On the Dot: Interview with Filmmaker Mikhail Red

Mikhail Red at Darling Harbour for the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Mikhail Red)

Mikhail Red at Darling Harbour for the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Mikhail Red)

Mikhail Red isn’t 27 yet, but you can be forgiven for assuming that he’s older. After all, not many 27-year-olds have three full-length feature films (and a fourth about to be released) and numerous awards under their belts. His filmmaking pedigree is impressive too — Cannes Palme d’Or winner and Philippine independent cinema legend Raymond Red is his father.

The younger Red is quick to note, though, that he wasn’t “forced” into the industry by his family.

”I grew up exposed to cinema at an early age, but my own curiosity is what led me to explore visual storytelling,” he explains. “As a young kid, I would experiment with our home video camera and make short films starring my brother. In elementary [school], I went into competitive feature writing, [and] later combined my skill sets to create visual narratives.”

By the time he reached high school, he was ready to make his first short film, which he shot in a workshop under veteran director Marilou Diaz-Abaya.

The result, The Threshold, would turn out to be the catapult for his career as a director. It earned him a ticket to his first international film festival, in Germany; it was at this point that filmmaking became an obsession for the 15-year-old Red. “I knew what I wanted to do in life—tell stories through cinema.”

More short films would follow—Kamerais a “tribute to the pioneers of film who led the way for the new generation of independent filmmakers in the Philippines.” With each new film came more recognition. Harang(Barriers) and Hazardare both psychological thrillers that deftly explore the division and misunderstanding that result from differences in social stature and moral principles. Hazard won the Special Jury Prize at the Cinemanila International Film Festival in 2010, while Harang was the Grand Prize winner at the Seoul International Youth Film Festival and bagged the Best Screenplay award at Cinemalaya in the same year. (The two films are available for free streaming at Viddsee.)

Spending his teenage years making short films and being a film festival regular helped shape Red’s vision and sharpen his skills. “I was lucky enough to be able to experience screening at the festival circuit at an early age. This became my education—I learned so much about the industry.”

It would have been easy to carry on making short films, what with the recognition he was getting for them, but Red was determined to move on after making five. It turns out that he’s a meticulous planner and has been following the timetable that he set for himself at the beginning of his cinematic career. The shift from short to feature-length films has always been part of his long-term plan.

“Growing up, I've always liked to set deadlines and goals to motivate myself,” he explains. “I knew that I had to complete my first feature film at 21, so at age 20 I started writing Rekorderand applied for local financing and grants. Luckily I was selected for Cinemalaya 2013.”

The grant from Cinemalaya gave Red a small budget and 13 days to shoot his feature, which was a bit of a shock for someone transitioning from short films to full-length ones. “I had to learn a lot the hard way. At first, I thought it was as simple as multiplying my short film budget with the extended runtime of a feature. I soon learned that making a feature film was a completely different challenge.” 

Red quickly learned to operate on the fly, filming in real-life locations without permits:“I decided to utilize the accessible technology at hand and combine it with the narrative concept. I [shot] the film in multiple formats including CCTVs, home video cameras, web cameras, [and] cell phones to lower [the] cost and make it easier to film in a discreet manner. It turned out well for the film; the style complimented the substance [because] the story is about film piracy, the bastardization of cinema, and voyeurism hiding behind lenses.”

Despite the constraints, he scored a coup by getting Ronnie Quizon to star as Maven, a movie pirate who accidentally records a crime in progress, the footage of which goes viral. Red had always wanted to work with the actor after seeing him in his father’s 1997 film, Kamada.

Recorder opened to critical acclaim and earned both Red and Quizon international recognition. The film won the Special Jury Prize and Best Music awards at the Festival International du Premier Film - Annonay et Pays, Best New Director at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and the El Rey award for a Lead Performance for Quizon at the Barcelona International Film Festival. It was featured in several international and local film festivals.

The poster for  Rekorder,  Red’s first full-length feature

The poster for Rekorder, Red’s first full-length feature

While Rekorderwas still making its way through various festivals, Red was already at work on his second feature,Birdshot. Red took a different approach to this film, not just in terms of scope and production, but logistics as well. Birdshotwas a grand project that needed more planning and a bigger budget, so he decided to take his time. 

“It took two years [to complete the film] as we went through the international competitive grant cycle and project markets. I learned how to package and pitch, and eventually the project won funding from various sources. With international recognition and funding attached, it was easier to find a local partner to fill in the remaining required resources. Birdshotwas an ambitious international co-production project, and I knew going in that I had to be patient with it. I'm glad it paid off.”

Birdshotwas a commercial and critical success. The film was a hit among local and international audiences, and garnered plenty of nominations for Red and his production team, as well as the terrific cast, which included veteran actor John Arcilla and luminous newcomer, Mary Joy Apostol. Birdshot won the Asian Future Best Film award at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2016 and was the Philippine entry to the Oscars.

