LOS ANGELES, USA – Nothing prepared me for director Martika Ramirez Escobar’s Leonor Will Never Die, the Philippines’ first Sundance Film Festival World Cinema – Dramatic competition entry since Auraeus Solito’s The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros.
It has been 16 long years since that acclaimed coming-of-age film by Auraeus. The wait is worth it – Leonor Will Never Die is Martika’s clever, ingenious, entertaining paean to Philippine cinema, especially its macho action movies and melodramas.
The University of the Philippines alumna, who also wrote the script, takes the old movie-within-a-movie conceit and runs away with it.
Martika’s obvious love for Filipino films – she grew up watching them at home in the afternoons – is evident in the movie, produced by Monster Jimenez and Mario Cornejo, which is classified by IMDb as a drama. But it is also a fun comedy, suffused by the director’s fond familiarity with the conventions of Tagalog movies.
While it is a romp through the bakbakan and iyakan staples of Filipino cinema, Leonor Will Never Die has its serious underpinnings, especially its allusions to the Duterte administration’s drug war killings.
The cast, led by Sheila Francisco as Martika’s “action star grandma,” is uniformly engaging. Actors Bong Cabrera, Rocky Salumbides, and Anthony Falcon add to the pleasures of watching this surprise of a movie.
To avoid spilling spoilers, I will just quote the synopsis provided in the film’s production notes:
“Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) was once a major player in the Filipino film industry after creating a string of successful action films but now, her household struggles to pay the bills.”
“When she reads an advertisement looking for screenplays, Leonor begins tinkering with an unfinished script about the quest of young, noble Ronwaldo, forced to avenge his brother’s murder at the hands of thugs.”
“While her imagination provides some escape from reality, she goes all-in after an accident involving a TV set knocks her out, sends her into a coma, and transports her inside the incomplete movie. Now, Leonor can play out her wildest dreams firsthand and discover the perfect ending to her story.”
Born in Manila, Martika launched her film career when her UP film school thesis, Stone Heart, competed in the 19th Busan International Film Festival and won the best short film prize in the 2015 Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival.
Also a cinematographer with over 10 credits, she shot and directed the documentary, Quadrilaterals, described as “a portrait of a family of Overseas Filipino Workers seen through the objects in their home.”
In my email interview with Martika, I asked the 29-year-old filmmaker how she learned the news that Leonor Will Never Die will compete in the Sundance fest which runs this year from January 20 to 30.
She replied, “I was on the way to the set of Quark Henares where I was the cinematographer when I received the email. Quark is also the executive producer of Leonor.” (She and Aurora Oreta are also exec producers.)
“I was confused when I received the email because I didn’t think it was real. I didn’t even read the letter. I just sent it to my producers for validation that maybe it is real.”
“Then the day went by and I still couldn’t believe it. But of course, I am happy and grateful to another level for everything! I am most happy for our team because finally, our hard work has paid off!”
On how she came up with the film’s concept, Martika said, “It started with the idea of having an action star grandma. I love older people because they possess the wisdom that I often think we need in life to see its beauty. Of course, I’m just talking about my real-life grandma here.”
“Plus, out of the hundreds of Filipino action films throughout history, my friend and I thought, why are there none about an action grandma? From that, it evolved into a self-reflexive film about a writer writing her own life.”
The movie is also a heartfelt ode to writing and the creative process. The writer-director recounted her long journey to pen the script.
“Writing, like the film itself, had its own complicated journey,” she began. “I’m a cinematographer and a self-confessed bad writer so it was difficult for me to write a film about a good writer with a film about writing itself.”
“It took me five years, a couple of labs and workshops, calls for help from friends and thoughts of quitting to come up with a shooting script.”
“My producers Mario Cornejo and Monster Jimenez, who are both accomplished filmmakers, helped me finalize the script by conducting what seemed like writing therapy sessions. It is through their guidance that I felt that the script was ready.”
“And it didn’t end there. We would constantly write and re-write until the last stages of editing this film. It is a perpetually changing script, which I wasn’t prepared for but feels just right based on how the film turned out.”
