Mike De Leon made his Cannes debut in 1982 when he premiered two films on Directors' Fortnight – Kisapmata and Batch 81 – that same year. That made him only the second filmmaker to do so at the time. Wim Wenders asked De Leon and some of the filmmakers present at the festival this year to answer pre-written questions about the future of cinema within a 16mm roll (approx. 11 minutes) for his documentary Room 666. Godard and Antonioni filled the time and could probably go on; The others, like Spielberg, Siedelman and Fassbinder, talked for a few minutes. But De Leon's segment lasted less than 30 seconds. When he found a problem with the main question, he stated, “Asking a director like me from the Philippines what the future of cinema is, I find an absurd question. Asking what the future of cinema in the Philippines is like is asking what the future of the Philippines will be. "
De Leon grew up in the film industry. His family ran the largest and longest-living film studio in the country (1936-2005), LVN Pictures, Inc, in which he was fluent in all the technical languages of the medium: the studio's color laboratory, work with sound and cinematography (among other things, he shot Lino Brockas Manila in the Claws of Light, edited, staged, etc., and later became a key player in the preservation and restoration of the studio's classics. His first home was the production center for his feature films and he shot several on location at his family's Baguio home. Few could claim to be as close to the pulse of Filipino cinema as De Leon. He loved growing up in the industry but had no illusions about the power of film. "What can a film do in this situation? Not much." Very little, actually, ”he wrote in his intro to batch“ 81 The Making of a Mike De Leon Movie, ”with the country's regression below the current one President Rodrigo Duterte was the "situation" in question.
Although De Leon knew his films could not overthrow regimes, that did not prevent him from making films that criticized the country's strong leadership. In Kisapmata he drew the line between the dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the time and the incestuous father character of the film, the former police officer Dadong Caradang (Vic Silayan). Today the film was restored from a damaged negative (due to heat and improper storage) and a positive print – the monstrous dadong now resembles Duterte in 4K. Aside from redemption, recovery, and sanity, Dadong can only calm his inner hell with dark and primitive joy that turns sour over time. He abuses his partner Adelita (Charito Solis) and daughter Milagros (Charo Santos-Concio) and convinces them that they have no power to leave. When Milagros announces that she is pregnant and getting married, she invites an outsider into the terrifying dynamic of her family, and the resulting tension culminates in the real crime on which the film is based, in which a former cop in which a former cop his daughter, son is , Law has killed himself and almost his wife. De Leon could not have foreseen that the films he made near the collapse of the Marcos regime – Kisapmata, Batch ‘81 and Sister Stella L. – would find new resonance today. Almost forty years later, thanks to Duterte, the Marcos family has regained its political clout and is ready to take on the next presidency.
Legendary and reclusive filmmaker Mike De Leon agreed to a rare interview about the making of his overt and unaffected psychological horror masterpiece Kisapmata, which will be newly restored for the first time from Friday, December 18 at 6 p.m. ET through Saturday Shine played. December 19 at 9 a.m. ET, free. The link to the screener will be published in the Casa Grande Vintage Filipino Cinema.
Filmmaker: When Milagros writes about the size of her baby in her diary, inconsistent laughter can be heard outside the house, and later, when the family meets to confront Dadong in the Manalansan's house, children can be heard outside playing. Both techniques have different effects in each scene, but can you talk to your "soundman" Ramon Reyes about your approach to off-screen sound / background noise?
De Leon: Let me explain the situation in the 1980s. We had very primitive movie mixing options – a maximum of six tracks and only four when we did Maynila in 1975 and Itim in 1976. The art of live sound recording was dead. From the mid-1970s, the industry began to shift to dubbing, or “dubbing,” as we called it locally. It had become impractical to rely on original sound, and sound cameras were just too bulky and expensive to take to places.
Kisapmata was completely "synchronized" with the exception of one important scene. Dadong's house was very close to a school and even though Cesar (Hernando, De Leons then often production designer) had found the perfect set, we had no illusions about the recording of live sound. The role of the sound recorder on set was only to receive relatively “clear” instructions for post-dubbing later in the studio. Only in parts of Bayaning 3rd World (2000) and Citizen Jake (2017) have I started using original sound again.
The only exception to dubbing was when Dadong threatened the maid with a gun. It was impossible to sync. Vic (Silayan) tried but couldn't match the intensity of the original scene. Fortunately, I used a long lens and the camera was some distance away so the sound of the motor wasn't that loud. The maid's voice was dubbed so it was clean. We just added the same sound to her shot, keeping the original sound of Vic's shot.
We used a sound camera for the mother / daughter scene – Charito (Solis) and Charo (Santos-Concio). This was the request of Chato (Charito). She knew we had to sync because the school nearby was so loud. But the hum of the no-sound camera was too distracting for her. Sayang (shame), the original sound was beautiful. They actually whispered. We tried to approximate this in the studio, but it was nothing like the original.
