Watch: Sonata

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If there is one thing I like better than a good film, it’s a good local film.

Movies that give me hope that Filipino cinema is going to veer away from cookie-cutter-money-making formulas and try something different and beautiful.

I’m happy to report that Sonata has shown me that it’s possible.

Yes, my good friend Wanggo Gallaga wrote the script. But if you know me well enough, you’d believe that I wouldn’t promote anything on my site I didn’t genuinely stand behind. I would have enjoyed Sonata all the same if it was made by complete strangers.

And that, I think, is one of the best compliments I can give it: It’s a little film that can hold its own. The acting is strong, the story heartwarming, and the lines quotable.

It is such a beautiful love letter to Bacolod, the intricacies of life, and the need to live in the present.

Here is the full trailer:

Because I believe friends are meant to be shared, I asked Wanggo to talk a bit about his experiences as a scriptwriter, working with family, and how to get yourself out of a writing funk.

I hope you enjoy learning from him as much as I do on a regular basis.

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Wanggo busy writing revisions on set.

Cat JL: Can you share with my readers what exactly you do?

Wanggo: I’m a writer. I’ve been writing since I was fourteen. I started writing comic books professionally, working on the adaptation of one of my Dad’s films, Batang X, back when I was just a sophomore in high school. I then started writing for the Internet in college and had a chance to write for Batang X, the television series. Later, I began writing in different industries — advertising, PR, publishing (magazines and newspaper), television, events, and now, I’m writing for film.

When I’m not writing, I’m also an HIV Advocate, trying to spread awareness and change people’s behaviours so that they won’t get HIV like I did.

How did you get into script writing? How long have you been doing it?

I grew up in the movies. My Dad (Peque Gallaga) and Mom worked together making movies and they used to work from home so I knew what it took to put a movie together. The crew and production staff would hold office at our house and I’d come home from school and after I finished my assignments, I’d sit down and talk to production managers, assistant directors, production designers, and actors and found out what it took to make a movie. At the same time, I was watching films since I was six years old and talked about every film I saw with my Dad.

Eventually, I knew I wanted to write when I turned fourteen, so when I was in a college, my Dad got me to take a scriptwriting workshop one summer and all of us in the workshop got to be a part of the writing team of Batang X, the TV series. I wrote two episodes of that.

I knew I wanted to write but because I wanted to distance myself from my Dad’s world and to establish myself on my own, I tried other fields first until 2003 or 2004 when my Dad asked me to write a storyline for a film that he wanted to do. That was the first time we worked together, though the film never got produced. We worked on approximately eight projects together since 2003 but none were ever produced. I think I got better on each script and I grew as a writer while working on television and all the other industries that I wrote for.

We did work together on a short film in 2006 but it was only shown once in the theatres. We then worked on another short film in 2011. Sonata marks the first time a full-length project finally got off the ground and was produced.

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Lead actress Cherie Gil and Richard Gomez in a still from Sonata.

What makes Sonata different from other scripts you’ve written?

Aside from getting produced? (laughs) What makes this film different is that we worked on it outside the studio system. It was primarily funded by the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) for the Sineng Pambansa Film Festival and then by other creative establishments and individuals, including our lead actress, Cherie Gil. Working outside the studio system, I feel that the work is purely creative in its conceptualisation in that we could work on making a film that we all felt passionate about without anyone telling us that it won’t sell or that we were being too artsy.

I’m not saying that we went out of our way to not thinking about our audience, but we didn’t have the same fears or restraints that we usually do when working with a studio who is intent on making sure that the movie sells. I feel that everyone involved were out to make a good, honest movie first and then thought about the business aspect of it second. Making sure that the film would be profitable was not our priority and that allows us to the freedom to be truly creative and true to the story.

Tell us a bit about the process. How did the story come alive for you?

I watch a lot of films with my Dad and I remember distinctly, watching an old movie on DVD (I think it was made in the seventies) and after we saw it, my Dad and I discussed it (like we always do) and we were so moved by how simple the story was and yet how powerful and honest it was. My Dad had just been asked by the FDCP to be a part of this year’s Sineng Pambansa and he said, “we could do something like this for the FDCP movie.” And I said, “What story would you want?”

He then told me of a concept he had wanted to do five or six years ago about an opera singer who had lost the will to live and escapes to the province and meets a young boy. It was a project he wanted to do with Tita Cherie (Gil), who is a family friend and who he worked with many years ago in Oro, Plata, Mata. So, we talked about the possibilities of that film, cut out a lot of the original ideas, and simplified that concept. We talked about the themes we wanted to tackle and then he left me to write it.

It came alive for me while writing it because it wasn’t just the story of an artist who loses her faculty for making art (in the movie, the opera diva loses her voice), but it is also the story of a young boy from  the city, who goes to the province for the first time and sees the beauty of the countryside. Both characters I could identify with on a personal level and that’ s when I felt I had the necessary experiences to tackle the story properly.

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Director Peque Gallaga with Production Designer Junjun Montelibano and Director of Photography Mark Gary

In Sonata, Regina Cadena returns to Bacolod to hide from the world and heal. I know you did a similar return voyage to Bacolod a few years ago. How much of Regina’s return home was taken from your own experience?

