film directors

[Only IN Hollywood] As his films go to Rome, Marseille, Lav Diaz makes 1st TV series as writer-director

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] As his films go to Rome, Marseille, Lav Diaz makes 1st TV series as writer-director
(1st UPDATE) Lav Diaz’s new film, 'When the Waves Are Gone (Kapag Wala Na Ang Mga Alon),' will make its world premiere at the 79th Venice Film Festival

UPDATE: Lav Diaz’s new film, When the Waves Are Gone (Kapag Wala Na Ang Mga Alon), will make its world premiere at the 79th Venice Film Festival. Diaz’s 22nd film, starring his creative muse, John Lloyd Cruz, will screen out of competition (fiction) in the world’s oldest film festival and one of the most prestigious. Diaz won several awards from the Venice Film Festival, including the Golden Lion (Best Film) for The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo) in 2016. The festival on the Lido runs from August 31 to September 10 this year. 

“Tonight, at 9:30, The Halt (Ang Hupa), will be shown here in Rome, in the Il Cinema In Piazza Festival. Hazel Orencio and Mara Lopez are here to represent the film,” filmmaker Lav Diaz e-mailed to me a few days ago.

The prolific, internationally respected Filipino auteur also attended the Italian outdoor film festival to present his 2019 movie which won best film in the Panorama Section of the 2020 Asian Film Festival Barcelona.

Valerio Carocci, president of Piccolo America Association, which organizes the festival, said in a statement, “On the stages, there will be names of the caliber of Wes Anderson, David Mamet, Paweł Pawlikowski, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Lav Diaz, Fanny Ardant, Volker Schlöndorff, Ladj Ly, Jan Komasa, Wolfgang Becker, Iram Haq, Michael Radford, Cristian Mungiu, and Mathieu Kassovitz.”

“Their presence is a sign of a renewed need on the part of the authors for direct contact with the spectators, after the stop imposed by the pandemic.”

Italian filmmaker Donatello Fumarola moderated the Q and A with Lav, Hazel, and Mara in the screening, which attracted movie lovers who brought lawn chairs and blankets to watch the Filipino filmmaker’s opus under the stars at the Monte Ciocci Park in Valle Aurelia.

UNDER THE STARS. Movie lovers brought lawn chairs and blankets to watch Lav Diaz’s “The Halt” under the stars at Il Cinema In Piazza Festival in Rome. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

In the film set in 2034, Hazel and Mara costarred with Piolo Pascual, Joel Lamangan, Shaina Magdayao, Pinky Amador, Dolly De Leon, and Ely Buendia, among others.

Before this Rome festival, Lav premiered his latest feature film, A Tale of Filipino Violence (Isang Salaysay ng Karahasang Pilipino), at Festival International du Cinéma Marseille (FIDMarseille) early this month.

The long-haired filmmaker, whose many prestigious awards include the Golden Lion (Best Film) in the 2016 Venice Film Festival for The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo), was all set to fly to Marseille but he was not able to.

As Lav explained in our email thread, “Ready na sana lahat pero may delays sa mga pamasahe, grants, at sa visa rin.”

But the big news is that A Tale of Filipino Violence has a television series version named Servando Magdamag, also the title of Ricky Lee’s short story which Lav loosely adapted. It’s Lav’s first ever TV series as a writer-director. He wrote for the Balintataw TV drama series in the late ’80s.

According to Lav, Servando Magdamag will be streamed on iWantTFC, ABS-CBN Digital Media’s over-the-top (OTT) content platform. While the 63-year-old director said his deadline to complete Servando Magdamag is this August, he does not know yet iWantTFC’s streaming timeline and plans.

LAV. Lav Diaz (R) addresses the crowd at the Il Cinema In Piazza Festival in Rome, with Hazel Orencio looking on. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

In the meantime, A Tale of Filipino Violence, which clocks in at 409 minutes (on par with his other epics) did debut in FIDMarseille. When I asked Lav to confirm that A Tale… is his 21st feature film (not counting his documentaries, shorts, and films in which he had segments), he replied, “’Di ko binibilang, e. Baka 21st na nga.

