Eddie Romero: A Genius in Philippine Cinema
[Interview by Pepper Marcelo, originally published on the unofficial Eddie Romero blogsite]
"I cannot separate being an artist from being me. It's an extension of what I am," says Eddie Romero, one of the true geniuses in Philippine cinema, whose bountiful filmmaking career has produced more than 70 films and 20 screenplays, many of which are widely regarded as classics.
Encompassing a variety of styles and genres, from lavish historical epics to low-budget horror movies, Romero has garnered a reputation of crafting high-quality mass entertainment. He is also one of the few directors to break through overseas and work in Hollywood, directing the likes of Jack Nicholson, Burgess Meredith ( Rocky ), and Pam Grier ( Jackie Brown ). Last year, he received the National Artist Award from the
Edgar Sinco Romero was born in
Upon his return to movies after the war, Romero was invited, once again by De
During the late 50's, as the Philippine film studios collapsed due to loss of funds, Romero left Sampaguita Pictures and, along with mentor/partner Gerry de Leon, moved to
Despite having a career abroad, Romero has always viewed himself as the consummate outsider. "I was never part of the
In the 1970's, the breakout of innovative filmmaking talents like Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, and Mike de Leon signaled a new Golden Age for Philippine Cinema with their socially-relevant, critically-acclaimed works. Romero would return and contribute his own masterpiece to this illustrious era: Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?, a sprawling historical epic, which details the country's struggles in establishing its cultural identity dating from the Revolution against Spain until the Philippine-American War, as seen through the eyes of a provincial young man. Unanimously celebrated by audiences and critics alike, Ganito Kami Noon was chosen as Best Picture of the Year by the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, and was eventually cited as one of top ten films of that impressive decade. In 2002, it was selected as one of the best films of the past 30 years. Other notable film projects Romero directed in the wake of Ganito Kami Noon include Sinong Kapiling, Sinong Kasiping; Aguila ; and the P100-million Filipino-Chinese co-production Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi , a stunningly complex, historical period piece set during the 14 th century.
"I see myself as a story-teller, I just want to direct," Romero says, who, still going strong at 79, currently has a project in development. Unlike other filmmakers, Romero never found himself pigeonholed to one specific genre, making numerous classic films in an assortment of narrative categories. His philosophy is to simply create characters and craft stories that interest him and could entertain people, and to not be conscious of limitations. "My perception is that artists can do anything."
Eddie Romero interview with Lee Server
[originally published in Film Comment 1 March 1999, reprinted on the unofficial Eddie Romero blogsite]
THE RAMBUNCTIOUS CAREER of legendary Filipino filmmaker Eddie Romero spans nearly two-thirds of this century, from his first jobs at the imitation-Hollywood studios of prewar
By the early Sixties he had done just that. Forging relationships with independent and exploitation producers like Robert L. Lippert, American International, and Roger Corman, importing faded but still familiar American actors like Jock Mahoney and John Ashley, or fresh-faced newcomers like Jack Nicholson, Romero almost singlehandedly established the Philippines as a popular locale for low-budget, runaway coproductions. As a producer-director, his output included the schlockiest of pulp horrors (Mad Doctor of Blood Island, Moro Witch Doctor), vigorous war stories (Raiders of Leyte Gulf, Manila: Open City - a tip of the hat to his hero R. Rossellini - and Walls of Hell, with its glistening gunmetal photography and scenes of urban guerrilla street fighting reminiscent of Battle of Algiers), and delirious drive-in classics like Savage Sisters (with its stellar cast: Cheri Caffaro and Sid Haig!) and Black Mama, White Mama, a female and topless - variation on The Defiant Ones, starring Pam Grier and Margaret Markov. In addition to his own projects,
Lee: You started writing at a very tender age.
Eddie: I sold my first short story to the Philippine Press when I was 12 years old. First year high school. Maybe it sold because I was 12. Then the next couple of years I kept getting nothing but rejections. By the time I was 14 an uncle of mine started a magazine, a local equivalent of a Reader's Digest. It gave me more training as a writer. And then I began selling short stories fairly regularly.
