Erik Matti and his cinematic journey to 'On the Job 2'

Erik Matti has always mined the depths of our everyday experience in his films, from the subversive eroticism of “Scorpio Nights 2” to the sprawling sociopolitical epic of “On the Job,” which may just be his magnum opus. The director talks about quitting advertising, making a Gen Z movie, and the five-year ordeal that was “On the Job: The Missing 8.”

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Somewhere in the political tangles of “On the Job: The Missing 8,” a politician’s henchman taunts Sisoy (John Arcilla), a paid hack turned truth crusader, as he digs deeper into the truth about the death of his friend and their journalist colleagues. “Walang laban yan sa baril… Hindi ka mapoprotektahan ng ballpen na ‘yan.” In the face of extrajudicial killings and the prevailing culture of impunity, it’s a line that stings deeply — and something that’s hard not to take personally for someone who works in a news organization.

The chilling effect might also just be because, halfway through “On the Job 2,” it’s easy to think that things will go south for our beloved characters, as disgusting as they may be in the first few minutes of the film. While the first “On the Job” revelled in the pyrotechnics of the genre, the sequel is soaked in nihilism, which gets even more shocking as you realize that some of these things are inspired by events that happened in real life.

“I really wanted this to be more of a meta-movie,” says director Erik Matti, who shot the film in a total of 53 shooting days from 2018 to late 2020. “Most of the plotlines are composite, hindi naman based on one true event but several events in the Philippines put together for a really expansive na story. Kaya gusto ko sana na it feels like a documentary. Parang may Oliver Stone feel ng 'JFK.' Wherein you cut to real-life footage to a story that’s unfolding which is fictional.”

Sisoy (John Arcilla) digs deeper into the truth about the death of his friend (Christopher De Leon) and their journalist colleagues in “On the Job: The Missing 8.” Photo courtesy of HBO ASIA

The span and scope of the film can be overwhelming — it clocks in at a hefty three hours and 28 minutes. Set in the fictional town of La Paz, the film follows several storylines: we have Sisoy and his co-workers at a newspaper (including Lotlot De Leon as Weng) who are out for justice for their publisher Arnel (Christopher De Leon) and their colleagues who mysteriously went missing; there’s Roman (Dennis Trillo) a prisoner who, like Joel Torre’s Tatang in the first movie, is hired by politicians like General Rene Pacheco (Leo Martinez) and La Paz Mayor Pedring Eusebio (Dante Rivero) to take out the snags in their web of lies and deceit. Matti admits that this was not an easy film to assemble and the three years that it took for this film to be shot is both a boon and bane for him and his team.

“When we locked down in 2020, the whole edit was a mess,” he says. “Really long, na hindi mo alam... na ‘Ha? Sino naman yan?’ ‘Ha? Ano naman yan?’ Hindi namin ma-connect. We took a break during the lockdown and we only resumed around July. For whatever reason, parang pagbalik namin we already knew what to do with it. Originally, I wanted so many things out of journalism. When we started discussing ‘On the Job 2,’ there was a TV network involved, a character that represents the TV network, there’s the radio guy, and then there’s the politicians, the newspapers, etc. Nung naka six, seven drafts kami, ang gulo na — eventually it was just streamlined to the prisoner story, the journalist hack that was Sisoy, and then the politicians. But even that, once I started shooting it and by intercurring all three worlds, ang komplikado siya. Hindi nagtutuloy-tuloy ‘yung feeling mo ba?”

He continued, “When we got back after the lockdown, instead of intercutting it based on the script, [what we did was] to follow the emotions of the characters that represent the timelines: Sisoy, Roman, and Eusebio — by just following na ‘Ok inis na si Sisoy, let’s move to Roman.’ We edited in chunks instead of constantly intercutting with each other. Dun lang namin nahanap ‘yung rhythm ng movie.”

The film made its world premiere at the Official Selection of the 2021 Venice Film Festival where it competed against films by the likes of Pedro Almodovar, Jane Campion, and Pablo Larraín. The “Venice cut” is a 208-minute piece as “On the Job 2” was meant to be written as a film. But as an HBO Original show, “On the Job” runs as a six-episode limited series which combines the Director’s Cut of the first film with the second film into a continuous narrative.

The director’s long road to the “On the Job” sequel runs a bevy of cinematic marvels. In between the two films, he’s done horror films (“Seklusyon” and “Kuwaresma”), an arthouse crime film (“Honor Thy Father”), another sequel (“Kubot: The Aswang Chronicles 2”), an episode for an HBO Asia anthology (“Food Lore”) — which opened up the possibility of “On the Job” as a limited series — and more recently, the raunchy sex drama “A Girl and a Guy,” which some might see as an anomaly in his recent filmography. “A Girl and a Guy” posited the possibility of making films about the Tinder generation during the post-#MeToo era and the results still bear Matti’s brand of subversive filmmaking.

