Months into Manila’s COVID lockdowns last year, Erik Matti’s team were busy mobilising high-powered backhoes on set. One couldn’t expect anything less rigorous, especially from the sequel to the 2013 film On The Job, which is, after all, one of the Bacolod-born filmmaker’s most well-received thrillers.
It’s been nearly a decade since the buzzy film about prisoners-as-hitmen-for-hire made its glowing debut at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes to a standing ovation. Matti tells NME that he’s had several offers to do a follow-up film since, but he dislikes being predictable.
“I don’t want to do a sequel that feels like Mission Impossible where it opens with a big scene from Tom Cruise, the case is presented, he investigates, discovers the villain, they fight,” Matti says. “That’s been the formula if you look at all seven Mission Impossible movies.”
But as it happens, a fresh story that stood on its own – conceived by Matti and written largely by his wife, acclaimed screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto – would send them on their way. On The Job 2: The Missing 8 follows new characters including Sisoy (played skilfully by John Arcilla), a journalist trying to unravel the disappearance of his newspaper colleagues in the fictional town of La Paz. Meanwhile, Roman (a mullet- and prosthetic-nose-sporting Dennis Trillo) is the lead hitman-inmate on the job.
There’s a lot to unpack in the sequel, and by the end of our two-hour convo, Matti’s invited NME to see the film’s rough final cut. It’s a thickly laid, tension-rife movie that goads an influx of feelings. He’s well aware of OTJ2’s ambitious complexity, which explains why it’s his lengthiest film yet.
“I ended up with a three-hour and 28-minute movie,” he reveals, adding that they’re concluding post-production by February’s end. NME sits down with Erik Matti to talk about filming On The Job 2: The Missing 8 during lockdown and why it’s his angriest film to date.
How much of On The Job 2’s scenes were already shot pre-pandemic, and how much did you need to shoot during the lockdowns?
We only had three days to shoot during lockdown, and the first of the three days that we shot were not just two people talking inside the house – there were high-powered backhoes digging. We had to shoot chase scenes and shoot-outs. We also had to use special effects like blank bullets, explosions, and we had to get permits from all these barangays [neighbourhoods]. This was around June last year when the lockdowns were loosening, the industry then was just coming up with protocols so we had to go through what the IATF [COVID Inter-Agency Task Force] provided us. And it was really, really tough.
That’s pretty intense. How many people were on set?
On a normal shoot prior to the lockdown, we had 228 people on the set, and with a big cast, it goes up to 240. So we had to weed out some departments to lessen the people on set, but because the scenes are so complex, we still ended up with a 150-person crew on a lockdown shoot. Imagine how scary that was. The good thing was most of those scenes were shot in open spaces. On the last day, we ended up finishing around 7am because it’s do or die – we just had to get things done once and for all.
“All my characters are grey… They are not black villains or white saints”
It’s a complicated story arc. Is a trilogy in the works, maybe? What’s the plan for the film’s release?
The cinemas are still closed but we’re anticipating that if they open, we might have to split the movie in two just so it’s a little more enticing for the audience. We don’t want to be arrogant and say it’s a good movie, but you need to be patient because it’s three hours and 28 minutes long. Right now, it’s edited as a film, but we also have the option of turning it into a four-episode series and selling it to a strong platform. We’re really looking at something global. And yes, we’re doing a third movie, but that might be the end of the franchise. The first one was set in Manila, the second is set in the province, the third movie we’ll be bringing back characters from the first two.
Sounds exciting. But back to the sequel – if not as you say, a formulaic Mission Impossible-esque sequel, what’s familiar and different about The Missing 8?
The original idea for On The Job was to pick certain “professions” in society and find out how difficult it is to tread it. In the case of the first one, there’s that of the prisoners, the cops, and the politicians. So for the sequel, there were several industries in the country that I wanted to look into which were involved in corruption, and I chose the media.
The Missing 8 picks up where the first OTJ left off. It’s still built around prisoners being brought out of prison to kill, but the dynamics have changed because we had to introduce new characters involved in journalism along with the politicians, the cops, the prisoners. So it became a four-way story with characters of their own. It became a totally different movie.
