Jerrold Tarog on Bliss, pushing boundaries, and that controversial "X" rating
Can you guess the actress Bliss was originally written for?
(SPOT.ph) When Heneral Luna first came out in 2015, the film made headlines for shattering box-office records—as well as everyone's expectations of what a Filipino indie film can accomplish locally. Today, director Jerrold Tarog is back—although perhaps on a more controversial note.
His latest film, Bliss, fell on everyone's radar after the MTRCB basically banned it from public screening by giving it an "X" rating. One appeal and many headlines later, the psychological horror now has an R-18 rating and is slated for a May 10 release.
In a sit-down interview with the filmmaker, SPOT.ph chatted with him about Bliss, the MTRCB, the surprising audition piece for the film, and why Gregorio del Pilar must be played by Paulo Avelino.
Really quickly, what is Bliss about?
Doon ako nahihirapan palagi. [laughs] It’s about an actress who decides to produce her own movie to gain respect sa industry. And then, somewhere along the way, nagkaroon siya ng accident on the set and that kind of starts the whole cycle of abuse.
You wrote and directed the film. How long did you work on it?
I think it was right after Heneral Luna. Nag-pitch ako—I think it was five stories—and then they kind of approved most of it. It took me roughly about three to four months to write the script.
You mentioned they approved most of the stories; why go with this one first?
Sila ‘yong nagsabi. Ako rin, nagtaka bakit ito ‘yong pinili. [laughs] Sabi ko, “Sure kayo?” [laughs] Gusto nila, e.
Talk to us about your casting process. When you were writing the film, was Iza [Calzado] the actress you had in mind?
Hindi. Actually, alam ni Iza ‘to, ‘e. I really wrote [the role] for Anne Curtis. Although never kaming nag-usap ni Anne, pero may feeling ako na natakot siya...kasi masyadong dark. So maybe she’s still trying to protect the image or something na ganoon. Then we auditioned several actresses. Madami naman silang magaganda ‘yong performance, but we decided on Iza. May stature na si Iza, e. Actually, ang galing noong audition niya, lalo na ‘yong sinama namin siya with Adrienne Vergara—the girl who plays the nurse—so ang ganda noong combination nila.
And the rest of the cast?
Actually, lahat sila nag-audition pero ang audition process ko usually is by invitation.
What qualities were you looking for in order to play Iza’s character?
‘Yong kaya niyang puntahan ‘yong extremes ng madness and despair and joy, which she pulled off.
You mentioned abuse as a theme to the story. Why was this something you wanted to tackle?
Kaya ako nahirapan sagutin, lalo na kung saan galing ‘yong story kasi sobrang daming elements na pinanggalingan. For example, ‘yong kuwento ng Rose na character, I took that from a friend of a friend na experience ‘yon, na na-molest siya noong bata siya. At the same time, merong dream doon sa pelikula which was actually my dream. ‘Yon ‘yong isa sa pinaka-starting point ng buong story. I had that dream tapos pag gising ko, sabi ko, “Parang ang gandang gawan ng pelikula.” So I wrote it down.
You also mentioned that it was about the film industry. What brought on that aspect of the story?
Maybe it’s because ‘yong mga influences ko rin. I watched a lot of films from Satoshi Kon, this Japanese director, and I think maraming naka-recognize ng elements ng Perfect Blue tsaka ng Millenium Actress doon sa pelikula. So maybe ‘yon, but also, going back doon sa sinasabi ko kanina that it was about abuse...kasi for some reason, once na napili ko na doon sa film industry ‘yong kuwento, parang gusto ko patungan nang patungan ng iba’t-ibang klaseng forms of abuse sa actress...so it went from sexual abuse to psychological.
When you were doing this movie, did you set out to be daring or to shock audiences?
Kasama ‘yon sa objective...do something that I personally have never seen before sa local cinema, and try to push the boundaries hangga’t sa matakot ‘yong MTRCB. [laughs] Hindi, joke lang! Basta try to push boundaries.
