Back in the Eighties, Maria Isabel Lopez was the Philippines’ reigning Sex Queen of the Silver Screen. In 2011 she’s hotter than ever – a gloriously matured actress in constant demand (that’s her getting cut up in Brillante Mendoza’s Cannes-winning Kinatay ), not to mention indie producer and unofficial ambassador for Pinoy cinema. The following interview, stitched together from several conversations between 2007 and 2010, chronicles Ms Lopez’s fascinating journey through the Bold Explosion, the Eighties’ Export Boom, motherhood and beyond. Hers is a story of survival, constant reinvention, imagination, good humour, and a creative, adventurous spirit which refuses to be confined.
Andrew: I understand that prior to being an actress you were a GP Model.
Maria Isabel: Oh yeah, I was a Gerard Peter Model – it was a group of models way back in the Eighties. We were like the counterpart of Moulin Rouge. So it was on that show that I was discovered to join Miss Philippines, and eventually I won the pageant, and I represented the country in the Miss Universe pageant. How ironic, but those are the origins. It was very scandalous.
When you were crowned Miss Philippines, you created a scandal?
It’s not very common for a woman to be crowned Miss Philippines coming from a sexy modelling group. Normally they get girls from aristocratic families, from exclusive girl schools, because we are a Catholic country and they worry a lot, and morality has always been a big issue here. So I was questioned on morality charges, like that. It also happened at the time when we had a lot of guardians of morals. A Filipina, Tetchie Agbayani, had just modelled for the German edition of Playboy [the July 1982 edition]. When I was crowned Miss Philippines I was attacked and really questioned on morality. You can be the Head of State or a Catholic priest and there are always questions of morality that can be raised against you. So this was like turning a negative into a positive; I used that to my advantage, and here I am after two and a half decades, still in the film business.
What was the famous line that caused the furore?
Oh… during the pageant we were asked questions about virginity issues, about modelling for Playboy, and being the open-minded Isabel, I just answered according to what I wanted, not because I was conscious of the board of judges. I was just being me.
So what was the line?
(Laughs) Questions like if I had any nude photographs. They told us, “You’d better tell us the truth now, because these things are coming out in the papers.” And I told them I didn’t have any nude photographs. That’s true, but I did have one photograph where I was wearing a robe and it was open all the way down, which to me is not bad.
The urban legend is that it was about your virginity…
Oh yeah… they asked me if I was a virgin. I just told Miss Rita Gomez, “What about you, aren’t you?” [Another version of the line is "Will it make me win the crown if I said yes?" – quoted HERE]
And so begins the legend of Maria Isabel Lopez!
After that I was offered immediately a whiskey commercial, the classic White Castle whiskey where the woman is shown riding a white horse in a red bikini. The pageant organizers told me not to take it. I said, “No, I need to take it.” And they said, “OK, don’t wear a red bikini.” Well, the rebellious woman that I was, I wore the red bikini, and I became a White Castle girl. After that I was offered by Viva Films to do a movie, and the packaging was that of a sexy dramatic actress.
I was launched in the movie Sang Bukas Pa Ang Kahapon (1983), it’s a film about three women, and I was pitted against veteran stars Hilda Koronel and Lorna Tolentino. And after that I did Working Girls (1984) for Ishmael Bernal, and then I was launched into superstardom by the movie Isla (1984) under Celso Ad. Castillo. Since then I started to do a lot of sexy films. That was in the Eighties, in the Marcos time. And you know that during the Marcos days they opened the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines [ECP] spearheaded by their daughter Imee Marcos. They said that it was used to divert the attention of the masses, because there was so much restlessness. And they used this ECP as channel by which you could show films without censorship.
Do you personally believe it was a political tool to divert attention from the government?
It did divert a lot of minds, the restlessness of the masses. Because instead of noticing more the lack and the consciousness of things against the government, people were interested, they were excited, they were having these films without censorship, and you could see people lining up, not just the male audience but the female audience as well. And the filmmakers were fired up. How could you notice the performance of the government when there was so much to do? Business was flourishing. We had producers left and right, we had fly-by-night producers experimenting in the “sexy” genre, and we had a lot of work. As an actress I was doing four movies a month! And it also opened doors to the international market – I did a French film, I did Chinese movies as well, I did a [Roger] Corman film, I think three American movies, an Italian movie. It was good. I’ve never seen the height of Philippine cinema until those days in the Eighties.
That really was the last Golden Age.
And it was a struggle between the creativity… That was the stage when there was so much struggle between the filmmaker and censorship. The creative artists, scriptwriters and directors, we would rally in the streets and tell them to be more creative, to givce us our freedom of expression. We had the Free Artists Movement, we had the Concerned Artists of the Philippines – the CAP, for example, involves not only filmmakers but also poets, writers, painters. There were so many for freedom.
While attentions were being diverted, filmmakers were also being offered a new kind of freedom, even if it was almost solely a sexual freedom.
