Kenneth Lim Dagatan is an independent Filipino filmmaker and writer, best known for directing and writing his award-winning first short film, Sanctissima (2015); it was premiered at the 11th Cinemalaya Philippines Independent Film Festival where it won the audience choice award, as well as awards at other film festivals, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. His feature film, “Ma” (2018), was well received by the critics locally during Cinema One Originals Film Festival where it launched, and this striking horror debut had its international premiere at NYAFF
On this occasion, we spoke with him about how he became interested in horror movies, we heard a number of interesting stories about his childhood, his previous works and how they shaped him as a director, and other topics.
What was the beginning stages of your interest in horror movies? What really started your love of these films?
Actually, I started watching horror films in high school because I’m really scared of horror films. I’m eleven years old, and the thing is I live in this house and our neighbors abandoned it and haunted us. Haunted us! They say that it’s an abandoned haunted school beside the haunted house, and I lived here (in between them) so I think I love horror films because it’s a love letter to the horror stories I listened to in my childhood.
And I promised myself I would watch “The Ring” (the older one) to watch it alone. So I watched it alone because that was the time I was interested in filmmaking and as I was watching it I was like ‘Oh, they did a good job making this horror film.’ So that was the start for me, I watched a lot of slasher films like “Saw” and when I was in college I started watching a lot of the classic horror films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist”.
And in my neighborhood, l lived next door to the haunted house so I got a lot horror stories when I was a kid.Because when I was a kid, the school was still functional and the high school kids went there and l remember this moment when this kid jumped from the roof of the school. I was friends with the security guard and I asked him ‘What happened to that girl?’ And the security guard told me saw something in that haunted house and then she jumped. And I was like ‘What? Really?’ So, I didn’t look at the haunted house, and in my room, I open the windows could see the haunted house so l don’t know what’s in there. And the old lady, the owner of the haunted house, she lives there alone and eventually she died, and during the funeral, her body disappeared from the coffin. It disappeared and I don’t know what happened next. So, I make horror films for me because it’s a love letter to my childhood stories.
So, was there a whole horror scene of local filmmakers back when you were growing up or was Western films more of an influence? But in real life, your real-life stories were the equivalent of watching these films.
Western. It’s really weird because I grew up in a small town in Cebu City, in Cebu Province, from Manilla to Cebu Provence it’s a one-hour flight and in Cebu, you need to travel 1 hr to get to my hometown in so it’s really far from the city. I don’t know what filmmaking is and then the internet came that’s how I got interested in filmmaking.
What skills did you find working on your shorts ‘Sanctissima’ and ‘Sleepy Eyes?’
I think the cause-and-effect. A lot of filmmakers say that, but to make an effective story, even in a short story in any medium, I think you need cause-and-effect.
When you do these films, you take on so many roles. What do you find comes easiest to you? Of course filmmaking, but without being a director what would you be great at?
I really love editing. I was an editor for years before I started making films. In high school, l was like ‘I want to edit this’ but right now I’m leaning towards writing. I’m not a good writer, l need to learn a lot from my mentors, but writing is really interesting to me. Writing short stories or writing scripts.
For your newest film ‘Ma,’ what was the inspiration?
You know my childhood stories! It’s part of that. When l was a kid, our pregnant neighbor was killed mysteriously, and l don’t know what happened next, who killed her and I based the pregnant element in ‘Ma’ on that. A pregnant woman getting attacked and it’s weird because in my high school we’re near a cave. If you’ve seen the trailer, there’s a cave, and in our high school, we were not allowed to go to that cave because there’s a white lady or something like that in the cave. But eventually we went there and we didn’t see nothing but I combined these elements of my childhood and these inspired me to make films.
When you shoot films like this, in Asia and especially in HK, before you shoot any type of horror film we pray to the Gods and all the spiritual processes you go through for them not to haunt the crew after they’re done or while they’re shooting. Is there something similar you went through while making this?
(laughter) We prayed before we started shooting. That’s it. We’re Catholic so everyone prayed before we started shooting. In the Philippines, because we’re shooting in a haunted place or anything, maybe in the cave they sacrificed a chicken before shooting the scenes in the cave.
Did the crew or yourself encounter anything strange during the shooting?
No, weirdly I don’t think so. Maybe in the cave because of the stress. Maybe one of our crew saw something but I don’t know.
Was it difficult to find your cast? How did you find them?
For the kids, we auditioned and for the lead role, we would pick them. For the pregnant woman was a really close friend of mine and I was like ‘You should really star in my film.’ Because it’s an easier process, not talking to managers because she’s my friend she knows me.
So, last question, what are you working on next?
I’ve pitched a lot for my second screenplay around the production houses in the Philippines, and eventually I was lucky one of the biggest productions in the country, Star Cinema, got back to me. We talked, and they gave me the green light to write the script. Right now, I’m writing my second feature film, a new horror film.
And do you think you will draw some inspiration from being in New York and attending NYAFF?