It’s hard to resist a good mystery. The Snyder boys in the film 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten ooze mystery, from the film’s trailer to its promotional posters: pale skin against starchy uniforms; unspeaking, brooding, with just the barest hint of a smirk. They draw you into a world you don’t quite know, and we become the actor Khalil Ramos — the middleman in this situation — in that way. We don’t really know where we’re headed, but we’re going in, anyway.
2 Cool is the latest film by director Petersen Vargas; it’s his first full-length feature for this year’s Cinema One Originals. It tells the story of a friendless boy named Felix (Ramos) whose life takes a turn after the arrival of the half-American Snyder brothers (Ethan Salvador and Jameson Blake). Without giving too much away, the ’90s-set film explores themes of growing up and friendships that come with it — all set to the textured background of Angeles City, a place that has come to be known for its red light districts and many Amerasian children.
Made more exciting is the fact that 24-year-old Petersen is a young filmmaker to watch out for, having made his mark in so many ways since his years studying film at the University of the Philippines. Back in 2015, his 20-minute thesis film Lisyun qng Geografia traveled the world, going to film festivals in Mindanao, Pampanga, Thailand and Mumbai. When it arrived at last year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival (which put focus on short films), it earned Petersen the Best Director Award. Petersen has been nominated for the Gawad Urian Awards and the Cinemanila International Film Festival and won Best Short Film at the 26th Gawad CCP for Short Narrative.
And so we unspool Petersen’s latest intriguing creation, a gritty slice of life in Pampanga, written by his co-Kapampangan Jason Paul Laxamana. (Laxamana recently directed the dark comedy Mercury is Mine, which competed at this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival.) Just before the film’s premiere, we talked to Petersen about the wealth found in exploring one’s roots, the appeal of adolescence as storytelling device, and why love fades but friendship is, well, forever.
YOUNG STAR: Can you tell us a few things about the film? What inspired you to write it?
PETERSEN VARGAS: The film is called 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten and it’s written by Jason Paul Laxamana and directed by me. It’s an entry to this year’s Cinema One Originals fest. The nature of the project — it didn’t start as a collaboration, actually. Jason Paul wrote it first, thinking that he’d direct it.
At the start of 2016, I approached Jason Paul with the thought of asking him to co-write this whole other concept that I think was perfect for us to work on together. Instantly, he thought of the more perfect idea: why not read this script that he recently wrote, that he suddenly thought I was fit to direct? At that time, I never imagined that my debut feature was going to be lifted from another person’s material. But the moment I read the screenplay, which was previously entitled Dos Mestizos, I could already see the film playing in my head. I saw myself in the lead character Felix, and how he went through all sorts of awakenings during a very turbulent time in high school. Add the fact that the story had a very Kapampangan characteristic into it, and that it was telling the narrative of post-Pinatubo Angeles City, seen through the eyes of three complicated and conflicted youths.
It wasn’t like I was inspired to write something. It was more of being suddenly inspired to translate something already beautifully written to moving images. It was definitely a new thing for me to do.
You’ve always shown your Kapampangan roots in your work. How did your heritage inform this film? How did you want to portray your hometown this time around?
Yes! Actually, I didn’t experience high school in the late ‘90s. My generation came much later. It was Jason Paul, the writer, who definitely saw all this happen. But what was very interesting for me was that, even if we came in much later, like around more or less a decade after, the situation was almost the same. It almost felt like it was a lived experience, reading his story about Felix and the Fil-Am Snyder brothers. This whole phenomenon seemed like it was entrenched in the Kapampangan life.
Angeles City has always been known for pretty disturbing narratives about its red light districts, its working women, and its fatherless Amerasians. You could almost see a modern noir thriller being born out of its gritty and depressing state. Not to mention that even back in college, I was an intern for this documentary production helmed by a New York-based filmmaker who was out to capture the “essence” of Angeles City’s Fields Avenue. But it shouldn’t always be like that, right?
I felt like Jason Paul Laxamana, in his screenplay, wanted to represent the Kapampangans living against that backdrop in a different light. I mean, I still don’t want to pretend that the film didn’t come out just as dark and twisted in one way or another. The truth is that it might always end up that way, or that it’s already there, staring you right in the face. I guess the way I wanted to portray it was through an honest and sincere lens. It was difficult to get there but I hope we did.
Wonderboy: The director Petersen Vargas. (Photo by Karen de la Fuente)
Like your characters in Lisyun qng Geografiya, the kids in 2 Cool are also in high school. What motivates you to explore adolescence as a device to tell stories?
I guess it’s a stubborn way of not wanting to grow up yet? No, I’m kidding. Sort of, haha.
I guess every storyteller always has their own thing, and this is my own thing — telling stories about young people. There’s something about the fragility and vulnerability of youth that really challenges you to go deeper. What’s so beautiful about immaturity? What’s worth telling about indecision, restlessness, and all these unnecessary feelings that we only come to understand a few years later?
Whenever I ask these questions, there’s always a good story or two somewhere in there.
A lot of your work touches on LGBT relationships in a very humanizing way (i.e. not the usual way gay relationships are portrayed in film). How did you explore in this film, if you did?
Thank you for saying that.
I guess part of it is that… I’m gay? Haha, no, it’s true, though. I remember when I was in a Q&A session after a festival screening of this French lesbian film called Summertime, and up came the producer-director tandem onstage, who happened to be a long-time lesbian couple. They were talking about how, a year before principal photography, they were at the Cannes premiere of the Palme D’or-winning — you guessed it right — Blue Is The Warmest Color. When the credits were rolling, the producer of said tandem went, “Oh no, the film we’re just about to make was already made.” But that didn’t stop them from pursuing their dream project. The end product was a much more sensual, and grippingly raw portrayal of a woman’s sexual awakening, upon having met the first woman of her life.
There’s really some merit in actually having lived (through) what the characters in your story might experience. Or at least to have understood at some level. With 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten, the exploration came from the thought that here’s our hero Felix, who’s a very blank person. His very first friend is an attractive half-American boy, who has an equally handsome mischievous young brother. He only comes to understand relationships as informed by his burgeoning friendship with these two boys in his life. What does that make you understand about attraction and affection?
Three musketeers: Ethan Salvador, Jameson Blake and Khalil Ramos star in Petersen Vargas’ Cinema One Originals bet 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten.
Cinema One Originals has always been known for experimental film shooting. Did you take opportunities to explore the kind of filmmaking you haven’t done before?
Yes, and I really admire that about Cinema One Originals. It’s the local festival that really introduces fresh, new concepts and always, each year, an exciting roster of both first-time filmmakers and some household names with rather intriguing and groundbreaking projects.
For this film, I guess there’s also some risk in the techniques we tried to explore in making it. We shot the film with a square ratio (not a perfect square, but more like the Academy ratio of 4:3), for starters. And that, in itself, gave way to several challenges and limitations during production. But it was a risk worth taking! I felt that, even with that very simple decision, I grew as a filmmaker in many ways.
What do you hope the audience will take away from this film?
Can I just repeat something that I’ve already said to some Cinema One Originals-related interview? If I remember it right, I told them that most people would say that love can last forever. But I disagree. Love fades. But friendship is forever. Or should I say, “4-ever.”