“‘Follow the Money’ Became So Important to the Structure…”: Lauren Greenfield on Making her Doc about Imelda Marcos and Philippine Politics
In The Queen of Versailles and Generation Wealth, writer and director Lauren Greenfield opened up an elitist world largely off-limits to the public. The Kingmaker, her latest documentary, looks into the life and complex legacy of Imelda Marcos, widow of the former leader of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos. It is currently in theaters prior to its exhibition on Showtime.
Five years in the making, The Kingmaker evolved from what was originally a piece about exotic animals transported by the Marcoses to Calauit Island into a full-fledged investigation of Philippine politics. Greenfield and her team wound up covering the election of Rodrigo Duterte, extrajudicial attacks on drug dealers, and poverty endured by slum dwellers subsisting on garbage. And in several interviews with Imelda Marcos, Greenfield paints a remarkable portrait of a woman who bent the rules of politics to her own needs. Filmmaker spoke with Greenfield in New York after a press screening.
Filmmaker: How did this documentary start out?
Lauren Greenfield: I read an article about Calauit Island that Bill Mellor wrote in Bloomberg. Originally for me the island was this ultimate extravagance. It had become like a Jurassic Park. It had a paradise lost feeling with this unnatural union of Filipino and African animals.
Filmmaker: So during his regime Ferdinand Marcos decided to depopulate a remote Filipino island, bring over animals like giraffes and zebras, and turn them loose?
Greenfield: With no contraventions against inbreeding. And then the parents of the island, Ferdinand and Imelda, go into exile and abandon their children. No more funds or vets or anything. It was like this place was lost in time.
So I thought it would be this historical tale about quirky extravagance that will have implications about human rights and animal rights. And also Imelda’s survival as a politician and as the wife of a dictator without really understanding how complicit she was in in both the past, present and future.
I mean, Imelda had been kind of an iconic reference in my work on wealth, but I didn’t even realize she was alive. Then when I read that she had gone back to the Philippines and was able to run for Congress and win, I was incredulous. Incredulous that she could be re-inventing herself after being accused of stealing ten billion dollars from the country.
At first I thought she was being treated like an Empress Dowager, given a political role for respect in her old age, but I never thought hers was actually a comeback story. So the evolution of the movie really changed as I understood her complicity and how effective her comeback was.
Filmmaker: How did she re-invent herself? The Marcos regime was notorious for repression, martial law, pervasive corruption.
Greenfield: She had to erase the story about being the corrupt leaders who stole ten billion dollars from the country and all the ills brought about by martial law. Filipinos changed the constitution in 1986. They instituted term limits, put in a lot of safeguards to democratic institutions to protect against dictatorships and the human rights violations that came with them.
Filmmaker: You include a clip of schoolkids who don’t know anything about the Marcos regime.
Greenfield: That was part of the evolution of this project. When I began I talked to political activists who were laughing about Imelda and her crazy theories. They never thought she would succeed. She seemed delusional, but she’s crazy like a fox. Very strategic and smart. Andy Bautista, who worked on the PCGG [a committee investigating government corruption] and later was the head of the election committee, he said that he thought Imelda’s shoes were a kind of intentional distraction from the five to ten billion dollars her family stole.
Filmmaker: When did you decide to interview her?
Greenfield: I wasn’t just interested in Calauit, I was also interested in her legacy and her being a congresswoman and the parts that Americans don’t seem to know about. Like nobody seemed to know about what happened in the Philippines after 1986. And so I was interested in that, but I just didn’t know how far it would go.
Bill Mellor had interviewed her about Calauit and I got access for my first interview through him. When I talked to her, it was about Calauit at first, but it became much more than that, about her history and comeback. I thought it might be kind of a redemption story for her. That she was 85, that maybe she had time to reconsider what had happened under Marcos and the corruption and the theft and maybe distance herself from that.
Filmmaker: Was anything off limits?
Greenfield: I asked Bill what would offend her, what would make her not want to participate. He said you can ask her anything, she will answer anything. And that’s the way it was in the first interview.
