A conversation about Filipino action or “goon” films with the goons themselves, stuntmen, character actors and fight directors ROMMEL VALDEZ, BERT VIVAR and DANNY ROJO (with FRANCO GUERRERO) chaired by Andrew Leavold; a round table in a busy Chinese restaurant in Manila 02/11/10
Chinatown is only slightly less dangerous than Quiapo, its tight streets packed with street vendors, hoodlums, cars and tricycles, and of course the old-fashioned horse-drawn buggies lying in wait for Taiwanese tourists. It’s only a stone’s throw from the home of the The One-Armed Executioner, Franco Guerrero, and he’s invited Dani and I to dinner in his favourite Chinese restaurant with his Goon Squad.
Aside from a few lines here and there, Franco hasn't aged since the Seventies, when Bobby Suarez was turning Franco into an international action star. He has the same matinee looks, and exactly the same pompadour; there must be a One-Armed poster locked away somewhere covered in creases and cracks in the ink. Across the table are three of his co-stars: Danny Rojo, Rommel Valdez and Bert Vivar, all stunt guys and character actors – in B films, known affectionately as “Goons” – and all familiar faces from around 1500 films throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the decades which saw the proliferation of a peculiar kind of Filipino action film heavy on stunts and hand-to-hand combat, and with the emphasis on the bad guys (“contrabidas”) and their goon armies. Two hours of hardcore interviewing later and I’ve tapped into the Goons Brain Trust, nailing what I describe to them as “the Essence of Goon”.
Rommel: I am Rommel Valdez, a former movie stuntman, then became a leading man in some of my movies, I started from town, then grows to town to town, that’s how I fulfil my dreams for being a movie actor.
Andrew: And what year did you start in the movies?
Rommel: Oh, I have been in the movies for three decades – Seventies, Eighties, Nineties.
Andrew: What was your first movie?
Rommel: My first movie was Diego Condenado (1972) with Roberto Gonzales, the Karate King. I was introduced there as his second lead in the movie. But it seems that I am the leading man when the movies were finished, because the producer used to build me up to be one of his leading men in his productions.
Andrew: Who was the producer?
Rommel: Charlie Odonez, Gerald Productions. He’s now in New Jersey.
Bert: I am Bert Vivar, I was included in this movie before, I was a member of the Thunder Stuntmen. Then I starred in this movie, when I saw this character actor Bino Garcia…
Rommel: He’s very good looking!
Bert: …he was very good looking before (laughs). Wait til you see his face, this guy! He saw me before, I was a member of YMCA before here in Manila. He says to me, “You want to enter the movies?” “Of course, it’s my dream!” It’s like what Mr Rommel Valdez said, without any money included. So I made a movie with this guy Fernando Poe Jr, with Ramon Revilla Sr. Actually I’m doing a movie now with the King of Comedy, Dolphy. It may be shown at this coming Festival in December. Father Jejemon (2010) is the title and the director is Mr Frank Gray Jr. So I’m happy, I’d already met the King of Action, Fernando Poe Jr, I sing with them, while FPJ was still alive I was doing singing with him, he was very fond of singing, like the song (starts singing) “Smile though your heart is aching…” (the rest of the table starts laughing) That’s part of our life in showbiz.
Rommel: Sometimes crying!
Bert: That’s the logo of our showbiz, it’s two faces – one is laughing, one is sad, crying. So I’ve reached the age of…OK, never mind! (laughs)
Danny: I am Danny Rojo, but for being a stuntman I used to be Sonny Torrente. I used to do jumps in the circus. Do some jumps, some stunts, we called it Cirque de Diablo – a ring of fire, then I’d do turn around and stand downwind. One day the director, the late Armando Garces, used to see my ability for being a stuntman,then he changed my name as Danny Rojo. During that day, because he was going to build up Tony Ferrer. That was 1962, I was contracted by Tagalog Ilang-Ilang exclusively for Tony Ferrer, because I did some karate – I’ve been a member of the Philippine karate team in Seoul in Korea, that was 1968. After that I started from the lowest scenes as a stuntman, and then as double, I doubled almost all of the character actors and all the bidas, the lead actors. And sometimes I used to double the leading ladies!
Andrew: Did you put a wig on…?
Rommel: Sometimes I got to double myself!
