Two hours in traffic with Nora Aunor

Nora Aunor had been fighting off a bit of malaise since the shoot began. Five hours later, when everything’s wrapped up, she hurries to the van taking her home, lights a cigarette against an open window, and proceeds to smoke despite the coughing fits that would only be more pronounced later. No one in the van tells her to do otherwise, either out of respect or because the Superstar will do as she pleases anyway. There are six of us in the van, two being Aunor’s assistant and a close associate, and the other three from CNN Philippines. The rain beats hard on the roof as we make our way from the director Brillante Mendoza’s compound in Mandaluyong to Aunor’s home in Quezon City. It’s six in the evening and traffic is slowly building up. It’s going to be a long ride.

My plan had been perfect: to interview Ate Guy — Aunor’s famous moniker — during the van ride home. I figured she would probably need some time to rest after the three-hour shoot with Mitzi Borromeo and the rest of CNN Philippines’s “Profiles” team. She had been hurrying to head home right after the shoot; her brother Buboy, known to the general public as the former teen idol Eddie Villamayor, has been in the hospital for a few days and she wants to make it home as early as she can so she can take a few hours’ rest and go back to the hospital and take care of her brother. “Ano na yung interview mo, hijo?” she asks me after she finishes a cigarette. I tell her she can rest for a few more minutes, seeing as her cough has gotten more frequent. Later, she moves to the back of the van. “Baka mahawa ko kayo.” I tell her I don’t mind.

If the Superstar were to transmit her germs to me, it would be an honor. I don’t tell her this, of course. She smiles politely, straining as she suppresses another coughing fit. She’s been tired running errands and shooting all day. She settles in the last seat at the back, sitting there for the rest of the ride home.

A balm and a tempest

The Ate Guy in the van is a stark contrast to what I’d seen during the shoot. It’s easy to equate her punchy demeanor with the presence of cameras, recording each of her gestures, facial expressions, and proclamations of delight and sadness. She’s an actress; it’s her job to play it up — or down — once the lights start flashing bright. In this case, it’s really just because she’s not feeling well.

It doesn’t hurt that Borromeo had been a charming host, guiding her along the topography of her life’s work question by question. Her film “Taklub,” directed by Mendoza, continues to be screened at different film festivals around the world, a year after it premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Last March, the film won another prize at a film festival in Lorient, France. “Pagka may napapanalunan ang isang proyekto na ginagawa mo, lalo na pagka sa ibang bansa nanggaling yung panalo, eh hindi mo maipaliwanag yung saya na dapat mong maramdaman,” she tells Borromeo during the interview.

This is hardly her most prestigious win, given the long list of awards and recognitions she’s received since her acting career began. She has seven Gawad Urian awards, five FAMAS awards, and five from the Film Academy of the Philippines, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. Yet her recent body of work has proved how she’s warranted her status in the competitive playing field of today’s film industry. She need not stoop down to play second fiddle to budding starlets — she’s worked with some of them, and despite the contestable meat of her roles in those respectable films, she still commands the entirety of the whole film. Her presence is both a balm and a tempest, an ingenuity that can only be honed through several decades of work, with some of the most formidable Filipino directors.

Her films make up a stunning list of masterpieces that form the cornerstone of our cinematic history, from Lino Brocka’s “Bona,” to Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala,” to Mario O’Hara’s “Bulaklak sa City Jail.” Her recent films have amassed plaudits mostly for her performance, but none have achieved such status as her most recognizable films have — at least for now, until some film critic in the future would deem her post-2000s work worthy of being called “classics.”

Si Direk Lino kasiat saka si Mario O’Hara halos magkapareho ng style,” she recalls, when asked about some of the most memorable people she’s worked with. “Pero mas down-to-earth pag gumawa si Lino. [Yung] ‘Ina Ka ng Anak Mo,’ isa yun sa paborito kong pelikula nga pala, yung kami niLolita Rodriguez.”

She recalls being starstruck working with Rodriguez. “Ang isang gusto ko doon kay Lolita, habang umaarte ako, ako’ng kinukunan, talagang nagre-react siyaMas lalo akong naganahan sa ginagawa koKaya yun ang isang artista na, wala nanakita ko na hindi mapagkaitYun yung artista na tumutulong sa kapwa-artista niya para mapaganda ang isang eksenaTumutulong siya kung ano yung dapat, yung kung anong gagawin niya, ginagawa niya talaga habang kinukunan yung eksena.”

These days, it’s the young actors who will probably kill just to work with her. Among the ones she’s worked with are Jasmine Curtis-Smith in “Dementia,” Alden Richards in the short film “Kinabukasan,” and Barbie Forteza in the upcoming “Tuos,” a finalist in this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival.

It took almost a decade before she finally got to work in films again. After filming “Naglalayag” in 2004, she took an eight-year hiatus in the U.S., turning out minimal work and a few concerts. She finally returned to the Philippines in 2011, though she had lost her voice during a surgical procedure, a malady she intends to correct by undergoing another procedure this month. Upon her return, she asked who the Brockas and Bernals were in the new generation of directors. One of the names that were mentioned to her was Mendoza. In the span of a few years, their films “Thy Womb” (2012) and last year’s “Taklub” would compete in international film festivals, including Venice and Cannes, a testament to her enduring skill as an actress.

A bottle of brandy

As her interview with “Profiles” was coming to a close, she’d requested one thing, to maybe fuel her for the last few questions. It was almost 6 p.m., and she’d had a long day. “Request ko langmaybrandy sana!” And she had laughed and said it was just a joke. Later, Mendoza had come to the set with a bottle of brandy. Someone had opened the bottle, and she had taken a shot and passed the glass to the others. “Sino’ng may gusto?” she had asked. A member of the camera crew had taken a drink. No one else had budged. But I had volunteered — it’s shaping up to be a long day for me as well. I’d reached out for the glass and drunk its remaining contents. Cheering had ensued, and she grew even more lively for the rest of the interview.

Once in the van, she says, “Akala ko gagaling ako sa brandy.” She’s now slumped into her corner of the van, fussing over the details of her brother’s hospitalization. It’s disheartening to see someone of her stature worry about having to pay for medical bills and asking so many people to help her take care of her brother. She’s now feeling even more sick; maybe she can’t go to the hospital, after all. She tells her assistant to buy a few things for her brother, including prepaid credits so she can call whoever’s in the hospital. Even Sen. Loren Legarda, who was one of the principal advocates of “Taklub,” extended help for Aunor’s brother. There are also some Noranians — as her fans are commonly called — willing to help out, transcending their roles as mere spectators. Aunor’s journey is their own, as well, and they’ll do whatever they can to help her out.

