DIRECTOR PAOLO VILLALUNA’S LUCKY T-SHIRT, THE NUANCES OF BALL-SHAVING, AND LOVI POE IN TEARS:
THIS IS NOT A STORY ABOUT THE MAKING OF A FILM
I met him on Good Friday, over a year ago. There were studs at the corner of his left eyebrow, and a pixie tattooed at the side of his neck. He paid for my fudge sundae, spent several long hours evaluating the sexual performances of his various exes, and told me quite frankly that my nose was not cinematic. He also had what looked like a footprint smudged into the back of his T-shirt.
I forget now how many of his dozen or so exes were women, but I remember that footprint. Paolo Villaluna, the independent filmmaker who won his first Urian Award at the age of 21, whose second full-length feature, Selda, had Juno scriptwriter Diablo Cody in tears at the Thessaloniki Film Festival over the “absolutely beautiful film,” and was the reason why jury head and The English Patient author Michael Ondaatche bemoaned the fact that “a very powerful film” from the Philippines was shot on video instead of film, is also a man who regularly uses the shirt off his back to scrub the wood floor of his second-floor apartment with seventy-percent isopropyl alcohol. As he owns a total of fourteen shirts—mostly festival freebies—it is rare to see him in public without some well-intentioned friend making futile attempts to brush dirt off his back.
He is not certain how old he is; he could be thirty or thirty-one. He believes in aliens, and spaceships, and considers the star-crossed affair between Mulder and Scully in The X-Files the greatest romantic tragedy since Romeo and Juliet. He swears by generosity of fate, and in a universe that will conspire for the sake of a five-foot-five-inch filmmaker who has a smirking miniature devil from The Nightmare Before Christmas watching from the edge of his editing suite. As I have spent the past eleven months producing and writing a television show with him, I have, at Paolo’s insistence and against my better judgment, been compelled to kiss the thumb-sized plastic devil during the half-mad moments when his aging equipment breaks down minutes before our show is due to air.
One Tuesday in September, a little before eleven in the morning, I use my keys to walk into his apartment. It is the first day of shooting for his third film Paalam. He has already taken a shower—essentially exorcism for the man who has had the same small bottle of shampoo in his bathroom for almost a year. He has shaved his chest. He has shaved his balls. He claims both are part of shooting-day tradition. Although he owns three pairs of underwear as a concession to plane trips—on the off chance he is strip-searched in airports—none of the three are in evidence today as he bends over his hamper in one of his two pairs of jeans.
He pulls on a thin gray-blue T-shirt with a hole on the sleeve and two small holes at the back. This, he says almost reverently, is his lucky first-day-of-shooting shirt.
The same faith in tradition is evident in his filmmaking. His films have none of the bouncing cameras and jagged editing that many believe characterize independent filmmaking. Every shot is a study in both excess and restraint: the soft fold of a blanket, a shadow on a shoulder, the rough edge of a scream. He may be one dolly track away from the brink of madness, but to watch him on the set is to watch a man in love.
His people know this, know that Direk Pao—the same man whose every other sentence is punctuated by thoughtful reflections on the various activities that can be performed by hands, nipples, tongues, penises, pussies and the random stray dog—is brutally serious when it comes to his films. Caloy Santos, the big laughing man in moccasins that Paolo recently hired as his assistant director, says that shooting with Direk Pao is like shooting a two-hour television commercial, with sequences shot as if millions are riding on every second of airing.
Paolo also scratches his balls when shooting.
Paalam is the final film in the love trilogy Paolo directs with Ellen Ramos, whom he met while teaching in the Estrada-established Mowelfund. Ellen is in her early forties, a licensed architect who specializes in animation. Their first film was the critically-acclaimed Ilusyon. Funded by Viva Pictures, the company allowed Paolo and Ellen full creative freedom, on the condition that Viva’s own voluptuous Maui Taylor play the lead. Paolo gave her an audition, but changed his mind when he saw her in costume. He said she looked like President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in drag.
