EXCLUSIVE: Behind the scenes of the horror film ‘Motel Acacia’

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JC Santos plays the son of the motel owner who’s meant to inherit the sadistic venture. “It’s a cautionary tale of what’s happening right now,” Santos says Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Horror may be a genre of fantastical creatures and otherworldly forces, but horror, regardless of medium, has always tapped into society’s deepest anxieties.

Bradley Liew’s “Motel Acacia” is no exception. The international co-production tells the story of undocumented immigrants lured into a mysterious motel under the guise of protecting them from authorities. While the characters grapple with a fictional monster in their midst, the specter of borders is the real-life beast the film takes on.

Producer Bianca Balbuena says, “Both Bradley and I hate Trump and Duterte, and [we thought,] ‘What if it’s a leader na parang Duterte and Trump combined into one?’ We’re gonna put a border also.”

Liew co-wrote the film with Balbuena, who also happens to be his wife, and the two spent four years developing the film before shooting in late 2018 and early 2019. It had its world premiere at the Japan International Film Festival last November. The film has since found distributors for American and European markets and will run in Philippine theaters starting March 11 distributed by Black Sheep.

The Manila shoots in December 2018 had the team holed in a massive studio for several weeks. The set served as the sprawling underground complex beneath the titular motel. CNN Philippines Life spent an afternoon on set, speaking to Balbuena and a number of actors on the process of creating the film.

“Actually, it started with Bradley wanting to work with an international cast. What if the only thing that brings them together and breaks them is language and how they use it to manipulate each other? It started with that,” Balbuena says. “I think ang interesting niya kasi well, distribution-wise, you have strength in their territory.”

Actors (from left) Bront Palarae, Agot Isidro, Talia Zucker, and Nicholas Saputra wait to shoot a scene. Photo by JL JAVIER

One of the biggest sets created for the film was this pool inside the motel. Photo by JL JAVIER

Director Bradley Liew. "Motel Acacia" is his second film. Photo by JL JAVIER

The underground hallway of the motel. Photo by JL JAVIER

The prosthetic department at work on the kapre of "Motel Acacia." Photo by JL JAVIER

Liew and Balbuena took the film as an opportunity to rethink the way films are produced in the Philippines, taking their time with the script and pursuing international grants to fund the film. “It took four years. The first few drafts were really bad and then we said that we really have to sit down and concentrate on making a good draft so we can get into international labs and markets,” Balbuena recalls, “kasi ayaw namin ‘yung usual way of Filipino filmmaking na we do a draft and then if somebody approves it and grants money, we shoot it. It took four years of development. We got into a lot of international labs and a lot of film markets. Doon nag-evolve ‘yung story.”

As an international production, the film’s ensemble cast includes actors from the world over, creating a powerful environment where the film’s themes of migration and transnationalism could come to light.

Indonesian actor Nicholas Saputra plays Don, another immigrant trapped in the motel. “It’s a very rare opportunity to work with other actors from the region. I think I’m very lucky, in a way, to be part of this film,” Saputra shares. “And also, the story. It’s very potent. It’s very urgent, very actual. It’s something that people would relate. It’s time for us to talk about this topic.”

“It talks about current issues: immigration and how the walls are built. Before, we used to tear down the walls but now people want to build walls around regions,” says Agot Isidro, who plays Filipino immigrant Angeli.

JC Santos plays the son of the motel owner who’s meant to inherit the sadistic venture. “It’s a cautionary tale of what’s happening right now,” Santos says. “It’s also a story of survival. We see the struggle of people when they’re trying to survive and how they make choices in the middle of trouble or a problem.”

Australian actors Talia Zucker and Will Jaymes play Cathy and James, a couple on the run from authorities because of Cathy’s undocumented status. Zucker says, “Good genre films always have an important message or theme or something to say, and I think it’s true in this film in that way.”

“I think the important thing about the film is that it places a focus on how we treat people,” says Jaymes. “I think what the film is trying to get at is how we should be thinking more compassionately about people who have come from unimaginable circumstances.”

Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm. He has been in several high profile films such as "Only God Forgives," "The Hangover Part II," and "A Prayer Before Dawn." Photo by JL JAVIER

Agot Isidro plays Angeli, a Filipino immigrant who takes refuge in the motel. Photo by JL JAVIER

Indonesian actor Nicholas Saputra. Photo by JL JAVIER

Australian actor Will Jaymes. He has previously appeared in another international co-production, "Beast," which was set in Manila. Photo by JL JAVIER

Malaysian actor Bront Palarae. He has starred in HBO Asia's original series "Halfworlds" and Indonesian horror auteur Joko Anwar's "Satan's Slaves." Photo by JL JAVIER

JC Santos plays the son of the motel owner in "Motel Acacia." Photo by JL JAVIER

The film proved to be a huge task for the production team. Production designers Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tabije had to design sprawling sets in the studio as well as the film’s creature. Padero says, “We’ve built a lot of sets but not this big, not covering two big studios, and staying there for two months. We’ve done practical effects in movies before, ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’ (12 and 13) and stuff like that but not like this one,” Padero says. “We got a lot of support from the best craftsmen in the industry: our set builders built the set on time and really, really well [and] we got two groups of prosthetics [artists].”

Tabije says, “The creature was developed through our brainstorming with Bradley from the kapre myth pero we developed na parang mas organic siya rather than mythological. So para siyang creature na nag-evolve na mayroon silang bond with the humans and suddenly the bond is broken. Doon siya nagstart. The design concept for the kapre is that hindi siya ‘yung usual na mammalian humanoid form.

Padero adds, “It’s more a mix of insects and plants. So tinatawag lang namin siyang kapre but actually malayong malayo na siya doon sa usual idea of a kapre. It’s a really different creature.”

Malaysian actor Bront Palarae adds, “It has an element of allegory to what’s going on in this world. With this one, it’s just that it fits in a genre film, specifically a horror [film], but in a broader view, that’s what the story is all about. Also, at the same time, it’s also about how we’ve been raping mother nature. The monster, for me, is also like a revenge by mother nature itself on mankind. That’s how I see it and I think that’s the angle that’s quite an urgent matter with climate change and all that. So, this has great relevance to world politics today.”

Every film is a vibrant, living thing, from the moment of inception, through production, all the way to its release where it becomes open for every viewer’s singular experience of it. The snapshot we had into the lengthy journey “Motel Acacia” has taken gave us a sense of the possibilities present in transnational cinema, the conversations people have when they can cross borders and collaborate.

“It’s different work-wise because for us and JC, we know how it works with Filipino actors and with Filipino productions,” Isidro shares. “But now you bring in like other actors from different countries and they have different processes that we are noticing. Everyone is, I guess, trying to feel their way around but there’s also respect for the craft, respect for the process.”

Saputra adds, “Filmmaking is a universal language. Wherever you go, you’re gonna have the same language to make films. Everyone has their own background, has their own personal method or experience but at the end of the day, we’re speaking the same language.”


“Motel Acacia” is in cinemas March 11, 2020.