STOP10: Perci Intalan on 'Distance' and dialogue

There is a glaring abundance of gay characters in many of the Cinemalaya 2018 entries but stands filmmaker Perci Intalan’s Distance stands out as a film with a gripping character study on a lesbian character in a difficult situation. Liza’s female partner whom she left her husband and two kids for, has just passed away and she is dealing with the grief. For old times sake, her husband Anton invites her back to live with her family. One knows for sure it’s not going to be the same like before. The premise grips not only because of the re-assimilation drama but because we are looking at a runaway mother figure as opposed to the usual runaway father figure.

No stranger to LGBT material, Perci has produced the hit movie Born Beautiful and also directed the spinoff from that movie Die Beautiful. He has also directed an award-winning film starring Nora Aunor titled Dementia. Prior to that, he’s been producing Walt Disney shows and TV programs for almost two decades. We caught him for an interview on his Cinemalaya feature Distance, his filmmaking journey and his unique perspective on LGBT acceptance in the Philippines, as a happily married man with a son.

Jeremy (J): How was the idea for the film hatched?
Perci (P): The project actually started at the CinePanulat Screenwriting workshop of Jun Robles Lana (director of Bwakaw, Barbers Tales, Die Beautiful) that our company organized.  Keavy Vicente joined that workshop and it was there that she developed the script for Distance — then titled “Sa Pagitan ng Dito at Doon (Between Here and There)” -- and I had the pleasure of reading it and instantly fell in love with it.  I loved the simplicity of the story and yet the characters are so charged with emotion.  I didn’t think then that I would eventually be directing it and submitting it to Cinemalaya!
J:  Just curious, why the choice of a female going back to her original family instead of a male? I.e why a lesbian story instead of a gay story?
P: Interestingly me and my production company are perhaps best known for stories with gay protagonists — there’s Die Beautiful, then recently the box-office hit The Two Mrs Reyeses. It would perhaps be more predictable for me to do a gay story actually.  But I think it would be a different story.   And the challenge wouldn’t be the same.

I loved how the lesbian angle in our family story pushes our definitions of how a marriage and a family can work. The Philippines is quite matriarchal and perhaps that’s a double-edged sword.  Society looks at the father as the provider and head of the household, but we expect the mother to keep it together and be the moral compass of the family. Because of that, society imposes a standard on how women have to put their family first and have to take care of their husband and children even before themselves.  But what if we have a woman that chose to break those rules and follow her heart?  What if she wanted to be true to who she is and feels that it’s an either/or situation between herself and her family?  It becomes doubly difficult on everyone because of the expectations society imposes on women.  Women are usually forced to make a choice — oftentimes because of these expectations.
J: Why did you cast Iza in that role?
P: I had the pleasure of being Iza’s producer in a few movies prior to this and I knew that she can do so much.  The Liza character in our story is a complex character.  For one, Liza is actually a proud and strong woman for her to decide to leave her family and take care of her lover. She is ready to be hated and be ostracised from her loved ones.  But deep inside she is vulnerable.  She is pained, even if she won’t show it.  Iza captures that in one look. She can convey the strong facade and the vulnerability within. And with Iza's beauty and natural charm, you can see also why Anton can’t let Liza go.
J: Is that Iza’s first lesbian role? How did you work with her on the role?
P: Iza actually did a kissing scene with Eugene Domingo in "Barber’s Tales" and in “Bliss” there was a suggestive scene with Adrienne Vergara.  So the kissing part with Maxene Eigenmann in our film was not a big problem — though admittedly Distance had a longer and more explicit kissing scene.   Other than that, I actually did not have any other notes for her about being a lesbian.  What I told her was about how much Jen meant to Liza.  How they met in high school way before  she met Anton. How they lost contact and only found each other much later.  And what she found in Jen was the passion she couldn’t find in Anton.  Ultimately, it’s about finding the love of your life too late.  And knowing that you only have a limited amount of time with that person because of her illness.
J: What were the biggest challenges in making this film?
P: It was the restraint! I knew it could go melodramatic and purposely I wanted to pull back. I challenged myself to present a melodramatic story in a different but still emotionally charged way. I covered the scenes with multiple angles but I dropped more than half of them in post. I shot a lot of sequences based on the script, but in post production I dropped almost 30 minutes — including lots of dialogue delivered by the actors — because I wanted to bottle up the emotions even more, I wanted the audience to feel the characters' pain of not knowing everything.  
J: What’s society’s view towards LGBTs? From many Filipino movies, it seems pretty tolerant.
P: Tolerant and accepting, yes.  But we still don’t have the laws that give the LGBT community the equality we deserve. I hope with movies like Distance we continue to show the purity of LGBT relationships and see that being LGBT doesn’t make us any different as humans.
J: You have a son with your spouse Jun Lana, how accepting are people in the Philippines towards family units like this? (we can chat about this face to face if it's easier to verbalise instead of replying in text)
P: Same thing. People find it cute and say they’re happy for us.  But it will take a bit more effort to convince all of them to lobby for the equal rights that would protect our family the way families of heterosexual couples are protected.
J: What do you think is standing in the way of having change in laws that make LGBTs more equal in society? Is it religion since the Philippines is quite a religious country? Is the current political climate under Duterte (though I read somewhere that he is not anti-LGBT) Or is it the fact that society's tolerance has already led to a certain complacency towards LGBTs?
P: Oh it’s a lot of things. But one source of the problem is rooted in religion. The Philippines doesn’t even allow divorce.It’s only us and the Vatican that still hasn’t legalized it.  And then there are all sorts of provisions in our laws that still define marriage and family in the traditional way. Even if society is tolerant, we have a lot of unravelling to do with our laws. 
J: What kind of stories interest you?
P: Hmm, that’s a tough one because it like quite a range.  I guess I can just say that I like stories that have characters with genuine emotions — no matter how simple the plot is.
J: Can I assume you are more a commercial filmmaker than arthouse?
P:I guess yes, you could say that, given my background in television.
J: Do you think it is easier to achieve success as a commercial filmmaker in the Philippines or go the arthouse/film festival route and try to win awards internationally?
Which is harder in your opinion? Why?
P: I think it’s both challenging. But ultimately the bigger challenge is the business side of things.  There’s no avoiding it. You go the commercial route, you are looking at getting people to buy tickets at the box office. You go the festival route and ultimately you hope for awards that could help you market your film and get people to buy tickets at the box office or get someone to license your film for broadcast or digital platforms.  It all goes back to getting you the money to pay for the debts you incurred when you made your film and/or to pay for your next film. And while there’s a big audience out there, they really have a lot to choose from now. There are so many ways to consume content and so much content to consume. It’s very difficult to stand out and be noticed. But we do what we can. We try to win awards at various competitions. We try to get big name stars. We try to have a gimmick. They all point back to the business of entertainment. Interview and photos by Jeremy Sing

Therese Malvar made a double win for Best Supporting Actress for her roles in Distance and School Service.

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