“‘Wag mong kakalimutan kung saan ka nagmula,” she says during the interview. “At maging malapit sa mga fans. Mahalin mo yung mga fans. Ang mga fans ang talagang magbibigay sa isang artista ng talagang [saya], ‘di ba? ‘Pag hindi ka mahal ng mga fans, sino’ng magkakagulo sa iyoEh, minsan nga yung mga fans ko, bilib na bilib ako kasi minsan nagagalit ako sa kanila. Pero kahit anong pagalit, o anong pinagsasabihan ko sa kanila, mahal pa rin nila ako. Yung ganun. May nagtatanong sa akin, ‘Ano ba ang sikreto mo? Bakit yung mga fans, malapit sa ‘yo?’ Isa lang iyan siguro. Lumaki ako sa hirapSo ang mga fans, masa ehNakita nila yung sarili nila sa akinKaya siguro naging malapit sila sa akin.”

Her brother would pass away on June 27, 2016, almost two weeks after the interview. They both starred in the film “Minsa’y Isang Gamu-Gamo,” where the line “My brother is not a pig!” came from. He was 56 years old.

A mere footnote

I never get to talk to her during the trip. I wouldn’t get to ask her anything. Nothing, not even small talk. Just some polite exchanges: “Hijo, pakihinaan naman ang aircon.” “Saan na tayo?” “Malapit na ba tayo?” I never get to ask her about her brother, or even send some well-wishes. In my mind, anything from me would just be another bother in her long list of worries. What else is there to talk about, anyway? Whatever I ask will just be a mere footnote to her legend. She isn’t called a “superstar” for nothing. She shines on her own, no matter what happens.


This article originally appeared on CNN Philippines Life (July 1, 2016). Photo by BJ PASCUAL for CNN Philippines Life. 


Meet the Filipino who runs Penguin Classics

It was a bit unbelievable — as with any international recognition bestowed upon any piece of Filipino culture — that Jose Rizal’s incendiary novel “Noli Me Tangere” was published under the prestigious Penguin Classics banner in 2006. Alongside novels belonging to the world literature canon, from Austen to Zamyatin, the very book that we studied in junior year exists in its own “Black Classics” edition, on whose cover are orange lettering on a black background and a white stripe bearing the distinctive Penguin logo and the “Penguin Classics” label emblazoned on it, sealing its position in the shelves of bookshops and book lovers everywhere.

Elda Rotor came into Penguin Classics as editorial director the same year “Noli Me Tangere” joined the Classics roster, as if in an auspicious stroke of coincidence. Prior to joining Penguin, Rotor had accumulated quite an experience in the literary publishing world. A year after she graduated from college, she served as editorial assistant for the trade and academic editor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Oxford University Press. She moved up over 13 years to be associate editor for trade paperbacks, and then editor and senior editor for trade books in the humanities. From there, she made the move to the U.S. arm of Penguin (now an imprint of Penguin Random House), where she’s been an editor for a decade now, and where she is currently the vice president and publisher of its Penguin Classics line.

Her job entails overseeing a massive list of 50 frontlist titles a year, with a backlist of over 1,600 titles. She has a team of three commissioning literary material from new translations, works from new estates, and authors who can write new forewords and introductions to new editions of Penguin Classics.

“I work with the estates of John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, Shirley Jackson, and Dorothy Parker, among others,” she shares. “Every day there is something inspiring to work on, but there are a lot of pots on the stove, and the challenge is to keep things moving, publish thoughtfully, and always have the big picture in mind, of how the brand serves its audience, and how we can improve and grow.”

After Rizal’s “Noli” and its sequel, “El Filibusterismo,” and Jose Garcia Villa’s poetry collection “Doveglion” (introduced by the New York-based Filipino author Luis Francia), Nick Joaquin will soon be published under Penguin Classics, which recently acquired rights to his short story collection “The Woman With Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic” and his play “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” in time for the author’s birth centennial in May 2017.

Rotor recently sat down with CNN Philippines Life in the four-floor Penguin Random House offices on Hudson Street in New York for exclusive portraits and a peek at the office that shapes the reading habits of the world. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

How did the integration of Philippine literature for Penguin Classics come about? Was it a hard case to pitch?

My predecessor first commissioned Harold Augenbraum to translate “Noli Me Tangere.” I know Harold was encouraged by Luis Francia to produce a new English translation. I started at Penguin right when the “Noli” was first published, so I devoted my time and energy to build a network of support around the publication. There were some great publicity and promotional activities around the “Noli,” and the ties I made with Filipino professionals in different industries from that publication have been long-lasting, it’s very inspiring.

After “Noli,” next came “Doveglion” by Jose Garcia Villa. Why him and why that particular work of his?

I had known of Jose Garcia Villa since I was in college. There is this iconic 1940s photograph of a group of writers at Gotham Book Mart in New York. It includes Elizabeth Bishop, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, W.H. Auden, and in the middle of the group was Jose Garcia Villa. I was intrigued by him and his position among these writers. I have that photograph on my bulletin board at work now and it was very satisfying to learn more about his poetry, his mentoring, and his career here in the U.S. I believe I learned about the availability of rights to his work through Luis Francia first, and through him I met the executor of the Villa estate, John Cowen.

How’s the reception of the Filipino books in Penguin Classics so far?

Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” in particular has had steady course adoption each year, which was our hope. The growth of its readership has stretched beyond the initial audience of Filipino readers familiar with the classic, and this is what makes any of our titles successful — the organic growth of a readership based on word-of-mouth recommendations, course adoption, connections made to other classics, etc. Through the “Noli,” readers have a window to Philippine history and the revolutionary and artistic spirit embodied in Rizal.

Is it particularly complicated to make a Penguin Classic out of a work of Philippine literature, which sadly remains underrepresented in the international literary scene?

I don’t think it’s particularly complicated. It helps a great deal to identify a group of advocates who are knowledgeable of the author and work to help contextualize their importance to the series. Offering comparative titles and authors, relevant themes, this all works to illuminate both the uniqueness and universal aspects of the work. This information is shared among a larger team of people working on Penguin Classics, from our sale reps to publicity to marketing to the art department. We want to open all the potential avenues of opportunity to find new readers for our works, and knowing more about what made a work originally relevant helps connect it to how it can be relevant to modern readers.

Soon to join the roster of Penguin Classics is Nick Joaquin. Do you have a list of Filipino authors whom you would like to add to it?