Danny: When I was being contracted by Tagalog Ilang-Ilang, I did all the risk jumps of Tony Ferrer. Then I was contacted by one of the producers, also a character actor, Efren Reyes Sr. That was my first bida, lead actor, Brando Maskardo (year unknown).
Andrew: Was that a cowboy film?
Danny: Western, yes. With Efren Reyes, he was my director. But, sorry to say, he passed away because he won a million pesos at a horserace.
Andrew: And dropped dead?
Danny: So for being a lead male actor, it goes down, because my producer is already dead! So I started from stuntman, a double, and at the same time fight director, up to be a character actor, and stayed there. And at the same time there is already an effectman (special effects) during one of the films, and they hired me. “I don’t know how to do that, because you have already an effectman?” “No, the director is requesting you.” So, you’re not going to back out! I made a mirror, it’s meant to be boxed (punched) by a woman. So I made a trick (mirror). And at the same time, during the preparation, the director asks through the headphones, “You ask Danny Rojo to give her some instructions.” So at the same, for the love, and for the sake of art, and the safety of the actress, I was inside, holding the mirror. “When I say, you hit it…” But in spite of that I make some protection on the hand - some iron, then prosthetic makeup, and then she punches like that. So it happened we made good for take one. But I prepared another one for take two, for safety.
Andrew: Rommel, can you tell me more about working with the SOS Daredevils?
Andrew: Where did everyone train?
Rommel: There was a ground here in Manila, just a ground, corpse bones (laughs). Not mattresses, no anything. You just roll there, jump there, dive there, that’s all. They will serve you if you’re good enough, no gadgets for the shooting. Then we do a test, ok you can be qualified to be a member of the SOS Daredevils. They have discipline, they have some by-laws that you have to respect, from producers down. But now, SOS is no more, because it’s now individual stuntmen.
Andrew: Sometimes producers would get two or three teams!
Rommel: But we, we are a team, you can depend on us.
Andrew: You could say that SOS Daredevils, along with Thunder Boys and TNT, these were maybe three out of the five top stunt teams?
Andrew: Who were the other professional stunt teams?
Rommel: Number one was SOS.
Danny: Some of the SOS stuntmen, from stuntmen up to being leading man, came from SOS.
Andrew: So leading actors like Dante Varona…
Danny: Dante Varola, Lito Lapid…
Andrew: Who were the other SOS guys who did well?
Danny: Rommel Valdez! Jing Abalos. Sorry to say, Jing Abalos is here (points to ribcage), Rommel Valdes is here (point to forehead). If you are a young actor, and a lead man, or the bida, you’re going to fight this (points to Rommel). Is it possible that you can fight three big people? I’m telling the truth. So Jing Abalos doesn’t go up further than this (points to ribs again). In TNT Stuntmen, there are plenty being character actors. Ronald Arceo, Stella Marie. Cesar Ramirez, he used to go to TNT for some instruction.
Andrew: Who were the head guys in TNT?
Danny: I used to be the President, before Totoy Torrente. Every year they had a special occasion for the election, who will be the president. I defeated Totoy Torrente. But I do lots of the stunts, I used to be a lead stuntmen in the TNT Circus.
Andrew: With the TNT guys?
Danny: I’d go to provinces. I used to jump through a ring with plenty of blades going towards the centre. Without a scratch. And doing the Cirque du Diablo, a big round with explosions and fire. Boom! Then I’d somersault through that.
Andrew: Who were the guys you could depend on in TNT?
Danny: Totoy Torrente. He used to teach me. He was a character actor, he used to play Japanese officers during those days. He was a little bit smaller than me.
Rommel: He looked like a Japanese.
Danny: Yeah! And he spoke Japanese. Japanese slang. Not real Japanese.
Andrew: Like how “Tsing Tong Tsai” was Chinese gibberish?
Danny: During those days, a director would look – “That is Sonny Torrente!” Then Armando Garces, number one director in those days. The legman, “You phone this number, Danny Rojo.” The legman came here, (I said) “Danny Rojo, that’s not me! I’m Sonny Torrente!” “No, the director gave you this name…” “Which director?” “Armando Garces.” “Okay…” During that time I didn’t know how to write Danny Rojo. I signed, “Danny Rojo”. Then, it so happened I was a lead actor, and my producer won a million in horseriding. He didn’t get his money! The ticket was given to some guys watching! Somebody got the ticket!
