SAVING SALLY: How a Short Story about Love and Monsters became a Film
When I first wrote the story Monster Town—a title which I’d eventually change to Saving Sally—it was not such a great time. I’d just resigned from a job I loved to finish writing a novel that I’d been working on for two and a half years, only to have my bag (which contained my manuscript) stolen from my car (if you want to know that horror story, jump here). As I drove myself crazy trying to reconstruct my stolen novel, I decided to set it aside for a while and write a light short story to relax my brain. The result: a tale about two students who dream of getting into The College of Fine Arts: one an aspiring comic book artist who just happens to see unpleasant people as monsters, the other a girl who likes to invent things—like tiny robots and backpacks with octopus arms to help her hang her laundry—and who also happens to be hiding a very nasty secret.
Some time ago, Rogue Magazine asked me to write an article about Saving Sally for their Cinema Issue (“So we can see how it was turned into a film from the writer’s perspective.” the editor said). Below is an edited version of the article. It’s called:
And it goes like this:
Saving Sally had humble beginnings–our highest ambition for the film was to ‘show it to our friends.’ But the film also had ambitious beginnings, in the sense that young director Avid Liongoren (who, barely in his twenties, was already directing TV commercials and music videos) wanted to blend live action, illustration, 3D characters and motion graphics in order to create “a visually delightful moving picture book.”
Flashback: Avid and I were classmates at the College of Fine Arts in UP Diliman. We carried on a sporadic friendship, characterized by involved and at times brutally honest conversations. We’d talk idly about things we’d love to do, if we only could. One of them was: make a movie.
Jump to about a few years later: I wrote a short story called Saving Sally. Avid decided it would make a fun movie. Looking back, I can see how incredibly naïve we were about what it took to put together a film. We treated it like a hobby, tinkering with it in our spare time, sending the story to friends and acquaintances, asking if they’d like to help out.
Luckily, they did: we got beautiful concept art from Arnold Arre, Carlo Vergara, and Gerry Alanguilan, whom I once had the pleasure of interviewing for a magazine article on comic artists. We were also helped by Kajo Baldisimo and Manix Abrera (both of whom I was lucky to work with at some point) and fellow Fine Arts grad Apol Sta. Maria (I know I am missing so many other goodhearted artists).
Also, friends from The College of Fine Arts and ad agencies helped with everything from designing monsters and sets to storyboarding and catering, not to mention constructing (and wearing) monster costumes, cinematography, etc.
Aside from taking care of the script, I was also in charge of providing wardrobe for the entire cast (and that included putting together a whole bunch of outfits for all the scene changes).Thankfully, then-aspiring director Pancho Esguerra lent a hand putting together the film’s wardrobe, which was great because we only had a budget of ten thousand pesos (that’s around 235 US dollars). No surprise that we raided people’s closets, used our own stuff, and scoured secondhand shops (incidentally, each character wears a particular color). Many of us working on the movie were volunteers. Avid was funding the movie out of his own pocket in order to have complete creative freedom.
I asked Carlo Ledesma, a Filipino director who is based in Australia (and who once wrote a column for the magazine I used to work for), to translate the short story into a screenplay–I didn’t feel qualified to do it, having no screenplay writing experience aside from five cartoon episodes involving a talking cow. Carlo added dimension to even supporting characters—even ‘Nick’, a character who’s a bit of a dick and in fact often appears as a monster that looks like a penis–became a sympathetic figure. Carlo even gave my unnamed narrator a name: Marty. Carlo’s screenplay transformed Saving Sally into a new take on the teen movie.
From there things snowballed. Casting calls were made, auditions took place—we saw sweet girls, tough girls, scary girls who made Avid and I hide our faces behind folders as they screamed their lines. Finally, magic: former child actress Anna Larucea was the unanimous choice to play Sally, and first-time actor Enzo Marcos (who almost didn’t audition because he was hung over) was chosen to play her best friend, Marty. A rush of wardrobe fittings, rehearsals, and studio-prepping ensued. When the first shoot day came, I walked around the blue-painted set, where the crew was putting up lights and actors were getting their makeup done. It felt surreal that it was finally happening.
The shoot was fraught with difficulty: on-the-spot script and schedule changes; Anna getting dengue (a debilitating tropical disease that you can get from a mosquito bite) but still heroically doing her scenes; going overtime and over budget. It was also the beginning of Avid and I butting heads (something that never happened before—blame it on lack of sleep, enormous pressure, and differences in working styles). We weren’t the only ones locking horns—the set was a stew of various personalities and creative philosophies. There was lots of drama, and even more chaos.
But it was fun, too, and a definite bonding experience. Since days could last from 7am to 4am, cast and crew evolved into a makeshift family slash three-ring circus. There was a constant parade of people in costumes, food and beer runs, wisecracks, group huddles, break dancers, model cars, and friends dropping in to extra (the legendary rapper, Francis M, dropped in one afternoon to do a cameo as a DJ).
