Brillante Mendoza has a killer work ethic: the Filipino director made nine films between 2005’s “Masahista” and 2009’s “Lola,” the latter of which, along with Cannes in-competition entry “Kinatay” the same year, really launched him into the major leagues of international helmers. He’s taken an uncharacteristic two-and-a-half year break, but returned this week at the Berlin Film Festival with “Captive,” a gripping, Herzogian drama that should see him reach his widest audience yet, thanks to the presence of international star Isabelle Huppert.
Not long after talking to Mme. Huppert (read that interview here), we were able to sit down with Mendoza to discuss the film, how Huppert took to his creative process, and where he’s planning to go from here.
One of the things I found most impressive about “Captive” is not so much what you include in the film but what you exclude. The fact that it is very controlled. It’s very much the story of his kidnapping. It begins with it and ends the second that the kidnapping ends. Was that your decision from the beginning? To avoid including a future for the characters?
Exactly. I liked to focus just on that event. The reason why I choose that event, the 2001 kidnapping, was because it’s not the first time or the only kidnapping case in the Philippines. There has been a lot of small and big kidnappings. You know you will be drugged. You’ll be subjected to different kinds of elements until you’re….able to escape, so I was very specific about that. And of course the experience that goes along with it.
To me it wasn’t the story of an event or even the story of a person, it was the story of an experience. I thought that was very unusual. In the press conference, a lot of questions came back to this notion for the actors, they created a very spontaneous environment and that made it easy for them to become their parts. But I always think that to create this spontaneous environment for the actors, that must require a lot of discipline on the part of you and your production team. Can you tell us a little bit about arranging that?
Yesterday, I was at a college campus, and I was talking with aspiring actors, and this is exactly what I was telling them. It wasn’t easy, and it’s a process to do that. You know you’re acting in my film, this is what you do. Especially somebody like Isabelle, who had been directed by the greatest directors in the world, and has this traditional way of doing it. Even with actors like Isabelle, it’s not going to be easy in a way. First, you have to get the actors’ trust. You don’t just get trust. You have to establish it, you have to gain it, you have to earn it. It’s not like you trust me and I trust you, it’s not going to be that. So you have to know me as a person, not just as a filmmaker. So for me it’s not easy, because it’s like exposing my soul to all these actors, and to everyone else. So it’s difficult in a way. But I think I was able to achieve that because they trusted me by telling them about myself. It’s not just for myself or my ego to become famous or to become a good director, it’s not just about that. It’s about my intention, it’s about my goal, it’s about my purpose. Why do we want to do this? Why do I want to do this? And why I want you to be part of this goal, of this journey.
Was that establishing of trust a part of the casting and audition process?
Yes. To see if they are with me and they could understand what I am trying to say. If one person’s just there for the glamour, or there because he wants to be on board in doing this kind of project because of blah, blah, blah, then you are not with me.
Some of the elements of nature in the film struck me as a little like Werner Herzog. How much of that was pre-planned? For instance, the moment where the snake eats the bird, did you specifically go and seek something like that out or did it happen and you showed it?
Those parts were really planned. For me nature represents a whole character in this film. What I’m trying to say here is it’s a beautiful world, and in the midst of all of this beauty, because of this ugliness, because of this thing that’s going on, you can never appreciate it fully. You have these people trying to take lives, and putting out an ugly image of this beautiful world that we can live in. And by being more detailed about it, by showing these creatures, their inner motives and inner intention of who they are and what they would become. It’s not easy to shoot this because they’re not human, I cannot talk to them and gain their trust. For instance the snake scene…took us like almost half a day for that snake to grab the bird.
And the bird that she follows, was that created in post?
That’s created in post. Of course that’s very expensive, CG, but it’s really part of the whole scenario that I’m trying to create…it’s a mythical bird…a bird that is associated with the South of the Philippines, but other than that it’s a metaphor of peace. [It’s a] very elusive, almost unachievable thing for us.
For the majority of the film, I think it feels incredibly immediate and you feel as an audience member, very much there. Did you map out in advance how much would be more personal, and how much would be more documentary-style?
Everything’s in my head, but you know, it’s different when you see it put together. So that’s where being a filmmaker comes in. I work on my instinct, how I view things, by putting in my own personal feelings and intentions as an ordinary person just thinking about it. Of course when you put all of this together you see how much of it can be more impactful to the audience. It’s quite difficult, especially in the editing part. Directors can go crazy in editing, because you can lose some shots which are so very significant to you. But sometimes if they don’t serve a purpose then you just have to cut them.
Would you consider shooting outside of the Philippines? Do you consider yourself very much a Philippine filmmaker or in the future do you see yourself going abroad?
It will always be my home base, I don’t see myself living in another part of the world. But in terms of storytelling, it’s always been my dream to be more global. For instance this incident I wouldn’t consider only specific to the Philippines. It could happen in any part of the world. We have our own issues and our own little problems, whether you come from the first world or the third world, so I think it’s more global in that way. I’m hoping for more collaboration, collaboration meaning I think that this film opened doors to me by having Isabelle in the film. Maybe in the future I could collaborate with other, not only actors but artists. Crew or technical staff or whatever, and I’m very open to that. Maybe I would try to maximize this opportunity and maybe reach a bigger audience outside the Philippines.
Have you any plans for your next project?
I’m not saying I’m not going to do a small film, like what I used to do before. Maybe I will try to do something small, because I think they’re as significant as a film of this scope to me. So yeah, I was planning for my next film a very small, emotional, intimate film.
Is that back in Manila?
Yes, back in the kind of stories I used to tell before, like “Lola.”
A lot of your previous work has been urban-based. Going to the jungle must have had its own challenges.
For me this is one of the most difficult films I’ve done. It was really physically, emotionally draining for most of us. Even to my actors. But they’re all prepared, everyone knows what they’re going into, including myself actually. I know it’s not going to be an easy shoot for most of us. Even the actors, when I was talking to them, they were aware of it.
Did you find that your intentions or the script changed at all when Isabelle came on board?
Not really. In fact she didn’t impose anything on the role or whatever. She’s completely trustful with me, and the rest of the crew and the staff, so it was really, for me it was not only a learning experience but a great collaboration between me and Isabelle.
I have one last question. The film is listed as “Captured” in some places but “Captive” here.
It’s “Captive.” At first we were going to use “Captured” but used “Captive” instead. We just thought that “Captive” is more urgent then “Captured.”
You did mention in the press conference about the political responsibility that filmmakers have to the environment. How do you feel you fit into the tradition of politically motivated filmmakers and how you balance that with artistry?
Well when you chose a subject matter like this, when you focus on social issues, you don’t have a choice. It’s already given. A subject matter like this, no matter what you do, it is politically motivated. I think I let my film speak for itself, because as a filmmaker I don’t want to take sides. I think the filmmaker should set aside whatever philosophies he has.