And you sold your first screenplay when you were still a teenager.
Yeah, about 16. A film director I had never heard of named Gerry de Leon had married the sister of a former classmate of mine, and he read one of my stories. He called me on the phone, asked me to write a screenplay for him. I told him, first of all, I didn't speak Tagalog, I came from another part of the country. He said it was no problem, they could translate. So I wrote it for him, and he took it to the studios, and finally one bought it, and he filmed it, and I believe it was a kind of a hit. That was The Teacher.
Did de Leon know how old you were when he hired you?
Oh yeah, sure. It didn't bother him any. We made this picture and then I wrote another one.
What was the Philippine movie business like at that time?
The studios had been in business for three or four years when I started. They had basic facilities, cameras, editing machines, but everything was old and as primitive as you can get. They had already established a star system like the
Did the public prefer the American imports or the locally made films?
The educated and the upper class preferred the big
The war came along shortly after you started working in the movies.
I wrote some more for Gerry, and Filipino Films, which had been owned by a couple of Americans, the Tate Brothers; they sold it to a Philippine businessman, J. Amado Arenata. I wrote and went back to school at the same time, and then World War II broke out. So for three years both Gerry and I were unemployed. He was in
Then Gerry de Leon asked me to do another screenplay. And I helped out with publicity at the studio, to have a job. After a time Gerry said, "You'll never make a living as a writer - become a director." I said, "I don't know anything about directing. I don't speak Tagalog, and the words I do know are unprintable." He said not knowing anything about directing is no big deal because nobody else knew anything - you learned from sitting in the theaters, watching other movies. So, in '47, I directed my first picture. It was called Unacabena Dios, and that did well.
Many Filipinos spoke English, and there were other regional languages, but the movies were all made in Tagalog?
Yes. There were some films made in English. Originally the founders of the industry were Americans, and they hoped to make some films on the cheap and show them back home. But these films could not get a mass audience at home. More people spoke my dialect, which is nothing like Tagalog. They're all Australasian languages, but I could not listen to a Tagalog talking and understand what the hell he was saying. There were more of us who did not speak it, but the big politicians were Tagalog. The Tagalog were the most politically active, the big general of the revolution was theirs, and the real fighting was theirs. The Mindanaos and others certainly weren't interested. And they were a little uneasy about having a government run by Tagalogs. Very tribal. It hasn't changed all that much. So, yes, the movies were in Tagalog. And the strange thing is I think these films did the most to establish Tagalog as the national language.
How did you go about directing films in a language you didn't speak?
I would write a screenplay in English and my staff would translate it. I spoke English and the crew spoke English our idea of English. And the actors followed the translated scripts.
How would you know if an actor was blowing a line or giving it the wrong emphasis?
That's an interesting question. It was a strange thing. I would say from time to time, "That doesn't sound right. It sounds heavy, or it sounds bouncy and it shouldn't." And they would assure me, no, that is the correct translation. And I would say we had to say it some other way, because it doesn't sound right. And often the actors - and I was using some of the most popular stars in the country - would say, "Wait a minute, he's right. It doesn't sound right." I was listening to the rhythm, the feel. A talent I lost once I learned to speak Tagalog!
You enjoyed directing?
Yes and no. The films did fairly well at the box office and got fairly good reviews. But I knew they could be much better. I was still learning. I made seven in a row, all with a very poor command of Tagalog. And then my father, who was in politics, was appointed Ambassador to
I did meet those great filmmakers. I watched David Lean editing. Fascinating. His whole life was film. He would run the small piece of film over and over again, until it was perfect. And I went to
So I watched these famous film directors, although mostly I hung around with newer fellows who were out of work - like Gavin Lambert, who later became well known. And I would take prints home from the [BFI], and study them and chart them. It was a crash course. And not only that, but when I returned to the
Did your experiences with those worldclass filmmakers in
I had a kind of crisis. I made some more films as I had been making them, and finally I asked myself, "Is this what you want to be doing with your life?" There were questions of whether to go into Congress, maybe do something else. And I answered, "Yes, I want to make pictures. But not these kinds of pictures." I wanted to move forward. I wanted to get better.