Film Fest Report’s Michael Granados wrote in his review: “Diaz’s latest epic, both in duration and scale, is another sight to behold, but very well is a Diaz film. From his specific framing and blocking, Diaz is interested in his use of space…. With Diaz’s vision for storytelling, both the text and image, A Tale of Filipino Violence breaks down the Filipino family as a result of its history.”

British Film Institute’s Lou Thomas declared, “Lav Diaz’s A Tale of Filipino Violence is another epic of slow cinema from the Filipino director. At around seven hours, it’s a tense and occasionally brutal adaptation of Ricardo Lee’s short story Servando Magdamag…. Diaz’s trademark long takes and static camera shots dominate but patient viewers will be richly rewarded with hypnotic monochrome scenes of great richness and nuance.”

Earlier in our e-mail conversations, Lav shared the film’s synopsis: “With the imminent death of his autocratic grandfather, coinciding with the burgeoning oppressive regime of Ferdinand Marcos, Servando Monzon III, inheritor of the hacienda and businesses of his powerful clan, agonizes on becoming the new feudal lord and capitulating to Marcos’ designs to control the Philippines.”

“He is aware of his clan’s long history of violence; he knows the very violent history of his country; and he foresees a very violent future with the Marcos dictatorship.”

Lav, whom I last saw in person in Los Angeles in February 2020 when American Cinematheque saluted him (its first tribute to a Filipino filmmaker), also shared his director’s statement on A Tale…:

“This is a film made for television, or I ‘constructed’ a film from a commissioned television series; my first. I did write for television before, just a few teleplays for a drama anthology and a sitcom, and some skits/scenes for an educational show for children.”

“So, I have at least some understanding of the nature of things coming from the idiot box despite how I have been ignoring its existence for 40 years now. But during my intermittent travels, in spaces called hotel rooms and Airbnb apartments, I do open CNN or BBC to check the news and the time of day (I don’t have a watch or a cellphone).”

TRIO. (L-R) Lav Diaz, Mara Lopez, and Hazel Orencio at the Il Cinema In Piazza Festival in Rome. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

“I accepted the challenge to write and direct a television series because it was an adaptation of my favorite Filipino short story, Servando Magdamag, a classic of Philippine literature, and written by Ricardo Lee, the venerable giant of Filipino scriptwriting.”

“It was a chance to crack on an impregnable work. Nobody ever dared to adapt the piece; that’s how fortified the nature of the work is. My version will surely run the risk of being seen as sacrilege.”

“From the short story and a script written by Ricardo Lee, with his blessings (‘You have to own it, Lav’), I wrote and filmed a material designed to suit an eight-part television series. Part of the deal, when I agreed to do it, was that I can make a film version and it will be shown first ahead of the television schedules.”

“Television writing in the Philippines, especially dramas and telenovelas, is so detail-oriented and is allowed and expected to go haywire with its plot, subplots, tropes, arcs, and character developments. Melodrama is a given, too.”

“I worked on these attributes and challenges while writing and shooting. Part of the challenge, of course, was that we shot the work during the height of the pandemic.”

“The short story is a deep treatise on the agrarian issues and feudal setup of Filipino society. My adaptation, while being true to the story’s vision, discoursed further on the issue of trauma and fractures on the psyche as caused by interminable violence (in all its forms).”

PIGGING OUT. John Lloyd Cruz in a scene from “A Tale of Filipino Violence.” STILL FROM MOVIE

I asked Ricky Lee what his comments were to Lav when he permitted him to adapt Servando Magdamag. The esteemed and beloved writer, recently proclaimed National Artist by Malacañang, answered by private message, “I told Lav to own the story and a first draft of the script that I did, that he could do anything he wanted with them.”