Up next, Matti has a contribution to another HBO Asia series, the horror anthology “Folklore” and a Bonifacio biopic starring Manila Mayor Isko Moreno. The director also has an upcoming collaboration with CNN Philippines via his production company Reality MM Studios with producer Dondon Monteverde.

Quark Henares, who served as a producer for “A Girl and a Guy” and “On the Job: The Missing 8,” and I recently sat down with Matti to talk about his whirlwind of a career. This consists of two interviews: one in late June, just a few days after “A Girl and a Guy” was released. Back then, the inclusion of “On the Job: The Missing 8” in the 2021 Venice Film Festival was still being kept secret, as well as its rollout as an HBO Original Series. A few months later, the director sent us a screener to watch the three-hour, 28-minute cut of “On the Job” which was shown at the Venice Film Festival. The interviews have been edited and cut to read as a continuous conversation. — Don Jaucian

Erik Matti: Hello! Hi Quark!

Quark Henares: How are you? Mukhang pumayat ka ah.

Erik Matti: Ikaw ang parang pumayat! (Laughs)

Quark Henares: So let’s talk about “A Girl and A Guy.” How did this start?

Erik Matti: Well, you can convince enough people. Ang hirap lang. Somehow nag-focus siya simula sa nudity, parang secondary lang sa kwento. Happy ako na nailabas na. Kasi ngayon lang ako nagpapahinga. Three weeks ata tayo na nonstop to finish it. ang hirap lang ng walang sinehan. Kasi you don’t get to… [watch the film with an audience]. Pinilit ko na nga lang si Moira [Lang] and si Emman [de la Cruz] para may direct conversation.

Quark Henares: Pero through Zoom lang din?

Erik Matti: Oo. (Laughs)

Quark Henares: Ang hirap nga. Pero ano ‘yung nawala? What has been lost because of the non-theatrical experience?

Erik Matti: The communal reaction talaga, the communal spirit, when you’re in a darkened theater, you get a collective reaction, diba? Sometimes you may not like a moment but when everybody reacts parang nadadala ka. You will figure out, “Ah, oo nga ano!” But when you’re in a solo online viewing, feeling ko ang daming distractions, unless it’s a watch party, na hindi ko alam how many do watch parties. Dito sa office we were watching at the same time, maganda ‘yung reactions. Pero lahat kami ‘yung gumawa din eh. (Laughs). Can you trust the reactions? (Laughs)

Quark Henares: What is your favorite experience in a movie theater — as an audience [member] and as a filmmaker?

Erik Matti: Ito ‘yung weird. ‘Yung “The Revenant,” ang tagal ko na hindi nanood ng edge of your seat eh or ‘yung in awe ka sa pinapanood mo even if everyone seems to not like it versus “Spotlight.” I saw it almost at the same time, magkasunod. “Spotlight,” I liked it pero dumaan lang sa mata ko. It’s the kind of TV movie na ma-enjoy mo. But I don’t think it’s closer to “Erin Brockovich” na yes it’s based on a true story pero it has a really interesting character that elevates it into a really good movie experience. Unlike “Spotlight” na straightforward.

With “The Revenant,” no matter how many references they show of [Andrei] Tarkovsky eventually, which I never realized naman when I was watching it, ang laki niya, ang lawak, there were so many things happening that you don’t understand how they were able to do it. That’s as a filmmaker, while you’re experiencing the story, at the same time you’re also thinking of how it’s being done. Did people die while making the movie? (Laughs). ‘Yung ganon, nakakagulat. And I kept on talking about it for days. Nakatatlong post ata ako [on Facebook] hindi enough para masabi ‘yung gusto kong sabihin.

As an audience siguro… madami eh. I think “Spiderman” was the pinaka masaya na napanood ko, or any Sam Raimi movie. I saw “Drag me to Hell” sa cinemas na gandang ganda ako. ‘Yun masaya kasi everyone’s reacting all at the same moments, ‘yung natanggal yung ngipin, ‘yung may pumasok na langaw sa kanya while having dinner. Lahat kayo sabay sabay nagre-react. It was a full house. Hindi naman siya empty movie house, ‘yun nakakalungkot. Which is why I didn’t enjoy “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Lima lang kami sa sinehan na nanood on the first day.

Quark Henares: How about movie watching experience for one of your films, ‘yung sobrang nafeel mo ‘yung energy ng audience.

