Erik Matti is one of the Philippines’ most celebrated filmmakers, working across genres. “On The Job” bowed at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2013, where it was nominated for the SACD Prize, and went on to global and domestic acclaim.
The film was inspired by a real-life scandal in which prison inmates were temporarily released from prison to work as contract killers on behalf of politicians and high ranking military officials.
Matti returns to the subject, which he has expanded as a franchise, in “On The Job: The Missing 8,” which is playing in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Again inspired by true events, the film follows a corrupt journalist seeking justice for his colleagues, and a convict who is frequently brought out of prison to perform assassinations.
The difference this time is that the franchise expansion is as a series for HBO, with the events of the 2013 film treated as the first two episodes. Matti’s “BuyBust” (2018), where an anti-drug enforcement agency stages a drug bust in the slums of Manila, was a favorite both at home and internationally.
What made you choose corruption/censorship in local media as the focus for the continuation of the “On The Job” story?
Writer Michiko Yamamoto and I started talking about the next instalment of OTJ with three topics that we would highlight for the particular “job” the film would talk about, corruption in gambling, pharmaceuticals and journalism. I was particularly leaning towards pharmaceuticals. Exploring the black market of medicine coming from China and how government officials through their private companies distribute using government funds, and earn from it. But then while we were doing the research for that, the Cambridge Analytica scandal came out. There was a line there in a news article that caught our attention, that before it was used to help Trump win the 2016 elections, their whole strategy of using social media to manufacture lies being passed on as truth was first tested in the Philippines. So we decided to focus on media corruption since at that time, the national election in our country had just concluded and we had a lot of stories to mine about journalism, especially the Maguindanao Massacre which happened in 2009 where 58 people including 32 journalists were killed.
“On The Job” was a feature film, while “On the Job: The Missing 8” plays as a film in Venice and will show as a series on HBO. Have the lines between film, television and streaming blurred over the years since you made “On The Job?”
Because of the disappearance of mid-budgeted films that can tackle more serious topics and more character-driven stories that can be shown in our cinemas, the series on streaming platforms have become a substitute for those films. Right now, the Marvels and the DCs of the world have become the only types of movies that the cinemas would welcome easily. Working on a series allows filmmakers to expand their stories and explore characters and plot lines in more detail without the need to service the fanboy culture of superheroes.
In the case of “On The Job: The Missing 8,” it was actually written to be shown on the big screen. But by some luck, when the pandemic happened in 2020 and cinemas closed, we started entertaining the idea of finding a home in the streamers for the movie. With the 3-hour 28-minute running time, it would really be hard to find a decent distribution for a film of that length even if the cinemas were open. The difficulties that the pandemic brought made us look for a new distribution route. And with that, we created the series out of it. Together with the first instalment where we brought back deleted scenes, we were able to make a six-part series out of it.
In the end, the pandemic became a blessing in disguise for us. I remember having to cut the first “On The Job” to accommodate a more straightforward storytelling that is best for something you would show in a cinema. But now that it’s a series, that threads both 2013 and 2021 films together, I was able to look into the film again and recreate a new viewing experience that only a series can provide.
Yes, I miss the cinema experience. But the series is a welcome new format to explore and a different type of viewing experience for its audience. And with the present situation with movies not just in the Philippines but in the world in general, we take what we can get for now.
Where is the On The Job franchise going to next? How do you see the franchise developing?
“On The Job” as a story could go on and on because the tales of corruption don’t really end. As storytellers, we also have a lot to explore about this topic. But being in a third world country, we only develop what is asked of us. We can only wish that we could keep on developing all the stories we have in our heads. But that’s not really the case. I’m privileged to have co-producers that would still make movies like this. The occasional prestigious film fest and HBO nod help a lot because they encourage filmmakers that these films can make it, and that there’s an audience for them.
What does being in competition at Venice mean to you?
I never thought I’d be discovered in the international film festival circuit. Inasmuch as my films are rooted in local stories, my aesthetics are really grounded on the films I grew up with which are mainly Hollywood, Italian westerns and Chinese Kung Fu movies. I am mainly a genre filmmaker. And we all know how hard it is to make it to a major festival with genre films. The first time I got into a major festival was in the Cannes Director’s Fortnight for the first OTJ. I thought it was going to be my first and last entry to a festival that big.
Being chosen to be in the main competition in Venice is a big deal because it’s like an affirmation that my films can matter beyond the small audience we have in the Philippines. More so with this new film. It’s a long movie without the same kind of adrenaline rush as the first one. While editing it, I started doubting myself. Will the cinemas show a film this long? Will the audience be disappointed that it is different from the first one? But I stood my ground that it should be told this way, with this length. The acceptance of Venice is a vindication of sorts.
It also came at the best time, pardon the irony. When I finished shooting this film at the start of the pandemic, our future was bleak and uncertain and we didn’t know what to do with the finished film. Venice gave a new life for the film and I hope that this would be a testament to my fellow filmmakers in the Philippines. That we can still keep on making films and that there will be an audience to see it. In sickness and in health.
Like “On The Job,” you created an amazing universe in “BuyBust.” Are there any plans of developing that as a franchise?
Yes. We already have a draft of the second instalment that carries over the protagonist Nina moving into vigilante mode. No takers yet. But who knows. Maybe we’ll see “BuyBust” characters in the next OTJ instalment or vice versa.