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[Only IN Hollywood] ‘On the Job: The Missing 8’ filmmakers make strong presence in Venice

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] ‘On the Job: The Missing 8’ filmmakers make strong presence in Venice

PHILIPPINE REP. The 'On the Job: The Missing 8' team, led by director Erik Matti, arrive at the Palazzo del Cinema, for their Venice Film Fest's premiere.

Ruben V. Nepales

The film screens in competition at the Venice Film Festival, where its premiere ends with five-minute standing ovation

“I just realized, because Erik likes political thrillers and gangster films but in the Philippines, the gangsters are the politicians. So that is something that is very uniquely created.”

Quark Henares, one of the producers of On the Job: The Missing 8, said that midway into the press conference for director Erik Matti’s movie at the Venice Film Festival, where the gripping political thriller/drama was in main competition.

Erik and Quark were joined in the press con by actor Dennis Trillo and Dondon Monteverde, who is also among the producers.

The film went on to win the best actor prize for John Arcilla, the first Filipino to receive the Volpi Cup for acting in the prestigious festival, which, at 78 years, is the oldest film festival in the world.

Paolo Bertolin, who moderated the press conference at the Palazzo del Casino, and is one of the programmers of the festival on the Lido, was prompted to follow up on Quark’s quip: “So are you really sure you are not in danger?”

Erik replied, “We will wait until we get there (in the Philippines) (laughs). This may be my last laugh.”

Producers Dondon Monteverde and Quark Henares and director Erik Matti
RUBEN V. NEPALES

Erik will be home soon, carefully bringing home John’s Volpi Cup, which was well-deserved. I watched striking performances, including those by Benedict Cumberbatch in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog and Oscar Isaac in Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, in the recently concluded festival.

But compelling is the word to describe John’s portrayal of Sisoy Salas, a journalist who questions his allegiance to a mayor when his friend and fellow co-founder of a newspaper, six other journalists, and a child, go missing.

Dennis (Roman Rubio, a convict who is regularly brought out of prison to assassinate the mayor’ enemies), Lotlot De Leon (journalist Weng), and Dante Rivero (Mayor Pedring Eusebio) are standouts in the uniformly good cast.

Erik and his sequel to his acclaimed 2013 Cannes Film Festival entry, On the Job, stirred buzz on the Lido.

I witnessed the standing ovation which lasted for about five minutes at the end of the film’s premiere and which made Erik, Quark, Dondon, and other Pinoys present beam with pride. Outside the Palazzo del Cinema, the Philippines’ flag waved proudly.

Standing ovation, lasting around five minutes, for the Philippines’ ‘On the Job: The Missing 8.’
RUBEN V. NEPALES

Venice Film Fest’s director, Alberto Barbera, told Deadline midway through the festival: “The Filipino movie by Erik Matti On The Job: The Missing 8 will be a surprise to people. It’s on Friday, same day as the Ridley Scott. Both films are quite long.”

Variety’s Jessica Kiang raved: “This man is Sisoy Salas (played in a deceptively shrewd, moving performance of integrity gradually winning out over bluster, by John Arcilla) a local celebrity in the municipality of La Paz.”

“The film is designed as a genre procedural, and delivers its most visceral thrills in well-mounted versions of classic set-pieces, like a prison riot and a last-ditch car chase through a cornfield at night — sequences where Matti’s verve, Neil Derrick Bion’s classical, moody photography and Jay Halili’s exemplary cutting work in concert.”

“But there is also a serious point being made here, and a distinctly angry undercurrent of social critique that all the ironic soundtrack cuts and cinematic suspense-building cannot obscure.”

“It would make On the Job: The Missing 8 a fine double bill with Ramona S. Diaz’s terrific 2020 doc on pioneering Filipina journalist Maria Ressa, A Thousand Cuts, which proves how very close to life much of this expansive, uneven but ultimately richly entertaining thriller really is — especially, perhaps, those elements that seem most far-fetched.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Keith Uhlich wrote: “Cinema genre specialist Erik Matti and his screenwriter spouse, Michiko Yamamoto, return to the world of 2013’s On the Job with this ambitious three-hour-and-twenty-eight-minute sequel, which will soon be re-edited, along with its predecessor, into a six-episode limited miniseries for HBO Asia.”

