Strong Coffee with a National Treasure An Interview with Eddie Romero By Andrew Leavold. In November 2006 I walked into Makati’s multi-storied Greenbelt Mall and headed up the escalator past a six-foot, full color banner of the "nuns with guns" photo from Cleopatra Wong (1978), just in time to catch the last half hour of Filipino B-film icon Eddie Romero’s first ever digital feature Faces of Love (2007)...
In November 2006 I walked into Makati’s multi-storied Greenbelt Mall and headed up the escalator past a six-foot, full color banner of the "nuns with guns" photo from Cleopatra Wong (1978), just in time to catch the last half hour of Filipino B-film icon Eddie Romero’s first ever digital feature Faces of Love (2007). It was an evening of firsts: for me, they were the first few hours of my very first Manila visit.
Eddie was outside the screening, a debonair, unassuming man in his 80s. I walked up to him and shook his hand. "Mr. Romero, I am so happy to meet the director of Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968)."
He looks me over with wise old eyes. "Ah, you’re like Tarantino!" He laughed heartily. "I’ll bet you’re a big fan of Pam Grier."
He roared with laughter and handed me his business card.
Eddie Romero lived in a beautiful two story villa in a quiet street off Quezon City’s main thoroughfare. There are no real backyards to speak of, but you’re so used to everyone sleeping on top of each other in the subway and jockeying for space on the sidewalks, you forget how nice some parts of Manila can be. His housekeeper served us impossibly strong Costa Rican coffee; Eddie genuinely appeared concerned when I reach for a second cup.
For two hours I interviewed Eddie on his career in B-films, starting with the first local horror film to make it outside the Philippines, Terror Is a Man AKA Blood Creature (1959). Produced by Romero with his long-time collaborator Gerry de Leon co-directing, Terror’s incredibly atmospheric and beautifully photographed B&W variation of Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) was sold to the American drive-in market via American businessman Kane W. Lynn, and the two formed Hemisphere Pictures, producing low-budget war films and lurid shockers for the lucrative international market, with de Leon often on board.
Hemisphere’s greatest successes was the so-called "Blood Island" trilogy: Brides of Blood (1967), Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1969) and its semi-sequel Beast of Blood (1970), all starring former AIP drive-in star John Ashley and a smorgasbord of oozing ghouls. The films were only vaguely connected but established enough of a visible aesthetic to spawn a fake Filipino film Brain of Blood (1971) by infamous Z-director Al Adamson. Gerry de Leon, meanwhile, made two solo pictures for Hemisphere, the bona fide vampire classics The Blood Drinkers AKA The Vampire People (1964) and Curse of the Vampires AKA Creatures of Evil (1966).
Romero later teamed up with Ashley and Roger Corman to mastermind the werewolf film Beast of The Yellow Night (1971), classic drive-in nonsense Beyond Atlantis (1973), The Woman Hunt (1973), Savage Sisters (1974), and the Pam Grier vehicles The Big Doll House (1971), Black Mama White Mama (1972) and The Twilight People (1973). This slew of horrors and women-in-prison features ushered in the country’s Golden Age of Exploitation. And, as the horror boom waned, the kung-fu craze kicked in with a vengeance. Romero, meanwhile, had turned his back on the international market for Filipino films he had virtually created. From 1976 onwards he made smaller, more personal films in Tagalog – what may be considered "art" films – for which, at least in the Philippines, is what Romero will be enshrined as a National Artist.
Much has been written about the Blood Island films and Romero’s drive-in fodder. I was more interested in the broader scope of his career: from director of frothy musicals and melodramas, to his collaborations with future B-King Cirio H. Santiago, his initial forays into the international market, experiences working with Coppola on Apocalypse Now (1979), the Marcos connection which stitched the Philippines’s industry tightly together, and the gulf between his populist and more personal films. Through Eddie’s life, one can chart a chronology of the Philippine cinema’s fortunes both at home and abroad, showing definitively why Romero, in cultured circles at least, was considered a living treasure.
I kept in contact with Eddie over the intervening years; the last time I saw him in person was in 2010 at a talk I did at University of the Philippines to accompany a sneak peek of Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010). Becoming feebler with each passing year, he cursed the stairwell for being so damned tall, but that didn’t dampen his spirits. He joined in a spirited discussion on the "hidden history" of Filipino filmmaking with around sixty awestruck students, and we said our goodbyes.
