War Machine: Will Goyo be the Biggest Filipino Film of All Time?

Heneral Luna legitimized local blockbuster filmmaking for a new era. Jerrold Tarog and his producers are faced with an even more monumental task, coming up with act two.

by Emil Hofileña, photo by Jilson Tiu

There is a celebration in the town plaza, far away. But they say the general is coming, and that is all they need to hear.

 

 

The villagers rush out across the mountainous countryside, less anxious about the heat as they are about arriving late. They scale a hill and dash through the market, rounding the corner before finally slowing their pace. Every seat at the center of the plaza has been taken. They content themselves with a standing view under the shadow of the church. There are hundreds in attendance: simple folk like them, soldiers in their imposing blue uniforms, ilustrados with their umbrellas and impractical suits. And shining as white as the rumors say, right in front of the stage, is General Gregorio del Pilar.

 

This is, of course, not actually Gregorio del Pilar’s hometown, but somewhere in the middle of Tarlac Recreational Park, where the crew of the film production company Artikulo Uno has built, from scratch, an entire set made to look like a late-1800s plaza, complete with second-floor balconies, the façade of a church adorned with statues of saints, and a modest marketplace tucked away in the corner, replete with real food. Large panels of green screen fill in the rest of the background. The houses are authentically somewhat dirty, with stains and flecks of paint dotting even the smallest surfaces that won’t get a second of screen time. I try to ask how long it took for this set to be constructed, but the best answer I get is a sigh, followed by an approximation: “Months.” I hazard a guess on how high the budget of the film is. The producers I’m talking to look at each other and answer, “Higher.”

 

Over 240 extras gathered for the plaza scene

 

The only exact number I get is this: it is Day Eight of an estimated 55 in the production of Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral.

 

Off site lie the skeletons of additional sets still under construction: more old-world houses and a train station that’s been completely stripped back down to its wooden base. Unexpected rainfall ruined what had been built so far, meaning the crew would have to work overtime after hours to get back on schedule. It’s 10 a.m. and the sky is clear and blue, but I ask if there’s a contingency plan for bad weather. Monina de Mesa, TBA’s head of publicity, says defiantly that it won’t rain. Ting Nebrida, president of the production conglomerate laughs. “Mag-aalay ako ng itlog kay Santa Clara.” There is a casual but focused energy to this massive set that is shrouded in secrecy and leaves the weather to chance; after all, technically speaking, believe it or not, this is still an independent production.

 

I hazard a guess on how high the budget of the film is. The producers I’m talking to look at each other and answer, “Higher.”

 

Off-off site behind a small hill is a holding area where everyone has meals together. I half-expected to find director Jerrold Tarog here, protected from the elements and kept at a distance from the chaos of the set, but Tarog has, of course, been on set the entire time. I’m led inside a small house between the church façade and a very real carabao, and find Tarog at his command center, patiently observing the monitors in front of him. There are currently around 240 extras on set (all of whom are wearing tailor-made outfits) and dozens of crew members in sporty attire constantly sprinting across the plaza. But Tarog remains mostly quiet. During long breaks between takes, he plays some Phoenix and The Strokes through the speakers spread around the area.

 

Director, Jerrold Tarog and his lead actor Paulo Avelino between takes

 

“It will never go according to plan 100 percent,” Tarog says. Goyo went through extensive pre-production after its predecessor, Heneral Luna, premiered in 2015. Research on del Pilar was exhaustive and pre-prod meetings would last for hours on end every day, with Tarog and his team reviewing every detail of each scene to make sure they were as well equipped as possible going into filming. “Everyone knows what he or she is doing,” says Paulo Avelino, who plays the young general. “We always have a time sched that we have to follow, we rarely finish late, and we only shoot a few scenes a day. When you see people working hard and knowing their roles on set, you have nothing else to do but to just concentrate on what you have to do.”

