Filmmaker Sonny Calvento on Sundance and why comedy is inherently Pinoy

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

Sonny Calvento talks about making his first short film, the influence of his father on his practice, and the boundaries between film and T.V. Illustration by JL JAVIER/Photo courtesy of SONNY CALVENTO

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Sonny Calvento’s short film “Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss” begins with an utterly familiar mall jingle. A Filipino viewer who grew up in an urban area might be able to recognize the tune and sing along. It’s the type of sound that inevitably inflicts vexation. But satirized in the film, it’s funny until you realize that you’re laughing at a real-life misery.

Mall culture is deeply embedded in our society. If plazas and churches were the central element of placemaking in the Spanish colonial era, malls are perhaps the central figure of placemaking in the Philippines today. It’s a testament of how capitalism governs our lives.

In “Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss,” the main character is a mall sales lady named Vangie (Phyllis Grande) who is on the brink of losing her job despite working tirelessly. Desperate for regularization, she spies on her supervisor and discovers the shocking secret to navigating the absurd and unjust system ruling her exhausting, thankless job.

The "Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss" poster designed by Justin Besana. Photo courtesy of SONNY CALVENTO

After screening at QCinema, Cinemalaya, and other film festivals abroad, “Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss” is one of the 50 short films in the International Fiction Shorts of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. And it is the first Filipino short film to be part of the said category.

Having written teleseryes first and then working on full-length films (as writer and director for “Nabubulok” and producer for “John Denver Trending”), the short film format is somewhat new to Calvento. But after “Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss,” he has gained a newfound appreciation for the medium.

“Short films are equally as important as feature films, and should not be seen only as stepping stone for a feature film,” he says. “Short films have the potential to be as impactful or, sometimes, even more impactful than feature films.”

In an email interview, Calvento talks about the conception of the short film, the influence of his journalist father Tony Calvento on his practice, and the last great film he saw.

Congratulations for making it to Sundance! What was the application process like? Can you recall the moment when you received the news?

Sending your film to Sundance is just like sending your film to any international film festivals. You just fill out an application form with a screener link. What’s special about Sundance is they don’t require any premiere status for short films, so I knew I’d be competing with thousands of submissions. I just tried my luck. The thought of making it to the final 50 short films out of the almost 10,000 submissions never crossed my mind.

I think it was three months after submitting the film. One night, I received an email with the subject “Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss / Sundance Film Festival 2021.” I thought it was a rejection letter. I opened the email, and the message wasn’t loading, but I noticed that the email had a lot of CCed contacts, which really got me thinking, “why would they inform a lot of contacts that my film got rejected?” I had to rush outside the house to get a good LTE signal and there I was out on the street in my boxer shorts when the message finally loaded: It was a congratulatory message from Sundance.

In “Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss,” the main character is a mall sales lady named Vangie (Phyllis Grande) who is on the brink of losing her job despite working tirelessly. Photo courtesy of SONNY CALVENTO

Can you tell me more about the conception of the short film?

The film is about the plight of the contractual workers in the Philippines, particularly of salespersons in super malls. I learned more about their struggles by coincidence. We happen to own a small food kiosk and our then newly hired cashier is a former sales lady at a famous mall chain. She narrated how ridiculous and oppressive some requirements can get when you are applying for the job, as well as maintaining the job once you get hired. Once, she was even scolded because her lipstick was not pink enough.

Through the help of the writer of the film Arden Rod Condez (director of “John Denver Trending,” 2019 Cinemalaya Best Film), we set the tone and drafted the script. We decided to infuse comedy and a little fantasy in a social realist subject. We wanted to explore if the comedy genre, being the best-selling genre in the Philippines, can be used to expose a subject relevant to the Filipino people. I’d like to think we have achieved this.

Did you always imagine it as a short? Or did you also think of stretching it into a full-length film?

I never imagined “Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss” as a feature film. We started developing the story because of QCinema’s call for short film entries, so we were really stuck in the idea that the film will be told in a short narrative form. I’ve always seen the story’s portion in two tones — the comedy and the tragedy. I’ve always wanted the first half to be comedic while the second half brings the audience to the horror of contractualization. It ends with a bitter pill to swallow. I'd like to think that it worked for the film.

Your directorial debut was a feature film. What did you learn after working on a short film?

That short films are equally as important as feature films, and should not be seen only as stepping stone for a feature film. I made my first short film because I wanted to find my voice, but after making “Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss,” I have a renewed respect for the medium. Short films have the potential to be as impactful or, sometimes, even more impactful than feature films.

The film was screened at QCinema and Cinemalaya then at Luang Prabang Film Festival as well as other international film festivals. I’m wondering, how important are international festivals for you as a Filipino filmmaker?

Working in mainstream television for 10 years as a writer and for one year as a director (before the ABS-CBN shutdown) has made me aware of how television works and how the audience greatly dictates what they want to watch and how storytelling is highly approached from a business perspective. Sadly, I believe that the stories I want to tell do not have a space in mainstream film and television even up to now. I am grateful to film festivals like QCinema and Cinemalaya, and international film festivals that offer venues for these types of stories. New voices in filmmaking are found in reputable film festivals, and these voices eventually penetrate mainstream media. I believe that a paradigm shift in mainstream storytelling is happening slowly and film festivals are a big factor in that movement.

How do you navigate the boundaries between T.V. and film?

T.V. is always audience oriented. Everything you write, everything you do, are all based on calculated research statistics and audience profile. There is little room for self-expression because everything a T.V. writer does should always fit the audience mold of the network you work for. I started writing and making films after feeling exhausted from continuously writing a hundred pages a week for teleseryes for seven years.