On 28th May 2013 Eddie quietly passed away aged 88. I arrived in Manila on May 30th. The first twenty four hours in Manila meant that Saturday evening was the last night of the Philippines’s mammoth three day funeral affairs. As National Artist, Eddie Romero – the director of such ghoulish delights as Beast of Blood and Mad Doctor of Blood Island – was entitled to full "necrological services" at the CCP [Cultural Center of the Philippines] the next morning; the wake was at the Mount Carmel Catholic Church close to his home.
I was even quoted in The Daily Inquirer that week about my memories of Eddie:
Australian filmmaker Andrew Leavold interviewed Romero for a documentary on diminutive action star Weng Weng and Filipino B-movies in 2006 and 2008. Leavold remembered Romero’s "dry humor, self-deprecating wit, generosity [and] fearless command of the cinematic language." They would talk for hours, he said. "He humored me about his ‘trashy’ B-movies, which he knew I adored. In his home, I had the best coffee, imported from South America." Cirio Santiago, Bobby Suarez and Romero were the three big names in Filipino B-movies, Leavold said. "Now, they’re all gone. It’s truly the end of an era."
It was with a heavy heart that I walked into the crowded chapel lined with scores of flower garlands and saw Eddie’s face through the glass under the open coffin lid. I wasn’t wrong about his passing representing the end of an era and, although I never became as close to him as Bobby Suarez, I would miss the old gentleman and his thick, black Columbian brew. Cheers, Eddie – here’s our interview finally, better late than never...
Andrew Leavold:There appears to be a Golden Age between the ’60s and ’80s, when the Philippines becomes a hive of activity.
Eddie Romero: It was the certain circumstances, nobody planned it. For example, in the ’50s, 20th Century Fox came over to do American Guerrilla [In the Philippines (1950)], Fritz Lang directing, with Tyrone Power. And that attracted some other producers, until Apocalypse Now which John [Ashley] and I both worked on, and then Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), Born on the 4th of July (1989). But those things were almost accidental. Somebody did something; somebody saw it and did that... Then it evaporated, dried up.
AL:But originally, somebody had a very positive experience making a film cheaply and looking exotic?
ER: It was the labor, and the language – people speak English more than anywhere in South-East Asia. That was the attraction.
AL:It seems you’ve had parallel careers, making art films and, for want of a better phrase, B-pictures. Usually the two don’t co-exist. You seem to comfortably wear different hats?
ER: I think the parallel is more apparent than real. I don’t really know why there should be such a wide gulf between one and the other – they’re both movies. And I think individually the director just doesn’t think he’s capable of doing. The B-films, or as Sight and Sound used to call them, the Z-films, were a commercial consideration, a job. And so are the so-called art films.
AL:But Kurosawa did genre films, John Ford... And yet when a film in the horror genre comes from the Philippines it’s relegated to the trash pile. It’s cultural racism in a way.
ER: I myself am amazed over the response to [Mad Doctor of] Blood Island. I did that in collaboration with an old friend of mine that’s now deceased, Gerry de Leon. We didn’t think much of it, we thought it was one of the worst things we ever did! And there you go... There’s no accounting for what happens to our film after it leaves the lab.
AL:It’s only in the last few years that the Blood Island films have enjoyed such exalted status?
ER: It’s been more than that. I’ve been receiving letters from all over the world for thirty years or more about them. Constantly, to my amazement!
AL:Now the films have been given a new life on DVD. They’ve been given a third life after cinema and VHS, reaching an entirely new audience.
ER: It’s amazing!
AL:What would you put down their longevity to?
ER: I can’t account for it. As I say, I’m constantly amazed. We really thought it was a pretty ordinary undertaking, even for its genre. Of course it’s very nice, but puzzling.
AL:Also the films for Roger Corman?
ER: That wasn’t so surprising. We went to some effort there, some serious thought about how much to put in and how much to leave out. But with Blood Island and its successors – I think it was the Mad Doctor and the Beast of Blood – they were really careless. Very off-the-cuff things. There was hardly any script. We did have a script, but we studiously ignored it!
AL:Almost a kind of free-form filmmaking?
ER: "What are we going to do today?"
AL:Making films in the Philippine jungles in the ’50s and ’60s must have been a real adventure?
ER: Well, not for a native. There are jungles all over the place. We had fun. There was no lack of respect. We didn’t think about respect, we were enjoying ourselves.
AL:Running around with containers of green goo and fake blood...
ER: Naked women! Half-naked women anyway...
AL:That was the formula for the success of those films – breasts, blood...
AL:...and a staggering amount of gore! Compared to the films coming out of the States, this was cranking the horror film up a gear!