By that time my father had moved to
Z movies. And I looked at them and said, "I could do that." I wasn't going to get too ambitious. But I could do that at least. And I began to think, why not make a film that can appeal to both American and Philippine audiences which is a crock, but I didn't know that back then. I did a story about the early American occupation of a Filipino town in the year 1898 when the Americans first came, and about the misunderstandings, and how they get to be friends, etc. I went around with this story and talked to a lot of people. And I began to realize how hard it was to get anything off the ground in Hollywood. I began to think, why not make a film that can appeal to both American and Philippine audiences which is a crock, but I didn't know it back then.
Finally I ran into a guy who knew some people who could put things together on the American side if I could raise the money to make the whole thing. So I came back to the Philippines, talked to some people, and was able to raise the commitments. We had some Philippine people and for the American side we got John Agar, remember him?, Richard Arlen, remember him?, and Myron Healey, and they came over and we made the film. It was called Day of the Trumpet and was also released as Cavalry Command. The first thing I had to do when I got it all cut was to take my co-producer to court to take over the whole production.
We did postproduction in Los Angeles. I was screening it for some friends, and one of them brought Burgess Meredith over to see it. Then we went out for a drink, and Burgess said, "What are you going to do next?" I said, "I've got a suspense thing I want to do." He said, "Can you raise the money?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "I'd like to work in it." I thought, Burgess Meredith wants to work in it? I said, "Burgess, maybe someday I hope we can work together, when I can afford you." He said, "Did I give you a price?" I said, "But ... I have a pretty good idea how much you make." He was making movies, he was doing a weekly television show called "The Big Story," kind of a muckraking show. I said, "Your weekly salary is practically the whole budget for the film." So he said, "Just tell me, what were you thinking of budgeting for the lead?" I said, "Something ridiculous." "Like what?" I said, "Like $2,000 for three weeks." He said, "I'll take it." And he did. His agent wouldn't believe it. But he came over and we did that. And that was the film, Man on the Run, that opened a lot of doors for me.
What compelled Meredith? He liked you, or it sounded like a good adventure, making a movie in the Philippines?
Who knows? But he was a dreamboat. The amazing thing about Burgess at that time ... you know, he liked to drink. And I started worrying about our evening shooting schedules. He hung out at a famous cafe in Manila, called Bayside; he was the king there. When it was time to shoot I would send somebody to fetch him from there. He was literally falling down drunk. We'd get him to the studio, get him made up, walk him to the set. And when I yelled "Action!" there he was, sober as a judge. Letter perfect. What an actor! And probably the greatest reader I ever heard - right alongside Charles Laughton. Could read the phonebook and make you cry. So that was a great experience and we stayed friends forever.
And with that I got some partners and formed a company that became Hemisphere Pictures. We did a bunch of films, and it all snowballed. After awhile my original partner dropped out and we brought in John Ashley. Who just passed away - you know who he was?
Yes, the actor.
And producer. Originally an actor. He came over - I had imported him for a picture called Manila: Open City, about the liberation of Manila - and he fell in love with the place. He said he wanted to keep making pictures here. At that time he owned theaters in Oklahoma, and he got together with some partners. They had what you call "area distribution": you sell the rights to a certain territory, mostly driveins. All those drive-ins are dead now, but once they would have as many as two thousand drive-ins lined up to show the films.
Walls of Hell was a terrific war film. Very violent for the times. And you made such vivid use of Old Manila.
