Director Paul Soriano On How To Make A Movie During A Pandemic

By Isabel Martel Francisco

Director and producer Paul Soriano describes what it's like to make a film during a global pandemic

Tatler Asia

Paul Soriano has dedicated his career to filmmaking. As well as being a director, the Filipino is co-founder of production house Ten17P and assists at his wife Toni Gonzaga's production house, Tincan.

As the Philippines continues one of the world’s longest lockdown, Soriano and his team have had to turn to unconventional methods to make movies. “Since the pandemic last year, Ten17P and Tincan locked down from March until around June, since that was around the time that the safety protocols for the film industry were created. It took the producers, the company and the team a good month to study these protocols to adapt to the new normal, and we are still up to this day learning,” he says.

He's since worked on four films during the pandemic. He directed and wrote Real Life Fiction and produced The ExorSIS, Arisaka and My Sassy Girl. Here, Soriano shares what he's learnt along the way.

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How do you make a movie in a pandemic?
Making a movie with or without pandemic is already extremely challenging. Now it's much more challenging, especially when every little detail and move is scrutinised by a medical safety officer on set. But we push on, we adapt and move forward. I don’t want to accept the fact that a pandemic will stop our creativity or capacity to produce—that is not an option for us.

To be honest with you, if there was a silver lining it would be that we were able to do what I always wanted to do, which was to keep the production team to a minimum; to create a great small team. When the pandemic happened, we had to be very specific in choosing our team. We needed people who could multitask.

What were the film set bubbles like?
The idea of being literally locked in these so-called bubbles is how filmmaking should be to begin with, if you ask me. Being able to check in together in order to execute the story, from the actors to the crew, then check out once its done, and only then let go of the story, is really the best way to shoot a film for me.

It’s almost like method filmmaking, if that’s what you want to call it.

Was Covid-19 testing mandatory?
The testing was mandatory and something we had to budget for. If there was anything that was frustrating it was that a lot of the budget now goes to Covid testing, protocol implementation, accommodation and so on. I mean, we don't have a huge budget to begin with and now we have to set aside quite a bit for that.

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How have sets and location scouting changed? Do you feel like you and other directors or producers have had to compromise on your vision because of the lack of travel?
Sets and location scouting are still the same because it’s story-based and story-driven. With the pandemic, you now have to find the right story to tell during these times, given all these rules. For me, it hasn’t changed. You continue to find locations that will help best tell the story.

In terms of compromising vision, I think that has always been the case… even before. I’ve never been on a project where the sky’s the limit. There’s always a budget, a timetable, and actors’ schedules to consider. Being in the business of filmmaking, you will always have to compromise.

As a director, has your interaction with actors and crew changed? I know a lot of directors are very up-close-and-personal with their team. Have you adapted? 
Definitely. You have your masks and face shield on as much as possible. We create this bubble and feel safe, so at times you tend to forget, I’ll be the first to admit. Thankfully you have safety officers on set to constantly remind us of the protocols and rules.

Sometimes you get too involved in the storytelling or the technical aspects that you forget that there is a pandemic happening! It’s a challenge. You constantly have to be aware of keeping your distance and limiting your interaction with everyone. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get used to this. For me, the best thing I do right now is to make sure I quarantine before shooting and after.

Have you found that actors and crew are more hesitant to be on location?
In my experience, when actors and crew commit to the project, they know what that means: weeks, possibly months together. In terms of being afraid, I haven’t really encountered anyone yet because they all know what the stakes are.

I also find a lot of these actors and crew want to shoot during the pandemic because it gives them a little bit of escape from reality and a chance to be creative. They can be around like-minded people. It's like we're all together in an artist village. Honestly, when I was shooting Real Life Fiction back in August, we all wanted to shoot for one more month together! We didn't want it to end. The energy was great. We knew each other's strengths and weaknesses during filming.

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I make films for the cinema, that’s the way a film should be experienced
Paul Soriano

What has been the biggest change between filming before and filming now? 
Budget. There’s now a major added cost for Covid testing and protocol.

On the creative side, you need to find stories and concepts that are probably more intimate and character-centred because we are not allowed to shoot big scenes or ask for big crowds or have a lot of talents. We also can't work with kids, and we have to limit the locations we choose.

What's an important lesson you have learned about making a movie in lockdown?
I think the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you have to be very honest with each other in terms of everything. You have to communicate. One person’s dishonesty can affect the rest and could start a chain reaction that could lead to a Covid scare. If you cannot be a part of a project because you did not isolate properly, you have to be honest about that. It’s really all about safety first now; it always should be.

How do you think the pandemic has impacted the movie industry overall, both locally and internationally?
Business-wise the impact is great because we don’t have cinemas. We have lost that cinema experience. Personally, I make films for the cinema, that’s the way a film should be experienced. I know some cinemas are slowly opening up internationally but it has taken a hit and will takes years to recover. I do hope it recovers no matter how long it takes. I’ll be running back for sure!

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What do you miss about cinemas? 
Everything about it—the escape, the whole experience. It’s what cinemas are all about. It’s the experience of going alone or with loved ones or friends, making an event out of it and experiencing the same story all together at one moment. I also miss the discourse after you watch a film, after the cinema you talk about the film you’ve seen over a drink or some late-night food. Again, the idea of being in a room with strangers for two hours and experiencing the magic of cinema cannot be replicated. It’s something I wish will come back very soon.

How do you feel about everyone watching films and shows online and having to debut films online?
As much as I love cinemas, I do embrace streaming and films being shown online. I think it’s another outlet, the new outlet. We're constantly evolving and we have to move forward with what the times are giving us. Streaming is not the future anymore, it's the present.

I’m very open and thankful to these platforms and streaming services because it has given us producers opportunities to showcase the stories we create. I’m positive and optimistic that there will be more streaming services coming your way, but I do hope the option of cinemas will still be there. It may not be the top choice anymore, but I want it to always be a choice.

What do you see for the future of filmmaking?
The industry will continue to adapt to the times. We have to. As long as we want to keep making films, we need to adapt, find the right solutions and together move forward. There are so many more stories yet to be told. A pandemic is not going to stop us.

See more Gen.T honourees from The Arts category of the Gen.T List 2020

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