Friday, November 6, 2009

On the Set of Virgin Forest (1985)

ON THE SET OF PEQUE GALLAGA'S VIRGIN FOREST by Uro Q. Dela Cruz (from his blog)

Finally found an envelope inserted in the pages of an old coffee table book at home. Inside the envelopes are negatives from 1985. They were pictures I took during the shoot of “Virgin Forest” in Atimonan, Quezon. Peque Gallaga directed the film, I wrote the screenplay and the great Mang Carding Balthazar was the cinematographer.

Here is an article I wrote when Peque received his Gawad CCP 2 years ago:

I first heard the name Gallaga after watching a scene where this mestizo character that I have not seen before in all my years watching Pilipino movies was gunned down in Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. I thought, he is probably from the same theatre community where actors like Burgoses, Rochas, came from. I did not see him again in other films after that. I learned that he was doing production design for Ishmael Bernal for whom I was developing several scripts. But we never met, until he came to the office where I was working to offer me a chance to be an alternate to one of the actors in Oro Plata Mata, his winning ECP entry, for which he was casting at the time. My brother Abbo had been cast a week ago and I wondered why he was asking me –furthermore, I had not appeared in any movie before and I had no intention to be an actor. He convinced me to have a costume fitting at his house. Production designer Don Escudero chose a soldier’s uniform for me and put a tag on it with my name. I started to have stage fright. The actor who was originally chosen to play the role was having difficulty deciding whether to accept the role until the last moment, exactly on the night before everybody involved in the movie was to fly to Bacolod.

As they flew to the jungles of Bacolod, I was left in Manila with nothing but an hecho derecho measurement, courtesy of Don Escudero.

I tried to forget about the whole incident.

And then, in December 1982, the movie was premiered at the Film Center.

From the moment the first bar of Oro Plata Mata’s theme music was heard at the opening sequence until it faded at the end of act one, almost everybody watching its gala premiere 21 years ago was convinced that they were a part of a historic event. That first act alone hinted that it was the end of Philippine cinema as we knew it. It was almost perfect in its blend of cinematic elements –the balance of cinematography, music and sound --brave dramatization of scenes, fresh delineation of characters, irreverent handling of serious issues, and unblinking presentation of choreographed violence never before seen in Pilipino movies. A few critics and film makers who were seated next to me were turned off by the violence and thought that they were the weakest points of the movie. They seemed to have forgotten that they were watching a movie about war. Younger viewers liked it very much and even hinted that maybe, a new age, a renaissance of local cinema was at hand.

Unfortunately, the film spearheaded no such movement. But it started building a body of work from one who will prove to be the most innovative, idiosyncratic, and intelligent Filipino filmmakers. After just one film, he earned the honor to use the tagline “A Peque Gallaga Film”.

I met him again because somehow, he got a copy of one of the scripts I was developing and he offered to option it as his next project. But I promised it earlier to another director. He seemed disappointed.

I saw him next a year later, while Abbo de la Cruz was shooting Misteryo sa Tuwa (another ECP winner) in Mount Banahaw. I was helping out as crowd director and Peque was playing the part of a dead plane crash victim. During lulls in the shooting, we talked and began to know each other. He loved to play games and rode a bicycle around the narrow streets of Lucban. At first, it was hard to reconcile the idea that this person just made one of the greatest films in recent years, and he was playing practical jokes on the set.

Three months after Misteryo wrapped, I found myself working on the script of one third of the first Shake Rattle and Roll series. Meanwhile, Peque was pitching a project to Lily Monteverde, and there was still no word about it. At that time, all the major movie directors were doing sex oriented movies for special screenings at the Film Center. As expected, our proposed project was of the same mold.

Shake Rattle and Roll which was available in the meantime turned out to be relatively an easy shoot. We finished it in just a week. Being a newcomer and an “outsider” to Peque’s closely knit staff (all Oro Plata Mata veterans), I did not have the chance to learn how he really worked. I knew that I was only invited to be with them on location so that I can be consulted on the script when needed.

After the release of Shake Rattle and Roll, Peque called to announce that Regal Films was interested in our turn-of-the-century project.

It was during the making of Virgin Forest, that I learned about the serious side of Peque Gallaga. When he talked about the script, he was all business. Early at that stage, he would talk about how the scoring should be, what filters to use on the lenses –he called the cinematographer to ask his opinion, took a note of that, scheduled the test shoot of Sarsi Emmanuel, arranges for the acting workshop of Pen Medina, new comer Abel Jurado and the stuntmen who would play the Macabebe soldiers. He asked me to prepare scenes to be worked out with the actors during the workshop. (At that time, making actors undergo acting workshops is unheard of. Peque believed that actors must approach a project prepared. In other productions, directors were expected to bully unprepared actors to bring out their best! ) Peque went over period photographs with Don Escudero to finalize production and costume design. These were compared with photographs from the location hunting. And amidst all these, he was preparing for a meeting with Mother Lily in the evening. It was common belief that Oro Plata Mata turned out to be a good movie because ECP gave Peque everything he needed. People looking in thought Oro Plata Mata was good only because it was expensive. With this next project, he would be dealing with Mother Lily, a real producer. Virgin Forest was to be Peque’s first “pelikulang Tagalog”. The producer’s requirement was basic: it had to star Sarsi Emmanuel and Miguel Rodriguez. And even if it was about the capture of Emilio Aguinaldo, its title must be “Virgin Forest”.