Casting was an equally challenging process for the director nicknamed Marty.
“We started casting very early and we had no clear frontrunners,” she recounted. “But we had two things to consider aside from talent: an openness to a film like LWND (Leonor Will Never Die) and a connection to the character when they read for the part.”
“What was challenging was the idea of casting a wide net, especially for the men and trying to make sure that they had chemistry with our Leonor. That took some time.”
“As with many independent films, actors are not exactly falling in line for your film. You have to seek them out and watch as many films, television shows, and plays to get the people you want.”
“There are no casting agents for films in the Philippines. And, in any case, we had no budget to hire a casting agent in the first place. And then once you see the actors, you need to sell the project to them as well.”
The director found her winning grandma action heroine in Sheila Francisco, whose credits include a critically praised performance as Bloody Mary in Trevor Nunn’s revival of South Pacific at the Royal National Theatre in London.
“We had a handful of actresses but Sheila was the closest to how I imagined Leonor on paper and in mind,” Martika said about the actress, who also earned praises in stage musicals in Singapore.
“Like what I have mentioned, when she read the script, I felt that Leonor was alive. And that’s a big deal for filmmakers because don’t we just want to bring characters and stories to life?”
“To feel that she is real is my sign. And it’s a bonus that she’s a great singer and a wonderful person off-camera.”
“There were a few really good Leonors who came our way. And seriously, it wasn’t so much that they were less than stellar but I was also looking for someone who could add their own thing to the character.”
“There was a lot riding on that final casting. What are the qualities you look for in a character who was once a female director-writer in the ‘80s action genre?”
“You need someone who feels like they fit in that macho world, with the intelligence and sharpness of a writer, and the tough tenderness of a mother. I was asking for a lot.”
“Sheila Francisco was never on our radar until my producer Monster Jimenez saw her in the hit musical, Ang Huling El Bimbo. So I watched Sheila and it was a short but very distinct role – she owned that character.”
“And when Sheila read for the first time, she did add another dimension to the character and that was very refreshing. I remember during her call back: we had to ask back the rest of our cast so she could read with them.”
Rocky Salumbides as the ultimate Filipino macho movie action star is an absolute hoot. “He is a hoot, for sure,” Martika agreed about Rocky, who is a former ramp and print model.
“Rocky was one of the first actors we knew had to be part of the film. There’s a certain wildness to him. He’s one of those instinctive actors who are just naturally talented.”
The film is a Valentine to Filipino cinema by someone who has obviously seen a lot of Tagalog action films.
Martika agreed and said, “Growing up, we’d often have our television turned on in the afternoon until the news, which airs during dinner time. In those afternoons, I’d often see replays of Pinoy action movies.”
“I can’t even recall the titles but I can recall scenes. I’ve always been fascinated with how films look like the lives of others contained in a tiny television. So a lot of that has remained in my memory since then.”
But Martika has a special place in her cineaste soul for choice work by the masters: Pagdating sa Dulo by Ishmael Bernal, Kakabakaba Ka Ba? by Mike De Leon, and Mababangong Bangungot by Kidlat Tahimik.
She explained, “All of these films I’ve seen when I was already an aspiring filmmaker and I must say these are films that will stay with me forever.”
“I think it’s how they see filmmaking and life through their work that closely resonates with how I am as a filmmaker and human being.”
So while Martika was working on a very tight budget, she reveled in the “joyful” camaraderie in creating her first feature film.
“The shot was tiring but it was equally joyful because of the team and their fun spirit. Most of them are about my age so we’re all familiar with the Pinoy action film conventions, which we learned from playbacks of these films on local TV.”
“It’s also fun to do ambitious scenes under a very tight budget. It meant that we had to be creative in getting scenes done. A lot of times we would come up with silly ideas but we would often make it work!”
“Creating the fight scenes was the best for me! Action scenes require their own manner of shooting and so I learned a lot from our stunt team.”
“The process was fun and we were all aligned in this being a homage and not a parody of the genre.”