Erik Matti: Siguro the farthest I can remember was [“Scorpio Nights 2”], ‘yun talaga maalala ko pa ‘yung stampede, ‘yung mga naiwan na sapatos sa sahig. ‘Yung nasira ‘yung gate ng UP [Cine Adarna]. Wala pa akong kotse non, nag-taxi ako, ‘yung line, sobrang dami paikot ng UP Film Center. [Nung] andun ako sa may tickets, dati table lang. [Then] in-announce na sige pasok na. Putangina, nagkagulo kung paano pumasok kasi nasira, walang order kung paano pumasok. As in!

Quark Henares: For some reason naalala ko ‘yung CCP premiere ng “The Arrival.” Kasi it’s all friends. May handwritten letter ka pa, “This is for me, I never made a film for myself…” I think, in a weird way, ‘yung “The Arrival” ‘yung nag-reset ng kareer mo.

Erik Matti: ‘Yun talaga ‘yung decision. To do films that are more deliberate, that I am conscious of, as opposed to previously I was just trying to survive. I was keeping a team surviving, alam mo ‘yung I have the system dati ni Peque [Gallaga] where I have siguro 10-15 people who were dependent on my next project. And sometimes in order for us to make ends meet, you accept as many [projects] that come along. And a lot of times, you don’t have time to write the script, you don’t have time to analyze this is what I really want to tell. I think it was in “The Arrival” that I decided, okay I want to be deliberate about the movies that I want to make.

I remember Teddy Co, after the screening, talked to me and told me I think this is your first film, which in my mind, I don’t see it as the way I’m gonna make my films, I’m not gonna make very personal films that nobody cares about. I wanna make personal films that are relatable to me but are relatable to a bigger chunk of audiences.

That was the start of it. ‘Yun ‘yung inisip ko na I am no longer hungry, I am no longer just out to survive. I had an advertising career then. May bread and butter ako. But slowly tinanggal ko na rin ‘yun. Walk the talk diba? Grabe tayo manlait na “Wow artist kami, artist ako, bat nasa ABS-CBN ka gumagawa ng teleserye, pare?” It’s always in the guise of naghahanapbuhay lang. Oo nga pero wala kang right na manlait sa process ng isang pelikula kung ganon diba?

"I don't wanna grow old in the industry and have nothing to show for it."

Quark Henares: I remember that, ‘yung “Ronin.”

Erik Matti: Yeah. Iniwan ko ‘yun midway. Part of that was we shot it for almost a year, akala ko i-can lang sya and then the studio comments started coming in. Andaming aayusin based on how they want it. Number two, they always scheduled it 23-25 sequences a day, ang natatapos ko lang 10, 11. Ang sakit siya sa ulo, hindi ko kaya ito. (Laughs). Napaka-iresponsable ko, iniwan ko lang out of the blue and I had Dondon [Monteverde] take care of it. So Dondon had to [bear] the brunt of ABS-CBN. He had to talk to everyone. “Wala eh, nasiraan ng bait si Matti,” Pero nakakahiya. Good thing nakabalik pa ako sa ABS-CBN with “Darna,” nakalimutan na nila na “Ito ‘yung nangiwan sa atin ah!” (Laughs) Which I eventually [left] as well. (Laughs)

Quark Henares: ‘Yung advertising ang lakas mo nun. One pop you’re done. Why did you leave advertising?

Erik Matti: The single moment na natandaan ko ay I usually go back home sa Bacolod, I meet with high school friends, college friends. Tuwing inuman, “O rik anong ginagawa mo direktor ka na pala.” Sabi ko “Oo pero hindi ako gumagawa ng movies.” “Anong ginagawa mo?” “Ako ‘yung gumawa ng last na Tide na commercial.” Nobody cares. Walang nakakaalala. Alam mo talagang pang two weeks lang siya na airing then let’s forget about it. It hit me hard. I don't wanna grow old in the industry and have nothing to show for it. Siyempre ambisyoso ka. You want to prove something to yourself.

I realized also that the people who grow old in advertising tend to be mainitin ang ulo kasi nga you’ve been doing it for 20 years!

Quark Henares: Tapos pabata nang pabata ang nagccomment sayo. (Laughs)

"I even have comments from some people who saw it na this time around hindi nangangamoy ng kulungan," says Matti. "But I think tumanda na ako. Been there, done that. Na not necessarily the nastiest look for the prison and bring it to a much more ordinary looking prison." Photo courtesy of HBO ASIA

Erik Matti: And hindi nag-iiba. Kung minsan, and I’ve been tricked several times. Sometimes you just miss doing short form so may maka-convince sa’yo na ‘Gawa ka ng commercial!” So gagawa ka. Pag gawa mo… akala mo they’ll respect you more now because you’re older, I have done other stuff. Pero hindi pala nagch-change. They treat you like you’re an employee talaga. Do this. Do that. And lagi ang maririnig mong sagot pag kumontra ka, “Noted.” (Laughs) And then alam mo nang hindi tinanggap. (Laughs)

Quark Henares: Noted with thanks, mas hate ko pa yon. (Laughs)

Erik Matti: So ayaw kong tumanda ng ganon. I had to change my lifestyle. Dati siyempre sumasabay ako na maganda kotse ganon. I think the first movie that I [did when I] decided I’m gonna get out of advertising was “Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles.” With “Tiktik,” I already sold my V8 cars and [went] for diesel cars. Kasi you don’t know if you’re gonna make it in films.

