Kaz Garas (2nd from left), Tony Maharaj (3rd) Richard Hill, Don Gordon Bell (right) on set of King’s Ransom aka The Devastator (1985) photo courtesy of Don Gordon Bell
Anthony: It started with my parents in the 1940s, my father being responsible for taking Hindi films to the Caribbean, 'cause he felt the indentured Indians there at the time needed to be in touch with their cultural background. I guess I was born into it, if you want to put it like that – my mother was his secretary, I'm the product of that.
When I started becoming of age, to get into business or work, I was not too thrilled with Hindi films. I felt they were all repetitious and and very melodramatic and did nothing for me. So I chose to become an independent film distributor. Of course there were some years growing up there when I did stints working with my uncle at MGM and Paramount in Guyana and Trinidad. And so I got into independent distribution with Italian westerns, because an an independent, with the major American companies controlling everything, that was all there was out there for us. That lasted for a while – One Silver Dollar, For A Few Dollars More (both 1965) – and then they died. Then I had to find something else to put my bread on the table.
I decided one morning to go to the Far East. Everybody said, “You're mad!” I said, “No I'm not. There's a place called Hong Kong. I think I'll find Chinese action movies.” I got on a plane, walked the streets of Hong Kong, didn't find anything that appealed to me, and I said, “Let me go to a place called the Philippines.” So I came to the Philippines. I stayed at a hotel called Manila Garden Hotel, and I got into a taxi and I says, “Take me into town where the cinemas are.” And in front of the cinemas I saw there beautifully hand-painted billboards that said, “Agent X-44! Tony Ferrer, Karate King!” And I thought BINGO.
So I went in and took a look at these films and found that they were black and white, all in Tagalog, and I was wondering where do I go from here. So I decided I will find somebody. I asked the cinema owners where do I find somebody and they told me about this guy Edwin Bote. Edwin Bote came to see me in my hotel and said, “I can help you get these films from a man called Attorney Laxa [Espiridon Laxa of Tagalog Ilang-Ilang Productions and brother of Tony Ferrer].” I said, “Good, get me in touch with Laxa.” So I met him, I said, “I like these films, but they're black and white, they're not in English.” Edwin Bote then said, “I can help you. We will cut out all of the scenes that you don't want” - which was everything that was not action - “and we will dub it.” I said I don't have the money to dub it. He said, “No, it's very simple. Parrot dubbing.” So they guy put on a headset, and they played back on a tape recorder, and dubbed it. It was very primitive but it worked.
I remember some of the titles being Modus Operandi (1967), Kill...Tony Falcon (1966), Agent X-44, Master Key (both release dates unknown). I took the films back, it was the Christmas season in Trinidad and Guyana, and I convinced the cinema owners there that, “Listen, this is something new.” They were not easily convinced. But once the trailers went into the cinemas, audiences had never seen anything like karate. This was foreign to them. And so they went crazy, jumping out of their seats, and the films made a fortune. How long will it last? Well, it didn't last very long. Because I tried also with some dramas – Why Do Roses Have Thorns, White Roses For My Black Sister (both release dates unknown), I Love Mama I Love Papa (1970)...
Andrew: All Tagalog Ilang-Ilang productions?
Yes. the first two did quite well. The others died. Then one morning I woke up and opened a film called Kill...Tony Falcon, and nobody came to the cinemas. And I knew it was over.
This was in the late Sixties?
This was in the late Sixties, early Seventies. I then decided I wouldn't give up, so I started looking again at Hong Kong. This time I found some of the kung fu films. One Armed Swordsman with Wang Yu, all the other swordsman and Wang Yu films. While in Hong Kong, the Philippines was always on my mind. I wondered will they improve, will they get better? It was then announced that the Philippines would have its first Manila International Film Festival. Imelda Marcos at the time was so supportive of the motion picture industry, the arts and culture, that they built a Cultural Centre, and she even made approaches to buy out the American Film Market so that it could be held here in the Philippines. That was not to be so, so she then created her own Manila International Film Festival, and invited all of the well-known film producers and distributors. And since I had been responsible for taking Filipino films to the West, an invitation ended up on my desk, which I accepted.