It’s not just the sexual aspect – they would also like to expose the political killings we have, the survival of the people, the NPA, the violence happening in the country, the poverty. We all wanted to do films about those subject matters. It just happened that we were under Martial Law then.
Still, it was a way of keeping filmmakers happy, to a certain extent.
It wasn’t a total freedom. Like in the movie Isla (1984), Celso Ad. Castillo told me, “This movie is not just about Isla, the woman with the gorgeous body, it’s about freedom.”
Celso is one eccentric director. Before doing the film Isla, they had to condition me: “When you do a movie with him you have to know this director, he has to be in love with the project, with the script, the material, and he has to be in love with the leading lady.” So I was kind of set up so that I would know what to expect. When we were doing the film, I had to “appreciate” him as my director, because it was to be at the back of my mind that he has to be in love with the leading lady. I have to appreciate him, because that’s all I can offer, so we could work harmoniously. We did such a great film – it was the first [bold] film shown at the ECP, and after that everybody else followed. Everybody tried.
Would you class Isla as a bold film?
Well, it is a bold film in the sense that it is the first film that showed frontal nudity. Because we never really had that. It was all simulated; [before] they would not show the nipples, we had guidelines, and you couldn’t show anything. It was the first time that an actress had frontal nudity.
The term “bold”, Elwood claims to have invented it…
We do have different terminology for every year. Like the Sixties they called it “bomba” – it’s like a bomb. And the Seventies, they had the “wet look” – the actresses, since there was no frontal nudity, would take a bath and do some “wet look” scenes. And then in the Eighties it was the “bold” film, according to Elwood. In the Nineties I think they called it the “titillating film” or the TF films. It’s the same material, but with different packaging.
Yes, they say it’s the boldest of the bold. But I still cannot agree, because I could say that now after two decades, filmmakers and producers, they always want to outdo each other. During the Eighties they’d SAY it was the boldest of the bold, but then after that, then came Scorpio Nights, then came other films. So the idea of always competing with yourself, competing with everybody, it just doesn’t stop. So I couldn’t take credit that it’s the boldest of the bold.
Silip was a deliberately provocative film – what kind of reaction did it get when it was released in the Philippines?
First of all there are so many people who are curious. Sarsi and I were rivals, but really we were best friends. We’d date together, hang out together, and people pitted us against each other. To have both of us in one film together was really like a formula for box office. So there were a lot of gossips coming up, they will make us fight, but we know deep within our hearts that we were friends; we would go to fashion shows together, we would hang out, our lovers knew each other, like that. During the filming it was challenging because at that time Sarsi was kinda crazy, she would also experiment in some substances – in my case I wasn’t really experimenting in those things. First, Sarsi was much younger than me, and I was more mature than her. When the film was shown there were a lot of critics who did not like Elwood’s movie, and there is always a positive comment, always a negative reviews, you can’t take that away. On the part of the moralists, they really didn’t like the scenes there because we had young children with us, and even if these young children were not asked to disrobe, they were able to witness some nudity or love scenes. There were some very explicit love scenes we shot, and you could see a nine or ten year old boy watching. So the guardians of morals didn’t really like that. But of course on the part of the filmmaker and the director, that was reality. I mean it’s been happening. There were curious eyes, and even us young children would experiment on our bodies. So I think Silip was very much ahead of its time. If it was shown a little later, maybe there would be more acceptance and so much adverse reaction.
The comment I made to Elwood was that if Silip had been made by an Italian director in the early Seventies it would be hailed as a masterpiece. But it’s from the Philippines in the Eighties, an unknown film culture, and by someone like Elwood who isn’t a known name outside the Philippines. I think those factors worked against the film when it was exhibited overseas. It was framed more as a sexploitation film.
It was shown in festivals overseas, like the Chicago Film Festival, and so many others. Yeah, I think if it was Kurosawa who’d made it or an Italian director, it would have gathered more acceptance. But, well, that’s how it goes. There’s always the right time for a certain kind of film. I would say that the Filipino audience wasn’t really ready for that kind of film.
So it was a little bit too scandalous, too controversial, particularly when it came to religion. It must have outraged the censors.
Not only the censors, but also the Church.
You can’t underestimate the power of the Church in the Philippines, then?
(Laughs) Yeah you can’t. Although we’re already in 2007, people are also moving forward in their spirituality, and not confined to the beliefs associated with the Catholic Church.
I don’t know much about Sarsi’s background except that she was managed by a guy called Rey de la Cruz. He was actually an eye doctor, and he discovered a lot of our sexy actors and actresses. Sarsi was part of the a group called the Softdrink Beauties – we have Coke, we have Pepsi – so he used the names of soft drinks for his stable of actors and actresses. So he had Pepsi Paloma, Coca Nicolas… After working on Silip we did another film called Alyas Bomba Queen. It’s nice to see her again. It’s just that I was playing mother roles and I think she was playing mother roles too all the time.
Let’s talk about the production of Silip. The film is set in an isolated community with sand dunes everywhere.