You could do it then, roam through the streets, make your war movies, stage battles. The population was less than half what it is today. Those locations are all gone, you know. People want to find those movies to see what it looked like. All the architects here keep asking me, "You have any prints of those?" Especially Manila: Open City, because that was in color and had even more of those locations. You know, Walls of Hell starred Fernando Poe, Jr. Can you believe that at the time we made that picture he had been the number-one actor at the Philippines box office for three years, and now, 36 years later, he's still number one! He's never missed a year. I don't think any one's ever had that perfect record anywhere in the world, not even John Wayne.
You co-directed Walls and Manila: Open City and some others with your old associate, Gerry de Leon.
We did a lot of things together. It was a wonderful creative relationship because we were complete opposites. He was all passion, opera, and so forth, and I was all laid back and not wanting to make things a big show. Don't let people notice the framing, keep it real, keep the actors believable. And Gerry would be the opposite. For him the actors were puppets.
How would you divide your labors in directing a film together?
We would divide up scenes. I might take care of the dialogue with the American actors. Not that he didn't speak English, but in terms of these performers he represented the old school. His style of acting tended to be broad, somewhat operatic. And of course American and English actors would get goosebumps at that type of direction. So I said, okay, I'll do it, you do something else. He had a wonderful eye for visuals, a very good sense for editing. He was very good with action things.
Did he serve as a kind of second unit director?
Not second unit - he was a co-director. Gerry de Leon my assistant? No way.
I had heard that there were a lot of injuries in action scenes in those days, that actors did their own stunts, that sort of thing.
We had some stuntmen. Now they are better, but for a long time, until fifteen years or so ago when American stuntmen came here and spent some time teaching techniques, they were just gutsy. They would do anything at all, even things that could kill them, and quite a few did get killed. Happily not on my watch.
You supervised or coordinated a number of American pictures that were shot in the Philippines, starting in the Sixties. Flight to Fury was one.
Yes, that was interesting, because I did a Filipino version of it at the same time, which means I added some scenes and changed it around a bit. There is an outlaw in Flight to Fury, who I turned into a hero. And that character was played by Joseph Estrada, who is now running to be President of the Philippines.
Jack Nicholson acted in that one and wrote the original script.
Yes. A pixie. He was way out in left field. You never know where he's coming from. But very pleasant. I told people at the time he was going to be somebody. He had a unique, weird personality. He also had no doubt he would make it.
The American director was Monte Hellman.
Monte. Another sweetheart. A very underrated director. Imaginative, interesting character.
When you were making drive-in pictures for American International and Roger Corman, did they keep a close watch on what you were doing, stick to the approved script and so on, or were you left on your own?
They were exploitation films. You could sneak in a few things. But basically you had to stick to formula. A-I, Corman, even Lippert, they wanted a certain kind of film they could exploit, and for a certain amount of money. They were in it to make a profit and you couldn't put anything over on them. But actually, with me they might have worried that I wasn't spending enough. They would call and say, "Hey, you haven't got enough coverage!" How come? "Well, you shot less than 90,000 feet." They were sure there would be no coverage to edit the film properly. They couldn't believe I was shooting less than 90,000 feet for a 90-minute feature. Actually, I thought I was being rather profligate - I could have made three features with that much film! I told them, "You look at the dailies and tell me where I lack coverage, then I'll do it for you." And they never got back to me again. The budgets were very low on some of the co-productions.
I think you said Beast of the Yellow Night cost $50,000.
But by local standards they were epics. They required much higher standards for the technical aspects.
Some of your horror films have a cult following. My favorites are the action pictures. Black Mama, White Mama is really entertaining.
I'm happy to hear you say that. As far as my own feelings ... Black Mama, White Mama - that film wasn't half bad. There are scenes in there I wasn't ashamed of. But some of those "cult" films, Beyond Atlantis and The Brides of Blood Island the worst things I ever did! Ayyy....
What do you recall about working with the star of Black Mama, Pam Grier?
Pam Grier was the gamest actress I ever worked with. She was willing to do anything -jump off a cliff, whatever! I'd be talking to a stuntwoman and Pam would say, "Oh, I can do that!" Ha! She was very good. And Margaret Markov was very good.
