Director Rae Red on thriller ‘Tenement 66’: “I wanted to do it purely for entertainment but I couldn’t avoid politics”

The Filipino filmmaker talks her follow-up to ‘Babae At Baril’, writing from the fringes and being a Red progeny

In 2019, Rae Red hatched the idea of a chilling TV series that took shape as a family horror with a third-world point-of-view. “The idea was – how do you make Stranger Things in the slum area in the Philippines?” the screenwriter and filmmaker tells NME. But shooting pre-teen actors in multiple venues under COVID restrictions posed several roadblocks, so she reworked the idea.

The result is Tenement 66, a suspenseful 84-minute thriller that takes place in the titular housing block. A trio of teenagers (Francine Diaz, Francis Magundayao, Noel Comia Jr.) scheme to steal from an elderly neighbour, but seedier characters intervene and the plot thickens, taking us on a viciously nail-biting trip. It’s the sole Filipino film competing in the Bucheon Choice category at South Korea’s Bucheon Film Festival, where it debuted ahead of its world premiere this weekend.

Director Rae Red talks new film Tenement 66
Rae Red. Credit: Matjaz Tancic

Now streaming on iWantTFC, KTX.ph and more platforms, Tenement 66 is Red’s third full-length directorial feature since 2017’s dark-comedy Si Chedeng At Si Apple (co-directed with Fatrick Tabada). But you wouldn’t have pegged the 31-year-old filmmaker as a novice judging by the strength of her solo debut. Babae At Baril bagged several awards, including Best Direction and Best Picture at the 43rd Gawad Urian, and is now streaming on Netflix. Before that, Red had written her way into the industry with a bang after scripting 2016’s acclaimed Birdshot, which won Best Screenplay at the Asia-Pacific festival.

Rae has a strong cinematic pedigree. Her dad Jon Red is one of the pioneering filmmakers of Pinoy indie cinema, along with her uncle Raymond Red, who happens to be the country’s first Palme D’Or winner. And younger cinephiles have likely heard of Rae’s cousin Mikhail Red (Birdshot, Deadkids).

NME spoke to the auteur about the politics of her films, the expectations imposed by her last name, and Tenement 66. If you haven’t already been paying attention to Rae Red, here’s why you should.

Tenement 66
Francine Diaz, Noel Comia Jr. and Francis Magundayao in ‘Tenement 66’. Credit: Dreamscape Entertainment

There’s a line you wrote in Babae At Baril where a character says, “everything is personal”. Can you expound on that in terms of your storytelling choices and the kind of films you’ve made so far?

“It was Elijah Canlas’ character Jun who said that. I wrote the line to sum up the whole theme of Babae At Baril. My intention wasn’t to do a revenge film but to paint a picture of why this system of violence exists – how the patriarchal system and the capitalist system interconnect in society and how that affects even our love lives. Which, I guess is a lot to sum up [laughs]. I’d say all my films are personal.”

And they tend to have political commentary. Is that something you aim for, especially being a Filipino filmmaker in this era?

“I think it has to come naturally because you can always feel if it’s forced. I guess the reason it’s always political for me is I’ve always felt that something was off even at a young age. My dad loves watching Scorsese films and gangster films. As a kid I could feel the disconnect between watching [inequalities] portrayed in those films, and then watching, say, the Miss Universe pageant.

“I also went to a school with classmates who were children of celebrities or politicians. We’re not rich and I’m not conventionally pretty, so early on I kind of felt that I was a quote, unquote ‘minority’. I think the common misconception is when your dad is a filmmaker, you’re rich, and we’re really not. It wasn’t until I got to college where I found out oh, there are terms for that social structure I felt as a kid. So I guess that’s why it’s always important for me to inject that in everything I do. Although I have to admit that sometimes I write just for entertainment too.”

“Screenwriting is a lonely activity, with directing you’re forced to be an extrovert. I like that I can be both”

Was Tenement 66 meant to be purely entertaining?

“It was born out of me and [Tenement writing partner] Kenneth Dagatan’s love for the thriller, suspense and coming-of-age genre. We wanted to do a binge-watchable TV series that we’d enjoy doing. So the inspirations were films like Stand By Me and family horrors like Hereditary and German series Dark. The idea was, how do you make Stranger Things in the slum area in the Philippines?