Rommel: If you are holding the ticket, you are the one to cash it. You are the owner!
Andrew: Bert, let’s talk about your experiences becoming a stuntman.
Andrew: They invited you to join?
Bert: Yes, I joined them, I was rehearsing one month. First movie I was included with FPJ, Tatak Ng Alipin (1975). I became a friend of FPJ. I was invited by another director, because it’s my dream. I was happy when I saw my face in the movie. Then I continued rehearsing. There are so many jealous about me, because in the movies you’re in good shape. We did our exercises in a cabaret in Makati. Santana Cabaret. At midnight. The floor was much smoother than what Rommel said about the SOS. It was wood, so it was clean!
Rommel: I made a movie titled Itong Panagupa (1974), I am the leading man with Virginia, the wife of Jun Aristorenas. There was a scene there, I was on a motorcycle, I used to jump from the motorcycle to the running track, there are three goons and he (points to Danny) was one of them. I jumped from the edge of the bridge onto the expressway – I did it two times because the first time, the other camera didn’t work. When I was in the air, they yelled out “Cut! Cut!” Then I did it a second time – from the motorcycle, then jumped to the bridge fighting the three goons, still running, then down… I did it because I was the leading man.
Bert: He did all his own moves.
Rommel: During the time. But now I am full of nerves! (laughs)
Andrew: This is before Jackie Chan, before Western audiences expected their leading men to do their own stunts?
Rommel: That was 1975 (actually 1974).
Andrew: It seems like the idea of the stuntman-actor has really been developed in the Philippines, more than any other country. It’s really a Philippine phenomenon before the Hong Kong action films, before the Hollywood films about stuntmen… Why do you think that stunt guys are celebrated in the Philippines?
Rommel: And we are not invited for any kind of insurance! Even if you do a death-defying stunt, no insurance, not even a single centavo. And they don’t want us to be a member of the insurance company. Because they tell us we’re doing it for real, not accident. They tell us, “When you suffered the accident, it comes that you want it. If you are a stuntman, you are doing it for real, for the risk.”
Andrew: Then it would be up to the producer to compensate you?
Rommel: Sometimes, but not all the time. I can assure you that during the time, no strings, no ropes, no gadgets. Super risky.
Andrew: Danny, why were these kinds of action films, with realistic stunts and action scenes, even more popular in the Philippines in the Sixties and Seventies than anywhere else in the world? Why are there 200 to 300 films made a year, almost all of them goon films?
Danny: Because the stuntmen here in the Philippines do it realistic. More real, and without mattresses, cigarette boxes – we can do these stunts. I was doing stunts when I used to double Lito Legaspi, that was an emergency. I was the fight director, and I’m teaching the lead star Lito Legaspi, with Alma Moreno, and at the time the production manager got a double for Lito Legaspi. And I’m sorry to say the double was smaller than Lito. And Lito and I are the same height, and with the same build. Lito himself said, “Why are you looking for a stuntman? He is a stuntman and a fight director at the same time! He can do it!” OK, we changed clothes. “Ready!” No net, no mattress, not anything. I just asked the propsman, “You chop me some coconut leaves. Four or five. Just put them there.” That was about fifteen feet. Because I was being shot by Alma Moreno. So that’s real! I fall down there (smacks hands together) with the help of these coconut leaves. That’s it.
Andrew: Why were the films so popular with audiences?
Danny: Because they love the lead actor to be from the start of the fight, he has been defeated, but he will revenge. And you do some stunts and boxing, fighting, it’s almost real. Almost about an inch (away). Pow!
Andrew: So the audiences love realism, and they love tough guys?
Danny: I used to do stunts with the late FPJ. We was doing with bed made of bamboo and wood, then FPJ told me, “He boxes me. I’m going to jump up to him, then I’m going turn and drop on the bed. You know the audiences, the crew, the cameraman, they all clap. Because they see the realism. The cameraman, the actors and actresses, they see it, they used to clap. Almost an inch, and FPJ had big fists. Pop!
Andrew: Do you remember witnessing any stunts go horribly wrong?