Quark Henares: People don’t realize na ‘yung isang film, dalawang commercial lang yon, ‘yung talent fee. (Laughs)

Erik Matti: Akala nila ang laki ng bayad sa atin sa pelikula, hindi naman. So I had to make that decision. Not sure what I’m making it yet. I wanted to be ready where it brings me. Nagpalit akong lifestyle. I had to make sure I had a house to live in. Dati nagrerenta lang ako. So ’yun muna inuna ko. Kahit magkahirapan pa, may bubong ako sa ulo ko. (Laughs).

Quark Henares: But you’re so prolific now. You’re doing “May Pag Asa,” you’re just finishing “OTJ,” you just shot “Folklore.”

Erik Matti: I’m finishing the edit.

Quark Henares: So you’re doing three major things. Bat mo pa naisip gawin ‘yung “A Girl and A Guy”?

Erik Matti: In 2019, I’ve never written anything in a long time. [I have screenwriter] Michiko Yamamoto na I can just throw in an idea and if she likes it, she’ll write it. So I never had the quiet moment na, “I think I wanna write this,” sa dami na rin siguro ng trabaho. In 2019 I wrote it — as in putting all your ideas on paper and having a real writer take a look at it. I know how difficult it is to make a relationship movie. Not really a rom-com. I always watch Tagalog na mga romcoms and I always had something to say about it. I figured, you really don't know what it takes to do something like that… looking at the chemistry of the two leads, calibrating that the moments are still real, but it brings out certain bittersweet moments, mga ganon. Mahirap siya because it’s not the films that I make.

I think it’s partly because of the challenge. Maybe I can take a crack at it? I hope it works. Maybe also I’m more interested in the society the generation is in rather than the personal stories? Kasi mga rom-coms personal lang ‘yun eh. But what if the conflicts are mainly internal but there’s really an issue with the society that they revolve in?

I never thought it was gonna be made. In fact, the pandemic part of the film has been written into the script now because I wrote it without the pandemic yet. When we started figuring out how the pandemic was gonna work in the script, we realized it even better, it made it into a turning point, in kind of a weird structure... Pag pinanood mo ‘yung movie because it looks like there are two sets of movies. One that’s super dynamic, magulo, chaotic, magulo and then all of a sudden it became so quiet in the last part which made it interesting as well.

Quark Henares: What attracted you to Gen Z bordering millennials as opposed to older couples?

Erik Matti: Because I know I can figure out a story with older characters. But what I want to figure out…. I think it echoes in the music… I want to know how vulnerable they are because on the surface this generation looks like they’re nonchalant about things… They’re not mushy about things. I wanted to know ano ba ‘yung inner conflict nila? Yes, we see men as pigs but are they really just pigs? Or we see women as reckless and naive but are they just naive? Or are there other things happening?

But with the older couple… and I heard it from people from a different age bracket who watched… Up to a certain point I wanted to let go of the film because I thought all the characters are stupid. Naiinis ako sa kanila. But because we’re not just gonna show them as stupid or reckless, they’re gonna go through something else.

When I started asking about Bumble, Tinder… weird talaga! Yes the older generation will just call it a meat market but you see other people who end up marrying who met each other on the dating app. That’s now how [our generation] meet with people. We connect with people through introductions, acquaintances… Sa kanila ang bilis lang. Napaka-trusting…

Quark Henares: Are you any clearer to understanding that generation? That’s basically your daughter’s generation.

Erik Matti: I think we’re just scratching the surface. More than the relationship angle, hindi ko rin maintindihan how difficult it is to keep people at that age.

Two years ago, most of our people here at Reality Entertainment were all twentysomethings. Now, everyone who’s going to be directly linked to my job, I wanted them to be 29, 30, 32. I don’t want anyone 21, 22. Napaka-erratic! They could be really good workers. The work is just a stepping stone to earn money. Wala ka nang mahanap who’s hungry enough to let go of their dogs, (laughs) or a surfing competition in Baler in favor of a sound mixing job. Wala ka nang mahanap na ganong edad. (Laughs).

