Although his Internet Movie Database profile lists him as one of the art directors for Ishmael Bernal’s 1988 film adaptation of Elena M. Patron’s komiks novel “Nagbabagang Luha”, Mike Alcazaren said he also got the chance to work with revered filmmaker Mike De Leon back in his college days.
“I had the chance to work with Mike when I was still in college. I was a fan already but all the more when I got to pick his brains so to speak as I observed his shoots for ‘Hindi Nahahati Ang Langit’ and ‘Bilanggo sa Dilim’. Watching his creative process was more than any film school could teach,” Alcazaren told InterAksyon in a recent interview to promote his CineFilipino entry, “Puti”.
Alcazaren, an accomplished director of TV commercials and short films since the 1980s, said his long overdue feature film debut is a psychological thriller inspired by Mike De Leon’s own “Itim”, which was also the latter’s directorial debut.
“Mike talked about ‘Itim’ and I guess I took the cue from him to start with a relatively small, personal film as my debut. It is similar in that the scary stuff is more psychological than having special effects. ‘Itim’ was also very atmospheric in treatment which I also followed. Very quiet but also quietly getting into your head,” he admitted.
That’s where the similarities of the two films end, though. Alcazaren said story-wise, “’Puti’ is “more flipped out, disturbing”.
“I wanted to screw with the viewers imaginations a bit more. ‘Puti’ takes place in an urban setting versus the provincial Holy Week backdrop of ‘Itim’.”
The story of a counterfeit painter (played by Ian Veneracion) whose life is turned upside down after surviving a freak car accident with his son, “Puti” was shot in Parañaque, Manila, Novaliches and Zambales in 12 days as originally planned.
Alcazaren said being an apprentice of De Leon has given him a unique perspective on how to approach his first full-length movie which also explains why it took him so long to take the plunge.
“I guess growing up in an era before the digital revolution, It was ingrained in me that I had to earn the right to direct a film rather than today’s ‘democratization’ where you have the right to direct a film. Also, studying Mike de Leon, I guess I set my benchmark as to what a film director should be. I always felt that cinema would be the pinnacle of my directing career so maybe early on when I started to do commercials, I felt I wasn’t ‘worthy’ yet to do movies,” he noted.
Be that as it may, Alcazaren has been trying to pitch his scripts and film concepts since the last decade.
“Puti”, in particular, has been on the drawing board for the last six years. His patience finally paid off when “Puti” got accepted as one of the eight entries in the very first CineFilipino Film Festival where it also received a seed money of P200,000.
While the initial CineFilipino grant was not enough, it did prompt Mike to be find more ways to be creative with his budget which almost took its toll on the artistic aspects of his film.
“The most headaches we got were budgetary. On my third day, I almost burned down the house I was shooting in because we decided to take out the generator set for budget reasons. Our electrician miscalculated the load and we nearly burned the Meralco conduit,” he revealed.
“Acting as producer was not a very smart move on hindsight. I bothered myself with money matters so maybe there were times I could not focus that well on the creative aspects of the film. Pulling a lot of favors for this film was the only way I could stay within budget.
“From post-production to locations to free meals, I tried to get as much freebies as I could. I’ve cashed in my last favor for this film. I kept the money within the family, so my wife and four siblings helped raise the additional money.”
As for the film’s cast, Alcazaren said everyone actually auditioned for their roles, including lead actor Ian Veneracion.
“There was one other actor who did a great reading but when Ian came in and read, his delivery, his age, his perspective in life was perfect for the role. It was a plus too that he paints.”
The casting of TV5 Princess Jasmine Curtis-Smith was pretty much a no-brainer for the director.
“She was actually a very early call for me as I had worked with her in commercials. Her age was just right and I felt that it would be interesting for her to play out-of-type. Although known more for her sweet image, she is actually more edgy here,” Alcazaren explained.
Ditto with Lauren Young whose role as the nurse was originally intended for an unknown.
“When Lauren read for the part, she showed the depth that I needed. Her role is actually complex and I needed someone who could put it together. Lauren is only 19 but sounds very mature for her age. All in all, it was a pleasure working with the actors because they honestly did their homework for the roles. ”
For his crew, Alcazaren opted for what he describes as “a healthy mix of indie and advertising people” that he worked with in his past TV commercials which also explains the glossy, polished look of “Puti” judging from its trailer.
“I hired Boy Yñiguez (“Balweg”, “Kubrador”), the cinematographer I usually work with in commercials. He is one of the best. He also knows his film history so when I give references to classics, he immediately understands. My production designer, Rious Caliso, is also from commercials and this is his first feature.”
With the cast and crew doing their homework for their respective roles, Mike Alcazaren said his first foray into feature films turned out to be a very good experience for him.
“I’ve been rehearsing for the past 24 years to shoot my first film and though it wasn’t the most ideal of budgets or circumstances, I think I came prepared,” he concluded.