“So, he wrote a very loose adaptation, expanding it and letting it soar into areas that were totally Lav’s, in his own unique voice and sensibility. He just used what I did as a wellspring from which he drew his inspiration. Which is how it should be. I haven’t seen the film but I am sure I’d be very happy with it.”

A Tale… is another riveting black and white epic drama from Lav. The Philippine Star’s Juaniyo Arcellana wrote in his review, “You don’t know masalimuot until you discern the plot’s development toward the latter part…” To that, I add, nobody does masalimuot like Lav.

Through the Monzon family, Diaz weaves a complex, engrossing tale that is set in the Marcos era in the ’70s but conjures up all the complications from the Philippines’ history with colonizers and invaders.

Led by the superb John Lloyd Cruz in a dual role, the cast includes Hazel Orencio, Bart Guingona, Agot Isidro, Charo Santos-Concio, Nanding Josef, Shaina Magdayao, Topper Fabregas, Earl Ignacio, Noel Sto. Domingo, Noel Miralles, Gio Gahol, and Ian Lomongo.

But get this about John Lloyd, Lav’s frequent creative muse. Lav revealed, “Sa TV version, tatlo ang role ni John. Siya rin ang pumapel ng nawawalang kapatid na babae, si Heidi.”

SHAINA AND JOHN LLOYD. Shaina Magdayao (L) and John Lloyd Cruz in “A Tale of Filipino Violence.” STILL FROM MOVIE

When I asked Charo, who was excellent in Lav’s The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo) (my Italian colleague could not stop raving about her performance), if she has seen A Tale…, she replied via private message, “I’m sorry I haven’t seen the film. But it’s always a privilege to work with a master of his craft, even if my role is a cameo.”

Ever the multi-tasking filmmaker, Lav – on A Tale… – also did the cinematography (with Daniel Uy), editing, and production design.

Below are excerpts of my email interview with Lav before he left for Rome. Note that he answered my question about Ricky before the latter replied to me. In a flash, Lav is now home again in Marikina, already back at work.

Aside from the obvious difference – the television series is broken into eight parts – how is the film version different from the TV version? Which version has extra footage and scenes, for example?

I made Isang Salaysay ng Karahasang Pilipino akin to writing a novel, rather than cinema or television work. I worked more on writing a story, fulfilled characters, vast spaces, but hovering in my psyche was the fact that I will eventually cut a film version or versions and a television series from it.

We didn’t shoot it like a per episode kind of production which is the conventional way of doing a television series. Instead, for television, I will divide what we shot into seven or eight parts.

We shot it from 2019 to 2021, and the process was still like my usual film productions. The television version, which will carry the title Servando Magdamag, will have the whole thing, which means everything that we shot, including the things that will not be seen in the film version or the things that are missing in the film version.

In a way, the film and the television versions will be very connected. If a viewer wants to find more answers and details after watching the film, then he can check them in the television episodes.

Has Ricky Lee seen your adaptation? If yes, what was his reaction? If not yet, what do you hope he sees in your adaptation?

He hasn’t seen it yet. We were supposed to bring him to Marseille for the world premiere but, sadly, his doctor didn’t allow him to travel.

I want him to experience it on the big screen. It’s the first cinema adaptation of his Servando Magdamag, after all, and I want him to see it finally as cinema.

Here’s the story. I annoyed him for years about it – adapting Servando Magdamag for cinema. It started when I became one of his scriptwriting students in 1985.

I told him about my deep love of his short story and that if given the chance to become a filmmaker, I want to make its film adaptation. Since then, every time we met, I kept reminding him.

And, eventually, four years ago, with big help from Mac Alejandre, we finally sat down and committed to doing it.

DIREK. Lav Diaz at the Il Cinema In Piazza Festival in Rome. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Can you clarify what you wrote in your director’s statement, “From the short story and a script written by Ricardo Lee, with his blessings (‘You have to own it, Lav’), I wrote and filmed a material designed to suit an eight-part television series”? Was Ricky’s script for film?

