[MMFF 2016] Saving 'Saving Sally,' 12 years in the making

– Note: Plot points (but not spoilers) from Saving Sally are discussed below –

MANILA, Philippines – When Avid Liongoren started filming Saving Sally in 2005, his goal, along with writer Charlene Sawit-Esguerra, was to make a film friends would enjoy. He didn't know it would take his life savings, a whole reshoot, and just about 12 years before he and his team would see it fully come to life.

He also didn't know that it was destined for a wider release, or that it would be part of the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) 2016 lineup – now famous for opting for mostly indie projects over the dependable, crowd-pleasing staples that dominated the festival year after year. (READ: FULL LIST: 8 MMFF 2016 entries, trailers revealed)

In 2004, all he had were Marty and Sally, Charlene's characters from a 2002 short story of the same name. Carlo Ledesma helped transform Sally into a screenplay for the film. 

The world of Saving Sally is chaotic and multi-layered, but Marty and Sally's evolving relationship is at its quiet center. 

Concept and final artwork done by the team reveal the richly populated, surreal world as seen through Marty's perspective. It also unveils, bit by bit, signs of evolution over a strenuous, challenging 12-year period as the film faced starts and stops. 

Meet Marty and Sally 

Marty and Sally are seniors in high school dreaming of getting into art school. Marty is a comic book artist, while Sally is a gadget inventor. They talk, laugh, and dream together.

This coming-of-age film comes fully and completely to life with a curious combination of live action and animated elements. 

Welcome to Sandara Park 

Marty has feelings for Sally. He tries to work up the nerve to tell her. They talk, like they always do, at their spot in the park – Sandara Park. 

"That's where they just look at clouds and talk about the future and stuff like that – Sandara Park," direk Avid tells me over breakfast one cool December morning. 

FAST FRIENDS. Enzo Marcos and Rhian Ramos act in front of a blue screen. This is a scene at Sandara Park.

FAST FRIENDS. Enzo Marcos and Rhian Ramos act in front of a blue screen. This is a scene at Sandara Park.

"It's UP [University of the Philippines] mashed with Antipolo and Marikina. UP hills, Marikina [view,] the skyline you see from Antipolo. The way we plotted everything, Marty lives in Quezon City, the park is in Marikina, Sally lives in Antipolo. This is somewhere in Marikina, or LA – lower Antipolo."

It's fitting that Sally and Marty, dreamers both, would retreat to a UP-inspired place to ponder life. The tenacious Sally team, led by direk Avid, are a hardy group of creatives from the UP Fine Arts department.

Quezon City state of mind  

Saving Sally's unique aesthetic is one of the film's many complex delights – among them, dazzling, dreamy views of an animated Metro Manila. 

"Bilang isang batang laking Marvel comics, I noticed na kapag pinag-drawing mo ang batang artist ng cityscape, ang lalabas, New York. (As a kid who grew up with Marvel comics, I noticed that if you asked a young artist to draw a cityscape, the result would be one of New York.) We wanted to learn how to draw our environment," Avid says.  

For Sally, he drew on memories that were close to home. "That's a very Teachers Village view. We used to live in a small condo in Teachers Village, so that's the view from there. 

"Quezon City state of mind 'yan."

Here is more concept artwork done in preparation for the film's re-shoot in 2007, the year Saving Sally started working with prominent French producers. They had identified story points that needed improvement, among other details, so more filming was needed – but Anna Larrucea, the actress who first played Sally, wasn't available for reshoots. Saving Sally needed to start over.

In Rhian Ramos, the team found their new Sally.

"I think Rhian and I were doing Zorro at the time, and that's when they said, 'we're looking for a new Sally, because hindi nga available si Anna [Larrucea]. So I mentioned it to Rhian, because I thought she would be perfect for the part," co-star TJ Trinidad told reporters. 

SALLY. Rhian Ramos is luminous on-screen as the mysterious, yet lovely Sally.

SALLY. Rhian Ramos is luminous on-screen as the mysterious, yet lovely Sally.

Writer Charlene Sawit-Esguerra has a great story on her blog, Field Trips to the Real World, about casting Rhian:

"Late on the final day of auditions, actress Rhian Ramos arrived to try out for the role, willing to wait in line for her turn. Unbeknownst to her manager and network, she’d snuck off to try out for Sally. Admittedly we were avoiding going with someone famous, wanting to find an amazing unknown and avoid dealing with ‘management’, but we were won over by Rhian’s audition – a combination of vulnerability, quirkiness, toughness and intelligence. 