Bert: We were making this movie, the director was Jun Posadas, I forget the title. The cops are running that way, and there is a beach here. Jay Ilagan is the lead man. The stuntman is here, he’s going to jump at the hoop, he falls, he protects the guy. He died. The producer said OK, there is a terrible stunt. We were doing a movie with Chiquito, we’re riding on a horse, there is a mango tree, we passed by there and we had to duck. There was another guy, he’s leading, he hit the tree. He died.
Rommel: The worst stunt I ever saw, it was a movie called Kill… The Carnapers (1974). There was a car chase, they crash into a guard house. There is a guard up there. They were going to hit the middle post of the guard house, with the people on top. There are four posts…so the driver bumps all of the centre. You see what happened to the person? Boom! The stunt guy, crushed to death, on the spot.
Andrew: What happens to a stuntman if he’s killed on the set?
Rommel: The producer will bury him! (laughs) Some money for the family, and that’s OK.
Andrew: I’ve noticed a stuntman can become a leading actor and also a film director. Two of the best known SOS Daredevils to become directors are Eddie Nicart and Willy Milan. What do you think would make a stunt guy a better action director?
Rommel: Maybe you have to study.
Andrew: Maybe it’s a detailed knowledge of stuntwork?
Rommel: Experience… because you’ve done it person. That’s why they become a fight director, a movie director, sometimes leading man.
Rommel: I can tell you it was Roberto Gonzales.
Andrew: Everyone knew this?
Rommel: Yeeees! There was a time when they go to Korea. Tony Ferrer was fighting, but instead Danny Rojo did the tournament. He’s the one. Danny Rojo, am I right?
Andrew: I remember seeing photos of Tony Ferrer as captain of the karate team representing the Philippines. Who was the better karatista, Roberto Gonzales or Tony Ferrer?
Danny: To tell you there truth, it’s Roberto Gonzales. He’s a karatista. Tony Ferrer is an action star. Because I teach him, and at the centre I’m the fight director, at the same time I’m the double. So I double him, and I teach him how to do karate. But he is not a real karatista. Sorry to say. One thing more – this person here on my left, Franco Guerrero, he is one of the international actors. I used to double him, and at the same time, his fight director. In One-Armed Executioner I used to get up the stair with one hand. Then on the top of the fourth floor you’re going to run about four inches straight ahead, outside of the fourth floor!
Rommel: Where did you put your other hand?
Danny: I tied it here (puts his hand down the front of his pants) so I can get my balance! (The entire table cracks up). In one of the scenes, he runs to the top, do a flip, then do some karate. I changed him. I used to double him. But in some of the scenes, he’s the one doing it. Like in the bar, he was sitting there with one arm – I taught him how to do it – “This bit, then this bit…” Then during the take, he’ll do it himself. Anything happens, I’ll save him!
Andrew: You worked with Bobby Suarez on a number of pictures – what do you remember about Bobby?
Danny: Very good. Straight guy.
Andrew: He was making films for the international market, did he have higher standards for stunts and effects?
Danny: He used to get some extraordinary special effects, fight directors, but he knows it’s good. And what is his bright idea, I can give it. Any suggestions, I’m open. So I do it with his idea, not my idea. So we blend together. At the same time, I’m going to ask my actor, if he can do this like that, when he says yes, OK, I’ll do a little upgrade. Then we do it. So we have combined and joined forces to make a movie more beautiful and more exciting.
Andrew: I know Bobby used Alex “Boy” Pecate on several films as fight director – what do you remember about him?
Danny: Boy Pecate is already a karatista. But during the making, I am the fight director. So I don’t mind him being a karatista or anything. But I’m in mind for the good idea of the director. What the director wants, the fight director gives. And you can suggest if you want it - if I’m doing the wrong instruction, you can tell me.
Andrew: When the karate craze was in the late 60s, did you have to learn karate on top of screen fighting?
Rommel: You must have a background of karate, and then you must do more than the cinematic fighting.
Andrew: So there’s real karate, and there’s movie karate? And that’s what the stunt teams are teaching you?
Rommel: If you fight for real in the movies, it’s not good to see. But if you apply it in a cinematic way, you will see the difference. It’s much better looking if you do it in a cinematic way.
Andrew: What is more fun – playing a bida or contrabida?
Rommel: It’s the same.
Bert: For me it’s the same, as long as you are with each other, having a joke with each other.
Andrew: It’s not more fun playing the bad guy?