 

In addition to his roles as editor and musical composer, Tarog’s job as the film’s director is to maintain the tone and emotions he wants the audience to feel. “And from that point, scene by scene bine-breakdown ko—how to pull off this scene, that scene, how a scene from Scene Number One connects to Scene 130. It’s a process of going back and forth with the material.” Tarog’s set is workmanlike and controlled, but he knows that there will always be things left to chance. “Marami pa ring bagay na hindi ko pa rin alam kung mapu-pull off ko,” he admits. “But I do it anyway. I just plan for it.”

 

 

In post-production, the rest of Del Pilar’s hometown will be digitally added onto the green screen panels bordering the area.

 

Luna itself was considered an enormous gamble by everyone in the local film industry—an P80 million historical epic and the first film from then fledgling studio Artikulo Uno. It teetered on the edge of getting pulled out of cinemas with only a total two-week gross of P59 million, before unprecedented word of mouth and a deluge of Luna-themed internet memes boosted the film up to a P100-million third week and kept it in cinemas for over two months.

 

Still, despite the enormous hype and pressure this Cinderella story places onto Goyo, producer Eduardo A. Rocha is just happy people have been receptive to their vision. Rocha came up with the idea for Heneral Luna in the 1990s, and it was picked up and dropped three times until Tarog got a hold of the project. “I wrote a script I loved, Jerrold made it a script I adored,” Rocha beams. “Jerrold. Is. A. Genius. He’s our David Lean. He used a big background for an intimate story. And that’s what he’s doing here, like in Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. For me, he has the same vision. Yeah, he’s our David Lean.”

 

The audience cheers as the stage in the middle of the plaza fills with actors. It is a production celebrating the life of the beloved general. A band begins to play. The soldiers are stoic as they stand watch, dividing those seated from the villagers struggling to get a clear view. An actor with a large basket of cotton ascends the stage from the left, and a sudden gust of wind blows the cotton into the air. White specks whirl through the plaza like snow from an imagined Christmas. The children seated in front gape and clutch onto their dolls.

 

“I wrote a script I loved, Jerrold made it a script I adored,” Rocha beams. “Jerrold. Is. A. Genius. He’s our David Lean.

 

This is a problem. Because the wind blew the cotton all over the set, Tarog and his team figure that they now have to throw cotton into every single shot in today’s sequence. Of course, they could also do another take of the previous shot and keep the cotton under control, but why wouldn’t they want to use a shot that looks so good, unintentional as it might be?

 

The next shot planned is a tracking shot of Avelino and co-stars Carlo Aquino, Rafa Siguion-Reyna, and Arron Villaflor, the camera placed behind them as they stroll down the middle of the plaza to their seats. On the monitors, the shot is clean: the plaza is busy, children playing, villagers passing through, and everyone waving at the general. Behind the scenes, the crew is running a marathon. The camera operator keeps in step with Avelino, while another crew member with a large electric fan darts to the side, making sure not to collide with any of the seated cast. Glued to the side of the man with the fan is a crew member holding the basket of cotton, hurriedly throwing the material into the wind. Further behind, two other people are holding onto the fan’s wires, keeping them over the heads of those seated. The shot ends, but they have to do another take. Someone’s tumbler was caught in the frame.

 

Talent and crew members mingle and help each other with their costumes

 

In between takes, aside from hiding tumblers behind lamp posts and inside clay pots, most of the crew are still keeping busy with their own tasks. The crew member with the cotton tries to figure out if there’s a more efficient way of spreading it around set. Cast members dry their clothes and TBA interns holding umbrellas continue to fly across the plaza. Tarog elects not to have lunch with most of the cast and crew, deciding instead to stay and focus on planning the next part of the sequence. Theater director Dexter Santos speaks with the stage actors, all played by members of Dulaang UP. Somewhere on set, Susan Yap, the governor of Tarlac, is dressed in her own period costume for a cameo appearance. Somewhere else on set, Richard Bolisay, while not a crew member, is taking notes for a book he’s writing. It’s an all-star set if there ever was one.

 

But even if all signs seem to be pointing to Goyo as a more explosive and glamorous follow-up to Heneral Luna, Artikulo Uno wants to manage those expectations right away. I overhear producer Joe Alandy: “They think we’re going to give them Luna again, but we’re not.”