I have had a few queries and suggestions in the past. There are several factors that help inform our decision if an author is right and ready for Penguin Classics. For Nick Joaquin, his reputation and legacy spoke for themselves. Having his centennial coming up and the fact that these works have not been widely available outside the Philippines made the idea of a Penguin Classic so much more exciting.

Tell us about the joys and challenges of having a book published as a Penguin Classic. What is the process like?

The main joy is bringing an audience to a work that would otherwise lead a quiet life, not having the chance to be brought into the light of a modern readership. A greater joy is hearing individual responses of how enlightening or enjoyable a book has been, and connecting that experience with the fact that the edition was a Penguin Classic. The challenges are working very hard to edit, produce, and publish a book and to see its reception to be very modest. So either you realize that the readership was small, or that for some reason we failed to reach a wider audience for a variety of factors.

There are already a great many editions of literary classics available, especially of the ones already in the public domain. Why then do you continue to put out even newer editions, some in special editions such as Penguin Threads, Penguin Drop Caps, and Penguin Couture Classics?

In the 10 years I’ve worked at Penguin Classics, it’s proven to be true that there is nothing that compares to a quality edition of a great work of literature. We are very much in the digital world, providing e-books for much of our list. But there’s something about the physical beauty of a book, finely executed inside and out, that readers find deeply satisfying. We bring much work and thought into the production of our books, from authoritative texts, interior design, to cutting-edge book design, and we have built a strong reputation for this distinction. Developing series such as the Penguin Drop Caps, Penguin Horror, Civic Classics, and soon the Penguin Orange Collection and Penguin Galaxy represents our dedication to our readers and curating special series for their interests that are beautiful objects unto themselves. Overall it reflects the deep respect we have for the reader’s experience and our focus on enriching that experience with a Penguin Classic.  

Do you think Filipinos themselves read enough Philippine literature?

I don’t know if Filipinos themselves read enough Philippine literature, but I tell anyone who listens that the numbers speak for themselves. If you want Filipino writers to be published, you must support their publications. Publishers, marketers, etc. look at comparative titles and their sales. My ability to publish “El Filibusterismo” is connected to the success of “Noli Me Tangere.”  The opportunity to publish Jose Garcia Villa is informed by the community who buys Rizal. There is no obligation to read exclusively but there are many reasons to read supportively.

Are there any Filipino new voices you’re reading and keen on seeing more work from?

I’m excited for Mia Alvar and am reading her work now; she is part of that bridge of Filipino voices that I hope readers will traverse to learn more about the exquisite talents these writers bring and how they illuminate the Filipino experience. There is another writer, Elaine Castillo, whose work I read for my colleague at Viking (another Penguin Random House imprint), and I very much look forward to her novel, which features Ilocano characters across multiple generations, since my family is Ilocano. She has such a distinctive narrative voice, unsentimental, sharp and observant.

Finally, do you have a list of Penguin Classics “required reading”?

Of course! Here are some, based on my own favorites and also recommended titles that will surprise, inspire, challenge, and astonish your readers:

  • El Filibusterismo” by Jose Rizal
  • “My Antonia” by Willa Cather
  • “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse
  • “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
  • “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller
  • “Passing” by Nella Larsen
  • “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko
  • “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan
  • “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson
  • “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard
  • “Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe” by Thomas Ligotti
  • “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde
  • “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte
  • “Persuasion” by Jane Austen
  • “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov


Originally published on CNN Philippines (June 17, 2016). Photo of Elda Rotor by JL JAVIER

Rescuing the lost heritage of Philippine cinema

Not too long ago, Quiapo stood as an unofficial film school. Pirated films — in generic DVD-Rs packaged in plastic with their respective movie posters in front — lined the stalls of these bustling commerce centers, sometimes windowless and boxy. In the absence of proper film archiving and restoration, this underground economy was where lovers of film — hardcore or casual — turned to satiate their fix for that elusive Lino Brocka gem, or Ishmael Bernal’s debut, or a movie marathon of Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s feminist classics, most of which didn’t exist in accessible legitimate format.

These copies were not the best quality: digital transfers from ancient Betamax tapes, letterboxed video recordings from television airings (complete with the channel logo on the upper right side of the screen), or copies of low resolution VCD releases. These DVDs were the embodiment of “Pwede na ‘yan” — a telling sign of the local movie industry’s sorry state of archiving. Apart from a few DVDs, such as Cinefilipino that had films such as Lino Brocka’s “Ina, Kapatid, Anak” and Ishmael Bernal’s “Manila by Night,” the unwatchable Sampaguita Pictures copies, and major studio releases, there is hardly any legitimate source for any of the considered classics of Philippine cinema. Then suddenly, some of them weren’t being produced anymore.

The dilemma of the Filipino film buff deepens even further. There were no cinematheques then. The artist-run Mogwai at Cubao X in Quezon City was at least a saving grace for the brief years it existed, from 2007-2011, doling out screenings of contemporary Filipino films, Hollywood classics, and even a few film festivals. The UP Film Institute’s Cinema Adarna was, and still is, a constant refuge for retrospectives of important Filipino films. The Cultural Center of the Philippines also has its own archives. But aside from these places mentioned, where else could you go if you want to watch Manuel Conde’s epic “Genghis Khan”? Or Danny Zialcita’s deliciously subversive “T-Bird at Ako”? Or Eddie Romero’s still relevant “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?”


One of the keys to preserving our film heritage is the magic of restoration — classic titles all restored to their groundbreaking glories, whether small scale or grandiose. When you think of American cinema, titles such as “Gone with the Wind” (1939) or “The Sound of Music” (1965) exist — and are appreciated — in the hearts and minds of many, precisely because they are still around, retrievable and accessible in many forms — and have been restored to their fullest versions several times. Moreover, these two aforementioned films have recently been restored yet again in BluRay and 4K in time for their respective anniversaries.

A scholar, or even an enthusiast, looking to rediscover American cinema’s gems can easily source copies of “Citizen Kane” (1940) or “Raging Bull” (1980) in watchable form whereas someone looking for copies of Gerry De Leon’s “Ang Daigdig ng Mga Api” (1965) or any of Manuel Conde’s “Juan Tamad” films will be saddened to hear that no prints of these films survive — and both directors are National Artists for Film. Restoring a film is capturing history in itself, for visual language is more than just pretty pictures on the screen; it tells the story of our nation. And in the absence of film heritage, a nation suffers and forgets.


