Being Celso Ad. Castillo
by Jessica Zafra
(from the Cinema One Originals catalogue, 2010)
In his heyday in the 1970s and 80s, director Celso Ad Castillo was routinely described as a madman, a lunatic, the self-proclaimed “messiah” of Filipino film. It was an impression he did nothing to dispel; he might even have encouraged it.
If Celso Ad Castillo is crazy, then his filmography is a ringing endorsement of insanity. In 1971 he made the sex flick Nympha, which became only the second Filipino movie (after Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan) in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Then came Ang Alamat, also known as Asedillo, one of the finest films starring Fernando Poe, Jr, and Patayin Mo Sa Sindak Si Barbara, still held up as the best horror-thriller this nation has ever produced. In 1975 Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop Sa Balat Ng Lupa introduced Gloria Diaz to the movie audience and ushered in the new wave of bold movies. At the very first Metro Manila Film Festival, Castillo’s film Burlesk Queen won ten of the eleven awards and ignited fiery debates on Cinema. This was followed by Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak, Ang Alamat Ni Julian Makabayan, and the movies that redefined “bold” in Philippine cinema: Brown Emmanuelle, Virgin People, Isla, Snake Sisters.
What is amazing about Castillo’s body of work is that it spans all genres. Horror, sex, action, comedy, social drama, he took on them all, and he delivered.
We had the pleasure of speaking to one of the honorees of the 2010 Cinema One Originals festival.
Jessica Zafra (JZ): Where did your reputation as a madman come from?
Celso Ad Castillo (CAD): From the people around me. I’m just being professional and they are not. I have yet to work with a group of people on a movie that are professionals. Siguro ngayon, sa mga batang filmmaker, meron na, pero sa mga panahong yon. . .
We’d meet together everyday, they’d talk a lot on the set, but the irony is that they don’t talk about the movie. Iba’t-iba ang pinag-uusapang tsismis. So I was the only one who knew what was happening. Nagugulat na lang sila pag nagsu-shooting. They never bothered to come to me and ask. It was as if they were watching the movie while we were making it.
JZ: What about the title, the Messiah of Philippine Movies?
CAD: It all started with Burlesk Queen. I give all credit to martial law. If there is one good thing that came of martial law, it is the uplifting of movies. There was no politics, there was nothing to talk about—unlike today, when every issue has to be discussed. At that time there was no discussion of politics, so even people from Forbes Park were talking about Tagalog movies. There was nothing else to talk about.
JZ: Burlesk Queen was electrifying for so many reasons. Joonee Gamboa was actually making speeches about art. Were those your own thoughts and sentiments?
CAD: That period (in the film) covered my formative years, the Fifties in Manila. In high school at Far Eastern University I saw those stage shows.
I think directing is a matter of taste. If your tastes are classical, that’s what comes out in the movie. If you’re bakya, that’s what we see. Joonee’s character treats burlesque as an art.
JZ: It’s been noted that you use every inch of the screen, there’s always so much going on at once. Do you use storyboards?
CAD: I don’t storyboard. I don’t write the scene, I create it during the actual shoot. It’s different from writing the script and having people follow it while shooting. I create the scene right there on the spot; I am at my best when confronted by the elements. I thought I was a freak until I read that many other directors work this way. I thought I was the only one.
JZ: You’re also known for drawing out extraordinary performances from your stars. How do you direct actors?
CAD: First, I find out for myself how far he can go. We talk. I ask him to deliver the first few lines. Yung character niya sa tunay na buhay, ididikit ko sa role. Kaya niyang gawin yung role, dahil siya yon. Nagbabago ang script, nagbabago ang character.
Remember Burlesk Queen? Everyone was shocked when Rollie Quizon won Best Actor against the likes of Bembol Roco and Christopher De Leon. Everybody was complaining, ang daming kalaban na magagaling. But he acted natural because he was involved.
For me, the best compliment an actor can ever get is to be told, You gave a great performance, it was as if you were not acting. You seemed to be playing yourself. That means he wasn’t acting the role. That is the secret of motivation. I don’t push him. If we keep referring to the script, treating it as the blueprint of an architect, you’ll notice that when you watch the movie, the hero’s choice of words is the same as the villain’s. Because the same person wrote the script. What I do is improvise a lot during the actual shoot. Sometimes I give them the dialogue and ask them to say it in their own words. I just correct them in rehearsal as needed. I believe that the first take is the best because it’s raw.
JZ: Because of Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop Sa Balat Ng Lupa, you are credited with having begun the whole bold movie phenomenon. Was this your intention?