They had Rhian, the old cast was together – but it would take months to get everything in order, as she was busy with other projects, including those with home network GMA. 

Rhian explains the film's appeal and her own grounded approach to Sally at the film's presscon, hinting at the depth of Sally's loneliness and isolation: "It’s a simple story, but that’s why it’s a story that can’t be told enough...I wanted to be a realistic Sally in the world that it’s told. Parang kakaibang mundo siya. (It's like a whole new world.) It’s a world where there’s so much imagination, and monsters exist, and I need robots para hindi ako mag-isa naglalaba (so I'm not alone when I do the laundry.)." 

By the end of 2010, they had a rough edit of the film. But for Sally to realize its eventual destiny, years would have to pass. 

BUSY, REMEMBER? Sally has a secret, but Marty is determined to get closer to her.

BUSY, REMEMBER? Sally has a secret, but Marty is determined to get closer to her.

Sally's home 

Marty often envisions himself as Sally's protector and hero – an "ultimate form" of sorts assumed by his romantic feelings for her. Though clever and witty, Sally exudes vulnerability and a kind of melancholy loneliness. It's a manifestation of her inner turmoil; they are clues to her mysterious private life. 

Sally's home seems reflective of that turmoil, a dark, scary house on top of a cliff. 

"Sally, we wanted her house to look like a church. She's trapped – her parents are very puritan. This was probably created around 2009, before we re-shot everything in 2010," says Avid. 

A boy watches over her 

An enthusiastic inventor, Sally makes a special telescope for Marty so they can communicate. From his room, he can see her house. He watches her, and watches over her. 

It's very sweet. But at the same time, this echoes a fundamental trait in Marty, expressed perfectly via the Saving Sally site: " ...Marty has the innate ability to do nothing about everything despite his vivid fantasies of defending the love of his life from the big bad world." 

Marty's room is one of very few sets that isn't painted. "'Yun 'yung anchor niya sa totoo. Solid siya, parang totoong-totoo yung kwarto niya. 'Yun lang 'yung nage-exist talaga," says Avid. 

(This is his anchor to reality. It's solid, his room is really real. That's the only thing that really exists.) 

Playing Marty was Enzo Marcos' first-ever major movie project. Avid says Enzo "was Marty" with his expressive face and youthful energy. 

The d–ck

Marty's world is populated by all sorts of creatures – and the most prominent one is Sally's new boyfriend Nick, played with oozy disdain by TJ Trinidad, Rhian's former TV co-star. To Marty, he is a d-ck – and that's exactly how he sees him.

NICK. Character design illustrations for Nick, imagined as a gigantic penis monster.

NICK. Character design illustrations for Nick, imagined as a gigantic penis monster.

"'Yun lang 'yung tingin niya sa mundo. It's populated by his artwork. It's just how he sees people he doesn't mind so much, or he doesn't like. They're not necessarily evil, it goes in and out. Minsan totoong tao, minsan hindi," says direk Avid.  

(That's just how he sees the world. It's populated by his artwork. It's just how he sees people he doesn't mind so much, or he doesn't like. They're not necessarily evil, it goes in and out. Sometimes they're real people, sometimes not.)

CHANGES. When Sally is with Nick, her appearance changes u00e2u0080u0093 she's more put together and less casual.

CHANGES. When Sally is with Nick, her appearance changes u00e2u0080u0093 she's more put together and less casual.

Sally's parents also take the form of monsters, because to Marty, that is what they are. 

EVIL PARENTS. Drawings take you through the process of designing Sally's distant and unfeeling parents.

EVIL PARENTS. Drawings take you through the process of designing Sally's distant and unfeeling parents.

Book of Sad

Another treat in this film that contains a narrative within the narrative – audiences get a taste of Marty's own artwork and are privy to his evolution and maturity, not only as a teenaged boy, but as an artist. 

Heartbroken when he learns Sally is seeing Nick, Marty adds another entry to his Book of Sad, a collection of all his sawi moments. 

BOOK OF SAD. We get to see Marty's narrative style and explore his evolving aesthetic as an artist, too.

BOOK OF SAD. We get to see Marty's narrative style and explore his evolving aesthetic as an artist, too.

As the film progresses, so does Marty's work. 

The junkyard 

A stunning frame will arrest fans' attention in the movie. Take a minute to explore the junkyard, a special place for Sally. 