Director Erik Matti on the set of "On the Job: The Missing 8." Photo courtesy of HBO ASIA

Quark Henares: It’s an interesting project for you. Your staff is also totally new. How did that add to the mix? Even the actors... almost everyone first time mo makatrabaho. How did that newness affect the production process?

Erik Matti: Scary nga kasi it’s not like bang-bang movie diba where you already know how the characters would react or think. Ito talaga, I had to talk to the actors first. This is what I plan to do in the scene. Is this something that you would do as a person? The big help was [cinematographer] Cesca Lee who has been swearing since day one that it was her film, that it’s her life story, so it helped na naririnig ko ‘yung mga comments nya about it.

Quark Henares: Ano ‘yung impetus mo on revisiting [the script]? How did you figure out na this is the right time to do it?

Erik Matti: We wanted to create a new set of talents. A lot of things happened in the industry. ABS-CBN closed down. Everyone toughened up on how we could work with talents. So we were looking for a project where we can work with an ensemble of new talents and launch them with a new project. Before this, I did a horror movie that I'm still not done editing… which is just a really small movie. But the actors there were character actors. Ito talaga it’s a collection of different young actors. It was interesting to explore and put them in one package and find them being launched doing and doing other stuff after this.

Quark Henares: How was it working with these people?

Erik Matti: Meta nga eh. Kung ano ‘yung nangyayari sa film ‘yun ‘yung nangyayari behind the scenes. It was my third or fourth movie in Baguio... It’s the first time na bata ‘yung cast. ECQ pa noon so naka-lockdown lahat. it takes a different kind of servicing sa talents when they’re younger kasi they’re more restless, ang dami nilang gustong gawin, mas kailangan mong bantayan… as opposed to working in Baguio where you have John Lloyd Cruz na hindi ganoon mahirap alagaan.

‘Yung mga bata ang hirap. After the shoot, they go into one room and drink after shoot just to vent out siguro ‘yung pagod nila for the day kasi ang dugo ng shoot namin kasi maraming hinihingi sa kanila emotionally.

Quark Henares: And wala silang qualms!

Erik Matti: I thought it’s been a while since I shot a film where there’s nudity. And with the #MeToo movement, I wanted it to be foolproof in terms of how the setup is. I never not once saw them naked on pre-prod. But I had to be sure, makeup-wise, that people had no blemishes. I had the makeup artists look at them and they reported to me. I wanted to be professional about it but when we got to Baguio and when I started working with them when the scene comes along, parang smooth lang, hindi parang nagt-tiptoe ka.

You know how difficult it is to announce na “Ok ito may nudity na” [on the set]. The room is quiet. Nobody wants to look at anybody for fear na may mapagkamalan na nantsatsansa. Doon wala. I always make sure that my makeup artist is there, my AD who is also a woman so sila lang ‘yung kasama ko mag block ng sex scenes. Pinapakita ko and when I leave the female staff takes over.

Quark Henares: I guess looking back…now that medyo distant ka na sa “A Girl and a Guy” what place does it have in your filmography?

Erik Matti: I don't know! Pag nag-uusap na kami ni Jay Halili, my editor, I think this is in the Top Five of what we did. Kasi iba ‘yung feeling eh. Some kasi they look at your filmography and say I don’t like the story so much blah blah blah… kami iba, as filmmakers iba tayo tumingin. It’s how much you’ve achieved in the film na eksakto sa kung ano ang naisip mo eh. “A Girl and a Guy” was perfect for that. The soundtrack, the editing style na dizzying. I wanted to put the movie in the world of how the young look at things now. That’s why maraming graphics involved. If this was made eight years ago maraming tanong sa structure. But now mas katanggap-tanggap kasi ang bilis ng imagery.

Quark Henares: Ano ‘yung Top Five films mo?

Erik Matti: “Prosti” is there. “A Girl and a Guy.” “Honor thy Father.” “On the Job” 1 and 2.

Quark Henares: Perfect transition. I think “On the Job 2” is a masterpiece. It’s your piece de resistance.

Erik Matti: Yesterday was sentimental. It was sort of the final picture and audio lock viewing in Wildsound. I was looking at the footage of course I wasn't looking at it any more based on the story or ano. I was just analyzing how it was made. I realized how tough it was to put it all together and make sense ngayon. Ngayon it made sense. But as of May last year, it was so long, it didn’t make sense. Meaning, yes the story was there but it just doesn’t flow right. Bumibitaw ka after one hour and mga something na minutes.

Kahapon I was looking at it, looking at all the scenes that we’ve shot… tangina paano siya nabuo no? It was shot in a period of three years. Hindi naman nag iba ‘yung itsura ng mga artista. But I think it helped that I shot it for three years because I got to make sense of the scenes — I take a long break because the actors aren’t available — I got to reassess. Ano ba talaga siya? Which is also a comparison I made with “A Girl and a Guy'' and with “On the Job.”

