Director Kenneth Dagatan is finding new ways to scare you

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Jasmine Curtis-Smith in Kenneth Dagatan's "In My Mother's Skin." Photo courtesy of KENNETH DAGATAN

From long-running franchises like “Shake, Rattle & Roll” to floating coffins in “Magandang Gabi Bayan,” horror has always had a special place in Filipino lives. Maybe it’s the deeply rooted superstitions and the religiosity, or maybe it's the years of colonization and corruption. Either way, horror has always found its way to our screens — as a source not only of cheap thrills but also of connection and community, especially as it reflects many growing anxieties and fears in the modern era.

There are few contemporary Filipino filmmakers left who understand how to communicate these feelings in a film language that gets seared into the brain. So when Kenneth Dagatan, at the time a film student from the University of San Carlos in Cebu, burst into the filmmaking scene in 2015 with “Sanctissima,” a short film about a woman who feeds her demonic child fetuses she gathers from botched abortions, it felt like there was another person who could be terrifying and affecting in equal measure.

“Sanctissima” won the audience award at the 2015 Cinemalaya Film Festival, competing alongside then-emerging filmmakers such as Petersen Vargas and Martika Ramirez Escobar. But in that same year, another short film was percolating in his mind — something about a child, a mother, and flesh being eaten; seeds of what would eventually become “In My Mother’s Skin.” But with little clarity and money, Dagatan shelved this project. Instead, he moved from Cebu to Manila and lived out several lives: serving as a bassist and music video director of his former punk rock band Drop Decay, brainstorming and co-writing films like Topel Lee’s “Bloody Crayons” for Star Cinema, and collaborating with Rae Red and Jericho Aguado on “Tenement 66” for iWant.

Seven years since its inception, “In My Mother’s Skin” has been brought to life as Dagatan’s sophomore feature. Set in the Philippines during the tail-end of World War II, a young girl named Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) accepts aid from a flesh-eating fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) to save her mother (Beauty Gonzalez) to devastating consequences. Recently acquired by Prime Video for VOD release in the last quarter of the year, “In My Mother’s Skin” had its world premiere at the Midnight Section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival alongside the likes of Brandon Cronenberg’s “Infinity Pool” and Laura Moss’ “birth/rebirth.” It will also have its European premiere at the Harbour Section of the 2023 International Film Festival Rotterdam.

“In My Mother’s Skin” contains traces of all of Dagatan’s work — the gruesome sound design that “Sleepy Eyes” uses as a source of terror, the imagery of carnage and themes of equivalent exchange and motherhood that defined his debut feature “Ma,” the panic-inducing atmosphere that remains even after hitting pause in Cignal Play’s “As You Can See.” But here, the gray and chasmic mansion merely highlights how far the family has fallen from grace. As monsters continue to masquerade as saints and every offer of salvation demands an increasingly high price, Dagatan’s phantasmagorical sophomore feature festers, exposing the desperate lengths that people will go through to protect their families and keep themselves alive.

In anticipation of its back-to-back festival premieres, Dagatan and I spoke just a few days before he flew to Sundance. Below, read our conversation about accessing terror in childhood experiences, communicating with Southeast Asian collaborators through film language, and unintentionally tethering "In My Mother's Skin" to several Filipino classics.

Jasmine Curtis-Smith and Felicity Kyle Napuli in "In My Mother's Skin." Photo courtesy of KENNETH DAGATAN

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Where were you when you found out you got into Sundance?

It’s so funny because while writing the script in 2020, my producers had this dream of going to Sundance. Pero ang hirap makapasok doon! So throughout the process, hindi na namin inisip. Eventually natapos ‘yung film and grabe ‘yung anxiety namin [because] for us, super different siya na film and hindi namin alam kung saan siya ipapalabas.

Gumising ako one day and Brad Liew, our producer [from Epicmedia], messaged me saying: “Kenneth, call me. It’s an emergency.” So nag-panic ako. I felt like may something bad na nangyari sa film. Do we need to revise something? Again? So I messaged Bianca [Balbuena] and she said, casually, that we got into Sundance. Brad was trying to hype up the news.

Di mo lang alam, man. (Screams) To be in the Midnight section. Doon nanggaling ang “Blair Witch [Project],” “Hereditary,” “The VVitch”... and the fact na kami lang ‘yung foreign language entry in the section [this year]? And that we’re the first Filipino horror film in the Midnight section of the festival? Grabe.

Where did your fascination with horror begin?

I was so scared of horror films. Every time na ine-air ‘yung mga mga “Feng Shui” or “Sukob,” natatakot ako. To the point that I said I need to challenge myself. So I watched [Hideo Nakata’s] “The Ring.” That was the first film I ever watched alone na sobrang takot ako. Then na-amaze ako sa effect niya. High school ito ha. ‘Yung napansin ko sa Japanese horror na naging motif or milieu of showing horror; of how they use technology for their scares. Di ko pa naisip yun [at the time] — na baka may sinasabi sila in terms of technology [through horror].

