MANILA -- Multi-awarded writer-director Erik Matti returns to the horror genre with “Kwaresma,” an epic movie event that is the Mother’s Day offering of Reality Entertainment.
Producer Dondon Monteverde and Matti, his business partner, singled out Sharon Cuneta to star in the film. She is paired for the first time with “Heneral Luna” actor John Arcilla.
“Who else can we think of to be the iconic representation of Mother’s Day this coming May 15, than Sharon?” Matti said.
Matti and Monteverde visited Cuneta one day in December during her Selecta TV commercial shoot in Makati to tell her about the project. In 15 minutes, the veteran singer-actress was convinced and immediately gave her nod to do “Kwaresma.”
“When Sharon said yes, we locked her schedule and got 25 days for the shoot,” Matti shared. “Immediately, all the actors around her, we gave that schedule that everybody followed.”
Cuneta is only too pleased to work with Matti in a full-length movie. They previously worked together years back, but only in a TV commercial.
“The guy is a master of cinematic language,” the actress said of her director. “The horror genre is unquestionably his domain. I’m so glad to return to my craft in this way.”
Creatively, “Kwaresma” is one of the “most rewarding and satisfying collaborations” Cuneta has done. “He’s a director who knows what he wants,” she said of Matti. “His passion and integrity for a film will inspire your own well of creativity to keep flowing. He will not compromise his vision, while allowing and protecting your own.”
Cuneta has been a horror fan since she was a little girl. She can quote “The Exorcist” word for word as that’s on top of her horror movie list.
She also likes “The Omen,” with Gregory Peck, “Don’t Look Now,” with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, as well as the Tagalog film, “Sa Init ng Apoy,” starring Rudy Fernandez and Lorna Tolentino.
Charting 56 movies in her four-decade showbiz career, Cuneta attests that “Kwaresma” has been one of the most “physically, emotionally and mentally draining experiences” she has done.
“Kwaresma” is also the fastest shoot Matti has ever done. In October 2018, as soon as he gave up the “Darna” project and they were having problems with the actors’ schedules on “OTJ (On The Job) 2,” Matti and Monteverde readily decided to do a quick film.
“Kwaresma” suddenly became a serious one when Cuneta and Arcilla came on board as the lead stars.
“We needed two actors who could really work well together,” Matti disclosed. “‘Yung kayang magbatuhan ng linya. Kayang mag-banggaan sa eksena na hindi mahihirapan. Sharon and John had five-page scripts, respectively, with their dialogue and they delivered. That was why we brought them together for this project.”
The producers were initially wary about getting Arcilla because his schedule in ABS-CBN’s nightly, primetime soap, “Ang Probinsiyano,” was really tight.
“But when we sat down with John and told him about the character he would play, he immediately accepted the project,” Matti remembered. “Ginawa niyang balikan ang Baguio and Manila during our shoot.”
Matti said the kind of pairing of his two lead stars is undoubtedly hard to find. “It harks back to movies that have strong acting ensemble. This one really brought out the best in everybody.”
“Kwaresma” started shooting three weeks before Christmas. “We filmed three legs in Baguio and had a one-day studio shoot in Manila,” Matti said. “We had studio scenes with passage ways and secret doors and we did all of that in Manila.”
They had a total of 28 shooting days. “When we thought we were already done in Baguio in December, we had to go back in January to shoot some more scenes,” Matti said.
Cuneta had to leave for a US concert tour and Arcilla had to go up and down Baguio to tape for “Ang Probinsiyano.” Cast and crew wrapped up filming last April 12 and by Holy Week, Matti started editing.
Matti is undeniably proud about “Kwaresma,” which contains all the ingredients he really loves about a horror movie. He gave the viewers “ghosts, mystery, whodunit, human frailties, crazy characters, Azarel the devil and a dead dog that comes alive.”
The director is proud of his ensemble cast of formidable actors. Guila Alvarez makes her acting comeback in “Kwaresma.” Siblings Kent and Pam Gonzales play twins in the film, though in real life, they are a year apart.
“It was a challenge to put the cast together,” Matti admitted. “It was a much bigger challenge to find the perfect house for the Fajardo family. It was difficult to find that house that can be beautiful yet scarred, elegant yet mysterious, welcoming yet somber, perfect yet slightly off.”
As soon as Cuneta gave her nod to the project, Matti and Monteverde immediately went up to Baguio to scout for a possible location. “We went around the city for four days, then we found that one house near The Mansion,” Matti shared.