It was actually shot at the beach where we make salt, because that’s our industry, we produce and make salt. But we don’t do it the commercial way, we do it the traditional way which is filtering the salt by the beach and then put it in containers. There’s a scene where you see me mixing – that was my business in the movie (laughs), salt maker.
We were on location shoot, we stayed there I think more than a month, and it was in a not place in Lawag. Can you imagine, we’re going to have a natural tan, and we’re supposed to be walking barefoot - Elwood doesn’t want us to wear sandals or slippers, because in that area villagers are barefoot. But the heat of the sun, it’s going to burn your feet! So what we did was put some fabric on our feet, and we would tape them.
So Elwood was that concerned with realism?
And to put more texture to the film, we were using gauze material, we were using earth colours from the set to the bamboo houses where they lived, to the costumes we wore, they were all dyed in beige or rust or brown and grey, all neutral colours.
It is a very stark-looking film, and it’s not just the set, it’s in the figures set against the landscape: a feeling of complete isolation.
That’s true. We were asked to blend in with the villagers and to act like one, to feel like one. When we were there in Lawag I noticed when I finally came back to the city, I felt like I’m a new person, isolated in that village., and when I came back to the city and people were running left and right, I felt like I was having a cultural shock, I had some inferiority complex – I don’t know what happened to me! But in my personal experience, being in that isolated island, when the film was over and I was back to my life in the city, I had a difficult time going back to being the city girl, the actress.
Making the film had such a profound effect on you?
I think in a way, but it didn’t last very long. I had to bounce back to my usual life.
Well, Elwood is a lot of surprises. He would put situations to the actors and actresses that he didn’t want us to act. We had a scene where Sarsi and I were going to be killed by some people, and we were dying. He just wanted us to look real, because we’re actors and actresses we could always make a scene real by just believing. Stanislavsky Method – see, believe. In one scene we were tied and in a tent, and there were a group of men who were going to gang rape us. And I cannot imagine why they really tied us so hard. So I said, “This is too much, this is too painful!” And I realized that they wanted us to struggle – like he (Elwood) motivated the actors to attempt to really touch us, and that we would be angry, he wanted to show that anger. So I actually resented Elwood for a while after that scene. But of course I also got over it. I finally understood the director’s intentions. But he could be a lot of surprises, and he could also be deceitful in a way, he could also be manipulative. I had always thought a director would really motivate the stars. In the case of Elwood I do believe in him as a director, I have high praises for this guy, but at some point he could also be manipulative to the actors and actresses.
He always has the finished film in his mind, so it’s a case of “by any means necessary”, even if it means trampling over the actors.
Even when they put the fire in the place where Sarsi and I were hidden, we had to run for our lives because it was real fire! It wasn’t even fire coming from effects, like if you put fire in the foreground in the foreground of the camera – it was just fire, we could feel the heat and we had to run for our lives! It was an experience working with Elwood (laughs). I can laugh about it after two decades.
It sounds like you have to! Can you tell me a little more about your male lead, Mark Joseph?
Mark was my love interest in the movie. You cannot ask me about his origins because I don’t know. He was chosen because of his animalistic look. His job is a killer of caribous. There were so many bloody scenes that he performed, and he is supposed to be like a typical macho, that we would just like to screw around. He’s the most handsome guy, the phallic symbol in the movie.
So he’s meant to be a walking penis?
Uh huh. And not only that, it’s also his first movie. On the part of us actresses who do films left and right, he’s the newcomer when we did the film. So it also takes a lot of patience with us. But I think he worked with his role very well. This was his stepping stone – after that he moved on to doing pene films.
Pene films featured actual penetration…
That’s another genre!
It’s the extreme version of bold? I always found it amazing that pene films could be screened inside such an intensely moralistic country. How did producers get away with it?
Well, the censorship was there. Those scenes were definitely cut, but in Metro Manila they were very aware of the censorship going around, but bring them to the provinces, who’s going to run after those scenes when you are showing it in a place like Bicol? Or showing it in a remote place like Batangas? (laughs) Who’s going to catch the people there? No-one.
So the remote areas were like lawless frontier towns?
Yes, they have no way to check, just like the Magindanao elections (laughs). That’s where they do the hocus-pocus.
The first thing that strikes you with Silip is the incredible brutality of the animal violence. It sets up the extremes, which the film more than matches. You go from the slaughter of the caribou to Mark Joseph’s beheading…
Yeah, and you can imagine if we had the Animal Rights activists during those days, they wouldn’t let those films be done to the poor caribou. Because we didn’t use camera tricks, it was really the death and judgment of that poor caribou! Oh my God… Because now I’m an animal activist so NOW I care! It was so barbaric.
Please tell me you ate the caribou afterwards…
After some people butchered the caribou they made it into caribou steak. But what I mean is, in these days people would have reacted, especially the animal rights activists, they wouldn’t let those poor caribou be taken advantage of like that.
