In a utopian Manila in a not-too-distant future, strange rolling blackouts cast an almost impenetrable darkness over city streets. When people start to go missing during the night, strict curfews are issued with equally strict punishments levied against those that would violent them.
Award-winning Philippine filmmaker Dodo Dayao’s “Midnight in a Perfect World,” making its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, doesn’t explain how or why victims of the darkness disappear, instead opting to throw its four protagonists into the middle of one such blackout.
As the group stumbles through a neighborhood that should be familiar, using a mobile app to seek out one of the rumored government safe houses which are immune from the blackness, disorientation starts to overtake them. Once three quarters of the quartet find their would-be haven however, questions arise over whether they are any safer inside than they would be with their left-behind friend out on the streets.
“Midnight” is Dayao’s second directorial feature. His 2014 debut “Violator” played in competition at several major international festivals including Karlovy Vary, Mumbai and Osaka, taking home a handful of awards.
Dayao teamed with co-writer Carljoe Javier on the screenplay for “Midnight,” which was produced by Globe Studios and Epicmedia. While Dayao is holding out hope for a post-COVID 19 theatrical run, current conditions make that an unlikely prospect, so alternative means of distribution are being considered.
The filmmaker spoke with Variety, ahead of the film’s North American premiere, about the film’s quick turnaround, an innate distrust of authority and avoiding tired horror tropes.
Can you talk a bit about making this film? The development and production, what help you got along the way in terms of awards or grants at project level?
This may be my fastest project to come together. I lashed together a deck the night before a pitch for another project and snuck it in at the last minute without a script and really without a clue where the story would go beyond the basic premise, but it was greenlit. Eight months later, give or take, we were filming. I grew up thinking films were made this fast because where I grew up, films were made this fast. But it was still quite the headrush. I wish it happened all the time.
The Manila of “Midnight” is, apart from the blackouts, presented as a utopia. Even still, among the characters there is a clear distrust of authority, and especially the police. I wonder, was the choice to have the authorities be part of the problem rather than the solution intentionally allegorical, or just a narrative choice to help in storytelling?
It’s not so much intentional as it is second nature. Distrust of authority, not to mention a government that gaslights us with a perceived sense of affluence, has been a constant layer of our lives. I was born into it, and it reaches back as far as my father’s generation, who not only came out of World War II but also lived through the Martial Law era, which the film is something of a callback to.
The phrase “blind spots” is repeated throughout the film. We get bits and pieces of the story, of the world and its rules, but never a full explanation of what’s happening. How did you decide what you wanted to share and answer about the threats in this film, and what to hold back and leave unexplained?
I hate infodumps and exposition, in principle, but am not really opposed to it if it comes organically or if it feels right. A huge part of the writing process for me is looking for corners in the narrative where I could untuck exposition organically, without disrupting the tonal flow unnecessarily. Sometimes I found it, but when I couldn’t, which was often, I figure it didn’t need explaining. I’ve always bought into this notion of world-building with blind spots, which came from the science fiction writer China Mieville, his reason being that even the inhabitants of the world being built don’t know every single thing about it. Carljoe and I did map out a more or less detailed infrastructure, as well as answers to at least some of the mysteries, even before I started writing the screenplay. But in the end it was a lot more potent dramatically to preserve the ambiguity.
Mobile phones have changed horror. While some filmmakers set their films in other eras or ignore the technology for the sake of narrative, your characters are on their phones the entire movie, sometimes to their own detriment.
Being a lifelong horror fan, one can only take so much of stupid horror characters doing stupid things for the body count or the jump scare. But tech is fundamentally unreliable where I’m from and in a similarly dangerous situation, my smartphone may not necessarily be my lifeline. Of course, it could also be my way of venting all my frustrations with our infamously slow internet and how I’ve bought at least a dozen phones and never had a single conversation on it that doesn’t lag or drop out. I miss when we could have uninterrupted conversations on a landline.
Shooting the blackouts you used classic camera techniques to create a sense of confusion and being lost, but I think the far more impactful work is done from inside the safehouse. Can you talk a bit about the set design, and how you utilized the claustrophobia of the “safe” house to emphasize the feeling of being lost that each character experiences?
The safe house set was something of a godsend. We knew there had to be some movement inside it, but when we saw the actual set, it turned out to be more fluid than we expected, enabling us to collapse several sequences into a single take, and really, more disorienting than we imagined. Everything inside the safe house was always meant to be a haunted house riff and spatial disorientation has always been at the core of the ones that got under my skin the most, maybe because unstable architecture and losing my sense of geography are two of my deepest fears.