Cinemalaya 2019 Pitstop: 'Heist School' by Julius Renomeron Jr.

 

Blame it on the Thais. They started the whole cheating game with the sensational Bad Genius. Now others have been inspired. In the spirit of Ocean's Eleven, filmmaker Julius Renomeron Jr. transplants the partners in crime trope into the compounds of a high school in the Philippines. The premise is simple, a ragtag group of students execute an elaborate plan to cheat the school exams and save their grades. While the familiar exam cheating premise borders on imitation, the methods of cheating are delightfully original, employing a mix of simple distractions, key duplications and one of the oldest tricks in the playbook - ghosts. 

To salvage their friendship, Joedel and Omar decide to carry out one more exam heist as they know they cannot study to save their lives, and their teacher's assertive ways keeps the class on its toes academically. In the tradition of heist flicks, they recruit a team, inked a plan literally on a broad sheet of paper for them to divide and conquer. The film maintains a robust tempo thanks to spot-on casting, spirited acting and crisp editing. The opposite of this could have been campiness, over-indulgence and becoming too much of a genre fan-boy. But Julius manages to tell an authentic story with well-grounded characters based on his own school experiences. 



Heist School, probably a play on the word High School, is an in-competition short film screening at Cinemalaya this year. Cinemalaya celebrates its 15th year in existence this year and just like in previous years, 10 original feature films and 10 short films are in competition for top honours in the film festival. For the first time in history this year, Cinemalaya goes on the road across the Philippines, bringing its screening programme to Pampamga, Ilo Ilo, Legazpi, Naga, Bacolod, Davao and of course Manila. The awards take place on 13 August. 

SINdie stole a few minutes with Julius for a peek into his short film Heist School. Here is our interview.

Have you watched Bad Genius? Was this film inspired by that? 

It’s funny because we have always been compared to Bad Genius every time we tell the premise of our story to someone. We’ve actually been joking about making a genre film most specially a heist film like this even before the release of Bad Genius but when the opportunity came to produce Heist School for our Film Production class in the University of Santo Tomas we jumped right into writing. During that time Bad Genius had been playing in Philippine cinemas and my co-writers and I swore not to watch it until we finished writing our script so that we would have little to no influence in our story writing. When we finished writing our draft that’s when we decided to see it so that we could avoid and remove any similarities in the story and execution because we knew sooner or later we’d encounter this problem. But I think our film has a different flavour than Bad Genius since we really wanted to show a very Filipino yet universal experience in our film. But being compared to it is actually not a bad thing since it’s really well done and I love that more Asian films are exploring genre films and putting their own flavour and culture into these genres that we normally see in Hollywood movies. 


What were some of the more creative ways to cheat in exams that you have seen in school? 

I think I have to admit that at certain points in my life I have cheated my way out of really difficult exams and I would be a hypocrite not to say it but never to the extent of what we did in our film. I mean who hasn’t done it at least once? HAHA! Hand signals are one of the most common ways of cheating that I have encountered. Coughing, tapping the table, having a piece of paper with answers inside their school ID case and even swapping test papers is also a recurring technique but the one that’s been bothering me and making me laugh is the one where students actually open their mobile phones, put it between their legs and then swipe for answers. I swear that takes a lot of courage and hand gymnastics not to be caught. There are actually times where I have encountered some professors/teachers that intentionally go out of the room and pretend that their students won’t cheat but those are special cases when the exam is really tough. I think they know that their exams are hard and they want to subtly help their students. 

How did you find your cast? The two leads and the teacher were outstanding in their roles.

We auditioned our cast for their roles and we picked the ones that we think could convey emotions without any dialogue since there are parts in our film that require more facial expression than dialogue. We were surprised at how our two leads had such chemistry on and off screen that we let them invent their own secret handshake which eventually made it to our film. There were a lot of people who auditioned but we carefully chose those who looked more believable as public high school students with personality and wit and I’m glad that our cast fit the bill. 


How did you get so many actors together for the school scene, or was this in collaboration with a real school? 

One of our crew members has a sister that studies in the school that we used for our film. We really scoured Metro Manila for a school that had personality and we’re glad that we found San Jose National High School in Antipolo City. The school administrators were very nice to let us shoot our film in their premises and they even let us borrow some of the students from their theater club as extras for scenes that require a lot of student extras. The biggest challenge with shooting the film was that we chose to shoot it on a regular day of classes because we didn’t want the school to feel empty during scenes where we want people on the background. It was hard to shoot it though since we can’t control the noise and the students that pass through our cameras. There were scenes where we had to completely change the location just to move away from the noise. Our opening scene where our two leads punched each other in the face was originally planned to be shot inside a covered basketball court but during filming we weren’t informed that there were students scheduled to practice for their cheerdance competition so we opted to shoot it at the staircase. It was a complete mess but thankfully we still succeeded. 


Please share with us how you worked with your actors to get the performances that you wanted. 

We discussed with our actors how friendship was an important aspect of the film and how having that chemistry would help sell the care of the characters with each other. Bryan Bacalso (Omar) and Jemuel Satumba (Joedel) our two leads had the opportunity to bond before and during our shooting schedules so they were able to work comfortable on screen. Bryan Bacalso is actually a first time actor and we were so impressed by his audtion that he became our first pick. He delivered the character who was a struggling student but had wit to life. This is actually my first time handling paid actors. Before this we were just shooting films that involved us as the actors or relatives of ours for our short films. This put so much pressure on me because it’s the first time I have to manage and make do of the time that we have for the shoot compared to having actors that you know where you can just redo and shoot scenes that last a whole afternoon. We have developed a friendship with our actors even after we screened our film. I think that what’s nice about the whole experience of meeting and collaborating with these talented and creative people is that you develop a sense of kinship with them too and that is also one of the core themes of our short film.

Heist won Audience Choice Award for Short Feature at Cinemalaya 2019.

Interview by Jeremy Sing

Julius Renomeron Jr. is a graduate of AB Communication Arts in the University of Santo Tomas last June 2019. He is passionate with the intersections of design, technology, and filmmaking. He is a freelance graphic designer and video editor.

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