We Will Not Die Tonight helmer Richard Somes has directed dozens of projects for film and TV in the Philippines. He comes anchored with a resumè that further extends his credentials as far back as the late 1990s in art and production design, and with a versatile career that’s seen him accredited on numerous projects. His latest, Triggered (Topakk) is no exception, hailed as a return to nostalgic action cinema with a vision that pits him right beside some of today’s Pinoy action cinema hopefuls out of the region like Erik Matti, Vincent Soberano, Pedring Lopez and others.
Triggered marks another ambitious outing for Somes, who is joined by screenwriters Jim Flores and Will Fredo in crafting a story intended on accomplishing a few things on its path. Hailed as both an nostalgic return to action cinema delights, as well as a salute to former soldiers coping with post-war trauma, Triggered also uses these aspects to magnify the concept of war for a more tangential delivery of its story and characters therein. Main actor Arjo Atayde carries the torch this time around as Somes’s choice for stoic war hero-turned-reluctant hero to leading lady Julia Montes’s character, a tenacious survivor with a ferocity that squarely makes her a force to be reckoned with.
Fans keen on checking this film out are welcome to do so when it screens next for the upcoming 24th edition of FrightFest later this month in the UK. In the meantime, international sales agent Raven Banner granted this website the opportunity to screen the action film and review it during its Locarno run, and you’re welcome to click here for my breakdown of the film. Additionally, Somes was kind enough to take the time to share his perspectives in a series of answers to questions for our very first interview which you can read below.
Greetings Richard, and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for us. How has your year been so far?
Hi! Thank you for the time for the interview. This year is still great having such time with a whole lot of activities from paintings, writings and developing some other projects for films. It’s always the process of continuing a very constructive and productive ways in my creative growth each day.
Let’s dive right into your latest film, Triggered. It’s an old school action piece that also pays tribute to the armed forces. Talk about the development process and inspiration behind this project.
It’s always been my dream to do an action film about an ex-military special forces kind of character that is trying to leave all his past behind and seek redemtption from the things he’d done only to be confronted by a new conflict that would awaken his inner most demons and unleash its fury towards it. It’s my love song to the great 80’s action films that inspired me so much like First Blood, and also all the Sergio Leone great Western films. It is just beautiful to create a lone wolf kind of character with so much mystery and complex and be dealt with something that will turn the world upside down. So thinking of the premise, I dug in into our own military forces here in the Phil, because I truly believe there are such amazing stories in them that needs to be told. And indeed I stumbled upon a story about an ex-soldier who is dealing with PTSD who became a security guard and ends up protecting a woman involved in some drug activities and trying to run for her life. I think I just want to raise some kind of question, if morality and an act of compasion is valid for my hero to do such heroic act for someone who is considered a criminal like the woman in my story. Or heroism has bounderies when it comes to saving such life. So those premises of my stories really excites me to explore such complex situations.
Talk about the casting process and meeting your lead actor, Arjo, and what he brought to the table to land the role of Miguel.
Arjo Atayde is one of our great dramatic actors in our country. I truly believe he understands this whole situation of the character I offered to him, because he is a thinking actor, and very instinctive when it comes to developing the character inside him. I really looked for someone with great depth and emotion, and the acumen to deal his character mentally, physically, emotionally, and I believe I found it in Arjo Atayde. Then he brought a whole different level of energy and different layers of nuance and such meticulous detail in his character, which gives a pure and genuine interpretation of someone who is struggling with a whole lot conplexities in his life. Arjo Atayde surprised me in a whole lot of levels.
You also have Julia Montes who plays Weng, and she was fantastic next to Arjo. How important was this aspect for you in creating both of these characters as sort of equals to one another?
Julia Montes is a revelation. She is a force to be reckoned with. I sought after someone who was really driven with a whole lot of heart to grind the hardship of life each day, and Julia Montes carried it out with so much realistic approach and devotion. Julia Montes offered a symbol of reseliency and survival in the film. A common woman who will rise above in order for her to see the day and fight for it no matter what. I believe Julia Montes really really nailed it. She shows her own weakness and strength, but never gives up, so as to defy the forces that may lead to her demise. She refuses to lose and I think that is the most important essence in her character, and teaming her up with Arjo Atayde whose character is someone on the brink of breaking down and ready to go all out, they both give a whole lot of balance and different layers during their emotional journey throughout the film.
