Writer/Director Kenneth Dagatan Talks About the Success of His Sundance Film 'In My Mother's Skin' | Hype | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

Writer/Director Kenneth Dagatan Talks About the Success of His Sundance Film ‘In My Mother’s Skin’

Writer/Director Kenneth Dagatan Talks About the Success of His Sundance Film 'In My Mother's Skin' | Hype | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS
Interviewed by:
Francesca Escarraga
Interview date:
February 2023
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How did you start your career in the entertainment industry? Can you tell us a brief background of yourself and your journey?

My path to becoming a filmmaker is a bit unusual. Growing up in Cebu (A province in the Philippines), I was drawn to music and spent most of my school years playing in a band. It wasn’t until my final year of university that I discovered my passion for filmmaking. Thanks to my mentor, Ruel Antipuesto, I learned everything there is to know about this incredible art form – from directing and screenwriting to the purpose of filmmaking and the art of storytelling.

While I initially moved to Manila to pursue music, fate had other plans for me. As it turned out, my love for filmmaking only grew stronger, and before long, I found myself writing screenplays for one of the biggest production houses in the country, Star-Cinema. Through my work, I discovered that cinema is so much more than just a form of entertainment – it’s a powerful storytelling tool that can delve into the depths of our society and explore the reality of the world around us.

Congratulations on the success of your film, In My Mother’s Skin! Can you give us an overview of the story?

Being part of Sundance, especially in the midnight section, was a surreal experience! Our film is set in 1945, during the aftermath of World War II, and follows a family’s struggle to survive amidst the crisis. When their father leaves to fight in the war against the Japanese, the family is left trapped inside a mansion without food. As the mother falls ill, Tala, the eldest daughter, ventures into the forest in search of help while the rest of the family waits for their father’s return. In the midst of the woods, Tala encounters a flesh-eating fairy who offers assistance. However, Tala soon discovers that help comes at a cost.

Can you walk us through the process of preparing for the role as a writer and director?

I began writing In My Mother’s Skin in 2020, at the start of the pandemic. Amidst the crisis, I sought to draw parallels and contrasts with our grandparents’ crisis during World War II. I watched and rewatched films about loss of innocence, such as Come and See (1985) by Elem Klimov, The Witch (2015) by Robert Eggers, as well as classic Filipino films like Oro Plata Mata (1982) by Peque Gallaga and Three Godless Years (1976) by Mario O’Hara. However, the most significant influences on my work were undoubtedly The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) by Guillermo del Toro.

Writing a period film was a love-hate kind of relationship, especially when it came to researching the milieu but not knowing much beyond the commonly known facts. As a writer-director, I found it challenging to balance the voices of my producers, and friends, whom I respected, with my own vision, but I realized that my role was to curate the best ideas and integrate them into my story. In doing so, I had to find my own voice while staying true to my vision, listening to my inner voice and using my instincts to guide me. Creating a film is a journey of discovery, constantly pushing yourself to find better ideas and striving to make them your own.

How long did it take you to write and develop the story? What inspired you to write it?

I started writing In My Mother’s Skin in 2015 as a short film, intending it to be a stepping stone to feature films. The idea was to combine the elements of my first short film, Sanctissima (2015), with Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). The main aim was to retell and reimagine Filipino mythology through an elevated story that would blend my childhood horror stories of creatures like aswang and engkanto into a grounded yet magical-realistic world.

The setting of World War II was not part of my original concept but came to me while writing a draft during the pandemic. My father’s stories about my grandmother’s struggles during the war – the psychological challenges of waiting for my grandfather to return, the anxiety, depression, and claustrophobia of war – resonated with me and reminded me of the struggles of the pandemic. I realized that these two crises, though different in nature, share a common theme – the fear of a monster outside trying to get in. In My Mother’s Skin became my attempt to show the tragic struggle of the pandemic through the lens of World War II.

What are the most crucial elements that producers or readers look for in a script? What makes a screenplay truly stand out from the pile?

To me, the most important aspect of storytelling is to have a clear understanding of the message you want to convey, regardless of the format or genre. It’s essential to grasp the context of the themes and the central question that your story aims to answer, and how it aligns with your characters and their arcs. This connection between your characters and their journey, guided by the themes and questions, will help you define your unique voice. If your voice is strong and resonates with your audience, your producers and collaborators can help you further elevate your vision and bring your story to life. Ultimately, it’s about having a clear sense of purpose and making that purpose evident in every aspect of your story.

The cinematography and visual aesthetics were captivating and meticulously designed. Was this your intended artistic vision for the film from the beginning?

My goal for this project was to create a story that is grounded in reality yet feels like a haunting fairytale. I aimed to capture that elusive quality of magic realism through the use of imagery. To achieve this, I worked closely with my cinematographer, Russell Morton, and together we drew inspiration from classic chiaroscuro paintings. By doing so, we were able to craft a visual style that imbued the film with a sense of eerie beauty and otherworldly wonder while still remaining rooted in the real world. Ultimately, the combination of the grounded setting and fantastical imagery helped us create a unique and cinematic experience that I’m incredibly proud of.

There’s a famous saying in Hollywood that directing is 90% casting. What were the dynamic like between you, your actors, and film crew? How was the casting process like?

Undoubtedly, a phenomenal and gifted cast can do wonders in expressing and portraying the director’s vision. As a director, most of your job is already accomplished when you have such a team. In my case, along with my producers, we handpicked the main cast for our project while we held a casting for the child actors. And we discovered two gems when we found Felicity Kyle Napuli, who played Tala, and James Estrella, who played Bayani. And working with such a talented cast and crew is a stroke of luck for me. Everyone involved is always ready to collaborate and bring innovative ideas to the table, but at the same time, faithful to the story’s vision.

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