A television show born of the pandemic

Piolo Pascual in the role of Francis Coronel. Pictures © HBO Asia

Seven years ago, only a few people living outside the Philippines would have heard of director Erik Matti or his crime thriller masterpiece On The Job, although it is a film that is likely to revive the kind of long-dormant action in the Philippines. Thanks to the age of streaming services, the film recently landed on HBO GO, where viewers in Thailand can watch it for the first time as a six-part miniseries.

With Gerald Anderson, Joel Torre, Joey Marquez and Piolo Pascual, the first At work 2013 film explores the black, white and gray areas of Philippine politics and law enforcement, inspired by a real-life scandal involving two law enforcement agencies investigating a drug-related murder case linked to two detainees suspected of working as contract killers on behalf of politicians and senior military officials.

Seven years later, Matti decided to franchise his film with the release of his second follow-up film. At work: the 8 missing, which highlights the real-world predicament regarding fake news. The plot revolves around a corrupt journalist seeking justice for his colleagues and a convict who frequently leaves prison to commit assassinations.

The TV series version is a combination of the first film and its sequel with previously unreleased footage inserted from the original cut. The first two episodes were taken from the original film in 2013 while the last four episodes were recently screened as a film in competition at the 78th Venice Film Festival. Serial, At work debuted across Asia and exclusively on HBO GO on September 19, with a new episode to air every Sunday thereafter. Life recently participated in an online group interview with Matti from Florence, Italy.

Scenes from At Work. HBO Asia

Why did you decide to split the two films into a mini-series?

Matti: I think it was born out of the pandemic. It was really planned to be two movies, but then the pandemic came along and it allowed us to be a little bit crazier, where we could possibly show the two movies together. Because when the story of the first film ends, it immediately joins the second. And when the HBO opportunity arose, they wanted to see it on a show, and we kind of embraced it. We weren’t the kind of purist who would think, “Oh, well, we think these must be standalone movies.” And so, we brought back a lot of deleted scenes, the ones that didn’t end up in the first movie.

Can you talk about the deleted scenes and new footage you brought to the show, and how will that affect the overall storyline?

Matti: We were able to fit in all the dependencies, explain Francis Coronel’s ambition a little more, and show Daniel a little more with his girlfriend. I posted on social media about a month ago, as we were wrapping it all up, that these images had been frozen in time. It’s similar to how the resin would freeze the mosquito in Jurassic Park. [laughs].

On The Job director Erik Matti. HBO Asia

How does he feel that At work: the 8 missing is the only Asian participation in the 78th Venice Film Festival?

Matti: Again, because of the pandemic, we have three hours and 20 minutes of screen time. When we finished editing it we thought maybe we could start with film festivals first. As early as January, we had already sent it to Venice for their examination. That feeling of those little opportunities that come your way in the middle of a time when there isn’t a lot of possibility for anything. There is no cinema, there is a typical distribution platform for most of the work. Getting accepted into big movie festivals this time of year, and you know how many hundreds or thousands of entries there are. It’s great that all of those four to five years of hard work have been recognized. And you can just go ahead and show your movie to a global audience.

At work is also well known for his realistic take on life and the environment behind bars. Could you tell us about the process behind the scenes of the prison?

Matti: I remember we walked in and shot the prison system twice. So if you watch the first two episodes, the prison system is anchored in the National Penitentiary, and it’s gritty and dirtier. I was to shoot the film at the National Penitentiary itself. Since I visited it before, I have seen how the culture works there. I remember there are even indoor tennis courts which were donated by some of the wealthy prisoners. So it’s like a little town there. When the first movie came out I got questions from other people who didn’t go to a national penitentiary, how come they [prisoners] have cell phones, and I said, it’s common knowledge. There is therefore a contrast between the two prisons. We start with the national penitentiary and then move on to a more provincial, more rural version of the penitentiary.

John Arcilla as Sisoy Salas in On The Job HBO Asia

Action and thriller elements aside, the story in At work revolves heavily on politics and corruption within the law enforcement system in the Philippines. Were you worried that the festival audience, who aren’t as familiar with what’s going on in the Philippines, might not be able to resonate with your story?

Matti: Of course, part of me is a little scared of the reaction we would get because it’s the first time we’ve shown it to a huge audience outside of the country, and to those audiences that aren’t Filipino. But looking back, Italy looks a lot like the Philippines. Our governments and political setup are pretty much the same. So I think they should be able to understand how it works just by the notion of politics.

What do you think of the era of the streaming service and why did you decide to work with HBO?

Matti: Like I said, I was never really a purist. Any form where I can explore storytelling and story making, I’m open to anything. In fact, I started working with HBO in the last couple of years. I did an episode of a TV show called Knowledge of food. And these are very short topics, which last about 15 minutes. I really like figuring out how to tell a story correctly in just 15 minutes. Any chance for me to tell my story, whether it’s in a three hour movie or 15 minutes, I’m open to anything. Yes, we all miss the cinema, but right now something has to give. We can’t have cinemas right now, and any chance that our works will be seen by many, whether it’s streaming or in the proper theaters, I see this as an opportunity.

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About Monty S. Maynard

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