“Even at near-Irishman length, it works pretty darn well as a feature, widening the cops-‘n’-crooks scope of the Manila-set first film to focus on the role of journalism in holding politicians to account.”

In his director’s statement, Erik wrote, “This film is an ensemble piece that attempts to explore, through the disappearance of eight people, the reality in the Philippines that is never shown on the news.”

“Politicians as gangsters. Journalists as paid hacks. Prisoners as assassins. This ensemble of crazy characters intersects to represent a deep-seated culture of impunity and non-accountability in a country like the Philippines.”

“It may seem paradoxical that I find the criminal mind extremely fascinating but also something to loath in disgust. But I am never judgmental. I am interested in understanding what makes them think, to see the human side of them, not to glorify them but to really see how they became who they are.”

Ultimately, the brilliant film is Erik’s ode to journalism. 

On the Job: The Missing 8 reminds us of the Maguindanao Massacre of 58 people, including 32 journalists, and desaparecidos in the Philippines.

Asked about making a biting political statement in a genre film, Erik answered, “You might be surprised that the initial ideas, no matter how social or political the stand that my films make, all start with, what type of cinema do I want to do this time around?”

“And a lot of it comes from the gangster genre. Also together with that, and hitting two birds with one stone, you also have the investigative – All the President’s MenThe Insider, Michael Mann kind of feel, which I haven’t done yet in any of my films.”

“If you look at the films I have made, I go out of my way to do the films that have impressed me in terms of genre. I try and find stories that could actually be told through using the genre.”

“In this case, with On the Job, it just so happened that most of it – and I think all of it – is based on true events.  And to wrap that up in a familiar genre, but now with this On the Job, it’s a hybrid, having an investigative and a gangster story all at the same time.”

“But to be able to tell a story with the kind of cinema that I enjoy mostly, maybe the era of the 70s. In the case of this one, there’s a lot of Brian de Palma in it, the swell, the sprawl and the epic. I am just glad to be able to put something so serious and so political and even to the point of dangerous into something converted into cinema, into a genre.”

“And maybe that’s the reason we are not in danger because at the end of the day, when they watch it, they get entertained by a film and not really focus on who is in there.”

On the Job 1 and The Missing 8, reconfigured as a six-episode series, recently debuted on HBO Go.

But for folks who are watching The Missing 8 by itself – a riveting piece of cinema that kept me engaged for three hours and twenty-eight minutes – Erik said, “This new film could be a standalone film. You could watch it, even without seeing the first one.”

“Maybe by seeing the first one, you get a little more context. But as it is, you would get everything that we all wanted for you to see in the second one.”

The filmmaker stressed that he planned the sequel as a theatrical feature. “Ronald (Dondon) can expound on it but when we started the film, we intended for it to be on the big screen. But the years of production led us to be in the pandemic.”

“From then on, we had to think of other options because our cinemas are closed in the Philippines.”

“And we would love to really show the film as soon as we can and share it to a wider audience.”

Dondon added, “There were quite a few surprises when we were doing this because it was, of course, intended as a film but never this long.”

“But then, knowing Eric and being able to work with him before, things got more beautiful as it went along and everyone got excited until we got to a point where we came up with material that is actually more than four hours.”

“So, it’s a good thing that the team was able to trim it down to three hours and twenty-eight minutes. Right now, it’s pretty tight for a film.”

“It’s beautiful that HBO got it because, at least right now, because of the pandemic, people get to view it right now on a global scale, which is why we are really happy about this – that partnership.”

Quark said with a laugh, “I just remember when Eric told us how long the cut was, we were like sweating buckets – okay, it’s three hours and forty minutes.”

“Then he followed it up with a caveat – maybe we can make two movies or cut it up and make it into a series. I remember it was a thrilling experience watching it for the first time because then we had that in the back of our heads.”

“There were certain moments in the jail cell and it was like, this is such a good cliffhanger and this would actually translate well to a series.  So thankfully, it worked out and we are with HBO.”