The one thing that I was scared to ask her, and I didn’t ask until probably an hour into the interview, was about the assassination of [Benigno] Aquino. When she was able to answer that and say, “Why would I do that? I had nothing against him except that he talked too much. And, you know, also, by the way, he was courting me” — her candor was amazing.
She’s never had any consequences from any of her actions. There’ve been hundreds of lawsuits. None of them have stuck. So not only is she interested in kind of rebranding herself and telling her story, but she is pissed off about the way she was portrayed in 1986 and does want to, in her view, set the record straight.
Filmmaker: She probably thought you couldn’t do anything to her, she wasn’t afraid of you.
Greenfield: There were two sides to that. When we began, the stakes for her were much lower. She was in a political wilderness, the Aquinos were in office, she didn’t like the way the Marcoses were perceived, it was getting towards the end of her life. I think that may have been why she was open to making the film.
But also, she wasn’t afraid of me. All kinds of stuff has been written about her by Western journalists. She knows the game and she doesn’t care. There are no consequences. If there were, she wouldn’t have said she had money in a hundred and seventy banks while she is still under investigation.
Filmmaker: She has a narrative, stories that are very well rehearsed, which you point out.
Greenfield: Exactly. If you look at other films about Imelda, news clips about the Marcoses, she repeats the same things over and over. Like when she said she’s a star in the dark of night. That’s a key phrase in her relationship with the poor, her desire for their adoration.
But in her candor she gives away these gems. I’m sure they horrify her handlers, the people around her. Like several times she said she hid her diamonds in diapers during the revolution, when the palace was being overrun. What surprised me, what she had never said before, was that she used those diamonds to pay her lawyers.
She’s not afraid of anything, and similar to David Siegel in The Queen of Versailles, she does not see herself as having done anything wrong. And she’s quite candid, in a weird way. Even amidst all her lies, she tells the truth at times. My job was to kind of make sure the audience knew what was truth and what was not.
Filmmaker: If you just report what she says, do you become complicit?
Greenfield: That really evolved the direction of the film in terms of what I shot and in terms of the structure of the edit. In my past films, I kind of stayed in the world of the character I was portraying. It was clear to the audience how to interpret that. In The Queen of Versailles, you hear Jackie, but you’re not 100 per cent with her throughout the film, you can make up your own mind.
With Imelda what I found is that she’s so charismatic, she’s so convincing. In the US and internationally, many people don’t know anything about her. What I learned making this and showing excerpts is that people really believe who or what the documentarian puts in front of them. And when working with an unreliable narrator, an untruthful narrator, I had to be really careful to refute her. And do that right next to what she says. Otherwise, people believed it.
It was the same with Calauit. In many early cuts and excerpts that I showed, people didn’t understand that the animals were still there. That really influenced the edit. I went back to the island and added drone shots and I edited in a shot of the animals right there when she’s saying they’re all gone.
Also, I think the progression of truth tellers helps you realize not to trust what she’s saying. When she says her marriage was wonderful, we then hear her friend Beth talking about Ferdinand’s affairs. When she says nobody lived on the island, we hear from a villager, “I was on there and I was kicked out.” There’s a progression. So by the time she says martial law was the best time for human rights, you’re seeing people tortured and carted off to jail. You realize that you can’t believe her.
But that was a progression that I went through, because in the beginning, I was also charmed by her. And so in the movie, I wanted the audience to feel a little bit of that in the first act.
Filmmaker: How do you decide when to introduce information? You wait a long time to talk about her son Bongbong Marcos and his vice-presidential campaign.
Greenfield: The edit was very deliberate. I spent almost two years on it, with a hiatus of maybe three, four months. But the hiatus allowed me to contemplate the choices. And it wasn’t until Duterte won and I kind of knew what the ending was that I could fully play out the structure. But we put Bongbong running for office at the end of the first act and that was, yeah, maybe 25 minutes. That was critical for the kingmaker story. And I think the kingmaker title came into play probably about a year into the edit. The movie started out as Fantasy Island. Then we realized, no, that wasn’t right. The “A” story was this return to power. And Imelda’s return to power through her son.