Don Jaucian: I want to ask something cliché but I think it’s warranted because of the scope and length of the film — what was the most challenging thing in this film?

Erik Matti: The reason why the shoot became a challenge after a while because the worlds — the prison world, the journalist world and the politician’s world — ‘yung worlds na yan, even if you’re just shooting Dennis Trillo, attached are so many other characters that you can’t let go on the day of the shoot. So in our teleserye culture, where it’s the bread and butter of the actors, we’re dependent on who gives us a schedule in substitute for a taping. And almost always, you get Dennis Trillio pero ‘yung isa dun sa likod [nya] hindi available. ‘Yung isa may shinu-shoot na iba, ‘yung isa hindi pwede. So cancelled na naman ‘yung shoot.

Pagdating kay Pedring [Dante Rivero] for example, hindi lang siya lagi mag-isa. Kasama niya halimbawa si Dolly De Leon, andun din ‘yung mga police chief niya, lahat din ‘yun busy. Even si Pedring nagiging busy minsan. So nagugulo yung schedule because I don’t want to go back to the ‘90s filmmaking culture na “Si Sisoy lang ang available? Kunan ko lang muna siya. Sa next shoot ko na lang kunan ‘yung ibang tao.” (Laughs). Hindi mo magawa ‘yung totoo mong shot kasi pinagbibigyan mo na lang na magawa kahit papaano.

No matter how upset we were. Napaganda siya sa akin kasi for something this big, na madaming character nuance… the subtleties everytime the plot moves forward, I get to imagine more what I shouldn't be doing on set, the kind of mistakes I need to avoid. If I did “On the Job” in one go, midway into the film I would be confused with so many elements. I would have had problems with loopholes, continuity… wala akong time to think about what I’ve done. Because of this, may time lang akong mag-isip kasi ang lalayo [ng pagitan]. May isang shoot one month later, may ibang shoot three weeks later.

"Because of our melodrama culture, the more I want to paint grey characters rather than clear-cut na bida. ‘Yung soaps ko minsan grey but [people will] go out of their way to make them likable. Naiinis ako. At the back of my mind, [I think] it’s no longer storytelling, it’s calibrating what the audience would be excited to accept or latch on to so they’ll continue watching"

Don Jaucian: You really like making characters who aren’t just black and white, which is very apparent in “Buy Bust.” With this film, which is based on several true events, people will have their own interpretations of it, or will have their own take on what you’re trying to show in the movie.

Erik Matti: It’s my defiance of TV culture. Most of the films I love and the cinema I was exposed to, whole ‘yung mga characters. They have all their frailties, their confusions, their mistakes, and that’s what makes them interesting as you follow their story. Because of our melodrama culture, the more I want to paint grey characters rather than clear-cut na bida. ‘Yung soaps ko minsan grey but [people will] go out of their way to make them likable. Naiinis ako. At the back of my mind, [I think] it’s no longer storytelling, it’s calibrating what the audience would be excited to accept or latch on to so they’ll continue watching.

I think with the advent of TV shows in the past five years, globally, I tend to like series na medyo grey ‘yung mga characters, mga characters in “The Wire,” “Mare of Eastown,” — ang ganda ng timpla ng characters — which don’t become too mainstream kasi may mga kwentong mas clear cut ‘yung mga black and white sides ng characters.

Dati ‘yung films can do all these gray characters. Pero ngayon nalipat na lahat sa TV kasi even on films you can no longer do those because of the Marvel [formula]. May konting hint lang sila of humanity but overall, these are the good guys and these are the bad guys, period. Like si James Gunn naman, ang formula, I pick the bad guys but they’re actually good people. Pero pareho lang ‘yun na formula. Naging clever ka lang.

The more that I make movies, the more that I want to paint people for who they are. Kung minsan nga bordering on funny. Like itong “On The Job 2,” ang lakas ng idea na people regarding most of us as stupid.

Dennis Trillo plays Roman, a prisoner and hired assassin. Photo courtesy of HBO ASIA

"Everyone wants to keep us stupid so that we don't want to question anymore. We’re always dependent on somebody who’s more powerful than us."

Don Jaucian: Napansin ko nga ‘yan, that there’s an overwhelming notion of stupidity in many of the characters.

Erik Matti: Oo. Na parang, that’s why we do all these things because we’re stupid. Everyone wants to keep us stupid so that we don't want to question anymore. We’re always dependent on somebody who’s more powerful than us.