ER: We didn’t think about that. We didn’t think about previous limits or whatever. We didn’t think we were setting any records.
AL:You were just setting out to make a gore film?
ER: Yeah. Okay, a gore film – you don’t think about classifications when you’re working. It’s just a job. It a kind of job!
AL:One of the most outrageous moments from that era is where the Beast is holding his severed head.
ER: That was Eddie Garcia, one of our most distinguished actors!
AL:But like you said, it was a commercial venture to complete on time and on budget for primarily the drive-in market.
ER: That was fun. Neither Gerry nor I thought of ourselves as serious artists, we were just moviemakers. It was a job. Gerry was a Doctor of Medicine, sixth-placed on the Board in his day.
AL:How did you start making movies together?
ER: He got me into films; I was in my teens. I wrote in English – I didn’t speak Tagalog, nobody where I come from [Dumaguete, in the Visayas in Central Philippines] spoke in Tagalog in those days. He read one of my short stories in the [Philippines] Free Press and he liked it. He didn’t know me, but he was married to someone who knew me. And so he got in touch with me and asked me to write a screenplay for him. Of course, I’d seen a lot of movies, and I had no inhibitions about my capabilities to write one. I had to write in English and he would translate. Then the war broke out and, for several years, I had been in journalism, cub reporter and even a staff writer in my teens. After the war I went back into that until the studios opened. Then Gerry came back and asked me to write again, and I never left after that.
AL:It was the perfect collaboration between the two of you?
ER: Oh yes. We were, I would say, in character intellectually, we were diametric opposites which is probably why we got along so well.
AL:Your first venture?
ER: It was called Ang Maestra, [AKA The Teacher (1941)]. It had Rogelio de la Rosa and Rosa del Rosario, who were among the biggest stars of the pre-World War II generation. It was a runaway hit. But before we could follow up on it there was a war on!
AL:I saw at Mowelfund Museum a section dedicated to the films made during the Japanese Occupation. They were making propaganda films to legitimize the invasion of the islands?
ER: I know very little about it, I wasn’t in Manila at the time. Gerry worked on a couple of them, they recruited him. He never had much to say about it. They used local talent and local actors. As far as features are concerned, they made only a couple of them. But it was directed by one of the outstanding directors [Yutaka Abe] who seems to have been forgotten. In fact one of our veteran actors Baby O’Brien was his daughter. He married a Filipino-German actress, Paraluman.
AL:How would you describe the films?
ER: One of them was called Ano Hatte O Utte [Tear Down That Flag (1944)]. The Dawn of Freedom it was called in English. And there was another one called Tatlong Maria [Three Marias (1944)]. There are only two features. They probably made a lot of documentaries and shorts.
AL:How would you describe them?
ER: They were basically soap, with a tie-in of propaganda.
AL:You were saying during World War II, most of the Philippine film history went up in flames?
ER: Yes, a lot of it.
AL:Was that part of a deliberate campaign by the Japanese?
ER: No, accidental. In the closing phases, during the bombing, air raids and so forth.
AL:The Battle of Manila leveled the Philippines, and not just architecturally?
ER: Certainly, that was Manila!
AL:After the war there was a concerted effort to revive the film industry – obviously a population after a war needs an escape...?
ER: The studios were still there – the locales. LVN Pictures, Sampaguita. Premiere came after the war.
AL:You begin a seven year association with Sampaguita, primarily writing, then within a year directing. What were the circumstances that led to you directing your first film?
ER: Even early, at least after the war, I was writing my second or third screenplay, [Gerry de Leon] was telling me I should go into directing, which sounded very remote because I didn’t speak Tagalog. I’m Visayan, from the Central Philippines. I learned Tagalog in London [from] all the homesick members of the Embassy staff. When I came back I spoke Tagalog after a fashion – except for that in Visayan we have no third person polite form, and my employers didn’t like that very much. It took me another few years to learn to speak Tagalog as it’s spoken.
AL:How did you find your transition from writing to directing?
ER: Gerry made it seem easy, until the awareness of the complications came later! Because directing here was kind of primitive anyway. It wasn’t until I got exposed to filmmaking in Britain and the rest of Europe, meeting people like David Lean and Roberto Rossellini and spending a little time with them, I began to be aware of the potential of the medium.
AL:The seven years at Sampaguita, it was very much like an old Hollywood-style studio?
ER: It wasn’t that organized.
AL:But it had aspirations to be a Hollywood, in which you are a player in the same way the actors and actresses, everyone is a contract player?
ER: I never had a contract. And very few people had contracts at Sampaguita.