I've heard that Corman would specify exactly how many sex scenes or how many bare breasts a film had to have. Did you have to keep count?
I don't think there was that much sex. Some flashes of pubic hair in shower scenes and so forth, but no real hot sex scenes. The studios didn't want any of that.
Some of your films' jungle settings look pretty rugged. Was it an adventure shooting in these wild locations?
It wasn't so wild. You go into the forest a little. It depends where you point your camera. From the right angle or with a little dressing it can look pretty wild.
I heard a story that you were shooting in the jungle, having problems, and that you called on the local shaman to help you.
Oh, that wasn't jungle, that was in my hometown. I was doing a film called The Day Before Yesterday, about preColumbian life. We didn't have Columbus yet - pre-Magellan. It was about the tribes and the gods they worshiped. Very human gods, petty, quarreling, very intriguing. This was a comedy. Anyway, we had built a village set on the river, with a bridge. Then a storm swept away our set, we lost our generator, and so many other things. Finally, with difficulty, we managed to get everything but the night stuff. It was impossible to shoot our night scenes. I said, "If we could just have one good night!" So then the ticket woman at the moviehouse heard my problem and said, "Mr. Romero, have you talked to the local shaman?" I said, "What for?" "What have you got to lose - you can't shoot."
So we talked to the shaman, and they made an offering to the god - a chicken, a goat, whatever. The shaman said, "Okay. You shoot on Saturday." We got there to shoot at about 6 o'clock on Saturday night. The sky was clear, the stars were out. We shot. We got everything we needed by 4 in the morning. I said, "That's a wrap," and we loaded all the equipment into the trucks. And then the sky opened up, it rained, poured down in buckets. Later, I learned it had been raining all night everywhere but that little spot where we filmed. Pouring down on all four sides of our location. Now if that isn't enough to give you pause. Every time I go through a forest now, I call out to the man in charge: "Coming through now, please."
Were your exploitation films as popular at home as they were in America?
No. We just forgot about the Philippine market. They just ran here for a couple of days. They did nothing in the Philippines.
You went to work with Coppola on Apocalypse Now!. That cost a bit more than $50,000.
I was in overall charge of the Philippine plans for Apocalypse. Coppola shot two million feet of film and took two years to edit. He didn't know how to end it because he shot so many endings. It was luxury I would never even dream of.
Did you get along with him?
Coppola was a very interesting personality. I'm kind of fond of him and he's kind of fond of me. He's a sweet child and at the same time he's a monster. But that's not unique in this business. He kept saying, "Don't ever call me a professional - I'm an amateur." Now, give an amateur $30 million and see what happens! He wanted to use real bodies in a scene. I put the kibosh on that. They weren't thinking of the details. It was just, "Wouldn't it be great to have some real corpses hanging from there! Get the bodies from the funeral parlors." I said, "No way. We have great sculptors, we'll put them to work on it." Besides using real corpses being against the law - I could go to jail! Because you don't sign anything, I do. They complained that people were stealing from them, that Air Force people were robbing them. But with so much money and an organization as loose as that, you were really generating a climate of corruption. What do you think happens when you tell someone in an office, "I need fourteen helicopters" there are only twenty in the whole Philippine Air Force - "and I don't care what you have to do to get them." Then they go back to Hollywood and say, "My God, what a corrupt society!"
It became really unmanageable and eventually I offered to resign. I brought in somebody who was better at providing the kind of services they needed. But they wouldn't let me go until they finished shooting. I was allowed to go out and do something of my own, but they gave me a radio and a telephone so I could be in touch if they needed anything. I wished they had just gone ahead without me and they wouldn't have missed a thing.
What did you think of the finished film?
It was a masterpiece all the way until where Marlon Brando came in. Between you and me, if Brando hadn't been concerned about the script, adding his unlikely dialogue about life, etc., etc., college sophomore philosophy, it would have been a much better picture.
