Richard V. Somes’s film, We Will Not Die Tonight (Philippines 2018) has its World Premiere tonight, June 29, as part of the 17th New York Asian Film Festival. The film stars Erich Gonzales as Kray, a down-on-her-luck stuntwoman who stumbles into a dangerous situation with her friends and ends up having to fight for her life against a vicious gang. I had a chance to speak with Somes, in NYC to present the film, about shooting on a tight schedule and budget, stunt work in the Philippines, and the greatness of The Warriors.
CSB: I understand you shot this film in eight days. How did you manage that?
SOMES: It was all about making the crew and the actors feel comfortable with long hours of work and long hours of action and fight scenes. I said to them, “This has no budget, and this is a passion project for us, you can always say no.” But, of course, the main actress, Erich, she really wanted to do the film. So I surrounded her with a lot of friends, and most of the actors I tapped to be producers. They didn’t ask for compensation or anything, but my offer to them was that they would be producers and get back-end, hoping we could distribute it or sell it somewhere. And the plan totally worked. They were more passionate because they were also producers, so they wanted to do their best, so that we could sell the project someday.
CSB: Was Erich Gonzales always attached to the project?
SOMES: Yes, she was attached from the beginning. We made two films together already, and the one before this was also kind of edgy. So I knew that she would enjoy working on this film, she would love it. Because it’s pure kinetic energy, very edgy. I believe Erich is really looking for projects like this.
CSB: Did she have to do any kind of special training for the action scenes?
SOMES: It was more basics. It’s totally different doing action scenes in the Philippines compared to Hong Kong, or even compared to Korea. Our action scenes are more old-school, very western. If you watch a lot of early films with stunts, some of them are good and some of them are not very good, but you can see how we do stunts. So I said to Erich and my stunt coordinator, “Let’s not go martial arts, let’s not go too slick, because we cannot do that, we don’t have time for training or preparation, but what we can do is make it feel real.” And since her role here is stunt woman, if it comes out a little crude and awkward, that’s OK. Because that’s how it’s done in the Philippines. Part of it, it’s my tribute to how the stunt industry works in the Philippines.
Erich did some training on safety, and where to put her feet. And also, a little Muay Thai training. Just some kicks and punches, how to use the knife and the bolo. So her training was more of a basic, “How do I avoid getting hurt and make it safer.” And the Muay Thai was more on muscle control in terms of movement and choreography.
CSB: What about the rest of the main cast, were any of them stunt people?
SOMES: They were all dramatic actors, and some of them are comedians. I cast them because I didn’t want to typecast the parts. I cast them on how they would understand the characters and how they would look on screen. I made sure they had some small amount of training, but it was more about the nuances of the characters.
CSB: I did notice that the fighting was more brutal and realistic, and less in the Hong Kong style. One thing that really stood out to me, was that every death scene looked elaborate and painful and draw-out.
SOMES: Thank you. That’s something I really wanted to achieve. It was a question of how we were going to depict violence here, and how we were going to execute violence. I wanted to make it more painful and allow the audience to experience the pain, of being stabbed by a piece of glass or being hammered by a pipe. Because I just wanted to prolong the pain and see how my characters and my actors were going to survive it. Even with Erich. I said to her before doing the film, “We cannot go middle ground here, we’re either not going to do this kind of violence or we’re going to really push the limits. Are you ready for that? Everyone knows you as a sweet romantic actress and now you’re going to do something like this.” We don’t want to shock everybody, but we want to let the audience feel the process and what it would feel like to die at the hands of these people who are not going to kill you instantly but are going to make you feel the pain.
CSB: How did you find a location for the shoot? It looks like it was shot all in one giant industrial building.
SOMES: We have a lot of slum areas in Manila. But I said to my staff and my design and lighting crew and to my cinematographer, this time around, let’s do something that is more industrial and menacing in terms of scale. To achieve a kind of post-apocalyptic feel. We wanted something new in terms of a backdrop for the film, instead of always slum areas. More like an abandoned city, being torn apart by business. So we shot it near a port area, because near the port there are a lot of abandoned buildings that have been shut down by the government. And I knew there were a lot of big trucks and dark alleys that are seldom seen in Philippine settings. Fortunately, we were allowed to shoot there, and the whole location could just be in one area. That helped to make me confident that we can finish this in just eight days. We could just go run and gun.
