Mikhail Red is The 25-year Old Filmmaker Cineastes Can’t Stop Talking About

Fresh off the success of his second film, Birdshot, the young director embodies the best and boldest qualities of the local independent filmmaker.

by Emil Hofileña

Photo taken by Joseph Pascual, originally used in the Rogue November 2013 issue. Edited for web


With two films under his belt at the age of 25, director Mikhail Red has seen more critical acclaim than many others hope to have well into their careers—but matters of upholding a legacy do not burden him.


As the son of alternative cinema pioneer Raymond Red, Mikhail holds a high regard for the long line of independent filmmakers who first dared to work outside established studio systems. However, he is fully aware of the new industry he finds himself in, and the path he wants to carve for himself.


Mikhail’s first film, the 2013 Cinemalaya New Breed finalist Rekorder, revolves around a film pirate who stumbles upon violence in Manila. His second feature, Birdshot—still showing in select SM cinemas, part of the first Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino where it won the Critics’ Choice Award—juxtaposes the investigations of two provincial policemen with the consequences that befall a young girl when she shoots and kills a Philippine Eagle. In just two films, Mikhail has shown a deft understanding of film language, displaying a knack for offbeat thrillers about survival in hostile environments, with all the confidence of an established auteur.

We spoke to the wunderkind filmmaker about local festivals, starting young, and the things he, admittedly, is still trying to figure out.


Congratulations on the success of Birdshot! What was it about this project that made you want to pursue it as your sophomore film?


I was inspired by a news article I read while I was making my first feature, Rekorder. A farmer shot, killed, and ate a Philippine Eagle and was jailed for it. I wanted to make a film about surviving the food chain of Philippine society. I also wanted to try and make a Western set in rural Philippines.


Both Rekorder and Birdshot take place in settings where there is a constant threat of violence—which one can’t help but compare to our situation in the Philippines today. What kind of response do these reports of violence get from you, as a filmmaker?


When something deeply disturbs me and lingers in my mind, the only outlet I have is cinema. I remember seeing a viral video where a boy my age was slain by a mob in the middle of the streets during New Year’s Eve. The images were seared into my mind and I couldn’t shake them off. I ended up making Rekorder, a film about the apathy of society and how a viral video can distort truth. Birdshot also references a lot of unsettling events. I don’t want to spoil anything but if you’ve seen the ending, you know that Birdshot tackles the extinction of truth and justice, not just the extinction of our national bird and symbol.


A lot of young directors have difficulty finding their footing at the beginning of their careers, but you’ve already displayed a great knowledge and control over your craft. How did you start learning?


I went to film workshops at the Asia Pacific Film Institute, the Marilou Diaz-Abaya Film Institute, and Filipino Pictures, Inc. to learn the fundamentals of film language. But most of what I know comes from watching a lot of movies, film analysis videos on YouTube, and writing, shooting, editing, and producing short films on my own. The best way to learn is just to go out, do it, and make mistakes. I made seven short films during my teenage years, screening them in international festivals and local festivals like Cinemalaya before attempting to write my first feature film screenplay in 2012.


Still taken from Birdshot, © PelikulaRED, TBA Productions


What are you still trying to learn when it comes to filmmaking?


I want to learn how to make my filmmaking career sustainable. I’m pretty happy with the critical success of Birdshot, however I am still not reaching a wide audience. I know my films are not popular in terms of genre and theme; not a lot of people went out to see Birdshot, especially when compared to the more accessible and commercial entries. But the few who did see it really liked the film. In fact, a lot were surprised that such a film exists. I know I have an audience out there, I just need to find a way to market my films better. I hope more people start supporting mystery-thriller genres so that more investors are encouraged to finance such films, ultimately contributing to the diversity of Philippine cinema.


What would you say is your main goal when creating a film?


I’m a film fan. Being a second generation filmmaker, I was exposed to cinema at an early age. My philosophy as a filmmaker is to make films that I want to see as an audience. If I want to see a Filipino version of a certain kind of film and no one is making it, then I will make it myself. I’ve always wanted to see a Western set in rural Philippines with nomadic characters. That’s what inspired me in creating the treatment for Birdshot. Even though Birdshot tackles locally relevant issues, the surface layer of the film’s cinematic language is inspired by Western parables; it’s a hybrid film, a balancing act, a genre bender.


Still taken from Birdshot, © PelikulaRED, TBA Productions


Independent film festivals have been getting more popular and numerous in recent years. Having been a part of Cinemalaya and Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, what can you say about the state of our festivals? Are there still any areas for improvement?


My first film was because of a local film festival. I am grateful that as a young novice filmmaker I was given the opportunity and platform to share my debut feature. My only problem with local festivals is that they are more like boot camps, geared towards eager and passionate filmmakers who are starting their careers. The seed grant is modest, the ownership is sometimes shared with the festival, and the production time frame is tight since there is a given deadline. These conditions can sometimes limit your imagination and ambition.


With Birdshot, I knew I had an ambitious script that warranted a different process of financing and production. I went the international route, gathering soft funds from foreign governments and competitive project markets. After obtaining enough resources and script recognition abroad, my producer, Pamela L. Reyes, and I brought the project home and pitched it to the game-changing TBA (Tuko Film Productions, Inc., Buchi Boy Entertainment, Artikulo Uno) studios. Luckily, they loved the material and decided to co-produce with us. We were patient with Birdshot; it took us two years to complete the film, taking care of every technical aspect, from script development to sound design. We didn’t have a play date deadline or a world premiere obligation so we were able to take our time and polish every detail, raising the overall production value so that we could compete with international standards.


However, this is something you don’t get to do often. I was very lucky with the turn of events for Birdshot, but I still constantly challenge myself. For my third film, which I am shooting this month, I am returning to the local festival cycle for QCinema. I am again working on a modest budget, but this time I am equipped with more experience. I hope that for my fourth film I will have more time to gather more resources so that I can maximize and further my craft.


What dream projects do you have in mind?


I have a project that has been going around project markets and development labs for almost three years. It’s about an American serial killer who was hiding in the Philippines during martial law. I hope to collaborate with TBA again for this one.


Even though Birdshot tackles locally relevant issues, the surface layer of the film’s cinematic language is inspired by Western parables; it’s a hybrid film, a balancing act, a genre bender.


How has working on Birdshot helped you as a filmmaker?


Since I had more resources and fewer limitations for Birdshot, I was able to properly practice film crafting. I had access to more advanced equipment and I had more shooting days. This allowed me to create sophisticated shots with precise motions. I was able to do four sequences a day, getting more shots per sequence, creating a dynamic look for the film. For my third film, I am working on a smaller budget, but because I learned film crafting with Birdshot, I now know how to be more efficient with my time and shot sequencing, I’ve learned to adjust treatment and aesthetic based on the given budget. This time the training wheels come off and I am now on a higher difficulty setting. This motivates me even more, and I am ready to face the challenges ahead.


What dream projects do you have in mind?


I have a project that has been going around project markets and development labs for almost three years. It’s about an American serial killer who was hiding in the Philippines during martial law. I hope to collaborate with TBA again for this one.


Photo taken and edited from Mikhail Red’s Facebook profile.


Birdshot is screening at Cinema ’76 until August 29.