The inside story of Lav Diaz's new 8-hour epic

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Ely Buendia is singing to the crowd, their faces illuminated by footage of him, the Musikero, projected on the big screen. He is seated on a mound, surrounded by comrades wielding muskets. He, on the other hand, is strumming a guitar. His voice, carrying a sorrowful ode, cuts through the crackling of their campfire and permeates every ear in the silent theater. He sings of sacrifice and freedom with a poignancy as clear as day. There are no veiled messages in this scene. In a revolution, there will be grief. The following shot proves just that.

A barrack is reduced to cinders and walls of smoke acting as ghostly mirrors that catch what little light the moon gives off. Littered on the forest floor are numerous corpses of men who, mere minutes ago, were very much alive. Even in black and white, the image is arresting. It’s the kind of picture that lingers in your head as you walk out of the theater. Lav Diaz’s cinema has that effect. His “Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis,” much like the other films that make up his oeuvre, commands contemplation.

Ely Buendia as the Musikero. Photo by BRADLEY LIEW

Meryl Streep herself had many questions after seeing the film. The actress, together with 1,600 filmmakers, cineastes, and critics from all over the world, was at the grand Berlinale Palast at 9:30 on a chilly February morning to watch Lav’s eight-hour masterpiece from beginning to end. “Hele” eventually won the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize, earning the cast and crew coveted spots at the festival’s exclusive Jury’s Dinner. Streep, the jury president, approached the cast at their table and rattled off question after question about the film. John Lloyd Cruz, who played Isagani, recalled how stunned he was of her interest. Members of the international press seemed to share Streep’s enthusiasm as they crowded around Diaz for sound bites and photographs.

The attention was so overwhelming considering that “Hele” almost never saw the light of day.

Searching for a greenlight

In 1998, Diaz and his long-time collaborator and friend, Larry Manda, formed a company to fulfill a qualification set by the 1998 Philippine Centennial Commission. The grant-giving body was looking for 10 original screenplays that showcased the Philippines’ national heroes. Each team of finalists was guaranteed a P5 million budget to produce their project. Diaz’s official entry was then titled “Ang Dakilang Desaparecido,” the story of Gregoria de Jesus’ 30-day search for her late husband, the Supremo, Andres Bonifacio, in the mountain ranges of Cavite. With the contract signed, Diaz and his team began location scouting, taking them a month to find the perfect spot in Quezon. It was then that everything went kaput.

“We were so enthusiastic at that time to shoot it,” says Manda. “I was already on board then as a cinematographer, and my late wife Tawe as line producer. But the script was sidelined.” Their project was shut down along with eight others. Only one was produced, a movie about Emilio Aguinaldo, Bonifacio’s great rival. There were allegations of corruption at play involving the first president’s grandnephew, Cesar Virata, who at that time was the committee’s vice chairman. Diaz brushed all this aside and looked elsewhere for funding.

Hazel Orencio, Susan Africa, and Joel Saracho in the film's "Oryang" segment, which details the title character's search for the remains of her husband, Andres Bonifacio. Photo by BRADLEY LIEW

Over the next decade, Diaz pitched the story to producers he met during his many forays into international festivals. A Hungarian associate of his almost took on the project, but the deal eventually fell through. All the while, Diaz kept expanding his body of work, writing and directing renowned films including “Batang West Side” (2001), “Melancholia” (2008), and “Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan” (2013). It wasn’t until 2011 that “Hele” got its much needed boost in the person of a scrappy young producer named Bianca Balbuena.

“What is your dream project?” she asked him over a couple of glasses of wine. This had become routine to them ever since their first meeting. They would drink and discuss — in Balbuena’s own words — “nothing and everything.” She was always eager to pick his brains, and that particular question of hers resuscitated the screenplay from its comatose state. Diaz emailed the draft to her that very night.

“I read it right away,” she says. “It was beautiful. It made me angry. It made me cry. I said right away, ‘I’ll produce it.’ For three years, I applied to film markets, public grants, pitched to investors. We got into a lot of film markets, but got rejected by 90 percent of them. Investors questioned the length, the black-and-white treatment, the commercial viability.”

Balbuena sought the help of Bich-Quan Tran, a young producer from France, and tried for the World Cinema Fund of the Berlin International Film Festival aka Berlinale, one of the biggest grant-giving bodies for filmmakers belonging to regions with poor film infrastructure. The committee liked the script, but requested that several revisions be made. Protective of his art, Diaz rejected their suggestions, explaining that the changes would come during the actual shoot. The committee was not too keen on the idea and decided to drop the project altogether. (Of course, the irony of “Hele” making it to Berlinale earlier this year is not lost on Diaz.)

