Mikhail Red is quickly becoming one of the most promising next–generation filmmakers in Philippine cinema. Best-known as the director of the critically-acclaimed film Birdshot, Red has made waves around the world for his genre films that combine powerful narratives with a strong visual aesthetic.
The son of Palme d’Or winner Raymond Red, he started out writing short stories and essays as a student before producing short films with his brother and friends. But being exposed to the world of filmmaking at a young age, Red felt it was only natural for him to follow the same direction. “I got to watch a lot of movies, and sometimes I got to see [my dad] on set,” he said. “So it was very natural for me to transition into that medium of visual storytelling.”
As a teenager, he joined workshops led by veteran directors like Marilou Diaz Abaya, where he cut his teeth producing short films. At 15 years old, his short film The Threshold was accepted into a film festival in Germany, exposing him to the international film community. From there, he produced seven more short films for the Cinemalaya Film Festival before venturing into feature films that would largely shape the trajectory of his career.
Today, Red is regarded as one of the most exciting young film talents in the Philippines, and part of a new breed of up-and-coming genre directors from around the world. Though as celebrated as he and his work are now, this wasn’t always the case.
In 2013, Red released his first full-length film, Rekorder, a gritty thriller about a film pirate who finds himself illegally recording a violent robbery. Inspired by Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver, Rekorder is a critique of media voyeurism and the public’s apathy towards the world’s brutalities. “It was the black sheep of the batch,” Red said with a smile. “It was weird.”
Producing the film was fraught with several setbacks, from budget to logistics to the team’s own inexperience, that nearly prevented Rekorder from seeing the light of day. Eventually, with help from friends and collaborators, Rekorder premiered as part of that year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival.
Despite lukewarm reception locally, Red was surprised to find that his film was well-received abroad. Not for the first time, he found himself traveling the world and attending international film festivals.
How do you actually make a living in making movies? Is it even possible?
“Rekorder had won some awards, and I was traveling [so much] that my passport ran out of pages,” Red said. At the time, he saw this as the beginning of what could be a full-fledged film career. “I was [riding] that high, you know? Like, ‘This is it; I’m a filmmaker.’”
The sobering realities of the local film industry, however, were quick to bring him back to Earth. Despite critical success abroad, Red’s return to the Philippines was not met with adoring fans or multi-film deals from studios; only lighter pockets after an expensive journey, and plenty of doubts about his decision to pursue his passions. “I was really questioning if this [was] the right track,” he said. “Like, how do you actually make a living in making movies? Is it even possible?”
Along with these questions were frustrations from Rekorder; Red believed his inexperience, coupled with the film’s limited budget and strict timeline, affected how well his vision translated to the big screen. Learning from this, he pushed himself to do better and be more strategic with his next film: Birdshot, a coming-of-age thriller released in 2016.
“[With Birdshot,] I wanted to do it properly; no more compromises,” Red said. He applied for international grants, secured longer production time, and consulted with foreign programmers about how to create a genre film that would capture the interest of a wider audience. With fewer budget constraints and a more forgiving timeline, Red was able to mold Birdshot into the film he envisioned it to be, which proved ideal in showing the director’s prowess.
After debuting in Tokyo and being screened in 14 other international festivals, Birdshot premiered locally in the 2017 Cinemalaya Film Festival. It would go on to become Red’s most popular and acclaimed film to date, garnering multiple awards and being selected as the Philippines’ official entry to the 2017 Academy Awards. In 2018, Birdshot also became the first Filipino film to be acquired and released worldwide by Netflix.
“I wanted to show that we have local talent that can do genre. Maybe we don’t have the resources to constantly pull it off, but the skill set is there.”
“Birdshot was my calling card film,” Red said. Aside from catching the attention of film producers and investors, it also helped solidify the auteur’s reputation of telling Filipino narratives through Western-style imagery, setting him apart from the rest of his peers. He recognized, early into the game, that filmmaking was as much a business as it was an artist’s platform; that in the end, a film has to rake in enough profits to support its creators while keeping afloat in the industry.
“Films are very expensive and a lot of people rely on its success,” Red said. “If your film is a success, that allows you to make more films in the future. So when I want to tell a more daring story, I need to make sure that it sells outside.”
This pragmatic approach to filmmaking can be seen throughout Red’s body of work, where he makes use of different cinematic elements to create genre films whose stories are rooted in Filipino realities while having the style and quality to be internationally competitive. Where Birdshot is often described to be the Filipino version of a Western cowboy film, Red’s 2017 follow-up Neomanila is a neo-noir thriller that pays homage to the popular sci-fi film Blade Runner (1982). Meanwhile, his latest film Eerie (2019) takes inspiration from Japanese horror films, while starting important conversations locally about mental health issues. It was also with Eerie that Red finally broke into mainstream local cinema, which helped him prove the bankability of his films.
Red also hopes that using this formula can help break the mold Filipino films have often found themselves in. “[International audiences] have this image that we’re either extremely art house with a niche audience, or we’re poverty porn,” he said. “I wanted to show that we have local talent that can do genre. Maybe we don’t have the resources to constantly pull it off, but the skill set is there.”
While Birdshot is the film that helped put him on the map, Red recognizes that he owes much of his success to the one preceding it. His travels for Rekorder were what truly immersed Red into the know-hows of the industry, as he learned from mentors and fellow filmmakers about finding the middle ground between creativity and practicality, and vision and realism. It’s a balance that Red has learned to master, and one he hopes can positively influence the industry to invest further in its creators.
The Philippines boasts one of the oldest film industries in Southeast Asia—dating back to 1919—but a lack of significant development has left us lagging behind in the international film scene. Likewise, industry decisions are commercially-driven, where studios would rather split funding across multiple story pitches instead of investing enough capital on more labor-intensive genre films. This results in under-budgeted film productions, limited commercial screen time in favor of foreign blockbusters, and less-than-ideal conditions for industry workers.
That said, a new generation of filmmakers like Red are hoping to change that, by using their experiences and exposure to the international film industry to bring in new perspectives and strategies that can help elevate Philippine cinema.
“There are [still] some issues, but we’re all trying to make it better,” Red said. “We (filmmakers) are hoping that, by trying to make movies the proper way, it inspires the industry [to invest more in its films and its people].”
More than creating better films, Red aspires to shape a better industry—one that supports the balance between filmmaking as a business and an art, protects its workers, and rewards the taking on of more daring projects. He believes that this kind of system can allow filmmakers to freely innovate, but recognizes that they must still be able to deliver results.
“The challenge for our filmmakers is to prove that you can do it right, and then succeed,” he said. “When you [can do that], then they’ll pay attention.”
Mikhail Red’s newest feature film Dead Kids premieres in December 2019. Watch the trailer below.