The Flotsam Story… (Part 7 of 10)

There is a place in Luzon called Surf-town and up until I started to surf 3 years ago, I didn’t know there was this place.  You can ride a bus at midnight and wake up just before the sun rises and be on the main highway fronting the surf, walk less than 3 minutes and the waves are waiting.  Yep, there is a place called Surf-town and it is in San Juan, La Union.

La Union was a place my parents would bring us going down from Baguio when we were small. It was a beach town. And coming from the cold Baguio weather, swimming in the beach was such a treat. And back then, Baguio was an 8-hr trip from Manila so La Union was a great stopover.  But it was always just that, a stopover.

I learned surfing on a wave pool. Lorraine Lapus taught me how to surf so it was easy, you wanted to go to class because you had a hot teacher in a bikini. I never went out into the ocean until 2 years later but every year, I’d go back to the wave pool until one day, a friend and I were both nursing a heartache bad enough we just wanted to run away and surf. Being in the water and away from Manila gave me great energy and perspective. It literally healed me.  There’s nothing deep about it, no secret formula there actually, it’s a simple equation really—one chick or a hundred… in bikinis?

On my first few trips out to surf, I remember, I wanted to do a documentary on surfing and I remember distinctly that it was the story about the locals that I found the most interesting. I always had the impression that surfing is for the rich and the affluent. But the real rock stars of surfing are the locals. They are. And they are neither rich nor affluent.  And then there is this cultural phenomenon that happens between male locals and these white foreigner chicks that to me was the main story. They were for me the most fascinating thing about surfing in the Philippines.  Let me leave that for all you readers to discover for yourselves, this is not the right medium for it.  It makes for a great documentary film actually. I wish someone would find the time to do that.

It is important to be reminded that the waves are free and the locals live right next to it, they grew up in it. How lucky are they?  I grew up in two very small towns called Isabela and Silay in Negros island.  In Isabela, the view I had outside our window was the mountain, up-close. Literally, a front view of a mountain. Theirs is the ocean, the waves. I get that. I get why that is priceless because for the 2nd half of my life I have since lived in Manila where my nearest neighbor is either traffic or a mall. For a probinshano, you miss the fresh air and the sound of a tricycle.

Learning about surfing and getting out there, making new friends in the surf community has given me a way out of Manila, a way to survive the toxic nature of Manila. So I feel lucky and yet torn. I know I want to move back to the province but how? And then you meet and girl like Mia and a guy like Kiddo who actually have done it, uprooted themselves in Manila and moved up North… and so you plan and dream for that day and muster enough guts to eventually do so. But yes, I believe in living in the province. Fresh air, fresh food, lower cost and higher standard of living. Free surf, every single day.

When I started surfing, I have to admit that I found it quite odd that most of the surfing season were in the rainy months. I don’t particularly like being under the rain. But it didn’t take long, once you got stoked, everything didn’t matter anymore, you just wanted to get in the water.  What was interesting is that it made me appreciate the beach year-round. Where as before, I only appreciated the beach in the summer. Now, there are 2 reasons to go and enjoy the beach.

Even when we discussed when to release the film, my first instinct was Febuary preparing for the summer months. And surf season ends a little after Febuary. But a lot of people might think November is a cold month to be surfing. That also what I thought before trying it out. But the water is fine and warm. We are blessed to be a tropical country. Our waters are perfect.  And that is the beauty of it all. You can surf in December and you won’t have to wear a wetsuit to keep you warm. Now that is special.

We filmed for 12 days straight and we were mostly filming outdoors. Even when we would be in the hostel, Flotsam design being mostly open, in the middle of May, your best hours would be early in the mornings and late in the afternoons. From 8 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, the sun would be brutal. But then the sunset would come and it would change everything. The La Union sunsets are magical.   For 11 straight days, we had perfect sunsets.

We would set up for our scenes for the sunset by 4:30 and behind us there’d be dark clouds and rain moving in from the mountains. And we’d ready our umbrellas and it would approach but it would never fall on us. Not even a drop.  11 days straight. On the 12th day, we had readied a scene with Marcus Adorro and the Stoked Land Rover by 4:30pm but I didn’t want to shoot it because the sun was still high. Then it drizzled.  I wanted to wait for the sunset.  But then the rain really came and dropped on us.  It rained hard till past 10pm straight.  We never got to shoot the Land Rover.  But we had 11 glorious days of sunsets. I think God just wanted to remind us of how much he’d sparred us from the rainy season. I stayed another 2 days in Flotsam right after the 12-day shoot and it was already rainy season—it din’t even feel like the same month.  We were spared and it was perfectly fine.  Time to wrap the film I guess.  That was the last day of May.

The Flotsam Story… (Part 4 of 10)

THE MUSIC.  (And because it’s about music, there won’t be any photos this time.)

1 surftown.

8 love stories.

10 original songs.

Which one is yours?