So I came to the first Manila International Film Festival [in January 1982]. At that festival I decided nobody was buying anything, and I said this isn't right, somebody's got to buy a Filipino film, otherwise this Philippines' film festival would not have been what it was put here fore, it would die. As fate would have it I saw a poster saying “Weng Weng – For Your Height Only” (1981). And I thought this is a great gimmick. I'm going to take this film back to my country and promote this as James Bond for the kids. 007 and a half! I bought the film.
That week I was wandering by one of the offices where they had screening projectors set up, and I saw a trailer showing that caught my attention. I stopped and looked at it, and I thought this is the best imitation of Mad Max I've ever seen! The film was called Stryker (released 1983). I then asked the people, “Who made this film?” They said a man called Cirio Santiago. His name was not strange to me because as an independent film distributor in the West, his name was well-known with AIP pictures, so I knew of him. I asked them to have me introduced to Cirio Santiago, and I asked him then, “What are you doing with this film for the West?” He said, “Nothing. I wouldn't know what to do.” So I took him over to friends of mine, Mike Ryan and Julie Palow, who were J&M Films London at the time, and I said to Mike and Julie, “Listen, I've just seen a trailer, and I think it's Mad Max.” Now they believed me because I was one of the well-known distributors of independent product in the Western World. At that time things had changed so I was busy buying all ITC films. And so I get them to look at the trailer, and they said, :Look, Tony, if you believe in it, we're going to take a chance.” And so they took the film on.
The film sold everywhere in the world. Cirio Santiago was very happy, he and his investors told me that they were very happy and they thanked me. I then said to him, “You know, I like your work, why don't we make a film together?” And he said, “I'd like to.” I said, “I'll produce it, but you'll direct it.” He said, “Do you have a film in mind?” I said, “Yes, a treatment I have called Final Mission. We'll get somebody to develop the script and we'll take it from there.” So we got in touch with somebody Cirio knew in LA, with Tammy Glazer and a friend of her's, I don't know his name, but two young people who worked with us in LA in the casting sessions, we cast Richard Young. And so we came to the Philippines ready to make Final Mission (1984). I knew then as a distributor that the quality of the film had to be different from what would normally come out of the Philippines. Because I was a distributor of American films, and if I was going to present the film to distributors to sell outside, it had better be worth what me as distributors were accustomed to. So with that in mind, it was filmed, we decided with Jo Mari [Avellana] and Joe Zucchero standing behind us. “Gentlemen, let's not think Filipino film world, let's think of a major American action film!” That message was well-seeded in everybody's mind.
Unfortunately there was a moment of sadness – Cirio Santiago fell ill with typhoid fever for two weeks, and that was on Day Four or Five of the film. Then everybody said, what do we do now? There was only one answer – I will continue directing until he's feeling well. Was it good or bad? I don't know. Was it stupid? I don't know. I chose some of the most difficult scenes to do, and I did them. For me it was not the first time behind the camera because in Trinidad at age 19, I was largely responsible for producing and directing Trinidad's first feature film called The Right And The Wrong (1970), which won the Gold Medal Award at the Atlanta Film Festival. At that time I couldn't tell you the difference between a camera and a lens, I just knew what I wanted to see on the screen. So I had some experience, not much but some.
Cirio got well and he came back to the set, and the film got finished. We were never late, we were on schedule and on budget. I would only thank Jo Mari and the Filipino people who stood behind me, I could not speak a word of their language nor understand them. He was my link. It worked for me like magic. I cut a three minute trailer of Final Mission before the film was edited, and I sent it to J&M in London, and said I'm going to be late for the Milan Film Festival, show this in Milan. They called me back on the fifth day of Milan and said Thorn EMI said they will [take] the world on the film. I sold the world before the film was finished!
I then went back to LA for the American Film Market. Vestron Pictures sent me a message to say they wanted to see me, to find out what is my next film. And I said, “Well, I'm about to do a film called Naked Vengeance.” They said to me at that time, “Bobby Myers told us what happened with Final Mission. And we want to get our hands on Naked Vengeance.” I said, “Well, I'll keep you in touch.” Crocker Bank, who was then a film financing bank, found me through a bond company and said, “We understand you did this film and this film was done on an extremely low budget, sold for a lot of money, and you sold it before you were finished. What is your next film?” I said Naked Vengeance. They said, “Well, we'll tell you what – we will do a line of credit for you that's rolling over from film to film.” I said OK, put it together. I left for the Philippines and I finished Naked Vengeance (1985) and went back. Crocker called me and said, “Are you ready?” I said, “I don't need you anymore! The film is finished.”