Up until the early 2010s, a local initiative for a large-scale restoration was almost unheard of. The first restoration of a Filipino film, Gerry De Leon’s “Noli Me Tangere” (1961), was backed by the German government in 1990. In 1993, the Society of Filipino Film Archivists (SOFIA), a non-profit NGO, was initiated by passionate film enthusiasts who took it upon themselves to save our film heritage in the absence of a government program. They’ve since worked with local and foreign institutions to save our cinematic heritage.

After “Noli Me Tangere” in 1990, it took eight years, and another foreign government — this time, Australia — and SOFIA, to rescue another lost classic, Carlos Vander Tolosa’s “Giliw Ko” (1939). The next full restoration wouldn’t happen until 2012, again, backed by a foreign initiative and in partnership with the government’s Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), with the repatriation of Manuel Conde’s epic, “Genghis Khan.” Restored in L’Imaggine Ritrovatta in Italy, the prints used were the same ones screened during the 1952 Venice Film Festival.

Several titles would soon follow, two of which would be backed by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation: Lino Brocka’s “Insiang” and “Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag” (1973).

But the sole full-scale film restoration by a Filipino company wouldn’t happen until 2012, with ABS-CBN’s restoration of Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala” (1982) — a pipe dream that was several years in the making.

As early as the late 1990s, ABS-CBN had been gearing up to restore some of the most important films in its vaults. When the media company began its film production arm, Star Cinema, in 1993, a cable movie channel soon followed after, and subsequently, a film archive that contained titles for which it had acquired television rights, which had productions under Seiko, OctoArts, and RVQ (Dolphy’s film outfit), and other films ABS-CBN owned in perpetuity, such as the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines productions, including Peque Gallaga’s “Oro, Plata, Mata” (1982) and Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala” (1982) — both of which were produced by the then channel head of ABS-CBN, Charo Santos-Concio.

The film archives of ABS-CBN is one of the few of its kind in the country. The vaults are climate controlled with temperatures kept between 8 to 10 degrees Celsius to preserve the fragile negatives. Other private archives, such as the facilities of Viva Films, FPJ Productions (which recently acquired a 4K scanner for their titles), and Reyna Films (owned by Armida and Carlitos Siguion-Reyna), are also some of the few well-kept facilities in the country.

Otherwise, the films in poorly maintained facilities have suffered damages due to several factors such as fluctuating temperatures (air conditioning is turned off at the end of day) which only hasten the deterioration of the negatives — often deteriorating into flush or “vinegar syndrome” — unkempt records, and funding problems. After all, a well-maintained archive means spending money for temperature and humidity control. The estimated budget for a national film archive structure alone, according to a monograph published in 2005 by SOFIA, is approximately ₱200 million.

But protection and preservation of films not only mean safekeeping, there is also the responsibility to keep the legacy of these films alive. This is something that urged Leo Katigbak, the head of ABS-CBN film archives, to find ways to restore some of the important films under its care.

One of the first films that they were eyeing on was “Oro, Plata, Mata.” But in early 2000s, this meant that the restoration will be done using analog technology and would cost around ₱25 million.

“At that time, the cost was too prohibitive [… and] it would not even address all the problems that ‘Oro’ already had at that time,” shares Katigbak. “[The quote] was pretty steep. So [we decided] we’ll bide our time, and see what options are there in the future, but the idea being if the films are already with us, hopefully, we will prevent any further deterioration.”

Himala” would become the benchmark of the success of ABS-CBN’s restoration program. In 2012, Bernal’s film was celebrating its 30th year. Its screenwriter, Ricky Lee, was set to release a book about his experience on set, and Cinema One was working with Sari Lluch Dalena and Keith Sicat on a documentary on the making of the film (its climactic scene featured a 3,000-strong crowd, eight cameras, and no digital effects). And even though the restoration project was already underway with several of Star Cinema’s older titles — the first completed was “Maalala Mo Kaya: The Movie” (1994) — it made sense to launch with a marquee title such as “Himala,” which was hailed as the Best Asia-Pacific film by CNN in 2008 and is headlined by one of the most recognizable icons in local cinema, Nora Aunor

By the early 2010s, restoration equipment and processes became more accessible and less expensive. Central Digital Lab, ABS-CBN’s partner with the restoration project, was already scanning some of Star Cinema’s films so they were, to some extent, already digitizing some of the company’s archives with some of the lab’s in-house film specialists. At the time the full restoration of “Himala” was being put into plan, the film was already halfway through the process. The scanning part was easy, the actual restoration part was that boulder that they had to wrestle with uphill.

“It had a lot of discoloration,” says Manet Dayrit, Central Digital Lab’s president. “It had missing frames — a lot of it is really manual work, frame by frame.”

Central Digital Lab completed the restoration of “Himala” in time for the anniversary. It was picked up by the Venice Film Festival in 2012 for their classics sidebar (Nora Aunor attended the screening). But the task was monumental. It took 664 hours to complete with a budget as close to the original ₱3 million shooting cost.

Himala” is one of the few older films that was fortunate enough to still exist in multiple prints. Most of the older films restored by ABS-CBN only exist in badly preserved prints, which contain several instances of damage such as molds and fungi, color shifting and fading, specks and scratches, flickering, and breathing (“‘Yung image na lumilinaw at lumalabo,” Katigbak notes). The ideal reference would be the master negative — the film exposed to the actual camera — and several Star Cinema films still exist in this form. But in its absence, any existing print, just as long as it is in rescuable form, will suffice.


Himala” formed the structure for the restoration of the subsequent films. Instead of just drawing up a random list, Katigbak wanted a film from each auteur. Aside from modern classics such as Rory Quintos’ “Anak” (2000) or Romy Suzara’s “Sarah… Ang Munting Prinsesa” (1995), unseen or unrecognized titles are put out, such as Celso Ad Castillo’s “Virgin People” (1983), Butch Perez’s “Haplos” (1982), and Ishmael Bernal’s “Ikaw Ay Akin” (1978).

Hindi rin ako pwedeng puro luma kasi kung ang population ng Philippines masyadong bata, matatandaan pa nila ang ‘Sarah… Ang Munting Prinsesa’ pero ‘Himala’ hindi na nila matatandaan,” says Katigbak. “So I had to make sure that I am appealing to two sets of audiences that can potentially cross.”

If possible, the director or any of the surviving film crew would supervise the process. With “Himala,” Ricky Lee was on board, and it was cinematographer Romy Vitug and director Carlos Siguion-Reyna himself for the Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta “Wuthering Heights” adaptation, “Hihintayin Kita sa Langit.” They make sure that the colors, sound, and texture of the refreshed version still hew close to the original.