AL:It was a mutually beneficial arrangement? You were very much a hired hand, rather than auteur – obviously it was a learning period?
ER: Even David Lean wasn’t an auteur, strictly speaking, because he didn’t write his stuff. He had people, like the writer of The Lion in Winter.
AL:By "auteur" I mean the director is very much the star of the film, and with Sampaguita it’s the name of the studio as "star."
ER: In terms of function it was like that. They left the directors pretty much alone. Except for looking at the rushes – "We didn’t like this scene..." They didn’t tell us any way how to go about directing; they didn’t know to begin with!
AL:There seems to be an ongoing love affair between the Philippines and the magic of movie-making. There was a large and well-established star system, theatres screening Tagalog and English language films, for as long as anyone can remember.
ER: Isn’t that true everywhere?
AL:True, but more so in the Philippines. At one point the Philippines is the most prolific movie-producing nation after India and the U.S. That’s staggering!
ER: There were political factors. Because at the time you’re talking about, during the Marcos regime, there was practically no censorship. The government wanted to take people’s minds off government! So they had the Bomba era and out of the 200 or more films made in a year, they fell into that category – they were sex films.
AL:Was the star system encouraged by the Marcoses?
ER: No, the star system’s always been there. In fact it’s probably to the star system that we owe the rapid phenomenal proliferation of Tagalog as the national language, more than schools. I was amazed. When I left my home town of Dumaguete right after World War II, nobody spoke Tagalog. I was away for many years. I went back twenty years later, in the ’60s, everybody spoke Tagalog. In less than a generation! It isn’t as if you spoke Visayan, you could understand Tagalog, no, they’re not that close. Many similarities – they’re all Australo-Polynesian dialects – but not enough similarities to understand one another. Nothing like, say, Italian and Spanish, Spanish and Portuguese.
AL:After World War II, movies were a way of homogenizing the language?
ER: Totally by accident. Nobody planned it. It was the star system, they were all role models. Rogelio de la Rosa, Carmen Rosales, people adored without understanding them.
AL:Late ’50s, we see you start to do films for other studios such as Lebran, Eiga, and of course you start your association with Premiere [Productions] and People’s Pictures. Were you limited by your opportunities at Sampaguita?
ER: Yes, it took me a while to feel limited. Coming back from Europe made me begin to feel strongly limited.
AL:This was early ’50s?
ER: Early ’50s.
AL: Then there’s a film for People’s Pictures called Huling Mandirigma (1956).
ER:The Last Warrior. I wrote and directed.
AL:For People’s Pictures, a subsidiary of Premiere. It was Cirio’s father who founded Premiere?
ER: Cirio’s father and mother. She ran it mostly.
AL:Why did they have subsidiaries?
ER: They had a labor strike. So they got around that in a way by setting up People’s Pictures.
AL:People’s... seems to have the stamp of Cirio.
ER: Yes, eventually. But it was his mother.
AL:She was producer?
ER: Oh yes. She was boss. I have very fond memories – I owe her a great deal. She had a great deal of trust in me.
AL:You had a close working relationship with Cirio?
ER: Later on, yes.
AL:Starting with People’s Pictures, but then onto The Day of the Trumpet (1957)?
ER: Which Mrs. Santiago stuck her neck out on. She financed it completely, and it was in English with an American cast, knowing nothing about the market whatsoever.
AL:Gerry is one of the producers?
ER: He worked with me. It was my project. I wrote it, put it together as a project with Mrs. Santiago, and he worked there because I wanted him to, and also because Premiere wanted someone who was with them formally to represent them. I’m sure he shot some of the scenes.
AL:When I saw The Day of the Trumpet, I found it curious, as many Filipinos believe the American-Filipino War was one of Vietnam-style guerrilla tactics.
ER: They were strictly in the minority. It’s just that the minority happen to include a lot of writers, fire-eaters. Even to this day America has always been fairly good with the general population.
AL:In the film the Americans are facilitators of change. It must be that most of the writers I’ve read have the polar opposite view of the Americans. Obviously history has many faces. So your point of view is that the American presence after the Spanish was positive?
ER: Overall I think it was very beneficial. They really helped set up the nation, because the nation was a claim of Aguinaldo and Bonifacio, which did not exist. We were a bunch of tribes. In many ways we still are. It was America that exacted the unifying pressure, for good or ill, which made it possible for us to be a nation.
AL:Not just for commercial reasons?
