asian american indie films

November 24, 2007

 
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Baby
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Going Home
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RUCKUS!
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HK 1960: The VC Filmfest Afterparty
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Baby
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YEAR OF THE DOG
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ANH OI
San Francisco Int’l Asian American Film Fest
San Diego Asian Film Festival
VC FILMFEST
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Asian Stories (Book 3)
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Filipino American directors Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana on their film CAVITE

By Chuleenan Svetvilas


Neill Dela Llana (left) and Ian Gamazon at the Center for Asian American Media’s sneak preview screening, June 6, 2006The fourth time’s the charm for Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana. After making three feature films, CAVITE is their first production to get distribution. The riveting microbudget thriller was written and directed by the Filipino American duo who also gave themselves additional jobs – Dela Llana as cameraman and editor and Gamazon as starring actor and sound recorder.

CAVITE follows Adam (Gamazon) as he journeys from San Diego to the Philippines for his father’s funeral. Once he arrives, his mother fails to pick him up at the airport and doesn’t answer his phone calls. Adam’s nightmarish ordeal is about to begin. A cell phone that has somehow been inserted in his luggage rings and a male voice tells him that his mother and sister have been kidnapped. Adam must follow his instructions or they will be killed. He is directed through squatter camps where people live in abject poverty, down strange alleyways, to a cockfight arena, and other places that are bewildering and disorienting to Adam. As he later discovers, the man is a member of the militant Islamic group Abu Sayyaf. To save his family, Adam is eventually forced to make an impossible decision.

“CAVITE takes the suspense/thriller genre and imbues it with a gripping socio-political context,” says Chi-hui Yang, festival director of the Center for Asian American Media. “The film is so completely new and fresh that it forces a re-understanding and realignment of the cinema.” Yang calls the film globally focused, but from a distinctively Asian American perspective.

Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana were recently in San Francisco promoting their film. Chuleenan Svetvilas interviewed the 32-year-old directors about making the film, getting distribution, and dealing with success. CAVITE opens in the Bay Area on June 16, screening at Landmark Theatres.

Chuleenan Svetvilas: Were you in college when you made your first film?

Ian Gamazon: We were students at San Diego State and we watched EL MARIACHI and CLERKS and we just thought, “You know what?”

Neill Dela Llana: If they can do it for cheap, we can do it for cheap. But it took us a while. It wasn’t quite that easy. (laughter)

CS: Did you direct your first film together?

IG: I directed the first one—an anti-romantic comedy called DIEGO STORIES, which we’re not very proud of. I also played the lead in it.

NDL: That was done in 1996 when we were students at San Diego State. I played a supporting role, helping creatively. The second feature, THE BOOK, was one that I directed. It was a campy X-FILES sci-fi film–another overly ambitious, under-experienced project. Ian played the lead role in that movie.

IG: Out of desperation, but I’m retired now. The third film, which I directed, was called FREUD’S SECOND LAW. That one had some film festival success in 2001 but no distribution, nothing, and it died.

CS: How did you get the idea for CAVITE?

NDL: Around the summer of 2001, Ian was living in LA and I was in San Diego and we were saving money by talking on our cell phones during the free nights and weekends. We had a conversation where we just had one of those “what if” questions: “What if somebody kidnapped you and the kidnapper forced me to save you?” And it was just like, “Bing!” that’s a movie. But the most important thing was that it was a movie that could be done cheaply.

IG: We were going to have the film take place in LA or San Diego but then we realized, you know what? Let’s go to the Philippines. So we researched what was going on the Philippines–the Muslim-Christian conflict there.

CS: Did 9/11 give you additional ideas?

NDL: We had already decided to set it in the Philippines and once 9/11 happened, we thought “Wow, there’s a lot going on in the world right now. What’s currently going on in the Philippines?” That’s when we learned more about the Abu Sayyaf conflict with the Philippine government. For the next couple years during the writing process, we just learned as much as we could and incorporated it into the script.

CS: Is CAVITE your first foray into putting a political context to a genre film?

NG: I think with THE BOOK, we tried to infuse some political context but it was very fictionalized politics–like the U.S. government is controlling our minds, very X-FILES. But CAVITE is our most topical, contemporary film.


Ian Gamazon in a scene from CAVITECS: How long did you work on the script for Cavite?

IG: Two years. A lot of the research that we did was through the Internet, magazines. We also had our parents as a source and friends.

CS: The film takes place in several different locations. Were most of these locations already in the script before you began shooting?

NDL: The last time I was in the Philippines was back in 1999. A lot of the locations I had already seen before, like the cockfight and the market and so when we wrote the script in 2002, we could incorporate those locations in there. But at the same time, we wanted to location scout just to make sure that it was practical to shoot at a cockfight. Some other locations we hadn’t seen before like the squatter camps. That was totally brand new to us.

CS: When it came time for production, you originally had a woman as the main character but then you had to switch gears and the part was rewritten for Ian. How did you feel about that?

IG: We hated it. We tried to find someone for over a year but nobody wanted to go to the Philippines.

NDL: We auditioned actresses for a year but once we told them what they were going to have to go through – go to the Philippines with two strangers to film this terrorist thriller for no pay, then everyone was like, “No.” Maybe a few said yes, but they weren’t right for the part.

IG: A month before the actual shoot, we just had to stop auditioning. We already had our plane tickets. Then Neill had the idea that I should do it. And that’s what we did. It’s not something that I’d want to do again.

