Partly planned, partly lucky.
For maverick film director Jerrold Tarog, this is the combination that made his historical epic Heneral Luna one of the top-grossing and longest-running Filipino movies of all time.
As of this writing, the biopic depicting General Antonio Luna’s leadership of the Philippine Revolutionary Army during the Philippine-American War has approximately raked in P300 million in the box-office from a two-month run in nationwide cinemas. Currently, the film is traveling the world in special screenings both for the appreciation of Filipino communities and worldwide audiences.
But according to Tarog, he does not measure success merely in numbers. What the “self-taught” director considers the true achievement of Heneral Luna is proving that the Filipino moviegoer is smart and mature enough to patronize an inimitably-made period film.
Serendipitously, Tarog poured out these thoughts and more to The Sunday Times Magazine a day before he and the rest of the cast and production team of Heneral Luna finally mounted a victory party on the eve of their true-to-life hero’s birth anniversary on October 29.
For this exclusive interview, the unassuming yet celebrated director arrived in a simple shirt, jeans and a jacket, carrying photocopied readings on General Gregorio del Pilar, the “boy general,” whom he is in the thick of tackling for his next biopic.
But before divulging more about his new project, Tarog—still and rightfully on a high from Heneral Luna’s success—detailed how and why the movie’s showing exceeded his expectations.
“When I was envisioning the entire project, I had so many theories and yet when we
showed the film, there were so many reactions that came out that I never imagined,” Tarog revealed.
He cited as his first example having drawn moviegoers as young as 13 to the cinema, when the production originally targeted an age range of 16 to 25 for Heneral Luna.
Elaborating on this younger demographic, Tarog shared, “These young girls were writing fanfics [derived from fictions by fans]on Tumblr.”
On the other extreme, Tarog was also surprised to see senior citizens trooping to cinemas, whom he reported to have said, “It’s about time to have a meaningful film shown in cinemas once again, and that Heneral Luna was the kind of film that the youth should watch.”
Of course, Tarog also gave credit where credit was due. “I don’t discount the fact that we
got lucky with timing, but a big part of the marketing was really planned by the production team.”
According to the director, there was already a grand marketing plan set in place even before the film’s theatrical release. The production eyed a nationwide school tour to give college students a 12-minute preview of the movie. Heneral Luna’s marketing team further expanded the experience by inviting a historian on the tour who discussed what “modern heroism” means to the youth today.
Carried out well, the director had effectively given a sneak peak of the film to cities like Baguio, Bacolod, Iloilo, and Davao in two months, affording him in return a certain level of confidence that the ball was rolling in terms of interest and curiosity in the lead up to Heneral Luna’s opening.
“Inantay na lang namin kung gumana [We just had to wait for our to work out],” he recalled.
And it did. Remember when Filipino netizens took to social media to stop cinemas from dropping Heneral Luna in its second week? The call was so overwhelming that giant mall operators conceded—and to their relief, realized they made the right decision with a flood of box office returns.
As of this interview, Heneral Luna was still being shown on its eighth week in several theaters. Going back to numbers, it had earned by then P253 million, which is triple its P80 million budget.
Before becoming the recognized filmmaker that he is today, Tarog was first and foremost a musician, having earned his diploma from the University of the Philippines’ College of Music.
Asked when he was drawn to movie making, he answered, “Parehong art forms ang film at music at ang daming similarities that at some point, naisip ko lang na kaya ko siyang gawin kaya dapat ko siyang gawin [Film and music are both art forms with so many similarities; I realized I can do both].”
Perhaps one of the biggest pulls of moviemaking for Tarog was that he could actually apply all the musical theories he learned in film. He elaborated, “For example, you can use melodic counterpoint as inspiration in blocking actors. Or when you’re editing your scenes, you can choose certain beats of music to achieve a stronger emotional impact.”
Aptly summing up his fondness for the two art forms, he declared, “Filmmaking is like making music for me.”
He laughed, however, when he shared the one thing he does not miss from solely being a musician: “Playing drums for a band I used to be part of!”
Nevertheless, he used his background in music to full potential for Heneral Luna, what with its soaring musical scoring. He even picked up his drumsticks again to play for the movie’s official theme song, “Hanggang Wala ng Bukas,” composed and performed by Ebe Dancel.
Asked what the acclaimed Filipino musician thought of his drumming skills, Tarog—who started to play the instrument since Grade 6—answered, “It was his [Dancel’s] first time to see someone record drum tracks that fast.”
On his own
While Tarog considers himself a self-taught filmmaker, he can still be very traditional in his process, part of which is having to be by himself to visualize his films.
He explained, “Kapag gumawa ako ng pelikula, mahabang proseso. Kailangan ko ng maraming alone time. Kailangan kong maglakad-lakad kung saan-saan [I go through a lengthy process in making a movie. I need to have plenty of alone time. I need to walk places].”
This is a non-negotiable step in his visualization process because he actually decides on the entire flow of the movie and how every scene will look at the end.
Tarog is honest enough to admit, however, that he has no idea whether other directors begin a movie as he does.
