Celso Ad. Castillo interviewed by Andrew Leavold during the Search For Weng Weng shoot, January 2008 (all photos by Jim Gaines)
“Some Q’s for and A’s from Da KID” Celso Ad. Castillo interviewed
[Originally appeared in the 25th Luna Awards souvenir program, reprinted on the Film Academy Of The Philippines website]
(Lugging a tape recorder on a Saturday morning last November 24, this editor and Director Felix Dalay met Director Celso Ad. Castillo at the Goldilocks branch of the National Book Store on Scout Borromeo st. We were ready for a longer-than-normal interview session and were, therefore, surprised when Da Kid handed over a long brown envelope full of manuscripts. We rummaged through the files and were assured we have enough materials for an article in our souvenir program. We dispensed of the interview and spent the following hours talking about the past and future of Philippine cinema That lively exchange of banter will be a good source of another full-pledged article which can come later for our FAP website. Following are some questions addressed to Direk Celso in various interview sessions and his forthright answers.–Editor)
When did you first become interested in cinema?
I started to become interested in cinema when as a young boy, my father used to bring me to watch movies in second-run movie theaters in
I could hardly understand English and American slang then but I was being mesmerized by the lights and shadows, the framing and composition, the rhythm and editing of
Then I became a witness to the transition of movies through the 60s, 70s, 80, and the 90s through the different eras of Alfrd Hitchcock, John Franken-heimer, Vicenti Minelli, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel, Costa Gavras, Claude Lelouch, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Stanley Kubrick, John Casavettes, Robert Altmann, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese,Steven Sodenberg, Ridley Scott…I really think I was extremely lucky for being a witness to these very significant transition of events in the history of filmmaking.
How did you get to make your first film? Did you have training as a filmmaker?
I started as a scriptwriter at the age of 18. The first four movies I scripted were box-office successes that at the age of 21 I was offered to direct my first full-length feature film. It was a James Bond kind of movie, the fad then being secret agent 007. It was called Dangerous Mission. It was a mild success and it was shot in black and white. The year was 1965 and I had graduated with an English Literature degree in college and was studying law at the time.
The first movie was followed by six more half-baked movies that I decided to stop law school and concentrate on making movies. On my eighth movie, I got my first critical success. The film was Nympha, still shot in black and white. The movie was my first real struggle to become a serious filmmaker because I sacrificed my studies of Law in choosing to become a movie director.
I did not have formal training as a filmmaker. I guess besides being passionate about watching movies. I was also enjoying them. I believe that good or bad movies help one become literate on what movies are all about. I started as a comics writer which is somewhat like scriptwriting in form and style. I started drawing and illustrating at a very young age. I played the piano and the guitar. I acted during my high school and college days. I sang with a band during the 60s. And I was doing oil painting.
I believe these are the traits that make a movie director because one must have the talent to tell a story, to transform it into a dramatic form which is the script, to know how to act, to understand music because even the rhythm of editing depends on the harmony of music and, best of all, the ability to visualize what he has in mind. I believe movies are moving images that must tell a story and do not necessarily need to have dialogues. My passion in these different forms of arts made me a movie director.
How important was your background as a comics writer?
I think I can say I started my career as a movie director by being a comics writer first. The stories I wrote were part of my childhood memories. Dragons, mermaids, vampires, the supernaturals…these were the subjects of my stories. Being a comics writer for so many years taught me how to visualize the frame I would like the illustrator to capture as I had wanted it to be seen by the reader. It was just like looking at the viewfinder and instructing my cameraman how I wanted the camera to capture the particular drama and emotions of a particular scene.
It was sort of a storyboard because I was not only writing the script of the story but was also instructing the illustrator to create the images of my vision. My career as a comics writer also developed my skills to write dialogues of the scripts whenever there is a need. I realize that directors should not be assertive to their actors.