There was no sound design. Ramon (Monching) Reyes was the son of the audio manager at LVN and we became friends when I started at LVN in 1970. Maynila was his first feature film. When Kisapmata came we had developed a specific routine for preparing the mixture. We'd devote a session to previewing the film with no dialogue, just the effects, all of which were done in the studio. Lorrie Ilustre, our musical director, was also involved. Lorrie's first film was Kakabakaba ka ba? (Will your heart beat faster?) And he's a cousin, a Buencamino (the family of De Leon's grandmother), a very musical family. He made many suggestions for the "atmospheric" sounds, but the off-screen sounds you were referring to were my idea. There was no conscious attempt to invoke any particular meaning, but I thought that hearing the loud laughter of Mila's father and his cops off-screen before we saw them would somehow interrupt their thoughts to the viewer of the prison would remember where she was in. The children's voices that I always associate with Christmas. There were a lot of Christmas carols back then. I used that in Maynila too. Lino wasn't interested in postal work, so Doy, music director Max Jocson, and I instinctively worked on the film.
Filmmaker: The electronic noise of the cars rushing past the street in front of the Caradang's house in the opening shot is striking.
De Leon: The electronic sound is new. It was also common during this period to suppress folks and other sound effects and emphasize dialogue. In restoring the audio, I wanted to correct this for today's audience, but the original sound of the passing cars could not be increased any more. We never kept separate tracks as it was quite expensive and, as I said, due to track restrictions, we had to premix certain tracks to prepare the final mix. Cars sound different today, so the audio guy at Wildsound Studios, Alex (Tomboc) picked sounds from their extensive library. It sounded fine to me, but I think the electronic quality was still there.
Filmmaker: What were the most important camera bodies and lenses at the time, and where did the studios get most of their camera and lighting equipment? Did LVN originally partner with an overseas manufacturer? I think by this time LVN had some of their equipment sold / loaned (when the company moved into post production)?
De Leon: LVN still had the old NC Mitchells and the Arri 2B and 2C with standard lenses and a 25-250 Angenieux zoom lens. The newer Fast Prime lenses were already available, but too expensive to rent. They were only used for movie advertising. For features, we had to be content with the older Arris. I got to use better cameras for Aliwan (Paradise) and Bayaning 3rd World – the Arri 3 I think, and sometimes the BL. Since I also ran LVN's color lab (the only one at the time), I was able to experiment with push or pull processing. I used this extensively in Maynila when the only footage available was Eastman 5254 or 5247 with an ISO of 100. Itim was fully post-flashed and I was happy to discover that both films kept in the archives of the British Film Institute were in relatively good condition. I will initiate the restoration of Itim again next year in Ritrovata (in Bologna, Italy) but the classification and audio recovery will be done on site so I can oversee it.
Filmmaker: “Here comes sister and wiggles her hips. No head, but with his mouth wide open. No eyes, but afraid of the light … "Dadong recites these lines to Noel, Milagro's fiancé, when he shows him his earthworms in the basement, but I don't know the hint.
De Leon: The Earthworm Puzzle was written by Doy del Mundo (screenwriter). Doy writes Tagalog pretty well, and I think this new puzzle says more about Dadong than an actual explanation of vermicomposting (the use of worms to break down garbage and make nutrient-rich "worm dung" which was popular at the time). The English translation doesn't capture the wit of the original Tagalog, but I think it comes close enough. I wanted a freer translation, but Sarge Lacuesta, a writer and friend who helped with the new subs, thought it was better to be literal these days.
Filmmaker: You said, as reported on ANCX, that you will continue developing the script after the locations are locked. The verticality and structure of the Caradang house on two levels is so important for the feeling of insecurity: Dadong rests in the room directly opposite Milagro so that he is above or below the eye line of the stairs without you knowing it. How did the house and Cesar Hernando's design affect your script and blocking?
De Leon: I think Jerome Gomez's article on ANCX, quoting Cesar's statement from my unfinished book, answers the question. I admit I don't know much about bourgeois life, so I left the design almost entirely to Cesar. Rody Lacap, the cameraman, and I have just given lighting fixtures and internships to suit my intentions on how to block each scene.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the casting, specifically Jay Ilagan as Noel and Ruben Rustia as his father? We know the moment we see her that neither pose a threat to Dadong.