“Part of the discussion was to what extent do we push the restoration,” says Katigbak. “Kasi kung gusto mo talagang linisin, pwedeng ‘yung film magmumukha nang video. And to me, it still should look like film. We had to agree na kapag ganito ‘yung defect, hanggang ganito lang natin aayusin ‘yan… Para kang archaeologist, eh. You have to make a judgement call [kung‘yung paglilinis makakasira ba o hindi.”


The office of Central Digital Lab is a vault in itself. Editing bays are dark and cold, with heavy, soundproofed doors shutting you off from everything else. For the artists pouring hours and hours of laborious work, the world is just the computer screen where the human condition exists in badly damaged footage.

“You have to imagine that we’re looking at these frames, one frame at a time,” says Tiqui Del Rosario, one of the senior restoration artists at Central Digital Lab. “It’s not as if [the film] is always playing. It’s just like you’re photoshopping a single picture for hours. If you’re not passionate about it, mababaliw ka talaga. When you go home from work, [you’ll think] ‘Ah ‘yun lang ‘yung nagawa ko [the entire day]’ … pero when you think about it in the end, when you’re in the theater watching [the final result], it’s all worth it.”

A chunk of the lab’s staff, as well as in ABS-CBN’s restoration and archives department, are in their 20s. Most of them only have a vague, nostalgic recollection of these films from the ‘70s and ‘80s — the attachment of working on bringing them back to life might just be on a basis of accomplishing one task to another. But it takes a different kind of frenzied relationship with cinema to power through thousands of hours of restoration work.

In Del Rosario’s office, which she shares with another senior restoration artist Ana Bilbao, the walls are adorned with posters of the films they’ve worked on. It’s a trophy wall of sorts, with the most difficult ones — such as Lino Brocka’s “Cain at Abel” (1982), and Danny Zialcita’s “Nagalit ang Buwan sa Haba ng Gabi” (1983) — on the left wall. Closer to their workstations are films from the ‘90s — Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’ seminal fantasy film, “Magic Temple” and the MarJolina (pre-KathNiel tandem, Marvin Agustin and Jolina Magdangal) starrer “Labs Kita, Okey Ka Lang?” — films that are more beloved and familiar for people their age.

“As a kid, you would watch these films, and you never would have thought na when you [grow] up, you’d be actually working on these films,” says Bilbao. “So iba ‘yung feeling na, parang, oh my gosh, nung high school ako [I watched this film] …  tapos biglang you’re actually restoring it. Iba ‘yungnostalgia.”

When asked about the toughest work to date, all of them, including Dayrit, immediately answer Zialcita’s “Nagalit ang Buwan….”

“There’s a shot with an airplane landing on an airport and wala na talaga siya. It’s burned,” says Bilbao. “There are molds, tears, and all the damage, it’s all there. It’s the best of the worst.” Not to mention that in the print they’re working on, some curse words are censored and can no longer be re-dubbed anymore.

The lab usually works on several films at once, even up to six days a week with artists in shifts. It starts from scanning the film itself. One film is usually made up of five to six parts, each roll made of 35 mm negative (about 20 minutes of screen time). There are more cans if multiple copies of the print exist.

“We might have a couple copies of one particular title because there’s bits missing or there’s some rolls with different condition,” says Rick Hawthorne, the lab’s film specialist and Dayrit’s business partner since the company was known as Roadrunner. “Particularly the heads and tails on the beginning and end of the part which [are] the most vulnerable [parts]. Sometimes they’re missing. We’ve had movies here which we’ve had to actually rebuild the open credits, [such as in the case of ‘Ganito Kami Noon…’].”

Once the print cleanup is done, the file is stored in a server and is accessed only by the artists working on the restoration. Then, that’s where the hard work starts.

In conversations with the lab’s artists, the word “magic” usually comes up in reference to the tricks that they use to reverse the damage of each image. “Magic” is how Del Rosario and Bilbao made the airplane appear again in “Nagalit ang Buwan…” “Magic” is how tinny audio tracks are replaced with pristine and crisp ones, perhaps conjured from celluloid heaven. But, as Hawthorne explains, it is a complex machinery that involves numerous software versions, updated plugins, and a bottomless cache of patience and attention to detail.

For the nastiest, almost un-restorable prints, such as the Mike De Leon negatives from the Asian Film Archive in Singapore, they had to be sent to the Italian film laboratory L’Imagine Ritrovatta, which restored Lino Brocka’s “Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag” (1975), where De Leon was the cinematographer, and Lamberto Avellana’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino” (1965). The lab is currently working on three more Filipino films under the ABS-CBN restoration project: Jose Javier Reyes’s “May Minamahal” (1993), Uro Q. Dela Cruz’s “Misteryo sa Tuwa” (1984), and Pio De Castro III’s “Soltero” (1984).

“The funny thing is I talked to Ritrovata, they’re doing all the [restoration for] Hollywood studios,” says Katigbak. “Sabi ko what are the top 10 movies that you’ve had the most difficult restoring — three of our movies are in that top 10 list. Because with the U.S., kahit sabihin mong maraming problema, they have multiple strips of negatives. So sabi nga nila, if may problema ka sa molds, in all likelihood, hindi siya naka-duplicate sa iba … ‘yun ‘yung mga negatives na iba-iba ang kulay. Kumuha ka lang ng clear image [from another negative]. ‘Yung sa atin, iisa na nga lang ‘yung source mo, compounded defects pa.”


The initial success of “Himala” also paved way for a marketing and distribution process to be put in place. The 30th anniversary of the film was met with a good box office response. It took a long time before Katigbak finally had a foothold to release the rest of the restored classics roster. It would not have made sense for the films to be just sent back in the vaults again.

They initially had to contend with first day-last day screenings, obscured by newer and bigger releases. “Nagmamakaawa ka every time for airtime [of the trailers], for booking, para sa suportapara sa mga sinehan … Ilalako mo talaga. Para kang nagbebenta ng insurance … ng encyclopedia.” The original venue for the premieres was UP Film Institute’s Cine Adarna — with red carpet premieres attended by stars such as Nora Aunor and Lea Salonga (“Sana Maulit Muli”) — but Katigbak wanted a more accessible location. He eventually snagged a deal with Power Plant Mall, a fruitful partnership with week-long screenings of restored films being held at the mall’s cinemas. Ayala Malls has also extended help, with screenings at UP Town Center, Trinoma, and Glorietta so far.

