Chronicle of a Disappearance:
An Interview with Cavite filmmakers Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon
By Michael Joshua Rowin
Thereâ€™s independent filmmaking, and then thereâ€™s independent filmmaking. Cavite fully exemplifies the latter. San Diego natives, high-school friends, and Philippino-American filmmakers Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon produced and directed their devastating political thriller/travelogue (which they also wrote) on a miniscule budget, a two-man crew comprised of themselves, a guerilla-style shoot through the slums and streets of the filmâ€™s title city, and the selling of their equipment on eBay to complete postproduction. The result is a realistic crime drama that transcends its generic origins to engage in some astute political commentary. Gamazon himself plays Adam, a young man who journeys to the Philippines for his fatherâ€™s funeral only to confront another nightmareâ€”the kidnapping of his mother and sister. Forced to bow to the demands of a political radical who once worked with his father, Adam navigates Cavite, where he not only attempts to save his family but is brought face to face with the third-world squalor and the conditions that have wrought the human extremity and cruelty he now suffers. The film has been generating a deserved buzz after screenings at the Rotterdam Film Festival, L.A. Film Festival, and New Directors/New Films. I spoke with Mr. Llana and Mr. Gamazon, both energetic and good-humored (and avid readers of Reverse Shot, as I found out), at the Landmark Theater offices in Manhattan.
REVERSE SHOT: How did you arrive at the idea for Cavite?
Neill Dela Llana: The idea basically came about in 2001.
Ian Gamazon: Before 9/11, right? The summer of 2001.
NDL: Our third film had just done the festival circuit and we were kind of winding down and wondering whatâ€™s next, what are we going to do with our lives. [Ian] was living in L.A. at the time, I was living in San Diego, and we had just gotten our cell phones. The main reason we had gotten cell phones was free nights, free weekends, because we talk everyday about films, movies, whatever, and using landlines gets pretty expensive. So [Ian] was walking home from work one day, and I was at home, and I was like, â€śDude, what would happen if someone kidnapped you and the kidnapper asked me to come save you?â€ť And right there it was, â€śThatâ€™s a movie.â€ť [Both laugh]
IG: And the kind of movie that can have no budget.
NDL: Yeah, something you can do real cheap. And from there, the next couple years it was just writing and writing, just trying to get the script down, it went through many variations. Phone Booth came out, Cellular came outâ€”we were like, â€śOh, man, we gotta watch these movies and make sure weâ€™re not close, I mean weâ€™re close enough, but we want to get the heck away from those movies as far as possible.â€ť
IG: We could have shot it in L.A. or San Diego, but we wanted to do something different: â€śWeâ€™ll go to the Philippines, weâ€™ll see whatâ€™s going on there.â€ť
NDL: Letâ€™s make it topical. Whatâ€™s happening now? 9/11 happened . . .
RS: When 9/11 occurred you adjusted your idea to that event?
NDL: The fact that we were going to shoot it in the Philippines, thatâ€™s when we started to research the Philippines and what was happening there, the Muslim conflict. But 9/11 actually enhancedâ€”not enhanced the Philippine-Muslim conflict, but brought it out into the open even more, so we were like, â€śOkay, now weâ€™ve got something to work with.â€ť So 9/11 wasnâ€™t directly involved in the writing process, but it kind of brought out a lot of what we didnâ€™t know before about what was happening in the Philippines.
RS: The sort of terrorism in the filmâ€”a kidnappingâ€”is this a common occurrence in the Philippines? Did you conduct research into the fringe political resistance groups there and base the story on that?
IG: The actual idea, the Hollywood action, thatâ€™s definitely not whatâ€™s happening there.
NDL: Kidnappings, beheadings, bus bombings, mall bombings, thatâ€™s all pretty normal out there, though. So in that sense, that totally fit our story. Again, we were like, â€śLetâ€™s work off of this.â€ť
IG: We did a lot of research on what was going on there.