Vestron Pictures made no hesitation, they bought Naked Vengeance sight unseen. Bobby Myers did the deal; Myers went on to become president of Lorimar, then Roadshow Pictures. I haven't seen Bobby in many years, but he's one of the most prominent distributors of his time. Austin Furst was the head of Vestron at the time, and Austin said to me, “Listen, we want you now to do a film for us, and we will do a negative pick-up deal.” So in that same year I came back here, went for a drive to a place called In of the Seventh Ray, Papanga Canyon, and they have a little chapel, kind of bookstore, gift shop. And I found a little one-page thing that told the story of the Spear of Longinus, the spear that crucified [perforated?] Christ on the Cross. I read it and I though, “This is interesting!” Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1982) was just out, and they went searching for the Ark. So why can't someone go searching for the Spear of Longinus? Because it was said in that little leaflet that whoever had the Spear will rule the world. I found out that the Spear was actually in Austria in a museum. I got all the information, I read up on it – Napolean had it, Hitler had it – I followed the story. And I said this will be an action film.
I came back here, got together with Cirio one more time; Naked Vengeance was by this time very successful. Successful for me in a very strange way. There was a rape scene in Naked Vengeance... I had seen Straw Dogs (1970) which was a very powerful film, and I always felt that if I ever had to do a film with a rape scene, it must be more vicious than that, but more tasteful. The first newspaper article that came out in the Arizona Herald said the rape scene in Naked Vengeance makes Straw Dogs look like Child's Play.
I made Spear Of Destiny (1986) for Vestron, it was successful for Vestron – they changed the title to Future Hunters – and I was then asked by the bond company who had bonded Spear..., would I do a film for them? This was Gerald Green. And I said yes, I will think about it. He asked me if I had a script; I said I was working on a script called Mission Terminate. Jo and I started working on that script together. I then came back here and did Mission Terminate (1987). While I was doing Mission Terminate, I was then offered another film to be done, and I couldn't find a name for it. I got up with toothache one night and I was writing the script, and I thought it's a big mistake – I should have extracted this tooth before coming to the Philippines, and I will not make another mistake. I started thinking while writing, and I thought 'Nam was a goddamned mistake, so this film should be N.A.M. - Not Another Mistake (1987). And that's how the film got its title.
So at this point you have the confidence to go into the film business by yourself?
Yes. One of the things that happened on Spear..., Cirio had to start another film for Corman, and as a result, the last week or ten days of Spear..., he could not finish, so I took it over, finished it. It enabled me to be able to work with the local crews and get a better understanding, having worked with them on previous films, and that was able to make life easier for me now to continue. Cirio was busy doing four films for Corman so I continued, it was easy. The main thing for me was to be able to have the Filipino crews understand me and me them. What I like and what they like. Because I think they are the most talented filmmakers in the world. I say that very boldly to anybody. Because what they can do with what little they have is what makes them so very special. That is what I found. They were very innovative people. We should never forget that India is considered the largest filmmaking market in the world, but the Philippines is the second largest. And I was saying to Jo earlier, I cannot understand why India has evolved to become “Bollywood”, second biggest in the world today. Their films – if you look at the chart for the London top ten films this week, two of the films are from India. Where has the Philippines gone? Why did they not go that route? And that bothers me.
I have to say that I blame those who were involved. Because I'm very involved with the Indian film industry, as I explained earlier, I have just completed a film with Bollywood stars Shah Rukh Khan and Sushmita Sen [Dulha Mil Gaya, 2010]. I'm going to see the rushes tomorrow, we shot in Trinidad and Tobago and Dubai, we shot in India, it's the biggest star cast coming out of India, and we shot it anamorphic 35mm – why did the Philippines not go this way? And I don't accept the excuse of television took over, television has taken over everywhere. I say it was the will and the determination of the people here to drive it, because they didn't drive it. And what is bad about that is, we have to remember that the Philippines – if you take South East Asia, Francis Ford Coppola's favourite place, Oliver Stone's and Mel Gibson's, Cannon, all of the Chuck Norris films and all the other action films – in the Philippines. Because the people are wonderful to work with, the cost of filmmaking here is perfect, you have labs, you have technicians, you don't have a language problem, the peso exchange rate is always between 40 and 50 pesos to the dollar, the food is great – what more could you as for? Why did they let it die, is my question.