The films are also available on iTunes and the platform has a strict HD quality requirement for the titles submitted. In an industry that demands more HD content as devices scale up the picture output (even an iPhone can shoot up to 4K quality now), Dayrit posits that this is also one of the reasons why ABS-CBN, being a company that thinks ahead on how its content can survive in an increasingly digitized market — had to undertake a massive restoration of their film archives — not only for streaming and screening but for their HD channels as well.

“I remember the stuff that was showing in Cinema One, the old films, they were really scratched up but people are like, okay lang, let’s watch it,” says Dayrit. “They’ll watch it anyway, because it’s Nora Aunor or whoever. But then all of a sudden, oh my gosh, you put that in HD, it looks horrible. It looks even worse. Now you can really see all the defects and stuff.”

Social media and marketing materials are also integral to the success of the project. The restoration’s Facebook page constantly posts updates of screenings as well as teasers of upcoming films, all of which are made by Justin Besana, their in-house artist.

Besana is tasked to making a new poster of the restored film, while keeping the spirit of the original. The result of which is an interesting cross-section of modern design and the usual artista-centric promotion of local films.

“Aside from being nostalgic [yung posters para] sa fans ng movies, gusto namin ma-appreciate din ng mga bata ngayon,” says Besana. “We want to communicate with the younger audience paramaappreciate din nila… [paramalaman nila kung bakit naging ganito yung state ng film natin ngayon.”


Films go with tradition. The holidays are marked by viewings of “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) or “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). These are films that are more than 70 years old but have survived the transfer of technology because they are embedded in the viewing habits of the people. In the Philippines, one of the closest things that we have to an “annual” film tradition is when Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala” is on TV during the Lenten season. The film used to exist as a scratchy ghost of its former self, flanked with Japanese subtitles on the left side of the screen and Chinese at the bottom.

Dayrit points to the lack of foresight when talking about why these films were just left to die. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the concept of DVD extras or a director’s cut were a far-off thing. The destination of each film was just the cinema, and in the ‘90s, home video.

“I was editing films for a lot of [studios and productions] like Regal Films and I would talk to sina Mother Lily, and say, ‘We have to start saving your old films. It’s all wasting away; they’re disappearing as we speak,’” says Dayrit. “[They’d say,] ‘Ah masyadong mahal ‘yan,’ because it is expensive to do. And the return on investment is matagal. But ABS-CBN really realizes that regardless of how long the return on investment is, we have to do it now, because one, everybody needs the content, and two, this is really our film heritage that we are preserving.”

Katigbak notes that he is indebted to then ABS-CBN’s chairman Gabby Lopez and then president Charo Santos-Concio for supporting the “Sagip Pelikula,” the name of the restoration project.

“Mr. Lopez is also passionate [about] the movies,” says Katigbak. “So I really didn’t have any problems. Ang sinabi lang sa akin ni Mr. Lopez, ‘I understand that this is something we have to do, but I don’t know how we can recoup our costs’ because [this] will be expensive. And it’s not like the brand new movies [which have] far more commercial value. So ang pinangako ko lang, sabi ko, ‘Gabby, what I’ll promise you is that I’ll be very diligent and very responsible with how I handle the budget of the restoration project.’”

Now that digital restoration of classic Filipino films exist, a new generation of audience can appreciate the forgotten glory of Philippine cinema. The “Golden Age” is no longer a hallowed spectre talked about in reverential tones, but rather something you can see both on the big screen and on streaming devices.

“I talked to Joey Reyes who was a professor, sabi niya, ‘We can’t even recommend movies to our students, because there’s not a clear copy,’ even of our movies,” recalls Katigbak. “That’s something that we were trying to address. Kasi today, one of the saddest things is, it’s like … What if the Mona Lisa suddenly disappeared from the face of existence? What if the great songs of Constancio De Guzman, and Levi Celerio, even George Canseco, all of a sudden, disappeared? Freddie Aguilar’s ‘Anak,’ ‘diba? World-acclaimed, ni wala kang kopya dito, ni hindi na kilala ng mga bata. To me, that’s such a great disservice.”


Originally published on CNN Philippines Life (April 7, 2017). Photo courtesy of ABS-CBN RESTORATION 

Talking Movies (Or Why I Stopped Being a ‘Film Critic’)


I never liked being called a “film critic.” It was a burden that I didn’t want in the first place. It meant that every piece I wrote had to be coated with a thick sludge of seriousness. Thoughts became proper and each turn of phrase sharpened with a sense of responsibility to the reader and, by extension, the filmmaker — if they happened to chance upon the real estate where my words were being farmed out. I tried taking up this challenge a few times, calling on the ghosts of the film critics I admired so I could somehow do their profession justice. My attempts were meager, stuttering efforts on being firm and authoritative. My writing was never meant to hold such weight, a fact that I accepted early on in my short-lived post as a film reviewer. Why should I continue when there were better and more powerful figures out there, more adept and skilled at conveying the experience of watching films? There was just too many of us around, stomping and grunting, thinking we had something significant to say. And when you’re just another voice bellowing out into the wilderness, maybe it’s finally time to stop.

Pelikula was an enjoyable exercise bolstered by the excesses and ambitions of youth. Tumblr was young and we were just a couple of kids who had time to kill, curious about like-minded people online. The climate was of ecstatic discovery. People collaborated, driven by a sense of community, no matter how small it was back then. When we started Pelikula, Tumblr, as a platform began growing, and as year-end film lists were starting to dominate our dashboards, we thought it would be cool to introduce a film blog with a local perspective. We managed to run the blog steadily for three years. Enthusiasm wore out, people got busy and priorities were restacked. The blog gathered dust, pumped back into life by our occasional attempts to resuscitate it. It’s been eight months since we last posted something. Perhaps we’ll get back to it, now that we’ve grown up a little bit, certainly with a bit of editorial experience that was lacking when we first started. But it’s good to see it once in a while, if only as a reminder that we were once kids, thriving on recklessness and bursting with ideas that we thought would change the world.

What’s your greatest achievement? ”Someone asked me that in an interview. I drew a blank. Nothing. It was a simple question and for someone just two years out of college, I should have had an answer. What does it mean? Is it an award from school? Graduating with honors? No. That’s for nerds. What then? Publishing a book! Directing a film. I have none! All the responses streaming around my head — careful enough not to tumble out of my mouth — were the kind of sad replies from someone who hasn’t done sh*t. I wanted to say “co-creating Pelikula” and it should have been because it was “the little film blog that could,” at least in the three years that it was consistently running. Eventually, I was honest enough to say that I hadn’t really “achieved” anything yet. I told the interviewer about my plans of publishing a book on Philippine cinema and how I think life is actually a never-ending quest for the ultimate achievement: enlightenment.