It’s such a stark image to open the film with.
There is so much shock value. Because that’s what people were looking for. I told you they always tried to outdo each other – nobody was satisfied. Nobody was happy with what the actors were doing, what the directors were doing, they wanted to see more. And that also contributed to the decline. When there was so much impatience and restlessness, there was no more contentment or satisfaction.
How do you rate Silip as a film these days?
I haven’t seen it since. I saw it in the Eighties, I saw it at the press screenings, and after that… It’s in my file, but I haven’t really seen it again.
How do you remember reacting to the film?
Well I was also under so much pressure, because news came out that my director tried to manipulate us into doing this gang rape scene we were really tied and we were angry, me and Sarsi. And it also reached my family – they were non-show biz people. But of course to me it was just a job, and it was also with the intention of the director, come up with more realistic expression. So it did have an effect on my family, and it’s like we were also violated in the sense that these are our boundaries – we were actors and actresses and we don’t have to be deceived into doing a scene like this. So it took me a few days to get over it.
From what you remember, twenty years later, how would you judge Silip as a film?
I think it’s a good film, a film that’s ahead of its time. There was fine acting, very good casting, we were working with professionals – Elwood was very good, he just loves his craft, and I think everybody worked hard, the production designers, the scriptwriter Ricky Lee, they all worked hard. I would give it a rating of 8 (smiles).
The children were astounding in the film, and it’s through the children that the point of the film is made. The scene where Mark has his head removed is one of the most shocking scenes in any film!
It would have been a sensation if you’d shown it in European countries…
My favourite scene is where you lift up Myra’s skirt and throw sand…
I did that scene because there’s this young woman who’s starting to probably have a surge of hormones, I wanted to repress that so I threw sand on her private parts. I would tell her to control herself, that it’s a sin. But you know, that really reflected the lives of the people because – I’m talking about society as a whole – in the provinces, the women especially were made to feel guilty about releasing their sexuality. It’s like when you start to explore your body – and I mean, a woman has a right to her body, of course! – it’s like it’s a sin. I don’t know what kind of teachings the Church has done to the population, especially to the women way back in the 40s, 50s and 60s – everybody felt guilty. If you indulge in sex, you feel guilty. It’s a sin. That’s the standard, at least during those times. Until now to an extent it’s a standard of the Church that if you indulge in these things it’s a sin. And I don’t blame a lot of people in the provinces, they get married at fourteen or fifteen (laughs).
And are very surprised to find themselves pregnant…
Well no, not really… It’s not the film that I least want to remember…did I say that? OK, I probably said that … when it was shown, Tata is very much ahead of his time. I have respect for him as a filmmaker. It’s just that his film has so many sexy scenes. I had to dance in front of extras, naked. So it’s kind of difficult for me to dance in public. If you do a love scene or a shower scene in a bedroom or bathroom, you’re in the privacy of your bedroom. But to dance in front of the public!
There are also a large number of sex scenes that have no narrative purpose.
It’s too many! After doing this film, I had already made my ground rules in the next project. I told them there has to be only one love scene, one rape scene, one shower scene, and then if they require one masturbation scene that’s OK. Only four. If you go beyond that, it’s something else! (laughs) And I told them if you want heavier stuff, you have your supporting cast, who are not so big names. You can tell them to do that! (laughs) I made a breakdown. There has to be only one. “If you let me take a shower in the bathroom, don’t let me take a shower in the river any more. You choose, it’s one or the other.”
So you gave them a menu?
(Laughs) Yeah. “If you want me to have a love scene with a male actor, don’t let me do another love scene with the father or the brother or the supporting cast.”
So Hubo… was the final straw?
Also my producer was very kind. She gave me a two carat diamond ring for the film. She was also really nice. And this she was able to build her production house big. She did so many films after another, so many action films. That is from the money from Hubo. It was a very successful film. It was also controversial because it was the first time in cinema that you see a samurai being stabbed into a… If Brillante chopped me to pieces now, 25 years ago, a samurai was lobbed into my private parts! My daughter is a filmmaking student in LaSalle – it was shown in her class! And my daughter said, “Mom! Is that YOU? My God, Mom, how could you do that?” But I’ve never kept anything from my daughter. Since day one I’ve been open to my daughter. “Mom, my classmates were telling me they saw you with the samurai lie that!” That was already twenty five years ago! And my daughter two years ago was still in college, and she saw that film!
For me, watching the bold films of the Eighties, there are some films which have these extremes of sex and violence. And it’s the combination of the two that’s so shocking, startling. Why do you think there was this combination?
