In ‘Birdshot,’ killing a Philippine eagle leads to a world of corruption

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"Birdshot" stars Mary Joy Apostol who commits a crime in a forest reservation. Photo from TBA STUDIOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) Described as a “coming-of-age” thriller, “Birdshot,” Mikhail Red’s second full-length feature film, dives deep into a morally ambiguous world both familiar and distant. The film tells the intersecting stories of Maya (Mary Joy Apostol), a 14-year-old farm girl who accidentally shoots an endangered Philippine eagle, and Domingo (Arnold Reyes), a rookie cop who is thrust into a world of corruption and morally ambiguous decisions.

Red subverts such traditionally imposing themes like the loss of innocence and the idea that a person can be saved by grace by trusting his audience and showcasing his elegantly sparse directing style. “Birdshot” is not an easy film to watch, but you’ll find yourself lost in its warm tones and almost dreamlike world nonetheless.

CNN Philippines Life interviewed Red about what inspired him to make the film, how he cast his lead actress, and everything that went into creating the world of “Birdshot.”

birdshot_2.jpg "Birdshot" also stars Arnold Reyes and John Arcilla as two cops who are thrust into a world of corruption. Photo from TBA STUDIOS

Can you tell us about how you found the story of “Birdshot” or how it found you?

I was inspired by a news article about a farmer, who shot, cooked, and ate a Philippine eagle. I was fascinated by the situation where someone can commit a crime just to survive the food chain of society or life.

In an interview with Christopher O’Keefe, you said that making a film isn’t easier with more money. Can you talk a bit more about that?

It was my first time directing a big film, and I guess with more money comes more responsibility. We had more shooting days, more sequences. So everything is, I guess, exponential. The bigger the film, the bigger the challenges. I had to do all that, and it was only my second film. I would say that I was one of the most inexperienced people on set but luckily I was surrounded by industry veterans on set.

How did you find Maya?

We had an audition call, there were over a hundred applicants and then we shortlisted to 10, and then we decided on her because she looked good with a shotgun, she had great chemistry with the dog, and she resembled Ku Aquino. Those were the three factors we considered.

Was there ever a point while writing or during production when you considered a different ending?

I was also debating that [with] myself. And that was what you wanted her to do. You feel her anger, you feel her ferocity at that point. What she does is she subverts the whole cynicism of the film, she’s untainted by this whole status quo, this corruption within society. And by doing that, she saves her soul. Because there’s two sides to Maya — there’s her grace and her ferocity. There’s her more feminine side and the side Diego tries to impart on her.

birdshot_5.png Described as a “coming-of-age” thriller, “Birdshot,” Mikhail Red’s second full-length feature film, dives deep into a morally ambiguous world both familiar and distant. Photo from TBA STUDIOS

You talked about wanting the setting to be in this fantasy world and it turns out that you literally had to create the world of “Birdshot.” From planting the corn, to constructing a bahay kubo in the middle of farmlands in Isabela, was this more liberating or daunting for you as a director?  

I wanted to treat this whole thing — because it’s a moral parable in a way, so there’s a sort of storybook feel to it with all these nomadic characters with one word names. So we had to recreate everything and that’s what we wanted to do, we wanted to create this fictional world, but it talks about real life issues. I think that’s what makes it more universal, that’s why it has a strong appeal internationally and locally.

It was a challenge for us, it was more daunting, we had to prep a lot with the production design team, the art department, the costumes, and how the characters looked. It was challenging, but I think it was worth it because that was the treatment we were going for, for this type of material.

You’ve screened this film in festivals around the world, and you had your Philippine premiere in Cinemalaya the other day. Can you talk about what the reactions have been like both here and abroad?

With the Japanese audience, they were dead serious. They were quiet the whole time. But after the screening, the response was great. I mean, it won in Tokyo. But here, when we were the opening film in Cinemalaya, the audience was laughing at the dry humor. They were reacting, and screaming, and gasping. It was a more festive feel with the Filipino audience. You know how Filipinos are. I think it’s interesting to see that. In the end, I’m happy that they liked the film.

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“Birdshot” is a part of this year’s Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino which starts on August 16, 2017.