Director Kenneth Dagatan at Sundance Film Festival, where the world premiere of "In My Mother's Skin" was held. Photo courtesy of BIANCA BALBUENA

Ever since, sobrang love ko na ng horror. Pinapanood ko ang lahat. [Even] Eli Roth B-movies na bloody. Until I watched “Rosemary’s Baby.” Doon nagbago ‘yung perspective ko sa kind of horror na gusto kong gawin. “Rosemary’s Baby” proved that you don’t need jump scares to scare people. You only need psychological events na sobrang ma-e-engage ‘yung audience... You only need mood and atmosphere. Ang ganda pala nung idea na yun! Naghahanap na ako ng that kind of horror. Kaya pumasok ako sa “Martyrs” [at] sa mga French Extremity films. I realized that the horror genre has the capacity to say something deeper in terms of themes and discourse na mas nakakatakot pa sa pinapakita mo sa pelikula. You’re showing the real horror of the world but in a way that is creative. Doon ako na-fascinate sa horror genre. Ever since, tina-try kong gumawa ng horror na pinapakita ko pa rin ‘yung real horror of the world.

You’ve said before that great horror is rooted in great drama. I know your influences skew towards the West, but were there filmmakers from the Philippines, even ones not in genre fare, that really affected you or you really admired?

Of course. Especially Mike de Leon with “Kisapmata.” It’s a horror film but drama. Even with Lino Brocka. Maraming films na natatakot ako na pinapakita ‘yung mga side ng humans na nakakatakot. Hindi siya horror, pero mas nakakatakot pa siya. For me, ‘yun ‘yung totoong horror films. Si Dodo [Dayao], sobrang fan ako. [Especially] with how he tells his horror stories, na may ghosts siya pero mas may gusto siyang sabihin na mas malalim. Right now, siya lang ‘yung naiisip ko. I mean, of course, Mik[hail Red], with “Deleter.” Super fan ako.

A huge part of horror, of any film really, is pace. I watched “Sleepy Eyes” earlier and I think pausing it wouldn’t have the same effect as not having control.

Horror has four layers na kailangan mong isipin: tone, mood, atmosphere, and drama. Drama creates the overall atmosphere and themes. But through tone, mood, and atmosphere, doon ka mag-ce-create ng scares, which is super important. Which is why it’s really hard to shoot. Every after shooting, from “Ma” to “In My Mother’s Skin,” sinasabi ko ayaw ko nang mag-shoot ng horror film kasi ang hirap. In terms of time, it’s so demanding to build up suspense through shots. Sobrang demanding on set. Pero doon ko naeenjoy kung bakit ko gustong gumawa. But at the same time, saobrang hirap niyang gawin! (Laughs)

"I realized that the horror genre has the capacity to say something deeper in terms of themes and discourse na mas nakakatakot pa sa pinapakita mo sa pelikula. You’re showing the real horror of the world but in a way that is creative. Doon ako na-fascinate sa horror genre. Ever since, tina-try kong gumawa ng horror na pinapakita ko pa rin ‘yung real horror of the world."

You said that the genesis of “Ma” was rooted in childhood. What are the roots of “In My Mother’s Skin” and how has it evolved throughout the years? What made you also set it during World War II?

It’s funny because I wrote “In My Mother’s Skin” as a short film way back in 2015. After “Sanctissima” and after Cinemalaya, my mentor [Ruel Antipuesto] told me I needed to make another short film before venturing into feature films. Para lang ready. I wrote “In My Mother’s Skin.” ‘Yung first film that inspired it was a New French Extremity film [by Marina de Van] called “In My Skin.” It’s a self-cannibalism film. Doon [nanggaling] ‘yung first idea ko. Fresh out of college ako noon. Then pinanood ko rin [Guillermo del Toro’s] “Pan’s Labyrinth” and parang… wow! Gusto kong i-merge ‘yung ideas na yun! Sinulat ko siya as a short film. Pero, I forgot about it. Ginawa ko ‘yung “Ma” and “Sleepy Eyes” because I couldn’t find resources to make “In My Mother’s Skin.”

In 2018, nabasa ko siya ulit. After writing a rough draft [for a feature-length version] for Bifan [Project Market], I approached Bianca [Balbuena] to produce it because I love Epicmedia. Sinulat ko siya na wala pa akong idea kung anong gusto kong sabihin. Meron akong story pero hindi ko alam what elements or themes I wanted to discuss. Then the pandemic happened.

While writing it, we had a small family gathering and me and my father were talking about World War II. My grandfather was a guerilla soldier in World War II and sinasabi niya kung paano nag-struggle ‘yung grandmother ko from loneliness and anxiety. Di sila makalabas ng bahay, sobrang claustrophobic nung feeling during war [dahil] natatakot ka sa external forces na baka umabot sa bahay mo. They tried to escape in the mountains to hide. [Then] I realized that yun rin ‘yung na-fe-feel ko sa pandemic: yung claustrophobia, ‘yung depression, ‘yung fear of the external forces. And doon ko naisip na pwede kong [kunin] ‘yung nafe-feel ko sa pandemic and [I can] mirror it in a World War II [narrative]. I wanted to create a contrast between the two crises — ‘yung pinagdaanan ko at ‘yung pinagdaanan ng grandparents ko. It’s the same fear, but different monsters. Doon ako na-excite. So I called Bianca and said let’s make it a period film [set] in 1945. Doon pumasok ang lahat — the religion aspect, etc.