A lot of people have talked about the masturbation scene involving Iza. How important was it for you to portray something like that, especially when it’s never been portrayed before?
Actually, ang importante sa akin is ipakita ‘yong effect ng abuse sa character na ‘yon and parang secondary na lang that there was a masturbation scene of a half-naked woman. In fact, ‘yong mga actresses who auditioned for that character, ‘yon ‘yong audition piece nila. Never ko pang nakikita ‘yon sa context ng local cinema. Sa global cinema, the material is nothing new, pero...sobrang importante na ipakita ‘yong effect ng abuse, more than anything.
Do you think local audiences are ready to see something like that? I mean, we have popular shows like Game of Thrones, but in terms of cinema...
Well, pareho lang naman siguro ‘yong nanonood ng Game of Thrones sa mga nanonood sa sine. [laughs] So yes, I think they’re ready. I was actually confident that they’d be ready, and it was only when pinasa namin sa MTRCB when I was like, “Hmm, tignan natin kung anong mangyayari.”
Can you talk us through what happened with the MTRCB?
In a nutshell, ang nangyari lang doon sa first panel is...eto, never ko pang sinasabi...Hindi sila na-offend doon sa pelikula. It’s more of...they were trying to protect a certain group of people na posibleng ma-offend. [laughs] Doon ako medyo natawa, pero when I went out of the panel sa room, hindi ko naman ine-expect na “X” [rating]. O sige fine, you’re trying to protect this group so I’m sure R-18 ‘yan. Pero noong narinig ko na “X,” doon ako napa-huh? [laughs] I started preparing for the appeal and noong nakita ko ‘yong mga butas ng reasoning na kung ikaw mismo ‘yong panel pero hindi ka naman offended, but you’re protecting this small group of people, hindi magka-qualify ‘yong Bliss for an “X” rating. Sobrang questionable ng circumstances in which the rating was made.
And when you filed for the second appeal, what happened?
Actually, wala na akong ginawa. I came prepared, as in medyo pseudo-abogado ako noon [laughs], mga court cases of freedom of expression, so handa na ako. Then when we had that free screening sa UP, nagpa-survey so dala-dala ko lahat ng survey forms and naka-tally na siya na out of 770 people, roughly 500 voted R-18 and mga close to 200 voted for R-16. So ready na ako sa kanila.
You’ve done biopics, coming-of-age films, romance films...why do a psychological horror now?
As much as possible, I try to do different genres. Galing iyon sa background ko sa music na sobrang iba-ibang genres ‘yong gusto ko. So as much as possible, sa pelikula, iba-iba rin hangga’t kaya. Although medyo naipit ako doon kasi sabi ko after ko gawin ‘yong Heneral Luna, gusto ko gumawa ng napaka-simpleng pelikula, but no. [laughs] Medyo mas mahirap siya sa Luna, and after shooting this, ngarag talaga ako.
In what way is Bliss different from Luna? Heneral Luna is big in terms of scope, but…
Oo, sa scope talaga. Logistics lang ‘yong problema, e. Pero ‘yong kuwento [ng Luna], straightforward naman e. Pero itong Bliss, as in ang dami-dami kong mga charts sa Excel...and while shooting, ang dami naming kailangang bantayan na detalye, which I never did sa Luna...this is in terms of kung ano ‘yong nasa panaginip and ano ‘yong reality. Even while shooting the film, medyo hinahanap ko pa ‘yong pelikula. Kaya na-realize ko na lang na nag-work naman ‘yong pelikula noong tapos na tapos na at nilalagyan ko na ng score. [laughs]
Saan kayo nahirapan sa Bliss, was it the execution…?
Execution in the sense na mine-maintain mo ‘yong tono ng buong pelikula. And also ‘yong pacing, kung saan malilito ‘yong audience but not enough para ma-turn off ‘yong karamihan. ‘Yong lito na sakto lang.
You’ve done horror films before, you’ve done Shake, Rattle & Roll. How different is Bliss compared to that?
