‘Midnight In A Perfect World’ director Dodo Dayao: “Genre films give you aesthetic wiggle room to literalise impossible ideas”

The Filipino filmmaker talks putting a different spin on stale horror tropes, not spoon-feeding the viewer and more

He’s the toast of Manila’s independent horror cinema, but for Dodo Dayao, the dreaded sophomore slump was as debilitating as the unspeakable spooks he’s projected to the screen. After the critical success of his 2014 debut feature Violator – which won Best Film at Cinema One Originals – the filmmaker set out to do something “as far away from it as possible”. And when an attempt at such started fizzling out, he says, “I was in a mild state of panic.”

“I was thinking, what do I do now? Should I teach? I mean, filmmaking was no longer just a gig; it was my livelihood.”

He gathered his marbles, reworked his pitch deck for Globe Studios, and brought in a spare tyre: a short originally titled The Way The Light Fails. In the end, it was the spare that got picked up, reimagined as a feature, and retooled as Midnight In A Perfect World.

A Globe Studios and Epicmedia co-production which debuted via QCinema in November 2020, Midnight In A Perfect World is both mood piece and veiled commentary. In its unnerving tale of a near-future Manila where past-midnight blackouts transport random people into a horrifying parallel world, it has the stuff of nightmares.

It stars Jasmine Curtis-Smith (playing Mimi), Glaiza de Castro (Jinka), Anthony Falcon (Glenn), and Dino Pastrano (Tonichi) as four friends with disparate belief systems facing a shared dread. It debuted on streaming platform Upstream on January 29 and has since secured Dayao a Best Director citation at the inaugural Pinoy Rebyu Awards, mounted by the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers.

Midnight In A Perfect World, Dodo Dayao
Dodo Dayao (left). Credit: Geric Cruz

The premise for Midnight, Dayao says, came to him in a dream, one he’s having difficulty recounting but remembers as being anchored on Martial Law-era curfews. He was then just a child with a restless imagination, and generally took those curfews to spell certain harm – the understatement of the year, for sure – to those who would even consider breaking them.

Dayao approached the Midnight story as a multi-faceted project – dystopian portrait, character study, a rap on psychogeography – balancing his hesitant exposition with a hyper-sensory atmosphere rife with claustrophobia and uncertainty.

NME speaks to the filmmaker regarding his misgivings about Midnight being painted as a pseudo-political vehicle, his thoughts on the genre, and why he would much rather be taken literally.

Midnight is obviously an allegory for something else: the historical horrors that Filipinos face. And they’re mirror histories, too: today’s Duterte-led Philippines and military rule during the ’70s. How much of you wanted the film to be taken as allegory, and how much of you wanted it to just be consumed at face value?

To be very, very honest, I’m a little iffy about aggressively parsing the film semiotically as, ‘Hey, this implies this, and this stands for this’. I mean, sure, [the politics are] there. Some people have even called it heavy-handed, but there are also others who appreciated it more because of those metaphors. It’s unavoidable – and it’s embedded in the film, for sure – but personally, I would rather that people take it literally. I mean, that’s why I do genre films; they give you aesthetic wiggle room to literalise impossible ideas.

So, as much as I appreciate people who pick up on the Easter eggs and the allusions, it’s more interesting, for me, for the film to be taken literally: Yes, there is a mysterious blackout; someone who steals the moon; a house with no windows that’s bigger on the inside; a drug called Magic Star that can make you see all sorts of things.

“If you want a Scooby-Doo ending, maybe I’m not your guy”

It’s comforting to hear that you welcome the inescapability of those readings, though. Because, after all, it’s not thickly veiled.

When we were screening Violator – in Europe, in [different parts of] Asia – everybody was asking me about the politics of it. And the most truthful answer I could come up with was, I never intended for the politics to be upfront; it’s just that, I mean, we live in a country where, as a citizen, those politics are hard to escape. It’s mostly osmosis; it’s part of the texture of our lives.

That’s how Midnight is, too. I mean, Martial Law wasn’t a reality for me, necessarily – I was too young to feel its ramifications – but we now live in a time where it sort of mirrors that. But, man, we’ve been living for, what, four years now with… whatever it is we’re living with. It has seeped its way in. It just comes out, whether we like it or not. Which is sort of unfortunate.

Being a Filipino filmmaker working in this genre, what did you feel you were changing or contributing to that body of work?

I got asked a similar question about the first film, and I got into trouble because I was very critical about the cliches of the genre, particularly in the Philippines. The long answer is that, for the last 10 to 20 years, indie has propelled Philippine cinema to the world stage.

And I hope this doesn’t sound like a cop-out, but coming to it later than our friends who were doing it a few years ahead, I thought, ‘Oh, so these are the standards now. I have to catch up’. And I had my indie awakening through the first-wave [indie] filmmakers – Khavn [De La Cruz], John Torres, Raya Martin – so I had that benchmark, and I had to think outside the confines of country…

Or history.

Yeah. Anyway, I tried to narrowcast it into genre, since I’m a lifelong fan of [horror]. And I noticed that I found even foreign horror films wanting – if you take them against horror fiction, for instance, which has really grown tremendously. There’s people like Ramsey Campbell, a British writer who started writing in the ’60s, who does a very quiet kind of horror that’s very understated but always leaves something with you. He was very enthusiastically recommended by Stephen King.

There’s also the new wave of horror writers like Josh Malerman – who wrote Bird Box – and Paul Tremblay. Also people like Kelly Link and Laird Barron. Even Clive Barker was doing far more interesting things [in horror lit] compared to the films coming out at the time.

To me, the only time the genre got a real burst of energy was during the boom of Japanese horror, and also when The Blair Witch Project came out, and after that, a renewed energy with the A24 and Blumhouse films.

Midnight In A Perfect World, Anthony Falcon
Anthony Falcon in ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’. Credit: Geric Cruz

There’s, culturally, an allegiance to the genre’s tropes in Midnight, but intellectually, a palpable desire to break free from them.

As for levelling up my game, that’s what I look at: Can I avoid all the tropes and cliches? Can I not make another vampire film if I can help it, seriously, or movies with long-haired ghost women? Or even local myths, which we’ve terribly cannibalised? Or have a priest appear in the third act to provide all the answers? Midnight is my version of a haunted house film, in many ways. There are tropes, sure, but given a different spin.

I also like how there’s no hand-holding in terms of laying down the premise for the viewers. The premise just is, and it’s something that’s scattered across the film. No character spells things out, for example. [laughs]

I don’t mean for the film to be obtuse. It just feels uncomfortable when you’re aware that you’re spoon-feeding. You sort of want to come into it trusting the audience. In this idea of world-building – one that’s diametrically opposed to what we know – it’s necessary to have a ‘blind spot’, to quote-unquote the film. That gives it a different energy for me.

I’m guessing, without putting words into your mouth, that you lean towards speculative stuff above everything, regardless of whether they’re horror or not.

Even when I write for other directors, I made it something of a rule that, dude, if you want a Scooby-Doo ending, maybe I’m not your guy.

Midnight in a Perfect World is streaming on Upstream now

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