I cited Martika’s quote in the production notes: “Not so long ago, a famous action star with no background in law and governance became the 13th President of the Philippines. I was six years old then and as a young girl, it felt natural for somebody famous to get elected.”
“Today, decades later, after having two more ‘action star’ presidents, I find myself questioning this absurd reality and am surprised by how easy it can be understood once I place it in parallel with our love for movies.”
I asked Martika how much of this sentiment drove her to make the film.
She answered, “I’m living proof that films can affect and change people. I’m an only child and somewhat a loner so growing up, I would often find refuge in watching films.”
“It is through films that I get to learn more about life and people and so I see films not only as a friend but as a teacher as well.”
“Films can make us look at the world differently, and having an action star elected as president is just one of its manifestations. So there’s also that part of inviting the audience to have a reality check.”
“We’re all writing our own lives in our own movies but there are also others who want to write our lives. We should just be aware of that.”
It’s a miracle, given the state of Philippine cinema, that Martika got financing to get her fresh, unconventional film made.
“From what I remember, it is eight years of pitching and begging from people, companies, brands, whoever,” she shared.
“A film such as this is a risk for anybody who plans on investing so we’re really lucky to have been able to collect a sum that was good enough to make the film.”
“These are private investors, grants, a lot of friendship cards, and my personal savings.”
“When you don’t have a lot of money for a movie, what you need is a lot of time. We developed the film by putting in film labs like Singapore Film Lab, Berlinale/Tokyo Next Masters Program, and Ties That Bind.”
“Developing the material with other people forced me to think of the film as a living thing. As something that needs to be nurtured and reactive to the elements around it.”
“What’s great about these development labs is you become a community making these films at the same time around the world – and you help each other out until one by one of your films pop up somewhere in some festival.”
“And when we were in post-production, where we got stuck during the pandemic, it was a trying time for me. Luckily, we got in First Cut Lab where I was, again, forced to look at my work and turn it inside out.”
“And finally, there’s FDCP (Film Development Council of the Philippines) that is giving us funds to help promote the film.”
“Once you are aware that there is a support system, it’s kind of heartening to know. As a consequence, you have to invest in a lot of time to be able to see these incubation film labs and funding networks come to fruition.”
Now that Leonor Will Never Die is set to premiere in Sundance, the mecca of independent films, she looked back at the challenges that she had to cope with to make the film.
“At the beginning, it was hard to earn the trust of people. I understand because it’s an ambitious script that looks expensive to make.”
“It is true so ever since, I was always open to the idea of not getting this film made. I was just happy to develop it and to get the chance to hone my skills as a writer through workshops.”
“Luckily, because of my short films in the past, things just fell into place. Doors opened and it led me to the right people.”
“It was not easy but I’m very lucky to have established producers with me because they were the ones who made a way on how to get this film made.”
“Now that the film is finished, I feel a sense of relief. Eight years of work is a big deal ,and for now, I am thrilled that people will get to see it. At the same time, I also want to rest and perhaps spend another couple of years developing something else.”
Sundance was set to be an in-person live event again this year at its usual snowy venue, Park City, Utah, until the Omicron variant forced the organizers to revert to the online or virtual version.
“It’s sad because my team and I were all set to travel and experience the festival in real life,” admitted Martika, who is in Manila. “Plus it’s also a semi-escape from our COVID prisons here but it’s just that.”
“I was okay with it. I even posted about it on social media that the pandemic clarified my dreams and traveling to Sundance is simply the bonus to the dream so to know that it’s part of the festival is enough.”
Martika still looks at the silver lining in the online version of one of the most prestigious film festivals in the United States.
“I’m looking forward to finding the right people for this film. Looking forward to watching the films at home, too!”
I also eagerly await how the festival’s online audience will react to Martika’s audacious feature debut. In 2013, Metro Manila, a British film set in the Philippines and directed by Sean Ellis, won the festival’s audience award.
With a terrific future ahead of her, Martika expressed her hope as a filmmaker.
“To spread love through filmmaking because it’s what the world needs.” – Rappler.com