STOP10: Denise O'Hara on 'Mamang' and family

This lady has left several marks throughout the festival. First, she wrote the quirky rom-com Kuya Wes, then she masterminded the one-take bedroom drama Mr Wiggles. Finally, she also has her own feature entry about an ageing woman battling Alzheimer’s titled Mamang. She is Denise O’Hara, somewhat a storytelling genius. In all three works, her sense of humour and superb comic timing is palpable, and she knew the right emotional buttons to push. We giggled at all the little antics Kuya Wes would use to gain the attention of Erika. We gagged when Mr Wiggles sprung out of the drawer and then took sides when the couple, underwear precariously hanging from their bodies, shot verbal offensives at each other. With Mamang, we sighed, we swooned, we swayed as Tita Mamang struggled to get through her daily routines, with a lot of energy spent chasing away her demons, literally.

Mamang lives with her son Ferdie, a young kind soul, who takes care of her and is there to catch her whenever she loses her step, and mind. One really wonders what kind of young man is willing to sacrifice his freedom and personal to play nurse to his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother. They even sleep on the same bed! Mamang, the film can in fact be thought of as rhythmic waltz through daily life and its routines. Except that, her inner demons make every event of the day colourful and slightly hysterical. Eventually, the dance picks up tempo and culminates in a little surprise, somewhat taking a leaf from Denise’s book of serendipitous plot turns.

Amidst her multiple engagements, Denise found time to generously answer some of our questions about Mamang, her craft in writing and directing and being part of a family of filmmakers.

Jeremy (J): What is it about the subject matter that got you interested to make this film?
Denise (D): What got me interested is the enduring love between people especially between a mother and his son. I saw this with my grandmother and her children. She has 12 children, buried 4, including an uncle, whom I considered as a second father. When he passed away she said she wouldn’t be able to handle burying another son. Unfortunately, another one got sick and after that, she deteriorated very quickly and passed away a month after. When she was deteriorating, she kept seeing images from her past. And what’s interesting is she would forget what she said two minutes ago, but she would remember the smell of a fruit or a flower so vividly she felt like she was somehow transported in another time.

That was the creative spark which ignited the story and I felt that this story is something that a lot of people would be able to relate to. I also felt that there are very few stories about getting old and what they go through as they get closer to death – and while we may see death as something to be afraid of, for people who have been here long enough and been hurt enough – it’s different. And I wanted to tell that story.
J: Do you have a personal encounter with Alzheimer’s disease? How was it?
D: My lola (grandmother) went through it herself and during those times I saw how difficult it was for her and for her children who took turns taking care of her. It’s always difficult to see someone you love go through it – for me what was poignant and scary about it was seeing how she struggled with memories she  has tried to bury deep in her heart. I felt like I was watching someone cleanse or purge herself of all the pain and joy that she went through in her lifetime by reliving them. And it’s almost funny how in the end, no one can really run away from their past, because in the end, everything will come back and all our efforts to keep these memories hidden at the deepest recesses of our minds and our hearts would have been in vain.
J: What’s unique about the story?

D: I think what’s unique in this story is the tone which we applied – the humor which we found in the material given how depressing the subject matter is. It’s very Filipino in that sense I think. After all this is a country who can take selfies in the middle of a super typhoon. And it’s not that we are irreverent – it’s just that for humor has always been part of our survival kit and that sensibility may or may not be good for nation building but it is necessary for survival.
J: Why cast Celeste Legaspi in the role?
D: Ms Celeste Legaspi has always been my first choice because the character needed to travel between her past and present and she is one of those rare actors who can deliver the nuances of someone old and yet register the innocence of a young girl, or laugh like it’s the first time she has has fallen in love, or the pain of being betrayed by a husband – that sort of range is very rare but something that I know Ms Celeste could deliver.
J: Do you feel the pressure of being compared to your uncle Mario O’Hara?
D: There is that pressure but its not an unfamiliar pressure – it’s something that we’ve gotten used to the minute we entered the industry. It’s something that he himself has told us would happen so it’s something I’ve learned to live with.
J: How was it like working with a veteran like Celeste?
D: I was very intimidated when I first sat down with Ms Celeste, to be honest. She is an icon, an institution but the great thing about her is she treated me the way she treated all her directors. She is very professional and both of them understood the concept. Ms Celeste has this innate capability to connect with people – like in between takes or during meal times she would sit with all of us and just talk about different things and since we don’t have a lot of budget all of them shared the same standby area and I think somehow that helped in creating a rapport between them.
J: How did Celeste deal with the nudity scene?
D: We were laughing about that! She was the first one who laughed about it. She was very appreciative of the tone and humor of the film and so we had fun doing that scene. All of us were intrigued and excited with how the scene would turn out.
J: How was your experience working with Ketchup? (and Congratulations to him for winning Best Supporting Actor at Cinemalaya)
D: Working with Ketchup was a blast. He is so professional and serious about what he does, and I appreciate that. After each take, he's the one who's really gonna come up to me and ask if I had notes. Problem is sometimes I don’t have notes because he already did it so well. I also have to note how he is such a generous actor--he knows the point of each scene and he works with everyone to make that point clearer-regardless whose scene it was. It helps that he's really an intelligent actor with a strong grasp of the narrative and the characters, not just his own but everyone else's.
J: Was there a lot of improvisation on the acting on set?
D: A fair amount I think. But we all stayed true to the script because I revised the script after our read through and our preproduction so all of their insights and character adjustments were already incorporated in the script. Still, we’ve had to adjust some lines on the set.
J: Could you share some of your adventures on set?
D: I think the one thing we will never forget is when we were during the most dramatic scene in the film and Ketchup and Ms Celeste were dancing and that’s when Ms Celeste realized what was really happening and she collapsed supposedly and Ketchup caught her and tried to support her – anyway, at that point, his pants actually ripped open – but none of us knew about it until after the take, he didn’t want to break character, he wanted to stay in the moment because it was a very difficult scene and he didn’t want to break Ms Celeste’s build up and so he kept quiet about it until after we cut the scene. Afterwards we were all laughing about it and I was so happy because it just shows how professional and thoughtful my actors were of each other.
J: What type of films interest as a filmmaker and what kind of career would you like to pursue?
D: I started as a writer, I still am. I don’t think I will ever stop writing but directing has given me new tools to tell a story which I’m very happy to pursue. In terms of what type of films interest me, I think it’s safe to say that whether as a writer or as a director, I’ll always be leaning towards stories of women – how their context defined them as women and how they articulate nuances related to their context.
J: How did your family influence you growing up?
D: I think what I got from him is my love for reading – both from my dad and my uncle. I remember how our lunch would spill over to meryenda to dinner because we were discussing something we’ve read or seen – I was really privileged to have grown up with men who are very open, in fact encouraged us to say what is on our mind, and to have our own opinion. And I think this is really my take away from them.
J: Where do you see yourself as a filmmaker? Someone with a more commercial slant, or arthouse slant? Or somewhat a straddle between the 2 worlds?
D: I think at this point-- I will always be straddling both worlds. I mean, for me its always about finding new modes of narratives and storytelling but always the purpose is to connect with my audience. So--with that objective, I don’t really see myself going really experimental but I'm still new and I wouldn't want to limit myself right now. Maybe in another three years, my answer would be different. Interview and photos by Jeremy Sing

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