You also had in the Eighties local producers dubbing their films and selling them at Cannes. Why not now?
Exactly, and it bothers me. There was a film done here, Junn Cabreira, called No Dead Heroes (1987). Junn came to me, I knew Junn, and said, “Can you help us with this film?” I said yes, show it to me, they showed me the film and I said OK, edit out all of this stuff, dub these bits back, and I sold the film to Manson International for the world. because the film deserved the break, there was nothing wrong with it.
A lot of those Eighties films, for instance the ones made by KY Lim (for Kinavesa/Silver Star) were done for less than $50,000 – that's a staggering amount!
And Kimmy Lim made a fortune out of those films.
...With the most modest of resources. Those films were sold to the world, and out of all the films seen outside the Philippines, many of them were Kimmy's, as well as Cirio's. No-one gets how little they were made for, and that's their genius.
That's what I'm saying. And that is because of the people. I remember there were difficult scenes that I recall, there was a scene I always remember, I said we don't have the equipment, we don't have the technology – I want to see this guy falling out of the window all the way to the ground on blazing fire. They said you can't do it. And then they sat around, and they came up up with this brilliant idea of how they are going to tie him with a rope onto a crane and bring him down, shooting at night from underneath, and you'll never see the crane. And they brought him down on fire. I thought this is genius – this would cost a fortune in the US. They were always very innovative. It's a plus that they had.
They always say that Filipino stuntmen are the best the world.
Brilliant. I've worked with them, they are brilliant. They have done some stuff that I tell you, I sometimes wonder what they were about. I've worked here with an Australian guy, Glenn Ruehland. I brought Glen over to do a stunt for Not Another Mistake, 'cos I wanted a car to do three spins in the air, and Glen did the stunt. And the next day the two local stunt guys took the ramp even higher up and said, “Well we can show you that we can do better than that.” It's a shame to see that wealth go to waste. They tell me it's television but no, I don't accept that.
And they don't want to move it forward. And you see they use another excuse and that's the cost. I always say forget the cost, the cost is relevant, but you've got to start doing it. So instead of getting a crew of a hundred, find a crew of twenty. Shoot it on weekends if that's the only time you've got. You got to work. And today I was just saying to Jo, you can shoot in HD which is a tremendous saving. And if you've got it properly lit and shot on HD, and then you get your theatrical deal, the theatrical distributor will pay for the blow-up to 35mm. And if you don't you still have your DVD and TV world market to take it up. Because you can bring it in on a budget that will allow you to do that. But the first block they put is they hear that in the States and everywhere else, THIS is the price to do the film. They start thinking, this is the price we have to pay, and that is the mistake.
When I came out here to do Final Mission and Naked Vengeance, I didn't know what it was going to cost in the end and where the money was going to come from, but I knew that it would come. Having sold Final Mission to Thorn EMI, I was able to hire Georges Garvarentz who did Triumph Of A Man Called Horse (1982) to do the music. I didn't know where I was getting the money to do the music! I didn't have that kind of music, but who cares – I'm making the film, I'll find the money. I took Ron Jones to do the music for Naked Vengeance, he was doing Magnum PI and a few other TV things. I told him I have no money, I says, “I like your music. You want a chance to do a feature film, I want a music director who wants no money. Now do we have a deal?” He says, “We have a deal.” It's an interesting story, he then did my next eight films. Ron Jones took the music of Spear... to Universal for Star Trek, he won the Award. He lives off residuals now. When I go to LA, if he knows I'm in a hotel he's angry, he says, “because everything I have today, you gave it to me.” He said, “I don't even need to work on the residuals I make.” Robert Patrick – he did Equalizer 2000 (1986) for Cirio, then I gave him a break to do Spear... for Vestron. Vestron were shaking, who is this guy? I said, “Don't worry, trust me. OK, I'll use Robert Patrick.” The day he got Terminator 2 (1990) I spoke to him on the phone, because Mario Casale had spoken to me and said, “This kid worked for you, Tony?” and I said he did, he's a great kid. “We're taking him in.” He said, “I don't know how to say thanks, because they just looked at the footage of Spear... and said, “That'll do.” So there's a lot of good things that came out of it.
