“I call them momentaries: the extraordinary in the ordinary, the spontaneous in the routine, the breaks in the patterns, the merging of lived experience and recorded experience.“
Jan Philippe “JP” V. Carpio (Manila, Philippines) is a self-taught writer, filmmaker and performer living in Metro Manila, Philippines. He has been making films for over a decade and has written and directed several shorts and three feature length films shot on video: Girl of My Dreams (2000), Balay Dakû (2002), Hilo (thread)(2007). He is a National Commission for Culture and the Arts Cinema Grant Recipient for the first full length film in the Ilonggo language Balay Dakû, and many other awards. He is a believer and practitioner in cross training between the different art forms, having collaborated and performed with “Actors’ Pleygrawnd” and with dancer Vanni Liwanag. He currently teaches film and mass communication subjects at St. Paul University Manila and at the School of Design and Arts College of St. Benilde. He has also become a staff member of desistfilm.
by : Narda Liotine
desistfilm: Looking at your work and considering a recent retrospective of your movies called ‘COUPLES’ that took place in Metro Manila, I may say that your favourite perspective to look at human behaviour as the one of the ‘couples’ is not unlike the approach Cassavetes had, is that right?
Jan Phillipe Carpio: Yes, couples, the dynamics of relationships, seem to be a particular obsession in my work. Even before watching John’s (Cassavetes) work (I apologize if I presume to feel so close to him), my first feature film was on a couple. I’m also interested in human behavior; the paradox of human behavior, the contradictions, the spontaneity, the patterns and unpredictability. That’s where the similarities begin and end with Cassavetes. We’re of course very different people and we look at and experience life differently. As for how this plays out in the”bigger picture”, I always say that most of the social and political problems of the world are caused by humans doing specific, personal acts so i feel i must examine the roots of these things which come from individual human frailties and weaknesses.
I’m also interested in these little moments of interaction between people and their space and environment. I write them down in a notebook for future use in a film or if I’m blessed enough to witness something unexpected while I’m holding a camera, I would record it. I call them momentaries: the extraordinary in the ordinary, the spontaneous in the routine, the breaks in the patterns, the merging of lived experience and recorded experience. I use actual conversations, experiences and situations I’ve been in and experienced or observed with people.
desistfilm: A subtle, vivid realism seems to inform your oeuvre, from the dialogue to the locations. How much of reality influences your movies, and how much do you handle reality in order to fit with the story?
JPC: It depends. Reality influences it a lot. I can’t determine the percentage. It depends on each film. For Palangga, they became one: real life influencing the film and the handling of the film’s reality. The reality of their lives would be transformed to fit the reality in the film and then new realities would come up from that. I only had an outline and not a complete script. The script was written as we went along. This method is something I borrowed from John, Tarkovksy and to some extent Mike Leigh. But of course there is no manual for their exact methods. I only have a general idea of their methods based on what I’ve read about them. In the end, you still have to find your own way to work, as John once said.
The script was determined by what was coming out of the life reality and the film reality. The actors would create new realities to lead off from the script. But sometimes outside life reality would help us out The film had no ending till a few days before the last day of shooting or, as Seymour Cassel termed it, referring to John’s films having no endings, we didn’t have a “stopping point”. I witnessed our stopping point by chance as I observed a couple’s poignant and deep interaction one evening during one of my walks. This became the basis for the last scene in the film.
desistfilm: You said it was something borrowed from Tarkovsky as well. He used to say he was an agnostic, that this knowledge distracts us from our purpose in life. For him art helped man to rise above himself. What do you think about art?
JPC: Art is necessary. It is the language of the soul. Art is the language that we turn to when all other languages feel inadequate to express what is necessary. Art’s purpose (to express truths) to me never changes but how art expresses it will always change. Art is a battlefield between the ego and the soul.
desistfilm: How much does Cassavetes inspire and influence your work and what are your cultural references, besides Cassavetes? Are there references inside your movies or lifestyle, your poetics?
JPC: I confess when I first heard the name Cassavetes, I had no idea who he was. He was mentioned to me by my friend, writer, Dino Manrique. Later on, my first encounters with him were not even through his films but through the writings and quotations of Cassavetes’ words on the website of Boston University professor and Casssavetes scholar Ray Carney. When I read his words, things he said, I could not explain it then, but tears would come to my eyes. I felt an instant connection as if he was speaking directly to the deepest part of me. I could almost feel him encourage me with his fearlessness, sincerity and dedication. As if he was saying: “do no apologize for being too personal in your work”. He helped me guide to what I wanted to say about life through my films. But of course how I wanted to say it was left entirely up to me and it was up to me to get lost in and to find my way through my own work and life.