Don Jaucian: The look of “On the Job 2” is very different from the first “On the Job,” which is sleek and made out to look like a gritty action-crime film. How did you decide on the look of the second movie?

Erik Matti: In the second film it’s getting clearer how we picture more politicians as gangsters and coming from that idea I wanted to hark back on, the ‘70s gangster films where there’s not much grit to it but there’s a certain kind of elevated old world feel to it. Meaning the use of standards, more sweeping camera movements, and when necessary, just stick with just having the actors fill up the screen so that you can see more of their performances.

I even have comments from some people who saw it na this time around hindi nangangamoy ng kulungan. (Laughs) But I think tumanda na ako. Been there, done that. Na not necessarily the nastiest look for the prison and bring it to a much more ordinary looking prison but at the same time it’s also hinged on the fact that we’re in the provinces, so the prison system is much more parochial, parang converted na skwelahan na ginawang kulungan.

The American classic standard songs that we used also hints at a lot of the mafia gangsters of the ‘70s, even of the ‘80s, those of [Martin] Scorsese, na parang may certain kind of grandeur ‘yung swell ng music.

"Everyone wants to keep us stupid so that we don't want to question anymore. We’re always dependent on somebody who’s more powerful than us."

Don Jaucian: Since you mentioned the songs, I noticed how important they were in setting up the scenes and moving the plot forward. How did you and your team choose the songs, which even included songs by Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra?

Erik Matti: Michiko always writes with music in mind. And when we were discussing what “On The Job 2” is going to be, there were certain kinds of songs and music that were in our playlist that guided me. I didn't play on the set but one song is “We Gotta Get Out of this Place.” Because I wanted to get the energy of it.

Ito ‘yung nakakatawa diyan, nag-edit kami and then we used it as temp music to get the feel of it. And then Erwin [Romulo, musical director] said I can replace it with all Filipino music. And I was open to it. In the end, it lost all of the energy that the Tom Jones would give you… Frank Sinatra, The Animals, even the feel of the instrumentation ng luma. Except for the Anthony Castelo andun na ‘yun from the very beginning. I wanted the montage to be scored by “Balatkayo.”

Ang tagal ng decision na ‘yan to choose American music. Kasi nga minsan tumataas kilay natin when it's a Filipino movie but it’s using American songs. But coming from where I wanted to bring this, which is gangster American Hollywood, feeling ko bagay naman siya. But we weren't ready to buy all those songs. So it was just peg music. When we sent it to Venice [Film Festival], they said “The soundtrack is really great, is it final?” When we sent it to HBO ganoon din ‘yung comment. “This is a very refreshing unique soundtrack we haven't heard in a long time. A good mix of styles and songs. Is this final?” (Laughs). Without even talking to the publishers, we said “Final na yan!”

We ended up having to go after the publishers. They’re not easy to go after. Masaya kami pero mahal siya, ‘yung lahat ng kanta na ‘yon.

Don Jaucian: I also wanted to ask you about the direction for Dante Rivero’s character who appears as a typical strongman. You mentioned a while ago that everything in this movie is a composite. How did you work with Rivero for the character of Eusebio?

Matti reveals that "On the Job: The Missing 8" character Sisoy [John Arcilla] is based on a composite of several journalists, while Weng [Lotlot De Leon] was based on Chiara Zambrano. Photo courtesy of HBO ASIA

Erik Matti: I didn’t tell anyone [who they should be], except for Weng [Lotlot De Leon] to be someone I know. I wanted her to be Chiara Zambrano, so we had to look at costuming ni Chiara. [Lotlot] had to look at paano mag-news si Chiara. Charming naman masyado si Chiara but when she starts fighting for something, kapareho ni Weng na paglalaban niya talaga. But even if Michiko wrote the characters not based on anyone, when I got hold of it and I went into production, I had other additional nuances for the characters. For example, I based Wendell Ramos’s Bernie on a lot of senators that we all know (Laughs). Even the idea of Megan Young, na hiyang-hiya ako I had to cast her but I really wanted, for optics, a beauty queen.

Don Jaucian: Bat ka naman nahiya?

Erik Matti: Kasi wala siyang masyadong lines diba? Pero siyempre for somebody like Megan she would want a meatier role. Pero sabi ko, sorry na lang pero it really is more for the impact that it has for the Filipino audience na “Ay beauty queen ‘yung asawa niya.” So automatic alam mo na.

Si Sisoy [John Arcilla] is a composite of several journalists. We based it on one big journalist in the late ‘90s who ended up disappearing. Pagdating kay Pedring [Dante Rivero], I didn’t have to tell him who he is. Ang galing lang niya eh diba? I think it comes with age na naiimbibe niya ‘yung sinasabi ng eksena, alam niya kung ano ‘yung dapat. I think my favorite of his scenes is ‘yung presscon. He started being nice to everyone and then the constant questioning, naiinis na siya (Laughs). Hindi na niya mapigilan!