And for me, unfortunately I have my businesses elsewhere, and I couldn't be here as much as I would have liked to, but I will not close the doors on the Philippines. As I sit here I'm speaking to Cirio right now about putting something together – in fact I want to do Stryker 2, and I spoke to Cirio about it, and having a dying passion... My grandson is 8, he's only into filmmaking and nothing else, and his obsession is to make Final Mission Part 2. Because at the end it says “Await Part 2, The Beginning”. The truth is, we ran out of film stock and I had no more money, and I couldn't put the last scene in. So I had him shoot over the top of the hill, and bring in a title. People loved it.
Let's get back to the films you directed...
Not Another Mistake – an interesting story. I had seen a lot of the Vietnam films, everybody went back to bring out the POWs, and that had to be the genre because that's what was going at the time. I wanted a twist, so I said it was a mistake, I entitled it “Not Another Mistake”. But when they went in, the reason the guys were kept by the Vietnamese was because they were all suffering from leprosy, and they were afraid to expose this to the world. And that was the premise of the story. We brought in eleven people from LA, all the lead characters, shot it here, used Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) set that was still there – I wasn't the only one who used it, Platoon used it the same month, so we both got the benefit of using it. But great experience. There was one sadness in that experience and that was that I got really bad hepatitis. I was half my size and they told me when I had gone back to Trinidad, the doctor said I cannot fly, and I got on a plane without anybody knowing, and I had my crew and my cast waiting to start.
That film was very successful for Nelson Entertainment. It was well-timed. One of the things I've tried to do many times is to stay within a genre that works. Because when you're working with a limited budget and you have budgetary constraints, you don't want to go into something that is going to put the investors at risk - even though you are the investor, but you have to separate your hats. And so it would always be, stay within that genre, and so was Mission Terminate.
They've coined a term for that - “Namsploitation”!
That's true. And then there was the kickboxing thing that came to light, and immediately I did The Fighter (1987), which was Benny Urquidez, very well known as “The Jet”, and Richard Norton, and of course Franco Guerrero was always a favourite of mine. I found him very different from the everyday Filipino actor. He was very professional, and his whole approach to the art was quite westernized in many ways. He would think and the way he would play a part, it was not your typical Filipino actor.
He did cut his teeth on Bobby A. Suarez's films.
Yes. And I think that helped take him to where he was at that stage. I don't know if it helped him in his later years, because I don't know what he does now – I don't think he's done anything recently. So it has its advantages and disadvantages, like everything else in the business. But The Fighter was again was very successful. Ed Collin handled that film, Cannon picked it up in a lot of territories. It was an interesting film in many ways. The fight sequences between Benny and Richard, I did not want these guys to go back to their hotel and freshen up and come back the next day, so we shot for 36 hours non-stop, which is five cameras, non-stop, and then took three days off. It was Round One, Round Two, all the way through to Round Nine, and it was full contact, so we had doctors on the set at all times. But Benny and Richard were superb.
I did that here, then I came back here for 21st Century and did Rage [aka Deathfight, 1992]. Rage again was Richard Norton, one of my favourite people. Again it was more Martial Arts but it had more of a story to it than just the martial arts. But that was the going kind of genre at the time.
Kickboxing, with white actors?
Because that's what the market wanted at the time. Jean Claude Van Damme was out there, and you had to compete with that as an independent.
He was the next generation of action stars after Chuck Norris...
Yes. And that's what we had to do. Richard Norton fitted that very well. I became adventurous with Richard Norton, and it worked. I took Richard to Trinidad to do a drama called Secrets Of The Shells (release date unknown), we won the Best Picture award at the Belieze Film Festival, it was quite interesting for Richard and for me. I never thought I could direct a drama, I thought I'd be bored to death, but it was an interesting drama with a thriller twist to it. And I think that is what kept me going. I did that in Trinidad, I did Innocent Adultery (1994) in Trinidad using the casts of Santa Barbara and The Young And The Restless, I did a Merchant-Ivory film in Trinidad, Mystic Masseur (2001) – it was written by the Nobel Peace Prize winner V.S. Naipaul. I finished another film called Club Dead Dot Com which has not yet been finalized, it's just finished in post-production, so for me it never really stopped.