Mother Lily finally gave the go signal.

In the next few days, the staff and crew invaded Atimonan beach. Two villages had to be built, one at the edge of a forest, and another near a creek. Several camp sites to be identified within the forest itself. A launch would have to be rigged to look like the ones plying the Tayabas shoreline at the turn of the century.

Peque ran a tight ship. With his staff, he made sure that a judicious schedule is formulated. Everything else is bound to that. It was almost like religion. Every department made sure that no delay occurred in the delivery of every requirement. The training they learned from Oro was applied here once again.

Two days before actual shoot, we sat in a hut in Atimonan beach and he made me read each line of dialogue from the script. He wanted to make sure that he understood them the way I did. And in the next few days, I would see the Peque Gallaga ritual that set him apart from the other directors I have worked with before.

Under the huge trees or at the edge of a brook in Quezon Memorial Park, a protected forest, Peque would sit in his director!s chair and meticulously break down the scene to be shot that day. In his tiny hand writing, he would make a shot list, each entry was preceded with a symbol signifying camera angle and general orientation. Lines of dialogue were cut into fragments that fit into his planned edited version of the scene. And he was set to go.

The actors arrived in the set prepared. Scenes were rehearsed. And then, the fun began. He was most active right before the cameras rolled --making final checks on the costumes, looking out for colors that don’t seem to belong, creatively disarranging things that seemed too ordered, adding an item that looked interesting and intriguing, giving his actors suggestions, reminding them of a moment discovered during the workshop. It all went well that first day. And at the end of the day, I caught him humming an Ilonggo ditty. On other days, it would be a Tom Waits song.

Also, after that first day, I banished my initial image of Peque Gallaga the mad genius whom I initially imagined to be a painter frenetically throwing gobs of paint on a canvas until something that pleases him came out. Peque distrusted artistic accidents. But he welcomed surprises especially from actors who, inspired by the moment, managed to bring out something beyond what was asked of them as in the massacre scene at Aguinaldos’s camp --a marching band drummer reacted by throwing his drum, after an American soldier fired a gun at him.

During the whole shooting of Virgin Forest, he would always be humming a song on the way back to the base camp.

After watching the finished film for the first time, Peque told me that Mother Lily could not believe that that was the movie she produced.

Aside from Virgin Forest and 1/3 of Shake Rattle and Roll, I wrote 3 more movies for Peque Gallaga -- Scorpio Nights, Unfaithful Wife and Once Upon a Time.

He kept his dedicated staff and crew that whole time. And making movies with that community of what we fondly called “the cultural sakadas” was almost not work. I suspected that what kept it going was actually beyond creative passion, it was like a curse which you had to feed and live with.

After about three years of movie making, the tagline “A Peque Gallaga Film could easily be (as it has always been) mistaken to mean movies with torrid love scenes, violence, rough language and gruesome creatures. But only people who set out looking for them made these mistakes. For his real followers, the tagline meant an experience not easily found in other films.

Peque treated all his films with equal care and attention. He made sure that the audience was not cheated and insulted. A horror movie went through the same preparations as did his action dramas. The performances were kept authentic and honest. Care was equally given to technical requirements and art direction. The phrase “pwede na ‘yan” was banned in Peque’s movie set.

Television lured me away from the movies.

I met Peque after more than 10 years since writing Once Upon a Time. Over the years, a few of Peque’s films had been invited to be shown at international film festivals, from San Francisco, Tokyo, Shanghai, France and Canada. In 1995 during a special retrospective of Scorpio Nights in Toronto, Canada, the late David Overbey who was a festival programmer challenged Peque Gallaga to do a Scorpio Nights for the 90’s. I found myself writing Diliryo and working with Gallaga again.

Like a movie gunfighter, he carved a notch on the arm rest of the director’s chair after he finished a movie. Now, it is easy to look at it as a private reminder of personal achievement. But if making film is a curse bestowed on him at the start of his career, the notches can also be seen as a prisoner’s reminder of his time inside a jail he does not wish to get out of.

A lot of people (all cursed) who worked with Peque Gallaga either as Assistant Director, Production Designer, and Scriptwriter have become film directors themselves. They may have learned a thing or two from Peque, the way he admitted learning from Ishmael Bernal (“not how to direct, but how to be a director”), but that is inevitable because Peque is a good teacher. He does not keep what he knows to himself, and always acknowledges lessons he has learned from you and things he has discovered with you during the process of making a film. He always calls to ask your consent whenever he feels that something you have talked about a long time ago could be used in a project he is working on. Decency like this is rare in an industry famous for all sorts of aberration.

I only write scripts for three directors, each of them my personal choice. Peque Gallaga is on top of that list. Even if I had been directing my own movies, for Peque Gallaga, I will always be honored to be his scriptwriter.

It is unfortunate and sad that the Filipino film industry cannot sustain the continuing creative energy of filmmakers like Peque Gallaga who, I believe, still has a number of films waiting to be broken down into a list of camera set-ups and entered by hand into his clipboard. And I am sure there is still enough space for several notches on the armrest of his director’s chair.

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