“Remember, I have no formal training in filmmaking,” he pointed out. “This process is just what I’m used to . . . Maybe this style comes from my musical background where we were trained to rehearse and know everything before we play as an ensemble.”
Tarog further revealed that he was self-taught in scriptwriting, scoring and editing.
“I even used to act in my early projects,” he added, citing his movie Confessional in 2007, which is most memorable to him to this day.
Why so? Because it won him eight awards including Best Picture at the Cinema One Originals Independent Film Festival in 2007, as well as nominations in the country’s premiere award-giving body, Gawad Urian.
“The film was a big leap in my career as it opened up a lot of opportunities for me,” Tarog enthused.
From there, he went on to direct one independent movie after another, including Senior Year (2010) and Sana Dati (2013), and then went on to mainstream with Aswang and an episode for Shake, Rattle and Roll 14 (2014).
The latest of this slew of projects is none other than Heneral Luna, where the chance to interpret a script by EA Rocha and Henry Francia landed on his lap. Originally meant for TV, the once untold story found its way to Tarog’s hands through the prompting of producer Fernando Ortigas.
When he came up with his vision for the material, he actually said the words, “Bastusan na!” feeling his depiction of General Antonio Luna to be irreverent in his decision to veer away from the often stiff and formal portrayal of Filipino heroes. He also made sure to add humor to the film to make it more appealing to the day’s audience.
“When we decided to make this historical film, we really wanted it to be different. Thankfully, it all paid off,” he said again with relief.
According to Tarog, of all the surprises that came his way since Heneral Luna’s commercial release, he is most proud of this: “Nakahanap ako ng avenue para mapatunayan na hindi bobo ang Filipino audience [I found an avenue where I could prove that the Filipino audience is not stupid].”
He shared that filmmakers like him have always struggled to make such films for major studios, but were often turned down on account of material that was too “intellectual.”
Tarog remained unfazed. “I always say that we belittle the capacity of the Filipino audience to understand. [But] when you’re talking about marketable films, what you really need is a good story and they will understand it. You don’t need to talk down to an audience . . . But with Heneral Luna, we finally got this sense of vindication.”
It is now Tarog’s advocacy to call on mainstream producers and cinema bookers “to believe in independent films.” He cited the potential of his 2013 indie film Sana Dati starring Lovi Poe and Paolo Avelino, which he knew would have garnered a big following had it not been pulled out by in cinemas, when word started going around that it was a must-see.
“If anything, I believe this is the disease in the Philippine cinema,” he lamented, even while acknowledging that theaters are business ventures to begin with.
The only solution he sees is government intervention. “In other countries, films are assured with a one week theatrical run. Here, if a film fails after two days, it could already be pulled out in cinemas. The government’s support to the film industry plays a major part in this ‘system’.”
Given his lack of formal training in filmmaking and the quality of his movies, The Sunday Times Magazine boldly asked Tarog if he considers himself “talented.”
Almost immediately, he shook his head and said, “Alam ko lang ang kaya kong gawin at alam ko din ang mga bagay na hindi ko pa kayang gawin [I just know what I can do, and what I cannot do].”
“I don’t dwell on the idea that I am talented because for me, filmmaking is like problem solving. At every turn, there is a problem to be solved be it in the studio or on the set.”
He shared, “Filmmaking is a continuous process of self-improvement. With every film that
I do, I am hoping that I learned or did something new. And all the mistakes I did before, I already avoid them.”
In fact, he considers Heneral Luna to be heavily flawed. He revealed, “There were many scenes there that I think could have been made better. So hopefully in the next historical epic, I’ll be able to use the lessons I’ve learned from Luna.”
As The Sunday Times reveled at the beginning of this feature, Tarog’s next movie will be General Gregorio del Pilar’s story, with promising young actor Paolo Avelino reprising the role from Heneral Luna.
According to the director, his producer Artikulo Uno has agreed to shooting the film as early as 2016 or even in 2017.
“Ayaw naming madaliin ito [We don’t want to rush this]. We want to give it the same level of preparation and marketing just we did with Heneral Luna,” he explained “Also, [the wait]builds people’s anticipation.”
Fans of Tarog’s work, however, need not wait for Del Pilar to see another movie from him. The director told The Sunday Times Magazine that a psychological thriller—a first for him—is already in the works. This movie will serve as a break for him in his plan to complete a trilogy on Filipino heroes, whose final installment will be the biography of the controversial President Emilio Aguinaldo.
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Indeed, Tarog’s rise to success as a film director can serve as an inspiration to young and aspiring filmmakers, even if like him, they will have to work thrice as hard in learning the craft. After all, there is a booming independent film industry in the country today, thanks to him and his contemporaries.
He hopes that many generations of filmmakers will take the risk as many young directors have done in the recent years, and has this piece of advice for them: “Before you make a film, alamin mo muna kung ano ang objective mo at kung sino ang audience mo.” For Tarog, this is key in exciting and inspiring more Filipinos to come and watch locally produced movies.
And so with much hope, the talented Jerold Tarog ended, “I hope this is really the beginning of significant changes in the Philippine film industry.”