I guess filmmakers always want to outdo themselves. When you do a sexy film, audiences would demand more. What will you show next? And then the filmmaker would have to outdo himself by showing more. So there was this escalation of violence and sensuality. After my generation, you know what happened? The sexy films became movies with penetration. I don’t do that stuff, mine is just simulated. After that, they have to outdo themselves. The filmmakers, the producers and the move-going public wanted to see more. So they have to discover even younger actresses in the street, discover lesser stars, and the actresses became like toilet paper. That’s how they (the producers) described them – tissue paper. Use them once and then throw them away. Use them for one to two films – they haven’t even recovered money yet to buy themselves a car, and they are already out of the industry. And then they’ll get a fresher face, younger. So my contemporaries were a decade younger than me. Because I was in my mid twenties when I was doing the sexy films, and the other films, the lead star is fifteen years old! You know, I was a middle aged woman, and my span of being a sexy star was up to one decade. I was in the industry so long, and there was a huge turnover of actresses.
I did! But I told you, I have a supporting cast who will do all of the worst scenes. And since I’m the blockbuster drawer, I’m the crowd drawer in the film, they capitalize on my name, they listen to my ground rules.
Brillante told me when they came to do the sword scene…
…he saw my film Hubo?
No, he worked on it.
Brillante was my production designer?
Brillante said “I was the guy pushing the sword in.”
That was him? (shocked silence) I didn’t even know!
He was brought in for the reshoot.
He was just starting! I didn’t know…
What are your memories of Tata as a person?
Tata is always smoking marijuana. I had a fight with him also. Like when he asked me to do more sexy scenes, sometimes I’d fight with him. I remember when we were doing the dance scene, the choreography, and I had strip myself, we got the choreographer to work with us, and then Tata has so many visuals, like I thought that time I was doing the ….. film, because Tata was a production designer, I thought that when we were doing this movie there’s not much part (heart?). I thought he was more physical because he likes to put smoke – he was so concerned with the production design. Not so much the soul of the character. Now the films that I’ve done, they exploit so much the emotions of the character. I thought it was so physical that he has to put all that grand décor, there is a massage room where I was having sex with two actors – you’re right, so many unnecessary scenes. Also, it was intended for the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines – I was once called the ECP Queen. I did Isla, that was followed by Scorpio Nights, then this one was my follow-up to Isla. The Film Centre was known for Isla, the Celso Ad. Castillo film. And then Scorpio Nights, the Peque Gallaga film. After that came Hubo Sa Dilim. I think Tata was under pressure on how to outdo films – you’ve seen Scorpio Nights? That’s why he probably has to try harder.
And try to out-shock the other films? That makes sense. It’s strange how two of the most startling film to come out of the Philippines are starring YOU – Silip and Hubo…! And they both have those wild extremes which you don’t expect to sit side by side in the same film.
There’s a pressure on the filmmaker and an expectation from the audience, they want to see more. On the part of the filmmaker, they want to put more shock value because they want to have more monetary returns for their producer. And also it’s good for them – they’re more talked about.
So when a poster says “The BOLDEST film of them all”…
..and I’m in it! (laughs)
You don’t think that Hubo… hurt your career?
No, I don’t think it hurt my career.
Well, there is always a negative effect anyway when you do a sexy film, because I’m only categorized as a sexy actress. There’s already the stigma, that you were just doing that kind of film. However after I did this film, I also did movies like Ishmael Bernal’s Working Girls (1984), I would also do mainstream films that don’t have sexy theme. I did Alyas Baby Tsina (1984) with Vilma Santos, I was doing a Rudy Fernandez film, action movies, in between.
So one sex film, one NOT so sexy film?
Yeah. And also I think the way I created a balance was because I KNOW I’m smart, and I still consider myself one of the smartest sexy actresses in town. So that sets me apart from a physically endowed young sexy star, because of my credentials, being a UP graduate, I’m a former Miss Philippines, and if I do the sexy roles, I know my character and personality, there’s much more to it than the physically endowed woman.
So there was a strategic plan?
A strategic plan, and I also know that it’s not going to be forever. I was in my mid twenties until the last film I did when I was going to get married already, I still had a love scene with President Erap. I did a film, Sa Kuko Ng Agila (1989) where I was playing President Estrada’s girlfriend. It was a love scene in bra and panties, but I’m already getting married one month before. So I know that it’s not going to be forever, it’s a passing stage and I’m going to say goodbye. Saying goodbye means doing films like this (holds up postcard), doing films with advocacy and purpose.
But you’re not forced to reinvent yourself? You already did the quality films.
But it’s a passing stage, it’s a certain era in my life. Because after I passed that stage, a lot of my contemporaries would either get married, go back to the province, become fat, become broke and not pursue their acting. I still pursue my acting, but the generation after that, I was the mother to just about every sexy actress (laughs). Mother to Anna Capri, mother to Inez Veneracion, mother to so many fly-by-night actresses.
You could almost count down how many days they had left in the industry!
Uh-huh. And when I was doing the films with Celso and Tata Esteban, I have this label in my head that my time is up – that I’ll be a has-been. I was at my prime, my thoughts were already very much ahead in my mind as a has-been. So while I’m still at my prime, my thoughts of being a has-been are already there. What did I do? I was already accumulating my finances, I was charging the most enormous talent fee in town - I really told them, “I’m expensive but you’ll get your money back.” Because I know there’s a time limit to that. It’s all history, what we’re talking about.