Rommel: (laughs) The relationship, when you are making the movie, you treat them with respect, like your father and mother, you respect each other, you love each other.
Andrew: All you guys would have been working on hundreds of movies together!
Rommel: We are treated as brothers.
Andrew: This is an extended family?
Rommel: If you have a little problem, they can give you some help. That’s why they say there’s no business like show business.
Franco: We call this (points around the room) the Seven. In this industry there are seven – was eight, one guy is already dead – we belong to different aspects of movie making. We have the director, we have the actor, the stunt men, we are the solid group, along with Tsing Tong Tsai and Romy Nario and Robert Miller. And also the fake Muslim, Usman Hassim (laughs). We are a solid group. Every now and then we meet, even if we are not making movies together. Romy Nario doesn’t move around a lot, he’s already old.
Bert: He used to be the double of Joseph Estrada.
Franco: He looks like Joseph Estrada. He’s also a good stuntman from the SOS.
Andrew: Which is why he’s in all of Eddie Nicart’s films. I’m really interested to know what it was like to see the kung fu explosion in the early 70s. All of a sudden you have local copies of the Hong Kong films. Do you remember when everyone went kung fu crazy?
Danny: During those days, the trend was kung fu. So all of the producers and some of the directors, they wanted their lead actor to know how to do karate. This guy on my left (points to Franco) is a kickboxer. He’s a real player.
Andrew: But he was already a kickboxer. The top action stars needed to learn.
Danny: So then (the producers) interviewed contrabidas who know karate. So combined with a fight scene with him and the bright idea of a director, joining force with the fight director, they make the sequence effective. As for me, I would like to be a contrabida, they know you! When somebody gives you bullshit, you give back harder!
Andrew: It’s a reaction – a violent reaction! Who were the good kung fu guys in local cinema?
Danny: Ramon Zamora, Robert Lee, Rey Malonzo.
Bert: There was also Bernard Belleza - he’s passed away already.
Danny: Belleza! Bernard Belleza is also a real karatista. I used to fight with him in tournaments.
Andrew: Was he a karate guy first, or an actor who learned karate?
Danny: He’s a real karate (guy)! He can break three hollow blocks like that. He can break them with his foreheads.
Andrew: So Roberto Gonzales and Bernard Belleza were the real deal.
Danny: And Mr Franco Guerrero!
Rommel: What about Trovador Ramos? (laughs)
Danny: Trovador Ramos. He told me during those days he was a 14th Dan. And I’m dalandan! (Tagalog for a type of orange) I’m bigger than him!
Andrew: But the posters said he was. And I believe them.
Rommel: I did a movie with him, we were the two leading me. The title was Red Belt Masters (1974). It came fourth in the Metro Manila Film Festival at the time. A stuntman, and a 14th Dan Blackbelt! (laughs) That was the billing.
Andrew: I remember seeing the MMFF lineup at the time, and half of them were kung fu films. I think that says how popular kung fu films were at the time. And everyone was saying that Ramon Zamora WAS the Bruce Lee of the Philippines. But he’s a dancer! What was he like as a screen fighter?
Danny: Like Tony Ferrer, because I used to double Tony Ferrer.
Franco: Tony Ferrer is a good dancer. And Ramon Zamora.
Bert: They have good movements. And Rey Malonzo, we used to have movies with karate, I used to be the fight director.
Andrew: It seems like there was a time when everyone agreed Ramon Zamora was the Bruce Lee of the Philippines, and then at some point Rey Malonzo became the Bruce Lee. Who should have been the King of Kung Fu?
Danny: During those days, Ramon Zamora is the one. Second is Rey Malonzo. In real life? They’re nothing. Like Tony Ferrer.
Franco: Tsing Tong Tai!
Danny: Tsing Tong Tsai is a fighter. Kung fu.
Andrew: He’s a genuine?
Danny: Genuine. And the guy on my left, genuine. I’m second to him! (laughs) Because I was there, they were using only my name, and you will not see me in the movie. Because I’m the fight director! Then I used to be a director, but you will not see “Directed by Danny Rojo”. No. “Dante Varona”.
Andrew: Why “Dante Varona”?
Danny: Because he is the producer, and he is the bida! (howls of derision)
Andrew: Tell me more about Dante Varona as a performer.
Danny: Dante Varona is a stuntman.
Rommel: SOS Daredevils also.
