From Book to Screen: How the Smaller and Smaller Circles Film Came to Be
Producer and co-writer Ria Limjap tells SPOT.ph everything you need to know.
(SPOT.ph) Manila—with all its grimy streets and dark alleys—would make a great (and perhaps all too familiar) setting for a crime novel. So when a story like Smaller and Smaller Circles hit shelves, it didn't just hit close to home: it gave readers a look into a complex and frustratingly broken system and the handful of good people who still strive to make a difference despite the odds.
Smaller and Smaller Circles follows two Jesuit priests, Father Gus and Father Jerome, who are called by the NBI to track down a serial killer that leaves the mutilated bodies of young boys in Payatas. The film is helmed by Raya Martin (2009's Independencia and 2013's How to Disappear Completely).
The internationally published novel by F.H. Batacan struck a chord across the globe, so it was only fitting that it gets the onscreen adaptation it deserves. And perhaps no one was up to the daunting task more than Artikulo Uno Productions, who previously mounted another ambitious yet immensely successful film in 2015—Heneral Luna.
SPOT.ph chatted with co-producer and co-writer Ria Limjap about the highly anticipated crime
How did you first come across Smaller and Smaller Circles?
In 2015, I was working on the marketing campaign of
Literally, the first that came to my mind after reading it was, “Wow, this would make a really good movie.” The way she wrote it was very cinematic. The director of this film, Raya Martin, is a dear friend of mine. We’re constantly talking about projects we could do together so I told him about it, and he said that he read the UP Press edition [first published in 2000]. Immediately, Raya also liked the idea of adapting it.
We talked to [co-writer] Moira Lang and sure enough, she knew the author from way back in the ‘90s. And she said, “Actually,
Were you in touch with F.H. Batacan throughout the whole process?
Yes, she’s amazing! It really, really helped that Moira and Ichi [the author’s nickname] knew each other. Raya and I were in New York in 2015 and we had a meeting with the book’s publisher in their office. To have a face-to-face with these people...I think it showed that we were dead serious about doing this project. So they were very encouraging and they asked us to draw up a proposal. So Raya and I went up to Baguio and I worked on a proposal, and then we acquired the rights to the film. It happened very quickly. By January 2016, we already knew we were going to do it and by April, we officially had the rights.
We were in touch with Ichi throughout the [script] writing process. Raya created an outline based on the book and we had several meetings to see which parts needed tweaking—not because it’s unsuitable, but because it’s tricky going from literature to cinema. We were always discussing what details to change or if we would need to alter the plot a little.
Ichi, who is based in Singapore, wasn’t involved in the creative decisions, but every time we had a question, we could run to her. She provided us with so many good details, like
How do you reconcile staying true to the source material and tweaking it to fit a film’s different constraints?
It really matters that Raya, Moira, and I all love the source material. We didn’t really want to stray too far, but you have to understand that a book is a book and a film is a film. There are things that work for a literary work but won’t work for cinema. For instance, a book has 400+ pages. You have so much space to describe. A film has a script that’s probably about 120 pages long and usually, each page is about a minute. So 120 pages
There were some things that we really had to tweak para you can see it onscreen. We were also more free with the characters: We changed the gender of two characters. In the book, it’s a man but in the film, it’s a woman because we thought it would be more interesting and relevant for today. But really, I think we’re close to the source material.
How long did it take to work on the script? What was the adaptation process like?
We wrote the script for about two to three months. Raya did the outline, then it moved to me. Guided by the book and Raya’s outline, I put it into screenplay format. As I was going along, I would talk to Raya and Moira about it. Then we had a shooting script, which is your basis for pre-production. It’s very rare—at least in my experience—that you stick to the shooting script word-for-word. As a writer, you can’t get attached to what you write because it will change 90% of the time. First of all, your actors are artists with their own creative process and will say, “Parang this line is weird because I don’t think the character would say it that way” so you have to take that into consideration.