How did it feel to be part of such a talented core of actresses in the Eighties?
It was kind of challenging because a typical actress would only act in drama, and us, we worked double time because we not only act, we disrobe. So I’d say it’s double effort (laughs). It’s also challenging in the sense that it was the time when there was not much press freedom, and being a Catholic country there were so many double standards. As you know, this is the only place that doesn’t have divorce besides the Vatican. So we do have a lot of guardians of morals to deal with. But I was very positive that I did professionalize it. I did raise the awareness of the viewers and the filmmakers that you could make movies with very sexy material, and at the same time you could command a certain air of respect. The fans have never lost respect for me, my family has never lost their respect for me, I respected myself so much more, and now I have a teenager - she’s sixteen, and she’s doing some films now - and she also idolized and respected me. It wasn’t an easy route. You see, to have fame and fortune you could easily do that overnight, but to remain in the industry and be part of it and evolve from just being a sexy actress to doing dramas, comedies, action, it’s also not a joke. So I feel very victorious to have conquered and been able to grab it.
I think for some in the Philippines you can get away with being both sexy and “respectable”.
Yes, I had a chance to work with award-winning directors like Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Ishmael Bernal, the late Lino Brocka, of course Celso Ad. Castillo, and so many other directors.
Can you please talk about working with Lino?
It was a movie called Akin Ang Iyong Katawan (1984), “Your Body Is Mine”. It was like a love triangle between me and Carmi Martin and another actor called Dennis Roldan. Lino has brought so much awareness via his films to the Philippine masses, especially because he has always been critical of the government, and has always been for freedom of expression.
He was able to create a balance of doing artistic films and doing some films that are really commercial. One thing with Lino, he would always tell me, “I consider myself successful. I am poor, I may not have the money, but I am successful.” Because in [his] generation, people would always gauge a filmmaker’s success with box office results. In the case of Lino he considers himself a success and at the same time doesn’t have to be materially successful.
I would agree with that. Not only that, the economy was good. People could pay in the movie houses, there was no piracy at that time, we didn’t have all these DVD pirates then. People were paying, and the Filipino movie was a culture, it was our Filipino identity. You could see rustic settings, we would play Ifugaos and island girls; it really showed the country, it could even be a form of tourism. And I miss those days, because we’re now in 2007 and I feel like it’s a dying culture, it’s a dying industry.
And most importantly during that period, people actually WANTED to see their own country’s films.
Exactly. Even if we had Hollywood films coming over, if we had Superman, the audience would still pay their hard-earned money to see our own films. Like now, I’ll givce you one example – recently Spiderman was shown and after that it’s a [Filipino] family-oriented comedy movie. They were pulling out that film to make way for Spiderman. During the Golden Age of Philippine cinema, you could show a Maria Isabel Lopez film at the same time as a Tom Cruise movie, and I wouldn’t be afraid of the Tom Cruise movie killing me! My movies would survive, and I could even say that even my movie would make much more money than him if not equal.
We cannot just say when for the decline of the films and the audience. You could also say the decline of the stars. I saw it happening in the early Nineties, when anybody who was willing to disrobe themselves would be built into a star. It’s cheaper to hire an actress and do these sexy scenes and pay them small money, and spend all the money on promotion. There was a huge turnover of stars. During our time we’d stay in the business for ten years until we were the ones who wanted to get away from it. The offers were coming and we were tired, we wanted to challenge ourselves into doing other things. What happened was the next generation of stars that came out, it was just a woman who was young, willing and able, in need of a small sum of money, and out of that the producer could easily make money by exploiting her, spending the rest of the money on building her up, making her famous, using all the tabloids and newspapers, and after that she would only be good for one or two movies. That was the stage called the Tissue Paper Actresses. You know, a toilet paper – you blow your nose, and then trash them. So there was a decline in many areas. Not to mention we also worked very hard to come up with good movies. People became restless, the audience wanted to see more. So a Maria Isabel Lopez movie – because we wouldn’t go too far, we’d only do sexy films, everything is simulated [in the] love scenes. The younger crowd of actresses were willing to do the real thing. So what happened was, if you have a Maria Isabel Lopez film, and you have a Joy Sumilang movie – she was one of those actresses that did the real thing – people will then watch a Joy Sumilang film.
Now what is going to happen to my producers? We were responsible for coming up with good scripts, good direction, good stars, good casting – in the provinces people wanted more. Man is a creature of habit; when you get in the habit of seeing so much more, what’s going to happen, give them up to here (points to elbow), they want up to here (points to shoulder). So they wanted to see me doing more. So a lot of irresponsible filmmakers in the provinces would insert shots – and this is the reality of the situation – they would insert some shots, just a close-up of “down there”. But it’s not really me. They’ll show an expression on my face, and you could see as a filmmaker it’s fabricated and it’s manufactured. So it went that far, and then people were just not excited any more. It’s not like in the Eighties when people were hardly given something, they were grateful to see a “wet look” or a love scene. And then after that they wanted more and more, and then they got tired.
