What I Fear, What I Love: Director Mikhail Red on forthcoming crime thriller 'Arisaka' and HBO's 'Halfworlds'
During World War II, the the Arisaka family of bolt-action rifles was the primary weapon of choice for the grunts of the invading Imperial Japanese Army in the South-East Asian theater, including those that eventually occupied the Philippines.
Like the AK47 later manufactured by the Russians, the Arisaka was to the Japanese military a dependable and all-purpose weapon. During destructive tests for field use, the Arisakas were even shown to be stronger than the American Lee–Enfield or German Mauser rifles, albeit lacking in stopping power.
Arisaka is also the title of the forthcoming new movie by acclaimed director Mikhail Red. Greenlit in 2019 and announced in Singapore, the story is about a woman police officer who must retrace the trail of the deadly WW2 Bataan Death March. It stars Maja Salvador as the heroine who must escape her captors to survive and eventually enact her revenge, while Mon Confiado plays one of the villains hunting her.
This heady crime thriller is just one of the many projects that the young Red—son of decorated Filipino auteur Raymond Red (Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso)—is currently juggling. Even though he has already wrapped all filming on Arisaka and it’s currently in post-production, Red is also in the process of wrapping up the third season of the HBO folklore fantasy series Halfworlds, and is currently developing the Japan-Philippines co-production sci-fi romance project Quantum Suicide.
Albeit young, the 29-year-old director already has a decorated body of work with plenty of firsts: The 2016 film Birdshot was our entry to Best Foreign Language Film at that year’s Oscars, 2017’s NeoManila achieved cult status to arthouse moviegoers almost immediately, 2018’s Eerie was a critical hit on Netflix, and 2019’s Dead Kids was the first Filipino original film made through Netflix (co-produced by Globe Studios).
I caught up with Red as he came out of a quarantine bubble from shooting one of his projects to talk about his filmography and the challenges of shooting Arisaka during a global pandemic.
While you started HBO’s Halfworlds before COVID-19’s lockdowns took hold, you shot Arisaka almost completely in 2020. How did you rise to the occasion of filming in these unprecedented times?
MIKHAIL RED: Arisaka was my first experience with a full-on pandemic production. It was far from the city as opposed to the one I’m doing with HBO, which is set in the city. The work is a bit slower in pace. But nowadays the biggest issue is shooting schedule and hours. There’s an international cap of 12 hours but it’s even shorter now.
I am very grateful to production studio Ten17p for their dedication and support, that even with the unexpected pandemic they still decided to support my vision. Because of the pandemic plenty of shots now need to be done with CGI and green screen. Workflow nowadays is almost all on Zoom.
It must be hell on trying to create a vision, but it does sound good for the overall health and fairness for the workers on set.
You are sustained because you enjoy the suffering of the process.
MR: When I started out I really couldn’t estimate how long a scene would take to setup and shoot. I’d say, ah barilan? Mabilis lang yan. Then you realize oh that’s why Sicario took one week to shoot that end gunfight scene in the tunnels. I eventually realized my stamina was not up to those kinds of week-long one-scene shoots.
So even though 24 hours to us here was the norm, I’d push for just 18 hours max. Now with COVID people have been forced to accept the strict 12-hour rule. But shooting days and rates haven’t changed. It hurts genre, I must admit. It’s the smartest choice though if you were to produce something now. We don’t have 100 shooting days like Hollywood. Bawas dolly shots, wag muna magparami ng squibs. I’m just going to just CGI gunshots.
You recently switched management agencies from Paradigm Entertainment to Creative Artists Agency (CAA) where you share the same team as Beyonce, Georges St. Pierre, and JJ Abrams. Does having this new management enable you to think less of your projects or is juggling feature films at the same time just what you like and have gotten used to?
MR: Changing to CAA was just middle of last year (2020). Currently, I am chaining projects together, developing something for the international market, wrapping up post in another, and shooting yet another. Yeah, sometimes it gets tiring juggling so many projects in the air but if your objectives and reasons are clear that it’s not just for the sake of being a filmmaker, then it’s OK.
I feel that the ones who are the most sincere and most passionate are the ones who last.
People may think you just busted out in 2016 with Birdshot but you’ve been doing short films since you were in high school, a good decade prior to it.
MR: When I was in high school I made ketchup blood zombie films that nobody asked for! That’s how I started. My Cinemalaya shorts were made over more than a decade.
You are sustained because you enjoy the suffering of the process. I’ve been here since MINi-DV days. We’d export copies on them for the CCP showings. These were around 2008.
