Matti on the set of Kuwaresma. "Im the kind of filmmaker who is really a movie fan." Photograph by Jake Versoza
Culture Movies

From the desk of Erik Matti: an introduction to the characters of his scariest movie yet

Accompanying portraits of Jake Verzosa, the director Erik Matti gives us his own sketch of the characters in his latest opus--the family horror flick Kuwaresma--a cast that includes a Baguio house as significant to the narrative as its lead stars Sharon Cuneta, John Arcilla, and Guila Alvarez. 
ANCX Staff | May 09 2019

The Mother’s Day movies we grew up with were cryfests. Two-hour long melodramas starring either Gloria Romero or Charito Solis as the long-suffering matriarch, with the brightest stars of the day as their kids. This Mother’s Day, however, or at least two days after, Erik Matti is releasing Kuwaresma, which is neither a cryfest or a feel-good movie.

Touted to be the director’s scariest horror flick (before this, he’s done Seklusyon and Pasiyam), Kuwaresma is about a family haunted by the ghost of a daughter, by their own secrets, and by the spirits of the house they find themselves trapped in. The film is also about the mother that keeps the family together, no matter the odds.

Compared to our Mother’s Day fare of yore, there are no big teen stars here, just teen ghosts slipping in and out of the frame. Suffice to say it’s more mother! than To Mama, With Love. It’s hard to give a clear synopsis of the film without feeling like we’re dishing out spoilers, so let’s just say it’s a new kind of Mother’s Day movie, the woke kind. We asked Erik Matti to introduce us to its characters, house included—just to avoid leaking out details we’re not supposed to.    

 

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SHARON Cuneta, Rebecca

Cuneta plays the long-suffering mother Rebecca, tirelessly bridging the gap between her children and their increasingly evil father.

“I’m the kind of filmmaker who is really a movie fan. I love working with iconic actors, re-imagining what kind of roles would fit them, what kind of characters they can portray other than what the audience have been used to. For Sharon, I wanted to play on her legacy of dramatic roles by putting her in a genre she hasn’t done before — but where she could still utilize every ounce of talent and skill her avid fans love about her. Sharon has been in showbiz since she was a kid and you can definitely see she’s at home in the movie set. She knows how to deal with every crew member, top to bottom, and she knows how to work with everyone without intimidating them with her status as Megastar.

“You can tell she’s a seasoned actress because she can easily turn her character on and off at a flick of a finger. She may be laughing right before a take but as soon as the camera rolls, a tear would fall at the exact moment she wants it to fall. The mark of a good actor is when they embrace the character, the good and the bad side, in all its glory, without any kind of apprehension as to whether it fits the image that they are known for. With Sharon, there was no performance. She totally embraced Rebecca.”

 

JOHN Arcilla, Arturo

ARCILLA is the patriarch Arturo: possessive, controlling, intimidating in his quietness—until he finally unleashes his evil wrath.

“It’s hard to find actors who has the intensity and vulnerability John has. He is one of those actors who does a lot of homework for a role but is also one of the most “organic” when we get to the set. Scripts can only write characters as far as words can describe them, but with John he always brings to life the characters over and beyond the written material.

“There’s this particular scene in the film which is crucial to the feminist theme we wanted to tackle: a private moment between father (Arturo) and son (Luis) but also a kind of insider’s look into locker room talk between men. Originally, the scene was written aware of avoiding whatever backlash such a scene would get. But I felt it had to have a “bite” that a politically correct scene would just water down in terms of impact. After discussing the scene with John, he offered to tweak some of the words to push its uncomfortability level. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. Primarily because we don’t want it to sound gratuitous; we need to send the message loud and clear. His performance there is perfect; he wasn’t exploiting the words to push it towards being offensive; he took care of them, saying the lines with a matter of fact tone perfect for the character of Arturo.”

 

KENT Gonzales, Luis

GONZALES is Luis, the son trying to comprehend a father transforming into a strange character, and his mother’s devotion to him.

“It’s hard to look for a sensitive actor between 15 to 18 years old. I looked at several teens for the role and they can’t seem to bring out the truth about the grief and the guilt that Luis as a character goes through in the film. It was only when I saw Kent perform that I knew this guy is more mature than his age. I knew physically he was perfect for the role. I wasn't sure yet if he had the sensitivity and the vulnerability that the character has. Kent is a newbie. Very raw.

“I’ve worked with newbies like him and the toughest part is having them perform for long periods in full scenes with dialogue, give the right emotion on a given moment, and work against two giants like Sharon and John. This guy pulled it off as early as Day 1. He comprehends the arc of his character and takes care of where he’ll be emotionally and psychologically in specific parts of the story. This guy is going to be a star, I’m telling you. His baptism of fire in my movie was not easy, the challenge wasn’t just emotional and psychological but the physical challenge will really test whoever does the Luis character, and he passionately pulled it off.”

 

PAM Gonzales, Manuela

The other GONZALES plays Manuela, the daughter who feels abandoned by her twin. 

“I knew from the very beginning how tough it is to do a movie about twins and its tougher because our twins in the movie are fraternal, boy and girl. Of course, I casted the lead twin first who was Kent. The next challenge was to look for someone who would pass off as his twin. Without asking him whether he had a sister, me and my team just went on and look for someone who is similar in physicality with Kent.

I remember I already casted someone who doesn’t look much like Kent but can be a good counter point for the Luis character in the film. Then the day I was going to do a look test for the actor we found for Kent’s twin, Kent mentioned he has a sister a year older than him. Immediately we put the look test on hold until we met Pam. Aside from the fact that they look like twins, Pam is a really, really good actor. So we immediately put them together.”

 

GUILA Alvarez, Salve

ALVAREZ is Salve, the medium whose cryptic revelations in the beginning lead Luis to seek her advice on the spirits that inhabit their house.

“A psychic or a medium is a staple on ghost movies. I wanted to cast against type. Just like all my other movies, I always want to bring in a wild card in terms of our casting choices. I easily get tired of actors who are sort of over-exposed in TV or in films. I have this weird feeling that casting common and trendy actors mixed in the film would not make the casting look interesting. So I thought it would be interesting if we bring in a wild card for the role of Salve.

I never even thought Guila would say yes. At first, of course, she was scared because she feels she’s rusty and it’s been 20 years since she last acted. The movie, aside from it being a horror movie, is really an homage to the classic 70’s Filipino melodrama. Guila could pass off as another Chanda Romero or Bibeth Orteza. Kent can be the young Jay Ilagan. Sharon is my Charito Solis and John is Dindo Fernando.”

 

THE  Baguio House

The Fajardo house, a storied house in Baguio that has seen generations.

“The house is one of the few that were shown to me. After I saw the photos I immediately thought we found the house. It has the right wear and tear that feels like it was art directed cinematically. And it helped a lot that the house was empty when we got there because it gave us the opportunity to art direct the Fajardo house true to the character we imagined in the script.

“I love Baguio. We would have found a similar house in Bulacan or Taal but I really wanted to shoot this movie in Baguio. Shooting in Baguio doesn’t feel like work. Weather is good, food is good, and there’s something about shooting day in, day out together with the cast and crew that makes the immersion focused and altogether makes the creative process collaborative. Every time I shoot in Baguio it reminds me of how I was directing early on in my career, where everyone is invested in telling the story as best as we could. It doesn't feel like a commissioned studio work (of course by definition it isn't really a studio work) where we were all in there just to get the job done. By shooting in Baguio, staying and living together in a period of time, the creative process becomes this community of artists and filmmakers working together for something that we can value after the project is done. It really feels like family.”

 

Photographs by Jake Verzosa