Friday, January 11, 2019

Creating Dagsin's Screenplay

!!!! SPOILER WARNING !!!! **Do not read if you have not seen the movie**

"Dagsin" ("Gravity" in English) took twenty years to evolve into a movie. I originally came up with the prototype of the story when I was still a film student at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angles in the mid-1990s. The original short-film screenplay was then titled, "This Mortal Coil," and it was submitted as an exercise/assignment for my Screenplay Writing Class. It was just eight pages long, and it only contained what eventually ended up as the "climactic scene" in the finished movie.

Tommy Abuel as Justino Razon, with Lotlot De Leon
as his adopted daughter Mercy and Sue Prado as his
Private Nurse Grace.
The original short script told the story of an old paraplegic resident of an American Retirement Home-- a wheelchair bound man (originally Caucasian) who recently lost his wife of fifty years. Wandering into their apartment after her Interment, he feels the weight of his sorrow so strongly that he decides to hang himself from the ceiling rafters of their bedroom.

I was going through a rough phase in my love life at that time that the Romantic in me chose to write about an ideal relationship, where someone was so in love that he would be completely devastated at the lost of his beloved-- a storybook type of Love Story. Besides, the idea of a wheelchair bound paraplegic man hanging himself with his feet still touching the ground yet powerless to escape his chosen fate (self-pity can soar with imagination), was such a strong poetic image, indelibly cinematic and memorable that it would guarantee me a good grade for the class!
Years later, the original seed concept for "Dagsin" resurfaces. After writing half a dozen full-length feature spec. scripts, I was looking for a short-film project to jump start my filmmaking career and "This Mortal Coil" was the prime candidate. So I began rewriting the original script, since I thought that the suicide sequence was not strong enough to stand by itself. But as I added simple flashback sequences, it started to get longer and longer. Soon, it was twenty pages long and that was just the backgrounder to the love story, I haven't even begun to say, what I really wanted to say.

By definition, a short-film is just about eight minutes long (or an 8-page script). Anything longer than that, and your chances of entering it in a major international competition gets slimmer and slimmer. Cannes for example only accepts 15 mins. maximum for their Short Film entries. Knowing that my story has potential beyond being just a short movie, and understanding that short films do not have a commercial market, I then committed to writing the story I really want to tell no matter how long the screenplay ended up becoming. During that time, I was already married for more than ten years (found a partner I want to spend my life with), had kids and recently suffered a Stroke. I wanted the story to reflect everything I have learned and have gone through in my life up to that point. Thankfully the first draft I wrote totaled just one hundred twenty pages in Movie Magic (Hollywood standard Screenplay Software) - which counts each page to be roughly equivalent to a minute of screen time.

Benjamin Alves as Young Justino Razon, Janine Gutierrez as Young
Corazon Bishop (Mrs. Razon) and Alex Diaz as John Bishop, Jr.
in the flashback sequences.
The first thing I incorporated to my original story was the flashback sequences. I knew by instinct that I had to make my viewers fall in love with my main characters first, for them to empathize with the loss they will be experiencing as the story unfolds. Making the audience spectators of the romance between Justino and Corazon from the beginning and making them experience the love that develops between the couple through the years, was my main goal. It was a deliberate decision on my part to make the film essentially a "Love Story" in terms of classification and genre, since the main theme of the movie even then was "only Love can save us from the pain and tragedies of life."

The historical breath and timeline of the story came naturally when I plotted Justino's life in reverse. By his present age, he would have been born in the 1920's and would have gone through World War II and the Martial Law era in the 1970's. The decision to place him at the front row of these major events as they unfolded was elementary. Since he was an action oriented man (idealistic, heroic and strong-willed) who would eventually be crippled by the very nature of human existence, making him an active participant in the critical periods of our country's history would effectively magnify the tragedy and irony of his fate. It was at this point of writing when I realized that Justino was a classic "Sisyphean" character.

The Camusian and the Keirkegaardian motifs were accidental at the beginning-- suicide was already a major element in my original short story; an existential thread will always be present in any form of tragic tale; and the euthanasia theme was already incorporated in the plot, even before I started reexamining the story for any philosophical framework. But once I saw the parallelisms I consciously aligned my story to reflect the popular theses of both Existential Philosophers, believing that they will give my ideas readily comprehensible thematic universality and easily accessible depth.

