Erik Matti on building the hyperreal world of “BuyBust”

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In “BuyBust,” Erik Matti's first full-on action movie, the director builds a claustrophobic, ultra-violent world and offers commentary on Duterte’s drug war. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In “BuyBust,” Erik Matti’s first full-on action film, seven PDEA operatives find themselves trapped in Brgy. Gracia ni Maria, a hotspot for both the drug trade and drug-related killings in Metro Manila, in the midst of a buy-bust operation.

It’s an exhilarating and exhausting two-hour experience with a mad dash of fight scenes and gradual revelations of a chain of betrayals that sees Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis) and her team try to make it out of the settlement alive.

Making the film was a similarly arduous experience. It took roughly two years for director Erik Matti (“On the Job,” “Honor Thy Father”) to complete all stages of the film, including writing a script that went through over 15 drafts, building the entire set of Gracia ni Maria and training and rehearsing all the actors in combat.

CNN Philippines Life spoke to Matti about building the cruel neon-lit world of the film, its graphic portrayal of violence and the way he wanted to present Duterte’s drug war in the film.

Light spoilers ahead.

I wanted to ask about how you built the world of the film. What went into the process of conceptualizing the world?

Without really explaining how to watch the film, if you notice, the first chunk of the film before they go to Gracia, up to the first buy, lahat siya naturalistic lang, and then I wanted the world of Gracia or the world of the bust sequences to be hyperreal, elevated. So I remember talking to my director of photography, si Neil Bion, and sinasabi niya, “Talaga, Direk? Okay lang naman na natural tayo.” Pero isipin mo, 90 [percent] of the film is inside Gracia ni Maria and ang dugo na ng nangyayari, patayan — I wanted it to have an ironic eye candy feel to it na parang sunog ‘yung lakas ng ilaw, sunog ‘yung mga kulay, ‘di ba? As opposed to lahat na lang patayan tapos ‘yung lighting mo natural pa... In terms of lighting, sabi ko kay Neil, what we shouldn’t do, we should do.

BuyBust Screencap from BUYBUST MOVIE/YOUTUBE

For the designers that we had, si Roma [Regala] at si Mike [Español], the main reason why I chose both of them is ang galing nila sa observation ng slum areas. A lot of designers who want a lot of control on the set, hirap na hirap mag-control ng slum areas, primarily because ‘yung hindi bagay, pag nilagay mo sa slum area, bagay, ‘di ba? Kung may nakaharang man diyan bigla na gulong ng traktor sa daan, parang okay pa rin ‘yon, alam niyo? The more interesting your ideas are with the things that you put in, the better. Of course, ayaw naman namin na parang siyang Tim Burton world na masyadong analyzed… ‘Yun na ‘yung world namin.

From the very beginning, ang “BuyBust” talaga, originally I wanted it to be a classic three-act structure. Ang problema, if you look at TV, you have “Ang Probinsyano,” for example. They’ve tackled everything about society in the most three-act classic structure na parang sabi ko, pag gumawa ako niyan, ita-try mo lang maging cinematic pero parang inulit mo lang ‘yung lumabas sa TV. So eventually, when we were thinking, that’s probably on the eighth draft... I threw that away, got [writer] Anton [Santamaria] instead and then pag-upo namin ‘yung usapan namin is what if it’s just a Jessica Soho segment where tayo si Jessica Soho and we’re following a team of PDEA going through a buy-bust operation and we’re just following them through the night. So mala-mala gano’n siya and I think maganda ‘yung nadictate niya na flow na parang newsreel lang siya.

The depiction of violence is really graphic in the film. Why did you make that particular choice in direction?

Because it should be an immersive experience talaga to be in there. Lahat tayo, nandoon sa upuan natin. ‘Grabe naman ‘to.’ Reklamo ka nang reklamo sa lahat ng drug war, namatay, ganito. What if we bring ourselves into a real mission and see what happens inside the mission?

Eto ‘yung maganda. We were in New York. We screened the film, everyone was so quiet through all the violence, ta’s palakpak. Dito, we screened it, lahat ng violence talaga, enjoy mga tao, only to be subverted in the end with the idea of ‘Why are we killing all these people?’ in the top shot [of all the dead people]. Ako, tuwang-tuwa ako sa ganoong feeling.