Moira, who really has an ear for dialogue, did that part. The novel is in English and the screenplay is in English, but we wanted the film to be organic. So if the two priests are talking, maybe it’ll be English or Taglish. If they’re talking to the parents of the kid from Payatas,
There are fans of the book and there are audiences who are going
I understand that maybe not all fans of the book will like the adaptation and there’s always going to be someone who says, “Oh, the book is better.” That’s fine, and I understand that some people really prefer the book. I think even if you haven’t read the book, it’ll stand on its own. We just try to do the best that we could and you know, we’re happy with it.
This is set in the ‘90s, but were there certain topics that you and the team decided to tweak to fit the current political or social climate?
There’s a passage in the novel—and we posted it as a deleted scene on Facebook—with TJ Trinidad in the NBI office. There’s this [conversation that goes], “Talaga bang may serial killer
It’s not like we were trying to make a political statement because we were just following the book, but yes, it’s significant.
It’s a very graphic—even brutally honest—book. Was there any point where you may have wanted to tone down the graphic or sensitive nature for the audience?
No, we didn’t want to tone down anything, but we had an awareness of what we didn’t want to do. For instance, while we were writing the screenplay, the film Spotlight came out. It was about the alleged abuse in the Church and it’s based on a real team that investigated this entire conspiracy of silence. It’s a story about abuse but they never show the abused. So I felt that was a very sensitive and subtle portrayal of what happened to these people. They don’t sensationalize it. So of course, we wanted to avoid sensationalizing this. But otherwise, why tone down a story that’s supposed to show how dirty and terrible things really are?
What’s your target MTRCB rating? R-18? R-16?
I don’t think it merits an R-18
Sid Lucero as Father Jerome and Nonie Buencamino as Father Gus
Were you involved in the casting process?
Oh yeah, it was so much fun I remember playing fantasy casting [with Raya] and tossing around names. Of course, the first two people we cast were the two priests. For Father Gus, we were both quiet until Raya said, “Nonie Buencamino.” We’ve both worked with Nonie—he’s theater-trained, his wife is also a very highly regarded actor, he’s just amazing. We knew he didn’t fit the physical description—in the book, Father Gus is tall, mestizo, he has a shock of white hair, he’s like an aging rock star—Nonie is many things, but he’s not an aging rock star. [laughs] But he’s a fine actor and we knew he could do it.
For Father Jerome, of
And then for Joanna, the journalist, who is loosely sort of based on F.H. Batacan—that’s her because she was a journalist in the Philippines in the ‘90s. In the book, Joanna is not a thin, pretty girl. She’s a tough cookie, she has a low voice, she’s intimidating, aggressive, really smart...then I thought, “What about Carla Humphries?” Immediately, Raya agreed. I didn’t see 10,000 Hours but
Did you have to audition everyone else?
Actually, we didn’t audition except for the kid talents, which our casting director handled. But 90% of the cast were handpicked. We really thought about who would be good as Attorney Arcinas: Raffy Tejada is a theater actor and a teacher at the College of Saint Benilde. I saw him in a play with Cherie Gil at PETA and he really held his own with her. He was so, so good at this play. We actually had a different actor in mind but we couldn’t get him for scheduling reasons. So I told Raya about him.
Carla Humphries as journalist Joanna Bonifacio
What was the shoot like? Did you film on location?
Yes! It was very bloody...Our schedule was pretty intense. When you shoot a film, you have to work around actors’ schedules. Our actors could only shoot on certain days of the week because other days, they shoot for TV. Sometimes, when the
[When exactly was filming?] We shot last year. Principal photography was in May and June 2016. [And you wrapped principal photography...] last year, but we finished post-production in May this year.