Nope. I’m totally kidding about that last part.

There was a time, when we still had Pelikula, that I would watch an average of two films a day and post my thoughts/reviews online. Writing about films then was almost a reflex for me. Getting copies of Filipino films became a bit of a quest for me. I loved going to Quiapo, looking for classic films by Mike De Leon, Ishmael Bernal, Marilou Diaz Abaya, Celso Ad. Castillo, and even recent Cinemalaya films I didn’t get to watch. I attended film festivals religiously, shelling out hard-earned money for tickets, festival passes and, in some cases, repeated viewings of films I loved.

I don’t get to watch a lot of films these days. It’s funny because I have better access to films than before. There are always plans to watch Slant’s 100 Best Horror Films or Indiewire’s Best Films of the Decade(So Far), but I almost always end up sleeping on weekends or binge-watching a TV show that I’ve already watched ten times over. Film festivals now sound like a chore, especially the prospect of sitting through three bad films just to get to a good one.

More than anything else, it’s just the deluge of deadlines and the constant stream of responsibilities that get in the way. It’s hard to appreciate a film when your brain has been turned to mush by five days of work, which is probably why I turn to mindless/light entertainment when I feel exhausted. You’d have to chain me to a chair and stick an IV drip into my arm to make me watch another arthouse film.

Originally published in The Philippine Star (August 8, 2015)

Future Shock


Life in your late 20s is essentially just waltzing around the outskirts of being a thirtysomething. You know you’re definitely getting old when hitting the big Three Oh is just fraught with terrifying tales of adulthood and responsibilities. If it weren’t for healthcare and technology, our life expectancy wouldn’t have allowed our leisurely exploits to evade marriage and knowing what a 401K really is. Now, I know I’m starting to sound like a First Generation iPod preaching to a choir of Apple Watches about the hardscrabble life during the Pre-Spotify era — in a section that trumps all things “young” — but as I inch closer to turning 30, life isn’t exactly a BuzzFeed listicle anymore. Suddenly, I’m Hilary Duff burying the best of my Lizzie McGuire days and jumping into a show about a 40-year-old pretending to be in her 20s. Yikes.

Like everyone else my age —who once were kids partying hard at Cubao X, consuming blinding amounts of alcohol during gigs, and slamming with other bodies in Ang Bandang Shirley’s “mushpits” — our weekly cavalcade of emotions include: paranoia, neediness, self-loathing, and a constant need for attention. As I go on, scrounging for the dregs of my youth, I realize that these fits of madness are already familiar to me, this relentless pursuit of self-interest, the aversion to being around people younger than I am, and the bursts of homicidal thoughts when things don’t go your way. I have become Jenna Maroney, 30 Rock’s embodiment of “self-indulgent narcissism.”

30 Rock was a strange show. It was too smart, too self-aware, and too absurd for a network sitcom. “I feel like we made a lot of good episodes of the kind of show that usually gets canceled,” series star and creator Tina Fey told Rolling Stone in 2013. “The kind where there’s 20 episodes and ‘only me and my hipster friends know about it.’ That part’s still true. But we made 140 of them!” It had six years of dwindling viewership (its premiere had eight million viewers then steadily declined each season until it was only watched by three million people by the time it ended in 2013), critical acclaim and awards (it won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series thrice), a stellar crowd of cameos and guest stars, such as Oprah Winfrey, Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and two of the biggest male TV leads, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston — both cast as idiots. At the center of the universe of this comedy show within a comedy show — or so she thinks — is Jane Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney, a washed-up actress clinging to her youth and fame.

In the first few seasons of 30 Rock, Jenna was merely an insecure actress who does things for attention and was jealous of babies for their soft skin. As the show went on, she became a high-strung psychopath who insults kids for their singing abilities (“Listening to you sing is like eating steak out of a dumpster” and “Go jump back up your mother!” are some of her memorable Simon Cowell-style insults) and only reacts to conversations if she hears her name in them. Jenna has the hallmarks of your garden variety—I will only use this word once in this entire article—millennial, an “unceasing onslaught of dysfunction” in constant need of approval.  Her narcissism knows no bounds;  she actually marries her own drag impersonator (played by Will Forte) and interrupts any form of singing around her only to prove that she is better (Krakowski is actually a Tony Award winner).

Jenna knows she’s a star, a self-entitled brat who sets up her own intervention (“Everyone shout out words that describe my beauty,” and in response, someone yells “Fading!”) and her attempts at learning life lessons prove to be nonsensical because they always end up being about her (“I’m not gonna be pushed aside and forgotten, like that time at my sister’s funeral.”). All this actually sounds like a regular day at my social media feed, what with all the needless one-upmanship, like-baiting selfies, and gratuitous displays of well-curated lives being lived. Hannah Horvath isn’t the trainwreck and cautionary tale of a generation, it’s Jenna Maroney. She is the devolved, hyper-sexualized version of anyone in this generation’s age bracket, a vision of a not-so-distant future when all our quirks and tics just degrade to annoying traits and hindrances to developing into a functional and emotionally healthy human being. Unless, like Jenna, you just cling to fame (stick to that blog!) and try desperately to be a D-list celebrity.

The Wooly Mammoth: The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant


Anyone who’s watched enough movies would tell you that walking through the insides of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant feels much like a tour of a horror film set. Its dark hallways, abandoned rooms, and crumbling equipment echo an atmosphere of dread—a similar kind of terror that cloaked the country when the plant was supposed to start operating in 1986 amid many questions about its safety. At the time, the plant had been in construction for a decade (although it was briefly halted in 1979 to check for defects brought about by the issues in the Three Mile Island incident in the United States), and it cost the government around $2 billion. Built as a response to the 1973 oil shock, it was envisioned as an alternative to the petroleum dependence of the country. Today, in the midst of the looming energy crisis, the mothballed giant remains as a symbol of wasted potential.

Looking at the vast expanse of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, all 389 hectares of it, it’s astonishing to see that there are only about 13 people left to look after its slumbering shell. On a bright, though sweltering, afternoon, the site is something to behold: tended landscapes, manicured greenery, and the coastline make for a stunning background to the plant’s grey behemoth. A small, two-story office sits outside the main building, where I, along with a writer, photographer, and his assistant, set up camp for a shoot we were producing for Rogue. A brief overview was given before the tour inside the plant. The advantages of nuclear power were outlined as well as a general description of how the plant was supposed to be working, if only it wasn’t shut down by President Corazon Aquino, following the panic triggered by the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.

