Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Marked Man

An interview with Director Mark Meily last December 2006

The last time I saw him in person was almost two decades ago. He taught me how to literally kick ass. That’s because until 1988, award-winning director Mark Meily was my Tae Kwon Do teacher.

So I walked into our meeting place a minute late and he was already there having sushi. I was almost afraid he’d order me to do knuckle push-ups for being late…

Now manning his own production outfit, Spark Short Films, Mark Meily has become one of the most sought-after commercial directors in the business. And with the still ringing critical and commercial success of his indie opus “Crying Ladies” throwing enough feathers on his cap to make him chief of at least three Indian tribes, Mark Meily likes to pace himself between movie-making and various experimental concepts in advertising such as “Sugar”, a fifteen-minute love story reminiscent of Rupert Holmes’ PiƱa Colada Song that featured Bianca King together with Rafael Rosel.

The Metro Manila Film Fest had just been concluded, an indie film showing series was being held at the Robinson’s Galleria, my deadline was creeping in, and this guy who represented the threshold of indie, commercial and the commercial indie was the perfect subject for a handful of cinema-related questions…

* * * * *

JLG: After the success of “Crying Ladies”, people expected a lot, then suddenly it just seemed like you dropped out of the radar? What gives?
MM: The thing is, in the ‘States, in Europe, good directors do maybe one film every three or four years. “Crying Ladies” was last 2003, [then “La Visa Loca” and] I’m now working on my third film. So for output, that’s not so bad. That’s still prolific.

JLG: Didn’t you get a lot of scripts your way?
MM: I didn’t like the scripts. They confused me more than they enlightened me. I’m not saying there weren’t any good scripts. Probably other directors were getting them. The ones being offered to me were [either] too similar to “Crying Ladies” or rip-offs of other films, and I don’t want to copy other people’s work. Or worse, repeat what I’ve [already] done.

"...while [digital film-making] has made it easy to become a film director, it has also made it much easier to become a bad film director."

JLG: So what’s Spark Short Films all about?
MM: Well, as the name says, it’s primarily a production company. But we want to conceptualize new ways of doing advertising, such as subtle product placements in short films. “Sugar” being our first offering, which was a love story to be made into 3G content.

JLG: So how was it working with Bianca King?
MM: She was great. Very professional. And this project was a bit of a departure, since apparently [during that time] she was always typecast as the bad girl. And “Sugar”was the first time [Bianca] got to play the lead as good girl or victim.

JLG: Do you view the so-called “Digital Age” in Philippine Cinema a resurgence, or is it just hyped up?
MM: There is a resurgence, yes. But a lot of these films are becoming marginalized because they have a limited audience. For example, “Maximo Oliveros” was very successful because it was made on a very low budget, and they were able to blow it up 35[mm] and show it in maybe 12 to 20 theatres. [And that] made it earn more.
Some films good as they are, couldn’t afford to have their movies blown up to 35mm print [copies]. So they have a screening in SM, then one in Galleria, then one in UP, then one somewhere else…
Even if you fill up one screening room, how much do you think that will earn?

JLG: So distribution is limited because of budget. But what about quality-wise?
MM: It’s hard to generalize. There are a lot of good independent films. Digital film-making has democratized film-making. So consequently, while [digital film-making] has made it easy to become a film director, it has also made it much easier to become a bad film director.

JLG: Do you foresee good or bad in the local film industry?
MM: Both good and bad. Good, because there are a lot of good films being produced, but at the same time, there is a mafia-like organization in the mainstream film industry that wants to maintain the “old guard”. These guys control the movie industry in terms of distribution, etc. Some are in production companies, some are in the government… sadly, and some are producers.

For instance, these guys don’t see the [Metro Manila Film Festival] as anything other than a fund-raiser, not as a way to promote the best of Philippine cinema. Simply to raise as much money as fast as they can for Mowelfund, for the CCP, for the OMB (Optical Media Board), or something… they think that’s what it is. A business. Forget about the [actual] festival. Forget about doing creative films, they hate that word ‘creative’, they also hate the word “artistic”.