Are you not worried about people being desensitized by violence? For you, what role does a graphic movie about the idea of violence play?

A slap in a movie scene nowadays doesn’t elicit any emotion anymore, like 20 years ago. Hindi mo na sasabihin na, ‘Ha, ano ba ‘yan?’ Hindi ka na nagugulat, e. ‘Yun din ‘yung reasoning ko sa MTRCB.

You look at the news and ‘yung news mismo, violent na. Siyempre sa atin dito, sensationalized na news reporting, puro crime, na-holdup, tokhang, sagasa, gustong-gusto nila ‘yon. Ayaw nila ng normal news. So when I want to immerse the audience in a darkened room, it’s really to bombard their senses with graphic details visually and at the same time aurally arresting.

Hopefully, you get to see ‘yung middle class na privilege, na ang dali nating sabihin, “E, pusher kasi,” or “Adik kasi, kaya pinatay siya.” Hopefully, by being immersed there, paglabas mo, parang, “Tangina, parang ako rin, hinarass na rin ako.”

BuyBust Screencap from BUYBUST MOVIE/YOUTUBE

Space is a really big part of the film. It almost feels like Gracia ni Maria is another character in the film. What role did space play in all parts of the process from writing to preproduction to shooting the film?

I storyboarded all of the fighting sequences. I was storyboarding it with wider alleys, with longer alleyways, alam mo ‘yun? So siyempre, ‘yun ‘yung naiisip ko and then nung nagsimula kami mag-configure ng set and they showed me — we did a grid of the set na parang ima-mark mo lang ‘yung set — may bahay dito, may bahay dito, may bahay dito, and then we realized paliit nang paliit ‘yung alleyways and then una, I was resisting it, na parang, “No, no, I was imagining it nang ganito.” Pero na-realize ko na since ‘di naman kami martial arts movie baka it could work for us na makitid ‘yung mga [spaces], so everything’s close quarters, so gano’n namin siya inisip.

So, in a way, you were really adjusting the movie dahil sa space?

‘Yung first mong isipin is: You didn’t get what you imagined. Is this a better version? ‘Yun ‘yung next mo na tanong. For example, the [long take] parkour of Anne. I wanted to shoot it flat. It’s like the skyline of New York. Anne goes up here, somebody chases her, they go inside the house, we see through the window, she kicks someone, he falls, jumps off the roof and then the camera is just following it.

Noong nandoon na kami, and sabi ko, how do we do this? Kasi wala tayong flat na space, kasi ano siya, bunch of houses. Nung nakita ko ‘yung main na maraming bahay, I figured na baka maganda rin na hindi mo siya ma-tell where she’s going and where she’s jumping. Alam mo ‘yun, ‘yung ikaw rin mismo ‘yung sumusunod sa kanya.

The space, it plays a big part. I love films where the setting also is a character in the film. I remember how in “Pasyam,” the house of Pasyam is a character, a bleeding house. For this one, midway, I remember I was talking to Erwin Romulo, and sabi niya, “How’s the film going?’ Sabi ko, ‘Parang siyang nagiging allegory ng Pilipinas, ‘yung buong Gracia ni Maria.”

“Talaga?” sabi niya. “I read the script pero ‘di pa naman gano’n.”

“Baka. Tignan natin.”

BuyBust Screencap from BUYBUST MOVIE/YOUTUBE

That was my next question. How does situating the characters in this sort of maze-like space relate to the bigger themes of the story?

Number one ko talaga, when we were trying to make the script aware of the drug war na nangyayari sa atin is: zombie film without zombies, kung logline siya. I wanted it to be a movie about killing and deaths.

First and foremost, it’s about killing but also ‘yung balance nung tatlong grupo [the police, the drug lords and the people caught in the crossfire] was the most difficult to write, kasi you’re not trying to be politically correct, you’re not trying to be controversial or sensational naman. Ang hirap ng balance na at the end of it all, paglabas ng tao sa movie, sasabihin nila na it makes sense. You may not agree with all the points but you gave everyone space to present themselves — those segments in society.

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“BuyBust” is out in cinemas nationwide.