 

Many viewers saw Heneral Luna as a film with a clear political statement: that of rejecting hero worship and holding ourselves accountable. With John Arcilla’s impassioned cry of “Bayan o sarili?,Luna is credited with reigniting interest in Philippine history, primarily among the youth, and motivating more Filipinos to research, to talk about politics and history, and to vote. However, it quickly becomes clear that everyone on the Goyo team has a common understanding that they aren’t simply trying to replicate exactly the kind of impact Luna had. Viewers who are expecting another war film with a protagonist as brash and audacious as Antonio Luna might be surprised to learn that much of Goyo’s conflict seems to occur within.

 

I overhear producer Joe Alandy: “They think we’re going to give them Luna again, but we’re not.”

 

“This is an existential journey of a guy who may not start as a hero but ends up a hero—his evolution,” Rocha explains. He makes it clear that, to him, Goyo isn’t a political film, instead describing del Pilar like a matinee idol, or a chick boy, even. “He has a girlfriend in every town,” producer Fernando Ortigas adds, calling the film a love story when compared to Luna. The romantic interest who was most important to del Pilar, according to Tarog’s research, was Remedios Nable Jose, a woman who remains a half-completed puzzle, given the relative lack of historical writing on her. Gwen Zamora, who portrays Remedios, then had to fill in the blanks herself. “She’s not what I thought she would be. I see her more as a carefree, aloof type of girl.” In other words, according to Zamora, she’s “the one that got away.”

 

This is not to say that Goyo won’t have the same sort of intensity that Luna had. Avelino clarifies that, even if del Pilar would be considered a millennial in this day and age, Tarog had no intention of watering down the history into something modernized and artificial. Instead, Avelino calls it a dark, coming-of-age film. “It’s about how a child is brought to war,” he says. “It’s a story about a boy who had to grow up and who had bigger responsibilities on his plate.” Del Pilar was, after all, only 24 years old when he was slain at the Battle of Tirad Pass—far too young for someone to fully comprehend love, war, and his own mortality. “He comes to that point in one’s life,” Ortigas says, “where you realize that there’s something bigger than your own interests.”

 

The play about Del Pilar is a complete work in itself, featuring its own costumes, music, and choreography.

 

Tarog takes it a step further and offers the frank summary, “about a fuckboy learning how to deal with the responsibilities of being a soldier.” While researching for the film, he came across an essay by Apolinario Mabini that captured what he felt was at the center of Goyo’s character. “Criniticize niya ‘yung Pilipino society, na dahil tayo natalo sa giyera kasi isip-bata tayong lahat. Reading up on Gregorio del Pilar’s life, meron ngang ganyang factors — na isip-bata siya.

 

However, this Mabini essay appealed to Tarog in more ways than one. I ask him how he felt about some viewers misconstruing Heneral Luna’s message (as well as that of Angelito, the short film bridging Luna to Goyo)—instead of becoming more self-reflexive, these viewers’ response was to begin quoting Luna to pit candidates against each other, or to rally fanatic support for their own candidates. “I kind of deliberately chose a theme that kind of addresses that response,” Tarog reveals. “So ang temang [Goyo] is actually about immaturity. Marami pa rin siyang sinasabi about Philippine society. Marami pa rin.

 

The legacy of Heneral Luna hangs over the production of Goyo like a coat of arms—a reminder of what local filmmakers can achieve given the right combination of money, talent, and sheer luck. 

 

The sun is getting low. Rainclouds begin to gather over the plaza. Some of the villagers have tired of standing and retreated indoors. The children have either fallen asleep or have not stopped crying. The ilustrados continue to chat. The ground is littered with cotton.