Jaycee Parker was at the bottom of the Viva pecking order, but hers was the sort of cinematic face Paolo had in mind. He did not choose the statuesque half-German Jen Rosenthal. It would have been difficult to shoot her, he says. “She looks like a man. If your brain keeps trying to figure out if she’s a man or a woman, it messes with the story.” He looks at me earnestly. “But I do want to cast Jen, I have this dream project. She’ll play a transvestite man. I already have the treatment in my head. Trust me, she’ll win awards.”
Selda, his second film, produced by talent manager Leo Dominguez, landed across-the-board nominations in all categories in Thessaloniki, made festival history by landing a Best Actor tie for Sid Lucero and Emilio Garcia, and was the first Southeast Asian film chosen in main competition at the Montreal Film Festival.
Paolo lights another cigarette, walks to the front door, pops three different locks and reaches past a gray cat for the pair of battered sneakers sitting on the stair landing. He drops to the floor, shoves his feet into socks and talks around the cigarette.
“We’re lucky with the reputations Ilusyon and Selda have. Dennis Trillo was interested in Paalam, but it was the schedule—and the manager probably didn’t like the five-thousand-peso talent fee. It was the talent fees that killed us in Selda.”
Paolo had sunk what constituted his life savings into the film, borrowed from Ellen and several other friends, and used real convicts to play parts when he couldn’t afford to pay extras. They cast mainstream star Ara Mina for her marquee name, and also because she wanted the role badly enough to waive her talent fees—a lost cause in the end, because her manager eventually charged thirty thousand a day for his own fees.
Emilio Garcia, one of the male leads, chose not to be paid at all. The unassuming Garcia, whose career as an action star was slowly coming to an end before Selda, is now being touted as the new king of the independent cinema.
Paolo checks the time. Looks out the window. Picks up his phone. His voice is almost apologetic.
“Mommy Berns, where are you guys? The actors are already in Cainta.”
Everyone is Mommy or Papa to Paolo. Bernice Ilagan, his production manager, the small, smiling girl with bangs and braces and a belt bag perpetually slung over her hips, is officially Mommy Berns. His director of photography, Manie Magbanua Jr., who also mans the first camera, is Papa Manie. Assistant director Caloy is Papa C. His second assistant director Raymund Amonoy is Papa Rayms.
The van pulls up a few minutes later. Paolo clambers up and yells a greeting to his crew. The crew yells back. Raymund hands him the script on a clipboard. The script is not yet finished, and Paolo has no idea how he wants to end the movie.
Paolo calls out to Manie, who is sitting shotgun beside the driver.
“Papa Manie, how do we get a crane up to Baguio?”
Manie scratches his head. “We need a crane?”
“There’s one shot I need a crane for.”
Mommy Berns’ shocked voice rises from the backseat. “Direk, we can’t afford it!”
“Take it out of my pay.”
Papa C leans over and pats Paolo’s shoulder, the indulgent father to the slightly stupid son. “Direk, you never get paid.”
Manie grins. “Already your third film Direk—and all you have are debts.” Paolo shrugs philosophically. “If that’s the case—”
“We’ll just add the crane.”
The van breaks out in laughter.
The set is in Paolo’s family home. The garage is crowded with catering paraphernalia, sweaty-shirted men, piles of paper plates and Paolo’s soft-cheeked niece toddling about in her school uniform. Inside, the floors are chipped linoleum. A rack crowded with men’s button-down shirts is shoved behind the front door. Rust stains streak the ceiling.
Paolo calls the cast and members of his production team to the dining room. Ellen stations herself behind him, in loose black pants and a white T-shirt, a towel over one shoulder. Lovi Poe, daughter of Philippine cinema’s local king, Fernando Poe, Jr., stands quietly at the foot of the dining room table, curly brown hair still wet from a shower. Joem Bascom, who plays her boyfriend in Paalam, sits beside supporting actor Jake Roxas, who had just very sweetly told Lovi’s five-foot-eleven gay makeup artist that he resembled Lovi. Ricardo Cepeda, the big man who plays Lovi’s father, takes one final bite of his lunch on the Villaluna dining table, clicks his utensils together, crosses his arms, and sits back to listen.