It also feels a lot heavier than the first thriller. And your go-to musical director Erwin Romulo mentioned a while back that this was your angriest film. Care to expound on that?
[Laughs] I think for On The Job, I guess… yes, it’s the angriest I’ve been. But what I do mostly in my films is to explore. I’m interested in processes: how does a newspaper get its news? How does one build a church in the guise of getting money from its parishioners? Those are things that matter to me. There’s a lot of research that went into it. Of course, we found out that in small towns mainly you have politicians taking care of newspapers and radio stations, and that’s where the problems with self-interest come in.
But I’m not judgmental at all in the way I tell my movies. Not judgmental, meaning I can show the worst side of things but all my characters are grey. They are not black villains or white saints. And that’s what I’m interested in. So On The Job, I ask, “If corruption happens, why does it happen? Why is it happening?” So, yes, it’s an angry movie.
So much of what happens in OTJ2 has parallels in real life. What was the fear, if any, going into it?
There’s a kind of meta part to it where it happens in its own bubble, but it also talks about real things that’s happening in the government. So I think, going further back, what I’m scared of really is – yes, people understand that the first On The Job was a good thriller because it’s shot sleek and it’s well-made. So it loses a bit of its authenticity in the things I want to say, because at the end of the day, after they leave the cinema, they tend to forget that it’s about real things happening. Because they’re just thinking, “Oh, it’s just a movie.”
“I want to do movies that thrill, that excite…but [I] want some parts to matter more than excitement and thrill”
So the fear is that the film is dismissed as a sleek thriller as opposed to a social commentary?
Yeah, but I don’t mind. That maybe shields me from getting killed, right? [laughs] But you want some parts to matter more than just excitement and thrill. Yes, they can discuss it at Starbucks for a longer conversation. But also, they could think, “Oh fuck yeah, he’s actually talking about this and this.” As opposed to “That chase scene was great. Did you see Dennis Trillo’s nose?” Because how I see it, that’s why you make movies.
Of course, I want to do movies that thrill, that excite, that make the audience get their money’s worth. But at the same time, it’s your most expensive Facebook post as well. It’s you sharing your point of view on things. Your insights on why things happen.
How important is music in your films?
For all my films, I really think of what kind of music I want. But for OTJ2, because we’re dealing with politicians as gangsters, I wanted a really strong gangster film, feel-wise. So we got old standards: Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, The Animals. Those music are perfect because old [Filipino] politicians would listen to the same guys. John Arcilla’s character sings Tom Jones’ ‘You’re My World’ on the karaoke in one scene because that’s the governor’s favourite song.
It’s the first time we allotted that much money for foreign music because I feel it’s integral for the story itself. But we also have Filipino songs that hark back to OTJ1. We have Anthony Castello with ‘Balatkayo’. We have Sampaguita. Yoyoy Villame, Noel Cabangon, Radioactive Sago Project, Francis M, The Jerks. One of my favourites, Wally Gonzales’ ‘Wally’s Blues’, is in a really important scene in the movie. So pretty much like the first one we had a lot of Pinoy music in there too. But this time we didn’t choose the obscure ones because it should have a karaoke feel to it. I love working with music.
Your films have been described as brutal, edgy, and irreverent. But what’s an element that’s perhaps overlooked in the two decades you’ve been in the business?
I guess the most different of all my films are the ones they tend to gravitate towards. But really if you look at my filmography, no two things are alike. I think what I’m really proud of with the movies I make is treating each film as its own. I don’t do the same kind of movie or storytelling over and over again. After the first OTJ, even though many people wanted me to do a similar movie, I went straight to Honor Thy Father. [In 2001] I wrote and shot a love story that not many people saw called Ang Huling Paghihintay. The lines were so cheesy my friends would tease me, “Sonofabitch Erik, you did that? That’s embarrassing!” I always challenge myself to do things I haven’t done before, and sometimes with things like that, you get results that aren’t favourable to you. Maybe it fails to an audience, at the box office, or critically, but I knew that I wanted to try something and I did.
I think On The Job is the first of a kind of style I’m doing now which is moving towards a more complicated storytelling structure. It’s a kind of documentary, but the way I would do it. In my movies now, I’m not scared to fail.
On The Job: The Missing 8 is coming soon