Beauty Gonzales in "In My Mother's Skin." Photo by KENNETH DAGATAN

What was the research process like to make that adjustment? I’m especially curious about the production design and location scouting because your films in the past have such strong rural milieus.

At first, while writing, you have do to the research para alam mo kung ano ‘yung milieu back then, ano ‘yung lifestyle, what they’re eating, ano ‘yung nangyari sa war. The film [takes place] in the last months of World War II and I approached our production designers Ben [Padero] and Carlo [Tabije]. They were game to do it. Sobrang fun ‘yung research nila in terms of wardrobe!

The films I watched again and again for research — [to understand] the way they speak and how they prayed back then — were [Mario O’Hara’s] “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos” and [Peque Gallaga’s] “Oro, Plata, Mata.” I watched it again and again para sa themes na gusto nilang sabihin. Sa “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos,” doon ko nakuha ‘yung structure ng protagonist namin. Sobrang ganda nung film. Ang bigat! Lalo na ‘yung false hope. Anong kind of hope ba ‘yung hinahanap natin? Is hope a dangerous thing? Ang “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos,” ang dami niyang dini-discuss about hope during war and ‘yun ‘yung mga nafe-feel natin during the pandemic.

Pero ito ‘yung pinaka-happy ako that we got: the house. The house [we have] is the same house as “Oro, Plata, Mata.” We had an ocular here sa houses sa Manila. Pero sobrang gusto ko ‘yung house sa “Oro, Plata, Mata.” [So I asked:] Can we check out the house? We went to Bacolod to do an ocular there and we visited dozens of houses. But the first time [we went] to that house [Gaston Mansion in Hacienda Rosalia], I got goosebumps. I told them: this is the house. After two years of research, na ‘yun rin ‘yung basis nung script and [the] geography [of the script], seeing it in person was… wow, man. The fact that it’s World War II and we have Ronnie Lazaro na nasa “Oro, Plata, Mata” rin? Parang full circle. Ang ganda lang na na-manifest namin ‘yung lahat.

This is the first international co-production between Taiwan (Volos Films), Singapore (Zhao Wei Films and Clover Films), and the Philippines (Epicmedia). You’ve been working with Epicmedia for a while now, but what was the collaboration process like with other international players?

I was super skeptical of working with a foreign cinematographer. I was telling my producers that I want a Filipino cinematographer because the themes and the Filipino elements needed a “Filipino eye” for the visuals. But the grants [allowed us] to learn another process of filmmaking; to have different voices, cultures, and tastes. Doon ako na-amaze.

Kenneth Dagatan with actress Beauty Gonzales at Sundance. Photo courtesy of BIANCA BALBUENA

While working, walang language barrier or even cultural barrier. Everything, connected lahat. Walang barrier when it comes to film language. Lahat ng themes, kahit sobrang Filipino, nako-connect rin [nila] to their own culture. So we speak on universal themes. Ang ganda nung process. Nagbibigay sila ng different ideas kung paano i-sho-shoot and kung paano i-a-atake. Doon ako sobrang thankful that [our cinematographer] Russell [Morton] helped me finalize and create the [visual] language of the film itself. Feeling ko hindi ganoon kaganda ‘yung film kung hindi si Russell ‘yung nag-ilaw o naging cinematographer.

For the post-production, my editor [Ming-Cheng Kao] is Taiwanese, so we had a translator in the editing room while editing because he doesn’t speak English that much. It’s a really different process, but doon ako na-amaze. We understand each other because we understand what emotions we want to have in the film. Sometimes, I don’t even have to say ito ‘yung gawin natin. Minsan, ginagawa lang niya. Alam na niya ‘yung gusto kong gawin and super amazing na process. Even with our sound designers [Eddie Huang and Yi Ling Chen], ang daming magaganda. I think this film is different because of all of their good ideas and I’m very thankful for that. I think this is [the power] of film language. We have different languages but because of cinema, naco-connect natin lahat.

What would be necessary to support more genre filmmaking and filmmakers in the Philippines?

Watching films in theaters and watching Filipino films. Here in Manila, everyone’s watching films. But in regional cities? Provinces? Di umaabot ‘yung films doon. Especially films like [the ones] in QCinema. I mean, even me. I came from Cebu. To be honest, wala akong alam about Cinemalaya films before. Wala akong alam sa mga Cinema One. Dahil kay Victor Villanueva [the director of “Patay na si Hesus”], doon lang namin nalaman na may Cinema One. Ang hirap niya because it’s an information thing. But I’m happy na super supportive dito sa Manila. Every Cinemalaya, packed. Wow. That’s one of the reasons bakit lumipat ako, sobrang nafe-feel ko yung support. I really hope that throughout the Philippines, these genre films will be screened. We all have stories to tell.