NDL: Some back story: The big reason thereâ€™s a Muslim conflict in the Philippines is because thereâ€™s a southern island in the Philippines named Mindanao thatâ€™s trying to separate from the Philippines, and the Philippines are saying, no, youâ€™re staying with us. On this island Mindanao theyâ€™ve got a Muslim resistance group called Abu Sayyaf, which is the equivalent of Al Qaeda in the Middle East. And actually, they have links, Abu Sayyaf and Al Qaeda. We did research on Abu Sayyaf, what was happening, a lot of statistics that were in the movieâ€”it was all researched and factual. I think the reason we did so much research was to be able to make sure [the film] was as accurate as possible. We didnâ€™t want people to say, â€śHey, youâ€™re giving us bullshit.â€ť We wanted to make sure it was real, accurate, and fair at the same time. We didnâ€™t want to make a negative portrayal of what was happening out there.
RS: How did you conceive of the filmâ€™s travelogue aspect? What did you want Western viewers to see of the Philippines? How did you want that part of the film to affect peopleâ€™s perceptions or challenge their assumptions of the country?
NDL: First and foremost it was the story. Once we had the story and did location scouting we knew we wanted to show some pretty dark sides of the Philippines, because we knew with the story we couldnâ€™t show the pretty side and the beautiful side. Obviously that does exist in the Philippinesâ€”the beaches, the palm trees, the coconuts. But we werenâ€™t interested in showing that. It wasnâ€™t a matter of showing the bad side as much as it was showing something that fits with the story.
RS: When you were writing the script were you thinking, â€śWe want to show this,â€ť or when you got there and looking at various places you thought, â€śThis is where we want the action to take place, the character should come across thisâ€ť?
NDL: It was both. Like with the cockfight in the marketâ€”I had been [to the Philippines] before, so I knew that we could write a scene in this location. But at the same time, the first two days that we were in the Philippines we did some location scouting and thatâ€™s when we saw the squatter camps, thatâ€™s when we saw some really dark stuff.
IG: That was our first time actually seeing that.
NDL: Thatâ€™s when we were like, we have to put this on screen, because this is stuff that Western viewers donâ€™t see every day. If this is interesting to us, itâ€™s going to be interesting to a lot of other people. Thatâ€™s why we wanted to shoot the film in those locations, for the educational value, in a way.
RS: How did the locals respond to your shooting there?
IG: They were very friendly. They thought we were a news teamâ€”he was the cameraman, I was the news reporter. â€śHey, what are you guys reporting on, are you reporting on the squatters here?â€ť It was really strange. But it was really easy to film. We would ask, â€śCan we shoot on the roof?â€ť â€śSure, come on up!â€ť
NDL: Even the cockfight, we didnâ€™t ask anybody for anything, we just walked in there. If anything, people were curious. When we reviewing footage on our monitor people would look over our shoulders and watch. But we prepared for the worst. So we brought two cameras, one was insurance in case the other gotten stolen or we got mug or it broke down. We had at least two of everything, so that raised our budget a little.
RS: I was curious about this aspect of your productionâ€”in the press notes it states that you, Neill, were filming, and you, Ian, were in front of the camera while holding the mic.
IG: I was the soundman. The fanny pack I had, there was a sound recorder in there, there was a tape recorder attached to the headset so I could listen to the actual voice [of the kidnapper], just so I could react to it. And then the sound recorder, there was a Lavalier mic attached to that, and I attached it to the piece right here [on the headset]. And thatâ€™s the soundâ€”I was doing the sound!
NDL: [laughs] We just had no choice, thatâ€™s the way we looked at it! We had nobody else to do this, so we had to figure out a way to do the sound!
RS: To go back to shooting the film in the Philippinesâ€”was making the film at all a way to explore your Philippino roots?
IG: For me, personally, I hadnâ€™t been there since I was nine years old, so I was really curious about how it is, because I had forgotten. The first day, it was a culture shock. After a while I got used to it, but just being there and knowing you were born there and raised around that area, itâ€™s just a feeling you get.
NDL: Itâ€™s where your parents are from. Weâ€™re the first generation [to grow up in the United States], so this is where are ancestors are from. I mean, we werenâ€™t consciously thinking, â€śLetâ€™s make a movie and explore our roots,â€ť but once we got there it was really fascinating.