Paolo shifts from foot to foot. He introduces himself, introduces Ellen, and plays the trailers from their last two films on his laptop. He talks about how many see independent filmmakers as exploitative, “that our work is ugly.” He says that he and Ellen are different. He says that he believes his actors have a right to contribute dialogue, that the story is fluid, and that he believes there is no point in filmmaking if there is no enjoyment process. Now the knee jerks, now the hand with the lighted cigarette drums on the table, now he bounces on the balls of his feet. Around him the air almost glitters, a near-rabid light in the eyes behind the black-framed glasses. Then he grins, tells the actors to have fun, then catches Ellen’s eye. “Ellen, let’s do this.”
He walks into his old bedroom. Joem Bascom is stripping down to his boxers. It is a scene where he trims his pubic hair.
“Papa Manie, we’ll use a green tone here. Who has cigarettes? Do we have a supply of cigarettes?”
Papa C calls out for cigarettes. Papa Rayms carries an emergency supply at the side pocket of his cargo pants. Paolo lights up and starts pacing. He walks out to the hallway and calls for a towel. “We need a towel for where his pubes will fall.” Papa C raises an eyebrow.
Paolo shrugs and grins. “That’s how I trim.”
Papa C suggests tissue. “That’s how I trim.”
“Is that how little hair you have on your balls?”
Laughter. More conjecture on Papa C’s pubic hair. A towel is found.
“Ellen, standby.” They walk into the next room, where a monitor has been set up.
“Camera rehearsal—and action. Dolly out. Joem, sit. Vince, start rolling, we can use those moments. Joem, you’re listening to rock music, move to it. Tilt up, Vince. Pull out camera. Cut. Widen the shot. One more time, I don’t want to see his face here.”
The introduction scene for Lovi Poe begins rolling at seven in the evening. The scene is shot in Paolo’s sister’s bedroom. With the exception of the two cameramen and the two assistant directors, the entire crew is packed into the balcony just outside the bedroom. On the monitor, the camera pans slowly: red-painted toes, the long line of leg, the short orange skirt, the slope of hip and dip of waist and the soft curve of breast above the low neckline. She turns, faces away, her curls fanning out over the pillow just when the camera is about to reveal her face. When the camera shoots her in profile, Paolo leans close to the monitor. “Fuck, look at those lips.”
After the next sequence, he cuts. Follows the line of her leg on the monitor with his finger. Shakes his head. I lean closer; I see nothing.
Bernice is worried, there is a ten pm shoot scheduled at a hotel, and Paolo is far from packing up. Adjustments are made. Manie shifts lights. Paolo stares at the monitor. Calls out directions. Tilts his head. More adjustments. Iced coffee is handed out. And then I see it on the monitor, an infinitesimal change, the barest of shadows that moved a quarter of an inch.
“Beautiful. I love you Papa Manie!”
When the camera rolls, the silence is thick. All eyes are on the small monitor. And when Paolo gets his shot, when Lovi looks over one polished shoulder to her reflection on the bedroom mirror, when the light nudges her hair and the camera picks out excitement and fear in her eyes, when Paolo yells cut with the look of a boy after his first orgasm—it is the only time I come close to understanding why his eyes look the way they do whenever I see him forced to wrap up a shoot without adjusting that quarter-inch of shadow.
Later, Ricardo Cepeda meets me at the bottom of the stairs and tries to sell me colostrum from female New Zealand cows. “It’s been earning millions. It’s for cuts and wounds and scabs and even cancer. It’s for everything. Let me give you my card.”
I talk to Leo Dominguez about his directors. Leo is Paolo’s shaggy-haired film producer, a tall, pudgy gay man in Tommy Hilfiger with unkempt shoulder-length hair, a scraggly mustache and a high, soft voice. He had produced Selda because he liked Paolo’s work, and had been the bridge to Jacky Woo, the Japanese producer who is backing Paalam on the condition that he star in it.
