Quark Henares’s new political romcom is a satisfying comeback

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Quark Henares is back with "My Candidate," a new politically charged "anti-romcom" starring Iza Calzado (center) as a "senatoriable." Photo courtesy of QUANTUM FILMS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It's been a while since we last heard from Quark Henares.

Five years after his last movie and two years after coming home from business school in Los Angeles (more on that later), the director behind quirky, energetic fare like “'Gamitan”' (2002), “Keka” (2003), and “Rakenrol” (2011) is back with his first big studio movie since “Super Noypi” (2006), the Metro Manila Film Festival entry that starred a pre-2NE1 Sandara Park.

Produced by Quantum Films — the production company behind hits as varied as the romcom “Walang Forever,” the thriller “Tandem,” and the Metro Manila Film Festival entry “Buy Now, Die Later” — “My Candidate” usurps the big studio romcom formula and puts together something that might not always deliver kilig, but does deliver something interesting. Part political comedy of errors à la “Veep” and part workplace romance à la “The Proposal,” “My Candidate” follows the story of a young communications coach named Billie (Shaina Magdayao) tasked to save the campaign of Sonny Suarez (Derek Ramsay), an unlikely “senatoriable” who wants to continue the legacy of his father but needs to work on charm and charisma. He’s fighting for the 12th senate seat against Vera Sanchez (Iza Calzado), a calculating, formidable candidate who just so happens to be his ex-girlfriend.

“I moved back 2014,” says Henares, who now also serves as head of production and development for the video streaming service iFlix. “Most of 2015 was developing stuff that hopefully will see fruition in 2016.” Below are edited excerpts from his recent conversation with CNN Philippines Life about his comeback and about what’s next.

You haven’t done a film in five years, since “Rakenrol” in 2011. When you come back from a break that long, it usually takes a project you really believe in or material that really speaks to you in some way. What was it about this project that made you want to get back?

It’s so interesting because I was working on a film for a year with Star Cinema and you know, we were in development and it was kind of being rewritten all the time. And then I was working on a movie with Philbert Dy and Mihk Vergara, which was more horror, mas gory. And then [the director] Dan Villegas just called us and said, “Oh, you might want to pitch to Quantum for a project.”

And as a joke — because we were all drinking and we were throwing out jokes — we came up with an idea. Like Mihk joked, “Ang Tipo Kong Katipunero,” a romcom about a Katipunero who finds himself in the modern age. Like that movie with Hugh Jackman and Meg Ryan, “Kate & Leopold.”

I remember saying something like, “Yeah, but what about ‘My Candi-DATE?’” [Laughs.] And then I was driving to work the next day and the character of Shaina Magdayao occurred to me. She’s an image maker who’s helping a candidate. She’s a communications coach or a life coach for artistas. She’s not so well-versed in the political world, nor does she really care about politics. But she can’t get her life together — a life coach who can’t get her life together. The Shaina character really made me want to do this.

Derek Ramsay and Shaina Magdayao “My Candidate” also stars Shaina Magdayao (right) as a young communications coach tasked to save the campaign of an unlikely “senatoriable” played by Derek Ramsay. Photo courtesy of QUANTUM FILMS  

How long was the actual production?

We started Feb. 9 and then we wrapped April 13. We finished the movie in two months, and then we had one month for post, and music, and all that.

Welcome back to Philippine cinema.

I know. [Laughs.]

What have you been doing in the last five years?

I had to go to business school. It was more like, my dad and I had a deal: He’d quit smoking and then I’d go to business school. We struck this deal maybe 2005?

I went there to L.A., in USC (University of Southern California). Can you imagine being in the best film school and not going to the fucking film school? Nag-to-talk dun sina Lena Dunham before “Girls” came out. Daming speakers, daming lina-launch while I was there in business school. So I worked a year in an indie production house. They did this movie, “In a World,” starring Lake Bell; it’s about the voice-over [people in movies]. And then they did “Big Sur,” which is based on the Jack Kerouac novel. I was working there for a year. I was literally working in Hollywood but I missed being on set. So I came back.

The movie’s out on the tail end of election season. Why do you think it’s an important movie to put out at this time?

We didn’t want to be preachy but there really is a recurring theme of “Lingkod bayan, hindi pulitika.” Public service, not politicians. I think a lot of people forget that especially now [during election season]. We’re their boss basically. We’re not here to follow your whims and whatever. You’re here to make the Philippines a better place, right? And it’s not about positions. It’s not really about power. It’s more about getting a chance to help and make a difference. The last few weeks, people have been getting caught up in power play. I guess that’s why we felt [that we needed to put this movie out].