Come 2014, Diaz was losing heart for “Hele.” He “wanted to give up at one point,” Balbuena says. “He wasn't answering my texts and emails. But I was just annoyingly persistent. I pursued it.” She wanted to see Diaz succeed so badly she decided to give it one more shot and pitched the idea to another young producer and director, Paul Soriano.

Intrigued, Soriano read the script, which he says was “about 200 plus pages long.” “It took me about a couple of days,” he recalls. “Upon reading it, I got drugged. It read so beautifully. Lav writes [scripts] like poetry. Everything you needed to know about a scene, about the story, was on paper. There were particular moments, particular dialogue that really hit me. I still had a lot of questions in my mind, but there was just something about his words that kind of told my heart, ‘You've got to be involved in this somehow.’”

Soriano said yes right away and had a face-to-face set up at some wine shop at The Fort: “It was like meeting the myth. You didn't know if this man really existed. You always hear about Lav Diaz. He's been to every major film festival. His films have been all over the world. But Lav was just so calm and so humble and so gracious. You couldn't even tell this man has made films that have made impact in festivals. That night turned into a couple of hours of us just talking. It felt like a masterclass.”

The two ended the evening agreeing on a budget. After over a decade, “Hele” was finally getting made.

All the right people

“Everybody just wants to work with Lav Diaz,” Paul Soriano says in a matter-of-fact tone. With the help of Hazel Orencio, Diaz’s frequent collaborator who also played Gregoria de Jesus in “Hele,” the cast began forming. Angel Aquino, Sid Lucero, Ronnie Lazaro, and Joel Saracho, having all previously worked with Diaz before, instantly signed on. Other big names, including Cherie Gil, Alessandra de Rossi, Bernardo Bernardo, Susan Africa, and Ely Buendia, followed suit. All the film lacked were two people to play Isagani and Simoun, key characters that Diaz plucked out of the pages of Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tángere” and “El Filibusterismo.”

Alessandra de Rossi as Caesaria Belarmino in "Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis." Photo by BRADLEY LIEW

Months prior to preproduction, John Lloyd Cruz had expressed interest in working with Diaz. Cruz, a top-billed leading man of this generation, has lately been veering away from the cookie-cutter roles designed for him. Last year, he was lauded for starring as a conflicted family man willing to do heinous things for the sake of his child in Erik Matti’s “Honor Thy Father.” Itching to again do something outside of the norm, Cruz sought out Diaz.

It was the director Joyce Bernal who served as the bridge to Pascual. Balbuena had called her asking if a deal could be brokered. Bernal, one of Pascual’s most trusted people in the industry, relayed the pitch to the actor: “Sinabi ko kay Piolo. Nagustuhan niya. Interested siya, kaya lang nakakontrata siya.”

They met up for a round of drinks with common friends and began toying with the idea of a future project together. “Hele,” apparently, came up as the perfect solution. Diaz sent Cruz a copy of the script and asked him if he was interested in the part of Isagani, a talented, young genius tormented by his past mistakes. Cruz’s answer was an easy yes.

Casting Simoun was the tricky part. Diaz mulled over whom he wanted to play Rizal’s iconic antihero. He initially wanted to cast Roeder Camañag for the role. Camañag, who had already appeared in a number of Diaz’s films, decided to pass on “Hele” in favor of working on another of Diaz’s projects in the pipeline. Piolo Pascual’s name popped up in the mix, and Diaz wanted to know if getting him involved was possible. If Cruz was a top-billed leading man, Pascual was the king. How to get to him was a bit complicated.

It was the director Joyce Bernal who served as the bridge to Pascual. Balbuena had called her asking if a deal could be brokered. Bernal, one of Pascual’s most trusted people in the industry, relayed the pitch to the actor: “Sinabi ko kay Piolo. Nagustuhan niya. Interested siya, kaya lang nakakontrata siya.”

Pascual made time to meet up with Diaz over dinner to discuss the intricacies of the role. The more he learned about the project, the more he got invested. He went back to Bernal to work things out. “Dahil gusto ni Piolo, trinabaho namin,” Bernal says.

“Si Bianca, kaming dalawa ni Piolo yung nakikipag-meeting sa ABS-CBN,” continues Bernal, referring to Pascual’s home network with which he is under contract. “Until yung date na magsyusyu-shooting na siya, nakikipag-meeting pa rin kami, nag-e-explain pa rin.”