Working with Bobby, you’re working with one of the toughest directors in town. At the same time you’re working with a friend. And sometimes you need to create the formula of being too much of a friend, and becoming too much of your director. You really get involved in each other’s lives. Working with Bobby was really different, because he’s not doing a film to please the local market. He’s not doing a movie because he needed the pesos. He’s doing a film because he wanted to take the Philippine cinema to the next level. I would say he’s in a very pioneering job, and his sacrifices are just so big. Imagine coming up with local materials, local stars, and having some imports also. At the same time dubbing the movies into Spanish, German language – it’s a very pioneering job. It’s a lot of sacrifice too because we ourselves, we’re not really sure if we’re ready for it, we’re not sure how we will be accepted. But I saw that in Bobby, he was willing to take the risk.
Do you remember the first time you met Bobby?
Meeting with Bobby wasn’t so good that day, it was very bad because I was fighting with my manager. He would knock hard on my bedroom and I didn’t want to meet Bobby, I said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with my manager.” But then he promised that we would sort out our financial problems, so he succeeded in bringing me to Bobby. Even if my eyes were really red from crying, I met up with Bobby, and Bobby looked strict and very rigid, but it was later on throughout the filming that I got to learn that he was really like family. And the bonding begins so close… There was one incident where we all slept in one king sized bed – my co-actress, [Bobby’s wife] Gene, Bobby, like one family. Also he really took care of my shots. The time I worked with Bobby, Red Roses For A Callgirl, it was at the very early stage of my career, so I wasn’t a very good actress yet. But he was very patient with me, really squeezed me to bring out the best in me. And then after doing Red Roses…, Bobby gave me two other scripts. Years after, he gave me The Lady Executioner – he told me this is about a woman who’s doing revenge so she kills people like they’re cats and dogs. So when I went to Japan, the first thing I got was a book on aikido, because he told me he wanted me to learn aikido. I’m not strong with that; I can do action roles, but I know inside me there’s a willingness to learn. Like I did Dune Warriors (1990) for Cirio Santiago, I was Miranda there, I know I get away with it!
After that I became a wife and mother. When my daughter was thirteen he gave me another script. The last script I got from him was entitled The Child Who Saw Jesus Come Down From The Cross. It was supposed to be our first film as mother and daughter. But then the script didn’t materialize also, probably because he was getting sick, there’s not enough funds.
Bobby also helped my career internationally. I was able to do a Japanese movie, he referred me to somebody. It’s really different working with the Japanese because they have doctors on the set to give you the kind of look you need when you are dying from haemorrhage. There were two days of tongue twisting for me to learn the language, because the script was in Japanese. Japan, as you know, is well funded and well equipped. So it was though Bobby also that I got to open my horizons.
When you go to work on a Bobby set, do you notice he’s already several notches above most local directors?
Oh yes, because Bobby, he thinks global. When he’s doing a project he doesn’t really focus on the local market, he’s focussing elsewhere. Red Roses… has been dubbed into many different languages around the world. If you go to his office you’ll see that a lot of the films he makes, he’s done movies with a lot of our great actors here. Bobby’s films are not really magnified here.
Why do you think that is?
Because he doesn’t really focus here. His focus is really outside the Philippines. However Red Roses… was included in one of our local film festivals. I remember we did a motorcade for Red Roses…, I had a photo taken in the car, and the backdrop is my poster. That’s one of his participations in the local market.
The local critics liked the film?
Oh yes, it was well accepted. We had a brief commercial run. However Bobby even chooses the press people that he wants to be associated with. Not everybody, he can play politics with everybody. Maybe it’s the attitude of “screw you, I don’t have to please you”.
At the time, I was the hottest sexy actress in town. I was fresh from my Miss Philippines pageant, I was Miss Philippines before, and so maybe Bobby thought he should release it locally, because I had a large following. And that was during the Golden Years of the Philippine cinema, when people are putting up their hard earned money to see movies. And there was no piracy at that time. I had a great following of fans, and I think Bobby could recuperate money.
Oh they were really fun! I took them to the premiere night of Hubo Sa Dilim [23rd August 1985]. It was one of those days that we were not filming. I told the, “You can come to my premiere night!” I took them to the Manila Film Center, Werner Pochath and Julia Kent. After that I took them to a gay bar! (laughs)
“Welcome to Manila!”
I took them to a lesbian bar. At that time I was in a relationship with a lesbian girl, so I took them there, and they were so funny – Werner and Julia were dancing, Werner’s hand would raise the skirt of Julia so you could see her butt and her panties! They were drawing a lot of attention in the bar. A lot of the gays were scandalized at their presence. First they were foreigners, there’s only one blonde there, and second they were dancing, he was raising… I think they were just playing. They were professional. I bonded with them, that’s why we had a great time.