RS: And you have family thatâ€™s still there that you were able to connect with and gain help from.
NDL: My momâ€™s sister and her extended family still live there, so we stayed with them. She housed us, fed us, drove us around, all for free. People always ask us, â€śWhy Cavite? Why not somewhere else?â€ť Thatâ€™s the primary reason, because we knew people there.
RS: To go back to the political aspect of the film, you say current events informed what you were doing. I was interested in how you came to the idea in your film of Islam being used for extremist or fundamentalist ends.
IG: Whatâ€™s interesting about it is how thereâ€™s an extremist Muslim and a moderate Muslim and how they clash.
NDL: Originally his character was written as a Catholic versus this Muslim extremist, but that felt so trite.
IG: It didnâ€™t feel right. We were going back and forth with ideas, pulling our hair, thinking this wasnâ€™t working. Then we thought, â€śLetâ€™s have the lead be a Muslim-American, have him go back to the Philippines,â€ť a moderate Muslimâ€”
NDL: â€¦in conflict with this extremist. That was interesting to us.
RS: And there are bookends to the film where the lead struggles with his faith and what heâ€™s done in committing an act of terrorism to save his family.
IG: What do you do when youâ€™ve committed an act like this? You pray for your soul.
NDL: How do you make peace with your soul? That was our thinking when we were writing it. How does the character make peace with what heâ€™s done? Is it through prayer? At the same time, we didnâ€™t want to have an ending that was so cheesy, or corny.
RS: The ending was completely haunting to me, actually.
NDL: We wanted to keep it open-ended, because a lot of people interpreted it in different waysâ€”people have asked, â€śIs it a dream?â€ť But no, heâ€™s praying for his soul.
RS: At the end we also meet the main characterâ€™s girlfriend, who states sheâ€™s had an abortion because she didnâ€™t want to raise her child as a Muslimâ€”a very extreme expression of how someone could feel the religion has been so hijacked that they would have a problem bringing up a child in that faith.
IG: Well, I think the idea we wanted to come across is that this character goes through hell in the Philippines and he comes home, and this is what he has to deal with. This Western naivetĂ©, I guess.
NDL: Iâ€™ve known some peopleâ€”not friends, just acquaintancesâ€”who are pretty ignorant in that sense. She represents not everyoneâ€™s thinking, or even Western thinking, but certain pockets of peopleâ€™s thinking about the Muslim religion.
RS: I wanted to ask you about the editing of the film. Did you design the editing, with its flash frames and rapidity, for pacing purposes or to express the characterâ€™s subjectivity or capture the rhythm of life in Cavite?
NDL: All that, actually. One of the big things was to turn it into a rollercoaster ride, hence the fast pace. But at the same time, since thereâ€™s such a subjective point of view, what kinds of things would this character see and how would he see the world of the Philippinesâ€”itâ€™s chaotic, itâ€™s fast-paced, itâ€™s madness.
IG: Especially the first time you arrive, thatâ€™s basically how you feel. That kind of camera movement is perfect for it.
NDL: There were some things technically where we werenâ€™t happy with the way it was shot and cut. The bathroom scene, where we mimic La JetĂ©e with freeze-frame shotsâ€”when someone asked us during a Q & A, â€śIs there a live version of that?â€ť we were like, â€śYeah, there is, but the blocking, the staging was so awful [laughs] that we had to think of something.â€ť Then [Ian] came up with an idea: â€śTurn it into La JetĂ©e.â€ť â€śAll right, Iâ€™ll try that.â€ť And thatâ€™s the way it ended up.
RS: Necessity is the mother of invention. What are your influences, for this particular film and then in general?
NDL: Chungking Express, Steven Soderbergh and his editingâ€”
IG: The Limeyâ€”
NDL: The Limey, yeah, thatâ€™s a huge one. Obviously La JetĂ©e. Fallen Angels I watched a lot during the shooting.
RS: Thatâ€™s interesting because Wong Kar-wai has a similar sort of kinetic editing, but his films are so romantic, whereas yours is so raw.
NDL and IG: [laugh] Thatâ€™s true!
