Peque Gallaga: Movies are made in the teeth of madness

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"When you direct, you are three fourths of the time in a state of siege so you quickly slip into a siege mentality. Everyone out there has the potential to screw you, your actors, and your budget," said Peque Gallaga. Photo from WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/HAAYNAKU

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Peque Gallaga died in Bacolod this morning. He had been in poor health for some time. I had not seen him in many years, so for now I can deny that he no longer exists. How can he be dead when “Oro, Plata, Mata,” “Virgin Forest,” “Scorpio Nights,” “Manananggal,” “Tiyanak, “Sonata,” so many wonderful — and don’t forget: weird — movies are still with us? So they were flawed, big deal, even his flaws were interesting. Peque was an authority on J.R.R. Tolkien, so I will think of him as Gandalf the Grey: fallen in battle with the Balrog, to return at the turning of the tide.

He was my favorite interview subject — intelligent, articulate, erudite, and candid, and his passion for art was contagious and all-consuming. I just put a recorder in front of him, and we were off. Easiest assignments ever: I just had to transcribe them. I will miss our fabulous conversations. (I just remembered that he and Madie gave me my first Monty Python recording.) I grieve for the movies he never got around to making. Mostly I grieve for us because our world has gotten smaller (and not just literally because we’re indoors). Peque Gallaga had more fun than all of us.

Here are some excerpts from my last interview with him back in 2003 for Flip Magazine.

How close is “Oro, Plata, Mata” to your family history?

Well, I didn’t have any aunts or female relatives visiting funky wounded guerillas in rice granaries in the jungle and fondling their private parts. Things like that were natural extensions of the premises that existed within this imaginary family that I put together in this story. But the parameters that they operated in were from real-life family experiences.

My wife actually was born in the jungles of Negros Occidental. They lived in a series of tree houses where they would pull the ladders in after them. They had a carabao out there so they could have fresh milk. My mother-in-law met her future husband when he used to visit them as a guerilla. Hacienda living is like that… A lot of nothing-to-do with a battery of servants to make sure that you can do nothing effortlessly. The peeling of the butong pakwan by servants, people playing mahjong all day — I do have an aunt who is almost in her 90s who plays mahjong daily seven times a week, sunrise to sunset (can you imagine what her buttocks must be like?).

Families would visit other families for weeks. Aside from having huge families, it was another reason why hacienda houses were huge. If you bothered to ride the kind of roads they had before the war, you wanted to stay where you stopped for a long, long time. The socialist “critics” made much of my characters calling the rebels in the mountains at the time tulisanes. That was what they were considered.

Actually, the workers in the haciendas who were brutalized, and a lot of them were, found the Japanese invasion a good excuse to change the order and settle a lot of old scores. Some hacienderos and their families were buried alive upside down with their legs sticking out. Most of our history is that of oppressed people not getting any justice in the towns and hightailing it to the mountains. They were in different times branded as bandits, tulisanes, and criminals. If they had an ideology, they were known as Huks and NPAs, but the rich always considered them, and still do, as bandits. My characters were expressing how their milieu thought. Stupid people made the intellectual leap to think that was the way I myself thought. It’s so tiring.

"I do have an aunt who is almost in her 90s who plays mahjong daily seven times a week, sunrise to sunset (can you imagine what her buttocks must be like?)," said Gallaga. In photo, a scene from "Oro, Plata, Mata." Screencap from ABS-CBN ENTERTAINMENT

Is there a movie you regret having made? Not having made?

No regrets about having made any of the movies I did make. I think I have a nicely balanced collection of dramas, action, fantasy, and horror. I don’t regret not having made comedies per se, because although I am a riot in madcap comedy, if I say so myself, it just wouldn’t sell in a Philippine market. I reserved comedy for the theater and T.V. when I used to do T.V. I just wish I had more time to do the horror movies that I did. They had the smallest budgets and now that I watch them in reruns, it shows. But I think that the cinematics and the ideas in there are things I can be proud of.

I don’t regret not having made “Ang Babaeng Hulk.” But I surely regret the fact that I never was able to get a producer to do “Noli” and “Fili.” I would have given my right arm (and all my children’s right arms) to have been able to do that.

I have two projects that are really close to my heart — “Nang Taong Naging Blonde Ang Mga Pinoy” and “Ligawan sa Panahon ng Tagsibol at Digmaan” — that I would have given my left arm for, but apparently there is no market for a Peque Gallaga left arm.

You said something to the effect that Prozac has made you kinder, gentler director. How has this changed your films?