Then of course there’s Robert Marius, a German guy living in Manila. What do you remember about him, since he’s no longer with us?
I really don’t remember much about Robert, although we played lovers in the film. I would hear Bobby talk about him, that he’s gay. Which at the time I did not entertain; it did not sink into my mind that he’s gay. But Bobby would always make a sly comment that he’s gay.
What are your other memories about the Red Roses… shoot?
We went to Banaue…Bobby left me to a costume with just the beach, show my bare breasts in this beach. My nipples are covered by the beach, he photographed me there. There was a scene where he would let us dance, some scenes that are not in the script. Then we had a love scene. It was photographed by Bobby very gently. I had love scenes in the film where I was a hooker having sex with an Arab guy. When he treated our love scene, it was full of love and gentleness.
When we were shooting out of town, that time I had a gay lover, so Bobby said no partners this time. I said OK, because we’re all going to ride the bus – normally I’d bring my car, bring my driver and my girlfriend, he said, “No, you’re going to ride the bus with us.” But I’m a professional and obedient actress, so at that time we rode a tourist bus from Baguio to the Hundred Islands [a national park on the coast west of Baguio, in Pangasinan] on location.
Our production designer on Red Roses… is Ramon Casenillo. I told you, with Bobby it’s like family. After that I did an American film, and Ramon Casenillo was a production designer. It’s with Larry Wilcox, Mission Manila (1990). The director borrowed my diamond ring so they’ll use it for a scene with an actress wearing it. So I lent a two carat diamond ring, a bonus I got from the film Hubo… When it was borrowed, I told him to sign a piece of paper to release it. Now, when it it was returned, I said, “I was looking for my ring, I’m already almost done shooting, can I have my ring back?” He said, “I gave it back to you.” “Impossible! If you gave it back to me I would have put out the piece of paper and let you sign.” He said he put it in a napkin and put it there on the dresser. I said, “No, it cannot be like that, I didn’t get it! You have to be professional – when you give it to me I’ll get the piece of paper and let you go sign it!” He said, in the napkin… So we had problems already. I was going to sue the production designer, because it’s not very professional. I have all evidence there. But Bobby came in, he said the guy’s traumatized, to the best of his knowledge he gave it back, and Bobby begged forgiveness on his behalf. It was kinda hard, but Bobby came in the middle to talk about the ring that I lost. But what can I do? These are things that can be replaced. On behalf of Bobby I had to let go of the guy, so I did not continue with the court case.
Bobby is a real patriarch figure…
The people who work with him, he’s in concern. He knows the problems the guy was having, so he begged me to give into the guy and let go, and not continue with the case. I still see the production designer, he will work on TV, say hello, and let bygones be bygones. In my case that’s a two carat diamond ring; if you lose it, there are many ways it’ll go back to you. I mean, how can I complain? I’ve been in the business for almost thirty years and my career now is better than ever. When I’m older, I feel I’m much better. That’s why I do not complain.
When I finally broke up with my lover he was happy. He would not tell me, “You’ve got to quit that, you’ve got to stop that…” He would just observe. He’s just accepting of who you are. When I cried, I said, “I broke up with her already!” He said, “Very good.” He’s celebrating for it. And at different stages in my life I became a mom and wife, and my life has changed tremendously. There was a time that he would call me, like maybe get some attention - “Oh, when are you going to come here and visit?” I think those are the days that BAS Films was already in its decline. He would call me one time, “Oh what time are you going to come?” “Yes, I will come.” “Are you going to bring me some lunch?” “Yes, I’ll bring you some lunch. I had to prepare some lunch and bring it there to him. He was getting old, and maybe he was getting broke also. You know how the saying goes – that when you’re getting older, your finances are also not the same like when you’re younger. So I came to visit him with some food, to go out of my way. After two scripts that did not materialize, I knew that he’d probably talk to me about projects he’s thinking for me. But all I need to do is listen, because in my heart, or in the back of my mind, I’m not really sure if these projects will materialize. You know, when I’m there it encourages him. I listen to him because he is planning to make movies, and just getting it out there, that “I plan to do this, plan to do that”, and you give him a listening ear, it already means a lot to him.
He never stopped turning over ideas…
Because that’s how he survived, by working on the practice of filming the next one. So when I’m there, in the back of my mind I don’t think I’m going to do this film. But he will still talk to me about the possibility. The last time I visited there, he gave me again the poster of Red Roses… “Here’s another poster for you.” And then he gave me the script for The Child Who Saw Jesus…
When was this?
My daughter is 19 now; I think at the time she was 13. So six or seven years ago.
He still had the office then.
Bobby II [Bobby’s eldest son] would be in touch with me. He asked me and my daughter to host a pet exhibit called Sophisticats.
See? [In a Godfather voice] “Once you’re in the family, you can’t never leave!”
“OK, I’m going to host it!” I asked, “How is your dad?” He said he’s getting sick. When he passed away [in 2010] I was in the States and was unable to pay my last respects.