JLG: Do you think the MMFF will go on?
MM: Yes, it will go on. I just attended a conference organized by the National Commission for Culture and Arts. We were discussing the state of the industry. Particularly the Metro Manila Film Festival.

This year, they had a weird criteria: 40% box office performance. All of you are judges, but then the organizer says: ‘Hey, don’t put any value or number on that criteria, because it will be the SGV accountant who will put something in that box.’ I mean, seriously, why still you still invite judges to judge something with a criterion they do not have any say on?

Nowhere on this planet in the history of film festivals all over the world will you see box office performance or commercial viability [based on its first four days] as a criteria, and for that you get the best picture award. It’s stupid. Ridiculous. Nakakhiya ang Philippines.

But the awards will never affect the box office performance of an already successful film. Whether “Titanic” won best picture or not, it would have earned whatever it earned already.

JLG: So are we better off without the MMFF?
MM: Let’s put it this way. The way it started was to showcase the best, but the way the executive committee is changing the rules thinking that they can earn more is really killing it.

Just imagine what would happen if next year there would be five versions of “Shake, Rattle & Roll”, and five more “Enteng Kabisote”s. At the end of the day, people wouldn’t watch all these ten movies. They would just watch [what they think is] the best one.

My point is: why don’t offer people a choice? The ones who don’t normally watch Filipino movies. Give those [people] a choice. If you give them those five versions of “Enteng Kabisote”, do you think they will watch? No, they won’t. if they would, they’d probably watch one, since if they’ve seen one, they’ve seen them all.

JLG: Which of the entries from the last Metro Manila Film Festival did you like most?
MM: I like… uhm, I have to like something, right? (grins…). I think the best would probably be “Kasal Kasali, Kasalo”, and for cinematography “Ligalig”.

JLG: So why do you think it seems that Filipino movies throughout the regular course of a year do not make money?
MM: It’s not just a Philippine phenomenon. It’s universal. All over Asia, in Europe, even in India, there are lesser films being produced. There are too many choices.

For example, during Holy Week, you only had a choice between “Jesus of Nazareth” and “The Ten Commandments” and they were shown only thee or four movie houses along Sta. Cruz. This was back in the 70’s and 80’s. Now, on Holy Week, I have DVD’s, in malls there are film festivals… I have over 70 channels on cable to choose from. Back then on Holy Week, the only thing on TV was “The Seven Last Words”! So even if you showed “The Ten Commandments” over and over, people would still watch it because there was nothing to do. Now, people don’t even have to go to church anymore. I can choose from “Ang Dating Daan”, “Iglesia ni Cristo” or the Catholic Church all on TV. There’s also piracy. There’s the internet. There’s YouTube… and pretty soon, they’re going to launch mobile television.

JLG: So is the industry going to die?
MM: Let me quote Mother Lily [Monteverde]. For all the people that hate her, people still listen to her, because when she makes sense, she makes a lot of sense. [She said] ‘We’re all in this business, because we’re crazy.’

And that’s it. We just love making movies, because we love movies!

JLG: How many more episodes of Mano Po do you think there will be?
MM: Probably around 4 more.

JLG: Uhm… what do you think about “Enteng Kabisote”?
MM: Didn’t see it.

JLG: I did.
MM: Sucker.

* * * * *

At some point, most directors will tell you the ultimate critic should always be the audience. While at the airport last 2004 after a film festival in India, Meily’s attention was called from behind, and he thought, “oh no, not another beggar…”.

“Turns out this was a porter. Then he said, ‘I like “Crying Ladies”.’ Not a film critic or not a film schooler, this was a porter. Cap, jacket and all.

“No,” I said. “You did not see ‘Crying Ladies’.

‘[yes], I did,’ he said. He then named all the other big movies in the festival, then said: ‘but among them I like ‘Crying Ladies’. That’s why I remember you.’

“For me, that porter’s comments exceed whatever film critics’ praises are.” - Mark Meily
(Photo elements generously provided by Mark Meily, composited rather plainly by the author. This interview/article was published in Issue 2, Volume 1 of Manifesto Magazine published by the C! Magazine Group under the editorship of Jose Mari Ugarte, circa 2006.)

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