A Conversation with Ato Bautista
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco
Twenty-five-year-old Ato Bautista is an aggressive character.
Sa Aking Pagkakagising Mula Sa Kamulatan ("My Awakening from Consciousness"), his first-feature film, isn't perfect-- a side-plot relating to a gay parlorista's exploits feels unnecessary-- but its power is undeniable. Released in the Philippines in the first quarter of 2005, but to have its international premiere this March at Mar del Plata in Argentina (has Unitel, who picked up the film for international distribution, been neglecting it in favor of its own products?), Sa Aking Pagkakagising Mula Sa Kamulatan was shocking, not just for its imagery, themes or potent filmmaking, but for announcing-- seemingly out of nowhere-- the arrival of a young voice with both talent and a message.
Entirely produced independently the old-fashioned way (with friends chipping in and talents and crew working on scale) Sa Aking Pagkakagising focuses on a group of 'kanto boys'. A concept common to Philippine neighborhoods (though likely not unique to them), the term describes those that one sees night in and night out wasting time, trading stories, and, of course, drinking, at the neighborhood corner store. Through a confident grasp of language and dialogue only gleaned from one who knows well the milieu he is depicting, Sa Aking Pagkakagising brings to life archetypes-- the cocky punk receiving "foreign aid" from his mother overseas, the siga or neighborhood toughie, the petty thief-- each of whom, after each receiving their comeuppance, vent their frustration on a hapless young square (Rey, played by Carlo Aquino) that passes by, beating him to a pulp.
While the film's content is much more abrasive than your average commercial Filipino film, it’s interesting to note that its vivid performances are delivered by a troupe of actors largely assembled from the popular TV network where Bautista earned his production stripes, ABS-CBN. Hinting, possibly, at the untapped potential of many young thespians in the country, whose talents waste away on poor material and situation comedies. Soon after its brief commercial run in the Philippines, Criticine sat down with Ato Bautista to talk about how he assembled his group of actors, his filmmaking background, producing his feature in true independent fashion, and walking along the compromise line.
Alexis Tioseco: Where did the money to finance this film come from?
Ato Bautista: My dad had promised me this for a long time. My dad’s retired.
AT: What’s his occupation?
AB: Policeman. Captain. In the province, San Jose. My dad is an okay cop, he was able to retire. He had promised to get me a car. Second-hand. When the time came that I was looking for funding, I couldn’t get anything because nobody knew me. I also joined Cinemalaya for the funding but I also wasn’t chosen. So luckily…
AT: Were you a finalist?
AB: I was in the top 30, the semi-finalists. I didn’t get into the top 10. Luckily, I wasn’t able to join because I was able to finish it on my own. It belongs to me. Well anyway, my dad promised me P150,000 to buy a car. Until one day, I really didn’t have any money left; I didn’t get anything from Cinemalaya; I told him on Nov. 2. “So Dad, are you giving it to me?” “Yes, that’s been set aside already, you can get it when you need it.” “You’re giving that to me and I should be able to do whatever I want with the money?” “Yes, whatever you want.” “I’ll use it to produce my own film.” My dad said, “Wait.” I told him, “Dad, even if I get a car, what will that do for me, I’ll just have a car, second-hand at that. But when I make myself a film, I’ll have a film. There are so many directors in Manila, with nicer cars than the car I’m going to buy. So it won’t make any difference.” I convinced him even if he was against it. I called Shugo [Praico, Sa Aking scriptwriter], “Hey man, how much can you pledge? We don’t have funding left.” “Okay, I’ll pledge P50,000.”
AT: The contribution of your father is 150?
AB: 150, besides the money I added--some of my earnings--and another 50 from Shugo, who added more as we went on. But that’s a secret because his wife will hit him on the head for that.
AT: Ah, he has a wife already?
