Jakarta. Almost a month after its premiere, action film "Merah Putih Memanggil" is still playing at the cinemas — a rare feat for local flicks.
But not many of its viewers know the director of the surprise box office hit had to race against time to complete it and relied on many on-the-set improvisations to beat the deadline.
The film tells the story of a rescue mission by the fictional Alpha team from the Indonesian Military's (TNI) special force (Kopassus).
Led by Captain Nurmantyo (Maruli Tampubolon), Alpha team is sent to fictional neighboring country Tongo, where a terrorist group led by Diego (Aryo Wahab) and Lopez (Restu Sinaga) has hijacked a cruise ship and kidnapped crew members and innocent civilians.
Director Mirwan Suwarso recently revealed he only had six months to complete the film, not much time for a full action movie.
The movie had to be ready to be shown as part of TNI’s anniversary celebrations on Oct. 5.
TeBe Silalahi Pictures — helmed by former Army general T.B. Silalahi — had asked Mirwan to direct the movie with no script ready, just a rough idea of the plot line.
Mirwan ended up depending heavily on his actors, who were thankfully willing to work against the clock, including Maruli Tampubolon, Prisia Nasution, Happy Salma and Mentari De Marelle.
With the deadline only six months away, Mirwan had to rely on the actors improvising their own dialogue and choreography.
"The dialogues were written on site, in collaboration with other cast members who are real, battle-hardened soldiers. They would tell the rest of the cast what they would do in certain situations and we would shoot the scenes based on their instructions," Mirwan told the Jakarta Globe.
Nine real special force soldiers play the main characters in the movie.
Mirwan had no problems directing the first-time actors. In fact, he learned a lot from the soldiers' experience, which lends the movie a more realistic feel.
"I found out from them they were involved in many secret missions we know nothing about. Their friends died in those missions. The fictional secret mission in the movie borrowed a lot from those real ones," Mirwan said.
The director spent some time gaining the soldiers' trust. Getting them to open up about their past was not an easy task, since doing so involved reliving painful memories, including having to witness their fellow soldiers die in battle.
"But they’re soldiers. They're mentally tougher than normal people," Mirwan said.
The TNI made Mirwan's job a little easier by lending the film crew bullets, guns, grenades, helicopters, a Sukhoi SU-30 fighter jet, its KRI Diponegoro battleship and its Nagapasa submarine.
"Imagine if we had to pay for all that. Just to fill up a fighter jet with fuel can cost a billion rupiahs," the director said.
Working With Hollywood
Mirwan also asked for help from several filmmakers with Hollywood film and TV show experience in "Merah Putih Memanggil."
Cinematographer Steve Mason, who worked in "Mad Max," "Mad Men" and "Gilmore Girls" set the overall look of the film before local director of photography Donnie Firdaus took over.
David Raines, the sound editor for "Transformers" and "Shooter," helped with sound editing and mixing.
Then Bruce Goodman, whose portfolio included "No Country for Old Men" and "Argo" fixed the color grading on the movie.
"We were forced to use five cameras, all with different specs, as they were the only ones available. Getting the film to have the same color grading wasn’t easy. We needed someone with the technical expertise to do it," Mirwan said.
In the end, it took two and a half months to shoot "Merah Putih Memanggil" and three weeks in post-production to wrap up the film.
Its publicity team did not have much time to do pre-release promotion, so the film did not perform well in its opening week.
But by the third week, the film had attracted at least 200,000 viewers.
Judging from the fans' reaction, "Merah Putih Memanggil" is quickly gaining a reputation as a cult movie.
Fans took to social media to create region-based accounts, including in Surabaya (East Java), Solo (Central Java) and Cirebon (West Java).
The increasingly rabid fans demand more screenings in their cities and meet and greet sessions with the cast and crew.
Mirwan said he is not unduly worried that the film may be seen as a pro-military propaganda, considering the fact it was premiered on TNI’s anniversary and not long after it got into hot water with the public for holding public screenings of a New Order-era anti-communist propaganda film.
"From what I’ve seen, those who have watched "Merah Putih Memanggil" don’t see it as propaganda. They see it simply as an action movie. I did make sure to 'neutralize' any political message in the film. I want it to be like "Lone Survivor" or "Black Hawk Down" — when you watch them you don't focus on the fact that the characters are American soldiers, you just focus on the action on the screen," he said.
The director praised the dedication of Indonesian soldiers, especially lower-ranked troops, to follow orders often at great cost.
"They are willing to die for us, so we can live in peace. Our soldiers are not only highly trained and dedicated, they're also ready to sacrifice their lives. We should appreciate them more," Mirwan said.