In 2010, due to complications with HIV, I almost died and my doctors told me that I had to quit working and really rest and stay away from stress if I were to get stronger. So my parents brought me to Bacolod to live with them to get stronger. Much like Regina Cadena, I was taken away from my life and had to return to the province. For two and a half years, I wasn’t allowed to work and so I felt disconnected from my life and from my purpose and so, intrinsically, I understood what that disconnection felt like. In that level, I was writing Regina Cadena from my point-of-view.

Interestingly enough, when I spoke to Tita Cherie (Gil) after her first reading with the draft script, she told me about her experience of having throat surgery because she almost lost her voice; and I was then able to take her experiences and infuse it with my own into making Regina Cadena a more complete character. Regina Cadena was specifically written for Tita Cherie and as producer, she was even able to add her insights and inputs to fully realise her role. She wanted to challenge herself as an actress and made sure that this was a very multi-dimensional and layered character and we worked on it together to make it as meaty a role as possible.

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Wanggo and Director Lore Reyes discussing a scene.

It was so easy for me to emotionally invest in all your characters. How do you think you were able to create characters that were so relatable?

Thank you so much for saying so. The characters are all based on so many real people that it was easy for me to create quirks in their dialogue; to make them relate to each other in a specific way that I hoped convey that these characters exist outside of the story. I was very conscious in showing that these people had a real life outside the camera; that they had everyday duties and activities and tried to hint at them, so that when the camera focused on something else, you could imagine them outside of the story doing what they do. That’s something my Dad taught me early on, and it was something I am very conscious about when I write.

How long did it take you to write this script? What kind of research was involved?

My Dad “officially” gave me the project around August or September of 2012 and I had been writing and collecting notes and thoughts and ideas until December of 2012, when they finally gave me a deadline for when they needed the script. I began writing in January 2013 and submitted a first draft by the middle of February. The following weeks, I must have revised about four or five times before we had an approved script by March of 2013.

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Director Lore Reyes directing Cherie Gil

What advice can you offer script writers who feel stuck?

I always feel that when you feel stuck, it is always best to go out and do something completely different. If you are writing a horror piece, go out and watch a comedy or go out dancing with friends. I feel the getting stuck with a script means that you are so focused on the material that you sort of close off your imagination and creative process because you are so intent on the prize that you can no longer see all the other alternatives and options that can come through. So, it is best to open yourself up to other stimuli and so, when you return to the material, you are open again and can see it fresh.

Something I formulated recently, and it’s not an original idea, is “you cannot create in a vacuum.” It is important to always learn more, read more, watch more films, watch plays, and just keep accepting information and stimuli and give yourself a chance to sit down and process everything that you get and eventually the world inside you gets so big that there is no story that you cannot handle or tackle because you have all those worlds inside of you.

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Peque Gallaga with Production Designer Junjun Montelibano and 2nd Unit Director of Photography Miguel Cruz

Your father (acclaimed director Peque Gallaga) directed this film, your mother played a major role, your brother and sister-in-law helped produce it, even your cousin did the make-up. What was it like working with family? Share the good and the bad.

We were raised to be very open and honest with each other, as a family. We are always teasing each other and joking around but we know when it is time to work, the silliness and games stop and we work and do our jobs to the best of our ability, and when the work is done, we can go back to goofing around and having fun. That’s been ingrained in us ever since, and to not bring the personal into our professional lives. I feel like we were trained that way.

Other than all those that you mentioned, Tito Lore (Reyes) has been my Dad’s co-director and partner for over thirty years and the production manager and assistant director, Jo Macasa, has been working with my Dad and Tito Lore for twenty years or so. Many people in the crew were their students, and Tita Cherie (Gil) is a family friend — so there was this atmosphere of a family production and it’s great because we all work with that model that I mentioned — we always joke around, we are honest and open, but when it is time to work, we work like beasts. So, while working with family can be a daunting task, at times, for me, it’s always a great experience because there is just so much love and respect for what we do for the project.

As a writer, though, it is a little daunting because I live with my Dad and the pressure is there when I’m trying to beat a deadline and I know he’s just in the other room and once in a while, he’ll come in and ask how I’m doing and there are times when I just wish he would leave me alone. But he’s really just asking, he’s not pressuring me, and that’s all in my head. But it is a small price to pay because over the years, I feel he gives me a lot of respect and freedom as a creative person that I am allowed to really put it all out there in my writing and he will tell me what works and what doesn’t. I love that. When it comes to my writing, he’s not my Dad, but my Director; that line is very clear and I never take it personally if we come into a disagreement.

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At the wrap party: Wanggo, Cherie Gil, Peque Gallaga, Lore Reyes, Mark Gary, and Chino Jalandoni

What are you working on next?

I have quite a few film writing projects coming up — either with friends or with my Dad and Tito Lore. Currently, I’m in the process of finishing two films. One is an adventure/fantasy film that I’m writing for my Dad to be produced by a major studio. The other is an independent film, an ensemble film about love, that I’m working with director Cholo Laurel. I also have a horror film that I’m developing for a friend, and a few more projects that are still waiting for the go-signal from interested producers. So, I’ve got my fingers crossed and writing like crazy.

Sonata will be showing in SM cinemas starting September 11 2013. For more information, check out Sonata’s official Facebook page or Wanggo’s site for cinema schedules.

(All photos courtesy of Wanggo)

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