VENICE, Italy — John Arcilla became the first Filipino to win the Best Actor Award at the 78th Venice Film Festival for his performance in “On the Job: The Missing 8.”
Playing the role of Sisoy Salas, a corrupt reporter for a local newspaper, he beat Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of the Dog”) and Oscar Isaac (“The Card Counter”) for the Volpi Cup.
Arcilla accepted his award via video greeting, while his co-star Dennis Trillo, producers Quark Henares and Dondon Monteverde, and director Erik Matti attended the ceremony in person.
“On the Job: The Missing 8” is a sequel to the 2013 film, “On the Job” and tells the story of a journalist who investigates the mysterious disappearance of his colleagues.
Below are excerpts from the press conference where we interviewed Matti, Henares, Monteverde, and Trillo.
Erik, many people have been wondering if they need to see the first “On the Job” to really appreciate “The Missing 8.”
Erik Matti: I think this new film “On the Job: The Missing 8” could be a standalone film and you could watch it, even without seeing the first one. Maybe by seeing the first one also you get a little more context. But as it is, you would get everything that we all wanted for you to see in the second one.
Can you tell us also a little more about the process of developing this sequel and how it turned out to be what is this year’s longest film in Venice competition and something that will also play later on as a series? I would also like to ask the producers involved how it was for them to follow a film that started as something and maybe became something else.
Erik Matti: Well Dondon can expound on it, but generally when we started the film, we intended for it to be on the big screen. But the years of production led us to be in the pandemic and from then on, we had to think of other options because our cinemas are closed in the Philippines. And we would love to really show the film as soon as we can and share it to a wider audience. I think Dondon can expand upon this more.
Dondon Monteverde: I think there were quite a few surprises when we were doing this because it was of course intended as a film, but never this long. But then of course, knowing Erik and being able to work with him before, things get more beautiful as it goes along and everyone gets excited until we got to a point where we came up with material that is actually more than four hours. So it’s a good thing that the team was able to trim it down to three hours and twenty eight minutes and right now it’s pretty tight for a film.
The main intention really was a film and I think, I don’t know if I can say it’s beautiful that HBO got it, because at least right now because of the pandemic, people get to view it right now on a global scale, which is why we are really happy about this, that partnership. But hopefully today in the premiere, I hope everyone gets to see and enjoy the entire content that is done by our team.
Quark Henares: I just remember when Erik told us how long the cut was, we were like sweating buckets, okay, it’s three hours and forty minutes. And then he followed it up with a caveat, but maybe we can make two movies or cut it up and make it into a series.
I remember it was a thrilling experience watching it for the first time, because then we had that in the back of our heads and there were certain moments where you were in the jail cell and it was like this is such a good cliffhanger, this would actually translate well to a series. Thankfully it worked out and we were with HBO and it is so much in the DNA of the channel with “True Detective” and “The Wire” and “The Sopranos,” I think it really belongs in that pantheon of work.
Erik already mentioned that there was a key point in the process when HBO entered the picture and that maybe was a sign of confirmation for you, what you were doing, although risky and groundbreaking was the right path for the film. Can you tell us a little bit more about that, about the moment when you realized that what you were doing made sense?
Dondon Monteverde: Every time we enter into a project, Erik and I, we know the risks involved in terms of investment. So right now, I think the only relevant platform in the Philippines in the past year is actually Netflix. But then it’s a good thing that in a way Venice liked the film and naturally we are very thankful for the Venice Film Festival for taking it in. And I think that kind of drew attention in a way for people to take a look at it and see what type of film we were able to do with “On the Job 2.”
HBO actually took a good look and actually made an offer but then of course at first, it’s not the type of budget we usually want because the Philippines, they are a lean market but they wanted to launch HBO in the Philippines so they figured that this would be a good platform for them to actually launch the film, the content in that platform, so people can download their app.
So coming in, I think the bosses of HBO were able to get together and actually talk to give more to the numbers so that we can feel good about showing, releasing and having the access of releasing the film as a series even though we didn’t really reach the right numbers. Actually for the sale, we are pretty happy with the offer, because at least right now, it’s a good stepping stone actually for us. I think in a way the content like this, that Filipinos have done, has been able to make it into this stage, being in Venice and then being on a global platform like HBO I think just gives it more chance, gives more life into the franchise. And we are latching onto that and hopefully things get better as it starts streaming on September 12th.
Dennis Trillo: We just feel so lucky that we finished a very big movie in spite of the pandemic. We started shooting in 2018 and we finished around 2020. And we are just so lucky that it got picked up by HBO and we are here at the Venice International Film Festival.