The first thing I did was to change the title. "Love's Bitter Fruit" was the working title when I began writing the full-length screenplay. As a matter of fact, it was still the title when we shot the video above before the script was completed. As soon as I started incorporating the philosophical and existential threads of Kierkegaard and Camus, I decided to retitle the movie "Gravity." But when I proposed this change to Anne, she immediately objected, since Sandra Bullock's recent Oscar award-winning movie had the same exact title. I thought long and hard for an alternative, until it dawned on me that since we are making a Filipino movie it should have a Filipino title. I looked for the Pilipino/Tagalog term for Gravity and I ended up with "Dagsin."

After the title change, I started renaming my characters: Justino (the Judge or the judgmental part of our character/our mind), Corazon (the emotional part of our character/our heart), Mercy, Grace, Severino, etc. to enhance their symbolic significance and to add literary, psychological and philosophical resonance. Knowing that there are two types of Existential adherents, one Theist and the other Atheist, I made my two main characters one or the other-- essentially making the two theological leanings engage in a dialogue throughout the story (backed up by the dialectic ideas of Kierkegaard and Camus respectively). In spite of this, the last thing I wanted was an intellectual movie so I decided not pepper the script with philosophical and academic exposition, but the opposing themes are readily present in the individual perspectives and motivations of my main characters.
The characters of Mercy and Nurse Grace were added to support the main themes of the story. 
To drive these themes forward, I created sub-plots for the supporting characters of Mercy and Grace, who also turn out to be victims of Martial Law or of fate in general. I never intended the movie to have a strong political stand, other than its advocacy for personal freedom in all its forms as a means to "Self-Actualization." I tried my best to be objective politically, utilizing commonly known facts like the wartime atrocities of the Japanese and the human-right abuses during Martial Law that have been widely documented. This is very deliberate, because I never want any type of partisan politics or popular sentiment to cloud my main philosophical perspective-- that human beings are directly responsible for creating the major problems we have been suffering from and would continue to suffer from, until we all realize that the only lasting solution to the tragedies we have been continually experiencing over and over since the dawn of civilization lies in our turning away (or evolution) from our still dominant beastly tendencies of violence, selfishness and greed.

I believe I ended the story satisfactorily, since a lot of people who have seen the movie usually comes up with their own personal conclusions regarding the ending-- the Religious (Catholics and Christians) commonly see a Kierkegaardian subjective compromise and the Atheists an acceptable solution to Camus' thesis to the Absurd. I wanted to answer the questions I posted in the beginning of the story in my own way. An abstracted ending was the only way I could satisfactorily address the paradox. The key to understanding both alternative realities lies in the way I eventually Directed Dagsin-- the whole movie is shot and told from the subjective perspective of Justino, so everything you experience is what he sees in his own mind!

Although I always discussed all of my plot twists with Anne before incorporating them to the story, Anne did not work on my first draft until a year later. My screenplay "Perlas" got into the semifinals of Cinemalaya 10 (2014) a year before, so we were planning to submit "Dagsin" for 2015. Unfortunately, Cinemalaya decided to skip its Feature Film Program for that year. I was already writing the first draft of another script, "Buhay Langaw," when they finally announced that they will be resuming their full-length feature program for 2016. Since we already have two possible stories to work on at that point, we submitted both. By God's grace, both got in! The Cinemalaya Selection Committee interviewed the semi-finalists and made us choose, since only one movie per proponent is allowed to be in the Finals. I tried my best to pitch "Buhay Langaw," since I thought it was easier to do. But the committee members were partial to "Dagsin" from the very beginning, so we decided to go with their obvious choice.
"DAGSIN" being introduced to the public for the first time in Cinemalaya 11 in 2015.
To get the screenplay ready for consideration by the Cinemalaya Committee for the final selection, Anne proof read the original draft, then rewrote most of Corazon's diary entries and some of her dialogue-- making it more intimately personal and more feminine. Justino and Corazon, in effect, became more closer to each of us in character and voice.  It was the first time we collaborated on a script, and it is now our regular way of writing screenplays-- the one who originates the story writes a complete first draft, before the other proof reads and rewrites. In August 2015 during Cinemalaya 11, "Dagsin" officially became one of the ten finalists for Cinemalaya 12 held in 2016, and the first feature-length movie of mine to be made!

--This article is reprinted from the original article written by Atom Magadia for All photos and video are the exclusive property of Atom & Anne Mediaworks Corp.

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