Danny: Dante cannot do some fight scenes without me. At the same time I was the director – the name I’m using is “Dante Varona” (laughs). And the producer, his wife. I do the best, for Dante.
Andrew: How good was he?
Danny: For being an actor he is very good. For being a stuntman, he has to get a double. He cannot stand in for himself. He jumped the San Juanico Bridge (for the 1981 film Hari Ng Stunt/“Stunt King”) – I was to have jumped there, because it’s dangerous. “Danny, what are you going to do on the bridge?” “You get four boats and a net, and you make a net underneath.” Then I was left behind. They get only the idea, you see what I mean? I would not do it if you don’t have four frogmen underneath. Then I told him, “You cannot jump there. You will only risk your life because you don’t know how to jump.” It’s so lucky that one of he was bumping his head.
Bert: When he came up the blood was coming out.
Danny: The nose, ears, mouth… I told him, “If you jump like that, jump straight. In mid-air, you bend your body, then head.” What did he do? He jumped straight down. The water hit him. It’s so lucky he wasn’t killed by that.
Andrew: But he wanted to be seen to be doing it for real. No matter what happened.
Danny: He’s so lucky. No frogmen, no net, only bunker.
Andrew: You guys have played goons before. What does it take to be a good goon? What is the essence of “goon”?
Rommel: You have to listen to your director. If the director tells you, “You must act like this”, that’s the first thing. Because if you do your own gimmick, the director will tell you, “You’d better go home. Because I’m the director, you must follow me. I’m the captain of the ship.” Sometimes you must be good in timing when it comes to fight scenes. Timing is the most important when it comes to fight scenes. Because if you are out of tune…
Bert: Like singing.
Andrew: So it’s like being a member of a basketball team? You all have to move as one?
Rommel: Yeees. You must follow the coach to win. And especially you have to wear your nice outfit. To be a good bad guy, you have to be seen to be an opponent of the good guy. We’re the bad guys, we have to wear nice outfits.
Andrew: Not just a t-shirt and jeans?
Bert: And the facial expression.
Rommel: You have to study at home. You must face the mirror (goes through a series of grimaces).
Andrew: Is that why a director will hire an entire stunt team – because you guys all work so well together?
Bert: Because we are in a routine together already. “So you know what you’re going to do – you’ll hit Bert…”
Andrew: It means quicker, faster…How long is a typical action movie shoot in the Philippines?
Danny: It depends upon the producer. If they have any suggestions you have a conference, the idea of the director and the fight director, they can compute it. Can you do it for fifteen days? The most time I did, I shot it for twenty days, day and night. That’s the maximum.
Andrew: Some cheaper producers might try to get it down to fourteen days?
Danny: We can adjust it. Because some of the actors might say, “I’m not available on Monday…” The director and assistant director can adjust. But if all of the available actors and actresses will be on the same set at the same time, you can finish it in fifteen days. I used to make them in fifteen days – with twenty horses! In Antipolo. Rancho …. We used to rent houses so we stayed there.
Andrew: Until five o’clock in the morning.
Danny: No. Seven o’clock on set. Sunshine, then up to eleven at night. Then resume 1pm sharp.
Andrew: That’s still a gruelling shoot.
Danny: And we would use three cameras. One full shot, and one point of view, all running at the same time. You’d have a rehearsal, you’d say your lines on the full shot – this camera rolls from the start. Then left camera will start when he asks his question. This camera (right) will be your closeup. When you’re going to answer, this camera will roll. This cameraman had to cue from the lines.
Andrew: So they’re not wasting film?
Danny: No. It’s already edited. It’s different now, because we have the new cameras, we don’t see the editor, the laboratory, we just rewind.
Bert: Using this film, 35mm.
Andrew: It was all shot in 35mm?
Bert: Yes. But now it’s digital, so you can just shoot and shoot. Not like before.
Andrew: How long would post –production take…?
Danny: The fastest takes about two weeks. Dubbing, scoring, editing, at the same time. It’s a finished product.
Rommel: His kind of style, he’s more in cinema fighting. Not like Roberto Gonzales, a real karate fighter with cinemamatic...I did a film with Chiquito, the title is Rocky Four-Ma (1986). The format of the movie revolves around boxing. He was a boxer, I was a boxer, he used to beat me. I am “Kid Valdez”, my name in the movie. They show our exercises, and when the fight comes, of course he will win, I am only the villain. I cannot hit him because the picture of my wife is on his chest!