Jacky had come to the Philippines with the intention of cutting an album, and decided to make a film. Jacky likes Paolo, because he is good. Jacky likes this film, because it is dramatic. He is dressed in a purple silk shirt and slim black pants. In a few days, Jacky will play a villain in Vic Sotto’s reunion movie, Iskul Bukul. He has already starred with GMA7 darling Jennylyn Mercado in his self-produced The Half-blood Samurai. He calls himself a producer-director-actor.
I ask Jacky why he is shooting in the Philippines.
“I have a Chinese film. I have Japanese films. I have a Korean film. I will have another Chinese film.” Why the Philippines?
“Because I have in other countries.”
In Paalam, Jacky Woo plays a dying man in his late forties. One of the scenes, a first encounter between Lovi Poe and Jacky, has Lovi telling Jacky she is eighteen. She asks Jacky how old he is.
In the original script, Jacky tells Lovi he is forty-eight.
Jacky refuses to say his character is forty-eight. A pre-production meeting between Paolo, Jacky and Jacky’s interpreter leads to a compromise.
Lovi / Maria: I’m eighteen. How old are you?
Jacky / Yoshi: I am older.
When the cameras roll, Paolo says Jacky’s makeup is too thick. Ellen agrees, suggests that they remove the eyeliner. The makeup artist sponges the skin beneath Jacky’s eye. She shakes her head.
Jacky Woo has blue eyeliner tattooed under his eyes.
Since mid-year, Leo had been following up on Paolo’s promise to direct a third film. Paolo came up with a concept, but it was months before Leo understood that the director he praised for making “big films” that “did not look indie” had no intention of putting a script together. When the offer came from Jacky, it took weeks of missed calls and broken promises until Leo managed to get the sequence for Paalam written—accomplished by standing over Paolo’s shoulder for eight hours in a Robinson’s Galleria coffee shop.
Leo thinks for a moment when asked about Ellen. “Ellen is Paolo’s better half. When Paolo doesn’t answer his phone, I call Ellen. When there’s a problem already, and I’m mad, I usually talk to Ellen.”
Bernice cuts the interview short, herding cast and crew to another hotel floor. The crew had been fined for breaking the no-smoking rule again.
Paolo protests by smoking another cigarette.
In the Cainta set, the crew is petting a mongrel puppy Manie found at the back of the house. Paolo is asleep on what is intended to be Lovi’s bed, while the art department steps around him hanging bolts of black material. Ellen wanders around asking if anyone can spare a bra that can be hung from the back of a chair in Lovi’s room. Paolo wakes up, and discusses with Jake and Manie the relative sensitivities of their respective nipples. When the set is ready, there is a quiet shifting into order. The man who had been bouncing around the bedroom with a long pillow held to his crotch, gleefully announcing he had two dicks, is suddenly in control of every square inch of set.
Lovi sits by her bedroom window, pretending to shave her legs for the twelfth time. There is sunlight in her hair, courtesy of two spotlights handled by a man balanced on a water tank outside the second floor window. In between takes, Lovi laughs. She has a press conference in an hour and does not feel like going. She says that her role here is very different, that everything comes as a surprise. She giggles when Paolo suggests she pose for an FHM cover. Papa C tells Paolo that Lovi needs more time to grow up. Then Papa C looks at Lovi. “Is an hour enough?”
This film, she says, “is a good different. My manager told me to just trust Direk Paolo.” Leo is her manager. Lovi’s smile is guileless. “I want to be an actress, not a star.” The line may have been said by a thousand other actresses before her, but from this beautiful girl with the long legs and bright, bright smile, it cannot be said any other way.
Jake Roxas wants to win an award. He feels he can win awards, because among his many and varied talents, Jake can cry on cue. He reassures Paolo that he will share his glory with his directors—something he faults Paolo’s award-winning actors for neglecting. Jake asks if he can finally cry—a question he asks at nearly every scene ever since Paolo told him his character does not need to cry.
Paolo smiles, and tells Jake again that no, this is not a crying scene.