Ricky wrote a screenplay and, of course, there’s the original great short story. It’s a beautifully written screenplay.

It is a Ricardo Lee script! If handled by good hands, it will be a great material for a film. It can be a different and unique film.

I was commissioned to do a work that would eventually become a television series so I had to expand that whole thing and I would have enough material to suit an eight-part presentation.

And so, I wrote a different material but of course, used Ricky’s short story and screenplay as the templates and inspiration. When I agreed to do it, part of the deal was there will be a film version. Ricky told me to just be free with my adaptation, which helped a lot.

With the advent of the streaming platforms which allow for more creativity and experimentation in content, some of the best writing is now in what used to be called the “idiot box.”

Yes, of course, good writing can be in any medium, and that includes television or streaming platforms.

SHOO, FLIES. Shaina Magdayao in a scene from “A Tale of Filipino Violence.” STILL FROM MOVIE

What about television writing in the Philippines, especially with the continuing popularity of telenovelas? How did you work around these parameters, if at all?

I’ve worked with television before, around the early ’90s, and I know the attributes of writing a series – drama anthologies, sitcoms, even children’s shows.

Did you discuss with Ricky what the name Servando Magdamag symbolizes?

We didn’t talk about what it symbolizes but Ricky’s use of magdamag for the title alone was a stroke of genius. First, the story is such a hard read.

You will need to have a deep knowledge of Tagalog language to be able to grasp the majestic flow of words, and then, the structure – its modernist demeanor – sets up a struggle between the subconscious and reality and other realms.

It would require different approaches to reading to really understand it. There is an overwhelming mystery to it that you would want to crack.

That’s why even if you don’t understand it after repeated attempts, once you’ve surrendered to it, there’s transcendence which is the greatest attribute of truly great work.

What was it like to direct Charo Santos-Concio again?

It was cool to have Charo back. The character she played, albeit I didn’t have her in mind while writing it, seemed like it was really for her. She was with us for only a few days but she totally committed to the role.

CHARO. Charo Santos-Concio in “A Tale of Filipino Violence.” STILL FROM MOVIE

Many of your cast members are actors you have worked with again and again. What do you like about doing that?

Apart from the luxury, of course, of knowing each other for so long which will make the load easier, so to speak, it’s more about knowing them as human beings, their commitment to their craft, their integrity, and even their politics. There’s also that trust and a sense of family or community when I’m with them.

Let’s take the scenes of John Lloyd Cruz and Bart Guingona as they talk while the latter is in bed, as an example. These two actors are among your “regulars.” What were your directing instructions to both actors?

With John and Bart, it’s akin to being together in a band for so long. You don’t even have to talk. They come ready, and we do it. Again, there is trust.

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[Only IN Hollywood] Lav Diaz to premiere 4th film with John Lloyd Cruz at London Film Fest

[Only IN Hollywood] Lav Diaz to premiere 4th film with John Lloyd Cruz at London Film Fest

A Tale of Filipino Violence is set in the regime of then President Ferdinand Marcos. It’s ironic that now, as the film and television series are completed, the son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. was also elected president. Did you anticipate that to happen as you are finishing the film and TV series versions?

I thought Leni Robredo would win so I was making Servando Magdamag – again, as if chronicling one turbulent period of our history.

I underestimated how deep ignorance has been embedded in our people’s psyche, so when the son of Marcos won, I knew how prescient the work was, and how present the struggle has become again.

It’s so surreal, unbelievable. Why did we allow this to happen? If you watch the two trailers alone, it’s there in the voiceover: “Paulit-ulit. Sa aking panaginip. Waring isang bangungot.”

Can you give an update on your next films, starting with When the Waves Are Gone (Kapag Wala Na Ang Mga Alon)? What is it about?

The film is ready. It’s about the bloody war on drugs of Duterte.

Henrico’s Farm?

I’m still working on it. And it’s about the struggles of overseas Filipino workers. –

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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.