Versatile writer-producer and two charismatic teen actors discuss recreating the 1990s Philippines and making a coming-of-age film…
US-based Filipina filmmaker Valerie Castillo Martinez has been dedicated to bringing underrepresented subjects and cross-cultural themes to the screen since 2014. She has worked on projects all over the world, with Death of Nintendo she makes her full-length debut as a screenwriter, returning to her memories of growing up in the 1990s Philippines. The film had its world premiere at the Berlinale in Generation 14plus section, Valerie, as well as two main Death of Nintendo actors Noel Comia Jr. and Kim Chloie Oquendo, found time to chat with easternKicks amongst the whole festival excitement.
Valerie, when I was doing the research I got to know you are a US air force veteran. How did you get interested in film? What made you decide to pursue a career in filmmaking?
Valerie: When we were living in the Philippines my mother was producing commercials, so I grew up on set. I was very comfortable with the lifestyle, the long hours, I had to wait for my mom to be done with work. She is a single mom, so I often accompanied her at work, tagging along with her in the office or onset. The environment got so familiar and it became sort of my second nature. I still had the expectation, I knew if I chose to pursue filmmaking that I would have to deal with that sort of lifestyle. And then the military was kind of a surprise when I had to move to the US. I already had a plan that after high school I would go to the same film school that Raya Martin, Death of Nintendo director, went to. The perspective of uprooting our family to move to the US altered the plans, my mom said that I have to figure out how to pay for college. My stepdad was in the air force and he said if I joined them they would pay for my school. I was 17 at that time and without considering much I jumped into it. I learned so much from it that made me a better producer. I feel the discipline, punctuality and organizational skills, all of that I think I got from the military. I think if I didn’t go to the military I wouldn’t be as persistent, as organized or as driven to make the film in a fairly short amount of time.
How was it for you guys? How did you get the part in Death of Nintendo?
Noel: For the Death of Nintendo there was casting. My dad received the call that I got the part, afterwards we came to the workshops and there I had the chance to meet and talk to fellow actors: Kim, John, Jiggerfelip, Elijah and the others. That is when we bonded with each other.
Kim: I also got the part through casting, I wasn’t able to come to the first round but I did attend the second one and talked to Valerie and Raya. That is how it started.
When you were writing the script did you incorporate a lot of memories from your childhood in the Philippines? For example sets, locations, some stories?
Valerie: Yes, definitely a lot of memories, especially from Mimaw’s perspective, it’s very much almost all from my personal experiences. The boy stuff that Mimaw is not necessarily a part of, when the scene includes only the three of them, are usually based on stories from my brother, friends or even my grandfather. The part when they throw the underwear on the wall it’s just a made-up story that my grandfather told me just to be funny, so it is not an actual thing that people do. I thought it was a very funny and visual moment so I decided to put it in the movie.
That scene was really surprising! It definitely makes an impression and I could imagine some boys do that.
Valerie: Yeah, here the scene is just for entertainment. But coming back to your question, the script is a combination of real experiences and imagined stories. If you are watching the film and you recognize the moment from your childhood, it probably means that it is from a real experience of mine or other people. The script revolves around key events like the circumcision, hunting for manananggal (a vampire-like creature) elements of Easter celebration such as procession and flagellation. These culture-specific events are all condensed into one week to happen simultaneously so it makes the narration more vivid and dynamic.
And these events reflect the situation of the main characters perfectly, because puberty is often compared to spring, then in the context of the countries influenced by Catholicism spring is closely connected to Easter. It is great how the timeline is organized and develops gradually as the celebrations proceed.
Valerie: It is very classic narrative storytelling. It is all fun and games, then you have a mission to do the ghost-hunting trip and afterwards, everything falls apart, you have the moment of discouragement. Then there is the redemption part, in Death of Nintendo there are three moments connected to this stage from each character’s perspective. Each of them has their own backstory and problems that they eventually solve. However, ultimately it is Mimaw’s plotline that is most important in the narrative and her redemption that ends the whole film. Mimaw is the character that came up already as I was writing and she is the one I identify within the film.
I was wondering was it difficult to find the props to reconstruct the early 1990s? Original vintage Sega, Nintendo games and brand sneakers?
Valerie: You would be amused to find that if you visit some homes in the Philippines, they still look as if it was the 90s. This aside, we do have a talented production design team that canvassed a lot of thrift stores and did thorough research to get the specific objects that signify the era such as certain models of Nike. These small details were something we wanted to highlight, but not jarring to the point of showcasing them. The objects are part of that world, so if people born in the mid-1980s recognize them, even if they are in the background, that would create an additional layer of the film.