Filmmaker: When did the kingmaker metaphor emerge?
Greenfield: When I was thinking about titles, I thought about royalty and about her agency. I found a definition of kingmaker that said it’s somebody who has a critical influence on political succession without being a viable candidate themselves. And I thought, that’s Imelda.
And I changed the whole beginning. I went back to that painting of her as a mermaid holding her children in the shell with Marcos kind of hovering behind. And also when Duterte won, it was like he was the third king. So I realized we needed to start out with some history. President Marcos, understanding how critical Imelda was to his campaign and his regime, and then her trying to get that back through Bongbong and then ultimately her helping Duterte.
Filmmaker Did you know all along that she financed Duterte’s campaign?
Greenfield: No. Nobody knew until that press conference where Duterte says Imee [Imelda’s daughter] gave me the money. Nobody knew. That’s why in that press conference, you hear all of this like laughing and gasping. Nobody knew. And he just blurted it out. He’s like Trump, he just comes out with things and people are like, “Wait, did he just say that?” And the next scene is Imee and Bongbong outside denying it. I think they were totally surprised. Really, for me, it cemented the ending.
Filmmaker: There’s this sense throughout your film that Imelda is not really telling the truth, but she seems relatively harmless, even kooky. And then the ending puts her in stark relief, it exposes her unbelievable power and ambition.
Greenfield: And it puts the focus right back on the money, the money she stole. And that in a way comes back to how I got to the project, because of my work on wealth. But here I’m really connecting wealth and power. You see that so transparently in the Philippines, you see people handing out money to pay for votes.
“Follow the money” became so important to the structure. And the money connected to the election, which drew the past into the present. When I first interviewed Any Bautista about the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth, it was a story from the past, 30 years ago. But while we were filming, they raided all of Marcoses’ homes looking for paintings and jewelry.
Filmmaker: You have Imelda pointing out her Picasso, Fragonard and Monet paintings, and then in a later shot suddenly they’re gone.
Greenfield: I didn’t know if I would ever get back into her apartment after that. I don’t think I did for another year or so. She was like, “They came by and took my paintings. How dare they?” The Marcoses really architected their money laundering, not just in Swiss banks but New York real estate, real estate under other people’s name.
Filmmaker: How many interviews did you get with Imelda?
Greenfield: I think probably eight sit-downs, and then some on -the=fly interviews. Like when she says, “Perception is real and the truth is not” — that was on the fly.
Filmmaker: She’s very aware of your cameras.
Greenfield: She’s a pro. I think she’s very comfortable with lighting and makeup and all that. We have verité of her in a lot of places. But she definitely felt more comfortable in the interview settings. So I ended up using a lot of the interviews like verité, the off moments, what’s around her, to tell the story. Especially because six months into it, she fell and hurt her hip. She almost can’t walk without people helping to carry her.
Filmmaker: In one of the first scenes you film her handing money out to beggars through her car window. I don’t want to suggest she was staging it, but she was happy that you were there documenting it.
Greenfield: Yes, she was happy we were there, but she does that all the time. One time we were in the Mercedes filming her hanging out with her daughter. We stop at a traffic light, there’s a beggar with a baby. Imelda opens the window, gives her money, and then she says how upset she is that this beggar brought her baby to the window. And her daughter’s trying to explain, well, she probably doesn’t have childcare, she has to bring her baby along with her. It was a great scene. But in the end there wasn’t room for another handing out money thing.
You know her whole life is a performance. I think she’s conscious of that. She’s not like Jackie Siegel in The Queen of Versailles, letting me film in the operating room when she’s getting collagen. I asked Imelda’s handler if we could film her when she’s getting ready, but no way. So I had to be sensitive to small moments, the moments when her servants are helping her.
Filmmaker: When did you decide to include the dissidents?
Greenfield: I really tried not to make this a historical documentary. History serves the narrative, and we learn it as we need to know it, as it speaks to her character.