“But with the pandemic and ABS-CBN’s shutdown [the broadcaster owns Dreamscape Entertainment, which produced Tenement 66], we had to do so many changes to tell a really good story with tighter requirements. For Babae… and Chedeng, the commentary there was very intentional. With Tenement we wanted to do it purely for entertainment, but I guess some [politics] slipped in. Doing a story about characters who belong to the lower class, it’s sort of your responsibility to include the politics. It’s part of their truth as characters, it’s part of their daily lives, so you can’t avoid that at all.”

Where did you end up shooting and do you have any interesting stories from filming?

“We initially went to the Tenement in Pasay, the one with the mural of Kobe Bryant. Me and Kenneth spent time and talked with kids who lived there. Sadly we weren’t allowed to shoot there because COVID cases were high. We ended up shooting in a semi-abandoned building, a convent in Cogeo, Antipolo. It’s the same location where they shot Eerie [2018 horror co-written by Red]. There were dormitories there, so that’s where we slept and filmed for 11 days.”

Tenement 66
Noel Comia Jr. and Francis Magundayao. Credit: Dreamscape Entertainment

What’s the trickiest thing about building suspense onscreen?

“I feel that building suspense challenges creativity. Like OK, you’ve made a silhouette appear behind the characters, what do you do next? You kind of go back to your favourite horror or jump-scare scenes to inspire you, but you also don’t want to be predictable. We had a lot of fun orchestrating it down to camera angles and blocking of the characters.”

What do you enjoy about directing that you don’t get from screenwriting?

“I really like composing the image. Someone once said, screenwriting is also directing, but on paper. If you’re an effective screenwriter, the director can easily grasp how to direct the film. But screenwriting is a lonely activity, and with directing you’re forced to be an extrovert. I like the balance where I can be both.

“I feel that collaborating opens up a lot of things that you aren’t able to think of when you’re writing it. The story maximises its full potential if you’re surrounded by a reliable team. Being a director, you have to know a little bit about acting, a little bit about editing, a little bit about cinematography and design. I really enjoy that there’s more to do in directing than writing. I can’t just do one, I need both.”

“Building suspense challenges creativity. Like OK, you’ve made a silhouette appear behind the characters – what do you do next?”

But you were initially apprehensive about going into filmmaking. Did that have to do with the expectations that come from being a Red?

“To be blunt, my main goal was really to have financial security. My siblings and my dad are all Fine Arts graduates, and my mom is a ballet dancer. So I wanted to get away from the arts. I took up medical technology in college with the intention of becoming a doctor [laughs]. But I did one semester and dropped out. Then my high school Filipino teacher recommended that I do a talent test in UP [University of the Philippines] in creative writing. That’s what I ended up finishing.

“There was never really a deciding point where I thought ‘Oh, I want to direct.’ It was just, ‘Oh, I want to try making this short film about this little girl who had her period [Luna].’ And after I made that, I thought of the concept for Babae At Baril which was a passion project I didn’t think would get made. Then my friend Fatrick Tabada asked if I wanted to co-direct Chedeng, which led me to pursue Babae thinking I’m still going to be a scriptwriter mostly, I just want to direct this particular film. But it just kept going.

“I think the clearest thing is I just really want to tell stories. Having a family who’s in filmmaking, I feel more lucky than pressured to have people to call on for advice if I need them. It’s a privilege and I hope to be able to tell more stories.”

What kind of stories do you see yourself exploring more?

“I’m working on two horrors right now, one is a supernatural series and the other is a prequel to Eerie. But mainly coming-of-age is very near and dear to my heart. There’s very few TV shows and films that I could relate to growing up, so my next goal is making a coming-of-age film that can possibly cater to misfits. It’ll be a challenge for me to dig deep and do a heartfelt story, but it’s a challenge I want to take.”

Tenement 66 is now streaming on iWantTFC, KTX.ph, and TFC IPTV, as well as on SKY Pay-Per-View and Cignal Cable Pay-Per-View

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