The most exciting part about Flotsam is the music.  Joncy always referred to it as a musical and that always threw me off and frightened me because when I hear the term musical, it would bring me back to Chorus Line, Fame and Moulin Rouge.  Is Flotsam a musical? I guess so. It is a musical in that it has lots of original music sung live by the actresses and actors.

To be honest, I didn’t know how much music there would really be in the film because we only really had Marcus Adoro’s songs when we started.  Joncy was the music person between the 2 of us and he had already pegged Marcus’ 3 songs as part of the film.

Marcus (aka Surfernando) is the Jack Sparrow of arguably the best Filipino band ever, the Eraserheads.  But more than that, Marcus is also a storyteller slash filmmaker who’s been surfing before resorts filled up what is now known as surftown in San Juan, La Union.   So if anybody claims they have the first surf film in the country, they better check first because this guy was way ahead of everyone.

Musicians would regularly jam at Flotsam and I was a fan. So writing in music within the film was crucial because music was a big part of the Flotsam experience.

I had a slight aversion in dealing with rockstars. I knew that they were a different breed of people.  In my mind, if film people had their quirks, what more musicians. As much as I knew that I was not a music person, I also knew that music people were geniuses.  I know the value and power of music and working with geniuses was something I feared in this whole production. Usually, you’d finish your shoot, and then bring in someone to put music into the film. I was very familiar with that. But to work with music people way before, and then during–have live music performed and sang within the film—this was unfamiliar territory for me.

I remember having the first meeting on the long table at Flotsam. Half of the table were production people and the other half were music people.  And there I was…with all my assumptions making my preamble: “… I don’t want to deal with rockstars. I wouldn’t know how.”   I explained that I wouldn’t know how to tell if a song was great or not but what I can only tell is if it works for me or not. So to avoid hurting anyone, lets work putting the movie in front of the music—because that’s really what we’re trying to do here. So there I was trying to do the most sensible thing a leader of the band so-to-speak should do, trying to set up the most democratic way of being undemocratic because at the end of the day, what didn’t work for me and Joncy, was not going to be part of the film.

This was the music I listened to whenever I worked on the script of Flotsam. This kind of music, and don’t ask me how or why, worked for me.  This would be my beginning inspiration. Rachel Yamagata’s Meet Me By The Water–

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pIaRoMHM5A

 

Mia Sebastian, Kiddo Cosio and Bo Bismark were heart and soul of the musical team.  Wendell the wiz drummer was always on-board whenever needed, such a great and generous artist (and cooks great garlic shrimps!).  There were others and forgive me but I do not remember their names and I shall go thank them personally before this whole thing is over.   The music group was solid because they knew the music of the film better than anyone because they live it. They are Flotsam. So they own the music of Flotsam only now it will have to fit the modest confines of the story we wrote and whether or not it’ll work, we were about to find out.

After the meeting, I went to the US for a full month. So this was a rather strange movie production set up because I had left for America in April and prep the film that would begin principal photography on the 2nd week of May using Viber, Skype and Facebook as well as emails. Good luck, right?

I would wake up at 4:30 in the morning every day to a slew of messages asking for my opinion on something followed by chat sessions with the staff and the producers.  I would be 15 hours ahead of Philippine time.  There were always 2 concerns that we were always trying to figure out—casting and the music.  (Casting will be next blog entry.)

We started with 3 songs and we needed 10 so we basically had asked for 7 songs in 3 weeks. A little crazy? Yep.  As a person who does not appreciate cramming, I had to believe in it this time around.

They sent us demos and you have to understand it’s very hard to judge a song by it’s demo. For me at least. I don’t know how music producers do it. I guess that is their talent. I do not have that. So I trusted Joncy unless I felt really strongly about something, then I’d have it rearranged. I think there was just one song where we disagreed but Joncy wins, he is the music person and that’s that.

The music is inspired.  Of-course later on, I’d learn how much work they’ve put into writing these songs which I think is the more interesting story about Flotsam—and Mia, Kiddo and Bo have to write and talk about that.  I say inspired because I’m a relatively simple-minded person and they work for me but they also work for a person like Joncy who unlike me, is very sophisticated and choosy when it comes to music.  And then they work for everyone, the actors, even the crew on set. They just work. Every single song.

We sent the actors and actresses their songs and they all came early to the set to rehearse with Kiddo, Mia and Bo, Bo being the premiere music coach, and that was a whole movie happening behind the scenes as these songs came to life–from demo to on-set rehearsals and onto actual take, the actors and actresses owned the songs, used their character to interpret the songs and it was wonderful to watch.

One of the most important instructions I gave to our actors and actresses was to not perform the songs, this is not a concert, this is a movie that depicts what happens in Flotsam. And for me, the great thing about jamming sessions is that nobody judges you, everyone is there in the spirit of fun, generosity, community, storytelling and just being real. So this is what I wanted to see, a more real environment with all it’s imperfections and nuances. And that became fun to shoot.