ER: I’m sure there were commercial reasons. They wanted sugar, they wanted coconuts... In The Day of the Trumpet there was a well-meaning lead character played by John Agar, but there were a few objectionable people played by Richard Arlin. I tried to present a fairly accurate picture of the Americans who came at the turn of the century.
AL:One of your first forays into international filmmaking came in the late ’50s with your association with Kane Lynn – how did that happen?
ER: I was in New York, I had a print of The Day of the Trumpet – it was later released under a different title, Cavalry Command. I was screening it for people, and he was one of those people. Kane Lynn was an ex-Navy officer. We met several times, he was interested in film, and then we developed a partnership which lasted the better part of ten years.
AL:Had he been to the Philippines before?
ER: He may have. He was a Navy flyer. I don’t remember now.
AL:But he had never considered making movies in the Philippines before?
ER: I don’t think he’d even considered making movies at that time. We set up a distribution outfit.
AL:So he came to the Philippines, and you made a number of films together – Terror Is a Man, and a number of war films. Terror Is a Man is really the first Filipino horror film to make a mark on the U.S. drive-in market.
ER: I hardly remember it. Was that in black and white, with Francis Lederer? One of the great European actors of the late-’20s and early-’30s. I think he was Czech. He was in German films; Hollywood imported him, and he was on the decline when he finally came over. Very nice man, I think he lived up to 100 or so. That’s all I remember. One of the stuntmen later became a big action star, Jess Lapid. We set fire to him in one of the scenes, he almost died!
AL: Terror Is a Man is a film Gerry de Leon directed...
ER: No, we both directed.
AL:It’s his name only in the credits?
ER: That’s funny. He may have done more than I did, but I know I directed part of the film. It was my project.
AL:It became more of Gerry’s film because...?
ER: On the credits it may have been Gerardo but in every other respect... not in running the show, or selling it for that matter.
AL:You’re also making war films in the early ’60s.
ER: Jock Mahoney was in The Walls of Hell (1964), John Saxon was in The Ravagers (1965). They were intended for the American market.
AL:I guess the Philippines has a treasure trove of war stories, jungle locations, and equipment – were they relatively easy shoots?
ER: Yes. I always say it’s true that the main reason I went into films was that I didn’t want to work for a living.
AL:It was a ten-year industry where just about every Japanese tourist was placed in uniform and marched to a film set!
ER: Of course! We were under Japanese occupation for three years. Fernando Poe Jr [also in The Walls of Hell and The Ravagers] must have made a couple of dozen.
AL:I had an interesting conversation with a taxi driver last night. He said Joseph Estrada and Fernando Poe Jr were the real action heroes, and that no one wants to see Filipino films that are made for the mass market right now.
ER: A lot of people in the industry believe in that stuff. I remember one time when I was starting out as a director at Sampaguita Pictures, there was an old-time director who, in my salad days in my early 20s when I started directing, I had very little respect for their work. It’s a fairly arrogant period in one’s life when you know the answer to everything. I was watching him, he was doing one of those soaps, and when the camera was rolling he was watching the action, and he was crying! He believed in the stuff! I realized it was not a cynical exercise, he believes in that... crap! But he believes, and that’s the main thing. And that’s the way life is, or should be. This "art" thing is an affectation...
AL:You worked with both Joseph Estrada [on Cordillera (1963), Eddie’s "remake" of Monte Hellman’s Flight to Fury] and Fernando Poe Jr.
ER: FPJ was a phenomenon in his lifetime. Can you think of an actor who was number one for forty straight years? Not Gary Cooper, not Clark Gable, not Jean Gabin... I don’t think Clint Eastwood has been number one for more than three or four times. Ronnie [FPJ’s nickname, from his real name Ronwaldo Poe] was number one for forty straight years!
AL:How do you explain it?
ER: He couldn’t explain it. But he used it well. He know what do with it.
AL:After he passed away in 2004 I heard the crowds were thousands-deep?
ER: I was there. They had screens showing his old films on three sides of the area so people could look at something when they were standing in line to view the remains. They would just walk past, and they had lines at least a mile long in each direction.
AL:The only comparable event would be the death of a Pope?
ER: Or the death of Nonoy Aquino. But Ronnie’s was bigger.
AL:It seems he was elevated to just below...
ER: Saint! Equivalent to!
AL:It’s a surprise he didn’t win the presidency.
ER: He did. He lost the count. I think he won. They didn’t want him in. Even the part of the Establishment that doesn’t like Gloria [Arroyo] hated Erap [Joseph Estrada, President from 1998 to his impeachment in 2001] and certainly didn’t want FPJ there.
