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Bob Ong serves up big-screen scares this Christmas

By ERIC CABAHUG Published Oct 19, 2020 5:04 am

Bob Ong is invading the big screen again. But this time he’s writing the screenplay himself.

The upcoming film Ang Mga Kaibigan ni Mama Susan is Ong’s adaptation of his own 2010 horror/mystery novel of the same title, about a college student who experiences strange things when he stays with his grandmother (the titular Mama Susan) in the small provincial town where she lives.

Directed by acclaimed director Chito Roño (Sukob, Feng Shui) and starring young heartthrob Joshua Garcia, the Regal Films and Blacksheep co-production will screen at Christmastime during the 2020 Metro Manila Film Festival.

Mama Susan follows the big screen adaptations of two other Bob Ong books—his memoir-ish debut ABNKKBSNPLAko!? and the Pinoy mass media comedy Lumayo Ka Nga Sa Akin. Screened in 2014 and 2016, respectively, these earlier films were penned by other writers and had minimal participation from Ong.

Not that he was bypassed, intentionally or not, by producer Viva Films. “Save for a few consultations, I gave the production team full creative control,” the bestselling author stated in an interview with the Philippine Star in 2016.

Actors Mon Confiado and Angie Ferro in Bob Ong’s “Ang Mga Kaibigan ni Mama Susan.” From Mon Confiado’s FB page

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He is now in control. “Direk Chito allowed me to do my thing and let me have it my way,” Ong says about writing the screenplay for Mama Susan. “I'm just not sure how much of my thing and my way will end up on the cutting room floor.”

In this exclusive interview with PhilSTAR Life, the National Book Award winner talks about how the project came about, what made him agree to it, how he approached adapting his own work, and collaborating with film master Chito Roño.

How did this project come about?

I received a message on Twitter from a friend and scriptwriter of Lumayo Ka Nga sa Akin. “Hi Bo! Direk Chito Roño called me up. He was interested in adapting Ang Mga Kaibigan Ni Mama Susan into a movie. Of all the stuff he has read daw recently, dun siya pinaka na-excite. Is it available?" Direk Chito did get in touch shortly after, and the rest is 2018 history.

This isn’t the first attempt to adapt this book into a movie, right? What happened to those earlier ones?

Ang Mga Kaibigan ni Mama Susan film rights were first optioned in 2013 by a different producer. Unfortunately the filming didn't push through as their script never reached the final draft.

What made you agree to this project?

I love horror movies and I am open to writing one. I've always wanted to realize Mama Susan's potential to scare people on the big screen without reducing it to just another scary movie. I'm actually territorial with Mama Susan and was even hoping to produce it myself someday to secure full control of the script.

I've always wanted to realize the potential of ‘Ang Mga Kaibigan ni Mama Susan’ to scare people on the big screen without reducing it to just another scary movie.

There's one filmmaker, in fact, that I trusted with my concept, whom I approached years ago, with the confidence of a nerd attempting to date a cheerleader. Unfortunately the cheerleader was just not interested enough.

Then came Direk Chito with good intentions, though I never considered him for this because he was actually someone I thought was out of my league and was way up there behind some of the best Filipino films I've seen. But this was all his idea, his own initiative, and this film would be his next after Signal Rock. I couldn't say no to that.

The movie is based on Ong’s 2010 book.

You’ve written a book in screenplay format (Lumayo Ka Nga Sa Akin) but is Mama Susan your first actual screenplay intended for an actual movie? How did you approach adapting the novel into a screenplay? How different or the similar is the Mama Susan screenplay from the book?

No, not my first time. I have unfinished ones, too, that will probably remain that way for some time. I of course intended to make the script most faithful to the book, but that's the Bob Ong book paradox because majority of my books were not written to be adapted into movies. So expect inevitable deviations from the original material.

What participation, if any, did direk Chito Roño have in the writing of the screenplay? How was it working with him? Have you two met in person or was it all electronic?

Direk allowed me to do my thing and let me have it my way. I'm just not sure how much of my thing and my way will end up on the cutting room floor. We both have our own brands of horror, but Direk has been very open to my vision. Ultimately it's a Chito Roño film and the balancing act will rely on his genius. I'm confident and excited about the result.

From the Facebook page Ang Mga Kaibigan ni Mama Susan

Lumayo Ka Nga Sa Akin took a lot of potshots at Pinoy moviemaking and the film industry specifically mainstream cinema. How do you feel now that you are directly involved with a mainstream movie? Has it changed some of your views?

Not really. Because what Lumayo Ka Nga sa Akin is taking a jab at are not imperfect movies, but movies that are no longer even trying. It's not so much about missing the mark as it is about whether we still care that we don't.

How do you feel about the movie being a part of the Metro Manila Film Festival? Did you ever imagine one of your works landing the festival?

No, I didn't have those kinds of expectations. It's great and I'm happy for the people in production and the readers who want the best for this adaptation.

Banner photo of Joshua Garcia and the cast courtesy of Blacksheep.