“Nobody Knew About the Vinegar Syndrome at That Time”: Mike De Leon On His Newly Restored Kisapmata
Mike De Leon made his Cannes debut in ‘82 when he premiered two films at Directors’ Fortnight in the same year—Kisapmata and Batch 81—becoming only the second filmmaker to do so at the time. Wim Wenders asked De Leon and certain filmmakers present at the festival that year to answer pre-written questions about the future of cinema in the span of a 16mm reel (around 11 minutes) for his documentary Room 666. Godard and Antonioni filled the time and could probably go on; the others, like Spielberg, Siedelman and Fassbinder, talked for several minutes. But De Leon’s segment lasted under thirty seconds; finding issue with the principal question he stated, “To ask a director like myself from the Philippines what the future of cinema is, I find, an absurd question. To ask what the future of cinema is in the Philippines, is like asking what the future of the Philippines is.”
De Leon grew up steeped in the movie industry. His family ran the largest and longest living movie studio (1936-2005) to exist in the country, LVN Pictures, Inc, where he became fluent in every technical language of the medium: running the studio’s color lab, working with sound, cinematography (among others, he shot Lino Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Light), editing, directing, etc., and later became a key player in the preservation and restoration of the studio’s classics. His first home functioned as a production hub for his feature films and he shot several on location in his family’s ancestral house in Baguio. Few could claim to be as close to the pulse of Filipino cinema as De Leon. He loved growing up in the industry but had no illusions about the power of film. “In this situation, what can one film do? Nothing much. In fact, very little” he wrote in his intro to Batch ‘81 The Making of a Mike De Leon Film, the country’s regression under current president Rodrigo Duterte being the “situation” in question.
Though De Leon knew his films could not topple regimes, that didn’t stop him from making films that criticized the country’s strongman leadership. In Kisapmata, he drew a line between then-dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the incestuous father character in the film, ex-police officer Dadong Caradang (Vic Silayan). Today, the film has been restored from a damaged negative (due to heat and improper storage) and a positive print—the monstrous Dadong now resembles Duterte in 4K. Beyond redemption, recovery and reason, Dadong can only assuage his inner hell with dark and primitive glee that sours over time. He abuses his partner Adelita (Charito Solis) and daughter Milagros (Charo Santos-Concio) and convinces them they have no power to leave. When Milagros announces she is pregnant and getting married, she invites an outsider into her family’s horrorifying dynamic, and the ensuing tension culminates in the true crime the film is based on, in which an ex-police officer killed his daughter, son-in-law, himself and nearly his wife. De Leon could not have foreseen that the films he directed near the collapse of the Marcos regime—Kisapmata, Batch ‘81, and Sister Stella L.—would take on new resonance today. Nearly forty years later, the Marcos family has restored their political clout back through Duterte and are primed to seize the next presidency.
The legendary and reclusive filmmaker, Mike De Leon, agreed to a rare interview about the making of his frank and unaffected psychological horror masterpiece, Kisapmata, playing in newly restored glory for the first time from Friday, December 18th at 6pm ET, to Saturday, December 19th at 9am ET, free of charge. The link to the screener will be posted on Casa Grande Vintage Filipino Cinema.
Filmmaker: When Milagros writes in her diary about the size of her baby, discordant laughter can be heard outside the house, and later, when the family meets to confront Dadong at the Manalansan’s home, children can be heard playing outside. Both techniques have different effects in each scene, but can you talk about your approach to the off screen sound/background noise with your “soundman” Ramon Reyes?
De Leon: Let me explain the situation back in the 1980s. We had very primitive film mixing facilities—a maximum of six tracks, and just four when we made Maynila [Manila in the Claws of Light] in 1975 and Itim in 1976. The art of live sound recording was dead. From the mid-seventies, the industry began shifting to post-synchronization or “dubbing,” as we called it locally. It had become impractical to rely on original sound and sound cameras were just too bulky and expensive to bring to locations.
Kisapmata, with the exception of one important scene, was completely “dubbed.” Dadong’s house was very close to a school and although Cesar [Hernando, De Leon’s then frequent production designer] found the perfect set, we had no illusions about recording live sound. The role of the sound recordist on the set was just to get a relatively “clear” guide for post-synchronization later in the studio. It was only in parts of Bayaning 3rd World (2000) and Citizen Jake (2017) that I started using original sound again.
The one exception to dubbing was Dadong threatening the maid with a gun. It was impossible to dub. Vic [Silayan] tried but could not match the intensity of the original scene. Fortunately, I was using a long lens and the camera was some distance away, so the sound of its motor was not that loud. The maid’s voice was dubbed, so it was clean. We just added the same kind of noise to her shot and kept the original sound of Vic’s shot.
We did use a sound camera for the mother/daughter scene—Charito [Solis] and Charo [Santos-Concio]. This was Chato’s [Charito’s] request. She knew we would have to dub because the school nearby was just so noisy. But the whirr of the non-sound camera was too distracting for her. Sayang [too bad], the original sound was beautiful. They were actually whispering. We tried to approximate this in the studio but it was nothing like the original.
