Filipino Star Enrique Gil On Breaking Boundaries In His Comeback After A Three-Year Hiatus, ‘I Am Not Big Bird’

EXCLUSIVE: It’s just another day in Manila’s Riverbanks Center studios and a stand-in actor is beating off a group of gangsters with an outsized prosthetic penis – thankfully one that is wrapped in a tasteful chiffon scarf. 

The actor he’s standing in for, Enrique Gil, is one of the biggest heartthrobs in the Philippines’ film and TV industries and it’s safe to say he’s taking a slight departure with his most recent project, I Am Not Big Bird, which was mostly filmed in Thailand with some interiors in Manila. 

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Produced by Anima Studios and ABS-CBN‘s Black Sheep, the film is about a 30-something virgin (Gil) who, dejected after his girlfriend turns down his marriage proposal, heads off on holiday to Thailand with a bunch of friends. Once there, a peculiar chain of events ensues when Gil’s character is mistaken for a famous Thai porn star, the “Big Bird” of the title. 

Directed by Victor Villanueva (Kidnap For Romance) and written by Lilit Reyes and Joma Labayen, the film also stars Nikko Natividad, Pepe Herera and comedian Red Ollero. Anima’s Bianca Balbuena and Kriz Gazmen of ABS-CBN are producing the film for the two studios, with Gil also on board as a producer.

Sitting down with Deadline on a break between takes, Gil says this is the first time he’s made a straight-up comedy, especially one so raunchy, likening it more to a Western-style comedy than a typical Philippines film. 

“I’d taken a break of about three years during the pandemic, and before that was doing a lot of romcoms and dramas, as well as some horrors,” says Gil, underplaying his track record of making some of the Philippines’ biggest romantic dramas, often with frequent co-star Liza Soberano. “Growing up, me and my dad used to just love comedy, he was a comedian himself, so I really wanted to make a solid comedy film that me and my dad, if he were still here, would want to watch.” 

He adds that he also hopes the project pushes the envelope for Filipino mainstream films, at least a little. Filipino cinema is not known for comedy that doesn’t involve a “love team” and lots of romance, while I Am Not Big Bird is more of a buddy (or in Tagalog ‘barkada’) movie, revolving around the mishaps of the group of friends. “Drama, melodrama, lots of crying, that is the bread and butter of Filipino entertainment, so it was just fun to make an out and out comedy for a change,” Gil says. “Just have a laugh and a good time.”

Villanueva, who started out with quirky black comedy Jesus Is Dead, but is now well-known for mainstream dramas and comedies, says that while the film has some naughty jokes, it’s not too outrageous as it’s aiming for a big cinema release. Neither is it misogynistic: “Although we maybe didn’t plan it this way, the straight male characters are kind of losers, while it’s the women and the LGBT characters who are in control,” Villanueva says. 

He explains that the story was inspired by the real-life experience of the writer Reyes’ friend, who went on holiday to Thailand and got swarmed by a bunch of girls convinced he was somebody else. This happened to Reyes’ friend in the early 2000s, and the film is also set in this more innocent, pre-cell phones and social media period, when cases of mistaken identity were much harder to disprove. 

Reyes and Labayen wrote the script with input from Villanueva and Gil. “It was a fantastic collaborative experience with a lot of back and forth,” Villanueva remembers. “At one point we were worried about painting Thailand in a bad light, due to some of the jokes, but when our Thai counterparts read the script, they said it was fine, so we felt reassured.” 

While some scenes are being filmed in Manila, most of the shoot took place in Bangkok. Ironically for such a mainstream production, it involves some of Asia’s heavyweight arthouse producing talent. Bianca Balbuena, who now heads Anima Studios, was previously head of EpicMedia Productions, producing films such as Lav Diaz’s Essential Truths Of The Lake and recent Sundance title In My Mother’s Skin. When in Bangkok, the film was facilitated by Thai producer Soros Sukhum’s 185 Films, which co-produced Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria

“They’re so organised and take extra good care of you,” says Gil, when asked how he liked shooting in Thailand. “Like Filipinos, they’re hospitable people. They shoot shorter days than we do here and everything was very smooth.”

He adds that the film will present Thailand as an attractive destination (gangsters and porn stars aside) and he would like to see more films that showcase the Philippines in the same way. “Everyone wants to visit Korea and eat Korean food because of their K-pop, dramas and movies. We should be doing the same thing for the Philippines,” he says. “But there are things we need to do first, like increase our budgets and our production quality, perhaps get a bit more government support.”

Gil says he decided to take a hiatus from the entertainment industry in 2020 when the series he was working on, ABS-CBN’s Make It With You, was shut down due to the pandemic. 

“During those three years, I was just concentrating on my other businesses that I run with my mom, we have a property development business together, but realised that I didn’t want to leave the industry entirely, so I decided to launch my own production company,” he says. 

Known as an entrepreneur as well as an actor and dancer, Gil also recently invested in a ticketing business, Ticket2Me, that sells tickets for live events and produces some concerts. Meanwhile, his production outfit, Immerse Entertainment, is developing a slate of projects for global streamers including Netflix and Prime Video, as well as regional streamer Viu. 

“We’re just trying to push the boundaries of Filipino content, putting films and series out there on streaming platforms for global markets,” Gil says. “It just doesn’t make sense that the Philippines is the most English-speaking country in Asia, but we’re not really tapping into international markets.”

He says the projects his company is developing are in English, Tagalog and a combination of both known as Taglish. “The Philippines makes a lot of dramas and romcoms because they’re not expensive to make, but to reach a bigger audience, we need to push the boundaries. Instead of just selling our islands, we should we showcasing our culture and our films,” he says.  

I Am Not Big Bird looks set to show international audiences that the Philippines has some range in the comedy genre at least. The film is also eagerly awaited by Gil’s fans in the Philippines who have had to go three long years without seeing him on screen. Theatrical release is being lined up for later this year, while the producers are also planning to take the film to international genre festivals in 2024. 

“We all had such a hard time during the pandemic, we hope this film is a release and a safe space for everyone,” says Gil. “We had fun making it and hope our audience feels the same way when they watch the film.”

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