“Something Makes us Feel Like We can be Saved When Action Stars are Elected as Our Leaders”: Martika Ramirez Escobar on Leonor Will Never Die
Thrown from a second floor window, a box television clocks old Leonor (Sheila Francisco) square on the head. She wakes up inside her work-in-progress movie script, an homage to ’80s Pinoy action movies, able to steer the rest of the unwritten plot in first person. Back in reality, the retired movie director lies comatose in a hospital bed while her sons–one flesh and blood, the other a ghost–wander and wonder around, trying to option their mother’s unfinished script to pay the bills. Will Leonor wake up in time, if at all, to retain agency of her comeback story?
When you finally get a handle on Leonor Will Never Die’s twin plot threads, writer/director Martika Ramirez Escobar introduces a suprareality, unexpected VFX, montages, and other flourishes. You can only wonder what dimension you’ll land in by the end, let alone how they’ll blend together. Over Zoom, Escobar and I discussed the long road to get the zany meta film made, how she shot a feature as informally as a thesis, and about what it means that certain Filipino movie stars turned politicians.
Filmmaker: What were your Sundance plans before the festival cancelled in-person?
Martika Ramirez Escobar: I was supposed to attend with my whole key staff. We all had our visas, we were planning to stay in one house, we had everything planned. Now we’re trying to do something online, but the big problem is it’s geoblocked in the Philippines, so we can’t attend our own premiere. Right now we’re trying to apply for passes.
Filmmaker: Will you guys be attending any of the Q&As?
Escobar: There’s a virtual Q&A on the premiere date, but we’re still trying to figure out how we can watch the film in the first place.
Filmmaker: Your bio is loaded with fellowships and labs — what was your road to Sundance and making Leonor Will Never Die?
Escobar: I’m not a very good writer. My day job is as a cinematographer. I tried to submit the script for local grants but it never got accepted. So I tried submitting it to labs and development workshops, and that’s where it started to take off. Over the course of eight years, the film took shape this way. I’m a bad writer plus I’m really really slow. [laughs] I was able to find people who gave me really important feedback, then in 2019, I felt the script was ready for principal photography. We were in post-production for two years because I couldn’t find the ending. So it’s been a perpetually changing script until the moment we submitted it to Sundance. The process of making the film is very much like the film within the film, they’re both being constantly revised. On set we would improvise a few scenes. My producers are also film directors; I love collaboration, so I listened to them a lot and we tried a lot of versions of the same scene.
That’s why postproduction took so long, we had so many versions of the film. Since the film plays a lot with form, it took us a while to figure out what structure worked best. But I think eight years was the right amount of time. I had an option to finish the film in 2018, because it got into Cinemalaya, this local festival that gives out grants to filmmakers to finish their film within a year. But when we got the grant, I was like, only a year?
Filmmaker: Had you already shot the footage between you and your editor?
Escobar: I wanted the film to feel distant all of a sudden. So the scene on the rooftop [between her and her editor] gave it that distance. But it didn’t give it enough, so I decided to add conversations with my editor from real life. I would record whenever we had smoking breaks and stuff. I’m surprised he added it, it was all the editor’s idea to add that stuff. [laugh]
Filmmaker: Your thesis film, Pusong Boto (Stone Heart), is similarly about a faded actress and a film within a film. Is Leonor the feature version of that film?
Escobar: Sort of. Leonor Will Never Die is sort of a film from my youth because when I first thought of it I was 21. [laughs] I actually outgrew the film about three years ago, but we had to finish it so I tried to hang onto my younger self. I used to be really rigid. During the first stages of Leonor Will Never Die, I was the type of filmmaker who needed detailed storyboards and shotlists, but in the past few years, I’ve started to introduce improvised filmmaking and waiting for things to happen. Now I see the film as the past, and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. The films I want to make in the future are very different from this film. My past three short films are very documentary-like. I just asked a few friends to come over. I had a prop and no story. I also recently made a film out of archival footage.
Filmmaker: Is that a poster of your thesis film in the opening scene?
Escobar: Yep, and it’s there because we don’t have any other posters there. It’s expensive to put some other movie poster there.
Filmmaker: I did notice a City After Dark poster. Was that expensive?
Escobar: We didn’t ask permission. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Does that film have a particular influence on you?
