Arts & Entertainment

Exclusive: Filmmaker Mikhail Red Talks About Zombies, Serial Killers, and Hollywood

The wunderkind Filipino film director started making films when he was 15.
IMAGE FACEBOOK/ Mikhail Red
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When Mikhail Red launched the trailer for his new film, Block Z, he convinced his studio to hold the event at ToyCon in SMX instead of airing it on the network's noontime variety show. "This is where my people are at," he tells Esquire Philippines

"The nerds," he adds, laughing. Red is obsessed with Star Wars, video games, and of course, toys. Here, the film director talks about these and more, including what to expect in his new zombie flick Block Z and why you shouldn't act like you're a character in a movie. 

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Photo by Mikhail Red | Facebook

ESQUIRE PHILIPPINES: Tell us something about yourself, apart from your filming life.

MIKHAIL RED: I started out as a writer. I was in elementary and I was EIC of our school paper. I used to write short stories, I wrote a novelette when I was in elementary. It was very natural for me to transition to the medium of storytelling that I use in filmmaking. My father is a filmmaker, so I was exposed to cinema early on. 

I was also a gamer, I used to play competitively Magic the Gathering trading card as part of the Philippine team. I would compete internationally, it was pretty serious. We would play abroad and represent the Philippines. I’ve always been fascinated with storytelling and fiction, even with games. I always find inspiration from games for my narratives, and I incorporate it in cinema.

ESQ: As a director, what is your defining attribute that sets you apart from the rest?

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MR: Well, at first, I was really trying to find my voice, but maybe the most common theme in my films, even when I started making short films—they’re always stories that don’t really have that clear line between protagonist and antagonist. They’re about people trying to make sense of their moral compass.

I think stories are more interesting that way when you feel like the questions are thrown at you as an audience. Like what would you do if it were you in this situation? That’s why my films are always filled with likable criminals and corrupt cops. It’s always that gray area in morality. I think that’s what makes my films universal, and they travel at the same time, I always set them in a Filipino setting, so they’re also for the Filipino audience.

ESQ: You started making films at a very young age—15! 

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MR: I would say, yeah. That was my first legitimate short film because it went to festivals. But even before that, I was playing around with a camera with my friends making goofy short films.

"I’ve always been obsessed with very specific goals. Instead of just going about it randomly and hoping I hit the bullseye. I like to aspire and then aim and then act on it."

ESQ: And you were determined that by 21, you would have produced your very first feature-length film.

MR: Yes.

Photo by Joseph Pascual.

ESQ: What’s behind that determination?

MR: I’ve always been obsessed with very specific goals. I think that sort of helps motivate me. I like to aim for something instead of just going about it randomly and hoping I hit the bullseye. I like to aspire and then aim and then act on it. So yeah, when I was 21, I was already writing that script, and I decided that I wanted to be the youngest in Cinemalaya. But I didn’t rush it. At that time, I already made seven short films, so I felt like I had a good understanding of the fundamentals of filmmaking before going on my first feature.

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"Deep down inside, I just want to direct a Star Wars movie!"

But yeah, I went there, I always say this: It’s like jumping off a cliff, and then you build your wings on the way down. You really have to push yourself and force yourself into the situation and learn through it. And I think that’s what separates filmmakers from being enthusiasts—it’s the will power of actually going out there and making a move that no one asked for in the first place.

ESQ: You’ve recently been selected for Hollywood. Is that one of the goals you planned for?

MR: Deep down inside, I just want to direct a Star Wars movie! (Laughs). But anyway, yeah I always aimed at someday transitioning to English language movies, genre films. I was slowly transitioning to that. The films that I do, I make sure that they have legs internationally, they're not just for the local audience—they’re Filipino stories but I make sure that they can travel well, they can translate well into the international stage.

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I was very happy that Birdshot went to genre festivals, arthouse festivals. It resonated with the Filipino audience. It was the first on Netflix, after that. I always use the genre to always package that Filipino social commentary but make it accessible to a wider audience. After that, it was kind of a chain reaction. I was approached by an agent in Hollywood and they decided to represent me.

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Photo by FACEBOOK/ Mikhail Red.

ESQ: After Birdshot and Netflix and everything, what realization came to you? Did it change you in some way?

MR: Yeah, it made me realize that I’m doing something right. I guess the biggest setback that I had was maybe in between my first feature, Rekorder, which was featured in Cinemalaya, and Birdshot. There was a gap when, after traveling with Rekorder, after going to festivals and enjoying that prestige, I returned home in debt and broke.

