How do you make an indie film?

Nikka Santos
When two creatives and friends join forces, the result is a project worth watching

RAMON DE VEYRA AND Marie Jamora on the set of their movie 'Ang Nawawala (What Isn't There).' Photo by Everywhere We Shoot


MANILA, Philippines – I’m early for our 2pm, but Marie Jamora is already at the cafe, still with another interviewer. As I wait, I can’t help but eavesdrop. Her loud husky voice is hard to ignore and, within minutes inside the place, I already hear her throw two expletives. She’s not angry. She’s just really excited about the music in her film Ang Nawawala. 

Translated as What Isn’t There, it’s an indie she directed and co-wrote with Ramon De Veyra. It is competing in the 2012 Cinemalaya Film Festival New Breed full-length feature category. 

I haven’t watched it yet, as they just wrapped up post-production in time for the festival opening. All I know is that it’s a coming-of-age story anchored on a young man with Selective Mutism. There is love, loss, a search for identity and hints of past tragedy. 

The central character has literally not spoken for years. He is a photography geek who works as a film color corrector. He has eyes on a girl named Enid who, by the way, looks approvingly at his Ultravox vinyl record thus stoking the flames of their burgeoning love. They drink beer and dance in wild abandon in a Sandwhich gig. Later, they sweetly toast popsicles that they had split into two. 

I got all that from the trailer and press material and I’m eager to see how the whole story actually plays out in two hours. 

I want this to be a good movie. How many good indie films about upper-middle-class Filipinos have come out lately? 

How the film got made

It’s a sort of a love story. No, Marie Jamora and Ramon De Veyra are not romantically involved. What I mean is, theirs is a creative love story. 

Before Ang Nawawala, both had worked together on the TV show Project Runway: she as director, he as writer. But the two go way back since college, brought together by Marc Abaya and Martin Scorsese. 

Marie recounts how they met. “I was with Marc who introduced me to Ramon. Then we started talking about Scorsese’s new film at that time, Kundun. I love the first shot of that film! I remember Ramon told me, ‘You know that first shot when the camera is askew…’ I told Marc, ‘I need to be friends with this guy!’ After that, we started exchanging CDs so now we’re also co-music supervisors for the film.” 

Marie was in Uro dela Cruz’s scriptwriting class 10 years ago in Ateneo when she came up with a story about a boy who couldn’t speak. He even had a twin with Tourette’s Syndrome. Eventually, she made it to Columbia Film School in New York where she was told that her twin characters were just too much.  

She finishes Columbia, comes back to Manila, directs music videos, commercials and TV projects, but the idea for that full-length feature was still gnawing at her. And she couldn’t say goodbye to the quiet twin. As for the other twin, she got rid of his Tourette’s.

While she felt she had a solid concept, she knew she needed a collaborator if this was ever going to be produced. 

She wanted to work on the script with Ramon, her friend whom she loved talking to about movies and music. By then, he had written for the omnibus film First Time. He finished a Captain Barbell script, though it remains un-produced. He was also writing for the Animax music show Mad Mad Fun. On print, his byline appears in Esquire and The Philippine Star. 

  • Marie: I didn’t have the guts to ask him. For months.
  • Nikka: But why? You’re friends.
  • Marie: Yeah, well, that’s probably why. Because when somebody’s your barkada… 
  • Nikka: Is it like asking him to be your boyfriend?
  • Marie: Kind of. Yeah! It’s a big commitment. And he’s a crochety, bratty kind of guy.

She got drunk one night and finally asked him. “I want to make my film. Can you co-write it with me?” Marie does her Ramon impression, shrugs and mutters in a low deadpan voice, “Okay.”

That’s how he said yes. 

The script

Fast forward to a few months after her drunken proposal; they had movie sequences on index cards. They laid them on the floor like puzzle pieces, moving cards around until they got a sequence treatment in order. Ramon declares, “That’s the movie.” Marie took photos of the completed movie puzzle. Ramon went home with his set of index cards to write the script out and she had hers.

They agreed to meet once a week and give each other 20 pages. Marie explains, “I’d read the girl characters, he’d read the boy characters. In film school, in scriptwriting class, that’s what you do. You bring in the pages, you assign characters to your classmates. You read aloud so you can hear if it works as dialogue. You can hear if it’s too verbose or whatever.” 