When the camera rolls, tears form at the corners of Jake’s eyes. From his monitor across the hall, Paolo picks up the walkie-talkie. “Papa C, tell Jake not to cry. Please, please tell him not to cry.”
Very much has happened since Paolo yelled his last “Cut!” in a Cubao bus station when Paalam wrapped in October. The film was first X-rated by the Movie and Television Review Board for a fellatio scene, and general thematic content. Paolo’s response made a cover page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Entertainment section. “We are not hacks who make run-of-the-mill films,” he said. He doubted that a board that “had passed prurient films in the past” could “tell the difference between good and bad movies.”
The X-rating came at the same time Leo Dominguez had splashed photos of Paalam in gay web sites across the internet, the sort of sites that Google flags as “objectionable” and whose banners show naked men with throbbing penises.
“Watch out for the gay love scene of Jake Roxas and Rico Barrera in the upcoming film Walang Hanggang Paalam,” screams the sites, with a disclaimer that “This is not a gay film.” The photos show a half-naked Jake Roxas kneeling between the legs of Barerra, an equally half-naked minor character in the film. Leo’s justification was that he needed to hype the film among the gay community. Paolo’s response was that Paalam is not a gay film, that if Leo wanted a gay film that would rake in money, he should have hired another director.
The film, which culminates with Jacky Woo’s realization that his teenaged lover is his daughter, is what Paolo calls “simply a love story.” It was a phrase that sent former MTRCB chairman Manoling Morato into a rant against independent filmmakers, all of whom, he says, are uneducated, without talent, and are in the business because the technology is cheap and the money is good. This is the same MTRCB chairman who banned Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ for blasphemy, tried to pull out Dear Uncle Sam because it was “anti-American,” and still insists on wearing blue-tinted sunglasses indoors at sevenin the evening.
Paolo is not angry. He says he does not mind being judged by a bigoted closet queen whose only cultural contribution is limited to claiming double-breast exposure in film is acceptable only if the breasts are unattractive. In the long run, it does not matter, because Paolo is certain that the saintly Mr Morato will go to hell.
Lovi Poe caught most of the flack, and was said to have cried upon hearing about the X-Rating. “My manager said that the MTRCB thought we made it seem like incest was okay.” Paolo and Ellen reedited the fellatio scene and stood by the theme. Lovi says she trusts her directors.
Jacky Woo is back in Japan, or China, or wherever international director-actor-producers go. Leo is forgiven, and has learned even Paolo is not above saying “I told you so.” The film has since been granted an R-18 rating. Paolo and Ellen are not yet satisfied with the final cut, and will announce the premiere only when all elements have come together. They have both waived their talent fees. Without seeing Paalam, both the Karlovi Vary Film Festival and Cannes have requested for review copies.
I write this on Good Friday, a year since I met Paolo. It is late afternoon, and the sunlight is shooting off the glass windows. For once, I am able to meet him again, not as his producer or writer or partner, but as his friend, the sort who can drink coffee with him without pitching the one-burner stove.
Next week I will be back to being his television producer, will walk into my apartment and step over him sleeping on my linoleum floor, just underneath the Storyline editing suite that has take over my bedroom. I’ll shove at his shoulder and poke at his ear, will allow him his ten more minutes and then his fifteen, and then when he finally drags himself to edit, I’ll listen to his torrent of abuse against the limitations of weekly television and how it is impossible to show the story in his head in so little time. Then I’ll tell him I can hire an editor, and he’ll stuff his cigarette stub into his empty Yakult bottle and tell me nobody will edit his material on his watch, and I’ll hold my tongue because I know perfectly well it will never happen on my watch either. Then I’ll toss him his second bag of M&Ms, and pray that we make the ten thirty pm airing without another memo from the bosses in my email.
This is not a story about a film, or the making of a film, or about the complex politics and shifting states of Philippine independent cinema. It is a story about a man I met at the front steps of an apartment building one yellow-hot Friday afternoon in April. It is, if anything, a love story, one that pulses between this man and the glowing swath of quicksilver that ripples in the dark hollow of a movie theater.
Originally published in UNO June 2009 issue
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