Director says 'fearless' in tackling film's subject
MANILA -- "On the Job (OTJ)," the acclaimed crime-thriller by Erik Matti, didn't set out to please an international audience even as it held its world premiere in Cannes early this year.
The director, during a recent press conference held for the film's local release on August 28, cited as a matter of pride that "OTJ" is "a movie that was really made for the local audience."
"It wasn't made because we were thinking of going to Cannes or isa-submit sa Cannes. This is not arthouse. This is a mainstream film," Matti said.
In May, the Star Cinema and Reality Entertainment co-production premiered as part of the Directors' Fortnight section at the 66th Cannes Film Festival. Its packed screening, lead actor Piolo Pascual recalled, ended in a standing ovation from its international audience.
Due to its successful showing in the prestigious film festival, "OTJ" was tapped by independent distributor Well Go USA for an American release. The film is set to premiere in the United States in September.
"We're even surprised that Cannes took notice of it," said Matti. "And if you talk to all the Cannes members, they were so thrilled about the film."
Matti noted that unlike earlier Philippine films that made it to Cannes and other similar events, "OTJ" is "not about third-world poverty. Kwento talaga siya na may mayaman, may mahirap. It wasn't playing on the third-world flavor that much."
How it started
The film stars Gerald Anderson and Joel Torre as inmates who are temporarily released from jail to become contract killers for corrupt politicians. NBI agents, portrayed by Pascual and Joey Marquez, meanwhile, are assigned on their trail.
The first spark of interest to develop what would become "OTJ," Matti recalled, was triggered a decade back, when he engaged in casual conversation with a company driver during the shoot of one of his films.
Erik Matti (with cap, background) directs Gerald Anderson (left, foreground) as Daniel, an inmate temporarily released from jail as a contract killer. Photo from the director's official Facebook page
"Ang simula talaga nito, may driver, when I was still working with Viva -- hindi pa maputi 'yung buhok ko no'n -- na ang kwento niya, galing siyang kulungan and ang trabaho niya, ang raket niya sa loob is to do hits outside. So that stuck with me," he said.
For several years since, Matti couldn't manage to start putting the idea on paper, "but I kept on thinking about it. I couldn't get it off my mind."
What became of this itch "to do something about it" was a nine-minute reel based on the driver's candid sharing. This "trailer," which Matti posted on Facebook, eventually generated interest to inspire him to start work on a full script.
Although Matti already had a concept to work with, "what was important was to find out kung anong klase siyang action movie."
Big stars in thriller
His extensive research to place the story firmly in real-world Manila -- which involved four consultants from the police force, the military, and politics -- eventually led Matti to decide that "OTJ" wouldn't be "die-hard action."
"It's more gearing towards conspiracy thrillers," he said.
The director cited in particular "Heat," the 1995 crime film by Michael Mann starring Al Pacino, as his "biggest influence" in crafting "OTJ." Another source of inspiration, he said, was the French prison drama film "A Prophet," released in 2009.
'OTJ' actors (from left) Rayver Cruz, Piolo Pascual, Gerald Anderson and Joel Torre pose in Cannes in this photo taken in May. From the official website of Star Magic
Once he finalized the treatment and script for "OTJ," what followed was translating the idea into a workable project. He recalled approaching ABS-CBN's film arm Star Cinema, which readily gave him the green light, and subsequently recruiting top stars to bring his characters to life.
"I really wanted it to have a stellar cast in terms of not just the leads, but all the supports. You'll see really great character-actors in one scene. Isang scene, tapos wala na, hindi mo na sila makikita sa buong pelikula.
"We want a gathering of really big names, the kind na... alam mo'yon, pag pinanood mo ulit, 'Nandiyan pala si ganyan, si gano'n,'" he said.
True enough, joining the cast of "OTJ" in supporting roles are several big-name stars like Rosanna Roces, Angel Aquino, Michael de Mesa, Leo Martinez, Vivan Velez, William Martinez, Shaina Magdayao, Rayver Cruz, and JM de Guzman, among others.
Pascual, according to Matti, was his foremost consideration to star in the project. The director said he had given the actor the script, even before any film studio knew what he was up to.
Matti said he asked Pascual to pick any role he wanted from the characters, and found reason to celebrate when the actor chose the role he thought "ideal" for him.
As cameras rolled for the project, Pascual's star power figured as one of the challenges in shooting "OTJ" in the criss-crossing streets of Manila.
Recalling this part of the project as "madugo," Matti said they had to request the closure of several streets in the city, and even had one station of the LRT put off operations at one point.
A scene from 'OTJ' showing its take on Manila prison. Photo courtesy of film website Twitch Film
Due to the sensitive subject of the film, Matti said they opted not to shoot inside an actual prison. Instead, his team "studied" the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa and the Manila City Jail to portray the setting as accurately as possible.
The trouble, the director shared, proved worthwhile as he saw it translate on screen.
"You may see it as a documentary, it may look like a documentary, but you'll be surprised that everything was set up... down to all the crowd scenes, down to the prison, down to the LRT scenes. All those were crowd extras," he said.
In both its fast-paced and subdued scenes, the film appears to bring up an apparent dent in the local correctional system. But Matti contested this; there is no "big message" in "OTJ."
Asked if he "fears" the topic of his film would earn the ire of certain real-life personalities, Matti recalled addressing the same question in Cannes, saying the critics there have a penchant for the controversial.
"Ako, gusto ko lang gumawa ng parang 'Enemy of the State' (1998 American spy-thriller), 'Bourne Identity' (2002 American action-spy film), gano'n lang. Swertihan lang na umabot pa kami ng Cannes," he said.
"Pero dahil sa kwento, dahil sa research, you touch upon some sensitive stuff. But I am not Lino Brocka (National Artist for Film). I don't do films to send out a message. I have strong messages in my film, but it's always about the human insight -- about betrayal, etcetera, but never about 'Ang Pilipinas ay bulok.' Hindi ako gano'n. So wala, hindi ako takot," he said.