De Leon: Jay Ilagan was the best young actor I have ever worked with – and I thought I would have replaced him in Maynila with Bembol Roco (who played Julio Madiaga, the film's protagonist). He had promised to lose weight, but after three days of filming I told Lino that while Jay was a good actor, he wouldn't do it as Julio Madiaga. I had seen Bembol in one piece with Lino, and even though he was already cast as one of the call boys, I thought he was perfect for Julio Madiaga. Lino had successfully introduced Christopher De Leon at Tinimbang (Weighted But Found Wanting) the year before, and I thought he could do it again for Bembol. Years later, when I cast for Kakabakaba, Lorrie Ilustre suggested Jay because Jay had great comic book timing. Despite the Maynila experience, he had no qualms about being in the film, and after that we worked on two more films, Kisapmata and Sister Stella L. I met Ruben while I was shooting the camera for Eddie Romero's Aguila. I watched him closely during the shoot. He wasn't an LVN actor and I wasn't familiar with his work, but he had a certain quality that had an element of goodness and naivety at the same time. I toyed with the idea of showing him alone in his house after hearing about the brutal murders for which he was in some ways responsible but which he decided otherwise. Sayang. It also has exceptional range. In my opinion, his brief appearance at Sister Stella L. was quite exciting.
Filmmaker: Because Dadong has godlike authority, did you work or direct with Vic Silayan differently from the rest of the cast to give him that sense of power on set? And you said you are not a director of an actor. What did you mean by that?
De Leon: Vic intimidated me at first so we had a couple of scripting sessions before the main photography. He asked to be changed to Stepfather because he was sick of the incest thing. But that was impossible, as he knew. He always wanted to know the size of the frame because he confessed that he had a tendency to ambush. Of course, I worked differently than (Lamberto V.) Avellana and that's what I mean by the fact that I am not a director of an actor. Unlike Lino, I don't play the scenes for the actor. I give them space, but always remind them that the camera is always “watching”. Sometimes I tell them that the blocking seems unnatural in real life, but it looks good for both the camera and the general flow of the film. Similar to music, there is a certain rhythm that I feel when assembling scenes. I also make a point of casting intelligent actors and sometimes I just bring up pictures to add direction and they respond more effectively.
Chato (Charito Solis) was a famous LVN actress and we got pretty close while filming Kisapmata. She was supposed to play Rizal's mother in Bayaning 3rd World, but she suddenly passed away a few months before we started filming. I dedicated the film to her. The original cut of this scene (the mother-daughter scene) did not contain any single shots of Charo. The camera stayed on Charito because it was so good and it was just one shot. I now regret that I changed it.
Filmmaker: The film remains isolated from the outside world even during the wedding scene. No wedding guests outside of the main cast are introduced or weighted in the frame.
De Leon: The wedding scene was an "experiment". I choreographed it first by operating one of the cameras and with my staff showing the actors how the scene would play out. I used a long lens to shorten the shots and make them appear closer than they really are to each other – claustrophobic.
Filmmaker: I don't know much about Bancom Audiovision, the studio behind Kisapmata, other than some of the films they made. Is there a story there?
De Leon: I don't know exactly why Union Bank founded Bancom Audiovision, but they were active for several years. Jack Atienza, who may still be alive, set it up, but many of her films have been commercially unsuccessful. Makati executives ran the company and many producers flocked to them to get their projects done. They produced Eddie Romero's epic Aguila, which I worked on as a cameraman. Also Linos Jaguar. A few years later, Charo was hired to produce a film that I would direct. That was Kisapmata, the last film Bancom made. Then Atienza was kicked out and all production was stopped.
Filmmaker: Why Have So Many Filipino Films Been Lost? What went wrong with retention / archiving?
De Leon: LVN never had a proper archive, although the negatives were kept in a warehouse (without air conditioning) and properly cataloged. Many films survived when 16mm versions were made. At the time, nobody knew anything about vinegar syndrome. I myself thought that black and white films would last forever. When I started working at LVN I tried to save the Eastman Color films – big productions – but they were all gone. What survived (though incomplete) were color films shot by an earlier process, Ansco (whose patented flexible photo film George Eastman infamously copied and benefited from, effectively killing Ansco). I later read that Eastman color film was known to have a tendency to fade. (Anscochrome was superior to Kodachrome and Kodak Ektachrome in many ways, it was faster and even democratized the development process. By then, the company had weathered a series of unfortunate events and Kodak had won the battle.) But in the US and other rich countries they did good Create duplicates or black and white separation negatives, similar to the Technicolor process. My late sister and I didn't set up a decent archive until the early 1990s, and that helped save the rest of LVN's films.
Filmmaker: Today you are something of a master archiver, restorer and collector, and you have democratized access to numerous, hard-to-find classics. How was this work for you?
De Leon: Part of the reason I'm writing the book (his autobiography) is to keep the memory of LVN and the studio era alive. Unfortunately, so many films have been lost. I grew up in the cinema and it shaped my life and my way of thinking. It also ruined every semblance of real family life we had. But as with dog breeding, which I used to be passionate about, I follow my pedigree as a filmmaker to the days of my grandmother and father. This is a privilege that no other filmmaker working in the industry today can say. Maybe that's why I'm still alive. As my book says, I owe my biological life to my parents, but I owe my life in the cinema to LVN.