I think it should be pointed out also that what I love about this film is, it’s very feminist-leaning. It passes the Bechdel test and I think there’s a dearth of romcoms here where the woman isn’t defined by her man. She’s always: “Wala akong boyfriend. Nag-iisa lang ako. Single ako.” It’s always like that. In this movie, in fact, Shaina’s character doesn’t want a relationship. She sees relationships as distractions. I love that the character is a former drug addict and she went through rehab. So there are things that do not pass the Star Cinema formula book. I mean, the soundtrack is completely hip-hop or hip-hop-leaning — and it’s really underground rappers. It’s a very anti-romcom romcom, I guess, in a weird way.

That’s something that we’re really happy about, me and my co-writers, Chris Costello and Mikael Co. And we really had an insider look into the world of how a campaign is run. Mikael is working with Mar Roxas’s campaign … Sometimes, we’ll get comments that there’s not enough kilig. Sometimes, we’ll get comments that there’s not enough elections. So it’s really weird trying to mix the two worlds. But at least it’s something different.

This is the first and only film I’ve ever had na PG. I think even “Super Noypi” was like PG-13. It’s so out of my comfort zone — there’s no cursing, there’s no overt sexual innuendo, there’s no violence. But I’m pretty happy and proud of the movie.

Shaina Magdayao smile Shaina Magdayao (far right) in "My Candidate." "I hope this movie does her justice," says Quark Henares. "It's really her movie." Photo courtesy of QUANTUM FILMS  

Of course, the movie coming out a few days after the elections, a lot of people are going to watch it as, a sort of like roman à clef. Were the characters based on anyone? Or maybe they were a combination of certain people?

I think they are. I think we tried to avoid [doing too much of that]. Some comments on “Rakenrol” were, if you’re not part of that world, you couldn’t get it or you couldn’t get a lot of the in-jokes. I didn’t want to be like, “We’re making fun of this guy, we’re making fun of this person [for this one].” There aren’t really any overt references to anyone but I do notice that Iza kind of plays her character like Grace Poe. As much as she is so hateable in the script, Iza brought her to life in such a way na parang it’s so hard to hate her.

And Sonny, Derek’s character, is mostly based on Roman Romulo, a congressman who’s very dedicated and a good public servant but he’s not comfortable in front of the camera, pogi naman. But you do also see a lot of Mar Roxas and a bit of Rodrigo Duterte, yung pagka-socially awkward ni Mar and yung pagka-abrasive ni Duterte.

Tell us about casting Derek, Iza, and Shaina.

We actually wrote the Derek character as an older guy, more Ian Veneracion’s age group kasi senator, ‘di ba. But it was Joji Alonso [the producer] who was like: “No, this is gonna be Derek. I think he’s going to do great. I think this is his role.” And he did good. I’m happy with how he portrayed Sonny.

Si Iza, dati ko pang ka-barkada yan, college pa we were friends already. We’ve done so many things together — commercials, an Urbandub music video — but never a feature length. So finally we did a feature film together. It’s always been a dream. We just needed the perfect role for her.

Shaina’s mostly known for, like, super saintly and super mabait roles. So she was really out of her comfort zone with the film, but she pulled it off. She really took so many notes. When she talks from the script, memoryadong memoryado niya yung script. Ang galing niya. And she’ll fight me about the choices that her character makes — which I love because I haven’t really encountered someone like that. We’d talk about character arc or what point the character’s in. I think Shaina deserves more. I hope this movie does her justice. It’s really her movie.

Shaina Magdayao Ketchup Eusebio Shaina Magdayao (left) and Ketchup Eusebio in "My Candidate." Quark Henares hopes to make a vehicle for the latter. Photo courtesy of QUANTUM FILMS  

So what’s next for you?

Well, I don’t know nga eh. Trying to get funding for that horror film that Mihk Vergara and Philbert Dy wrote. Actually, I’ve been so enthralled in the world of politics that I want to do political drama, not comedy this time. I’ve actually never done a full-length drama. I’ve been doing mostly comedy. After the premiere, actually Atty. Joji and I, we love Ketchup Eusebio [who has a role in the movie] and we really want to make a vehicle for him. I don’t know if it’s an ensemble comedy. And I’m working with Happy Ferraren and Jay Ignacio from [the Manila improv company] SPIT. We were talking, “What if we do a SPIT movie?” It’s in the back of our heads. We’ll see.

But basically, after two years of being back in the Philippines, this really feels like coming home. I really missed this so fucking much. And it’s so stressful, but I’m so happy. Ang sarap.

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“My Candidate” is still in cinemas.