The Passion, Prerequisites, and Everything In-Between with Director Paolo Villaluna

By Denise J. Mallabo

Spotlight had a sit down with movie and TV director PAOLO VILLALUNA, who is fresh from the success of his ToFarm Festival 2016 entry Pauwi Na. We asked him about his love for making movies, his then docu show Storyline, and everything you need to know about his latest movie Pauwi Na.

WHAT MADE YOU LOVE DOING MOVIES AND WHO MADE YOU LOVE DOING THEM?

The old Mowelfund Film Institute under Nick Deocampo became a breeding ground for me: it gave me a set of core values, especially as an artist. I belong to the MFI Documentary Batch of 2000 where I was able to make my first short film Palugid. I believe the best filmmakers of this era contribute much of their formative years to the old Mowelfund Film Institute.

Filmmakers are storytellers. I love making films because I am able to express myself through stories and because films and stories have a social purpose: they are transformative— they can change lives, widen horizons, make people think, or laugh or cry. They can also be disruptive in a good way: films contribute to our social fabric— if they don’t serve as mirrors to social ills, they at least reflect who we are at a particular moment. Mainstream films, independent films, comedies, romcoms, action films, and documentaries, they all serve a social purpose, even the badly made ones. At the very least they’re time capsules of one’s culture.

We all desire to leave this life a better world than how we found it, right? Filmmaking is my little contribution to hopefully achieving that goal, only because, to be honest, filmmaking is the only thing I know how to do.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE OF ALL TIME, SOMETHING YOU WISH YOU COULD HAVE DONE?

I was 12 yrs old when I first saw Bladerunner as a replay on TV. I was going through my own personal bullshit around that time. You have to understand, I used to think of films as entertainment and amusement, especially during those years— so at 12 years old, watching a film like Bladerunner made me think and feel differently about life. BOOM! Suddenly, films were transformative, and since then I strived and dreamt of being a filmmaker. Bladerunner is not something I wish I’ve done because it’s already perfect the way it is [laughs].

WHAT HAS ADVERTISING WORK TAUGHT YOU THAT CAN ALSO BE PRACTICED IN MAKING MOVIES?

I originally came from making films before I was invited to make TVCs. Advertising has taught me several things: the discipline of organization and preciseness in storytelling. Of course the objective of advertising is totally different. But the challenge for a filmmaker is very creative: tell the story in 30 seconds. Work within the parameters of the brand. It’s a creative challenge that is very fulfilling on its own when achieved properly.

Ironically and suddenly, I found myself working in advertising for 7 years already, so tables have turned [laughs]. I actually took a break from advertising to make a film and not the other way around. But the cinematic core value of any filmmaker worth their mettle will never change. You bring your brand of cinema in any format.

HOW WERE YOU ABLE TO MAKE STORYLINE THE BEST DOCUMENTARY SHOW ON TV?

Storyline is a product of so many things. Back in 2008, documentary shows on TV were not directorial— you practically had a segment producer telling a cameraman what shots are needed to support the story and the host. TV docus during that time were host-oriented with bad footage and cheezy reenactments. When Patricia Evangelista and I came up with the concept, we wanted to be able to tell the story of people without a host: let the storyteller tell their own stories. And Patricia, being a writer, wanted to just tell stories too.

The director-writer partnership began and I applied film language into the stories, we treated and shot the show like a film. Composition and film language were applied making it cinematic and thematically weaved into the subject’s story. The subject, the story, they’re already real—how to capture them using cinema and making it poetic, were the added ingredients. Of course, other shows followed suit. Documentary shows started hiring actual directors and writers to create better shows din. It was flattering that Storyline became a peg. Not just visually but even the selection of stories and subjects; kungbaga the human element of stories. I love our tagline: Everyone is a story. Influencing other shows was a good by-product of Storyline. It’s satisfying to know that there’s a lot of good docu shows now on TV.

WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO JOIN THE FESTIVAL TOFARM WITH PAUWI NA?