CSB: How did you get the look of the film, because it’s very grimy, neon-infused, and dark? Did you use filters or shoot at night?
SOMES: I couldn’t afford major lighting there. So what I did was use fluorescent lights and wrap them in candy paper. That’s where my background in production design came in handy. We could not afford to go overboard on lighting and designs, so I decided to go ultra-realistic.
CSB: The set up seems to be at least in part inspired by Walter Hill’s classic The Warriors, I’m curious if that was the case and if there were other films that inspired you?
SOMES: It was really The Warriors. If you look at all the survival films now, like The Purge, like Judgment Night back in the ‘90s, the template comes from The Warriors. If you look at the vests that the characters were wearing, that was my wink to the audience. You see somebody with a vest, and you know it’s Michael Beck and James Remar (laughs). But I didn’t want to go overboard, like having them wear leather jackets, because that wouldn’t be realistic and might confuse the audience, more just a cut of jacket that a Warriors fan might notice as my homage.
CSB: You have made films in the action and horror and romance genres, which do you like working in the most?
SOMES: I’m very comfortable doing horror and action. That’s where my creative juices really come out. When you’re making a romantic film, you know there are templates on how they’re done. Me, I’m a more energetic guy. With an action or horror film, it’s more about problem-solving and it excites me more. And I am truly a genre director. I want to make the kind of films that inspired me when I was a child. This is my first attempt to make a different kind of film in the Philippines. Forget about the story, I wanted pure kinetic energy. It was fun to explore my capacities as a director, and the capacities of the crew and actors working on it. For example, the actor who plays the lead villain, he used to be a model. But when I saw him, he had stubble and a crewcut, so I said, “You fit the role, but you’re not going to say anything, you’re going to act with your eyes.”
CSB: Even though it is not a horror film, there are some very horrific elements. For example, the villains are butchering street kids for their organs. Is that an actual concern in the Philippines or just to show how awful the villains are?
SOMES: It’s an alarming problem in the Philippines now. When you watch the news, kids are being butchered and thrown in the dump like a piece of meat. It’s very different than it is with drugs, because with drugs, the government and the police can identify the players, but they still don’t know who is doing this. Is it being done by a syndicate, or foreigners, or just ordinary people, is anyone in the government or police involved? What in the world made people decide that this would be their business? I put a scene in the film based on true facts where the mother comes into the room full of killers with a newspaper and says, “Look you were in the news.” I was told this happened in real life by someone in the police. It was a normal thing for these people, and one of their housemates reported to the police that she overheard a mother saying to her children “You were in the news again.”
CSB: Several films you worked on have screened in the NYAFF in the past, like Gagamboy and Violator. How does it feel to have a film that you directed in the Festival?
SOMES: It’s amazing and memorable for me because I cannot believe we got here despite being such a small film. Sometimes when I’m working, I question what I’m doing or whether I’m going to have to compromise my craft as a director in order to survive. It’s hard to direct in the Philippines because there is a lot of competition and only a few producers. When I was shooting, nobody believed in me, except my crew and my actors. Nobody thought it would go somewhere.
And I’ve made a film that gives a special tribute to the stuntmen and stuntwomen in the Philippines who are particularly unnoticed and underpaid. The opening scene of the film, where the stuntwoman thinks she’s going to get paid a certain amount and the producer says, “Hey, I was told that you did not finish your scene so that’s all you’re going to get,” that’s my tribute to them. And the actor who plays Erich’s father, Baldo Marro, was one of the great stuntman of the Philippines, but unfortunately, he won’t be able to see the film, because three weeks later he died. It was his last film. And I dedicated the film to him. But doing this film was very inspirational, art and film should always be like that.
CSB: What’s next for you?
SOMES: Well, I’m planning a sequel for it already, hoping it will be recognized and we can find distribution. The title of the next film is Never See the Daylight, and I’m hoping I can get it funded. And maybe get a bigger budget.
CSB: You did mention that the budget was very low. How low are we talking about?
SOMES: Because everyone was working for free, our principal photography ended up running around $30,000 US.
Thanks to Richard V. Somes for his time, and to Emma Griffiths for arranging this interview.