Here are excerpts from the song Seagulls Fly, written by Kiddo and Mia.

Maybe you could be the swell in my symphony

Or I could be the biggest joke in your comedy

Secret signals in the club only I could see

Laughing at your lines all over again

 

City streets in the night with a drink in hand

Losing count of cigarettes and forgetting plans

Like a child running through a fountain 

I’d chase you through that park all over again

 

When the winds from the north put a chill in the air

You can look over your shoulder, and I’ll still be there

With our feet in the sand and your fingers

Tangled up in mine

All over again

Up until the last week coming into principal photography (shooting), they were still writing songs for us. I think Joncy asked for a specific sounding song and they delivered.  The music guided me in the filming as it served as the soul of the film. I always say that Flotsam is the movie and the music. We have great musical talents in the cast: Marcus Adoro, Solenn Heussaff,  Marc Abaya, Carla Humphries, and Franco Daza.  There really are two products.  Movie. Music. Way before filming, there was already an original soundtrack. There was the music.

 

The Flotsam Story… (Part 3 of 10)

Films can’t be infatuations. They’ve got to be relationships. 

…the difference between having a good idea for a film and a finished film that you like is the same as seeing a pretty girl at a party and being there when you’re wife delivers the 3rd baby.”   (Richard Curtis)

Finding characters for the film was easy, limiting it was the tricky part, because there are too many interesting characters and stories that happens in a surf-town. So some we ended up combining and others we had to let go of.

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I have no other way to describe it other than the script was a work-in-progress. If you want to know how the film was written, you need to know the characters behind the writing.  I wrote the premise and the first act and finalized all the characters and gave Mickeygirl a month to write it and she took it to town.

For those who don’t know Mickeygirl, this is my version of her story. I had met Mickeygirl on Facebook. I was looking for a writer with a friend Chef, we wanted to do a surf and food show years back. We all spoke the same language as we were all from Negros island.  So when this thing came up and Joncy wanted it written and I wasn’t available, she was the first person I thought of. Why? Well, she was a writer, a film student and because…

A friend sold Mickeygirl a surfboard and she bought it, rode the bus and learned how to surf. No lessons, she didn’t even know what surfing was. She surfed and stayed in La Union for (I imagine) over 10 years. She had a son in La Union. His son is 10 years old now, I think.  So when she got on that bus, she stayed and relocated herself.

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Thats Mickeygirl on the left. In the middle is the real Tisoy of which Rocco Nacino’s role is derived from.

Mickeygirl lived and surfed in San Juan, La Union when there weren’t that many resorts back then, it wasn’t a surf town yet. So for Mickeygirl, it was her 10 years in La Union that gave us the Flotsam screenplay.

One thing that’s always taught in writing classes is the importance of research. When you know your characters really well, it’s easier to write them into your script. Well, for Flotsam it was even easier because some of the characters were around us all the time. And for instance, Mia and Kiddo, who you will see in Flotsam every day, they are also artists, they write music, they sing, they write, they are very outgoing and adventurous that at a certain point, I asked myself, why not take it further and ask them to write some parts of themselves for the film.

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You have to also remember that by the time Mickeygirl was finished with the first draft, Mia and Kiddo were very much involved in the film because they were writing the music for it.  So they helped us write some parts of the film and that was special.

It’s liberating to write when you’re only consideration is to represent something that you like—doesn’t matter if it’s weird or off-beat, as long as it’s authentic or at least very close. No morality involved, you don’t even need to follow any conventions of writing or commercial viability, and basically just following your gut. It’s pretty indulgent but hey, you’re already narcissistic because you are doing a film, so why not go all the way.

At first glance, it seemed like a very cono elitist script and film. Hmmm, how’d it get to be like this, I wondered for 5 seconds and then said nah, it is and it’s not but I like it. I liked it so much, we did a ton of rewrite.  And I like rewriting. I have to admit rewriting is addicting. It’s almost a vice.  But the most important rewrite came during the Edsa revolution anniversary when Joncy and I met at the lobby of the Fairmont hotel, sat from 5pm till 1am and we only really fixed one part of the script—the kids. And they are my favorite part of the film. I think they represent us the most.  Now the movie was closer to the ground in that it now represented a more accurate surf scene where the locals are the real rockstars in surfing here in the country.  That was an important day for the Flotsam movie screenplay that’s why I remember it so well.

I think I must have done 10 rewrites up until the week before filming.  And you really don’t stop until you’re happy with it. It’s such a tedious process of almost self-mutilation in that you write something you really love and then slag it to bits and pieces and write something you think is better and do the whole thing over and over again until you find that happiness.

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And then you shoot it. And then the editor comes in and cuts it up and apart and shows you. And now that we’re editing the film, it’s taking another kind of rewriting in that our editor Ilsa Malsi also has her own way of telling this story even better. Writing is indeed rewriting.

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