I can confirm it works, the objects totally speak to the mid-1980s generation. Noel and Kim, I am curious how is it for people born in the mid-2000s? Was it the first time you played Nintendo?
Kim: For me, it was the first time using Nintendo.
Noel: I have friends who own something they call a family computer and they use it to play Nintendo games but it was the first time for me to hold a Sega though. So there were a lot of firsts while doing the film.
Firsts within the film narrative as well as in real life. Were there some scenes you found hard to act out?
Kim: I think not really, because character-wise I am really similar to Mimaw, so playing her came really naturally, in real life and in the film there is not such a big difference.
Noel: For me, I guess it would be the locker scene, when we did natural things that boys do. It was my first time doing it in front of the camera, I wanted it to seem realistic. I was inner conflicted, constantly wondering if I really have to do this, but in the end, I did it. I guess it turned out alright on screen.
The scene is memorable.
Noel: Yes, for me the experience was memorable as well (haha).
Valerie: And you weren’t alone (haha).
Noel: Yes, it made it easier for me that I wasn’t alone, but doing it alongside my friends. It was also the first time doing it in the presence of other people.
That is an overload of firsts on and off-screen but it made your performances powerful and very relatable. Death of Nintendo is a film with huge market potential, I was wondering how is the state of cinema-going in the Philippines? Recently Netflix focuses on entering the local film industry and signing young filmmakers such as Mikhail Red to create the original content. How is the balance between cinema-going and streaming?
Valerie: I think a lot of people are going towards streaming platforms, but if there are festivals or special events happening around a chosen screening and if the events are promoted and well marketed on social media, if the kids think it is a hip thing to do then they will attend. Within the group, everyone influences one another. Moreover, for the young audience there are various other factors, for example, if an influencer chooses to participate in the event then the rest will follow. In the Philippines stars and recognizable actors are an important factor in the box office, soap operas are very popular and some of the actors involved also work in film so they already have a built-in audience. However it is not really what Raya and I intend for Death of Nintendo, we just rely on press, word of mouth and people who are genuinely affected by the film to spread the information about it. We hope it is enough to get people to come to the theatres. At some point maybe the channel that we are working with would also show it in their programme. As for the state of cinema-going in the Philippines, I hate to admit it because I do love going to the cinema and having a communal experience with people, I think as long as there are events built around the screenings such as Q&As or if there is a celebration of some sorts afterwards then it will attract people. In the Philippines there are lots of shopping malls with multiplexes so cinema-going is still a popular way to spend free time or if it’s raining outside people will choose to go to the cinemas, so I wouldn’t say it is completely hopeless. There are definitely a lot of exciting young local talents that need to have their work shown in the theatres but unfortunately, it is hard for independent filmmakers, because bigger channels and studios are monopolizing the content with their mainstream productions.
How did you start working with Raya? You mentioned you knew each since school.
Valerie: Yeah, we grew up together, we lived in the same neighbourhood, we went to the same middle school and high school for 12 years in total, of course, we weren’t filmmakers then but we were into directing plays and such. I didn’t know I was going to reconnect with him until I moved to the States. Afterwards, I moved to Germany for three years and then he invited me to his Independencia screening in Cannes in 2009, just as an audience member. I was blown away, it was the first time I went to the film festival and you know, we kind of made a joke that we should work on some film together. Afterwards, I moved on with my life, I was in the military then I worked in banking for a while. I knew about this film world I wanted to reconnect with, so I decided to take the steps to go back to grad school and pursue producing. I wrote Death of Nintendo for grad school and it got good feedback, then for real I attached Raya to the screenplay, because people were convincing me I should turn the script into a film. About five years ago I turned to Raya and said: “we made this joke and it is an actual thing now” and without questioning, he happily accepted to work on the project.
Recently a lot of independent Filippino filmmakers are exploring children’s or teenagers’ close relation with the media across different generations. Except for Death of Nintendo, films such as Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation or Arden Rod b. Condez’s John Denver Trending are best examples. Kim and Noel, I am curious what is the most important media for your generation? Some games, apps or devices? What are you glued to over the summer?
Noel: I spend my time differently than other people in my generation, but I believe the most influential media for today is definitely social media. Especially Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, that is really what most teens spend their time on. They would actually do anything to get attention on social media and I guess that really harms our generation because we spend less time outside and it makes us focus more on the digital world, the fake stuff, making people look better than who they actually are.
Kim: I agree with what Noel says. However for me, I am not really into gadgets or apps, I am not that active on social media. I prefer to spend time with my family and friends.
Noel: For me, because of my work I have to keep up some sort of image for the people looking at my Instagram profile, just post images like once every week or every other week, but I don’t really spend much time on social media, I spend it on writing songs, things like that.