By Martika Ramirez Escobar and Pom Bunsermvicha for Objectifs Short Film Forum 2022
The Short Film Forum, organised as part of Objectifs Short Film Incubator 2022, saw international industry experts share their insights in a series of online talks. In this session, award-winning filmmaker Martika Ramirez Escobar and director/producer Pom Bunsermvicha discussed their personal journeys and growth as directors. Read on for a recap.
Pom Bunsermvicha: Martika, how did you get started with filmmaking?
Martika Ramirez Escobar: Filmmaking has always been a childhood thing. The camera happened to be my favourite childhood toy. My grandpa and mother would take videos of me as a kid. Growing up, I would also take a lot of family videos. I even took videos of my toys and pets. I just have this weird relationship with the camera. It’s fun to preserve memories, to pause and play them back somehow.
Pom: What were your inspirations behind Dindo and Stone Heart?
Martika: What came first was the question: what if we fell in love with an object? It started with that. The film within a film idea is because I’ve always seen life as one big film. I imagine my family as characters in a movie. I always feel that we’re writing our lives as it’s happening. Why I am fascinated with making films about films is also a lot about living our unlived lives.
Pom: Stone Heart was your thesis film. What was it like to go to film school in Manila?
Martika: It’s fun. You get to make a lot of short films because it’s required. That trained us in different fields of filmmaking. Film school is focused on the classical way of making a film. It was only after film school when I realised that we can make films outside that mode. That was why after film school, my films took a different form.
Pom: Did you know when you were in film school what your style or voice would be like?
Martika: I still don’t know what my directorial style is. I don’t think I’ll ever know. It’s really who I am at the moment and what I care about at the moment. It constantly changes. In film school, I realised I was drawn to magical realist ideas.
Pom: How do you jump into a project and start it?
Martika: I usually function when there’s a deadline. That’s why, for Leonor Will Never Die, where we didn’t have an actual deadline, it took me eight years. I work like a crammer. It’s during crunch hours that ideas appear. Before that, it’s a lot of procrastination. I think it’s part of being comfortable before you start doing the work.
Pom: You made Quadrilaterals, a short film about a family having to work overseas. How did it come about?
Martika: I wanted to submit it to a festival about unsung heroes in the Philippines. I wanted to cast non-actors. But when we went to their homes, I felt that it wasn’t right to make them act as characters that are close to how they are as people. I decided to spend two to three days in their homes taking random videos and asking them to do things based on what they tell me are their daily activities at home. That’s why it’s a docu-fiction. The film started with a script, but we ended up throwing it away.
Pom: You started developing the script for Leonor Will Never Die when you were 21. How did that come about?
Martika: It was a project for fun. I was at this workshop with a friend, when we saw film lecturers coming to class looking as if they were action stars, but that was their actual daily get-up. We wondered, what is it about action films that made these people feel like they’re part of an action film?
At the same time, we also thought, why is it that out of 300 Filipino action films, there isn’t any about an action grandma?
We didn’t take the idea seriously at first, until I realised that it’s the type of work I would like to further develop into a film. It only became serious when I tried to submit it to the SGIFF Southeast Asian Film Lab. It got selected. That was when I thought to take things seriously.
Pom: In those eight years when you were working on Leonor Will Never Die, how much of it did you spend writing and developing?
Martika: Four years. I’m a really bad writer. I have childhood trauma of being rejected by writing clubs. I never got good grades in my school essays. The four years was mostly me texting people for help and attending workshops. I was so driven to write the script and improve my writing skills.
Having other voices was helpful, but they also made me confused. It’s really about knowing the right people and finding people who understand you. These are not necessarily your friends. I had people read my script because I liked their films. I also begged my mentors in labs.
Pom: Can you share how you’ve changed since you wrote the script when you were 21?
Martika: When I started writing Leonor Will Never Die, my intention was to make something fun and funny. As a young filmmaker, I wanted a lot of gimmicks. I wanted fun scenes and fun characters.
After I made more shorts, watched more films, and pondered why I make films in the first place, I realised that filmmaking is more important to me than just making me feel happy. It can shape and change the world in some way. When I started to ponder on that, I changed the idea of Leonor Will Never Die from that funny action grandma’s story to an ageing artist’s struggle with how to make a work that could say something good.
I think it’s more about my changing values as a person and as a filmmaker. It’s more serious now. This is also why I think Leonor Will Never Die is the last fun film I’ll make for now. These days, I’m into improvisational filmmaking and finding stories on set, on location or with people. Filmmaking has become more precious and important, unlike before.
As a director yourself, how do you stay true to your directorial style?
Pom: I guess being an independent filmmaker is already part of the answer. You have that freedom. At the same time, it is about trusting yourself and the film you’re making as well. That instinct is something I feel I can always go back to.
I think what you’re trying to explore with improvisational filmmaking is cool, in the sense that it’s breaking that hierarchy in the industry where everyone has set ways of working.
Martika: I know you can relate to that, because you shot Lemongrass Girl on Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Come Here set.
Pom: I was lucky with Lemongrass Girl. I didn’t intend to make the film but it just fell into place. Anocha wrote it. We talked about ‘what ifs’ – what if we make a film within a film and everyone just act as themselves? It’s documentary and fiction as well. We played with that.
How do you feel now having made Leonor Will Never Die? It won an award at Sundance and is now going around the world. Do you feel pressure from that?