CAD: I didn’t regard it as a sex movie. I became known for Nympha, which came after Uhaw. Nympha was my eighth movie. I said, This is the best time to prove myself as a filmmaker. Bomba movies are inexpensive, producers can take a gamble. They believed that a bomba movie would make a profit. But I wanted to impress everyone. That was my eighth film, and that was after I decided to stop my law studies and take movie directing seriously. I’d heard about Citizen Kane by Orson Welles. I hadn’t watched it, I only saw it later, but I’d read about Welles’s innovations. So when I was doing Nympha I had Citizen Kane in mind.
I hope I shall be able to get hold of a copy of Nympha because it might yet become my Citizen Kane. Nympha was a sex movie but it changed the face of sex movies in the Philippines. Pagkatapos ng Nympha bumagsak na ang bomba. Kasi ang moviegoing public, naghanap na ng ganoong quality.
Same with the kung fu movies. When I did The Return of the Dragon with Ramon Zamora, which became a big box-office hit, namatay ang kung fu movies dahil nagkaroon ng barometer for quality.
JZ: Which of your films is closest to your vision?
CAD: Now that I can intellectualize after having been detached from the movies for a long, long time, I think Burlesk Queen and Pagputi Ng Uwak, Pag-itim Ng Tagak. If we’re talking about realization, I don’t have a movie I consider finished. Every time I wrap up the shoot, there’s always some unfinished sequence.
I can say this now because I’ve watched my own movies. Each of my movies has its own identity and style. You feel the emotion in each scene. Ang Alamat Ni Julian Makabayan is for me a classic because I was able to achieve what I’d set out to do. I wanted a movie that looked like a Fernando Amorsolo movie. Julian Makabayan is a historical movie that slowly becomes a documentary. At the end of it, some old witnesses are being interviewed—the movie has become a documentary, Julian Makabayan’s story has passed into legend. That’s how I fashioned the movie.
I don’t believe that a director should have a particular style for all his movies. There’s only a good director and a bad director. I think I’ve had the distinction, in the annals of Philippine cinema, of doing everything. All genres. I did Ang Mahiwagang Daigdig Ni Pedro Penduko. It’s a fantasy-comedy. I think the hardest movies to make are, one, comedy because you need an instant reaction, and horror. With a drama you don’t notice the audience’s reaction till later. With comedy, if they don’t laugh you’re a failure. With horror, if they don’t scream you’re a failure.
JZ: Have you ever made a movie you wish you could excise from your filmography?
CAD: Ato Ti Bondying with Jay Ilagan, simply because I needed money at the time. I was becoming adventurous, I really wanted to take on all genres. Maybe I didn’t have enough time to do it well.
There was a time I was making three movies at the same time: Tag-ulan Sa Tag-araw, Daluyong At Habagat, and Ihalik Mo Ako Sa Diyos. They were all major movies. It got to the point where I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.
JZ: You were active at the time when Brocka, Bernal, Mike De Leon were making movies. Among your contemporaries, whom do you admire?
CAD: My problem was that they didn’t stick to the real essence of cinema, which was audiovisual. I wasn’t fighting against the corruption of the system, I was fighting for the science of cinema. I wanted to cinematize the movies, make them understood as an audiovisual art.
These young indie filmmakers who go to international film festivals could be the eye-opener for the world to recognize Philippine cinema.
JZ: But most of these indie filmmakers are better-known to foreign audiences than to Filipino viewers.
CAD: Meaning they haven’t reached the zenith yet. They need to study the mainstream. I teach at the Asia Pacific Film Institute, and I always tell my students: Do not make the mistake of thinking that digital filmmaking is one way of getting away from the studio system. That you can simply make a movie of your own, with your own language. It’s elating that you can make your own movie with your own small camera and call yourself a director. But the real joy comes when your movie is watched by an audience. You’re not making movies for your own pleasure. Film is an art that becomes a business when it’s a good movie. It’s not impossible.
Digital is just the technology. You still have to make mainstream movies for the pleasure of the audience.
JZ: You made movies for yourself that the audience came out to watch.
CAD: There’s hope in indie film. I’d like to make one myself to prove that indies can make money. How? Maybe come up with an idea. Like, Bukas Babalik Ang Mga Bangkay. I think everyone would be interested to see that. First you must come up with a project everyone would like to see. Not necessarily a dark drama.
JZ: Do you have a dream project?
CAD: I’m in communication with Nora Aunor. She’s also dying to work with me. I have in mind making a movie with her in America, something for the global cinema. Making a movie for Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao is a big no-no at this stage. We have a very small market. It’s not even 5 percent of the world market.
I have in mind a Nora Aunor movie with American actors. Nora and her teenage American daughter are abandoned by her American husband. They take a road trip from Texas to Los Angeles, like Thelma and Louise, and in LA they have to find a way to make a living. They meet a Latino who looks after them, and they end up in the movement for minority rights. It starts as the drama of a mother and daughter, but it ends big.