So you hear about the dictatorship, not martial law, but you hear about the suppression of dissidents and the Aquino assassination right after the first act, after Bongbong declares he’s running for election. And then we go back and see what his dad is like.
But we don’t learn about martial law and the torture until it bubbles up in the election. And that was very deliberate because that’s how the voting population was getting it. Like a lot of people did not remember martial law. They didn’t know the evils. Many of them weren’t alive. And that’s something the Marcoses took very deliberate advantage of, especially on social media.
But the election brought out the activists, people warning you have to remember. So we don’t meet May until later, because at that point we don’t really understand what she’s been through as a martial law survivor.
But to your question, I interviewed them on the third trip there. I don’t know if you noticed that the style of their interviews is quite different. With Imelda it’s so ornate, and with them it’s very raw.
They were absolutely necessary because Imelda’s narrative was sold to the Filipinos so successfully. You need to know the narrative to be able to show that it’s not true and show what’s really happening in the Philippines.
Even with the Aquino assassination, which we tried to kind of play out in real time, you hear from his son and then from Imelda. So you have a context for when she denies any implication. Right now there are no “facts” about the assassination, there’s never been a conviction, the case is still unresolved. That’s why you have to give some credibility and primacy to journalists and historians. That’s what I hope this film is doing.
Filmmaker: Did you ever feel threatened?
Greenfield: Well it’s scary when you’re seeing five or six dead bodies on one night. We needed to show the death squads, and Raffy Lermer really helped me with that. He’s a photojournalist who’s in The Nightcrawlers, a documentary about the death squads, and he really helped me cover the street killings. I haven’t spent months in the trenches like he did. He’s religiously borne witness to that stuff.
What surprised me was that you didn’t need to be embedded for months, that on a given night there would be three, four, five, six dead bodies. And it was so brazen. It’s worse than Marcos, who was brazen enough to begin with. And it wasn’t just me and Raffy. There was a slew of photojournalists documenting the killings. And the police in that one scene are moving the evidence, they’re moving the bullets. They are art directing the bullets. I mean, we didn’t have hidden cameras, we were standing right there. So I was really indebted to Raffy because he and his colleagues made a decision in the newsroom to share the story and just get it out. Coming from photojournalism, which I worked in for many years, I know how protective people can be of their stories. And I just really appreciated the way they just wanted to get the story out. They shared it with students, with other journalists, with foreign journalists. And for me, even though it’s a small beat in the movie, it’s really important in terms of the Marcos story.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about technical problems you faced on the production?
Greenfield: I shot on HD, which I really regret now. But there were so many logistical issues with the island, which was my focus in the beginning. It was a long trip involving boats and bad roads to get there. There was no electricity except for a generator, which we paid for to be on every other day. No food or water or cell service. You’re bringing everything with you. So we were mindful of backing up. I think if I were doing it starting today, I would do it high res. But at the time, it seemed too cumbersome.
We used a Canon C300 and then we also used a Sony FS7. We had to have two cameras on the island because we were worried that one could fall in the water or get rained on. We had to be way more backed up than normal, same with batteries. And then we used two cameras in the sit-down interviews. And I had a drone, a DJI Inspire 1 Quadcopter with 4K Camera and 3-Axis Gimbal, that we used on Calauit and also for some shots of the city and slums.
It’s always a challenge in terms of budget. We spent way more time in the edit and shooting than we ever thought. I mean, covering an election is really hard and it takes multiple camera people.
Filmmaker: How long was the shoot?
Greenfield: 105 days. We ended up with about 500 hours of footage. We would edit back here between trips. I remember in the beginning, my editor Per Kirkegaard said you can go back between past and present, which was a really important thing to me because I felt like the past informed the present. But then the animal island is like a third timeline, and he’s Danish, very disciplined, so for a while I didn’t think it was going to work out.
But I was cutting as things were happening. Then you go back to conform to what I ended up understanding the movie to be about. It wasn’t until it was until my last trip that I had the material to show the link between Marcos and Duterte, and that didn’t happen until the very end.