Last month, I came across the teaser trailer for a Filipino indie-horror film that is slated to release this July at the Cinemalaya Film Festival in the Philippines. Not only was I surprised that the famed haunted landmark of the Philippines will finally get its share of the limelight, I was taken aback by the incorporated approach of the film’s story towards the hotel. I was left in a state of ponder and curiosity and what better way to know more than to read it first hand from the mastermind itself?
I recently had the absolute pleasure of asking Mr. Christopher Ad Castillo (writer and director of “The Diplomat Hotel”) a few questions in regards to his career, his film’s inspiration and future endeavors.
Horror-Movies: So, why horror films? What first got you into this genre?
Chris: It’s my favorite genre especially the psychological subsets. The scope of horror is a little different than the other genres. There’s more suspension of the disbelief. And it works on our curiosity gene. Do we believe in ghosts and monsters and do we want to see one? How does it feel to be one? We want to find out so bad but in the safety of our world. The film acts as a barrier of protection between the otherwordly and our real lives. We can satisfy our curiosity without the reality of it all.That’s why it is the most popular genre worldwide and it seamlessly translates to other countries since the issue of the language barrier is limited. The unknown is inherent in all of us and in our minds. We are just dying to find out what’s around the corner.
H-M: We both know that you’ve played a few film roles in the past but I must ask, what inspired you to pursue filming?
Chris: I really wanted to be Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. I wanted to be a rock star when I was a kid. I’ve loved films ever since I can remember and I was almost always on my father’s sets but I never thought about following in his footsteps until I came home one summer as a teenager and landed smack in his film set again. Watching his actors work, I thought to myself I can do this and so I did. I acted for 5 years and later on, I worked as his assistant director and sometimes he would let me direct some scenes. He would advise me on what to do and leave and come back when the scene was done. Greatest film school ever. After that I knew my rock star dreams were over and I finally found what I wanted to do with my life.My father has been my inspiration as a man and as an artist. So it’s a who and not a what that inspires me to pursue filmmaking.
H-M: Looking at the film, what enticed and motivated you to write and direct it? Why base it on the Diplomat Hotel? Have you had any experiences there?
Chris: My father shot a film there titled The Mystery Of The Dove and I was his actor. We were shooting the scene just outside the front door of The Diplomat Hotel very late at night. And every time my father yelled action, all the set lights would turn off. This happened three times so the security guard told us to go pray at the grotto and ask for permission. And we did. The shoot was smooth sailing after that. But I remember how cold it was that night. It was bone chilling and we had to build a a bonfire which did not help much. It was not a normal night. Something was definitely happening around us so right there and then I decided I was going to come back and do a film about The Diplomat Hotel.Years later, I started research on it and its story really serves as a great foundation for a psychological horror thriller and the place itself would serve as an amazing character on the film. A lot of people are surprised that all these years, no one has ever done a film about this place. But I wasn’t because I’ve always thought that I was the one destined to make it. I knew it that cold, dreary night decades ago.
H-M: Personally, I was surprised when I heard that Gretchen Barretto was taking on the lead role of this film. How did the both of you find the process?
Chris: Gretchen turned down the film without reading the script when we first offered it to her since she did not want to shoot at the hotel due to its reputation. Then someone convinced her to read it first. She read it that morning and she fell in love with it and by that afternoon, she had called my producers, Atty Joji Alonso and Alemberg Ang, for a meeting. She was going to do it on a couple of conditions. We had to bless the place first and no one could talk about ghost stories on the set.She told me that this role was something entirely new to her so we worked a little bit on crafting the character. But I didn’t really want for her to fully discover Veronica before the shoot. I wanted Gretchen to discover her as we went along the shoot much like Veronica was discovering the hotel as she goes along.
I’m not a big fan of over preparation because actors tend to be robotic and by the numbers since they’ve rehearsed it so much and now they just basically cruise. The beauty of acting is in the discovery. The realization of that moment. The moment that you suffocate and grasp for air and figure a way out. I wanted my actors to have that euphoria while delving into the deepest parts of their character.Veronica is a very difficult role to play by anyone. It’s not very easy to get inside the mind of a damaged person who is willing to do anything to get back to where she once was. On the very heavy scenes, Gretchen had a difficult time getting out of the character after I yelled cut. She would still be there crying. And that’s what great acting is. You become one with your character and you cannot just switch a button and say I’m done.
H-M: It seems you’ve selected an ensemble of very talented actors and actresses, how was the experience of working with all of them for you?
Chris: It was wonderful. And that was my plan all along. I wanted to surround Gretchen with some serious high caliber thespians. I mean you can’t get any better than Mon Confiado, Art Acuna, and Joel Torre and then you have Nico Antonio and Chanel Latorre who are very exciting to watch and really coming into their own as actors. Abe Pagtama is a veteran actor who took the role that my father was going to play and he was great despite my trepidations since it was a role very dear to my heart and I just had an emotionally difficult time with it. My newcomers are Brooke Chantelle who’s got a very bright future ahead of her and Turbo Goth singer Sarah Gaugler who is a revelation on the film.All the roles are emotionally heavy and deep with layers so I needed to make sure that my actors could go all the way down to their innermost feelings and peel the layers off and come up with something great and really inhabit the characters that I wrote.