Armando Lao’s [Found Story] workshop gave me a new perspective on how I should see narrative storytelling. I felt a renewed purpose in storytelling when he taught me how to see a material not just through the characters, but through all the living and nonliving things surrounding those characters.

That, for me, is a clear distinction between T.V. and film. In the Philippines, T.V. is very character-based. You have to invest in characters in order to watch them every day, while film (and its characters) can represent a society, an institution. T.V. follows specific threads of stories. Film has the potential to see the bigger picture.

Your father Tony Calvento is known for “Calvento Files.” Do you think his practice influenced you to become a storyteller too? Do you think he influenced the way you tell stories?

How he raised me influenced me a lot on how I view the world and ultimately how I tell my stories. We lived in a household where I grew up surrounded by bodyguards. Me and my brother were asked to stay at home most of the time because of the dangerous nature of his job. At a young age, I read articles from his tabloid column because his case files were just scattered around our house. I think both my films, “Nabubulok” and “Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss” have storytelling elements just like how my father would write his columns for “Calvento Files.”

Also, since I grew up reading so many case files from my father, I realized early on that life in the Philippines can really be tragic and gruesome. Hence, I appreciate the genre of comedy even more. I always seek for something that would comfort me.

In the film, Vangie attempts to convince her boss (played by Angelina Kanapi) to let her keep her contractual job. Photo courtesy of SONNY CALVENTO

What is the core philosophy that guides your work?

Filmmaking is a privilege. Not every good storyteller is given a chance to make films because in reality, filmmaking involves a lot of politics. So as a filmmaker, I must always use that privilege to at least challenge the status quo. As romantic as it may sound, I have always believed that films can make a change. Films for me should always present a discourse. This doesn’t mean that I don’t respect filmmakers who make films purely for self-expression. My work just revolves around the idea that filmmaking is a privilege, so I should at least use that privilege not just for myself but for others.

Do you have a mentor? What have you learned from them? And do you think it's important to have one?

Having a mentor is an integral part of my creative process and it’s important to choose the right mentor that fits your project. I always trust my instinct, but I also make sure I have someone who can validate my work whenever I have a project. I’ve been fortunate enough to have Ricky Lee and Armando Lao as mentors when I was starting my career. They are two of the most prolific writers in the Philippines. Having someone who can give me valuable and objective feedback on my work helped me become a better storyteller.

Sir Ricky Lee saw my potential, chose me to be a part of the free workshop he was conducting for ABS-CBN writers and he opened a lot of opportunities for me in television, while sir Armando Lao became my mentor for my first film. He guided me every step of the way, from scripting, directing to post-production.

If there’s one advice I value from a fellow director when I was about to make my first film, it was to “find people who are better than you.” I did that with “Excuse Me, Miss, Miss Miss.” I assembled a team of people who are more experienced than I am. I tapped Sheron Dayoc as producer, Arden Rod Condez as writer, Rommel Sales as cinematographer, Tin Velasco as assistant director, Carlo Manatad as editor, Len Calvo as scorer, Mikko Quizon and Kat Salinas as sound designers, of course Mailes Kanapi to create a modern interpretation of the sales supervisor character, and the list goes on. In a way, they all guided me to accomplish my vision for the film. I treat all of them not just as colleagues but as my mentors too.

What skills do you wish you had?

I honestly wish I could sing! That’s a shared frustration between me and my father. We both love music.

But on a more serious note, I wish I could do cinematography. It’s something that I can’t even attempt to do because I always panic whenever I am holding a camera. Cinematography terms easily overwhelm me, too.

What myth(s) about your field of work would you like to debunk?

That writing scripts is easy. The work of a storyteller requires maturity and experience. You can’t be a scriptwriting workshop participant one day, and then an instant filmmaker the next day. Storytelling requires time, experience, research and most importantly, wisdom.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field today? How do you overcome them?

The biggest challenge right now is still COVID-19, and how our industry is shifting to online screenings. Online screening is basically like watching television; there are many distractions, unlike in cinema where you watch the film in a dark room. I think there should be a shift in content and execution to address that. Technology-wise, we are definitely lagging behind and the idea of streaming films is still foreign to most Filipinos. Sadly, I don’t know how our industry will address these challenges. How will you ever introduce the concept of streaming films online to the majority of Filipino families who don’t even have access to the internet?

"Filmmaking is a privilege. Not every good storyteller is given a chance to make films because in reality, filmmaking involves a lot of politics. So as a filmmaker, I must always use that privilege to at least challenge the status quo."

How has the pandemic and the quarantine affected your approach to writing screenplays and filmmaking in general? Has it affected the stories you want to tell?

I saw more value to filmmaking especially during the time when we were on strict lockdown. Most people turned to films and other narrative formats to keep their sanity. I did the same thing when I was jobless for four months.

I also had a shift in terms of the stories I want to tackle not just because of the pandemic, but because of what’s happening to our country. I feel like my voice as a filmmaker should somehow highlight the voiceless now more than ever.

And how has the current situation changed your media consumption? What stories do you seek now?

Watching films can be very taxing these days. It’s hard for me to finish a 90-minute film without pausing for hours, sometimes days or even weeks. Maybe because it’s very difficult to accept that this is how we consume films today — through the internet. I’m very used to experiencing movies in cinemas. Before this pandemic, you can see me inside a cinema house for an average of one to three times a week. To answer this question, I still watch films but in very long intervals. It was only during the holiday season when I started binge watching films that I missed throughout the year.

What is the last great film you saw? And what was great about it?

“Minari.” I’ve always believed that a great film is a film told with sincerity. I felt the realness of “Minari'' without being overdramatic about its themes and subject. The situations presented in the film and the nuances of the characters felt so genuine. The simple shot of the family sleeping in the living room is something I will never forget.