Andrew: Who were your favourite co-stars?
Rommel: The comedians, we were happy to go with them. If you want to be happy, you join the comedian. Even when you are drinking and you have two comedians there, all you do is laugh!
Andrew: In the Philippines there’s the Goon Comedy. A comedian like Dolphy would do a comedy film with lots of serious action.
Rommel: So Dolphy has two special deals – comedy and action – while the serious ones only have one. Like Tony Ferrer, he will never do a comedy. That’s why maybe Dolphy is more attractive…
Andrew: Broader. Those films work on two levels.
Rommel: But they have the same income when it comes to box office. People patronize their movies because they like serious action, action comedy. The same income, the same record.
Andrew: Every genre has a spoof – and they all have a Dolphy or Chiquito spoof. It’s almost expected that a successful film will have a parody.
Franco: Like Palito, Rambuto (1986)!
Rommel: No Blood No Surrender (1986)…
Andrew: James Bone (1986)!
Rommel: Palito does that also, a comedy and an action. A two-in-one movie!
Andrew: It’s confusing overseas – people see Palito, then an M-16, and it doesn’t make sense!
Rommel: It’s to entertain. It’s entertainment.
Andrew: So Filipinos love their comedies, and love their action films. Stick them together – BOOM! So at some point the action films start dropping in number – when and why?
Rommel: Number one reason is the piracy. That’s why all the big action stars lose their jobs, their idols for so long. They can no longer do their usual job as leading man. Fernando Poe Jr’s movies got pirated… So that is the first villain. Who is going to produce their movies? We are planning now to go back. Maybe we can make a movie, not only intended for the Philippines. You can have a comeback!
Andrew: And you learn from the past, from those guys like Bobby Suarez, who thought big, not just Metro Manila and the provinces.
Franco: If you reach India it’s a big market.
Andrew: Think America. Europe. Think big.
Franco: OK, never mind if we have so many pirates in the Philippines, we have so many other markets.
Andrew: You know, piracy is a terrible thing… (I take out a plastic bag filled with pirate DVDs from Quiapo) Rommel, when did you feel like the action movie roles were drying up?
Rommel: 1996, ’97… That was the year.
Andrew: What were being made instead?
Rommel: When that happened, most of the producers don’t go into producing anymore. There is no ROI – Return On Investment – anymore.
Andrew: So who do you have back then – Regal?
Rommel: Regal, Seiko and Viva. In the 90s, they are the only ones still doing movies.
Andrew: But not action films?
Danny: Not any more. That’s why all their old actors are working in television. No more movies.
Andrew: And they’re not like the old action stars.
Franco: They don’t even know how to punch! (laughs)
Andrew: Danny, when was the last time you were actor, fight director… How busy are you know?
Danny: I used to do some teleseries on ABS-CBN, as special effects.
Andrew: I guess there’s lots of fantasy series?
Danny: Yes, doing with harness, horror movies, like going up in mid-air.
Andrew: That’s what is popular now?
Danny: Not really popular. It depends upon the scriptwriter and the taste of the director.
Andrew: But that’s what work you are getting?
Franco: After all those experiences…all that expertise. It’s no longer there.
Andrew: What about you, Rommel? When did you stop?
Rommel: I stopped working when I suffered this heart enlargement. My liver, my lungs, all my major organs gave up, so I had to have my open heart surgery in Europe, two valves were replaced, my liver was full of water, my lungs, and I thank God I’m still here, hoping to make another movie. And I’m still praying for the time I wake up, “We have a movie to do!” I miss the atmosphere doing movies, you can’t buy that kind of experience.
Andrew: Dream jobs! And what about you, Bert? Other than the Dolphy film, when were your last projects?
Bert: As long as there are offers, OK. (Starts singing again, and the table cracks up once more)
We leave MXT Restaurant flanked by the Pinoy version of The Expendables, and Dani and later agree will never feel more bulletproof in Manila. Half an hour later we’re in a karaoke bar in the red light district of Malate watching Franco crooning Englebert Humperdink. Rommel trots out “I Can't Help Falling In Love With You” while Bert conducts the Doo-Wahs, to the toughest audience on record.