RS: With kidnapping films, one thinks of them often as something like Kurosawaâ€™s High and Low, as a generic way of exploring class divisions. Were you thinking of something like that for Cavite?
NDL: Not consciously. I remember watching High and Low a number of times during graduate school, but I donâ€™t think we did it consciously. I never thought of it that way, but thatâ€™s interesting, because of the class division in a third-world country.
IG: But weâ€™ll use that for the next person who asks us thatâ€”â€śYeah, uh, we watched High and Low!â€ť [Both laugh].
RS: Why make the lead character pay for his fatherâ€™s criminal past?
NDL: That was more of a thing where we just did it for the plot. Otherwise it didnâ€™t make sense for him to go to the bank and take out the money. Originally when we wrote it we didnâ€™t have any of those kinds of intentions, but once we started getting into the writing process it became its own animal, where we started exploring the sins of the father.
IG: You have to figure out the logistics of the movie. Why this character is doing this and this and this, why this other character is doing this. Once we figure that out, once we have the actual structure of the film thatâ€™s when we elevate itâ€”â€śOkay, whatâ€™s the motivational system?â€ť And then we figure out themes, stuff we havenâ€™t dealt with yet. Itâ€™s a very organic process when you writeâ€¦things just pop outâ€”
NDL: Once you have the basics.
RS: Like the child we follow at two moments in the film.
NDL: Thatâ€™s exactly right, because the original part where [the lead character] was running around with the bag and going into the McDonaldâ€™s, that was in the original script before we went to the Philippinesâ€”
IG: Because we knew we werenâ€™t going to be able to shoot in the bank during that scene, so we thought we should show life in the Philippines.
RS: Where did you find the kid?
NDL: The first two days in the Philippines was location scouting and casting. The kid was my cousinâ€™s son, which would make him my distant nephew. We had two days to find a kid who could pull this off, and once we saw him we thought he was perfect. We just kinda dragged him out there, and he did it.
RS: How did you get interested in filmmaking to begin with? What do want to explore through filmmaking?
IG: We just love films of all kinds, from foreign films to Hollywood films. What started it all was, what, Robert Rodriguez?
NDL: In high school we saw the films of Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smithâ€”you know, those 20,000 dollar filmsâ€”and we thought, if these guys can do it, why canâ€™t we do it? Our taste evolved. At first it was Indiana Jones, Star Wars, whatever Hollywood threw out. Then after years of that you want to watch other stuff, so we got into foreign films, indie films. Now weâ€™ll watch anything, as long as itâ€™s good cinema. [laughs]
RS: This film is part of a very particular genreâ€”almost a genre within a genre. Is that a genre you gravitate toward?
NDL: Not necessarily. During that phase when we made the film, yeah, we were into action and crime. But the previous three films we made were all over the map.
IG: The first was an anti-romantic comedy. A Sleepless in Seattle structure, but a dark version of it. [laughs] Eh, it was bad. The second one was like a sci-fi film, an X-Files type of deal. I was going through my X-Files phase then.
RS: I had that phase, sure.
[NDL and IG laugh]
IG: The third one was a rape-revenge film.
NDL: You were going through a Kieslowski phase with that, right?
IG: Yeah, Blue . We added an elementâ€”this woman gets raped and the way she gets revenge is to get a strap-on dildo and rape the guy back.
RS: What are the titles of these films?
IG: The first one was Diego Stories, the second one was The Book, and the third one was Freudâ€™s Second Law.
NDL: And the third one is the one where we started to get into the festival circuit, South by Southwest, the LA Film Fest. Well, the first went to a New York agent back in â€™96. And the second one did nothing at all.
RS: Where are you headed for the future?
NDL: [Ironically] Hollywood. Anyone who would greenlight our filmâ€”
IG: Whatever our next film is going to be. We have a script in mindâ€”
NDL: We have a lot of ideas, but we feel that the next one thatâ€™s going to get made is going to be in the same genre [as Cavite] because people would trust us with that instead of us doing a romantic comedy. They would say, â€śNo, no, no, no money for you!â€ť [laughs] But at the same time, as we evolve weâ€™re going to get into all sorts of stuff.