There was no such thing as sound design. Ramon (Monching) Reyes was the son of LVN’s sound department head and we became friends when I started working at LVN in 1970. Maynila was his first feature film. By the time Kisapmata came along, we had developed a certain routine in preparing for the mix. We would devote one session to previewing the film without dialogue but only the effects, all done in the studio. Lorrie Ilustre, our musical director, was also involved. Lorrie’s first film was Kakabakaba ka ba? [Will Your Heart Beat Faster?] and he is a cousin, being a Buencamino [De Leon’s grandmother’s family], a very musical family. He gave many suggestions for the “atmospheric” sounds, but the off-screen sounds you referred to were my idea. There was no conscious attempt to invoke a certain meaning, but I thought that hearing the raucous laughter of Mila’s father and his police cronies off-screen before we see them, sort of interrupting her thoughts, would remind the viewer of the prison she found herself in. The children’s voices I always associate with Christmas. There was a lot of Christmas caroling back then. I also used this in Maynila. Lino wasn’t interested in post work, so Doy, the music director Max Jocson, and I sort of worked on the film instinctively.
Filmmaker: The electronic sound of the cars whizzing past the street in front of the Caradang’s house in the opening shot stands out.
De Leon: The electronic sound is new. It was also customary during that time to suppress foley and other sound effects and make the dialogue stand out. In restoring the audio, I wanted to correct this for today’s audience, but the original sound of the cars whizzing by could no longer be increased. We never kept separate tracks, as this was quite expensive and, as I said, due to track limitations we had to premix certain tracks in preparation for the final mix. Cars today sound different so the audio guy at Wildsound Studios, Alex [Tomboc], selected sounds from their extensive library. It sounded OK to me, but I guess the electronic quality was still there.
Filmmaker: What were the main camera bodies and lenses available at that time and where were studios sourcing most of their camera and lighting gear? Did LVN originally have a partnership with a manufacturer overseas? I think around this time LVN had sold/was loaning some of their equipment away [as the company was transitioning into post production]?
De Leon: LVN still had the old NC Mitchells and the Arri 2B and 2C with standard lenses and a 25-250 Angenieux zoom lens. The newer fast prime lenses were already available but they were too expensive to rent. They were only used for film commercials. For features, we had to make do with the older Arris. I did get to use better cameras for Aliwan [Paradise] and Bayaning 3rd World—the Arri 3, I think, and sometimes the BL. Since I was also running the color lab of LVN [the only one at that time], I could experiment with push or pull processing. I used this extensively in Maynila when the only film stock available was Eastman 5254 or 5247 with an ISO of 100. Itim was post-flashed entirely and I was happy to discover that since both films have been kept at the British Film Institute archive, they were in relatively good condition. I will initiate the restoration of Itim next year, again at Ritrovata [in Bologna, Italy], but the grading and audio restoration will be done locally so I can supervise it.
Filmmaker: “Here comes sis, wiggling her hips. No head, but with mouth wide open.. No eyes, but scared of the light…” Dadong recites these lines to Noel, Milagro’s fiance, as he shows him his earthworms in the basement, but I’m not aware of the reference. What is this from?
De Leon: The earthworm riddle was written by Doy del Mundo [screenwriter]. Doy writes Tagalog quite well and I think this new riddle says more about Dadong than an actual explanation of vermicomposting [the use of worms to decompose waste and make nutrient-rich “worm manure,” popular at the time]. The English translation does not capture the wit of the original Tagalog but I think it comes close enough. I wanted a freer translation but Sarge Lacuesta, a writer and friend who helped with the new subs, thought that being literal was better suited these days.
Filmmaker: You have said, as reported in ANCX, that you further develop the script after the locations are locked in. The verticality and structure of the Caradang’s split-level home is so essential to its feeling of insecurity: that Dadong rests in the room just across from Milagro’s, that he may be above or below the eyeline of the stairs without one knowing. How did the home, and Cesar Hernando’s design of it, influence your script and blocking?
De Leon: I think Jerome Gomez’s article on ANCX, where he quoted from Cesar’s statement from my unfinished book, answers the question. I admit that I do not know much about middle-class life so I left the design almost entirely to Cesar. Rody Lacap, the cinematographer, and I just specified lighting fixtures, practicals, to conform to my intentions on how to block each scene.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the casting, particularly Jay Ilagan as Noel and Ruben Rustia as his father? We know the moment we see them that they both pose no threat to Dadong.