The director should discover the actor’s real persona and let him work out the character he is portraying from that perspective. By doing so, dialogues are modified according to the actors’ real character and the character he is portraying becomes him-self…My long rendezvous with comics writing taught me how to choose commercial materials for stories. People read comic books to escape reality. And that’s what movies are all about too: escapism. The audience wants to escape from the realities of life when watching movies.
What kinds of films were you making in the 60s and what was the industry like in those days?
I made my first movie in 1965 at the age of 21. And like a small boy who had a new toy, I wanted to play with it. I wanted to direct all type of movies. I was like a painter who wanted to create images through all media available like watercolor, oil, pastel, acrylic or charcoal. The tools were not important. What was important was the ability to create images with creativity. I believe a director must not be good in only one genre. A good movie director must be able to direct any type of movie. The bottom line is it must be a good movie.
I experimented doing all kinds of movies during the early days of my career. I did drama, action, comedy, fantasy, horror and the so-called bold movies which were otherwise known as adult dramas. The Philippine movies in the 60s were dominated by the star system. It was the period of cultism. Never mind about the quality of movies…what was important were the movie stars starring in those movies. That early I knew I needed to come up with my best or otherwise I wouldn’t survive in an industry where the movie stars were the ones commanding respect.
What was different about Nympha, your first film to get recognition overseas?
Nympha, my eighth movie, was my first critically acclaimed film. It was also a box-office success. By this time, I had quit law school and concentrated on directing. Philippine moviegoers at the time indulged in sex films that had gone to the extremes. I knew I had to get my act together and separate art from pornography. I wanted to prove that sex films can be artistic by not offending the sensibilities and intelligence of he Filipino moviegoers. I proved myself right.
Nympha was exhibited at the Venice Film Festival in 1972, the second and so far the last Filipino film that graced the affair to this date. The first Filipino movie that competed at the Venice Film Festival was Genghis Khan by Manuel Conde which lost the top honors to Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa. Nympha was shot in black and white and I used lots of montages and dissolves and used photo lens to capture extreme close ups of the eyes of the leading lady who incidentally acted for the first time in that movie. She was nominated for best actress in that picture and became a much-sought-after actress afterwards. The movie was about the conflict between sex and religion. But my real inspiration in that movie was Citizen Kane of Orson Welles.
How did people react to Nympha and your other films of sex and violence?
I believe that any type of movies done with class and in good taste will be acceptable to the audience in general. Nympha and the other sex films I directed had been considered as classic in Philippine cinema. They, in fact, became prototype of that particular genre. Violence in my films, however, were not limited to the physical or literal interpretation of that genre. They could be violent in terms of subjects or themes or essence but even if I do real gory movies, they had to be romanticized with the Sam Peckinpah style, the American director who revolutionized violence in films.
I was into sex and violent movies early in my career because that was my defense mechanism against the prevailing star system during that era. I did not need big stars to compete in the industry as a film director. Without big stars and with quality as my common denominator, I was able to establish a style or a signature of my own. Just like Picasso’s cubism or Salvador Dali’s surrealism. After I had established my mark as a director, I was able to do other films such as drama, horror, fantasy, comedy and films with social consciousness. And the audience accepted them because they bear my filmmaking style.
Why are you attracted to fantasy and horror stories?
I deal with fantasy and horror subjects in my movies because I believe that the purpose of man is to explore his mind and imagine what this life is all about. We call this age the new age because we deal with ourselves in relation with our own persona. Horror and fantasy are not normal occurrences in reality so I make these kinds of movies for my own experience. I want to be terrified myself and fantasize on things I will never experience as a human being.
How did the idea for Snake Sisters come to you?
The idea for making Snake Sisters came when I thought of creating my own version of the Garden of Eden. We all know that the main protagonist in the old story is the serpent that deceived Adam and Eve by telling them that by eating the forbidden fruit they will become godlike. In Snake Sisters, the main protagonists are the snakes themselves. Only that these three snakes were born in human form. Upon reaching the age of maturity, the three snake sisters were advised by the father snake that they can leave the cave where they had been hatched and explore the beauty of nature that God has created for them to admire and to enjoy. But beware…let no man touch your bodies lest you get copulated and revert to be snakes again. Maybe I can call this story of paradise a surrealistic film as I have always been a great fan of Salvador Dali’s surrealism.