Bliss is very cerebral. Lahat ng ginawa ko for Shake, Rattle & Roll—in a way, mostly it’s a monster movie. I wanted to move away from that. Personally as a filmmaker, hindi ako mahilig gumawa ng ghost stories. Hindi ko talaga trip ‘yong mga ganoon. Monster movies or psychological...and never ko pa nagagawa ‘yong psychological.
What are some of your insights in doing a film like this? What did you learn?
If anything, siguro sobrang importante—sa side ng artist—na you have to keep challenging yourself and the audience. ‘Yon pa lang kasi hinihintay ko pa na lumabas siya theatrically para alam ko ‘yong public opinion. I mean, sure 800 people nanood sa UP pero marami pang lalabas na opinions about it.
On a less serious note, what was fun about doing a film like this?
I have fun shooting with blood and gore. [laughs] For some reason, nage-enjoy ako mag-shoot ng mga ganoon, lalo na ‘pag alam mo na effective ‘yong eksena.
You mentioned Japanese films earlier, but do you have other influences or inspirations for the film?
Binanggit sa pelikula ‘yong [1990 film] Misery, so isa ‘yon. Isa sa pinakamalaking [inspiration] is a film by [Ingmar] Bergman called Persona. Tungkol siya sa isang girl na nagre-recover and may isang nurse na nagbabantay sa kanya, tapos parang nag-interweave ‘yong personalities nila hangga’t sa masira literally ‘yong film itself. Medyo 1960s ‘yong mga peg.
What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
Na madami pang pwedeng gawin sa Philippine cinema, not just rom-coms and horror. [smiles] Ang dami pang pwede.
You did the musical score for Senior Year and Sana Dati. How did you do the music for Bliss?
Sa lahat naman ng pelikula ko, ako naman ‘yong gumagawa ng score...Medyo mahabang usapan ‘yan, e. [laughs] ‘Pag gumagawa ako ng pelikula, lalatag ako ng temporary score from a different artist. Ang nilatag ko for the temporary score ng Bliss is Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl. Hindi ko naman ginaya when it was my turn to do the score, pero nandoon ‘yong atmosphere.
How long does it take to do scoring?
‘Pag mga pelikula tulad ng Bliss, usually nasa three weeks. ‘Yong Luna was more than a month.
This is your first film since Heneral Luna. Do you feel any pressure to recreate its box-office success?
To be honest, hindi siya nagre-register sa akin. Dapat naman hindi talaga, e. It’s more of...when I finished writing the script for Goyo, alam ko na dapat mas enggrande siya in a way. I just focus on trying to pull that off, with Bliss and Goyo. ‘Yon lang naiisip ko, kaya nga I followed up Luna with something completely different, para lang ‘pag napanood ng mga tao, parang, “Ha? Siya ‘yong gumawa ng Luna?” So bahala silang malito. [laughs]
Since you just brought up Goyo, how is the film going? Where are you at?
Magsa-start kami ng shooting sa May, so last leg na ng prep work ‘yong ginagawa na namin ngayon.
You’ve worked with Paulo Avelino before. When you wrote Luna, did you already have him in mind to play Gregorio del Pilar?
Siya na talaga. Na-reinforce lang siya when we started showing the movie and we realized every time lumabas mukha ni Paulo, sigawan lahat ng mga tao. [laughs] Kahit wala siyang ginagawa...so ‘yon na ‘yon.
What were you looking for to embody Goyo?
Aside from the obvious na dapat gwapo... [laughs] Gusto ko ‘yong hindi ka sure kung sincere ba siya o hindi. Parang kailangan ko ‘yon for the character, kasi when I read Teodoro Kalaw’s book about Gregorio del Pilar, may isang section na sulat ng mga babae na galit kay Goyo kasi sinabay sabay niya ‘yong mga babae. [laughs] Tawa ako nang tawa doon, pero ‘yon ‘yong hinahanap ko. Hindi ka sure kung sincere siya, pero meron siyang capacity to be heroic in the end.