When Anton Dela Rosa catches a case his father once solved, he embarks on a career-defining investigation that is either solved... or brings his world crashing down. Between the two extremes is a universe of twists, turns, tension, uncertainty...
Much like it is for Philippines’ programmer ABS-CBN, which has upsized its original production goals, pitching itself further into the turbulent universe of big-budget streaming series crafted to appeal to international audiences.
The thriller, which debuted at Mipcom in October 2022, is a real-life high-stakes bet for the Manila-based programmer.
Forced off its perch as one of two leading national broadcasters in 2020 when its franchise was not renewed, ABS-CBN continues to throw everything it has at reshaping its business for a different future.
Cattleya Killer is the first home-grown title out of the newly formed ABS-CBN International Productions unit under ABS-CBN veteran and director, Ruel S. Bayani.
Based on Star Cinema’s 1996 movie, Sa Aking Mga Kamay/In My Own Hands, the six-episode Cattleya Killer stars Arjo Atayde (Bagman, FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano) as investigator, Anton Dela Rosa.
Dela Rosa is charged with solving the case of a long-dead serial killer that is resurrected, along with uncovering a trove of dark secrets, when a new corpse appears with signature markings.
In development for at least two years, the project was in its very early phase part of the 2021 Full Circle Series Lab, a Southeast Asian talent development initiative backed by the Film Development Council of the Philippines and France’s Tatino Films. Series projects were mentored by script consultant and development executive, Mmabatho Kau (South Africa), and producer, Naomi Levari (Israel).
Dodo Dayao (Violator, Midnight in a Perfect World) agreed to write the script on the request of director and long-time fan, Dan Villegas (Almost Paradise, Exes Baggage).
Although they have known each other for a while, Cattleya Killer is the first time the two have worked together directly.
Bayani is the series showrunner with Edgar Joseph (E.J.) Mallari as supervising producer.
Perhaps best-known for his commercially successful market-pleasing romcoms, Villegas says his motivation for taking on the Cattleya Killer project was the opportunity “to do something different from what I usually do” as well as to indulge his soft spot for horror stories and thrillers.
Dayao accepted the project because “It was out of my normal comfort zone. It posed an interesting challenge for me”.
As it was too for ABS-CBN Entertainment, which chose the Star Cinema thriller because of genre’s universal appeal.
“We believe in the thriller genre… and it travels easily,” Mallari says.
The TV adaption also involves political and other themes the producers say are highly relevant in the Philippines today.
Dayao’s starting point was deciding whether (or not) to reveal a killer from the first frame. It could, perhaps, be a red herring, a misdirection, but that was less important than his ultimate goal: to be “liberated from having to hide the identity of the killer. Everything else sprang from that”.
Cattleya Killer is Dayao’s longest script ever, with “a lot of story” and many characters, all with their own stories in addition to the core story. And, hopefully, with built-in potential to go into additional series.
The added pressure is telling an international story with a different focus on, for instance, exposition and character beats, and at the same time with an identifiable Philippines’ texture and character, like the red tape or how local cops walk and talk.
That was the fun part, Dayao says.
“The key is to make it even more Filipino… to maintain its uniqueness,” he adds.
Dayao had to figure out a way of telling a well-known local story for domestic audiences but not losing international viewers, who are coming in cold.
“It was a conscious effort on my end not to try to westernize the story too much and to keep it very local… but in the structure and the form to keep it international,” he adds.
For example, conversations that “don’t explain too much”, that veer away from local drama tendency to spoonfeed audiences with information, but at the same time stick to recognisable international procedural beats.
“I found my groove after the first time I showed the team the drafts. The second boost of energy came when I met the cast. That was a very big help for me because now I was attaching faces to the characters,” Dayao says.
Across the board, shows like Cattleya Killer are changing the fabric of Southeast Asian production in other ways, adopting, for instance, a 12-hour shooting schedule, a different approach to pre-production, and actors prep.
“You realise that this can be done… and we did it,” Villegas says.
Villegas, who says the series was shot “like a long film”, adds that his challenges including dealing back any over-acting and bringing out the script’s nuances.
“I was nervous coming into set every day,” Villega says.
“You're working with the country's best actors and a brilliant script. It this f's up, it's all my fault... I prayed at the beginning of every shoot and I thanked God at the end”.
An abridged version of this feature appeared in ContentAsia's 9 January 2023 eNewsletter