Inside, only a few lights illuminate the floors and network of steel pipes that crawl throughout the walls and ceilings. A few guards roam around to secure the area, and just in case someone was stupid enough to nick a few things here and there. Hulking machinery and equipment — all of which were supposed to be state-of-the-art in the 80s — are unused, obscured by the superior technology that now exists. Tags mark knobs and handles, preservation labels left by inspectors from BNPP’s South Korean sister plant (meaning they both share the same schematics and features), who studied the plant for recommissioning, in the event the government decides to get the plant up and running, a move that would cost around $1 billion.

At the heart of the plant is the massive nuclear reactor. Protected by a domed structure made of 1 m-thick concrete and 1.5 m of steel, it was supposed to provide 625-megawatts of clean energy. The reactor has since been dismantled, inoperable without the fuel, which has been sold to Siemens in 1997. According to our guide, no radioactive material exists in the site.

Nuclear energy hasn’t been the easiest alternative to sell to the people. It is a topic weighed on by years of fears, accidents, and bad examples that give it a bad name to this day. NAPOCOR has been keeping the plant on its wings, with some advocates hoping that there would be an administration brave and smart enough to create a nuclear energy policy for the country. A huge chunk of the energy we consume comes from plants powered by coal, a resource that we still import from other countries. We are one of the countries with the most expensive power rates in Asia, higher than Japan which has used nuclear energy — and survived despite the Fukushima meltdown in 2011.

A tangled web of bureaucracy and politicking has also kept the plant from running. It still stands as a Marcos legacy (which is why President Noynoy Aquino wouldn’t even touch it), an expensive mistake to some that should have never been built in the first place. It took the country over 30 years to repay the cost of construction and still consumes P40 million in annual maintenance funds. And all that we have to show for it is a grey giant, dormant on a lonely hill overlooking the sea, occasionally wakened by group tours, turning the plant into an attraction.

Read the full story on the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant in Rogue’s June 2015 issue now on newsstands and

The Economy of Words: On Celebrity Profiles

Here’s the thing about celebrity profiles: they’re deathly boring. At least in Hollywood, writers actually get to spend time — even several days — with their subjects (though still sanctioned by the celeb’s PR team). They get to ride with them in their cars, maybe get into an accident (Taylor Swift, Rolling Stone2012), spend a day in the zoo (Matt Damon, GQ 2011), or a sit-down interview at their childhood home (Lady Gaga, Vanity Fair 2012). The environment provides the context, rather than just deftly navigating around the boundaries of what should and what should not be asked. More often than not, Hollywood’s A-listers make for an interesting profile because writers get to do stuff with them. There’s an establishment of trust, that they will bare their soul out, ideally unguarded, opening up a new facet of their personality that hasn’t been seen by everyone else.

Beyoncé’s profile though in Vogue’s mammoth of a September issue (832 pages this year), doesn’t have a sliver of the actual Beyoncé in it, at least besides the photographs in the accompanying spread. In place of an interview is a piece by Pulitzer Prize-winner Margo Jefferson about the whole Beyoncé phenomenon. Queen B, it turns out, hasn’t answered a direct question in more than a year (she has only spoken in writing or taped appearances).

“This is unusual for Vogue,” The Times wrote. “A review of five years’ worth of cover articles indicates that she is the only celebrity cover star not to submit to some type of interview (and on the occasion of her two previous Vogue covers, in 2009 and in 2013, she did). When models appear on the cover, as in the case of last September’s issue, they typically do not get the same profile treatment, but even the ‘Instagirls’ of September 2014 — Cara Delevingne, Karlie Kloss, et al. — answered a few questions online. Not only did Michelle Obama agree to an interview when she appeared on the cover in 2013, she even brought along her husband.”

Maybe there is something to be said of Beyoncé’s choice to decline (as of this writing, we can only speculate the reason behind it since her camp hasn’t issued anything yet). The whole Bey story has been told many times (not to mention the sphere of influence she wields through social media) and perhaps she felt there isn’t really something new to say, choosing instead to let her work do the speaking for her.

Local showbiz is a different circus altogether— everything has to be micromanaged and PR-ed to death. Everyone has to play nice and by the rules. I’ve had countless celebrities interviewed over the years and most of these were merely 30 to 40-minute conversations while they’re doing their hair or makeup. They’re just being profiled to promote a TV show or a movie and an in-depth interview should be the least of my worries (the photo will be the one shared on social media anyway and not the article). But I still have to care because first of all, my byline will go with it, and second I should at least think of the fans who will actually want to know more about their beloved actor or actress.

I’ve had the dumbest answers thrown at me and then made more palatable when they finally hit print. These are usually the PR-sanctioned answers that go along the lines of “Masaya naman po siyakatrabaho” or, if pitted against another actor “Wala naman rivalry. Friends po kami. I’m not really asking for life-changing quotes but maybe soundbites that have more substance, that make the subject look like they’re not just some pretty face on the TV screen. I might have asked the wrong questions but seriously, you pretty much zone out after the first few showbiz answers that you’ll just want to be done with it. There’s not much story on sets anyway. It’s mostly a waiting game for the scene to set up. Someone will get yelled at, tempers will flare but eventually, these events will fold and will just be whispered as gossip, attached to the personal myths of the respective celebrities.

Some interviews don’t happen at all. I’ve written about a model for a magazine’s cover story with just scraps of quotes through email and WhatsApp exchanges. Scheduling conflicts are a bitch and sometimes questions are just sent to their manager and the subject relays it with just bits and pieces that can’t even be properly called answers. Others are brief and succinct with just one-sentence replies that make you want to claw your eyes out. I’ve had an actress read out to me the rules of what I can and cannot ask her. Some even answer condescendingly, as if you’re not worth their time. These things really happen and usually you just, to quote a robot from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “activate shrug mode.”

Interestingly, the more gripping interviews are with the ones you can call “legitimate” actors, those who actually have an insight on their craft; people who have actually lived and have tales of success and failures that they’re willing to expose. It’s not actually the interview that they care about but the meat of the story that they will share. It’s hard when you’re just a few years into your career, there’s really not much happening (unless you’re someone like Jasmine Curtis Smith who’s had a number of acclaimed films since her debut). But when you’re a character actor who’s played the different permutations of psychotic murders, snarky in-laws, supportive parents, or, like Joel Torre, Jose Rizal’s different on-screen versions, your profile can be a wealth of stories that are engaging and stimulating.

Originally published in The Philippine Star (August 29, 2015)