De Leon: Jay Ilagan was the finest young actor I have ever worked with—nd to think that I replaced him in Maynila with Bembol Roco [who played Julio Madiaga, the film’s protagonist]. He had promised to lose weight, but after filming for three days, I told Lino that although Jay was a good actor, he just wouldn’t do as Julio Madiaga. I had seen Bembol in a play with Lino, and although he had already been cast as one of the call boys, I thought he was perfect for Julio Madiaga. Lino had just successfully introduced Christopher De Leon in Tinimbang [Weighted But Found Wanting] the year before and I thought he could do it again for Bembol. Years later, when I was casting for Kakabakaba, Lorrie Ilustre suggested Jay because Jay had great comic timing. He had no qualms about being in the film, in spite of the Maynila experience, and after that, we worked on two more films, Kisapmata and Sister Stella L. I met Ruben when I did the cinematography for Eddie Romero’s Aguila. I watched him closely during the shoot. He was not an LVN actor and I was not familiar with his work, but he had a certain quality that exuded an element of goodness and naivete at the same time. I toyed with the idea of showing him alone in his house after hearing about the brutal murders that, in a way, he was responsible for, but decided otherwise. Sayang. He also has exceptional range. His short appearance in Sister Stella L. was quite riveting, in my opinion.
Filmmaker: Because Dadong has god-like authority, did you work with or direct Vic Silayan any differently than the other cast members to create that sense of power for him on set? And you’ve said you’re not an actor’s director. What did you mean by that?
De Leon: Vic intimidated me at first, so we had a couple of sessions about the script before principal photography. He asked to change his role to step-father because he was queasy about the incest thing. But that was impossible, as he knew. He always wanted to know the size of the frame because he confessed he had a tendency to mug. Of course, I worked differently than [Lamberto V.] Avellana and that is what I mean by not being an actor’s director. Unlike Lino, I do not act out the scenes for the actor. I give them space but always remind them that the camera is always “watching.” So, at times, I tell them that how I block may seem unnatural in real life but looks good for the camera as well as the general flow of the film. Kind of like music, there’s a certain rhythm that I feel when mounting scenes. I also make it a point to cast intelligent actors and at times I just invoke images to compliment the direction and they respond more effectively.
Chato [Charito Solis] was a famous LVN actress and we became quite close during the filming of Kisapmata. She was supposed to play Rizal’s mother in Bayaning 3rd World but she passed suddenly a few months before we started filming. I dedicated the film to her. The original cut of that scene [the mother daughter scene] had no cutaway shots of Charo. The camera stayed on Charito because she was so good and it was only one take. I now regret changing it.
Filmmaker: The film remains isolated from the outside world, even during the wedding scene. No wedding guests outside the main cast are introduced or given weight in the frame.
De Leon: The wedding scene was an “experiment.” I choreographed it first with me operating one of the cameras and using my staff to show the actors how the scene would play. I used a long lens to foreshorten the shots, making them appear closer than they really are to each other—claustrophobic.
Filmmaker: I do not know much about Bancom Audiovision, the studio behind Kisapmata, other than some of the films they’ve made. Is there a story there?
De Leon: I don’t really know why Union Bank put up Bancom Audiovision but they were active for several years. Jack Atienza, who may still be alive, set it up, but many of their films were commercially unsuccessful. Makati executives were running the company and many producers flocked to them to get their projects done. They produced Eddie Romero’s epic Aguila, on which I worked as director of photography. Also, Lino’s Jaguar. A couple of years later, Charo was hired to line produce a film I would direct. That was Kisapmata, the last film Bancom produced. After that, Atienza was kicked out and all production stopped.
Filmmaker: Why have so many Filipino films been lost? What went wrong in preservation/archiving?
De Leon: LVN never had a proper archive, although the negatives were kept in a warehouse [with no air conditioning] and properly catalogued. Many films survived when 16mm versions were made. Nobody knew about the vinegar syndrome at that time. I myself thought that the black and white films would last forever. When I started working in LVN, I tried to save the Eastman Color films—big productions—but they were all gone. What survived [although incomplete] were color films shot using an earlier process, Ansco [whose patented flexible photographic film George Eastman infamously copied and profited from, effectively killing Ansco]. Later, I read that Eastman color film was notoriously prone to fading. [Anscochrome was superior to Kodachrome and Kodak Ektachrome in many ways, it was faster, and even democratized the development process. But by then the company had endured a series of unfortunate events and Kodak had won the battle]. But in the US and other rich countries, they were able to make good duplicates or black and white separation negatives, something like the Technicolor process. My late sister and I only put up a proper archive in the early 1990s and that sort of helped save the remaining films of LVN.
Filmmaker: You are something of a master archiver, restorer, collector today, and you have democratized access to numerous, hard to find, classics. What has that work been like for you?
De Leon: One reason I’m writing the book [his autobiography] is to keep the memory of LVN and the studio era alive. Sadly, so many films have been lost. I grew up in the movies and it shaped my life and way of thinking. It also ruined any semblance of real family life we may have had. But like dog breeding, which I used to engage in with a passion, I trace my pedigree as a filmmaker to my grandmother’s and father’s time. That is a privilege that no other filmmaker working in the industry today can say. Maybe that’s why I’m still alive. As it is said in my book, my biological life I owe to my parents, but my life in cinema I owe to LVN.