Honestly, I’m 29 now so it’s going to be a benchmark soon! Naisip ko rin ano ba ginagawa ko dito? Especially with the pandemic rendering the industry so uncertain of its future. I feel that the ones who are the most sincere and most passionate are the ones who last. Matira matibay, talaga. If it’s not for you, malalaman mo siya talaga.
But I may be very right brain in my approach since I’m conscious and self-aware of filmmaking as an industry. Like (2020’s) Block Z was studio produced and popcorn entertainment but we were very aware we needed to have fun with it.
Have you always liked genre films, especially noir, and mystery?
MR: Generally, as an audience, as someone who likes to watch movies, I love crime thrillers, noir, and mystery films.
It was only that I realized that pattern of mine, of using criminals and their point of view, that it’s very likely a subconscious thing. See, I love movies like Sicario. I realized it only after I looked at my work and even the very early shorts like Hazard, Rekorder, and Harang. I use the genre as a vehicle to tell the story but the vehicle represents things that inspire me like other forms of cinema.
Quantum Suicide is the first time I’ll be doing sci-fi. When I see other films, I always ask myself, can I do that? That’s my film school, I never went through film school so I always learned on the job.
I see that especially in your characters who are often from the fringe or are criminals of varying degrees—they do seem to be a running thread in your movies.
MR: The combination of what I fear (the emotional core of it) and the things that I love (what clothes that story comes in) like genre cinema are the tools I use to make something come together and spark.
My characters are morally ambiguous, like a likeable criminal and a corrupt cop. How do you survive in this society and what are the choices you must make to navigate this minefield of moral decisions? In Birdshot the community and especially the father-daughter were isolated and they’re forced to make difficult decisions just so the world stays away. Hence, they are vilified.
You’ve praised Maja Salvador for breathing life to the heroine of Arisaka, especially since she took it on despite the new shooting restrictions. Is the empowered feminine something you feel you need to embody in your movies? There seems to be a pattern with them also in your other films.
MR: All my antagonists are male here and they’re all after Maja. Part of Arisaka is how the heroine is going through her own Stations of the Cross. A part of the film is about this rebellion, insurrection angle. There’s this vicious pattern or cycle and there’s invaders. Are we really free? Especially with invaders in our own ranks.
That feeling of change and being invaded by change does feel like it shares the same vibe as your other put-upon heroes, like the misfits of Dead Kids. That scene where the young hero runs out of pre-paid load is mortifying to social standing in a prestige school, but it’s my favorite.
MR: In a way, dead kid din ako growing up. That movie is the same themes as my others, but it’s more on using high school as that metaphor and microcosm. This is where it starts, the big world begins here for these innocents. Even if I make a film about the middle class, it doesn’t ignore the real world, ramdam mo dapat ang totoong Pilipinas instead of films that live in a bubble.
It feels like the kind of visual metaphor that should be funny but frankly just the reality of young people in a Third World country like ours. Like, ha-ha in a dark comedy way.
MR: I must confess I’m middle class. There’s a privileged guilt that I want to get out through mocking satire. On the technical side, I wanted to do an ensemble movie for Dead Kids. Even the soundtrack of that movie included my old, growing up hits like Chicosci.
I was very conscious of not just a narrow audience liking it, like it might not be understandable to Boomers or Gen X. When I was still pitching in Europe and bitbit yung art film ko I was very conscious of how accessible these kinds of projects needed to be.
You jumped right back into telling atmospheric and emotive stories after releasing a modern zombie survival adventure in Block Z. Any zombie movies that you like today?
MR: I did like Army of the Dead, which I saw recently. Honestly, I admire Zack Snyder’s craft. I can see the merits of his workarounds, I also watched the behind-the-scenes and the effort they had in there of course. I learned plenty on the technical side of things.
I can also see the flaws and how it’s not a perfect darling, it’s popcorn entertainment though. Despite the flaws, they don’t really bother me. I haven’t really hated on films recently. It’s been something that’s changed within me ever since I started seriously making films. Gaano kahirap at yung other factors and circumstances na going into it. This movie had its moments and I was entertained. It sounds like Zack might need stronger material than anything that he writes, Watchmen is far from Sucker Punch, for sure.
But it’s very different for Hollywood, the Army of the Dead introductory montage alone feels like it costs one whole film of ours in terms of production budget and shooting days.
Arisaka is set for release in the fourth quarter of 2021.
(Banner and thumbnail photo from Mikhail Red's Instagram account).