Escobar: It was the production designer’s, so I’m sure it was important to him. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Two actors turned politicians, Fernando Poe Jr. and Joseph Estrada, loom over the film. How do you see their presence in it?
Escobar: One of the reasons why this project started is because of my time in the Mowelfund Workshop. Our lecturers would come to class looking like action stars. It’s their natural fashion: brushed up hair, sunglasses, boots, belt with a big buckle. When they were together it felt like we were in an action film. So I had this shallow realization that maybe it’s because they feel like they’re in a movie. In a grander sense, looking at our history, we had Joseph Estrada as our president after being an action star and FPJ as well, who almost became president. So there’s something about the movies that make us feel like we’re in them–something makes us feel like we can be saved when action stars are elected as our leaders. So the film is asking, how does Leonor feel when she’s in her own movie?
Filmmaker: What was the Mowelfund Workshop like for you?
Escobar: The ’80s and ’90s Mowelfund is probably different than the Mowelfund I experienced. Before, it used to be really concentrated on certain fields like directing or cinematography. When I joined it was an immersive workshop for all in general. Then we were tasked to make a group short film. It was a fun experience after college. But now the Mowelfund building is gone. [laughs] They demolished it and turned it into a postproduction house. It’s really where the project started though–its home, to be honest.
Filmmaker: Did you keep in touch with anyone from it?
Escobar: I attended as a CME scholar. CME’s this equipment rental service in Quezon City. So for Leonor Will Never Die they sort of funded all the technical stuff. They gave us free equipment. So it’s really just this giant thesis project, and I worked with my friends from college. When I watch it I feel the spirit of the thesis. It feels like a big student film.
Filmmaker: I am curious what the behind-the-scenes looked like—
Escobar: Funny. [laughs] It felt like not shooting, just people playing around. It looks really poor because we had a really really low budget. It was a lot of pulling friendship cards, so the film is like this joyous reunion of the people I’ve met and worked with in the past. The people on board had similar energy, so we had a happy set throughout. That’s one of the things I’m thankful for.
Filmmaker: How much did this operate like a “traditional” set? How many hours did you shoot, or did it vary/was it flexible, etc.?
Escobar: I’m sure you’ve heard about the shooting atmosphere in the Philippines. [laughs] Like, “36 hours? Sure.” It’s bad. You see people sleeping on the floor. But not on this film. We kept a humane set and atmosphere. Our producers were very good at taking care of us. It may have been a poor set, but we were provided for. From what I observed, the shooting hours were long but it was fun so I don’t think people complained. All of us are still friends. [laughs]
Filmmaker: How did you go about building the look for Leonor’s fantasy movie, which takes on the look and feel of an ’80s Pinoy action movie? Were you referencing specific films?
Escobar: I consciously tried not to mimic existing action films. Instead I tried to recall the action movies I watched as a child. In the Philippines, they would often replay Pinoy action films on local television. It was something that was on while everyone was cooking; it was just there forever. So if you were to ask anyone to describe a Pinoy action film they could answer you very easily. But I also did my research, listed tropes, watched some of the films that were more different because they’re usually very formulaic. I also wanted it to feel abruptly different from the real world, so I decided to change the aspect ratio, the look, the acting, the sound, etc…
Filmmaker: What cameras did you use?
Escobar: For the real world we shot with a Panasonic EVA1 and one lens. For the action world, we shot with a Red Epic and Super Speeds. That was my cinematographer’s decision after a lot of tests. There is a lot of BTS footage from our interns and the official BTS crew. We told our intern Marty that we used his footage and he was like, “Oh, okay!” But I don’t think he realizes how much of it we actually used. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Did you want to stay true to the tropes or twist them?
Escobar: True to the tropes, because it’s an homage to those action movies. But I think the twist naturally happens because I’m a different person, I’m from a different generation, and I’m using a different camera. Any manipulation of the tropes is unconscious and natural.
Filmmaker: How did you design the flattened soundscape of Leonor’s action movie?
Escobar: Our sound designer, Corinne De San Jose also does sound for Lav Diaz. We did the sound design remotely for a year until I begged to sit down with her. That only happened about a month ago. I told her that if I closed my eyes and listened that I should feel like I’m in an ’80s Pinoy action film. I’m glad it’s also not too hard to listen to–she made it accessible. There was the option to make it really canned and muffled, but she wanted the audience to still feel the scene and not be too distracted.
