Berlinale Exclusive Interview With Death Of Nintendo Writer Valerie Castillo Martinez

Everyone loves a feel-good, coming of age story that takes you down memory lane and flashes back to a time when life was all about school fun, young crushes, video games, youthful innocence and above all, getting into mischief with childhood besties.  Written by Valerie Castillo Martinez, Death of Nintendo is a film about a group of teenage boys and one young girl Mimaw (presumably a young Valerie), who spend all their time playing Nintendo, competing for girls, being silly, exploring their sexuality, finding new courage, pursuing secret crushes and entering manhood by getting circumcised, (which is a traditional right of passage in the Philippines). 

Beautifully directed by Valerie’s acclaimed, childhood friend and fellow Filipino, Raya Martin, the film takes you on a nostalgic journey through its visual textures, dreamy colors and reminiscent narrative. LRM had the pleasure of chatting with the talented screenwriter during Berlinale about the conception of the film and how it parallels her younger years. See below what Valerie had to say about life in the Philippines, her inspirations, how and why she began writing, circumcision and much more. I am certain this film will resonate with both young and older audiences worldwide, for its many awkward and sweet moments alike. Gush.

LRM: This script is a very personal story to you. Is the story of the young girl, Mimaw in the film, based on your life experiences?

Valerie Castillo Martinez: I guess so. Yeah, I think that’s the easiest assumption. I kind of put a little bit of myself in each of the kids, but I am definitely that tomboy growing up with my brother, running around with his friends, getting into all kinds of trouble. And then, yeah, I just had a great time being one of the boys until I realized it wasn’t so wonderful anymore, until I didn’t.

LRM: And why did you choose the title, Death of Nintendo?

Valerie: I think the easiest assumption would be that Nintendo is kind of a symbolism for innocence, and it’s just Nintendo is the console that kind of personified that idea in the 90s, because it was in almost every kid’s home. I mean in the Philippines, I’m pretty sure also in the States.

So I think people who are in generation X, generation Y kind of at one point have had an experience with a video game console, and that was just the first one I think, Nintendo. I know there’s Atari too, but specifically for me it was Nintendo.

LRM: Did you play a lot of Nintendo?

Valerie: I was a bystander, kind of waiting for my brother and his friends to [play first]. I don’t know, they get first priority, first dibs, and I felt like that was the dynamic in our family. I was kind of always getting the scraps because I’m the youngest. So, yeah, maybe there is a little bit of that hierarchy that I had to kind of realize that, just because I’m a girl or a woman now, I don’t always have to take second place.

LRM: I’m sure you have many stories of growing up in Manila. Why did you feel compelled to tell this particular story?

Valerie: Oh gosh, I have a boring answer and a very interesting answer to that. But the interesting answer is very psychological. Which one do you want?

LRM: Let’s hear both!

Valerie: Yeah, well the boring answer is just because I grew up in the 90s, and I wanted to go back and relive my childhood memories and write them down. But the more interesting bit of that is because I was born with a cleft lip, so at 10 days old I underwent major surgery, so I had a lot of general anesthesia that affected my memory. I don’t have a very good memory. So I think that’s why I got into writing, because writing down things in my journal, that would help me retain a lot of my memories growing up. So I guess the larger part of that is writing a screenplay that would then translate into maybe a film or book or movie or whatever. It’s kind of my way of clinging onto something that I don’t want to forget. So I think that’s a more dramatic, philosophical reason.

LRM: Did that blossom a love for writing? 

Valerie: Yeah, I think I consider myself introverted. So writing has been a lot of the way that I express myself fully, is through writing. And, whenever I would have a fight with my mom or my grandma, and I would apologize, I would always write it down, because I couldn’t say it. So I express myself a lot through writing.

LRM: So what happened to the young you and Paolo? Did it remain an unrequited love friendship or become something more?

Valerie: No, I think Paolo is kind of an amalgamation of all of my brushes, all of the boys that you know, every girl has like okay this summer, this is their crush, and that summer, this is their crush. I think Paolo’s the manifestation of all of the different boys that I liked that never liked me back. And it’s been a pattern all the way until I got married that I was never pursued. So Paolo is just my ideal guy who was not full of himself, someone I can connect with, someone who looks like they care about me as well.

But what I’ve found as a woman, is I’ve found myself giving up so much, too much sometimes, that I compromised my own needs. So I remember when there was a boy that I really liked in fifth grade, and he liked this other girl, the popular girl, and so I had to help him pick out a Valentine’s gift to give her, a lot of self sacrifice to make sure that my crush is liked, even if it means breaking my own heart, you know?

LRM: I’m certain that’ll resonate with many young girls, including myself. How much involvement did you have in the direction with Raya Martin?

Valerie: I would say that on set, I really gave him free reign, but we spoke a lot about it, of the script before, and he’s very respectful, and he really wanted to maintain my intentions. And we did share the same intentions, but because I was writing… It was my first screenplay. So the process of exposing myself, so much of myself, was a little intimidating. So in the beginning, it was a little surfacey with the fun and games for the boys and all these kind of entertaining, but less depth, not going into deeper feelings. Raya really encouraged me to bring out more of Mimaw, even in the beginning, because she comes out in the very end when I started getting more comfortable writing about Mimaw.