AL:At this point it’s a Kane Lynn and Eddie Romero partnership. You then go into a TV series the same year?
ER: For ABC Films.
AL:Thirteen half-hour episodes about a U.S. government counter-intelligence agent operation in the Philippines, called "Counterthrust" (1960) with Tod Anders...
ER: Which ended because he broke his arm! Luckily it was in the thirteenth episode!
AL:Obviously this was a much bigger project?
ER: It was a network project.
AL:That’s quite an undertaking! A pleasant experience?
ER: Interesting, but certainly not pleasant. It was very hectic. A lot of work, a lot of confusion. Our first time!
AL:I guess no one in the Philippines at that point would have worked on a network show. I guess you’re attempting to make the equivalent of four to five feature films...
ER: Right! All at once!
AL:Did you get to the point where you said feature films were a lot less of a strain?
ER: I never got to that. Still haven’t. For example Noli Me Tangere (1992) was a TV series, and I wanted to do that very badly. I wanted to do the whole thing, not just pieces of it. It had never been done before. And that took thirteen episodes!
AL:At what point did you form Filipinas Productions? I assume that’s your company?
ER: Myself and Mike Parsons. [Mike was also an actor in several of Eddie’s films, including The Walls of Hell and Moro Witch Doctor (1964), and other local and international productions such as Too Late the Hero (1970), The Longest Hundred Miles (1967) and High Velocity (1976)] He lives in Baguio, I see him every now and then. He’s not well, he’s in a wheelchair.
AL: Cimarron (1964), which you and Mike evidently planned as a U.S. release – the ad says you also filmed an English version called West of the West. It says "the first American western filmed in the Philippines..." When you were making the war films, some had Tagalog names – were you also shooting scenes in Tagalog?
ER: No. I don’t think it was dubbed into Tagalog.
AL: Cimarron doesn’t get released in the States – Mike Parsons went looking for a distributor, is that right?
AL:The Pinoy western is an interesting phenomenon. You can say The Day of the Trumpet is set during the American-Filipino War, so it is grounded in a specific period of history, whereas the standard Pinoy western is something else – an American western transposed to the Philippines
ER: I think it’s a fairly familiar phenomenon in many countries, not just the Philippines. Notably in Italy. It even gave birth to Clint Eastwood!
AL:True, there are Indian westerns, Polish westerns... But the Pinoy western is usually set in the Philippines, with guys in Stetsons...
ER: I’m sure if you look hard enough you’ll find Indonesian, Malaysian westerns...
AL:Then around the late ’60s the trend in drive-in films shifts to horror. You have The Blood Drinkers now playing American drive-ins and cinemas. You become a horror director.
ER: Among other things.
AL:Your jobs are dictated by the market. What do you put that swing down to? A relaxation of censorship?
ER: Horror films, stronger or weaker, have always been there. And it’s always, as far as merchandizing, the path of least resistance. Horror provided that. So that’s what we did. I remember I did a film called Beast of the Yellow Night for Roger Corman. We really tried for quality. I don’t think it did very well. They prefer the out-and-out gore.
AL:It was a kind of local werewolf?
ER: It wasn’t even local, it was personal!
AL:In what way?
ER: In that there are no werewolves. We have aswangs, who were women, probably inspired somewhat by the werewolf legend.
AL:Did John Ashley became the local Lon Chaney Jr?
ER: Just for one film.
AL:You then formed a business partnership with John Ashley.
ER: I did a war film [Manila Open City (1968)] for a company called Nepomuceno Productions, and they imported this cast, John Ashley and Alex Nicol. So I got to know John, I wrote and directed that film for him, and he became very interested in coming over, in bringing some people to make some films. That’s how it started.
AL:The first film you made was Brides of Blood?
ER: It may have been Brides of Blood... It was still with Kane Lynn.
AL:The partnership with John Ashley was beneficial?
ER: Yes, I think so. We were life-long friends. He passed away a few years ago. He died with his boots on; he was in New York producing a film. He was on the street, he collapsed and passed away.
AL:It sounds like he had a real adventure in the Philippines?
ER: Oh, he had a lot of fun here! He was a player. A very nice man, very easy to get along with, very companionable.
AL:In the early ’70s you begin a short term career making films for Roger Corman. It starts with the Women in Prison films?
ER: No, I think we only really did one film for Roger, which is the first one, Beast of the Yellow Night. And through that, he asked me to line produce The Big Doll House. Afterwards it was Cirio Santiago who stayed with Roger, and John and I went elsewhere. We went with Dimension.
AL:You were the producer of The Big Doll House?