"The more that I make movies, the more that I want to paint people for who they are." Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

Don Jaucian: Conversations now are largely dominated by social media but many people don’t realize that the radio and radio commentators still play a huge part in the lives of Filipinos. In the second “On The Job,” this effect is played up by Sisoy’s influence on his listeners. How did you develop that into his character?

Erik Matti: Una, we were interested in the TV radio newspapers and then we had to streamline it and find a more cohesive throughline of the plot, nag-usap kami ni Michiko ano ang interesting. Interesting ba na makakita tayo ng Karen Davila-type in a movie or alam na natin ‘yon?

We eventually decided na the small town is interesting, [the radio commentators are] like little celebrities in the town that they’re in, there’s not much competition so they corner the bigger clientele. And most of the corruption from journalists stem from probinsya, no one’s looking into them, and there’s just usually two families vying for a government position. You’re either on the side of the [first family] or the other [family]. But by being the mouthpiece of either candidate, you blur the line kasi ‘yan na ‘yung nakagisnan mo. They’re not out to be Pulitzer or Peabody winners. They tend to look at [what they do] to be able to justify it. Anong problema kung pingkakakitan ko ‘yung trabaho ko? ‘Di ba? ‘Yung moral compass nila hindi na nila masabi kung ano ang tama at mali kasi in that world it’s been going on for so long na ok lang naman.

I think that was interesting. In the film, we’re pointing out, ‘Huy mali din yan!’ Tinanggap na lang natin yan all these years. We discovered during our research na ang daming high profile radio personalities that we all know… halimbawa may nagtayo ng condo ng walang permit, titirahin nila yan [sa show nila] two weeks hanggang sa the owners will get in touch with them and [ask them] “How can we get you to stop talking about it?” Then they get paid. Now it puts into question the news that you hear, ‘yun ba talaga ‘yung news or is it spun in favor of sino nagbabayad sa nagsasalita ng news?

Quark Henares: If I were to finish my obra maestra and spent years making it, magpapahinga na ako but no, you chose to make a historical epic in the middle of a pandemic. What's wrong with you? (Laughs)

Erik Matti: Number one, I’ve shied away from historical epics. Kasi ang dami mong kaaway. I get bored taking a text from a book and reimagining it to the screen. It was only the idea of a lot of things that we’ve read about Bonifacio now na no one is talking about it and its relevance now in this time na the quiet revolution natin with the present government and how come nothing is happening? How come no strong voice is coming out of it? All of that is what happened to Bonifacio as well.

I swore in 2019 that “On the Job” was my last sociopolitical film. That’s why I did “A Girl and a Guy,” that’s why I’m developing “A Birkin Scam,” which is like a high end art scam movie because I wanna shy away from sociopolitical films. But when I realized how close the story of Bonifacio was to the present situation natin, I think it’s worth doing one last time. I think I’m ready.

I’ve always criticized historical films na… because I was taught early on na sila Gallaga, Mike De Leon, historical pieces are really science fiction. It’s not about bringing the audience to a certain time and making it as authentic as possible. It’s reimagining the world during that time that supports the major theme of the movie. That’s what scared me about historical pieces. Am I up to it? I’m not a voracious historical reader. One point na yan kung bakit takot na takot ako. So this time I have a researcher, I have a historical consultant. And I don’t want to end my career without a historical movie. A historical movie that is demanding of the epic feel. Dapat may resources ka to do it. I feel that may enough naman itong “May Pag-asa.”

Don Jaucian: A lot of people criticized you on this as this could prop up Isko Moreno’s candidacy...

Erik Matti: I don't want to sound defensive on social media. When it was announced, a lot of colleagues asked me why. Why Yorme? And I said why not. So is this a political movie? If you don't know how I make my movies, then I’ll tell you, I’m not gonna finish in time for the elections. (Laughs)

Quark Henares: What are your takeaways from doing “On the Job 2” that you’ll bring to your Bonifacio movie?

Erik Matti: Bonifacio is like a Marvel movie wherein the look of the film is not grounded on real life but larger than life, that’s why everything is set on the soundstage as much as possible. We’re changing all the skylines, we’re only choosing sunrise midday or something so that the sets look good. Para siyang mas complicated na “On the Job” mainly because there are bigger crowd scenes, there are bigger set pieces, and there are more action set pieces. But I don’t want to do a Bonifacio [film] na violins and cellos (Laughs). Bon Jovi siya (Laughs).

Watch “On the Job” on HBO GO starting September 12.


Erik Matti portraits by JOSEPH PASCUAL