincts. He adds, “Sometimes we’d leave a scene and I’d feel that we didn’t have it, and true enough, we’d look at rushes for that scene and then go back and reshoot. Other times, we had a plan to shoot a ton of angles, [and] then we’d shoot the master and know we had it in that one angle. We’d shoot the other angles anyway, and sure enough, we didn’t use them.”

“Some filmmakers fall in love with shots, but my first job was as an editor. That’s how I made a living for four years before someone ever paid me to direct anything. I fall in love with shots all the time, but when they don’t work [on] the film, I’m the first to cut them out.”

“That being said, I think the shot of Fiona in the dark outside Ford’s house was amazing.”

True enough, we couldn’t agree more.

And boy, this film? It is indeed one helluvan amped ride.

Catch longtime partners and collaborators Director Mario Cornejo and Producer Monster Jimenez, along with the cast and crew of Apocalypse Child at Revenge.ph’s second independent film screening at ASpace Manila on Feb. 20, 2016 at 7pm. Join us as independence hits back!

#RevengePHgang #PhilippineIndependentCinema

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