H-M: Apart from “The Diplomat Hotel”, you’ve also released a thriller film, “The Sky is Falling”, back in 2002. What have you learnt from that project that you managed to enhance and improve in this current one?
Chris: My technique is more streamlined so my approach is not as raw plus I have a lot of patience now and with patience comes more caring and better understanding. I have clearly learned to look at my options before I take the shot unlike before where I mostly relied on pure energy and instinct. Now I combine all three of them. And I’m older and wiser and I now better understand the philosophy and the psychology behind terror which helps me set up the moments in my film. My scare moments are better and more precise which is key to a good time horror flick.
My visual philosophy has not changed which is to create original shots no matter how hard it is. You watch most films and you know where the camera is going to be next. It’s a film school mentality. They’re programmed to put the camera at certain points to create a scene. That to me is not filmmaking.I inherited my visual acumen from my father and I honor him by using it all the time and continuously challenging myself to be better and find the better shot.
H-M: The Cinemalaya Film Fest is right around the corner and your film has been nominated in the New Breed category. How does it make you and your crew feel about this amazing opportunity?
Chris: Everyone is very happy and excited at this opportunity. Cinemalaya has grown to be a force in Asia and is garnering a lot of accolades throughout the world. It’s very difficult to be chosen so to get this far is pure joy.But this is also a very bittersweet time for me. While I’m honored and thrilled, I am also saddened that my father will not be here to see my film. He’s always wanted me to come back and direct a film in the Philippines and he was very excited when he found out I had joined the festival. He was supposed to play a key role that starts the story and I was so excited to have a chance to not only direct my father but one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. I wanted to know what he thought of my film and how I was as a director on the set. So I’m in this incredible position with a heavy heart.
H-M: With that aside, are there any future projects that we should all look forward to? If so, will you continue in the path of the horror genre?
Chris: I’m circling a couple of horror scripts right now for the Philippines. One I wrote about a doll and a little girl that was influenced by one of my father’s early films. That script has gone out to the studios.And there’s another very interesting project that I just had preliminary discussions with the producer. It revolves around a babysitter. They’re both psychological horror which is the vein that interests me the most.For the American market, I’m shopping around an action horror script that I wrote about boy scouts. I like writing my own material to direct because there’s a deeper investment for me and the passion runs deeper. And if I do have to work with another writer, I have to be involved in its formalization to a certain extent.
H-M: Will audiences abroad (like myself) be expecting an international release?
Chris: We will be doing the festival circuit to attract distributors. Most of the major festivals have their own fantastic and horror segments and those are now crowd favorites. And obviously there’s festivals that only cater to those genres. We’re targeting our core audience and we just have to find each other and we’re very positive. I mean horror films set in hotels have a place in people’s hearts forever thanks to Mr. Kubrick.
H-M: A momentous question that I must ask: What is your favourite scary movie?
Chris: My favorite film of all time is Apocalypse Now. I think it is a only perfect film in history. But my favorite horror film is The Shining but in more ways than being scary. It is a visual masterpiece and the dread that slowly seeps in its storytelling is something to behold. It is a great example of manipulation in that the horror is way ahead in your mind before it actually happens. And Stanley Kubrick achieves that by the somnambulistic motion of his camera that makes you wait and wait and wait. Then it hits you.On the more aggressive side of the spectrum, my favorite scary film is The Descent. It really taps into our primal glands and Neil Marshall’s no hold barred approach is so in your face. People were screaming in the theaters and that is very rare. Forget that it’s horror, it really is one of the greatest films of all time.
H-M: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Chris: This is a very interesting time for Cinemalaya in terms of the mainstream participation. They’ve always had the sprinkling of mainstream actors but this year is very big in terms of stature. So it’s an experiment. My film is the first horror film in its history and it is very independent in spirit but very mainstream in genre. I’ve always said that being independent is a state of mind and not in terms of budgets.There are still those who believe that Cinemalaya should still stay very hardcore indie but evolution will not permit that. The festival will evolve whether we like it or not and we have to get the mainstream audience in on the secret because money is still being spent on the making of these films and for these producers to continue supporting other filmmakers in the future, they have to make their investment back.Cinemalaya is starting to be become Sundance East and that’s okay as long as the spirit is always adventurous.
I can’t help but notice how much detail Chris Castillo has put into this project and the idea that he has given it more than just depth is evident in his answers. I wish him and his team all the best for the festival and on their future projects! Our eyes are definitely on this film!
For more information, you can visit the film’s official Facebook page and check out the second teaser trailer below!