AB: She only knows about the 50,000. Ketchup gave 10,500 but I have to pay him back for that. Cedrick, who did the visual effects, gave 6,000 when we were on the set. Our budget of 200,000 only made it to the second day. Balicas suddenly wasn’t available on the second day. If somebody else rents the equipment, they can’t be lent out since they have a client. We needed to outsource. The next day, we didn’t have money. Miraculous, man. Mickey [Ferriols] and Archie [Alemania] lent us 20,000, Arnel gave us 30,000, only someone ran away with the 23,000. My mom pawned some of her jewelry, so did my aunt. Then I sold my TV, which was brand new. I’m a TV person, I like watching TV so that was painful. I have a film, anyway. What else did we do? We went through a lot of pockets when we needed the money; that’s the journey, man. It’s a long story; I can’t tell it in one go. My mom is the woman who was robbed in the film. My aunt is the one in the jeepney talking to Kahoy. My mom works in catering so she was the one who would cook on the set; all of us had full stomachs. We ate five times a day. That’s what I assured them—even if I couldn’t pay them, everyone would have full stomachs. They were surprised that the food was so good. I still owe my mom. I think I still owe her P9,000.
AT: Where did the story of Sa Aking Pagkakagising come from? Where did it start?
AB: How did it originate? When I was shooting my second short film entitled, Bisitasyon, I was in my senior year as a Communication Arts student in UST [University of Santo Tomas]. I was filming the establishing shot for the house, when some drunkards, some people drinking on the street thought they were the ones I was shooting. So they were shouting, “You idiots, you can’t mess with us! Fuck you!” I ignored them because the camera was on loan, so I couldn’t fight back. I was holding the camera while I was with my best friend, Alaric, who’s also my actor. In Bisitasyon, by the way, I was also the one who acted in it, because there usually aren’t any real actors for a school project. After awhile, they came near us and one of them slapped me. After I was slapped, I couldn’t retaliate and we just ran away. That’s part of where I got the story. As for the other part, I was watching TV, maybe The Probe Team , a long time ago. It was about prisoners, those in reclucion perpetua-- lifetime sentence. One of the stories of the prisoners being interviewed was about how, when he was fifteen years old, he was drinking at the store along the street. His friends were heckling him until they beat him up and he was knocked unconscious. When he woke up, the guys who beat him up were still drinking in the same place. What he did when he woke up was, he took an ice pick and stabbed to death all his drinking buddies. That story stuck with me for a long time.
AT: They interviewed the guy…?
AB: They interviewed the guy; it was from the POV of the guy. Yes, in the jail in Muntinlupa. Then I said, if he was 15 years old [at that time], they can’t imprison him right away, right? He was sent to Boys Town. Then when he turned 18, they transferred him... When he was being interviewed, he was in his late 40s already. That means, [he was there] from 15 years of age to his late 40s, he’s probably in his mid-50s now. In one instant, everything was gone; his future was erased; even with the odds that he might be released, he has nothing to return to. I was struck by what he said.
Anyway, I lived in Sampaloc for five years. That’s where I went for college; I lived there for three years as a college student. I was in Cavite during my first year. For those three years, four years, five years after I graduated, I was still living there. I had a love and hate relationship [with the place]. I was supposed to put, in the last part of the film, ‘For Manila, the place, the city that I despised and loved.’ Because Manila, man, it’s love and hate because it’s grimy, noisy, stinking, chaotic, but you still love it. Everything’s there.
AT: It’s the same way. I grew up abroad; I grew up in Canada, spent 14 years there. Coming here, your impression of the Philippines is you have so much corruption, so much pollution, the traffic. Then I came here, and despite these things, it’s home. Yeah, you do love it.
AB: I had a hard time leaving Manila, but I had to. I’ve been through a lot, man so even if I can’t afford the apartment where I’m staying now, I still went for an apartment that I could own. I was almost a vagabond; having a house is really important. I used to stay at other people’s places, I’d stay in different places. In Sampaloc, there was a time wherein I was told by Ricky Lee, my mentor, “Ato, your Manila is finished, you must move on.” Coincidentally, I ran away from home because my elder brother and I got into a fight. I was crashing at someone’s place; I didn’t have a job; I was looking for a job. This was after Mowelfund man, because I left everything behind.
AT: How old were you then?
AT: You finished university at 21?