The approval of the ABS-CBN executives, Malou Santos and Charo Santos-Concio, eventually came through, allowing Pascual to take the fastest flight to Sorsogon, the location of their shoot. Soriano took it upon himself to escort both Pascual and Cruz on the flight. “When we landed in Legazpi, we still had to take an hour-and-a-half van ride to Sorsogon,” Soriano recalls. “When we got there, those guys went straight to work. You just need to appreciate them, their work ethic, their commitment to their craft. I saw it all there. Both actors, at the height of their careers, making time for a Lav Diaz film. It was magic, or as Lav says, it was ‘rock ‘n’ roll.’”

Lav Diaz. Portraits by JAKE VERZOSA

Lav's method

“Oh my god! Did he break it? Are we going to stop the shoot?”

In the middle of giving Cherie Gil instructions for a scene, Diaz lost his footing, slipped on a mossy slope, and landed quite painfully on his shoulder. People in the crew stopped what they were doing to check on him.

“Lav just brushed it off and fought through it,” Soriano recalls with a laugh. “It was when we were all in Berlin and the cold was getting to it, I think, when he was having a hard time sleeping. I said, ‘When we get back to Manila, just have it checked.’ I think he started doing the rehab now, and it's definitely getting much better.”

Aside from the mishap, nothing seemed too out of the ordinary on the set. If you ask any of his cast and crew, all of them would probably concur that it was a very relaxed environment. “I think the greatest lesson Lav taught me was not to take life too seriously,” says Soriano, adding, in his best impression of Diaz: “Keep cool, keep calm.”

“Lavrente is very respectful with his cast and especially with his subordinates,” says Manda, the cinematographer of “Hele,” using Diaz’s full first name — a privilege of being friends with the director since their Mowelfund days in the 80s. They both had been waiting 15 years for the movie they pitched to the Centennial Commission to finally get on track. The experience on set with Diaz, he says, had not changed one bit: “He completely controls the rhythm of the shoot. He observes the conditions of everybody and if he thinks that a scene needs to be shot the following day, he will wrap the shoot. He simplifies doing things but still maintains the essence of the story.”

Diaz wakes up three hours after midnight and plays a ballad or two on his guitar. Then, there is silence. In his room, he reviews the scenes for the day and reworks them into what his cast and crew refer to as the “flying papers.” These sheets find their way into the hands of staff for distribution. By the time everybody else wakes up for their morning coffee, the day's agenda has been set.

“An evolving script is like having an unplanned meeting,” Manda explains. “It may be pleasant or not. I just trust Lavrente because he always uncovers truth on the vagaries of life.”

Diaz’s methods can be scary, especially for an executive producer who has to take note of the logistics and costs. “Working with Lav Diaz, you also have to be on your toes,” Soriano explains. “There were a lot of things he was writing on set, on the fly. There was a point where I already had to kind of let go and let Lav be because I didn't want to be the guy that hindered him and said, ‘Lav, you know what? You've got to stick to this.’ What I have to respect about Lav is he never went over and beyond what we agreed on in that wine shop. We were always within the limitations of the budget.”

“He’s quite a calm presence when you’re making a film with him. And you can see that in the films themselves, in the stillness of visuals. His camera has the calm of a gaze even when looking at storms. And that’s uniquely Lav.”

A number of things could have pushed “Hele’s” production over and beyond those said limitations: actors’ tight schedules, problems with location, and even erratic weather. All three actually happened on the set: Pascual had to fly back due to prior commitments, sea conditions were too choppy for them to shoot a boat scene, and it rained and kept raining. Throughout everything, Diaz endured: He managed to squeeze Pascual’s scenes into two days and used stand-ins for other shots, he moved the boat to a different site, and he shot through whatever weather greeted them.

Erwin Romulo, one of “Hele’s” sound designers and Diaz’s friend, describes how the director is able to cope: “He accepts the process for what it is and assimilates anything that arises in the course of making a film as possibilities rather than hindrances into achieving what he thinks the film can be. He’s quite a calm presence when you’re making a film with him. And you can see that in the films themselves, in the stillness of visuals. His camera has the calm of a gaze even when looking at storms. And that’s uniquely Lav.”

The waiting game

It was December 2015. Filming had ended sometime in July, and Soriano was getting antsy. Diaz not only directed the film; he also edited it. And being the editor, Diaz had the prerogative of dictating when the final cut would be coming out. Not wanting to pressure Diaz, Soriano again let him have his creative freedom. The only cause of his unease was a looming deadline for Berlinale.

"Were we really able to shoot eight hours of footage? We only shot for 24 days. Sometimes, for a two-hour movie, that isn't even enough. That’s when I told him, ‘Lav, I've got to see it.'"

“I remember getting a text from Bianca [asking], ‘How long is it?’” Soriano says. “It was a mystery for us.” When they started production, “Hele” had no set running time. Their question was answered when Diaz finally gave him a call and said, “Paul, it’s eight hours.”