ER: Line Producer.
AL:What do you remember about the production?
ER: They were shooting mostly at LVN Studios – LVN were still operational, so the interiors were there, and they were doing the prison scenes at Fort Bonifacio, then a military installation [bordering Makati City, it has since become a high-class business and residential district]. No more expensive than the others. I remember I was sitting with Roger, because it was around the same time as I was doing Beast of the Yellow Night. He was watching the dailies – he really hated it! "What are we going to do with all this?" But he did something right!
AL:You don’t look at that film standing out from the rest?
ER: Well, because I didn’t see the whole film as edited, I just saw dailies with Roger, an assembly. I knew what he was aiming at, and it was there. It was a matter of putting it together.
AL:How do you feel about those films now?
ER: I wasn’t in any way contemptuous of those films. Gerry and I both had fun making them, and we didn’t look down upon them. It was a kind of film. We almost did our best!
AL:Pam Grier did her first five or six films in the Philippines.
ER: Yes, she worked with me and Cirio. I made four or five films with Pam. She was great to work with; she was willing to fall down a hill. Very decent, very strong person, both mentally and emotionally. She’s very strong, and she can project it. A lot of people may be stronger but can’t project that. She can.
AL:She was a leading lady, particularly in Black Mama White Mama – it’s not an ensemble piece like The Big Doll House, she has equal billing with Margaret Markov. Obviously she had that indefinable "something."
ER: Still has it!
AL:Have you been in contact with her?
ER: Not recently. I haven’t seen her in anything lately since Jackie Brown.
AL: The Twilight People with Pam, that was through Dimension?
ER: That was Dimension. We did mostly, not so much Dimension, but American International. That’s Arkoff and Nicholson... I remember one of the early surprises when I was doing Black Mama White Mama. I finished, sent all the negatives back for processing – they were all processed in the States – and I get a phone call from Arkoff one day saying, "You don’t have enough coverage!" I said, "Where? In what scene?" "The whole thing!" I said to Sam, "Have you see the dailies?" "No..." "How do you know I don’t have enough coverage?" "Well, you just shot 90,000 feet!" I said, "I tell you what, you look at the dailies and tell me where I lack coverage." I never heard from him again!
AL:People always talk about Apocalypse Now being a watershed moment in Philippine cinema.
ER: Was it ever! We had as many as two thousand Filipinos working on that. Peque Gallaga worked on that! A lot of people became distinguished in the industry; they got their baptism of fire there.
AL:Thanks to an out-of-control megalomaniac!
ER: ...who later complained about the corruption. To which he gave significant contributions!
AL:I’ve heard so many stories about Apocalypse Now, how Coppola wanted real bodies inside the body bags...
ER: We had corpses. It didn’t matter about body bags; he wanted to show them hanging up. I said, "We have some of the best plastic sculptors in the world on your staff, they can do that." Displaying corpses for documentary purposes is illegal in this country. It’s desecration of the dead! There are laws against that.
AL:So he circumvented those.
ER: And then complained about the corruption! "I want fourteen Hueys by next Friday!" At one time we showed clips of Apocalypse... in Malacanang Palace to President Marcos, and he saw Robert Duvall’s raid. "Shit! I can never get a Huey when I need one. Now I know!"
AL:What exactly was your role?
ER: I was in charge of all domestic arrangements, as well as licenses etc.
AL:You were like a Line Producer?
ER: Not really, because I had nothing to do with the actual operation or production, just with the people who took part in it.
AL:So you procured human flesh...
ER: Human flesh, and the legal aspects of that.
AL:The extras and staff were getting paid an astronomical figure even for sitting around waiting for the rain to stop. It was such a bloated production, but it must have had a flow-on effect?
ER: Definitely! Especially for the people who were not in the industry then but later were drawn into the industry by their participation in the project.
AL:After ’77 there were so many more local productions sold abroad.
ER: A lot of things, certain developments, stimulate other similar developments. I think it was Coppola’s presence that also encouraged the Marcoses to try to make their administration more prominent, more influential in the film industry, and therefore enact certain measures that encouraged better quality films. Which it did.
AL:It always strikes me as interesting that an art form can be subversive, and at the same time can be the great distraction. Did the Marcos regime encourage the movie industry because it was a political tool?
ER: Of course the Marcos administration was an oppressive regime, but it was also during that administration, largely through Mrs. Marcos, where great incentives were adopted towards developing the potential of the industry itself. They had the Experimental Cinema program which produced some of the best pictures of Ishmael Bernal [Himala (1982)] and Peque Gallaga [Oro Plata Mata (1982)]. Lino Brocka, no, but it was also during that period that he made his best films.