Martika: I’m excited to screen the film, especially here in the Philippines. But I also feel pressure, because it doesn’t happen often to have a first feature film in Sundance made by a youngish, Filipina girl. There’s pressure, in that I have to take responsibility or take care of what is given to our film.
Before making Leonor Will Never Die, I often asked myself, is this what I want to do in life? Why do I keep making? I’m still trying to answer these, because it’s a big deal. You’re dragging so many people along with you.
Pom: It’s definitely a big deal, especially when there’s more money involved. I’m working on a new short film now that is bigger in terms of scale and budget than Lemongrass Girl. I’ve gotten part of it financed, and the money is from people who want to help or support me. I feel the pressure much more than when I was working on Lemongrass Girl.
If I were to make a first feature, it would be a small-scale one. I want to have fun with the process of filmmaking and not be under huge pressure.
Martika: I think that’s always the better route if you’re not making a film for commercial purposes.
Pom: Was Leonor Will Never Die expensive to make?
Martika: The budget is small compared to other films in the Philippines. The reason why the budget bloated was because the film needed it. I also didn’t think about distribution and marketing. I had no idea we needed a publicist. We hired a really good one and it was a lot of money for a young filmmaker. I wasn’t prepared for the real world.
After the film’s screening in Sundance, I’m slowly being reminded that this is the real world. I’ve received emails from people asking me to direct, write or pitch. As much as I want to grab these opportunities, I choose not to do so for now and focus on writing the smaller passion projects I’d like to make.
There are films that are your passion projects and projects that you do for work. For some people, they are the same. For me, they are different.
Pom: How have people around the world received Leonor Will Never Die?
Martika: It’s good. Surprisingly okay, so far. Because the film is weird, to find people who can relate to it is special. I’m surprised that non-Filipinos can relate to some of the themes. After attending a few screenings, I realised that reception varies, even in the same country. It’s always a surprise. And it’s scary every time.
Also, I wasn’t ready for walkouts. When I saw people walk out during its first screening, I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. I couldn’t face it. Deep inside, I didn’t want to face the walkouts. Later, people told me that I can’t please everyone. I got used to walkouts.
Audience member: Martika and Pom, do you consider yourself a headstrong director? When do you consider compromise to be acceptable?
Martika: I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t think about how I want a film to turn out. It’s more of, is this the film I want to make with the people I’m making it with? I always believe that whatever a work will be will find its place, even if it’s just for one person. I rarely think about the outcome.
Pom: I think I can be headstrong. As a director, I feel that when it comes to passion projects, like my own films, I will be like, “This is what I would like to do.”
But with commercial work, I don’t care as much. If it’s not serving something that I really care about, I would be flexible in terms of adapting or changing it. It depends on the project and what is being made at the moment.
Martika: When I’m directing, there are usually things that I want to happen. I listen to everyone in my team, but at the same time, I’m also stubborn when it comes to certain things. It’s hard for me to express myself when I don’t like what just happened in a scene. But it’s good to communicate the things you are concerned about on set. It’s constant communication that makes a healthy working relationship.
Audience member: How do you keep true to the style of your film and script when there are bigger or more experienced people trying to shape the film into what they want it to be?
Martika: Tell them. It’s still communication. For Leonor Will Never Die, both my producers Monster and Mario are filmmakers. They are very good. I look up to them.
But there were times when our ideas were on the opposite ends of the spectrum. When that happened, I told them. Usually, I would try out their suggestions. But when that took a lot of time, we had conversations about how I would be more comfortable doing what I felt was right. They respected that. They were still around to help me when I was lost, but they weren’t as active as before.
It’s about finding that right synergy, especially with your producers. If they’re good producers who care about you, they will listen and give you the space you need.
Pom: When I was editing my previous documentary, I spent many years reediting it. I started with a version that I was very happy with. I was really young and there were experienced filmmakers giving me feedback. After working on it for many months, I still wasn’t able to get anyone around me to say that it’s done.
I learned the hard way to trust myself. I realised that instead of trying to make other people happy, if I’m happy with a film, then it’s finished.
Audience member: Martika, can you share the changes that the narrative of Leonor Will Never Die went through?
Martika: That’s hard to answer because it was a script that was perpetually changing. The original script had a different ending. It had a different form. We would revise scenes before shoots. We would rewrite it on sets based on circumstances. The shooting script we had was really loose.
Our editor started editing based on the script, but he ended up trying to figure out how to piece everything together. That was why we had an additional shoot months after our main shoot. When the ending still didn’t work, we added my conversation with the editor about the ending into the film. It was like piecing everything together to make sense.
Leong Puiyee: Thanks Martika. Earlier in the talk, you shared how you don’t identify as much with Leonor Will Never Die now and that who you are as a filmmaker have changed. Thinking back, do you still see parts of yourself in the film now?
And how do both of you feel that you have grown as filmmakers?
Martika: I see parts of myself in Leonor. We have the same existential crisis. As a filmmaker, I ask myself about the type of films I want to make and why.
After making Leonor Will Never Die, I am sure that filmmaking is what I want to do for maybe, the next decade. It solidified my decision.
Pom: It was harder to feel confident. But over the years, I’ve grown and Lemongrass Girl is part of that. I feel that I get it now, that what I want to do for as long as I could is to engage with cinema as a medium and grow my relationship with it.
My intention now is to figure out a way to sustain myself. It is a big question. I feel that the challenges we face will shape us. I believe that we’ll grow from each work we make. It’s a privilege that we can do what we love. Even if that means spending all of our savings and using our energy to earn a living doing something else!