Was it during this period that you decided to return to making Philippine films, with local themes and subject matter?
When we were doing Apocalypse Now! I began to look at some of the local films, like the films of this kid Lino Brocka - who had started out as my assistant. And I saw that a market was beginning to develop for a somewhat different kind of film. So I thought, That's interesting, I'd like to try one. And I did.
Namely, This Is the Way It Was (76)...
Yes. I got the idea for a picaresque story set near the turn of the century, when everything was happening, the revolt was in full fury, the Spanish were getting ready to leave, the Americans were coming, everything was happening. So I set the story against that background, about a guy who did not have a care about what was happening around him but was involved in it anyway. The broad theme was that only fools are saved. That was the theme of Forrest Gump. That was my theme.
Did the hero symbolize the Philippines, as some have said?
No, I hate symbols. I hate messages. I always tell that to young writers: tell the story, forget the goddamn message. If it's good, the message will come out. Don't ever tell the audience, "This is what I'm trying to say." If you feel that way, write a pamphlet. Just tell the story. Stay with the people, make them real, and they will deliver your message. Push the characters into developing a life of their own. I used to nag Lino Brocka about that don't hit the audience over the head. And I think he was getting my point in his last few films before he died. As close as I got to delivering a message was when I did The Eagle, afterward. That was closer to having a theme, but it was universal, not political: when the ex-senator finds his father who has been missing for ten years, and the father says he's not looking for him. he's looking for meaning in his life, "and I can't give it to you."
Brocka and others got into trouble with the content of their films during the Marcos years. Did you ever have any problems?
Never. As long as you weren't overtly against [Marcos], as Lino was. He used to be my script supervisor, and I always treated him well, and he would question me: "Why are you hanging around with these Marcos people? What do you want from them?" I said, "Nothing. They ask me to dinner and I go. I didn't stay around all night. And she's kind of cute."
Imelda? You were teasing Brocka?
Yes, Imelda. He hated her. Lino and I had different ideas of how to live with evil. I'm not saying that I'm right, or that I have a superior moral position, but ... there is a great deal to be lost in taking black and white positions. I'm not that sort of person. I watch, I see what happens around me. And if I learn something, good. I'm not learning for the world, I'm learning for me. Lino would call me a cynic. I told him once, "Look, Lino, Marcos, next year, at the outside, one year and he's gone." He said, "You guarantee that?" I said, "Yes. I guarantee you one more thing too. Nothing will change." He said, "See, you're so cynical - I hate talking to you!" So, about a year later he walks out of the Constitutional Commission to which Cory [Aquino] had appointed him, and we meet in Honolulu, and he says, "You sonofabitch, you were right." I said, "It's us, Lino." Walt Kelly: we have met the enemy and he is us. We have to improve our capabilities for coping, that's the best we can do in this short life.
That guy, girl, whatever he wanted to be called, he had guts. Real guts. We got Lino out of jail a few times. He didn't mind me coming to help him, but Joseph Estrada was part of the establishment. And Lino turned around and cried - he couldn't deal with his enemies coming to help him. And Joseph really pulled strings to get him out. Just because Lino was in the movies. That made him family. You see, we movie people are a tribe here.
You've been doing a miniseries on television and other projects recently. What are the current prospects for the Philippine film industry?
We have had a peculiar situation here. This has been the most heavily taxed film industry in the world. The local and national governments get about 52 percent of the price of a ticket at the box office. In other words, the government makes more money out of the movie industry without putting a cent into it than everybody in it put together. With a market so tenuous, it encourages producers to make only garbage, cheap, exploitative stuff, and discourages them from experimenting, doing anything new or risky. So we're doing the same bullshit films we were doing fifty years ago. And that's not going to win any attention from anywhere. But we are trying to change. There are bills in Congress that will create incentive, giving fifteen or twenty outstanding films a year a total exemption from taxes. That can be a very good thing, encourage risk-taking among filmmakers. We shall see.