AB: Yeah, I was 21 when I finished college. My life is colorful, man. Anyway, I was in Prudencio, where I was living with my best friend, who I dragged along from the province. I noticed [that] from the time I was in second year until I graduated, the people hanging out in the streets, those playing basketball, the people drinking they were still there even when I left Manila. So it’s a cycle and I thought the characters in the story are characters I’ve met and mingled with. Their attitudes, parts of their attitude are those of Shugo [Praico], my writer. It’s uncanny; it’s strange because Shugo thinks like I do, exactly. It had been 2 years since I’d made my last work, [the one in] Mowelfund was the last, there’s really an emptiness to the filmmaker. If you’re really a filmmaker, it’s like feeling you want to piss but can’t piss. So I decided, I’ll turn Sa Aking Pagkakagising… (“My Awakening…”) into a short film. I got in touch with Shugo, Shugo Praico. When I got in touch with him, I told him, “Hey man, didn’t I tell you before, let’s do something.Here it is, I have the material.” So we met here, in Cibo [restaurant in ABS-CBN, the Philippines largest television company. -ed], then I narrated the story; I told him, I have a short film that I want you to write, which is Sa Aking Pagkakagising…
When I’m narrating a short film, my style is per character. Even if it’s not included in the script, each character that you see in the story comprises one film, man. The script was so thick; it was one film; we had to delete some parts otherwise it would drag out. Well anyway, when I told him, “The short goes something like this…”, he told me, “Ato, that’s not a short film; that’s a full-length. That’s how I’ll write it.” And I was thinking, fuck, but okay, write it. While he was writing it, it was weird because sometimes I would suggest a scene or call him, “Hey man, please take out this scene, it seems unnecessary”. He’d answer me, “Dude, I took it out already.” And how he writes, how he talks in the script is almost the same as the way I do. The story of why I don’t write anymore is because of the 35mm film that I did, which is Sulyap for Mowelfund.
My attitude with scripting is that I don’t write the script until it’s complete in my head. My first [short] work, for instance, didn’t have a script. I can shoot directly as long as it’s complete in my head. Then when I trained under Ricky Lee, I learned that I need to write the script down. But what became my practice is I complete it in my head after which I write it down. I made Bistasyon, then one docu. The fourth film, Sulyap—that was when I obtained discipline. It went through 14 revisions; I perfected the script since it was a poetic narrative. Then when I was shooting, I was crossing out my own script. It was painful.
AT: Crossing out the script because you didn’t have a budget or…?
AB: Not the budget, I think it’s the support of the group. I was a newcomer then and even the audio man, the one who does the audio in my group would ask, “Why is your shot like this?” “Because I do like it that” [I would reply] So it’s really hard, man. My discipline before was, I would make a storyboard. I get everything planned in my head. When I was shooting, I wasn’t able to do it. I only completed 15% of my work, so from then on, I was depressed for six months; I gained weight. Because once I get into something, I really get into it. There’s no looking back, I’m like that. I found writing painful. So Shugo is a writer, he really told me that he realizes he’s more of a writer than a director. I was teasing him that Paul Schrader, the writer—Scorsese is my god—you know Paul Schrader is a good director if you watch his films, you can’t disregard that. But he still writes for Scorsese, so I said you’re Paul Schrader. The difference [between them] is that when Scorsese makes a film, it’s not sexual; Shrader is sexual. As for Shugo, he’s very good at writing slightly sexual scenes, like the one in the taxi, even if that was my experience. When he wrote it, he wrote it well.
AT: Was there any of Shugo’s experience that was put into it?
AB: Every time people ask us, whose scene is this, whose is that, I don’t know anymore. It’s become one. I’m not pulling anybody’s leg, I’m not bullshitting you, because that’s the best thing you can hear, but it’s true. Sometimes we ask ourselves whose character is this one or that one, like Pacquiao, the kid who was a snatcher. When a friend of mine asked me who thought of that, I said that from what I know it came from Shugo. When I asked Shugo, he said, didn’t you suggest that I put a child character because I’m a fan of the short story, Children of the City, I don’t know the author, forgive me. There’s a part like that. Then I said, “There should be a reflection of the [snatcher] character so that you can recognize it in the child.” There are scenes that I thought were mine, but turned out to be Shugo’s input so we don’t know anymore. I told him that even if it’s my concept, it’s our ‘Story By’, the two of us. "What I’m telling you now is brief compared to an actual script, you’ve included more there" [is what I told Shugo].
How do Shugo and I work? I’ll pitch something; I call it a pitch and when he likes it, “Hey that’s good!” We’ll develop it. Usually, the concept comes from my germ, a small story; he gets interested; he gives his input and we’ll throw some ideas around. It belongs to the two of us, not just to me.