Erik Matti: I think I am the last person to endorse a three hour and twenty eight minute film. But I think I am looking at my filmography and I try and tell the story as short as I can and straightforward as I can. But in this particular case with “On the Job: The Missing 8,” it could have been told shorter than that. And we even tried it, we even did other permutations while we were still editing it, but it just doesn’t work. And I think this three hour and twenty-eight minute cut, the fact that now we are showing it in a major film festival and that it eventually found its way into HBO, showed us that we shouldn’t have doubted ourselves from the very beginning.
There was a time when we were just on the script stage and we were having people read it and everyone has been telling us it’s too local or it’s too layered, it’s difficult to follow. And at a certain point in the beginning you believe in the material but later on you hear all of those, you start thinking maybe I am not seeing what they are seeing and maybe I am wrong or you start doubting yourself. But by keeping to how we wanted it and the vision that we saw with the film, I think it paid off.
It paid off that it’s not just us Filipinos that could possibly identify with the film, but now we are here with an international audience and they are going to witness the film, they are going to see it. And not just that, in the next couple of days, the whole of Asia will also get a chance to see the whole piece. And I am glad it’s not just us Filipinos who would understand a film like this, but it’s going to go global in the next couple of months, so it’s nice.
Getting to the topic of the film, this is actually a very engaging political thriller but it’s also an indictment of corruption and it tackles the issue of freedom of the press in the Philippines. This is not only a Filipino problem but something that has to do with how politics is going in many parts of the world right now. I would like to ask you about this decision about going into the direction of such a committed film, such a strong political statement within the pairing of a genre film.
Erik Matti: Well you might be surprised, the initial ideas, not matter how social or political the stands that my films get, it all starts with what type of cinema do I want to do this time around? And a lot of it comes from the gangster genre, also together with that, and hitting two birds with one stone, you also have the investigative, “All the President’s Men,” “The Insider,” Michael Mann kind of feel, which I haven’t done yet in any of my films.
I think if you look at the films I have made, I go out of my way to do the films that have impressed me in terms of genre and I try and find stories that could actually be told through using the genre. And in this case with “On the Job” it just so happened that most of it generally and I think all of it, is mostly based on true events. And to wrap that up in a familiar genre, familiar, but now with this “On the Job,” it’s kind of a hybrid having an investigative and a gangster story all at the same time.
But to be able to tell a story with the kind of cinema that I enjoy mostly, maybe the era of the 70s or when, if you look at the first one, it’s my ode to Janito and Melville. In the case of this one, there’s a lot of De Palma in it, the swell and the sprawl and the epic. And I am just glad to be able to put something so serious and so political and even to the point of dangerous into something converted into cinema, into a genre. And maybe that’s the reason we are not in danger, because at the end of the day when they watch it, they get entertained by a film and not really focus on who is in there.
Quark Henares: I just realized, because Erik likes political thrillers and gangster films, but in the Philippines, the gangsters are the politicians. So that is something that is very uniquely created.
So are you really sure you are not in danger?
Erik Matti: We will wait until we get there. This may be my last laugh.
Dennis, we just dealt with a myriad of inspirations that Erik had in this film in terms of various directors or genre cinema that influenced the film. When we first watched the film, everybody was crazy about your character. It’s so iconic, so full of references. How was it for you to embrace this kind of specific character that Erik created and how you developed the personality of your character and even maybe your fighting skills for that great scene towards the end in the prison? It would be interesting to know a little bit more.
Dennis Trillo: Well it’s a kind of a unique direction from Erik, because he told me that, well in most of my movies, I am a leading man and with a clean look all the time. But in this film, director Erik wanted to see me in a look that he had never seen me have before in my other projects. So I have to put on prosthetics and fake teeth and a wig. So by changing your physical appearance it really helps you with the role and the character. And I just feel so lucky that he picked me and it’s also very different because he wanted me, in all of my projects, to look cool but director Erik wanted me to not be like that, he wanted me to look dumb and stupid because my character here is a small time criminal and so he wanted me to do it and not very clean.
Erik Matti: I think the basis of the look of Dennis really is, I don’t know but it reminded me of the small town people where some have deficiencies, physical deficiencies and it just brings out a little more of the shallow simple minded that we wanted him to portray. And I think the strength of changing his face with Dennis is that his emotional attack for his character even became more interesting with the added crooked nose and the broken teeth.
Can you share something about the great fight scene in the jail in the end?
Dennis Trillo: Well that also, Erik wanted to see a fight scene that was not really choreographed and looked dirty and looked real. I just did what Erik told me. I have some background in boxing but I really didn’t use all those skills in that scene.
One of the other aspects that we were really impressed with was the sweeping use of the music throughout the film. And the music feels at the same time a companion to the scenes and to the story, but sometimes it feels also like a commentary to the plot. I would like Erik to share a little more about the choice of songs and the music and maybe also the producers to tell us about getting the rights for the songs, because you have pretty much quite a stellar soundtrack here and it’s not usually the case with independent Filipino films. Can you share something about it?