Filmmaker: You also use old action movie camera tricks and language to make it look like hits land. How did you choreograph these?
Escobar: Well, I didn’t. We had a stunt director. [laughs] I had no idea what to do when it comes to directing action scenes, so we hired a stunt director who had his go-to goons. They were really good, but one of them lost their teeth. Ronwaldo, the main action star in the action world accidentally did the wrong punch and broke one of the goon’s teeth. But I asked [the stunt director] to come up with wild moments in the action scenes. I wanted tables broken, chickens, absurdity in the fight scenes.
Filmmaker: In one such bit, Ronwaldo pours concrete on the goons and says, “Whose the hardest one now?”
Escobar: I think I saw this Pinoy action film called Bala… Dapat Kay Cris Cuenca, Public Enemy No. 1, and there’s this scene where the lead pours pig food on tied-up goons. [timecode: 1:08:05] Then he releases a pen of pigs and they run over the goons. I think that’s the scene that inspired the cement scene. I just wanted an absurd way of killing the goons. Although they don’t really die because they appear in the film later on.
Filmmaker: I related to those scenes in which Leonor pretends to shower or use the bathroom to make it seem like she can’t hear what people are yelling at her.
Escobar: I think those scenes are how I am as a person. [laughs] When I hear things I don’t like I try to make other noises so I can’t hear it–or I don’t want them to know that I heard it. Most of the script, of course, is based on my real life, impulses, and perspective. I’m glad it’s relatable, I guess, if you think it is.
Filmmaker: There are a few stylistic flourishes/montages like the brain scan and black and xerox scene.
Escobar: These flourishes are how I think, which is random. [laughs] I wanted this ghost to feel real. So what’s a nice scene to show that? A ghost photocopying himself on paper. And for the brain scan, that was the last part of the film we added. For a while, we had this other VFX thing that I felt really uncomfortable with for two years. But I didn’t know how to fix it until met this person who did StyleGANS [Generative Adversarial Networks]. Are you familiar with this?
Escobar: It’s this coding system that generates new photos out of the ones you put into it. It’s like how deep fake Tiktok filters work and stuff like that. Anyways, I saw her work and knew it was exactly what I wanted for this brain scan scene. She collected around 500 brain scan photos from the internet, and the result is how the machine processed 500 different peoples’ brains.
Filmmaker: You mentioned you’re moving towards documentary, archival, and experimental filmmaking. Are you inspired by any Filipino filmmakers who work in this way?
Escobar: I’m sure we know the same people. Of course, there’s John Torres, of course, there’s Jet Leyco. My producer Monster Jiminez is a really good documentarian. John Torres is also in the film as an extra, by the way. He’s in the photocopy scene in the opening. His work inspires me because his form feels very free, it’s like a collage of different things, moments, photos, voices. The filmmaker Sheron Dayoc is in the film too in the same scene. [laughs]
Filmmaker: It generally seems like a tight-knit film community.
Escobar: I’m based in Quezon City, which is where a lot of filmmakers live, especially in the village where I live. There are a lot of particularly experimental and documentary filmmakers.
Filmmaker: Mike De Leon’s around there too.
Escobar: I love his films. Kakabakaba Ka Ba? is one of my favorites.
Filmmaker: I noticed you “tail slated” [when you slate with the slate upside down at the end of the scene rather than at the beginning] a lot of the faux BTS/actual BTS footage. I don’t know if there’s another term for this in the Philippines. I know some directors prefer tail slating to not disrupt the flow of a scene with a hard starting point, is this the case for you?
Escobar: Yes we would often “end slate,” that’s the term we use here, for scenes that required the actor’s cue. Most of the scenes of Leonor at the warehouse used end slates because we did not want to interrupt her momentum when she’s in the zone. Our actress Sheila is very professional and quite serious, so we try to give her what she needs. So that end slate was one of our more “serious” decisions on set.
All of the shots with a slate in them are actual shots of the slate right before or after a take. It’s the same organic spirit as the presence of our actor’s audition video and the actual editing timeline of our editor in the film. I originally wanted to end the film with an “end slate.” But when I saw it in the cut, I felt that it was too much of my younger filmmaker self. You know how you can outgrow ideas you used to love? This was one of those. Plus my idol, Mike De Leon did it best in Kakabakaba Ka Ba? so why should I even try? [laughs]