“Did he really…” Soriano recounts his reaction to the news. “Were we really able to shoot eight hours of footage? We only shot for 24 days. Sometimes, for a two-hour movie, that isn't even enough. That’s when I told him, ‘Lav, I've got to see it.’”

Diaz went to Soriano’s office and dropped off a hard drive. “There it is,” he said. “That’s it.” It was only 9 a.m. Soriano had a long day ahead. He assembled his team and started watching. Also in the room was Bernal, curious to see the result of Diaz’s hard work. To put it simply, she was floored. She was in Sorsogon for a number of shooting days to see him in action. She went to the locations, observed how he handled the cast. She watched him behind the camera. What she saw projected on the wall was a revelation. “Matang-mata niya yung camera,” she says. “Doon ko lang naintindihan.”

John Lloyd Cruz, Noel Sto. Domingo, and Piolo Pascual in one of the film's ensemble sequences. Photo by BRADLEY LIEW

During filming, Diaz had insisted they take a 15-minute walk out into the wilderness to frame a specific shot. “Ako, bilang director, kung hindi mo nakita yung mga tao or mga bahay, puwede na akong kumuha roon,” Bernal explains. “Pero hindi eh. Location is another character for him.” The shot in question was framed in such a way that a tree obscured the body of Gregoria de Jesus as a returning cavalcade moved toward her. It gives a sense of being pushed into a corner. The stark contrast of black and white only intensifies that feeling of helplessness.

“Watching a Lav Diaz film is like going to a museum and watching paintings come to life one at a time, for hours and hours; you just have to allow yourself to get lost in it,” says Soriano. “After you watch “Hele,” you're either high on life or just a crazier person. He was able to do that to the selection committee in Berlin. Imagine that.”

The film’s win in Berlinale validates the team’s hard work, especially for Diaz who, after 17 long years, can finally show his countrymen, us Filipinos, the fruits of their labor. The real victory cannot be found in Berlin, but here, if Filipinos go out of their way to see it. Soriano remains quite hopeful: “It was well-received in Berlin, with almost 2,000 people watching this film. So why can’t Filipinos be interested in our own history? ”

The way “Hele” is being marketed as a sort of challenge to be taken and overcome has garnered flak from many cineastes who have been championing Diaz’s work over the years. One in particular is the film critic Richard Bolisay, who asks, “Is it worth it to make the impression that his films are challenging, that his films are something you have to endure?” Bolisay adds: “It makes it feel like an ordeal. It’s easy to pick on the length, and I get why. It’s a very valid consideration. But one should also be aware that with that length come the film’s scope and range. The emotional heft of Lav's movies feel equivalent to the kind of experience a very detailed novel gives you. It’s something that allows you to feel and think.”

Piolo Pascual plays Simoun, the disguise of Crisostomo Ibarra in "El Filibusterismo." Photo by BRADLEY LIEW

Bolisay does acknowledge that there are merits to the current marketing ploy of positioning the film as a “challenge.” It opens the film up to a wider audience who may step into the theater out of curiosity and step out with a broader perspective on film and our society. Sitting in a theater for eight hours may seem like a daunting task, but the returns, should the viewer accept them, could be well worth the investment. Now the big question lingers: Is the Philippines ready for Lav Diaz’s cinema?

“There is an audience for it,” says Soriano. “We’ve seen it with independent film festivals. There are full houses. The support is there. It’s brewing.” The performance of “Hele” over its opening weekend — with select theaters quickly selling out, leaving a number of interested moviegoers scrambling for seats at other venues — corroborates Soriano’s answer. Bolisay, having observed people flock to Diaz’s films over the past few years, is pleasantly surprised by the positive turnout: “I’ve been attending screenings, and [Lav] can really fill theaters. That says a lot. I think the principle here is that if you’re doing something good, people will find it. People will make time to see [the film].”

Whether or not “Hele” will be able to sustain this momentum is another discussion entirely. The factors at play include the continued demand and patronage of the film as well as the decision of cinema owners, who ultimately have the authority to pull the plug on screenings at any time. Regardless of its staying power in local theaters, though, Diaz has already succeeded in doing what he set out to do: to tell this particular story of Filipinos to Filipinos.

“Every piece of his work is oriented toward creating discord about who we are and where we came from and where we have yet to go,” the film critic Philbert Dy says. Years ago, for an interview, Diaz had told him of his dream of walking across the country with a projector strapped to his back, going from one random town to the next, just screening his films to anyone who’s willing to see them. Diaz’s cinema has always been free in that sense. The man will continue making and showing his movies. There is no question to that. Diaz endures much like “Hele” did. Despite years of setbacks, letdowns, and opposition, his art and his stories prevail.