By Patricia Recto Tumang
A barrage of rifle shots and guerilla warfare marks the dawn of the 20th century in Academy Award-nominated Director John Sayles’ controversial new film “Amigo” (formerly titled “Baryo”), which takes place during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) in a rural village that struggles to resist colonial occupation.
Throughout his nearly three-decade career in independent filmmaking, Sayles has mastered the art of capturing his characters’ human dilemmas. His notable films include “Lone Star”, “Passion Fish” and “Matewan”, and he is a National Book Award-nominated author and the recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant.
Sayles is an expert at weaving the social and the political. Known as the “conscience of American cinema”, most of his projects (minus his early 80s stint directing several Bruce Springsteen videos) have explored concepts of identity, community, and more recently, U.S. imperialism.
The thrust of “Amigo”, his 17th feature-length film, began as an entirely different screenplay that referenced the Spanish-American War. Sayles’ interest in the Philippines piqued when he realized that not many people knew about the Philippine-American War.
“I’ve never heard of this thing and I know a lot of American history. I asked a couple of Filipino friends, ‘So is this something you were taught?’ They said, ‘No, not in school. We were just told America bought us from the Spaniards for $20M.’ So that’s pretty heavy that there was this major war—like a Vietnam War—where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people were killed and it wasn’t taught in either of the countries that were involved in it,” recalls Sayles.
When the historical backdrop became too unwieldy and epic, Sayles transformed the screenplay into his forthcoming novel A Moment in the Sun (to be published by Dave Eggers’ publishing house, McSweeney’s, in 2011), also set during the same time period as “Amigo”.
It wasn’t until a 4-day trip to Northern Luzon in 2009 with longtime friend Joel Torre (who plays the kapitan in “Amigo”), that the idea to make the film took shape.
“Joel and I started talking about the Philippine film industry—that you could actually make a really pretty good movie with some real production value for not that much money here. And then I started thinking, ‘What if I made like a mini history kind of thing, set in one village so that the scope of it isn’t very big but it would deal with a lot of issues?’ That evolved to me writing ‘Amigo’,” says Sayles.
Sayles’ investment in hiring local talent informed all aspects of the filmmaking process—from acting, shooting, music, and even post-production: “We were always planning to use a Filipino crew and do our post here. What we saw was they’re very talented technicians here and the equipment was close to American standards. The rhythm of the Philippine entertainment business is fast.”
For the musical score, Sayles consulted with collaborator Mason Daring, whose Filipino friend Dennis Cham from the Berkeley School of Music recommended working with Salito Malca, CFO of Hit Productions, a Makati-based recording studio. They later recorded the soundtrack there featuring local musicians such as Junjun Regalado, Jeck Cenizosa, Sammy Asuncion and Richie Gonzaga.
“It was truly refreshing to find someone who gave just as much importance to the aural as the visual in the storytelling process,” says Cham of Sayles. “We had a mix of traditional instruments like Hegalong, Kubing and wood flutes as well as the Rondalla, which we sourced from the UP College of Music.”
Sayles also came across music by Philippine performing artist Grace Nono and asked her to sing in the film. “We have this Grace Nono song in Cebuano at the end of the film. It had nothing to do with the movie but it had a great feel to it. Then I heard a rumor that there was this song that had been written by Jose Rizal. It was a long search, but we finally got the sheet music for it written in 1896 and corresponded with Grace just before she left for the States.”
Sayles considered a few possible locations before settling on the isolated town of Maribojoc, Bicol. “What we needed was a good area that had rice fields without anything modern around them, the bahay na bato (colonial Filipino house) kind of look. We were talking about the places that would be quiet, ‘cause we were gonna shoot sync sound, which often Filipino movies don’t do,” comments Sayles.
Using Red Cameras was a first for Sayles, who shot “two of our last three movies in 16mm and then we did it on digital intermediate”. He relied on the expertise of his crew and the post-production house RoadRunner Network Inc. (based in Quezon City), who knew the ins-and-outs of digital moviemaking, and he was able to stick to the film budget. (Sayles self-financed the film.)
The fact that the people who brought the equipment were integrated with the crew—“ they also help set it up, help take it down, help move it, maintain it”—was another positive.
“As independent filmmakers, it was a rare situation where the team was really a team. But here, the grips and the gaffers, and the camera people were really working together instead of being hired separately and have to get used to each other later on,” notes Sayles.
Cinematographer Lee Meily, an ad industry veteran and wife of Director Mark Meily, worked closely with RoadRunner imaging specialists to get the perfect shots.
Sayles paid the owners of the rice fields for the crops and a season of harvest. It took eight weeks of preparation, which began in late 2009, and only six weeks to shoot. Some scenes were filmed at the Clarin House in Loay, which “belonged to the first governor in the American period of Bohol. One thing that helped us was probably 90% of the sets are within a five-minute walk.”
Then Sayles did something he hadn’t done before: he shot scenes with minimal cuts since he could turn the camera 360 degrees, “so I was able to do more in one shot by moving the camera. We were in this village where you could do a 360 and see nothing but [the year] 1900.”
As a result, what Sayles later discovered while editing was that his master shots held together better than they typically did: “As I edited, I didn’t have to cut as many times, so the rhythm of the movie was different.”
Manet Dayrit, managing director of RoadRunner, was grateful for the opportunity to work with Sayles, saying, “This is a first for the Philippines that a foreign filmmaker actually does his full post-production in the Philippines.”
With an all-star cast featuring Chris Cooper and Garret Dillahunt, and critically acclaimed Filipino actors Joel Torre, Rio Locsin, Ronnie Lazaro and Bembol Roco, many look forward to its local public release.
Producer Maggie Renzi anticipates that the film will be out in July 2011: “It’s a strategy that we will have maybe eight or ten preview screenings around the country, using word-of-mouth to raise money for the marketing of the film as well as going after sponsors.” Renzi, who has been Sayles’ creative (and life) partner since the mid-70s, has also produced most of his films.
“Amigo” is in its final stages of post-production at RoadRunner in preparation for touring the festival circuit this September—starting with the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain, followed by the Toronto Film Festival—and next year, Berlin and Cannes.
“What I hope people get out of a movie like this is that they start to identify with one or two characters in the movie. It could have happened in Afghanistan today. It could have happened in the Vietnam War. It could have happened in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation,” says Sayles.