News  ·  10 | 03 | 2023

When humor breaks down boundaries: interview with Sonny Calvento

The Locarno Shorts Weeks winning director with Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss talks about his past in Philippine television, his passion for comedy and his path into filmmaking, marked by his experience in Open Doors. 

How does it feel to receive an award from a global audience, stretching from India to the United States? 

First, I’m truly honored to be given a platform to show our film Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss in Locarno Shorts Weeks. The fact that the film was screened for free through a very user-friendly interface - making it accessible to 11,500+ viewers, a huge number - is a rare opportunity for short filmmakers like me. I’m sincerely grateful for the award. My fear in doing comedy is that sometimes humor does not translate globally. But learning that audiences from across the whole world enjoyed and voted for the film means that it was successful in translating its humor and its message to a universal audience.  


The rhythm of Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss is reminiscent of a jazz score: there are endless variations in tone, atmosphere, register, each of which is unpredictable. How did you work on this aspect? 

As soon as we came up with the basic premise of the story, me and the writer Arden Rod Condez always intended a tonal shift from comedy to horror after Vangie discovers the secret of her boss. From writing the script, execution of direction, up to the editing and sound design, we made sure that we’d be able to achieve this tonal shift. Executing a jazz rhythm was a conscious decision we took with our composer Len Calvo once we finalized the offline edit, since jazz is a very forceful rhythm but at the same time can adapt to different moods.   


You have also worked on the writing of a television series. What is different about working on a short format like the short film? In which narrative mode do you feel most comfortable? 

The short film form is challenging because you only have a few minutes to tell a story and its collaterals (the characters, the milieu, the message…), but for me short films can be more powerful than television and/or feature films, if you are telling a compelling story with a strong message. Writing for television in the Philippines is very different. The audience somehow dictates what they want to see and how they want the story to go since the television industry in the Philippines is very business-oriented, where you must make story adjustments if your rating drops. I feel more comfortable working on shorts than television because shorts offer a lot of freedom to explore identities and unique ways of telling your story.   


Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss is a women's film, and the choice doesn't seem like a coincidence, because perhaps it's still women today who are asked to achieve the most impossible standards: being omnipresent at work, at home as mothers, in couples as lovers, as clearly seen in a scene in the film. How did you work on your characters? 

It’s such a beautiful observation to say that this film is a women’s film. I grew up without a mother, but I also met a lot of mothers and inspiring female figures in my life. And I agree, women are still the ones subjected to impossible standards. That’s why it’s so important for me not only to tell this story from the point of view of a contractual worker, but also show a little glimpse of the humanity of the boss who can multiply. In a way it highlights the criticism that the expectations set by society for women are impossible to achieve.  


The department store seems like a perfect miniature of the current capitalist system. Were you interested that the film could tell the general story of the contemporary world, rather than a precise geographical reality? 

The issue of capitalism and the treatment of the working class/contractual workers in the Philippines has been the same for decades. The department store is the perfect miniature to showcase how capitalists are navigating our country up to this day. 


What do you remember about your experience in Locarno? 

Aside from the remarkable experience of watching films in Piazza Grande, what I love most about Locarno is meeting fellow Southeast Asian filmmakers in Open Doors, learning from credible and experienced speakers, and most specially having mentors and organizers that would make you feel at home even when you are in a foreign land. One of the most memorable experiences for me was when we had this session of European mentors trying to understand how complicated it is for Southeast Asians to make films. It was an enlightening experience for us and for the mentors, and it was so touching to see how we all tried to understand each other despite our different backgrounds. I will never forget the friends I made and all the lessons learned during my stay in Locarno.   


What are you working on right now? 

I just currently finished post-production of a new short film about a mother who joins a Filipino game show audition. It’s a proof of concept for my full-length film Mother Maybe


Short films are a format that does not easily find theatrical distribution. Do you think the web can be an opportunity for them to gain visibility?  

I think the web is a powerful tool to make short films more accessible to wider audiences. The success of the Locarno Shorts Weeks is proof that a strong platform can bring an audience to short films.