Filmmaker Interview by Andrew Young
American filmmaker Phil Giordano has been garnering awards and attention for some time now. He was recently the recipient of the Hollywood Foreign Press Award and first prize at the NYU First Run Film Festival and is immensely proud of them, especially the latter award, which had been a long-term goal of his. This all comes from his compelling and compassionate short Supot. Following a young boy in the rural Philippines as he approaches the ritual of being circumcision, it is tender in its characters and beautiful in its images. Giordano brings an even hand to his subject matter to make the film both interesting and interested in the topic of “forced” circumcision. Currently working on advertisements in Singapore, Giordano found time to catch up with UK Film Review to talk about Supot, Trump and the future.
UKFR: I guess a good place to start would just be, why Supot? For a fairly young filmmaker it’s quite an obscure topic compared to some of the things that I get sent. So why did you focus on this particular story?
PG: I was doing my New York University Film School graduate thesis film and I really wanted to make a film about a father and a son, a kind of coming-of-age story about manhood, and my wife had told me – we were sitting at the kitchen table, we were in New York – and she was telling me about how her father never really got along with her younger brother until he got circumcised. How when he was younger she never really thought much of the brother, she never thought he was tough or anything and then after he got circumcised it was like a very big bonding time. After that he [the father] kind of respected him more and when I met them they got along really well, so it was interesting that [the circumcision] was the definitive thing. I did more research and I found that it really is like a rite of passage in the Philippines; circumcision is really when you become a man.
UKFR: Do you feel that is the case in America as well? Because in the UK not as many people get circumcised, it’s not as big a thing, so it is less like a rite-of-passage, but do you think what happens in the Philippines does happen to a smaller extent in the US?
PG: Well, the film screened really well there, people are really responsive to it. But, it’s definitely not, I think that’s why it screened so well, it’s totally different; people either don’t get it done or they get it done at birth. It is so different to them that it is really shocking and surprising. I think masculinity and manhood is huge in America for almost everyone, and dealing with their father (laughs) you know? I spoke to some American professors and people I had spoken to who are American and it is a very raw thing, I think almost everyone in America is super objective – to impress their father is a major thing and what resonates with them.
UKFR: Do you feel that once you had discovered the extent of this in the Philippine that it was something you just had to tell? Did you feel compelled? Was it a story you thought couldn’t go untold and is there a reason you think this story hasn’t been told before?
PG: (Pauses) I think in the Philippines it’s different for them than it is for foreigners. I think some people that watch the film from the Philippines are kind of not surprised by it and it’s very common, so for me it’s not a story that had to be told within that culture. But I think as a foreigner, as an outsider, it’s something that has to be told; from my perspective it has to be told. I took a lot of care for it [the film] to be authentic. My goal was always for it to be like you couldn’t tell if an outsider made or if someone from the Philippines made it and I hope that’s been achieved and I’ve been told it’s been achieved.
UKFR: Yes, I think part of why that comes across, that you can’t necessarily that it’s an outsider that’s made it, is that it’s very understanding of a different culture. The film doesn’t judge the characters morally, it’s quite a morally ambiguous film. It lets the audience do a lot of the work in that sense, but did you feel when making the film that you had a duty to condemn the practice, or not condemn it? Did you have to wrestle with the morals of it yourself when making the film?
PG: I tend to always be a little more objective when I talk about it, but actually I think it’s great. I think it is a really good thing. There is so much pride; when I was doing my interviews and my research, finding out about how it’s done and the people that have gone through it, everyone is really proud of what they’ve gone through. When I witnessed it, it really wasn’t like mutilation or inhumane. They’ve been doing it for so long that they’ve really perfected it – it’s not like other places in the world that are more savage, it really is a prideful thing. People think about it in a positive way. Having said that, there is a shot where we cut back to the boy and he’s not entirely happy, there is an uncertainty in him and I think I feel that way also.
UKFR: Moving on more to the actual filming of it, you are making a film obviously somewhere that you didn’t grow up in with a language that you are not as used to, did you find that a bit of a challenge? Or was that something you were fairly comfortable with, the language barrier?
PG: I love it. I love working in a language that I don’t speak because it makes you very diligent, it’s like a whole different process; it forces you to rehearse, it forces you to go over the dialogue in a unique way. The adult actors spoke Tagalog and English so I was able to, with the father, kind of re-write the dialogue a bit to make it more colloquial, more conversational. He would re-write some of the dialogue of the kids also, which was really nice. A lot of the dialogue was things I had heard, like people would say a phrase and I’d ask “what does that mean?” or “what did he just say?” and jot it down. I was always asking “how would you say this?” or “what’s this called?”. So, that’s in the writing of it and then in the directing of it it’s fabulous because you can kind of not care about the dialogue and just focus on the performance and what they’re giving to each other. In film school we had a professor that would say dialogue is like “blah blah”; it’s not really about what they’re saying, it’s about the meaning behind it, it’s more about the energy that they’re giving out. So for me it’s very freeing.