That’s a quite a long time between shooting and editing…
It is! We really took our time, which is rare. We didn’t have a target release date, so we really had the luxury of time in post-production—which I now realize is so important. Our editor, Jay Halili, is fantastic. He really did things to the film that I had never imagined. We also took our time with sound. Our sound designer, Corinne De San Jose, is also really good. You have to have breathing space. You do an edit, you watch it, but you need a little bit of time in between to realize what you have to take out for the next round. I think when you take your time and make the right decisions, it shows in the final product.
Father Gus Saenz's desk from the film
Will the film have a soundtrack or original music?
We love our music! From the very start, Raya said he wanted to work with [composer] Gardy Labad, who works with the Loboc Children’s Choir. All our musical score is by the Loboc Children’s Choir so we thought it would be eerie to hear these kids singing and you have a story about dead children...a film’s score really makes a difference. [These are all original music] and Gardy composed the original theme. We also have two or three traditional songs and a bit of classical music, too.
There was a previous report that you submitted a script to the MMFF this year…
That’s incorrect, we didn’t have an intention to submit a script. If you want to join the MMFF, you have to give a letter of intent, which we did. And as we all know by now, the ruling this year is that they’ll be accepting four finished films and four scripts. Our intention was
Do you still have plans to submit it as a finished film?
I really think we have to sit down and talk about it. We may, we may not. I just want this film to find an audience to appreciate it. And I think it’s there! We feel there’s a hardcore audience base out there that really wants to see it. Of course, we want that audience to see it first and then tell people about it...it’s really just word of mouth. The audience is really smart; they know they have choices and they can express their opinions because of social media. You can’t fool them into thinking it’s good when it’s really
It’s just super tough because as you know, film distribution favors either Hollywood or popular films with big stars. I have no problem with it—people watch movies for entertainment and escape, and that’s fine. I do that. Pero
At this point, we’re still a little bit “wait and see.” The film is finished, but we just need to know if we’re submitting it as a finished film or not. There’s a little bit [of] unfair
If you decide not to go the MMFF route, are you still planning a nationwide release?
Yes, for sure. We’ve already been doing school tours—universities all over—we’ve gone to Cebu, Dumaguete, Davao, Ozamiz...you know, in Ozamiz, there is one Robinsons Mall with three screens. But the students in Ozamiz are so excited to watch it that they’re willing to write the owner of that cinema to say, “Please book [this film] when it comes out.” The students in the regions—in Dumaguete, especially—they’re so hungry for films. We want as many screens as possible.
That’s the problem with MMFF. Smaller malls with say, six or fewer screens, will take the top [performing] four. It’s just business, of course, but then who suffers? The audience and people who want to watch it, but how can they? There is always an audience. Think of Cinemalaya and how the CCP is always stuffed with people then, and [this crowd] is young! They’re lining up for hours! We have European film festivals, Japanese film festivals, we have local film festivals...people are eager.
You also worked on
We were prepping for its marketing for a very long time, and we knew that we had to make content to engage the audience. That film was made to get your attention, of course, but we also did a school tour for it. Jerrold, members of the cast, a team from Artikulo Uno went to 33 universities and talked to thousands of students—this was prior to it being released. You have to prep the audience, ‘e. As for social media, we knew we had to do it, but that really evolved.
I cannot stress this enough: People really have to watch on opening day. Crucial
What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
When I first met F.H. Batacan, I asked her why she wrote a story about a serial killer leaving the bodies of dead young boys in a dump site. She said that she lived in Quezon City and on her way home, she’d pass by Litex Road, which is near Payatas. She was in a van on her way home and stuck in traffic, and there were these street kids running around. If you live in Manila, you’re familiar with that sight, so parang jaded
We decided on a tagline: “Look closer.” And so, Smaller is really a story about the things we do to each other—the bad things, the good things. I want people to think about that and how it affects the person next to you. Of course, it’s a crime drama but there also a lot of good characters in the story. Good teachers, good priests, good journalists, good cops...so at the end of the day, it’s your choice. If you’re faced with a situation where you have to choose, then what do you do?