I sort of questioned myself: Is this really a sustainable career or is this like an expensive hobby? Is filmmaking really viable? That’s when I learned how to be more strategic, more self-aware, more calculated, without losing my voice.

That’s why with Birdshot, I deliberately structured it to be something that could travel and resonate with an international audience and, at the same time, still be relevant and have an impactful message. I was also more aware of the politics of filmmaking. I decided to fund Birdshot internationally instead of going through the local film festival circuit, which really has these constraints like deadlines and budget limits—there are certain requirements to it.

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Birdshot had more freedom, I didn’t have a play date. I focused two years of my life just crafting that movie. After that, I learned how to be more conscious, more self-aware in my filmmaking. I saw that there’s a science to filmmaking, it’s not just an art form. I think that gave me an edge.

"Maybe someday we’ll have disaster movies, alien invasion movies, time travel movies, you know. Hopefully, it can open up the minds of the studios to try these genres and use their roster."

ESQ: What could be the future of the Philippine film industry?

MR: I’m very excited about it. I’ve noticed that recently, even the local studios are starting to open up to younger filmmakers and genre films. As a young filmmaker, I feel like I represent the audience, as well. The median age are Millennials, and I feel like I’m making films for us, I feel like I’m making films as part of the audience. These are the type of films I want to see produced by the local studios, you know.

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Years ago, they would never produce a zombie movie, and now, they’re making me make a zombie movie but using all their young stars, their roster to attract a fan base. But put them in a new genre, a Western genre, and introduce it to a Filipino audience. Even with Eerie, I was given the opportunity to work with Bea Alonzo, who never did a horror movie. Ma’am Charo, at that time, was the chief executive officer of ABS-CBN, and her last horror film was in the ‘70s. They let me work with them and utilize them, but put them in a genre movie. So I’m excited with the recent development of studios learning to work with genre movies.

ESQ: Tell us about Block Z. This is the Philippine’s first zombie flick in the Philippines, isn’t it?

MR: Block Z is the first large-scale zombie movie in the Philippines. I see it as an introduction for the Filipino audience. I mean, if you’re initiated, if you’re a film buff, you’ve probably seen many zombie movies, but for our local audience who haven’t seen that much, this is Zombie 101 for them. This is a highlight reel for the Filipino audience. In a way, we’re pioneering the genre here, because let’s admit it, we don’t have the resources of Hollywood.

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All our references doing a zombie movie are foreign epics that have something like 300 times the budget. There is no one we can turn to or ask, like how do we do this, because we all are doing this for the first time, even the technical crew. It’s a learning experience but at the same time, we’re very proud that we were the ones who took that risk while everyone was cautious in trying out that genre.

We were ballsy enough to do it and hopefully set the bar and inspire others to try other genres. Maybe someday we’ll have disaster movies, alien invasion movies, time travel movies, you know. Hopefully, it can open up the minds of the studios to try these genres and use their roster.

"It’s the challenges, it’s what you do not show, instead of what you show, it’s the decision of what shot do you take when you have five shots in your storyboard but the sun is setting and you can only shoot one. I think those are the situations when you truly become a director."

ESQ: You transitioned from making short films to indie films, and now you’re making films for big studios. How has that affected your storytelling?

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MR: I’m still constantly learning and I still consider myself a student of cinema. The way I see it, whenever I get the opportunity or whenever I get a greenlit project, for me it’s a chance to learn. That’s why with every movie I do, I make sure it’s a different genre, it’s a different treatment, I try to explore the use of different equipment.

I never went to a formal film school, so for me, every time I get a new project, I make sure that, in that project, I’m doing something new and I’m learning something. I’m using that opportunity to expand my skillset.

So maybe someday, when I get to work with Universal Studios or something (laughs), I’m equipped with that skillset—handling different genres. So you know, for me, I make sure that in every movie, I’m trying something new, I’m risking something new.

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Photo by FACEBOOK/ Mikhail Red.

ESQ: Your movies are really unique. Where do you get inspiration for these stories?