AL:The Marcoses saw the potential for using Manila as their showcase?
ER: Oh, they were acutely aware of that.
AL:They encouraged the film industry to take their films to the world stage because it reflected well on them?
ER: Yes. They had those extravagant International Film Festivals of Mrs. Marcos. Lino [Brocka] started with me as a script supervisor [on The Ravagers], he used to be my script girl. He would bemoan, lament my lack of socio-political tendencies. We all do what we can do, orient it that way. If I think of my own political potential, I try to do it as little as possible; I see myself not as a cause leader but as an observer. I have a great suspicion of "causes." It’s an historical factor the liberators sooner or later become the tyrants.
AL:The fact your genre pictures were screening overseas doesn’t mean you’re not making other films for the local market?
ER: I never did them at the same time. At the time I was making those films, I wasn’t doing these "serious" films.
AL:You went back to serious filmmaking in the mid-’70s?
ER: From time to time. I made a film called The Passionate Strangers in the mid ’60s. That didn’t do too well in the international market, but for me it was a very important stage, because I really wanted to do films like that, regardless of commercial... So of course I had to lay low after that and go back to genre films. But in the mid ’70s, when I made some money working for Coppola, I started going back, provided me with the wherewithal to make Ganito Kami Noon [...Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976)].
AL:These are films you would regard as your art?
ER: I don’t think of myself as an artist. I do what I do.
AL:But there are films you would consider more serious...?
ER: Yes. More intimate, rather than serious. Always with an attentive eye to the market. It doesn’t always pay off anyway!
AL:How would you define your market in the Philippines?
ER: I don’t know. I guess most of the middle class, upper-middle class, college-educated, hopefully. It doesn’t always draw them.
AL:You never aimed for a mass market?
ER: I aim for it, but I don’t have the kind of gift needed to respond effectively to that market. People keep saying, "Why can’t you lower your standards and do something..." I said you make it sound so easy, but it’s not that. I don’t have what it takes to please a vast audience. And if I try, they’ll know it!
AL:Gerry passed away in 1981 – obviously a sad day for the industry...
ER: It was a sad day for me! I remember he was ill for quite a few years with emphysema, and I kept badgering the Powers That Be – the Cultural Center [of the Philippines], Malacanang Palace – to have him proclaimed a National Artist. I said, "Now is the time, because the man’s ill and he needs to believe that he stood for something as was recognized." They said, "We’re going to do it..." Finally he died, and they called me the same day. "Can you come to Malacanang? We’re going to proclaim him a National Artist." I said, "You go. What good would it do him now?"
AL:Surely he was held in high regard while he was alive?
ER: By many of his colleagues, but certainly not by all. They knew that’s Gerry de Leon.
AL:How would you rate his work as a director?
ER: For the use of the medium, he was like Kurosawa. He knew what to do with the camera. He had a primitive idea of cutting... But when I came back from Europe, from the British Film Institute, I started working with him on cutting. I said, "This you can do, you don’t have to do that. There are no rules!" And as soon as he picked up on that he did very well! Not with me, on his own films. He was not a trained filmmaker. None of us! Except the new bunch – Mike de Leon, Peque Gallaga, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, they studied film. Lino Brocka did too.
AL:But you were up to your knees in mud, in the trenches!
ER: Not in the trenches. I was working in comfort!
AL:Now you’ve completed your first digital feature – what’s next?
ER: Who knows? I never know. I don’t make long-range plans, even in my youth. It’s just something I want to do in the moment, and I spend a lot of time on it, and when it’s done it’s done. I get asked a lot, "What do you consider your best film?" I say they’re like love affairs, when they’re over they’re over.
AL:And you’ve had a lot of them!
ER: Yeah, I’m a player in that area. I hadn’t planned to do a digital film either until one day the NCCA said we’re allotting a million pesos every year for National Artists to work on a project. They said, "Is that enough to do a digital film?" It’s October 2005, 2006 is coming over, and so can I have my 2005 and 2006 in close succession? They said why not... So I decided to do a digital. I had to put in a few bucks of my own on top.
AL:So a new whole new set of challenges keep things interesting?
ER: As far as a filmmaker is concerned it’s nothing new. It’s a lot more comfortable – less lights, less moving around, less equipment...
AL:And fewer distractions?
ER: Instead of a hundred people you have a dozen or less. No producer leaning over my shoulder saying, "40,000 feet of film?"
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