A still from Red’s second feature,  Birdshot,  with a brilliant performance from young newcomer Mary Joy Apostle. (Photo courtesy of Mikhail Red)

A still from Red’s second feature, Birdshot, with a brilliant performance from young newcomer Mary Joy Apostle. (Photo courtesy of Mikhail Red)

Red’s third film, Neomanila, quickly followed Birdshot. The urgency with which he made the film was a reflection of its timely subject—the drug war in the Philippines. “With Neomanila, I had to combine local grant funding and private funding from executive producers I met in the Philippines. I had to finish the film much faster than Birdshotsince the subject matter of Neomanila was very current and relevant; we knew we had to get the film out within the year. I applied techniques such as a handheld treatment, and ditched my usual storyboarding process for shot lists since I wanted to improvise in real locations and use real crowds to highlight a very real situation in the Philippines.” 

In terms of visual treatment, the variations among Red’s three films signal the director’s versatility and willingness to experiment. Birdshotis a complete departure from the stylish grittiness of Rekorder—it’s an exquisitely shot film featuring wide, picturesque vistas of idyllic countryside. Neomanila is visually compelling in a different way; the gloomy aesthetics (courtesy of Red’s award-winning uncle Daniel, who was the production designer, and constant collaborator Mycko David as cinematographer) underline the despair and darkness that constantly threaten to swallow up the city’s inhabitants.

Asked if he found the switch from one visual theme to another difficult, he responds: “I think every project demands a different technique. I like to switch up the genres and the look of my films. I see every greenlit project as an opportunity to learn and expand my skill set as a director. I make sure that I am doing something different, challenging myself while learning something new with each film. I thoroughly enjoyed changing techniques and treatment as I transitioned from Birdshotto Neomanila. It's always exciting when exploring new ways to tell a story.”

Red may continually shift styles, but his films do have a recurring theme: ordinary individuals being forcefully introduced to the evils of society. He likes to challenge his audiences by pulling them into the moral tugs-of-war that his characters engage in. “I am always fascinated by morally ambiguous characters since they make the narrative interesting, the outcome unpredictable, like throwing curved balls at the audience, making the viewers reflect inward and question their own beliefs. I like tackling social struggles since I believe in engaging and challenging the audience beyond just entertaining them. I also like . . . shifting genres and trying new things, but I always make sure that I have something important to say when I am making a film.”

By the end of 2017, Red’s reputation as one of the country’s top cinematic visionaries was cemented. In March, Netflix started streaming Birdshot in all its territories, a first for a Filipino film. (Films like On the Job and Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros had been streamed by the service before, but were limited to a few territories like the U.S.) The filmmaker is gratified by this huge affirmation. “It is overwhelming when you think about it, an idea that used to be just in your mind is now being shared with potentially millions worldwide. I feel like I've done a good job as a filmmaker every time I see a reaction online, whether from a local or a foreigner, and I see how they are genuinely affected by the film and are now conscious and aware of the issues that we tackled. This is all thanks to the reach we are getting through Netflix.” 

And if Netflix were to offer him a series, what would it be about? “A post-apocalyptic/post-civil war Philippines. Social sci-fi.”

A man with a timetable and plenty of stories to tell doesn’t stop and rest on his laurels, of course. Having proven his films’ commercial appeal, Red has now ventured into the straight-up horror genre with his new film Eerie,his first project with a major Filipino studio“It is a new, exciting collaboration between Star Cinema of the Philippines and Aurora Media of Singapore. It won the BIFAN prize at Bucheon International Film Festival in Korea. It stars major local celebrities Bea Alonzo and Charo Santos, in new roles for both actresses. It's a psychological horror film about a guidance counselor who investigates a murder in a Catholic school.”

Red with Charo Santos, who leads the cast of his new film  Eerie  (Photo courtesy of Mikhail Red)

Red with Charo Santos, who leads the cast of his new film Eerie (Photo courtesy of Mikhail Red)

Eerie will be released in Philippine cinemas soon and, like its predecessors, will be touring festivals afterwards. Meanwhile, Red is now working on his next film under Star Cinema, Block Z, which he promises will feature zombies, lots of them.

With this steady output of films, one can’t help but wonder how Red spends his downtime. It’s not surprising to find out that he hardly has any, but he doesn’t seem to mind. “Between developing, writing, shooting, and editing I am usually traveling for a project market or a film festival. If I have free time I will probably watch films or a series on Netflix. I'm really happy that I can make a living doing what I love, and even if there are challenges, setbacks, and road bumps, my passion for chasing [my] dreams sustains me.” 

It looks like local and international film enthusiasts won’t be running out of things to look forward to, as far as Red is concerned. “I have so many ideas and stories that I would like to share so I don't think I'll be slowing down anytime soon. In fact, I'm glad to announce that I am booked with feature film projects until 2021!”

Joy Watford

Joy Watford

Joy Watford is a tech editor and freelance writer based in Cambridgeshire, England. She enjoys making lowbrow art and kakanin, and has an unhealthy obsession with sushi and crime podcasts. 

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