There are a ton of adjectives one can use to describe director Erik Matti, but “safe” is not one of them. Scanning through the rogue filmmaker’s body of work is like diving down the rabbit-hole of Pinoy genre cinema. He takes risks. And more often than not, the result is gut-busting entertainment with a singular direction, a tone and mood and style that are indubitably his and his alone.
His latest endeavor, the high-octane action thriller BuyBust, received glowing reviews from the international press after debuting at the New York Asian Film Festival. Variety called it a “superbly executed action film.” The Hollywood Reporter labels it a “rare beast”—one that “actually invites the viewer to root for cops who shoot, stab, pummel and behead people in a poverty-stricken shantytown.” You can’t buy those kinds of reactions. But anyone who has spoken to direk Erik even briefly will tell you that the maverick auteur never does it for the critics. He’s always been about pleasing the audience first, a quality that allows his purposeful narratives to breathe and be and resonate with moviegoers.
“I want my films to be seen by a wide audience,” Matti tells FHM.com.ph. “I've seen a lot of meaningful Filipino films with very strong world-changing messages but no one has seen them. So, what's the point in making it? Who were you making the film for in the first place?”
It’s a question that seems rhetorical at first until it isn’t—it’s an artistic yet philosophical query that every responsible filmmaker should be asking themselves on the regular. We’re just glad that, as a champion for Filipino films, Matti isn’t afraid to ask the difficult questions and find the answers to them.
Many credit you for being a vanguard for genre filmmaking in the country. Why is genre filmmaking important for Pinoy cinema to thrive?
I think any filmmaker who feels that he has a story to tell wants to reach out to as many people who can listen to what he has to say. Genre films are the most accessible in smuggling in a personal story. Anybody who chances upon my movies in particular will always feel that it’s accessible because it’s confined within a particular genre. But, of course, for every film I make, even if it's genre, I always try to reimagine or reinvent the genre.
What compelled you to make a challenging action film like BuyBust?
I've always shied away from big epic films, fantasy CG-heavy films, and full-on action films. Primarily because as a filmmaker coming from a third world country, budgets are always an issue. For lack of budget, we always turn to making the film campy or compromise on execution. With BuyBust, I felt I was at a stage where I could marry ambition with the resources of the film. And the challenge for me was, given the free reign to do the film my way, was it possible to make it work? I've had hints of action in my films here and there. But BuyBust is the only film that has action from start to finish, with the dialogue totaling only around six pages in the entire script.
You’ve been very public about the part Anne Curtis played in getting the ball rolling for the film. How important was it for you to have her in the central role?
I've always been judged as a macho filmmaker whose films are always male-driven to the point of being called misogynist. For BuyBust, knowing that action is testosterone-filled, I made it a point to go for a female lead. It was important to use a major star in a film designed to look like an ensemble piece, but slowly reveal a strong female protagonist as the one who moves the story forward.
Anne Curtis is the only female star of this generation who has the stamina, the athletic skills, and the passion and the dedication to make something she commits to work. I was just very lucky that she liked the project and immediately signed up to do it with no questions asked.
In terms of production, what obstacles did you have to overcome in the making of the movie?
I’m ambitious with the kind of films I want to achieve, whether big or small. I wanted to push the envelope in terms of how action films are made. And almost always, I end up shooting myself on the foot. From the outset, no matter how much people call this as another The Raid, the idea behind BuyBust is really having a zombie film without the zombies. I'm not just dealing with a set number of actors fighting their way through an equal number of villains—we have the whole barangay going after a PDEA team. Imagine the auditions we had to do for stunt people, not to mention training to get rid of the usual Pinoy action moves. And as if the action sequences weren't enough, the film happens in one night, where it's raining on and off to simulate how crazy our Manila weather can be.
We have one action sequence where we did six-day rehearsals with full actors and crew. We shot it for three days, but the whole scene plays out for only three minutes in one continuous shot. It's of Anne weaving through alleys and rooftops, fighting a mob with rain and lightning effects. I think this is the first time in a long time where a full-on action film is being made in Philippine cinema and the biggest hurdle in the first part of production is calculating the amount of time it would take to do the scenes properly. So there were miscalculations at the beginning, where we scheduled one action sequence (the gun battle) for three days and ended up shooting it for six days.