"Sally kasi, all throughout the film, meron siyang secret project na binubuo, na hindi niya pinapakita kay Marty. (Sally has a secret project she's working on, that she hasn't shown Marty.) This is where she works on it. It's in a junkyard. She struggled, and that's where she hides," explains Avid. 

The junkyard is where Sally goes to work on her project, and in the process, works through her own thoughts and feelings. 

On screen, Marty deals with conflicting feelings, heartbreak, and the struggle of inertia, despite his passions and his dreams. 

Over years, the Sally team would be tested with hurdle after hurdle – and all the while, Avid needed to search for more ways to fund the film. Saving Sally needed to be saved. Among the hurdles:

Meanwhile, re-shoots at this time were out of the question – star Enzo Marcos' hair had begun to thin, and they couldn't recreate his previous look exactly. ("The unfair thing is that I’ve been in the film the longest but I’m the only one who has aged so far," joked Enzo at the movie's presscon.) 

Throughout all this, the Sally team toiled in post-production, a small team taking on a huge task that ideally would have over a hundred staff. Avid did other work, directing commercials and other videos, and poured the money back to the project.

KIDNEY 4 SALE. To keep 'Sally' moving, direk Avid Liongoren needed to raise money for post-production. This is a screenshot from one of his YouTube videos asking fans to chip in to save 'Sally.'

KIDNEY 4 SALE. To keep Sally moving, direk Avid Liongoren needed to raise money for post-production. This is a screenshot from one of his YouTube videos asking fans to chip in to save Sally.

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And slowly, frame by frame, minute after precious minute, the film inched closer to the finish line. 

DRAWING AFTER DRAWING. Sketches decorate the 'Saving Sally' press conference, held Thursday, December 8. Photo by Martin San Diego/Rappler

DRAWING AFTER DRAWING. Sketches decorate the 'Saving Sally' press conference, held Thursday, December 8.

Photo by Martin San Diego/Rappler

Even today, mere weeks from opening day, the work remains unfinished, piled as high as all the bits and pieces in Sally's junkyard. When I meet Avid for breakfast to talk about this story, he's hard at work selecting posters to promote the film. The team had been gearing up for a press conference and an early screening for select media. More interviews needed to be arranged. 

12 YEARS. From left: Writer Charlene Sawit-Esguerra, actors TJ Trinidad, Enzo Marcos, Rhian Ramos, and director Avid Liongoren reunite at the 'Saving Sally' press conference. Photo by Martin San Diego/Rappler

12 YEARS. From left: Writer Charlene Sawit-Esguerra, actors TJ Trinidad, Enzo Marcos, Rhian Ramos, and director Avid Liongoren reunite at the 'Saving Sally' press conference.

Photo by Martin San Diego/Rappler

Like all the other entries in the MMFF lineup, Avid and the team are hoping that audiences will take to Sally and give it a chance to have a run longer than a few days. 

In some ways, the 12-year journey combines the best of both Sally and Marty – Sally's endless tinkering and toiling, and Marty's passion and zeal. 

Avid freely tells me that in the beginning, the goal for Sally was much smaller – they wanted to upload it for an internet audience to download and enjoy. 

 

The final product isn't the exact same Sally that they started making back in 2005. Not unlike one of Sally's crazy inventions, parts came together as time passed, and everyone in the team, like Marty and Sally, came of age. 

Not long after Avid and I parted after our meeting, I took a walk around Maginhawa, imagining places where Marty and Sally might have grabbed a snack after school, where a jeepney carrying them might have passed.

I might have gone in search of an entire stick of fish balls to toast the Sally team. They are now poised to finally conquer a summit measured not in distance, but in time.

It seemed apt to do so in Teachers Village, not too far from where Sally was born – and indeed, saved. – Rappler.com

Notes: A round of applause for the 'Sally' team, including Jether Amar (lead visual artist), Jethro Razo (lead visual artist), Hermie Cabrito (tech overlord), Tataselo Panelo (art ninja), April Fronda (art ninja), Paulle Olivenza (art muse), Renato Solano (cook) and Momo, Akiba, and Batik (dogs).

Storyboard and concept art team: Maurice Risulmi, Peter Mutuc, Jether Amar, Jethro Razo. Main matte painters: Joshua Panelo, Jether Amar, Jethro Razo. Contributing matte painters: Maurice Risulmi, Krisian Teves, Socrates Gucor, Luis Estevez, Vincent Trinidad.

Unless otherwise indicated, all images provided by Avid Liongoren.