AT: When it’s being written, you would meet up, talk about it? But you wouldn’t be there during the actual writing?
AB: I’m only there when it’s all been laid down, when the structure has been laid down. It’s given to me, with not much dialogue, as a sequence treatment, and then I read through it. While reading it, I see that man, you’re favoring too much here; then we restructure it, that’s how we work.
AT: How old is Shugo?
AB: Shugo is only 26. He’s also from here. He was the head writer of Spirits and Nginig[TV shows on ABS-CBN].
AT: Who among the actors in the film are from here? [ABS-CBN]
AB: All of them except Lito Pimentel and Hector. All of them are from the Talent Center. We all used to be part of a gang; we’d go out and drink. When we’re drinking, the storyteller in me [comes out]; I’ll tell them my story. When I was telling them this story, they were saying, “That’s good, let’s do that.” They probably didn’t think that when we talked about doing it, I’d really do it.
AT: That was brave that he [Cholo Barreto] did that scene! [wherein he is raped by Lito Pimentel's Police Captain character, Lakay]
AB: It makes you glad that Mr. Johnny Manahan, head of Talent Center allowed it. Mr. M is very sensitive about [the use of ] cigarettes and the image of the actors. Since the actors really wanted to do this, they asked permission for each one, man.
AT: How did he-- why did he agree?
AB: It was the handlers of Ketch [Ketchup Eusebio] and Cholo who did the talking. They said that when they give scripts to Mr. M, he really reads them. My script is the only one he didn’t give back. After that I learned that it’s a go. As for Carlo Aquino, he’s part of my dream cast for that role, for the role of Rey.
AT: You mean he kept it and read it?
AB: I think he read it and kept it. My take is that Mr. M is also an artist; he understands these things. The script is brutal; there’s a lot of cursing in it. Everything’s there, but he still allowed it, so we’re thankful.
AT: So you had worked with all of the actors before?
AB: Yes, I’ve had a lot of rackets here in ABS. We’re part of a gang because of common friends. There was a time that we were always together, drinking; I’m still young, they’re all young, so it’s okay. As for Carlo, I told him, “If you don’t do this, if this doesn’t go to you, it’s not my fault. It’s up to you. If you don’t get to fight for it, it’s not my fault anymore. But that’s yours, I’m not giving it to anyone else.” Carlo is part of the gang, though I wasn’t sure because I wasn’t that close to him. Those close to him are Ketch, Cholo. He’s the one I really wanted for the role. It’s really designed for him. I was hesitant because it’s Carlo Aquino, his directors are Joel Lamangan, big directors, Chito Rono, [he’s an] award-winning actor. But these guys in my troop, Cholo, Ketchup, they’ve been spreading it around, talking about it, and making people jealous until other actors like Carlo heard about it. One time, on Ketchup’s birthday in Malate, I was approached by Empoy, Empoy was first. “Direk, how’s the script?” Empoy is Kahoy, the snatcher in the film. “Direk, I want to do it.” Empoy’s a good kid, “I want to do your film, I want to join.” I saw the passion in him; it locked in that it was really him. While I was talking to Empoy, Carlo approached the table. “Ato, it looks like you’re making a film and you haven’t told me about it, as if we’re not friends.” “Man,” I told him, you’re my dream cast, you’re my dream actor for the role but you’re Carlo Aquino.” “Idiot, you’re an idiot,” he said. “Let’s not fool each other, man, you’re Carlo Aquino. You have a show, you’re in a band, how will you manage your time. Besides this doesn’t pay.” “No, just give me the script.” The journey of Carlo and I’s relationship is great because among everyone whom I gave the script to—when I gave Carlo the script, he read it in front of me. I was glad because he got the depth of the VOs and appreciated the pacing of the script. He’s an intelligent actor; I really believe in him. As for Empoy, he’s the last person I gave the script to because I was busy taking care of some matters. Man, I’m the producer, at the same time the director, you know, the PA, all of it [on this film]. When I gave it to him [Empoy], he read it right away. I was glad that what the writer worked hard on—the concept—was something they appreciated; they really understood what I wanted to say. Not looking at just the scenes, the traumatic [incidents] but the whole point of the story.