“Immediately, that became our location. It was empty. No bed, no sofa, no picture frames. The owner had another similar house in the city. So we used the same location.”
Matti subsequently subjected Cuneta and Arcilla for a look test to see what kind of costumes they needed to use. “I talked to them. I told Sharon medyo unkempt ka in you character. Nagulat ako on the first day of the shoot, she was really ready. Even her hair, inayos na bagay sa role niya.”
The director is really thankful they had a swift shooting schedule and hardly had problems with any of the actors. “We had enough time to prepare even before we went up to Baguio,” Matti recalled. “The most difficult was the time element that goes into preparing for those shots. Even the emotional scenes had horror.
“After Christmas, we had the longest leg. We stayed for 18 more days with the cast and crew. Then, Sharon had to leave for her US concert tour. Pero ang bilis ng shooting period. I had no problem with the stars and their schedules.”
“Kwaresma” did not work with just a small production crew. “We always swear our next movie will be a small one,” Matti said. “What we thought was a small one ended up to 150 heads, all housed in Baguio for a month and a half.
“Our prosthetics and special effects teams were with us regularly for the rigging, pyrotechnics, cuts, bruises sutures and monster requirement. Our art department required several painting and redressing to do a 1944, 1955, 1965, 1977 and 1985 scenes.
“Not to forget the make-up and costume guys who do not really see me most of the time, but they always do their jobs, so I guess that’s fine.”
One scene that required the actors to simply walk on the set took four hours to shoot. Meanwhile, the finale scene, the dramatic confrontation with Cuneta and Arcilla, took them two days to finish.
The “Kwaresma” lighting crew had the most set-ups. “We had a script that had more night scenes than day,” Matti said. “So a lot of our day shoots were done for night scenes and had to wrap blackbackings around the house.”
Matti commends his efficient production team who took good care of them day in and out. “The utility guys gave us the best service everyday. To my assistant directors and producers who made sure I got everything I needed done for the film. They’re the best.
“I had a really hardworking team behind me doing everything they can do to make all the ambitious attempts work for this film.”
Matti attested his shoots aren’t always easy. “Not too many actors in the industry like the kind of hard work we pour into our shoots in particular. I steer clear of actors who upon arriving on the set immediately ask what time the shoot finishes.
“I don’t cast actors who don’t care about the story, the characters they play and their fellow actors, and are simply in to the project for the money. I avoid casting people who are only concerned that the film should be commercial, regardless of a good story that can matter.”
Matti loves actors who go out of their way to get the work needed for the scene. “From heavy, emotional requirement to embarrassing, self-deprecating gags to tough and exacting physical blockings and irritating, all-day eat-all-you-can, sticky and uncomfortable prosthetics and make-up.
“I love actors who care about the work we do, period. I am grateful that all these years, I’ve had the chance to work with the best actors in the industry who had the commitment, professionalism and the passion to do the best for the project we all embarked to do.”
To all the countless and hardworking actors he has worked with in the past, Matti is thankful for the respect that they showed to him and the love for the project they were tasked to do.
Happy with horror
“I wanted to make movies ever since because of genres like horror. Growing up, I’d watch cowboy westerns, Shaolin movies, man-on-a-mission stories and lots of horror films -- from the elegant ‘The Changeling’ to the schlocky Italian horrors to the campy Chinese ghost erotica horrors. I didn’t grow up watching avant-garde European films.
“Any chance I have to make a horror film is always a blessing. When I say horror, I mean real horror. I don’t pitch art films disguised as horror films, where the idea of horror is a stranger writhing in pain in an empty street naked.”
Every horror film is always a “big learning curve” for Matti, who’s really proud about his latest film. “Each horror movie I make teaches me something new about the genre and how to craft it,” he admits.
“For ‘Kwaresma,’ I challenged myself to embrace everything about the gere and craft the horror scenes with so much attention to detail and a good amount of preparation and tests.”
Matti is always up to the challenge to do a horror film that can get a proper, terrifying reaction from the audience. “Restraint is good, but horror doesn’t truly work entirely if it’s too subtle.”
“We don’t want to do a horror movie that’s not really horror. I’ve never done something like that. Nakikipaglaban ako. Dondon, who’s a real horror fan, really wants a good horror movie, with a really, really strong family story that was also emotional. We are happy with the final output.”