“It is so much in the DNA of the channel with True DetectiveThe Wire and The Sopranos. I think it really belongs in that pantheon of work.”

The filmmakers credited their movie’s inclusion in Venice’s main competition for drawing HBO’s interest.

Dondon explained, “Every time we enter into a project, Eric and I – we know the risks involved in terms of investment. Right now, the only relevant platform in the Philippines in the past year is actually Netflix.”

“But then it’s a good thing that Venice liked the film and naturally, we are very thankful for the Venice Film Festival for taking it in.”

“That drew attention for people to take a look at it and see what type of film we were able to do with On the Job 2.  So, HBO actually took a good look and made an offer.”

“But at first, it’s not the type of budget we usually want because the Philippines is a lean market but they wanted to launch HBO in the Philippines. So they figured that this would be a good platform for them to actually launch the film – the content in that platform so people can download their app.”

“The bosses of HBO were able to get together and actually talk to give more to the numbers so that we can feel good about showing, releasing and having the access of releasing the film as a series, even though we didn’t really reach the right numbers.”

“Actually, for the sale, we are pretty happy with the offer because at least right now, it’s a good stepping stone actually for us. The content like this, that Filipinos have done, has been able to make it into this stage, being in Venice and then on a global platform like HBO, just gives it more chance, gives more life into the franchise.”

Dennis said, “We just feel so lucky that we finished a very big movie in spite of the pandemic.  We started shooting in 2018 and we finished around 2020.”

HBO Asia

On the film’s running length, Erik commented, “I am the last person to endorse a three-hour and twenty-eight-minute film (laughs). I am looking at my filmography and I try and tell the story as short and straightforward as I can.”

“But in this particular case, with On the Job:  The Missing 8, it could have been told shorter than that. And we even tried it. We even did other permutations while we were still editing it but it just doesn’t work.”

“I think this three hour and twenty-eight-minute cut, the fact that now we are showing it in a major film festival and that it eventually found its way into HBO, showed us that we shouldn’t have doubted ourselves from the very beginning.”

“There was a time when we were just on the script stage and we were having people read it. Everyone was telling us, it’s too local, it’s too layered, it’s difficult to follow. In the beginning, you believe in the material but later on you hear all of those.”

“You start thinking, maybe I am not seeing what they are seeing and maybe I am wrong or you start doubting yourself. But by keeping to how we wanted it and the vision that we saw with the film, it paid off.”

“It paid off that it’s not just us Filipinos that could possibly identify with the film. But now, we are here with an international audience and they are going to see the film.”

“And not just that, in the next couple of days, the whole of Asia will also get a chance to see the whole piece. I am glad it’s not just us Filipinos who would understand a film like this. It’s going to go global in the next couple of months so it’s nice.”

On using a prosthetic broken nose, fake teeth, and a mullet wig, Dennis remarked, “It’s kind of a unique direction from Eric. He told me that in most of my movies, I am a leading man and with a clean look all the time.  But in this film, director Eric wanted to see me in a look that he had never seen me have before.”

“So, I had to put on prosthetics, fake teeth, and a wig. So, by changing your physical appearance, it really helps you with the role and the character. I just feel so lucky that Erik picked me.”

At the Venice Film Festival press conference of ‘On the Job: The Missing 8’ in Palazzo del Casino
RUBEN V. NEPALES

Erik explained, “I think the strength in changing Dennis’ face is that his emotional attack for his character even became more interesting, with the added crooked nose and the broken teeth.”

Critics and film lovers cited the free-for-all prison riot scene toward the end.

“Erik wanted to see a fight scene that was not really choreographed and looked dirty and real,” Dennis said. “I just did what Eric told me.  I have some background in boxing but I really didn’t use all those skills in that scene.”

Reviewers and festival goers also hailed the film’s ironic use of standards, including classics originated by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones, to deliver counterpoint in crucial scenes.

Erik surprised the assembled media by revealing, “Just as a tidbit of news, yesterday we just got all the license titles for all the songs (laughs). Just in the nick of time before the premiere (laughs). Every music company and publishing house has sent the contracts approved and signed, which was just right before the world premiere.”