When you direct, you are three fourths of the time in a state of siege so you quickly slip into a siege mentality. Everyone out there has the potential to screw you, your actors, and your budget. And if they have the potential, they certainly are going to go out and screw you. So you’re constantly raging, literally, against “the dying of the light.”

When you take Prozac you tend to step back and see the bigger picture. You begin to “understand” the others and that you are not God’s Anointed, out doing his task. You begin to give in. In the end, I don’t think it’s beneficial to the process or to the project itself because you end up understanding others and nobody is out there understanding your project. I have since stopped Prozac, but not because of the movies. I certainly miss the intensely obsessive cinematic quality of its dreams, however.

I think movies are made in the teeth of madness. As I reread this interview, I am struck by the amount of times I refer to “craziness,” “being nuts,” and “are you out of your mind?” and just general insanity. But I think that is the process of moviemaking...dancing in the teeth of insanity,

Why did you never direct the superstars: Nora Aunor, Vilma Santos, or Sharon Cuneta?

I like to work intensely six days out of seven, if not seven out of seven so that the role and the person merge within the camera. This happened when we did “Cebu," the series. We were all together at the hotel and on the set in Cebu for a whole month. The effect was amazing.

Although I directed Nora in “Bad Bananas: Sa Puting Tabing,” it really wasn’t her movie. I also directed Vilma in “Champoy” TV specials. Sharon and I worked together in McDonald's commercials. They are great people and fantastic artists. But they are superstars. And when you work with superstars, in the end it’s all about their schedules. It’s not their fault. It’s whatever stupid studio manager ever invented 'lagare' in the late fifties or sixties. I spit on his grave, whoever he or she is.

"Families would visit other families for weeks. Aside from having huge families, it was another reason why hacienda houses were huge," said Gallaga on the real-life inspirations of "Oro, Plata, Mata." Screencap from ABS-CBN ENTERTAINMENT

You’re also an actor. What were your best and worst performances?

Ironically, the two performances that made a real dent in the national consciousness, and I mean that literally, was my pompous-ass asshole archbishop in “Rizal” and my San Pedro in “Lucio and Miguel.” It’s funny, but that was not the way I chose to play those parts, and thank God I listened to my directors Marilou [Diaz Abaya] and Boots [Plata], respectively. They wanted me to play it that way and if I learned one thing as a director, it is to trust your director. If I have a modicum of fame as an actor, my directors really put me on the map.

The two performances I am proudest of: Christopher de Leon’s gay friend in “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos” and Mark Gil’s hippie father in “Rock ‘n Roll.” Mario O’ Hara showed me the “Tatlong Taon” script and I told him that there was no way I was going to memorize a long speech towards the end. He promised me that he was going to do it in short cut-to-cuts. But something told me not to trust him, so I stayed the whole week in Majayjay learning the speech phonetically because at the time I didn’t know a straight sentence in Tagalog.

Sure enough, when we shot the scene, which was this scene between Nora Aunor and myself, he said “Action!” and never cut. Adrenaline carried it for me and I did it in the first take. I was too astonished to be angry at him. When I drove home to Manila from Majayjay, I sang aloud all the way. I was so proud of that scene.

I enjoyed “Rock ‘n Roll” by Maryo J. de los Reyes. We shot it in Baguio: a father and son scene on a mountain by a fire. Mark and I sharing a bottle of real gin. Mark is telling me everything that’s going on with his life, and I, like the stupid self-absorbed hippie that I was supposed to be, just kept saying “That’s good” at appropriate times. I thought that was a wonderfully written scene, and of course, Mark is so good that it was easy and really enjoyable to do.

No director has ever offered me a second role after the first one. Which is a valid reason for paranoia.

What would the “Oro, Plata, Mara” sequel be like?

I am on the psychological brink of shooting a movie in the same mansion as “Oro.” Actually it’s more of a memory piece from the “Plata” portion of [the film], the same hacienda and the same wartime environment. But after 20 years and 10 years of Prozac, it’s an older, gentler, and kinder — dare I say — a more loving treatment under dire circumstances. It wouldn’t strictly be a sequel.

But we always had plans for a sequel. Since “Oro” is an elegy to the loss of Spanish influence on Philippine life, the natural thing was to pick up one character — the accountant of Don Claudio who becomes a guerrilla leader — and follow him through Reconstruction. The hoarding, the Black Market, and the blossoming squatter explosion which had its origins in World War II. Of course we would retain the mahjong sessions, but this time it would be the men who would be playing.

It would be an epic story of the slow beginning of a Philippines run like hell by Filipinos.