Was Snake Sisters a difficult film to make and shoot?
I had some difficulties making Snake Sisters from the start because I knew I wanted to do an avant-grade movie but didn’t know the formula as to how to intellectualize it in filmic language. All I had was the story of paradise when I arrived on location in an island, together with the three actresses and one actor. The real problem was their costumes. There would be a prologue in the movie that a mother snake bore thirteen eggs and when hatched, three of them turned out to be in human form. Logically, the three girls were supposed to be nude because they all grew up inside the cave.
There was no shooting on the first day. Then I decided that they needed to cover their bottoms for hygienic purposes in real life, but definitely there was no reason to cover their breasts. The second problem was the dialogue. They need to speak their own ethnic language so I had to create a vocabulary of their own as the shooting progresses. The whole shoot was executed through instincts and intuitions. The movie was a real experience for me. It took me 30 calendar days (practically 27 shooting days).
Do you always know exactly what shots you are going to use in your films?
I try to figure out the mood of photography in my films. I consider the color tones, the light and shadows, the camera movements and techniques, the tools needed for the scene to be in motion. For example, do I need the crane shots, the dolly tracks, the zoom lens and so on? And how much of the film has to be shot with a hand-held camera. It will depend on what kind of movie and in what period and time the story is going to happen. But the shots are of course decided upon during the principal photography. I function by instinct during the actual shoot. I don’t use storyboards. I rely on my intuition. I call it the director’s gut feel.
What inspired your style of filmmaking where the editing and framing seem more sophisticated that most Filipino films?
I guess my being a painter and a visualist makes my camera composition effective. I help edit and compose music for my films too and practically score the music and stay during the entire process until all the tracks have been mixed by the sound engineer.
What are you trying to achieve thru cinema and do you think you have realized your ambitions?
What I would like to achieve is for my movies to transcend its ethnic origin and merge with the diversified cultures of the world. Only then can say I have realized my ambitions as a movie director.
What are the most difficult things about making films?
I consider that the most difficult things about making movies are: first, you got to tell a story that touches the audience and, second, you got to faithfully translate this vision into images to tell your story. The director must have the ability to see the movie edited in his mind complete with music, dialogues and sound tracks even before he starts shooting it so that what follows is simple execution. Otherwise, there is no reason for the director to be on the set.
[interview with Ronald Mangubat published in the Inquirer 06/08/2007]
MANILA, Philippines -- Celso Ad Castillo started directing films in 1965, when the extremely heavy Mitchell camera still had to be carried by four people. His directorial debut, “Misyong Mapanganib,” starred then newcomer Tito Galla (brother of movie queen, Gloria Romero), Helen Gamboa, Lucita Soriano and Ruby Regala.
From then on, the former law student has witnessed the evolution of the movie camera -- from Bolex and Arriflex to their lighter and “friendlier” modern versions. Today, after having directed 60 movies, Castillo joins the growing legion of cinematic storytellers who have been bitten by the digital film bug.
But, more than riding on the current bandwagon, the director clarifies that he’s all set to prove a point -- that there’s money in digital films.
So, for his latest cinematic venture, he’s producing and directing “Sanib II,” a sequel to his horror flick, which he describes as a simple but scary tale about exorcism. He explains, “At the end of the day, the bottom line is: You have to produce the right movie -- and do it right!”
At 64, Castillo is one of the last living directors whose, oeuvre contributed to the so-called Second Golden Age of Philippine cinema (this particular batch includes the late Brocka and Bernal, the inactive Mike de Leon, and National Artist for Film Eddie Romero).
In fact, long before the term “independent filmmaker” became fashionable, Castillo says he was already working outside the studio system making movies considered “high risk” by mainstream producers.