After the shoot wrapped, it was only the beginning of setbacks straight out of Murphy’s Law. Avid struggled with the torturous process of keeping post production going, becoming a semi-hermit whose walls were covered with Sally posters and inspirational notes to self; I became a student in England, my wall filled with photos from the shoot, doing Sally edits and rewrites (at times bundled in six layers of clothing because it was so damn cold) in between chores, classes, papers, part-time work, and my thesis (which would eventually change my life, but that’s another story). When I returned to Manila, Sally was still mired in difficulties. I felt responsible/guilty because I had written the story. Should I have written an easier-to-shoot story, one without monsters and other fantastical elements? I often had to reassure Avid that this would all be worth it someday, but I wasn’t sure myself.
Then the unexpected happened: A Frenchman we shall call ‘Baguette’ (because he prefers to remain anonymous) from a Paris-based film production and distribution company contacted Avid. Before we knew it Baguette had flown to Manila, and we were having dinner with him to discuss the possibility of him co-producing and distributing the film. In between business he talked about running away from Paris to England, where he became a music photographer, hanging out with the likes of The Sex Pistols and Tony Wilson of Factory Records, and later becoming friends with director Hayao Miyazaki (who, in case you didn’t know, is my childhood hero). But all this seemed too good a twist to be true. Avid was compelled to ask Baguette, with his usual tact: “How do we know you’re not just some evil white man who will disappear?”
But it was the start of a long collaboration with Baguette. I took him and Avid around Intramuros (the oldest district and the historical center of Manila during the Spanish Colonial period), where we strolled around discussing the film. We got tipsy on red wine and gobbled medium rare steak—except for Avid, who Baguette made fun of for being a vegetarian who doesn’t drink (but Avid has vowed to get stinking drunk with me when Sally premieres. We also both know we will probably blubber with joy when that finally happens). This was around the holidays, and Baguette was fascinated by the sight of parols (star-shaped Christmas lanterns). I took him to buy one. “Eet eez so tackee, I want one in my room!” he exclaimed, choosing a small but dizzyingly twinkly one. We stayed up in Baguette’s swanky hotel room, reviewing the movie. He pointed out parts of Sally that felt weak, or ‘cheap.’ When Avid attempted to argue these away, Baguette turned his Gallic nose towards him and said: “My goal is to help you make this the best movie it can possibly be.”
It was eventually decided that to strengthen the film, the script had to undergo several more drafts, and we had to re-shoot EVERYTHING. This was mind-boggling; we had already lived with the film for so long, and this meant that the finish line would once again descend into vanishing-point distance. To make matters worse, Anna was unavailable to play Sally in the re-shoot, so arduous auditions again took place.
The response was surprising: almost a hundred local film, TV and theater actresses, as well as girls who just liked the part, auditioned in person or through video. It was gratifying to see how much they loved the character, some aggressively lobbying for the role. One famous actress even sent us a photo of her birthday cake, its icing forming the words ‘Happy Birthday Sally.’ The best screen tests were then sent to Paris for deliberation. The decision had to be unanimous between Baguette’s camp, Avid, and me. When they said they weren’t totally convinced with anyone, Avid and I experienced another wave of hopelessness before auditions began afresh.
Late on the final day of auditions, actress Rhian Ramos arrived to try out for the role, willing to wait in line for her turn. Unbeknownst to her manager and network, she’d snuck off to try out for Sally. Admittedly we were avoiding going with someone famous, wanting to find an amazing unknown and avoid dealing with ‘management’, but we were won over by Rhian’s audition—a combination of vulnerability, quirkiness, toughness and intelligence. Baguette’s camp agreed: we finally had our girl.
Avid and I soon found ourselves in the office of Ida Henares (Vice President of GMA 7, one of the largest television networks in the country). Rhian was slated to star in two television shows and a movie—it seemed an impossibility that the network would allow one of their stars time to work on an independent film. But Rhian pleaded, and Ida said yes—though getting the contract signed was a marathon through red tape that lasted months. Almost at the eleventh hour the contract was signed, schedules aligned, and Avid booked KB Studios (probably ten times bigger than the studio we used for the original shoot, and thankfully this time truly sound proof)—to give you an abridged version of the countless problems that surfaced before a big wave of panicked momentum washed cast and crew to the first day of the second shoot.
Much has changed from that first shoot years ago—and the ‘originals’ were joined by a new set of amazing volunteers who devoted their time and effort to putting it all together. Baguette sent representatives to oversee the sound quality of the shoot (‘Sound can make the difference between a film that feels convincing or amateur.’ he said). I’ve relinquished my ‘wardrobe’ duties and managed to walk on the elaborate new set as a relaxed observer, rather than rushing about, eyes wild and hair in disarray (as a result of the new team of people, the sets and clothes are different in the second version. Avid and I used to joke about the original version being ‘on the DVD as part of the extras, so that people could compare the differences’). Avid, however, remains in the middle of the chaos, followed by dark clouds of worry. After years of problems jumping up to surprise us like evil jack-in-the-boxes, it’s still difficult to feel safe about the outcome. We still discuss the film and its problems every time we meet.
There are more stories—with enough twists to put even the most contrived soap operas to shame. In my head both the film and the experience of making it is a schizophrenic patchwork quilt—a mad formula of backbreaking effort, happy accidents, explosive arguments, life imitating art, and incredible kindnesses—which can never be duplicated.
Who knows what will happen. It could play for an audience in theaters worldwide, or end up a projection on a cloth screen for our friends. Whatever the outcome, I’ll always be grateful to have been part of this monster of a ride.