Then I finally watched the films and I was deeply touched by the depth and complexity of feelings. His courage not to look away in discomfort at the most emotionally violent, intimate, flawed and awkward of our moments that I myself also find hard to look at and deal with. On an aesthetic level, watching something like Faces or a A Woman Under the Influence helped open me up to the possibilities of film beyond the conventional and limiting forms of mainstream commercial cinema. “I didn’t know that a scene could be that long … I can’t breathe, the emotions are too fast and too many … It’s so real … How is the film doing this?” Inspiration is an overused word, but it is the best word to use when watching his films. Inspiration is saying to you, yes, this is possible. It can be done so stop making excuses. Stop being afraid. His films feel as if they were directly made for that part of you that oftentimes in your own life you aren’t brave or caring enough to acknowledge.
The references in my work are conscious and unconscious. It’s really based a lot on my personal life, observations and experiences of mine and other people. I don’t go out of my way to be poetic. I just go with the feeling, if it feels right to me and plays right to me.
I’m a Filipino but I’m very careful not to exoticize my experience or try and select particular subjects like poverty (as we are known for) just to please audiences, film critics or film festivals. I’m not saying that poverty isn’t a problem that shouldn’t be depicted or examined and questioned. I’m just saying that it’s very limiting to define Filipino experiences by merely focusing on one subject. There are other levels of existence, other experiences. I choose to film and examine my own experiences and the experiences that I observe or are shared with me by others. To me it’s also a question of intention, sincerity and ultimately execution. For example, among so many other great Filipino filmmakers, most of the films of Lino Brocka, Mario O’Hara, and Lav Diaz I feel are genuine expressions and examinations of their experiences of Filipino life because they deeply cared about their subjects and had the talent and skill to be able to translate them into particular films. Some other filmmakers I feel make films for the wrong reasons: ego, influence, fame, praise, money. Unless I was genuinely interested, and I had directly experienced things or at the very least immersed, interviewed and properly researched on them, it would be completely deceitful, pretentious and opportunistic of me to film things I really didn’t really care about.
Based on what I read about him in Carney’s “Cassavetes on Cassavetes”, most of the situations in his films were taken directly from his own life and the lives of the people he interacted with. As Carney said, he was a great artist but not a very good human being at times – or as more aptly put by actor and filmmaker Tom Noonan, all these people who idolize him probably couldn’t stand to be in a room with him for two minutes. He was half crazy. He would push people’s buttons just to see how they would react whether it was for a film or in his everyday life.
desistfilm: Have you ever experienced something like that in your own work? Have you ever wanted to ‘push someone else’s button’ in order to obtain a reaction?
JPC: Yes, well, we are two very different people. I’m not as crazy and as brave as he was. I’d like to think I’m not a difficult person to be around and to work with but of course other people I’m sure will disagree, and they would be right about that. I’m also most interested in the moments when our masks fall or are torn away for a few seconds and we don’t realize we’re being that way or we reveal other parts of our soul. During the Palangga shoot I was pushing buttons for the film. I normally don’t do that outside of narrative film. I’m more of an observer when I shoot my non-narrative works. During the Palangga shoot I was very extreme and callous. I wanted to see how far we could go. What is the breaking point of intimacy and revealing oneself? I didn’t think of the consequences then. I was in a very confusing emotional place. My relationship of 5 years had just ended and I was at the same time in love with someone who broke my heart later also. I haven’t acted like that before and since. Palangga so far has been my most “evil and manipulative” to get to the truth that we were trying to explore in the lives of the people in the film. Of course there is a price you pay for those kinds of methods. I’m still paying for them. I’m no longer on speaking terms with certain people. The film is nearly seven years in the making since I haven’t finished editing the film yet because of all the emotional baggage. Or I’m just making excuses for myself I suppose.
I feel I’m still building up to another one the one I want to do about actors who “act” their lives – I know this has been done before but I also want to get to the point where all of us shooting don’t know what is acting and what is real anymore. It happens sometimes in real life. I would text an actor and i end up looking for the name of their character in my phone instead of the actor’s real name or it’s either I use the actor’s personal life to enrich their persona in the film or by some strange art and life convergence, the actor will tell me that they are living in a situation in real life like their character.
This is happening right now, in a film I’m currently shooting.