“The use of the music was really planned from the very beginning when Michiko was writing the script. We compiled a playlist of the kind of music that we wanted to be in the film.”

“It even went as far as some Bon Jovi songs and Scorpions songs. But Enrique was right when he said here, this time around, gangsters are the politicians (laughs).”

“And based on that idea, we wanted to bring two types of music into the film. One is the music of the American gangster Hollywood music – the American standard songs, the songs of Johnny Mathis, Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra.”

“Then we also have the other side of it, bringing in a lot more of the Filipino songs which are protest songs. The only Filipino song that’s not a protest song is a Filipino sung song based on Bella Ciao, which we translated into dialogue.”

“Some of the songs act as commentary for the scenes. And in fact, later, some parts will have the subtitles of the lyrics of the songs, just so you could connect them to the imagery.”

“But with the kind of sprawl and scale that we wanted to show in the story, going around three or four plotlines at the same time, the American standard songs lend themselves to a kind of nostalgia yet larger than life feel to things.”

“And the way we used them is not to use them equally with a visual but in a way, using it as contrast to whatever conflicting scenes that are happening.”

Erik shared, “Another key tidbit about the music is that one of the toughest negotiations was for Frank Sinatra’s version of The Impossible Dream. Because apparently, the estate of Sinatra doesn’t want to have his voice being used in any film version.”

“But we really wanted the version that he had. It’s good thing the estate allowed us to use just the music and we found a singer that could just do a version of Sinatra’s song.”

Erik, Dondon and Quark also attended a panel event, “From the Philippines to the World: The On the Job Franchise and Exploring New Ways of Global Content,” and cocktails, both held at the Hotel Excelsior and hosted by the Film Development Council of the Philippines. FDCP chair, Liza Diño, and David Fabros, were on the Lido to organize the successful events.

Back to the press conference, Erik was asked about the possibility of On The Job 3.

Erik replied, “We thought On the Job 1 was done right after the ending scene, inside this car and he just killed one guy.  We all thought, that is the end of OTJ. It is a standalone film.”

“Then eventually, years later, we thought of coming up with the next one and of course, tying it up together but also making it a standalone film. With this one, we never end our films really tied up in a little bow where all the plot points are closed, all the characters have a resolution or all the conflicts are finished.”

“We always end things just like in life, where there is a lot of unfinished business. It’s not because we really want to go into another sequel but the film feels like you are just getting a slice of life.”

“We don’t even see their life before the start of the movie. So, we are always just capturing a segment of their lives, which is the most interesting. That’s why we depicted it on film.”

“But we all know how difficult it is to develop projects in the Philippines. It’s not easy. There’s actually no development state in the Philippines.”

“You go and sit down with a producer and then you give it all you have got. The producer gives you one hour or 30 minutes, have coffee or lunch and you give it all you have got.”

“You come in there with two stories. But when the producer doesn’t budge or doesn’t say anything, you just have to come up with five other things on the table, hoping that at the end of that one hour, you have one movie greenlit.”

“And that is how development happens. That happens and okay, how long will you give us the script, one month, two months?”

“And then if you don’t give the script, they don’t remember you. They move onto other things. So, it’s hard to plan longer sequels.”

“Of course, with our partnership with Globe and Reality Entertainment, it’s easier now to talk about, maybe we can do this because we have known each other’s work for quite a while now and we are working on several things together.”

“But even with that, we don’t really go out and say, okay, when we do this, let’s prepare for a sequel for the next film.”

Quark said that with the situation in the Philippines, he and his fellow filmmakers will always have material, whether they are for On The Job franchise installments or different films.

HBO Asia

“What I really appreciate about the On The Job film series is that it really reflects a lot what’s happening or specific events. So on The Missing Eight, actually there were 50 – it’s not just eight journalists – but 50 journalists and their families who were killed because they were in the middle of this political war, in a Philippine province.”

“And then of course, the prisoners who were actually let out to do hits and assassinations. That really happens also. So as long as we’re getting fucked over by the government, we will have content.” – Rappler.com

Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.