A historical drama, Quezon’s Game, that enlightens us all on a real Holocaust savior in Filipino President Manuel L. Quezon. The film’s director Matthew Rosen took part in an email questionnaire.
In 1938, Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon agrees to welcome Jewish refugees from Germany in the Philippines.
A few days from the 75th Anniversary of Liberation of Auschwitz (Jan. 27th) the Jewish people are still left. Quezon’s Game tells the truth of one man’s journey to save as many lives as possible. Matthew Rosen shared with us the background to the story, the visual style he wanted to utilize, and bringing to life in the Philippines in 1938.
Here is my interview with Director Matthew Rosen of the powerful gem that is Quezon’s Game.
1. Can you enlighten us on how this project was a family experience for the Rosens?
Our family has grown up working together. Lori, my wife, and I met on a shoot. Now we always work together … I direct and she produces. Our two sons, Dean and Dylan, grew up with us on set so they both took to the industry quite quickly. The family also all write together in script sessions. Dean is currently an accomplished composer … He composes for almost all our projects. He usually takes an acting role as well, as his first love is acting, and he has a very successful career as a stage actor. He plays the role of Leo Blumenthal in the movie. Dylan, our youngest, also takes a small role as the wireless/radio operator. Dylan is currently an animation director and a neophyte photographer and cameraman. He shot the behind the scenes for this project.
2. I love your cinematography in the film. Can you give us a breakdown on how you captured 1930-40s Manila and the Philippines? Especially cars and all that white linen-based clothing!!
Much of the movie is set in 1938. I wanted to capture the era not just in design but also in the style of filmmaking. Casablanca is one of my favorite movies and is still considered an all-time cinema classic. The cinematography of Quezon’s Game is very much inspired by Arthur Edeson’s work on Casablanca. I updated it a little by adding some soft fill lights but generally I lit everything using Tungsten Fresnel lights which I built myself in the style of lights from the era. I used the projection of newsreels as a theme throughout the movie. This was how Quezon kept abreast with events around the world. He had a 16mm projector in his office. We used actual news reel from the era. In these reels everyone in the footage from Manila is wearing white, everyone from the west is wearing black. I am sure much of this is to do with the high contrast black and white film of the era but I wanted that contrast to be reflected in the movie. That is why almost everyone is wearing white, except the Nazi. He, of course, is in black. Manila was such a beautiful place before the war. It was known as the Paris of Asia. Unfortunately, it was completely flattened by the American assault on the Japanese during the liberation of the islands. Very few people remember or are even aware that Manila was once considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I thought it important I capture that. Luckily there is a conservation village called Las Casas de Acuzar not too far from Manila. It was the perfect location for the movie. The desaturated look seen on the interiors of the film is a combination of art direction and grading. There were no colorful plastics at the time and pretty much brown was the color of everything. This is reflected in the props, set design and costume. It creates a very authentic desaturated appearance without losing the natural color of the skin. To counterpoint this, the exteriors are very bright with vibrant natural colors. Again this was a combination of location and grading. The Philippines is mainly a combination of luscious green foliage and deep blue skies.
3. You open the film with a line straight from Schindler’s List, “I could have done more.” Can you talk about crafting the script to showcase the amazing feats “Manny” accomplished but also the immense political fighting that was happening with those working with and against Manny? We get to see a lot of the opposition to Manny’s maneuvers to save lives.
The line we open the movie with is actually a question not a statement. “Could I have done more?” Quezon asks his wife Aurora just before he dies. The importance of this question is not the similarity to Schindler’s statement although they both had the same sentiment … It is the very poignant reply that Aurora gives. That is a spoiler, so I’ll keep her reply a secret. It is a message to the Filipino people and the world. For me it is the most important line in the whole movie. When the movie aired in the Philippines, you could hear gasps in the theaters on the delivery of that line. I am really very honored that there has been so much comparison between Quezon’s Game and Schindler’s List. However, even though or perhaps because they both feature a brave individual risking all to save Jews during the Holocaust, they are very different movies. Schindler is a powerful, ultra-real masterpiece about the horrors of what man can do to his fellowman. When the audience leave the theater, they do so with a heavy heart and I am sure that was exactly what Spielberg wanted. Quezon’s Game, on the other hand, is about an act of humanity and kindness as well as the unthinkable resistance Quezon and his friends faced when they attempted to do the right thing. When I set out to make this film, I cited Casablanca as an example of its style. Even though Quezon’s Game is a historical movie depicting actual events, it contains all the elements of a good movie from the ‘40s. I want the audience to laugh at the humor, cry at the drama, cheer for the good guys and want to punch the bad guys. But most of all I want the audience to leave the theater uplifted and entertained. There are also so many layers to this movie. It is about the strong friendship of four men that crossed religious, cultural and ethnic boundaries. It is also about the loving but often confusing relationship between Quezon and his wife as well as the forgotten, or perhaps hidden, bigotry underlining world politics during this period that must always be remembered—So it never happens again.
4. Love the casting choices—Can you talk about how this ensemble was assembled?
I Believe 90% of directing is casting. If you cast the right actors, the movie will pretty much direct itself. Thus, I usually spend more time casting a project than shooting it. This was the case with Quezon’s Game. The script is incredibly complex, filed with subtext and subtle innuendo. It needed a cast that could not only deliver the lines written on the page but also communicate the words unspoken. I needed very talented actors and we knew if we didn’t find a believable Quezon, there would be no movie. The search was long but when Raymond Bagatsing came along and did his first reading, we new we had a movie. He also has an uncanny resemblance to Quezon. Rachel Alejandro, who plays Aurora, is an extremely talented actress and singing artist. She read with Raymond several times as did many other actresses. The relationship between Quezon and Aurora is very complex and the snappy banter between the two was so natural.
5. Technical question: What did you shoot on, how much footage, how many days, and any specific cinematic choices you hope folks see in the film?
I shot a majority of the film with Blackmagic Cinema cameras. Mainly because they are compact. This helped us in the locations of historical homes which are beautifully textured but very small. We were not allowed to take generators on many of the old cobbled stone roads as they were very fragile, so I used few lights. For most of the night shots, I used a Panasonic Varicam LT. This camera sees in the dark with very little compromise so I could light large night areas using low-watt lights that we could plug into a household outlet. This is a big film with a small budget. We only had 16 days to shoot it. We rehearsed thoroughly and shot our scenes fast with minimal takes. If you are a film buff, you could probably recognize the cinematography homage of the films from the era. In the Philippines, it has become a fad for film buffs to watch the movie and try to identify them all.
6. On a historical note, how impactful was making this film knowing this story may not be known by a vast number of people? Was there a sense of fulfillment in helping highlight such and amazing element to Quezon’s legacy.
The main reason I started this project was because I found a story that had pretty much been lost to history. I felt it was a story that needed to be told. A story of an underdog taking on the world and winning. After production, I was very happy with the finished film prior to its distribution, but the main reason I made it was for people to see it. When it started winning so many awards around the world I was delighted, I never imagined it would have such recognition and I am so thankful for the appreciation and accolades it has received. I consider this movie ‘The Little Movie That Could’. Finally, it was released in Manila. I was out of town at a studio the day it was released and could not get out to see its reception. I asked my son Dean to go have a look if anyone was watching it at our local theater. He sent me back a shot of the cinemas booking screen. Every seat was sold, full house. That was the most rewarding part of the whole project. I realized people wanted to see this lost part of history. The houses remained full for six weeks. So far that has been the greatest sense of achievement and satisfaction I have felt from Quezon’s Game.
Quezon’s Game has a limited release today – Jan. 24th 2020. It expands next week on January 31st.
To find a location near you please go, here.