An Interview with Sonny Calvento on 'The Decaying'

Suspicion consumes. Left unchecked, it will rot individuals from inside out and ravage entire communities. In small town Philippines, it’s practically wildfire.

In the crime thriller The Decaying, the disappearance of a Filipina mother sparks hysteria in her close-knit village. Suspicion falls all too quickly on her American husband Jason, a muscle-bound boor who is attempting to leave the country. His ill-timed behaviour does him no favours but, as in reality, the truth is far from certain.

Veteran screenwriter-turned-director Sonny Calvento clouds the truth in the subtlest of ways, threading a patchwork of hints and observations that never coalesce into a definitive whodunit. The result is an amorphous thriller that’s light on answers but rich in atmosphere. Viewers looking for a low-key political parable steeped in tension will find this a rewarding watch.

The Decaying begins when Jason abruptly fires his housekeeper Ingrid, who happens to be the cousin of his missing wife. Ingrid’s son soon catches Jason washing what appears to be blood-stained laundry, igniting her crusade that will last the rest of the film. But as she leaps into her vigilante investigations, Calvento slips in little hints that throw her lurid suspicions into doubt. Right after we see Jason washing the “bloody” laundry, we see a villager picking up an innocuous bucket of red paint—who’s to say what Jason was washing?

Calvento sows subtle clues like this throughout the film. They are clues that the characters do not see, or elect not to see; clues that take us further from the answers, yet closer to the truth—that Ingrid is operating on pure suspicion and not much else. It’s a clever approach to the film that builds to some genuinely nail-biting scenes. The viewer sees more than any one character, but does not know any better.

Set against President Duterte’s call for separation from the United States, the film also suggests a latent xenophobia underlying the locals’ actions. Like the other clues, this political edge is only briefly alluded to but provides timely commentary on the state of the world in this era of post-truth politics and rising nationalism. We see what we choose to see.

The Decaying sets up a blank canvas on which viewers can project and interrogate their biases. Perhaps Ingrid is right, perhaps she isn’t. I believe Calvento is more interested in your verdict than he is in the crime.

Director Sonny Calvento on set

SINdie conducted an email interview with writer-director Sonny Calvento on his debut feature.

SINdie: What was your inspiration behind this film?

Sonny Calvento: My father was a famous crime show host in the mid-1990s, best known in the Philippines for the hit television series Calvento Files. When I was seven years old I answered a death threat meant for him. My dad became very protective after that and I spent most of my day inside the house, where I had all the time to read his crime cases for his television show. This probably explains the urge to do a crime thriller/social study for my first feature film.

A year before principal photography, I came across a true story similar to the one you see in The Decaying. An American father and his two elder daughters gunned his philandering Filipina wife, chopped her body up and hid the pieces in a septic tank in their backyard. After the mother disappeared, rumours of murder started to spread amongst the neighbours. I was more interested in and disturbed by this part of the tragedy—the things that happened after the supposed killing and how the community collectively reacted to the rumours.

One thing I admire about your film is how it wraps socio-political commentary in the conventions of the accessible thriller genre. Why did you choose to work in this genre for this film?

I want my work to point out to my country issues that are relevant to them. My goal was always to marry social commentary with genre, but it wasn’t my original intention to make a thriller. My first draft was a psychological horror about a son who sees visions of his murdered mother.

But having been completed Armando Lao’s Found Story workshop, I felt a social responsibility to interview the people involved in the case that inspired this story. The thriller genre came naturally after I conducted the interviews. The neighbourhood’s real life investigation into the case played out just like a thriller, where no one knows what happened and the truth has to be slowly uncovered.

You’re a television screenwriter by profession and it shows in the screenplay. I particularly appreciate how your scenes kept me hooked by ending with more questions than answers, much like a television series. What was the biggest challenge in making the leap from the writer’s room to the director’s chair?

The biggest challenge in making the leap from writer to director is figuring out what to sacrifice. As a writer, I know everything in the script was written with a purpose. But when it comes to the shoot, there are many factors that affect the execution of that “perfect” script, from the limited budget to last-minute changes in locations and weather.

As a writer, it saddened me to sacrifice some things. But as a director, I forced myself to do it. Principal photography is a different ball game and I accept that. 

I thought you nailed the casting but it must have been a challenge to direct both local and foreign actors on the same set. What was your process behind the casting?

When I was casting for The Decaying, I get my actors to act the simplest scenes—scenes without much range, drama or expression. I want to see how they act with sincerity. The tone of the film requires their acting to be realistic as possible. Casting Jason was the most challenging and we had more than ten actors audition. Billy Ray Gallion was in the United States when he auditioned for the film through a video clip. I was immediately convinced that he was perfect for the role because he speaks so much through his eyes. He can appear intimidating and humane at the same time just through his eyes.

The biggest complication in directing foreign and local actors on the same set is getting foreign actors to understand the culture on set in the Philippines. Billy is used to shooting in Hollywood where working hours aren’t as long as what we’re used to in the Philippines. Comfort could also be a challenge since we were working on a tight budget in a remote province without accessible electricity. But luckily, Billy adapted to our situation easily. He was able to understand our situation and his performance exceeded my expectations.

I also noticed how politically charged your film is. Many Philippine films that comment on President Duterte’s administration have targeted his severe approach to the Philippine Drug War. On the other hand, your film highlights his foreign policy—in particular, his call for separation from the United States. Why did you choose to talk about this in your film?

As part of the Found Story school of filmmaking, I believe in making films that tell more than the just the story of the main characters. The main story is only a vehicle to expose the state of the society around it.

I wanted to connect our president’s stand against the United States with his authorisation of extrajudicial killings to show his decisions’ far-reaching impact on the marginalised. The question I’m asking is whether our president is doing the right thing or is time to challenge his beliefs and policies.

We were in pre-production at the time when President Duterte had just been elected. His first order was to eliminate the drug problem in our country through extrajudicial killings. It was a time when verdicts were reached before guilt was proven. The neighbourhood in The Decaying reflects our changing Filipino society, one that executes judgement without concrete evidence.

Philippine cinema celebrated its 100th anniversary last year and has seen a rising prominence on the global stage. What are your thoughts on your country’s filmmaking scene, and where do you see it in the coming years?

Filipinos generally prefer films with classical Hollywood narratives. The formula of 1990s Hollywood love stories still remains a hit with local audiences. But I’m very optimistic that our taste in films will diversify in the coming years. I’d like to think it has already started since there is a growing interest in independent films. Most of them are still rom-coms but the content has started to deviate from the usual mainstream rom-coms.

Making indie films in the Philippines is very possible even if you have a limited budget. In fact, we’re the leading country in the region when it comes to number of independent films produced in a year. Independent producers are especially supportive of first-time directors and they are all aggressively making films. I hope that that aggression and optimism for Philippine Cinema will pay off eventually.

Interview answers have been edited for clarity.

Written by Joshua Ng
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