You did, in fact, interview some former soldiers during your research for this film. I’m curious to learn if there’s a residual emotional weight to hearing these stories as a filmmaker trying to create a story of your own around these lived experiences, particularly given the subject matter and the context of post-war trauma.
PTSD is not well been articulated that much in the Phil, like in any other countries not because its not happening to us or not because our government is lacking the capacity to deal with it, but because we as Filipinos have a big circle of family and foundation that we can hold on and cope up with such concerns. So in that certain issues like PTSD, for most of us we are made to believe that it is just a phase and as long as you have your community, family, friends, loved ones that you can trust on and build a certain comfort around it you will be okay. For that’s the one reason why it’s not been talked about that much, cuz we believe as long as you have your circle you can rely unto that. But for some people like my character with Miguel, we all know that it is happening and it is happening to our soldiers too. but its not about being ignorant with the illness but rather, our government banked on Filipino Resiliency and tougness that we are left facing socio-political issues on our own without the adequate professional approach to issues like this.
One other aspect of Triggered (Topakk) is the more oblique reference to death squads and the war on drugs in the Philippines. How pertinent is that issue today, and in light of this, were there any specific challenges or guidelines to telling this kind of story bearing all this in mind as a filmmaker?
The phase on war drugs in the Phil now has evolve in a different approach since the change of the new government. But in Topakk, the story revolves around the time where the war on drugs is most potent and alarming in a whole level. I take on the stories in different research materials and put it all together and create a world that is so much close to it, but on a different general level because we are very clear that this film is not a political issue. Rather, the conflict is used as a jumping board and a backdrop for my characters and the story itself to make it an interesting narrative to be told.
What were some of the challenges you and your actors faced during this production? I ask because I can only imagine the magnitude of what it was like on set between some of the scenes and set pieces, explosions and whatnot.
Yah! It’s challenging because we can really do it the Hollywood way or any other Asian countries that produce so much budget for the film. We need to be more resourceful and creative in order to come up with spectacle that is very much real and raw. So I turn my attetention on doing it the old school way – less CGI and all, and attack it with so much grit and passion most especially in the shooting aspects of the film. We approach it how it is done back in the days, with pyrotechnics, explosions, set designs, props and stunt coordinations and choreography.
In a recent interview at Variety, you reflect on figures like Stallone and Schwarzenegger in registering your affinity for the kind of old school action films we grew up with. These films are all about the red stuff – the violence and gore, etc., and I’m curious to learn if there were any limits to your creativity in that department.
The only way to do this is to be more real and visceral. Me and my producers decided to go all out on this, because we believe this is the only way to make this film different from any other action films. You could see the energy of the film base on the picture that i painted on it, which is blood, gore and violence. For me there is artistry in violence.
I started covering films on my platform about ten years ago, and with the Philippines only just landing on my radar since then, I’ve learned that getting the action genre off the ground has been pretty arduous to accomplish. Is still the case today? And if so, what needs to change, in your viewpoint?
You need to have brave producers who truly believe in your work. I’m more honored to be noticed by this young visionary and aggressive film production label, Nathan Studios. We share the same vision with the film industry, a bolder, new and strong voice, and out-of-the-box perspective about future films, and I think I’m just fortunate, and being backed by our other co-producers from America like FUSEE, and with distribution by RAVEN BANNER ENTERTAINMENT, that is something special for me already, and I believe this is the route that I will follow in my filmaking journey.
What’s the reception been like for you so far since screening Triggered in Locarno? Also, where can fans and festival goers catch the film next after this, if possible?
The feeling in Locarno is magical. Being invited to such a prestigeous festival and to be part of this as the only action film from the Phil that is invited here for the World Premiere. This something that will be carved in my memory for a long time.
One final question: You’ve worked in entertainment since the late nineties and for almost twenty years, you’ve been directing. You’ve won awards, you’re celebrated by peers and mentors like Erik Matti, and you’re still thriving even after a world-crippling pandemic. What are some of the biggest and most important lessons you’ve learned along the way in your field?
The joy of storytelling, the joy of sharing your vision to the rest of the world, and the thirst of elevating myself and challenging myself on what I can still offer to the audience locally and internationally, and to have my own voice to be heard. That keeps me going. That keeps me moving. That keeps me alive and free.
Special thanks to Michael Paszt, Marijana Harder and Annelle Dehghani for making coverage of this film possible.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.