Was Rage the last one in the Philippines?
Yes. The others I ended up directing by default. Cirio falling sick on the first one, and moving onto another film on the second.
You were listed as Second Unit Director, however...
No, I said to him it doesn't really matter. Those things don't really matter to me. It was all about the finished product – I didn't care who produced it or who directed it, only the finished product. My joy would come when I sit in a cinema somewhere in the world and I listen to the audience cheering. I'll tell you a funny one – in Not Another Mistake, I concocted a ridiculous scene of Richard Norton rolling on the ground with a machine gun and shooting down a line of VC soldiers. And while he was doing it I looked at it and I thought this is so stupid because it's impossible – nobody can roll with a machine gun and shoot all these people. But audiences want gimmicks. I was sitting in the cinema, I can't remember where, and the cinema was screaming – how foolish I am or they are, which one is it? But those are the moments that bring me... all the fame and glory mean nothing, this is what is important to me.
Over-the-top usually translates to “memorable”! And I think Filipino filmmakers understand that, and take things over the top.
I like Cirio as a director. Whenever he is being produced by a producer who understands the American market, the films have a totally different look and feel to them. I think he recognizes that too. So I would like him to direct that [Stryker 2]. I'm speaking to Adrian Cole to do this film film that my daughter has written called End Force, and I said to her, “I'm going to try to do it in the Philippines” She said, “But Dad, why?” Because I like the Philippines, and it has all the locations that I can want – I can be in Northern California as much as I can be in the desert.
Have you been coming back regularly?
I came a couple of times for a day or two days... I was here two years ago for two days. I don't spend much time. I just come, taste the food and leave.
You purchased For Your Height Only from Liliw Productions – what do you remember about them?
Edwin Bote was the one who introduced me to [Cora Caballes]. My deal was specifically with her. I went to the office, I paid for the film in cash.
Can I ask how much?
You're going to fall off the chair – I paid $2,500 for the film, for the West Indies. In those days the West Indies would pay $10,000 for a big American film. So for a Filipino film, $2,500 was considered a good price, because it was not an American film with American stars.
So you went to the office with a suitcase full of cash...
And I tell you what was interesting – I opened the film for Christmas, cinemas in Trinidad. I opened the film against Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I beat Raiders...
With For Your Height Only? That's fantastic!
Date for date, box office, I beat Raiders... Simple. It was a great gimmick. It was faces and images that people had never seen. It was different, it appealed to the kids... It was a miniature Bond, 007 and a half! And the kids loved it! And with the kids came the parents. And the film was like magic. His second film, I paid for a little more, but it didn't do very well. The Impossible Kid (1982), I paid $6,000 because in fairness to them, I felt that the first film had done well, and here was their second film, and when they asked me how much I would pay, I offered them $6,000 for it, and they were very happy. It didn't do great business. But it was fine.
Did it cover costs?
I think it may have covered or just fell below covering, but it was fine. For me, it is never always only about the money. I think in life if you just focus on the money, we lose focus on what we ought to be doing. That is the biggest problem.
So offering a more substantial amount was like a thank you...
Yes, because I think they deserved it. Here they were, struggling, making films they hoped would get out there somehow – I mean, Tony Ferrer and I became great friends from that, based on my buying his films from the early days, and in those early days was the Floating Casino. Tony would go to the Floating Casino every time I bought a film!
It must have been a real coincidence that Tony Ferrer plays Weng Weng's boss!
That was quite a coincidence, yes. And I used Tony Ferrer in one of my films after as well.
He played the gangster in The Fighter (1987).
Yeah. But coming out of all of this has been the grat relationships and friendships that I have made here in the Philippines. The Santiagos, Jo Mari and Cora, Franco Guerrero, Tony Ferrer, some of the actresses, who have become good friends. Tetchie Agbayani – these people became good friends, and I think they are important people in my life. Ursula Marquez, she was a friend who helped me through a lot of the trying times, in understanding the Filipino filmmakers and the people themselves, and these are people that you don't easily forget. Because without them, none of this would be possible for me to sit here and tell you these stories.
It's addictive, the chaos.
Yes, it's very addictive. It is a charm that it has, and it might be to many a maddening charm, but it is a charm. It's a chaotic charm, yes. Chaos, as you said, but a charm of its own.