Today, the maverick director leads a simple, quiet life in Siniloan, Laguna. But, for his followers, he will always be the visionary force behind unforgettable Filipino classics like “Burlesk Queen,” “Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak,” “Alamat ni Julian Makabayan,” and “Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa.” Excerpts from our interview:
How different is a digital film from the 35mm format?
Digital is cheaper -- around one-fourth the budget of a 35mm film! The staff is skeletal compared to a big-budget production team. But, I always remember that it’s the singer, not the song. It’s not the technology that counts, but the creator.
Do you adjust in terms of visual narrative?
Yes, I use the camera’s lightness to advantage. It’s easier to carry, so we’re more mobile. Iba ang pacing, so I am able to implement abrupt editing. The trick is to have a good cameraman.
After the ’90s, the public thought you had retired from doing movies. What happened?
I did “Isla 3,” “Virgin People 2,” “Mananayaw,” and “Droga.” I noticed then that my enthusiasm was waning. I was working with little-known stars, and the quality of my work was suffering. The country was also going through political changes, and they added to my frustrations. But, the important thing is -- I’m back!
Among your 60 movies, which is your favorite?
As a serious filmmaker, my barometer would always be “Nympha,” which, some observers say, started the bold trend in the ’70s. Even Gerry de Leon, Gregorio Fernandez, and Lino Brocka raved about the film. Of course, I also love “Burlesk Queen,” “Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-Itim ng Tagak,” “Alamat ni Julian Makabayan,” and “Paradise Inn.”
You explored a lot of film genres….
Yes. I tried making erotic films, comedy, fantasy, horror, and drama. In the ’70s, my first horror film was “Bakit Dugo ang Kulay ng Gabi?,” and I also dabbled in fantasy by making the very first “Ang Mahiwagang Daigdig ni Pedro Penduko.” Hindi ako na-typecast.
What kind of director are you?
I see the movie in my mind even before I start shooting. I’m meticulous. I control everything on the set, even during post-production -- from editing and music to sound. My audience knows my style. It’s like painting: You discover your style, then you do it. I caught “Tag-ulan sa Tag-araw” with Vilma Santos and Boyet de Leon on Cinema One the other day, and I clearly saw my own style, in terms of sensitivity, shots and drama.
You’ve done several movies with Vilma Santos. How come you never directed Nora Aunor?
It’s very frustrating for me, because we’ve been trying to work out something together. But, for one reason or another, those plans did not materialize. I hope now that she is in the US, we can finally do a film there.
Lolita Rodriguez was fantastic in “Paradise Inn.” How did you motivate her?
I just let her loose! How can you go wrong with a great actress like Lolita?
Is it difficult to do an erotic movie?
Yes, because you’re bordering on pornography. Mahirap ’yun!
Were you ever censored?
Yes. ‘Yung “Snake Sisters.” But, they had reasons for doing what they did, and I understood. Looking back, I think the movie was ahead of its time!
How do you know that a director is good?
I only need five minutes -- I just look at his shots: The shot is the movie itself -- nandoon ang cinematography, music, acting and production design. Lahat yon puwedeng ma-encapsulate in just one shot!
We saw your good performance in Ron Bryant’s “Rotonda.” Have you always loved acting?
I was a stage actor during my college days. I once won as best supporting actor in the movie, “Ahas ni Eba.” Every now and then, I dabble in acting.
How do you find the current crop of filmmakers?
They’re aggressive and eager. Pero sa pagmamadali nila, they forget to study what truly constitutes a good movie, kaya minsan, walang nanonood!
How do you feel that two of your esteemed contemporaries (Brocka, Bernal) are no longer with us? You’re probably the only active one left.
Maaga silang nag-pack-up, e (laughs). Seriously, it’s really the audience who will miss them. They judge our work. There’s a saying that goes: “I’m not a product of present times. We’re babies of tomorrow!”