Erik Matti: Just as a tidbit of news, yesterday we just got all the license titles for all the songs, just at the nick of time before the premiere. Everything, every music company and publishing house has sent the contracts approved and signed, which is just right before the world premiere. Now the use of the music is really brought out from the very beginning when (writer) Michiko (Yamamoto) was writing it, we would compile a playlist of the kind of music that we wanted to be in the film. It even went as far as some Bon Jovi songs or even some Scorpions songs.
But Enrique was right when he said here, this time around gangsters are the politicians. And based on that idea we wanted to bring two types of music into the film, one is the music of the American gangster Hollywood music, which is the American standard songs, the songs of Johnny Mathis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra. And then we also have the other side of it, bringing in a lot more of the Filipino songs which are more protest songs. The only Filipino song that’s not a protest song is a Filipino sung song based on Bella Ciao, which we translated into dialogue. So coupled with both of it, some of the songs act as commentary for the scene itself. And in fact when screened later, some parts have the subtitles of the lyrics of the song, just so you could connect it to the imagery.
But I think with the kind of sprawl and scale that we wanted to show in the story, going around three or four plotlines at the same time, I think the American standards songs lend itself a kind of nostalgia yet larger than life feel to things. And the way we used it is not to use it equally with a visual but in a way using it as contrast to whatever conflicting scenes that are happening behind it.
Quark Henares: Shout out to Stacy, she is the one that secured all the rights. And to Joe Kalero, one of our producers. Even Erik was like okay, let’s get Filipino songs already because these US songs are expensive. And Joe fought all of us and was like I love this film, he got very emotional for it. And yeah, it came out all the better. And we even got for some songs, we got local talent to do covers, like Basti Artardi from this band Wolfgang. So you will see a different spin on some of these classics.
Erik Matti: Another key tidbit about the music also is one of the toughest negotiations was that of Frank Sinatra’s version of “The Impossible Dream.” Because apparently the Estate of Sinatra doesn’t want to have his voice being used in any film version. But we really wanted the version that he had and good thing the Estate allowed us to use the music that he used and found a singer that could just do a version of his song.
Dondon Monteverde: And I also feel that the songs that were actually chosen by Erik for this are really perfect for the scenes, because it’s very evident from all the projects that I have worked on with Erik, that there is actually, the music part of it plays a big part, especially to interpret the scene, especially to the Filipino audience. But this time we wanted it to resonate to the global audience.
When HBO came in and after hearing also from Venice that they really wanted the song to be in the film, so the producers actually thought really well to get it. And one of my producers Stacy actually told me about the price and oh wow, the first time we had gone through in perpetuity things at that scale, because we were just used to getting songs locally and the price is really way out there. But thanks to the encouragement of Venice Film Festival and HBO, we were actually able to have the financial capacity to really get all of this music perpetuity for the content.
Erik, this film ends with a rather open ending. It’s a full end for this film but it could be to a potential third “On the Job.” So is this something that you are thinking of? What can we expect? Will we see a third installment?
Erik Matti: Well, whenever we do a film, “On the Job 1” we thought it’s done right after the end scene of that, inside this car and he just killed one guy. And we all think that is the end of “OTJ.” “OTJ” is a standalone film. And then eventually years later we thought of coming up with the next one and of course tying it up together but also making it a standalone film.
With this one, we never end our films really tied up in a little bow where all the plot points are closed and all the characters have a resolution or all the conflicts are finished. We always end things just like in life, where there is a lot of unfinished business with it, and it’s not because we really want to go into another sequel, but it just feels right for a film that you just get, the film feels like you are just getting a slice of life, of these many characters and then their life continues there and we don’t even see their life before the start of the movie. So we are always just capturing a segment of their lives, which is the most interesting, that’s why we depicted it on film.
But we all know how difficult it is to develop projects in the Philippines, it’s not easy, there’s actually no development state in the Philippines, you go and sit down with a producer and then you give it all you have got. The producer gives you one hour or 30 minutes, having coffee or having lunch and you give it all you have got. You come in there with two stories, but when the producer didn’t budge or didn’t say anything, you just have to come up with five other things on the table, hoping that at the end of that one hour, you have one movie greenlit. And that is how development happens. And that happens and okay, how long will you give us the script, one month, two months. And then if you don’t give the script, they don’t remember you, they move onto other things. So it’s hard to plan longer sequels.
Of course with our partnership Globe and Reality Entertainment, it’s easier now to talk about maybe we can do this, because we have known each other’s work for quite a while now and we are working on several things together. But even that, we don’t really go out and say okay, when we do this let’s prepare for a sequel for the next film.
—MGP, GMA News