UKFR: You speak about working with the actors and it’s interesting because Supot is a film that has fantastic performances in it from Andrei Fajarito and John Arcilla, but it’s also a film with brilliant locations and fantastic shots of nature in it. Do you as a director get more reward from capturing the visual beauty on camera or from the more human side of it and working with the actors. I know some directors think of themselves kind of as an “actor’s director” because they love creating performances with an actors or do you get more reward out of the visuals? Which for you is the more important part of filmmaking?
PG: I mean it’s kind of a cop-out, because I enjoy both and for me…..this film honestly was a very different experience for me because I’ve made other films and other films, they can suck, or you can have trouble with things, or it’s less balanced, but for this film it was….I was directing commercials in Singapore that were very corporate and very uptight so to work with these kids that are non-actors, they’re just doing it – they’re just experiencing it and the professional actors are so natural and they bring so much experience, so I can kind of let them go and that was incredible, I loved it. Also, I love the landscapes and the sweeping shots; I care a lot about my cinematography so I can’t pick one over the other.
UKFR: Quite recently you mentioned that you don’t intend to make films in America, other than perhaps for a very special story. Could you perhaps explain a bit why you don’t want to work in America?
PG: Well I just read a script that takes place in the South in America that I love and I might purchase it. I can’t say that…
UKFR: ….you can’t say you’ll never work there. But what is it that puts you off somewhat about America?
PG: Well I am a bit of a hypocrite because I might make a movie there, a full-length movie, and me and another producer are developing an action short film, but for the most part – it’s not that I don’t like America, I am open to some projects, but what I love about South East Asia and specifically the Philippines is that you can do anything you want, people are so open to supporting you. I could do anything I wanted, like the whole town was open to me, I could shoot in any house, they are so hospitable. I could shoot in any house I wanted, I wanted a horse, I said “hey, get me a horse” and they got me a horse in five minutes, I set things on fire, I created smoke.
There’s this one shot, you can’t really see it, but the camera had to dive through this person’s front yard and there was a bush in the way, and they let us cut down the bush. You can’t do stuff like that in other places, you know. There is so much richness and culture and openness that’s there. Just to set something on fire in America you need a fire marshal, you know? I don’t mean setting a house on fire, just something basic. Or if you want a horse or animals, you need animal wranglers; there’s just something very pure about how it is in the Philippines.
UKFR: And obviously in Singapore now, do you feel that Singapore is a good place to make films as well? Is it a nice base to have? Why have you chosen to settle there?
PG: Last year there were two feature films that went to Cannes from Singapore, so they are finding their way; they are finding success here, but I think it’s hard to make a really good feature film in Singapore. A few years ago another film won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, it was a Singaporean film, but I think they are the exceptions. It is very difficult and doesn’t happen as much. I live here because I direct commercials here and it’s very high-paying. So I am able to pay my rent and live comfortably and I love it here – I love the people, I love the food, I love the travelling.
UKFR: With everything that’s going on in America politically, obviously we have entered the Trump era, it is a time of quite turbulent politics. Do you ever feel that is a reason to stay away from America in terms of making films? Or do you feel it is almost a reason to go back, because this is such an interesting time in America’s history, the kind of time where you would like to “film your response” to what’s going on?
PG: It’s complicated because I do have a story I want to do there, but I could live the rest of my life and never go back to America. Honestly, it’s such an aggressive place. It’s such an insulated country; there are great people, but other people there is such a strong, not nationalism, (pauses) nativism there. Certain people don’t like any foreigners, I mean we are all foreigners. So, honestly I really could live my whole life and never go back, aside from my close friends and my family – that’s the only thing that keeps me going there. There’s such a big world, you know? There’s so many places I want to go.
UKFR: So obviously you’ve studied in America; you’ve grown up in America; you’ve worked in the Philippines; you’ve been in France recently, I think, as well; you live in Singapore. Is the travelling something you like about this job, as a director? Is traveling for meetings something that really appeals to you, is that one of the bits you love about the job?
PG: Yeah, I mean it’s great. A friend of mine from Nepal, he made a great film and he’s been to I think 29 different festivals, for free. They’ve flown him and put him up in a hotel. I’ve been lucky enough to….it’s really nice when a festival will pay for your flight and your hotel, to send you somewhere. I’ve been to Korea; I’ve been to America; I’ve been to France, all from them bringing me, which is incredible. And then I’ve been to Nepal and a few other countries to attend festivals. It’s unreal. You also get to travel around when you’re there and meet people. It’s awesome (laughs) yeah I love it.
UKFR: What’s your favourite place? Your favourite place you’ve worked, or you’ve had a meeting, or visited when travelling and thought “I really want to make a film here” or “I could live here”?