MR: Usually, it’s a combination of wanting to try a genre. For example, I’ve never done horror, and I’ve never done zombie. And then, combining it with what I want to say. For example, I really want to tackle mental health awareness. I sort of smuggle it in a more accessible genre like horror, so it’s the combination of the two. With Birdshot, it’s inspired by a real event, like the shooting of the endangered Philippine eagle, but at the same time, I wanted to try a take on Filipino Western film, something like No Country for Old Men. You know, nowadays, there’s nothing original. I think films are a fusion of ideas, and it’s when you combine familiar ideas and new concepts and combine them together like a different genre, a different treatment, a different subtext, you create something new. And since it’s a Filipino film, it’s always new here. There are so many genres that have not been explored here in the Philippines.

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ESQ: You mentioned earlier that you’ve been writing since grade school. Do you also write the material for your movies?

MR: I think I’ve initiated all my projects, except for the next one. I usually do a storyline, and then I do a sequence treatment. Sometimes, I co-write the screenplay. Sometimes, I just hand it to screenwriters whom I personally know. So we work very closely together in developing the story, but sometimes they get full screenplay credit but they base it off my sequence treatment or my storyline.

ESQ: Tell us about your next projects.

MR: (Laughs) Well, I can’t reveal very specific details! But I’m working on a miniseries. It’s like an action-fantasy miniseries. And I’m also working on a new movie. This one’s been in the works for at least four years. It’s a script older than Birdshot.We’ve actually pitched it in workshops and project markets, so it’s been around, but we’ve finally been greenlit—we have financing.

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The movie is about the Black Dahlia serial killer in Hollywood in the ‘50s. He escaped to Manila and stayed here during Martial Law and even died here during the ‘90s. So it’s the idea of an active American serial killer using the disappearances in Martial Law as the perfect cover to enjoy himself in the Philippines. I’m also doing a movie with Star Cinema. It’s a hacker-heist film, it’s also with a young cast.

"You can’t really categorize or put us Millennials in a box. It really depends on your upbringing, your environment, where you were born, how you were raised. I don’t think you can classify a generation based on the years they were born." 

ESQ: Tell us about one mistake you've made or usually make while filmmaking.

MR: I think I would say that I’m ambitious, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. There are times when I would rush into a project just because I want the opportunity to finally do something, but we don’t have the proper resources (laughs). But I think about it when I cross that bridge.

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I adjust, I find a way, and I think that’s what makes you a filmmaker. It’s the challenges. It’s what you do not show, instead of what you show. It’s the decision of what shot do you take when you have five shots in your storyboard but the sun is setting and you can only shoot one. I think those are the situations when you truly become a director. Sometimes my ambition becomes my downfall, but it also sets me up for challenges where I learn something valuable the hard way.

"Life is never like the movies. For me, film is like an escape, so never try and act like you’re a character in a movie, it usually does not end well."

Photo by INSTAGRAM/ @red_mikhail.
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ESQ: You mentioned millennials earlier and yourself being part of that generation. Is there something you want to tell them, or do you agree with accusations that millennials are entitled?

MR: It’s actually something that I tackled. It’s almost like penance or maybe examining our generation. I did a film called Dead Kids with Globe Studios. It’s about these entitled kids who have their own interpretation of justice. They decide to kidnap their classmate who is the alpha jock of the school—he’s the most popular, most handsome, he’s the number one in the school hierarchy, but he’s also the son of a drug lord. So they decide to kidnap him, but since they’re amateurs, shit hits the fan.

So that film is called Dead Kids, and it’s me stepping aside and examining the youth in a more objective lens. So yeah, you can’t really categorize or put us millennials in a box. It really depends on your upbringing, your environment, where you were born, how you were raised. I don’t think you can classify a generation based on the years they were born.

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Of course, the political climate and the environment has a lot to do with how you think and how you act. Dead Kids is me trying to show my generation and other generations how I view us millennials. I think it’s coming out later this year.

"Don’t act like a character in a movie, it won’t end well for you. Try to be more self-aware. Be logical. Just examine your emotions before you act on something."

ESQ: What is one thing you learned about people through filmmaking?

MR: Life is never like the movies. (Laughs). For me, film is like an escape, so never try and act like you’re a character in a movie, it usually does not end well. You should never chase someone through an airport to confess something and get yourself arrested by airport security. Don’t try to do that. It’s always exaggerated in films for cinematic purposes and the film is only a portion of that character’s journey, and life isn’t like that.

The universe in films makes more sense. In real life, the universe is indifferent. The closest to real life we get in film is probably No Country for Old Men, where the camera doesn’t really care whether you’re good or bad, right or wrong.

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So yeah, just don’t act like a character in a movie, it won’t end well for you. Try to be more self-aware. Be logical. Just examine your emotions before you act on something.

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