The script for Pauwi Na has been on the shelf for several years, 10 years to be exact. It’s been optioned by Viva Films and Skylight Films of ABS-CBN but Ellen Ramos (my co-writer, co-editor and producer) and I was not very comfortable with the changes they wanted with the material. So the script’s been waiting for the right opportunity to be produced. When ToFarm surfaced, I was actually surprised it was selected, because the film’s layer of going back to the province barely touches the festival’s agricultural theme, although I could philosophically argue for it.

I will forever be in debt with the trust the festival and Dr. How put in me. I think the film waited for the right producer and the right cast. Pauwi Na has a life of its own. I guess it was just destiny.

HOW DID YOU CHOOSE THE ACTORS FOR PAUWI NA?

I’ve always put great importance in casting. And in all my films, I’ve been blessed with being able to work with actors I thought would give the film’s characters justice; Yul Servo, Jaycee Parker, Ronnie Lazaro, Tetchie Agbayani, Boots Anson Roa, Bella Flores and Anita Linda in Ilusyon; Sid Lucero, Emilio Garcia, Ara Mina, Michael De Mesa, Allan Paule, Soliman Cruz and Ping Medina in Selda; Lovi Poe, Joem Bascon and Jacky Woo in Walang Hanggang Paalam.

The casting in Pauwi Na was doubly more challenging, not only because I needed good actors but because all the characters in this film are lead characters. It’s an ensemble and they’re together in almost all the scenes; if any one of them is not in sync, we’ll have to do it again and again and again. I acquired the help of casting director Ricky Gallardo to help me narrow down the selection. I gave Ricky a character sketch and he proposed several actors. When we’ve narrowed down the actors, we’ll send the actor the script, and if they like it, I usually have a one-on-one jamming session with the actor and gauge several things—our dynamics (because acting is a precious collaborative effort), their ideas of the story, their ideas on the character and more importantly, their disposition as a person (I utilize their real disposition as persons into the characters they play because as a technique. I don’t like actors who just “act.”)

It’s difficult to articulate the feeling when Bembol Roco and Cherry Pie Picache said yes and loved the script. I literally fell off my chair in disbelief. Here I was, making a small comeback film and I get to work with two of the best actors ever produced in the country. Thankfully when we did our one-on one meeting, our ideas, our dynamics jived. Bembol and Cherry not only brought justice into the roles of Mang Pepe and Aling Remedios, they gave the characters real lives. Casting Isabelle was also difficult. Isabel is naïve and innocent and pregnant and blind. Anyone else less talented than Meryll Soriano would have made Isabel just plain, stupid, and childish. Meryll Soriano, I will say is the best actress of her generation. Jesus Mendoza and Chai Fonacier are gems. They are names to be reckoned with in the very near future. Jerald Napoles was the last to be casted because there were a slew of other actors vying for the role and I fought tooth and nail for him. We confirmed him as JP 24-hours before the first shooting day. When we met, I felt Je’s passion and understanding of the character and what he delivered in the film is glorious to say the least.

Bembol, Cherry, Meryll, Jerald, Jesus, and Chai gave their characters life. It was a daunting shooting process for us and I had to create the proper environment for them to thrive in (as to how, that’s for another article I guess [laughs]) but suffice to say, we all went through the struggle of the characters in the film and in the process we also became a family. Minus clichés’ and kabaduyan, we really became close. There was the investment of trust and faith sa isa’t isa, professionally and emotionally. That’s also one way to gauge your actors, when they care so much about the character that they actually become emotionally invested in the film. It goes beyond work. Remember, when I said casting Pauwi Na was doubly challenging? When we pulled it off, it was also doubly rewarding.

WHAT ARE YOU PLANS FOR PAUWI NA?

After ToFarm, it will be submitted to international film festivals. There’s a planned theatrical run too. Like most films, it will have a life of its own. Bahala na si Batman, ika nga.

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