“In the first couple of weeks, I’d say, ‘Here are my pages. Where are yours?’ He’d say, ‘I didn’t do it.’ The following week again, ‘I didnít do it.’ I had to find a process that worked with him,” says Marie.

This involved sneakily nagging Ramon through his girlfriend. There is also that creative chemistry both seem to have. When Ramon later joins us, I see this when they banter like a couple.

  • Nikka: If there’s a deadlock, who wins?
  • Ramon: Siya. [pointing to Marie]
  • Marie: Not necessarily true.
  • Nikka: Siya, because she’s directing it?
  • Ramon: No. Not because she’s directing it. She instigated the project. It’s her baby, so to speak. I’m the midwife. I can voice my dissent, but ultimately the final arbiter has to be her.
  • Marie: Here’s the thing… 
  • Ramon: My approval means a lot to her. (smiles)
  • Marie: Yeah! So if he’s not happy, I really want to find a way to make us both happy. But there were some days I just couldn’t make it happen…
  • Ramon: I think it strengthens the material. If she knows I’m not happy, she’ll think about it, examine it more. It’s like hammering something until it takes the shape it should be.

Together, they eventually shape a 145-page script draft, one out of 12 for Ang Nawawala.

Now, to look for funding

With a completed script to pass around, their hope was to obtain foreign film grants. This didn’t happen. Marie now thinks foreign grant committees are only interested in poverty films from our part of the world. 

They did get local support, through the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCAA) and Cinemalaya.  But because even small movies cost big money, that wasn’t enough. There was also the pooling of personal savings and ArtisteConnecte crowd-funding involved. 

Then, there is the gathering of co-producers who are also co-creatives.

Marie teaches production in her old college, the Communication Department of Ateneo. One day, she got Bernard Dacanay of Brainchild Studios to talk to her students about what it means to be a movie producer. A real movie producer.

“There are just not enough producers in this country. And when I say producer, I mean the way Harvey Weinstein is a producer,” says Marie. 

So there was Bernard Dacanay talking to her students about how the producer isn’t just a businessman handing out money. The producer must also be a creative force! After his guest lecture, she asked Bernard to be her Harvey Weinstein. As it happens, Brainchild is a partnership between him and Trinka Lat, go-to production designer for Marie. She and Trinka have made a lot of music videos and commercials together. Lat is also responsible for the movie’s distinctive visual style. 

According to Marie, Ang Nawawala‘s Hong Kong based cinematographer Ming Kai Leung, whom she met in Columbia Film School, claims Trinka is the first production designer he has ever gotten along with. Ever. And the guy has worked with PDs all over the world. 

Marie says, “Trinka worked so hard on the production design that if you freeze frame any part of the film, that DVD, that magazine, that book, whatever — the character owns it.”

  • Nikka: I saw these brilliant Hello Kitty headphones…
  • Marie: Those are actually Ramon’s headphones! That’s how cool he is! (laughs) I kept rejecting all these headphones for that character, then one day he walked in the set with those headphones. I said, “That’s it!” So Trinka borrows them from him.

Is Ramon De Veyra a real Hello Kitty fan? I forgot to ask, but I did get to ask him and Marie if they’re happy with the final film. 

  • Marie: Yes. Yesss. Finally! It’s done.
  • Ramon: I haven’t seen it with correct color grading and the final sound mix.
  • Nikka: So when you watch on Saturday it’ll also be a revelation?
  • Ramon: I’m not going to watch it.
  • Marie: (slaps Ramon’s shoulders) What the f*** is wrong with you?
  • Ramon: What’s today? Wednesday? I’ll find out later if I can watch. But even if I went, I wouldn’t be watching, I’d just be roaming around in the back. I’d be watching people watching the film.
  • Marie: You need to watch the f***ing film!
  • Ramon: Nah. I know na what happens eh. (flashes ironic smile)

RAMON'S HELLO KITTY HEADPHONES. Movie still courtesy of Trinka Lat

If you’re curious to see what happens in this New Breed Cinemalaya film, screening schedules are in the Ang Nawawala website.

The Cinemalaya 2012 Film Festival opens July 21. –