Aside from dedicated actors, I got myself a staff and crew who were really committed to doing this right with as little compromise as possible.
You’ve released a number of exciting video teasers online. But what was your favorite scene to shoot and why?
I actually get bored shooting action sequences. There’s just so much coverage you need to collect so that you have something to work on in the editing room. The favorite scenes I enjoyed shooting in BuyBust are surprisingly those with dialogue, where I needed to figure out character dynamics between squad members and the character journey of each one. I especially enjoyed shooting this really long dialogue sequence towards the end of the film with Anne and the lead villain.
But what are the elements needed to make a good action sequence?
It’s like a short film: there's a beginning, middle, and end. And the director has to be very much aware that an action sequence is not about choreography, it's really about what's happening to the characters emotionally. Haven't we seen so many action sequences that had all the punches and the kicks done right but we just don't feel anything? It's because we don't care who does the punches and who does the kicks. A good action sequence should push the character's journey forward.
Why do you think violence is so cinematic? Why do audiences have such a big reaction to violence on the screen?
Because it hits you in the gut. Media has bombarded us with so many images that a slap on the face just can't get a reaction anymore. In BuyBust's case for example, thematically it involves the idea of killing all throughout the film. We specifically designed the film to show different kinds of killings. I think the only one we didn't include was killing by poison.
People have discussed the allegorical nature of the plot to our country’s current events. How conscious of an effort was it to include real-world elements into the script?
I first thought of BuyBust while shooting OTJ. We were in a slum area and panicked because it was huge and we were in the middle of the place and if something happened, I wouldn't have known how to get out because the place was like a labyrinth. We initially wrote several drafts of the screenplay designed mainly as a real horror popcorn film. But then, Duterte happened in 2016.
Somehow, as a responsible filmmaker I just cannot stomach doing a film that doesn't take into consideration the present conditions of the country in relation to the story I'm doing. Since I'm doing a buy-bust-gone-wrong movie, it's hard not to put it into context.
But it's easy to just make a film that points fingers or a film that collates Facebook rants and putting it into a story to make it socially relevant. The challenge was to clear my thoughts of all the insights regarding the present drug war and dig deeper to find out what's wrong with it without prejudice to either the government or the opposition.
Having a script from my writer and with the research coming in as we were in production, I was writing BuyBust on the fly using our PDEA consultants, our military consultants, and everyday news. Yes, Barangay Gracia ni Maria, the setting of the film, is an allegory of this country and its people.
In your opinion, does life imitate art or does art imitate life?
Almost always, art imitates life because it's where we draw inspiration whether consciously or subconsciously. But there are also instances where life imitates art. I remember while we were doing Honor Thy Father, it was about the same time the whole Iglesia Ni Kristo scandal broke out in the news. I couldn't help but think it was so much like HTF.
With the advent of the internet and social media, has the filmmaking game changed?
It's changing. It’s becoming harder to get people to go to the cinemas. They'd rather watch movies on their own personal time, wherever they are. And that's something we're trying to figure out now because our cinema audience is dwindling. Taking our cue from Hollywood, I think event movies can still bring in the audience. The films that have to be shown in cinemas have to have a certain premium that everyone will say, "I need to see this on the big screen.” Haven't we all experienced going to the cinemas to watch a movie then going home regretting wasting our time and money because we could have watched that kind of movie on our laptops or TV sets?
BuyBust—like all of my movies—is designed to be seen on the big screen.
Before making a movie, what do you look for in a script? What kind of stories do you find yourself attracted to these days?
There are directors who are commissioned to make a movie from an existing script. Everybody started that way but I don't do it anymore. At my age, I only want to make the movies that I really want to do. Whether for entertainment or for arthouse, the kind of stories I'm drawn to have a certain kind of clever cynicism, a lot of sarcasm, and always come with a good dose of irony.
BuyBust premieres in local cinemas on August 1.