PG: Nepal. When I went to Nepal I was blown away. It is a really unique place. To see Kathmandu is amazing, the mountain range is incredible. There’s so many talented people there. South Asia and South-East Asia they are regions that right now are booming, it’s like the Golden Age. The history is emerging just now and it’s amazing, I can’t believe I’m witnessing it. They’re getting their first film at Venice, their first film at these major festivals and it’s happening right before your eyes. The equipment is so inexpensive, the crew is so talented. It’s crazy, a film wins best cinematography at Sundance from Nepal, a short film, and….
UKFR: …it’s great to be a part of it.
PG: Yeah. And nobody knows about it. You feel like you’re in on a secret. In the Philippines it’s more established and there’s talented independent directors, there’s so many. We had 8 Filipino films at Busan. It’s the biggest festival in Asia and there were Filipino films. So it is great to be around at this time.
UKFR: More on to you as a filmmaker and where you’re headed. You’re in Singapore and you’re making a lot of commercials and like you say, it’s quite a profitable thing to do. Do you feel the desire to try and get away from that? As you mentioned, the safe, corporate nature of it, to try to get away from that and make something for you artistically as a director.
PG: People have a very negative view of commercials but I’m very grateful. It’s why I can pay my rent. It’s why I can be a man to my wife. Otherwise I couldn’t…my wife has a good job and she does her half and I have to be a man and do my half and without that I wouldn’t be able to. I am developing my first feature film, it takes place in Manila, it’s about underground gambling for pool. There’s this whole unbelievable ecosystem of script in America also. So I do do my career stuff also. I am very lucky, I have my free time also.
UKFR: Is there someone creatively that you admire that you would eventually in your career like to emulate?
PG: (Laughs) well of course, I’m not a trailblazer. I would like to make commercials; there is this guy called Martin Dethurah, he’s this Danish commercial director. They don’t feel like commercials, they’re films. It’s astonishing that he can get paid to put a brand on these things. They are unbelievable, they are touching and emotional and they are longer, 2 or 3 minutes, sometimes they’re 5 minutes. Then as a filmmaker I love Paul Thomas Anderson. If I could have a career like Paul Thomas Anderson I don’t know what I would do (laughs).
UKFR: At UK Film Review we tend to focus on short films and most of what I have written is on short films. I am quite interest in the idea of the short film as an art form. As somebody who had quite a lot of success with Supot, which is of course a short film, do you feel that short films are sometimes seen too much as just a stepping stone to features, the same for commercials really. Do you think shorts and commercials are an art form in their own right.
PG: That’s a very tricky question. I have a very specific opinion about this. When I say this I don’t mean to offend anyone or belittle anyone because we all have our different paths and our different opinions and different perspectives on the world. I personally really do feel like I wouldn’t be satisfied only making short films. I am trying to make my first feature film now, but I really do feel like most people make shorts to get to the features, or for practice, to to show someone that they’re ready. I can’t really understand…there are people that I do respect who make really good animated short films, or narrative short films, or documentary short films. They’re happy, they’re content, they’ve made like 5 short films that have showed at Toronto or Sundance, they’ve been to a 100 festivals, but, for me, I grew up on feature films.
I don’t understand how you can keep making short films, for me it’s not what I’m interested in, I can’t really understand it. And I don’t think you should make a short film to try and make money or have the hopes of it making a big splash in the world. I think it does happen; commissioned short films are a whole different thing, if Louis Vuitton commissions you to make a short film, or BMW, or whoever it may be. For me, I would rather, not that I would ever do an art installation, but I feel that an art installation is more of like a work of art than a short film. Some short films, they’re really successful, but a lot of the really successful ones, they have a big hook at the end or a big surprise. For me I’m always interested in being taken to a different world, show immense craft. My favourite shorts aren’t like clever shorts, where you go, “Oh that’s a clever short,” it’s something that, “Wow! That should be a feature film.”
UKFR: What’s next? What are you working on at the moment? And after that – you say you won’t be satisfied just making short films – when will you be satisfied? When will you think, “I’ve reached my peak as a filmmaker”? Or do you not think you have a limit? Is the sky the limit or do you have a set goal?
PG: Yeah I do. The film I’m developing is about billiards and I met several world champions and I said, “Are you happy now?” and they’re never satisfied. They’re the best player in the entire world and it makes them more insecure because they feel they have to prove to everyone that they deserve what they achieved. But I think if I win the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and then after that I make a film that wins Best Director or Best Picture, I think I’ll be happy. I can sit back and just…I’ll still make films but…I think I’ll be fine (laughs).
UKFR: More immediately, what is your next project, what are you working on at the moment?
PG: I’m developing a film in the Philippines about underground gambling in Manila, about back-alley pool halls and I might begin developing a project in America, a feature film, in the South. For now I’m directing a commercial for Listerine in Singapore (laughs).