When we workshopped it in a screenwriting class… I went to Columbia, and I was getting the same feedback from my peers. They were like, “Oh, we need more of this Mimaw.” And it was already in act two or beginning of act three.

Otherwise it would just be a ragtag team. So, Raya and I, worked on really establishing her from the beginning.

Related: Berlinale Exclusive Interview With Paradise Drifters Director Mees Peinenburg

LRM: How did you and Raya team up together? Did you pick him?

Valerie: Yeah. I picked him. It was kind of a wishlist, kind of a dream choice for me, because I never really thought, because he’s quite established already in the world cinema scene, art house scene. And so first of all, I wasn’t sure if he would want to do a straight forward narrative, because he usually does kind of experimental stuff. And already directed a film with Mark Peranson, and he was in Cannes already and this was like 10 years ago. So he kind of peaked quite early. It was like 22, I think, when he was already famous. So I didn’t think that he would consider working with me, but I think because we were friends and he really connected with the story.

LRM: And he’s also from Manila.

Valerie: Yeah, we grew up together. We went to the same school together.

LRM: Did you shoot the film in Manila?

Valerie: Yeah. It was completely shot there.

LRM: And how long did it take to complete?

Valerie: 24 days. It was fast.

LRM: There have been some comparisons drawn to the film, Stand By Me with the circumcision thing.

Is this considered to be an initiation into manhood? Can you talk about that a little bit and if Stand By Me had an influence on the making of this film?

Valerie: Sure. The atmosphere of those blackouts happening during the 90s occurring frequently in Manila, that actually happened. So every time we have electricity, I would just run to our VHS or Betamax collection, and I would always watch these awesome nineties movies like Stand By Me, or Goonies, or My Girl. I loved My Girl. And I was just kind of playing them on repeat, so it did have an influence on me and how I liked the character driven narratives.

But, of course that’s a very Hollywood thing, because Filipinos were occupied by the Americans for a few years, we do have a lot of kind of influence to this day. And actually the year that this film is set was the actual year that the American forces left the country. So the bully, his character is actually the son of an American military person. That’s why his accent is very American. 

As for the circumcision part, that is very prevalent in the rural areas of the Philippines, because the Philippines is like 7,000 plus islands. So outside the larger cities, it’s very much still practiced. A group of friends would go to another type of doctor, and he would perform that ritual. But, it’s also like a bonding experience or rite of passage for young boys before they go into that age.

LRM: So it’s a ritual? It looks so painful.

Valerie: I know. It’s a ritual called “pokpok,” which is a stick, stone, small knife, and the guava leaves is supposed to disinfect the germs or whatever. And yeah, the knife should be sanitized or burnt. And yeah, it happens still to this day in the provinces. There’s this belief that if you do it at birth, the skin grows again, so you have to do it over again. So kids wait until they’re more developed, I guess.  My brother went to a doctor. In the cities now, especially… I think this was more prevalent around my mom’s time, but I think since the eighties, nineties in the cities, they started doing it in the hospitals.

LRM: When is this phone going to be shown in the Philippines? 

Valerie: We haven’t shown it yet,  but they are going to do a theatrical over there after the festival run.

LRM: Do you think that the audiences there will like it?

Valerie: I think so. I think it’s definitely not their typical fare of the rom coms or their horror movies. It’s quite a bit different, but I think because it comes from such a genuine and authentic place, that they will relate to a lot of it, especially the Filipinos around my age that can actually remember those details, because the film is just full of details that you can’t quite catch it in just one showing. Some things you kind of have to go back and, “Oh was that a Kirby, or was that a….” These toys are these things that are in it that’s very much present growing up in the Philippines in the nineties. It’s very specific.

LRM: I heard you guys had a fantastic premiere here.

Valerie: Yeah. The premiere was amazing. I actually didn’t know that there were kids who are actually asking the questions for the Q&A at the premiere, and I’m so happy that I brought two of our actors here, because they love the reception. We had no idea how international audiences would respond to it, because it is so specific in some ways. I’m glad that the universal aspects of it are translating and are what’s resonating with people. So we’re really happy, and we were really, really well taken care of by the Berlinale team. We’ve never experienced anything like that. And definitely the actors, like Kim, the actress, she has never left the Philippines. So everything I’m sure is overwhelming, intense for her.

LRM: The film had a great cast! They all fit really nicely together.

Valerie: And they have become actual good friends. They still hang out now after the shooting still.

LRM: Will you be scripting any more stories from your younger years? 

Valerie: I want to. I think I would like to do it kind of in phases, that age and then maybe, I don’t know, when I migrated to the U.S., how that was like. I was in the military, so how was that for a first generation immigrant to go after 9/11 and sign up for the air force. It’s a whole other world opening. It’s kind of a continuation of Mimaw’s journey from moving from another place to a new place and having these new challenges. And then just navigating life as a young adult woman of color.

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