INTERVIEW: Mikhail Red’s Eerie
Prodigious Filipino filmmaker Mikhail Red’s first venture into horror, Eerie, had its world premiere at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival on 3 December 2018. A homage to convent-school horror, the film follows guidance counsellor Pat (Bea Alonzo) as she navigates the mysteries of St. Lucia’s Convent after a series of murders in its halls.
The son of Palme d’Or-winning filmmaker Raymond Red, Mikhail Red has been screening his films at festivals since the age of 15. At 21, he wrote and directed his first feature, Rekorder (2013), clinching six international awards. His second feature, Birdshot (2016), became the official Filipino entry for the Oscars, and the first Filipino film to be on Netflix.
Red attended the premiere along with the film’s cast — Charo Santos, Bea Alonzo, and Jake Cuenca, all household names and big stars in the Philippines. Just before the premiere, we got the opportunity to sit down and have a chat with Red and his cast to talk about their film. (You can also check out our review of Eerie here.)
Q: Which films were you inspired by when doing Eerie?
Mikhail: A lot of my influences come from the classics like Stanley Kubrick’s movies, but I also like a lot of modern Asian horror. This might be a very cliche answer but I really like Ring (1998). It has this certain structure without relying too much on jumpscares. There’s this mystery that sustains you, and there’s a deadline with constant impending doom, keeping the audience engaged. That’s one of my favourite horror films. Of course, I like a lot of the A24 films as well.
Q: Judging by your previous work, and this being your first horror movie, it seems to me that Eerie might look to subvert some tropes or even layer it with some kind of social commentary. What are the themes you wanted to hit on with Eerie?
Mikhail: One of the subjects we touched on is mental health awareness, which is lacking in the Philippines. We’re a very conservative, majority Catholic country, and a lot of elements in the script are based on personal experiences. Me, the writers, and some of the cast all grew up in very traditional Catholic schools that don’t really have that full understanding of these repressed kids and their mental health. That’s where Bea’s character comes in, where she’s in a way conflicted because she’s a counsellor but at the same time she has a third eye, making her sensitive to the supernatural. So that’s her conflict: what does she believe in?
Q: For the actors, what drew you to these roles, and how did you prepare for them? Were there any challenging parts or scenes?
Bea: Well I grew up in a Catholic school, I studied in a Catholic school, so that actually sparked my interest when I accepted the project. The hardest part was working with Miss Charo Santos [laughs]. I have such huge respect for her as an actress and I’ve always wanted to work with her so I think that’s the hardest. I don’t think there’s an easy scene, though. I mean, the whole movie was hard for me because everything is so heavy, somehow.
Jake: The most challenging part of the film for my character was at the end. I had to prepare by creating this really dark head-space and isolating myself. I knew I had to do that when I read the script, and that was why I accepted the film, because I saw an opportunity to really practise the method. There’s a way to immerse myself and really just have an out-of-body experience with the character, and the opportunity was right there so I took it. I had to be very unapologetic at certain times when I knew I was in the wrong, but I was very much in character.
Bea: But why did you apologise to me after that? [Laughs]
Jake: Not while in character [laughs]. But once we finished; they said it’s done, I could be normal again and apologise. Despite it being a horror film there was such a happy-sad [emotional swing]. You’re carrying around a heavy emotion the whole day, but when they were setting up, we were all just laughing. It was such a fun process. Everything was so organised; they’re so easy to work with on this film. Maybe that’s what made this experience very different as to the other films I’ve done.
Bea: We were also locked in one location the entire 20 days [of shooting], so it helped us get in touch with our real emotions as the character.
Charo: I liked the story, I liked the role, and I wanted to work with Mikhail. [Preparing for the role] is really just getting confidence from my director and from my co-stars. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and when you know that you’re with a team, even the most difficult times become a go-with-the-flow kind of experience. I’ve actually gone full circle; my first movie was a horror.
Q: So, Charo, what was your memory of your first horror movie as compared to Eerie?
Charo: Oh, I was very new. I was so naive then. I think I know more about my craft after being in the industry for two decades as an artiste, and having worked on the other side of the curtain as well — in production. I’m much older now, so I have a better grasp and appreciation of the dark side; the different philosophies of life, and it just brings a lot more texture to your craft.
Q: Mikhail, your films have been through festivals, studio money, and a lot of international funding. Were there any compromises that you had to do to your vision to get it to where it is today? Did the Eerie in your mind turn out the same as the Eerie on the screen?
Mikhail: I wouldn’t call it compromises. In every film I make, there are always adjustments. You never get 100% of what’s in your head. The film in your head is always going to be perfect. You know, the perfect cinematography, perfect location, perfect lines… and then when you start to write it, there’s 80% left. When you shoot it, there’s more realistic factors coming in that you can’t predict — it’s 60%. After editing, 40%. I think the trick is, you have to dream big. So by the time the film gets on the screen, it’s still big enough. In every film, we had to adjust, because of budget; because of logistics. I think that’s what makes a good director — when there are restrictions and limitations, that’s where your skill as a director comes in. I always give this as an example: when the sun is setting and you have three shots to do but you can only take one — it’s that decision that defines you as a director. So yes, in every project there’s always going to be change. The trick is to be clear with your objective. Know what you want to achieve with your film, so you can articulate it to the rest of your team.
Q: Ever since your debut, you have worked predominantly with strong female characters. From Neo Manila, to Birdshot and now Eerie. How is the process of telling a story from a female perspective and fleshing out a real woman on screen like?
Mikhail: Birdshot was based on a news event where a farmer and his son had shot a Philippine eagle. So actually our first draft was a father and son story, and it was structured that way. But later on when we were developing the script, we realised that there weren’t a lot of female characters. We decided to make Maya female to add more vulnerability to her character, because if you look at her environment it’s almost like a man’s world. Everyone’s oppressive and Maya has to survive that food chain.
With Eerie, it was a very natural decision [to have a female protagonist] as it was my first time doing horror, and when I want to approach a genre for the first time, I base it a lot on ideas I gathered from my research of horror films. It’s almost an element that is used for the horror genre — you need a female character, so it was very natural for me to decide [on a female protagonist]. Again, it’s an exclusive school for girls run by nuns, so that also made it a very easy decision to cast majority female roles. But I know that as a male filmmaker I need some help fleshing that out so I worked closely with my cousin Rae and my female co-writers.
Q: Please tell us more about your upcoming projects so fans of yours can keep an eye out for your works.
Bea: I’m going to do a TV series in the Philippines, so that’s next for me.
Jake: She just did a movie!
Bea: Yeah, two movies this year in fact. I did one mainstream love story, and the other movie is [called] First Love. It was filmed in Vancouver, with an older actor. So Eerie is my first venture into horror films.
Jake: Right now I have an ongoing TV show in the Philippines. And I have another movie coming out end January [of next year]. I also did a play just recently, by Duncan Macmillian. He’s a playwright from Broadway, and we brought his work to the Philippines, so it’s my first theatrical debut.
Charo: I’m finishing a movie with Lav Diaz, and starting on a new series.
If you missed its debut screening, Eerie will also be getting a wide release in Singapore in the first half of 2019, so be on the lookout for it! Meanwhile, Mikhail Red’s Birdshot is available on Netflix internationally, for anyone who wants to see more of his accomplished work.