 

A small group of soldiers leans against the brick façade of the church. Their eyes have not left their posts, but their bodies are exhausted. One of them props up his rifle on the ground and hangs his hat on the barrel. Another soldier notices a civilian sitting nearby. He leans toward him and asks,

 

Taga-media ka?” one of the talents asks me. He sees the ID I had been given at the start of the day. I say yes. He tells me to listen close, and tells me to print what he’s about to say. He tells me that, among all the films he’s been an extra in, “Ito ang unang beses na inaalagaan kami nang ganito.” Shortly after, he and the other soldiers move out from under the shadow of the church and return to set.

 

The legacy of Heneral Luna hangs over the production of Goyo like a coat of arms—a reminder of what local filmmakers can achieve given the right combination of money, talent, and sheer luck. But on a huge set like this one, where so many of us who follow Hollywood entertainment news expect to witness chaos and toxicity, another Artikulo Uno production casts its shadow more subtly: Bliss.

 

Directed once again by Tarog and released in March of 2017, Bliss is popularly seen as a critique of the cycle of abuse and the working conditions in Filipino film and television productions —masquerading as a psychological horror film. Discussion on the issue of unreasonable working conditions in the local industry spiked last year when successful directors Wenn Deramas and Francis Pasion both passed away due to heart problems. And while Tarog admits that the film is not a direct reference to any one experience (“Lahat ‘yon, kwento lang sa akin ng mga tao”), it’s earned Artikulo Uno more fans and a reputation for ambitious storytelling.

 

A talent steals some sleep off-camera. Despite an early-morning call time, tallents are required to stay on set even between takes.

 

The big surprise, then, with Goyo is not how much of Bliss you can see among the cast and crew, but how the set is so devoid of horror. Barring logistical nightmares and the odd case of appendicitis, the set of this big-budget historical epic is disciplined, efficient, and generous to its cast and crew—and finishes on time. At around 5:30 p.m., more or less on schedule, the cast and crew begin to wrap up. I ask Monina if Tarog isn’t planning on squeezing in some night shots into the schedule, and she says that it’s all been taken care of in pre-prod. Incredibly, night has yet to fully set in, and this big-budget historical epic is done for the day. Granted, this was just Day Eight of an estimated 55 and the worst might still be coming, but Avelino doesn’t think so. “Considering how organized the production is, I doubt anything major will happen. I’m sure there won’t be any drama.”

 

An hour or so later, the stage is disassembled and the plaza goes dark. With the help of one blazing studio light, crew members take down the green screen panels and ferry them off on their backs. Off-off site, the talents regroup and await the vans that will take them home. “That’s our policy,” Rocha states. “Everyone from the extras, we make sure they have water, shade, food. We may spend more, but that’s what matters.”

 

“They’re the backbone of the whole thing,” Ortigas insists. “We’re all brothers and sisters—”

 

“—And slaves to cinema,” Rocha adds.

 

“And it’s a good feeling. Everybody’s happy,” Ortigas continues. “We’re all human beings and we’re supposed to work with each other. Aside from that, I don’t see any logic for people being nasty or anything like that.”

 

Tarog echoes Ortigas’ sentiments, emphasizing that he refuses to impose his own style of meticulous, pre-production-heavy filmmaking on anybody else. “Hindi ko masasabi na hindi sila efficient kasi, para sa kanila, ‘yun ‘yung creative process nila,” he says, referring to filmmakers who prefer coming up with their scenes on the spot. “My concern is really just trying to do my best with my own projects. I can only speak for myself.”

 

I ask how the rest of the local industry, especially studios who still encounter and create conflict on set, can right their ships. Rocha chimes in, “We’re not here to be the crusaders. We just hope people will start doing the same—financial support and encouragement.”

 

 

Goyo is set for release sometime in 2018, if all goes according to the time schedule. The production still has a whole lot of shooting days to burn through—not to mention a whole lot of money—but the team is keeping its eyes on the ultimate prize: not a glowing review, not a spot in a film festival, not even an Academy Award (though Ortigas reckons that that would be nice), but the Filipino audience.

 

“The ultimate recipient is the Filipino people. We want to bring them back to Filipino films,” Rocha says. “Let’s educate them, inform them, elevate their consciousness. Let’s give them the best we can. They deserve the best we can give.”

 

This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Rogue.