CS: How long did you stay in the Philippines when you shot your film in October 2003?

NDL: Fourteen days.

CS: So you had jobs at the time?

NDL: Yeah, it was our two-week vacation. The first two days, we did some location scouting and some casting of the small roles. The next ten days straight we shot the movie. It was perfect weather for ten days. On the eleventh day it rained.

CS: Were you shooting in chronological order or by location?

NDL: By location. Every morning we’d get up at 4 or 5 in the morning and think about what was practical that day. Can my aunt drive us to that location today? Can we shoot this scene today or do we have to go to the church today? We’d start shooting at 7 in the morning and end at 6 at night. Some days we’d only shoot one scene, like the church scene, we had to travel half a day to get there.

CS: I was impressed by your handheld camerawork, Neill.

NDL: Actually, a lot of it was storyboarded. So on the script, we’d have little pictures that I used as a guide to shoot the scene. It’s all preproduction planning. Our thing was like, we have a 10-day window, let’s not screw it up. Let’s get what we want and let’s know exactly what we want.

IG: We had notes. We made sure we were on the same page–camera wise, acting wise—so when we got to the Philippines, everything was pretty much done.

CS: What were you trying to achieve in your camerawork?

NDL: One of the big things that I was trying to do was to capture the way the Philippines is. It’s chaotic, it’s crazy energy out there. I was trying to express that in the camera work.

CS: Were there any particular films or directors that were inspirations for you for this particular movie?

NDL: I always like to use the movie SPEED. You know, bomb on the bus with a guy on a phone. Though a lot of people would like to say that we ripped off PHONE BOOTH, but that’s not true.

IG: We thought of the idea before PHONE BOOTH came out [in 2002].

NDL: But I’m sure they already had their idea.

IG: CHUNGKING EXPRESS and THE LIMEY for the editing. They were the films we were visually inspired by.

CS: Did you have any particular goals that you set for yourself as you were making the film?

IG: To get into Sundance. (laughter)

NDL: I guess we didn’t meet that one! That was a big goal. We gotta make a Sundance film.

IG: For the last 10 years, we’ve been trying. We still haven’t gotten there.

CS: Any there any particular influences on you that had an impact on the film?

IG: As far as the actual story, it’s just a personal story for us as Filipino Americans, going back to the country where we were born.

NDL: In some ways it’s autobiographical. In the conversations, the guy [on the phone] speaks Tagalog and Adam answers back in English. That’s the way we talk to our parents.

CS: I noticed that you thanked John and Janet Pierson in your film. Did they give you any advice about your film?

NDL: They basically acted as our sales agent for the movie. They are pretty much the reason why we got distribution.

CS: How did you get to know the Piersons?

NDL: We didn’t know them. We just read John’s books [Spike Mike Slackers and Dykes: A Guided Tour Through a Decade of American Cinema; Spike Mike Reloaded]. We knew about him from all the movies he had sold or was involved in. He didn’t know who we were.

IG: We went on the Internet and looked for his address.

NDL: And we sent him a copy. That was it. The only thing we were hoping for was his response. Tell us what you think about the movie. Does it suck? Is it good? Is it something? All we knew was that he hadn’t been [representing films] for years. Janet called first and said, “I really like your film. I’ll try to get John to watch it one day.” But John did not watch it for six months. So a month before our film screened in the South by Southwest Film Festival, I called Janet to ask her for some advice — any tips about getting press, distributors. They were living in Austin [where the festival takes place] back then. Janet got John to watch it and pretty much the next day, he emailed us and said he wanted to help us. He was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin at the time, teaching a producing class. He said he wanted to turn our movie into a class project. Basically his class helped us get press and meet with distributors.

CS: Your film has been getting a lot of attention now. How does that feel?

NDL: It’s rewarding but it’s sometimes kind of scary because more exposure means more criticism—and not of the good kind.

IG: The criticism that we’re getting is that we’re showing the poverty of the Philippines. We’re getting a lot of criticism for that.

CS: Criticism from Filipinos?

IG: Mostly from the older generation–a percentage of them. We’re storytellers. We showed that because it felt right for the story. It wouldn’t have been right to show palm trees and white sand beaches.

NDL: We also get criticism from people who haven’t even seen it yet. They’re questioning some inaccuracies, asking questions like, “Why is this taking place in this town which has nothing to do with Abu Sayyaf?” And just from seeing the trailer, they say, “Why are you showing the poverty? Why are you misrepresenting the Philippines? I’m deeply offended.”

IG: It’s the nature of what we were doing.

NDL: We knew it would push people’s buttons but I guess we take the good and the bad.

CS: What are you working on now?

IG: Writing, talking with producers on having a writing/directing assignment. We’re getting a lot of meetings.

NDL: It’s just a matter of finding the right project with the right producer. Our big goal is to make another movie but not with our own money.

IG: Not with our credit cards.

CS: Do you see yourself doing other films about Asian Americans? Is that important to you?

IG: Telling a good story.

NDL: Telling a good story comes first. If it’s going to include Asian Americans, then yeah, if it’s not then we may not go that way but definitely it’s something that we talk about. At some point we want to go back to the Philippines and shoot another film there. But we don’t want to restrict ourselves and say that’s our next movie.


Visit the official CAVITE website for more information about the film.