How Erik Matti’s ‘The Squatter’ won at Europe’s ‘Biggest’ TV series festival

Nathalie Tomada - The Philippine Star
How Erik Matti�s �The Squatter� won at Europe�s �Biggest� TV series festival
Director Erik Matti receives the top prize for his immigrant crime story ‘The Squatter’ from the France-based international TV festival Series Mania’s Seriesmakers, a mentoring program for feature filmmakers making the leap to TV.

MANILA, Philippines — Director Erik Matti and producer Dondon Monteverde recently revealed how their immigrant crime story “The Squatter” became a top winner at the recent international TV festival, Series Mania, in France.

Now on its 15th year this 2024, Series Mania is the biggest dedicated TV series festival in Europe, as per Variety. “The Squatter” — the only Asian among the bunch of finalists — won alongside “George Blake” from Scotland’s Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald and “Sleeping Swans” from Austria’s Barbra Albert under Seriesmakers, a “novel and high-powered mentoring program” of Series Mania for feature filmmakers making the leap to TV. “The Squatter” secured €50,000 or around P3 million as prize, and is set to collaborate closely with Beta Films to develop a pilot script, among others.

Variety described Erik’s latest project as an east-meets-west eight-part crime series. It revolves around a Filipino overseas worker and a Ukrainian detective “unraveling a mystery that begins with a dead body in a small town and spans halfway across the globe.”

During a recent interview with direk Erik and Dondon, also the duo behind Reality MM Studios, they shared how they made it to Series Mania’s Seriesmakers.

Producer Dondon Monteverde and direk Erik with Anne Curtis, star of their 'BuyBust' prequel series, one of their upcoming productions under the banner of their Reality MM Studios.

Erik said it was invitational. Meaning, only filmmakers who had already participated in prestigious international festivals were enlisted to join. 

“Of course, we knew about Series Mania, which is an international festival in Lille, France na nagpapalabas ng mga series, the pilot, just the series, they don’t have movies. Then under that festival they started the Seriesmakers. They aim to get full-length feature filmmakers who were able to join the A-list festivals — Cannes, Venice, even Toronto — and then ask them to pitch a project that is for a series,” the director said.

“Hindi namin alam sino kasama namin, who else were invited into the filmfest… Of course, we expressed excitement (when we received the invitation). Sabi namin sige, let’s try to join so we did. There’s probably 20 or more than 20 filmmakers who joined. Hindi na namin na-meet lahat yun because it was then (down) to 10 participants only.

“From there, in the period of two months, we were subjected to masterclasses, talking about how to produce a series, how (to develop a) story, what’s the difference between film and series.”

The biggest learning from masterclasses under creators and showrunners of such successful TV productions as “Game of Thrones,” “Euphoria” and “Narcos” is that it’s about the story.

“When it comes to movies, meron ka pang hinahabol na integrity ng director mismo, yung vision, we have to follow it. And the buck stops with the director,” explained Erik.

“With a series, it doesn’t go that way. Yes, there’s a vision to the entire series, but it goes through so many people, not just creatives, but producers, etc., etc. All of those do a lot of things for the series to be completed and to be successful.

“It’s gonna be a vision for the entire team. Kung meron man kaming adjustment ginawa from movies to series, it’s that. And we have to understand that the series should be good enough to engage the audience from Episodes 1 to 8.”

Aside from the masterclasses, the program provided them with mentors to guide them on drawing up a pitching deck for the final submission, a basis for the selection of the winners.  

They started the program last year, submitted the deck in January of this year, got a call they won, and went on to receive the award in France last month.

What they particularly like about winning at Seriesmakers is the support even after post-win. They’re excited because they’ve attended events where they pitch their project, get a grant but there’s no clear follow-through.

“This time, the grant was from Beta Films. When they gave the grant, they sat down with us to plan. We discussed who would be the producer, where we would take the project to sell it to companies, you know? So, they plan to actually execute the series, not just make it for the festival and then be done with it,” said direk Erik.

“For Reality, we’re very happy about this being Pinoys that we’re able to actually get the top prize,” said Dondon.

“Ang maganda talaga dito, as mentioned by Erik, is the follow-through. So when we develop it, there will be a follow-through really where we will be introduced to different platforms aside from the usual platforms that we see here in the Philippines.”

Dondon added, “You know, it’s been always a dream also for Erik to actually do like a movie before in the English language. So who knows, this may be the first one or maybe dual language. We’re happy to be part of that and winning it, of course, totally makes us really proud to be Filipinos.”

As mentioned in Variety, “The Squatter” is an east-meets-west crime story.

A real incident inspired the beginnings of the cross-border tale. Two years ago on a trip to the US, Erik and his wife, screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto, who was writing “Buy Bust” at that time, decided to extend their stay. They met someone for the first time over a dinner, who learned about their plan and offered them to stay at their Manhattan apartment for two weeks for free.

“Siempre ngayon naging close friends na talaga kami but at that time, we just met that friend one time. So, nung nag-offer na, siempre gusto namin ni Mich, but at the back of our minds, siempre nag-iisip ka na is this too good to be true? So ‘dun kami nagsimula, mga what-if.”

In “The Squatter,” the Filipino lead character named Gail has been married to someone, but eventually relocates to London and gets offered to stay at an apartment. “Wala pa siyang pera so happy siya (with the offer) but in exchange for living in an apartment (for free), sinabi sa kanya you can do errands for us. So yun muna yung ginagawa niya while the story is unfolding.”

Early on, Erik and Dondon also wanted to tell an immigrant story. “We are the biggest exporter (of Filipino workers) in the whole world. So we started with that actually, this idea of Gail, the lead character who, hindi naman talaga siya ‘maid’ but she does errands for a rich couple,” Erik said. 

“She’s actually a lawyer prior to finding a way to go to another country… We could call her a Filipina immigrant trying to start a new life in London.”

From there, they thought of adding a separate immigrant story from outside Asia. “We thought about a Ukrainian (detective) because there are a lot of Eastern Europeans and even Russians who’ve become immigrants in big cities like London and New York.

“So thinking namin, iba rin yung experience ng mga yun kasi hindi sila magkalayo ng itsura sa mga British but they’re still immigrants. Parang maganda lang siyang parallel story, these two characters trying to find a home in London.”

The choice of London as setting is because they want to pay homage to their favorite British crime and detective series.

“That’s why it’s an east-meets-west crime story because it’s seen from the lens of immigrants.”

One of the next steps for Erik and Dondon’s production under the banner of their Reality MM Studios, is to look for the lead cast. They don’t have anyone in mind yet but, Dondon hinted that they want someone in the caliber of John Arcilla, Volpi Cup Best Actor winner for Erik’s “On The Job: The Missing 8.”

“Kailangan magaling na artista,” said Dondon. “Si Erik kahit paano, like with ‘On the Job,’ tuwang tuwa kami when he directed John Arcilla, first time nanalo ang Pilipino. Siempre, we will look for the next one na talagang magaling na we feel that can actually help promote the craft here in the Philippines.”

Before “The Squatter,” two more series are currently in production under Reality MM Studios. These are the prequel series to Erik’s “On The Job: The Missing 8” starring Jericho Rosales and “BuyBust” led by Anne Curtis.

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