NOTE to self: must thank Monster for getting me into this gig, sort of. And I thought I wasn’t going have fun with this thing. I can hear Bilbo telling his favorite cousin, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Where did I get myself swept into? One minute I was on the rooftop of this one-star hotel in QC being asked questions by a nice American lady, next I was off to Bohol to shoot this small movie with one of the most influential independent filmmakers in the world. Just like that, I’m in our own little Avatar movie. More on that later.
YOU’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE
Tagbilaran City struck me as a cross between Cavite’s old, pre-1960s architechture, dotted sometimes by turn of the century (20th, not 21st) old houses that have been reworked over time, and Boracay’s advanced tourism development, where one sees the wi-fi sign at the local version of Starbucks or McDonald’s. It feels like Cavite, the province south of Manila, mainly because it feels like you’re not too far away from home (or civilisation) even if you really are.
They say the best way to learn about the local culture is to try its food. An hour after arriving, Maggie leads the troupe to Manga’s wet market where we bought fresh seafood and vegetables. One of the photos above shows a kid watching a noontime-show in an LCD screen. You don’t see that even in Manila.
We cross the street to a quaint, standard-looking street restaurant and had our fresh merchandise cooked. The place is called Liclic’s, named after the owner who runs the place (pronounced Lick-lick). Liclic’s specializes in what they call SU-TU-KIL (pronounced SHOOT-TO KILL) but it actually stands for SUgba (grilled) TUla (souped) and KILaw (pickled in Vinegar). Catchy stuff.
Bohol is pretty much about delicious fresh food. LOTS of delicious food. And that is how you get introduced to a new place.
ENTER THE WORLD OF PANDORA
If Tagbilaran is a quiet little city, the set location is a much different place. Jungle and rice paddies in the hilly interior of the island.
An artificial village rises in the middle of the green nowhere, flanked on either side by rice paddies, green with month-old grass planted at such time as the rice will be ready for harvesting by the time we start filming. It is actually a valley – the set is like our own secluded studio with the hills surrounding the village as our protective walls. Seeing the set this way justifies setting the shoot in Bohol. I don’t think there are places in Luzon that remain as secluded and quiet as this.
Supervised by Production Designer Rodel Cruz, a clump of nipa huts surround a small plaza where a water well will rise. In front of the well is a 19th Century looking stone church, made of styrofoam of course but made to look like stone. At this point the form is almost complete, the unfinished paint giving away initial impressions of its authenticity.
I tell John and Maggie that sets constructed on location are extremely rare incidents in Filipino productions. That this one is in the middle of nowhere in Bohol makes it even rarer. Cesar Montano shot a few scenes in the tourist spots of Bohol for a movie.
What does it mean to be working in a John Sayles movie? I’m not sure yet. I’ve just arrived and my journey is just starting. I tell John and Maggie that there are no “casting directors” in Filipino films. Not really and specifically.
Just like the movie set, those expectations will build and the answers will take shape as the production nears. Fingers double-triple-crossed.
For now, we start on our own little Avatar.