Brilliante Mendoza: The Art of Acting Without Acting

in 52nd Gijón International Film Festival

by Eduardo Guillot

Brillante Mendoza was one of the guests of honor at the 52nd International Film Festival of Gijón, held from November 19-28. The Filipino filmmaker — who was awarded Locarno’s Golden Leopard for his debut Masahista (2005), and received Cannes Festival’s Best Director Award for Kinatay (2009) — has become one of the main Asian auteurs, fronting a new generation of Filipino filmmakers, including Lav Diaz and Raya Martin.

His presence in Gijón offered us the opportunity to talk to him about a key issue affecting his filmography, namely working with actors, which Mendoza approaches in a very unusual way. His goal is, in his own words: “to have the actors not act”. Quite a challenge for his film stars. “Trying to not act is not easy for professional or method actors, given the lack of director’s instructions, detailed dialogue or even a script,” says Mendoza in a conversation that takes places in the Antiguo Instituto de Gijón. “They need to understand my approach. For example, I don’t use a script while shooting, I simply explain to them the situation their characters find themselves in. I give them a briefing on their characters and once they understand them, they become identified with them and they know them well enough, it’s impossible for them to go wrong”.

Therefore, it’s the actors running the show, as Mendoza gives them total freedom. “Any dialogue they engage into is perfectly valid,” he says. “I don’t like to stop them, because that’s their interpretation of the character. I also like surprises and the reality is anything can happen on the film set. It’s thrilling and I get inspired as a result of their work, the site locations or the way they both interact. It’s very interesting”. It’s also a difficult method, and the process requires some time. “Usually, a professional actor gets the script, studies it at home, memorizing the dialogue, and by the time he makes it to the set he knows his lines and is ready to shoot. What I do is I place them in ‘shooting mode’. They must live their character’s life”.

Brillante Mendoza thinks that, as an artist, he must always be ready to run certain risks, such as, filming without rehearsals. “For technical reasons, I previously work on the possible camera placements on the set, but I never have rehearsals with actors.” As a result, all the material in his films comes from first takes, hence the need for an extremely rigorous preparation prior to the shooting. “When it comes to developing the script, I work together with a researcher and a writer to optimize the results, but I am really open-minded on the set,” he says. “I think that’s part of the process. We’re all together while shooting and the atmosphere is different. I get nervous sometimes, because I don’t know what’s going to happen and I can feel lost. But it’s normal. You have to allow yourself to be nervous.”

In this sense, Captive (2012) is one of the most difficult projects of his career. On the one hand, it’s a film difficult to shoot. “It was one of the most complicated shootings of my life. It required a huge physical effort. And it was dangerous, because we were filming in the middle of the sea and in the woods, and we had to take medication against malaria,” he says. On the other hand, it was the first time Mendoza had to explain his work method to a big international film star, French actress Isabelle Huppert. “Any professional actor who has previously worked with other filmmakers finds my method quite difficult, because they are used to receiving very precise guidelines. They have to forget about all that when they work with me and unlearn all they have learnt throughout their careers. And it’s not easy. Isabelle Huppert was no exception. She wasn’t used to my method, but I tried to explain it to her and she understood it perfectly. I think she’s a great artist and she proved to be willing to adapt,” concludes Mendoza.

Edited by Amber Wilkinson