(This is a continuation of the interview of FPJ Lifetime Achievement awardee Director Celso Ad. Castillo which is reprinted from the silver anniversary Luna Awards souvenir program.)
What was different about Nympha, your first film to get recognition overseas?
Nympha, my eighth movie, was my first critically acclaimed film. It was also a box-office success. By this time, I had quit law school and concentrated on directing. Philippine moviegoers at the time indulged in sex films that had gone to the extremes. I knew I had to get my act together and separate art from pornography. I wanted to prove that sex films can be artistic by not offending the sensibilities and intelligence of he Filipino moviegoers. I proved myself right.
Nympha was exhibited at the Venice Film Festival in 1972, the second and so far the last Filipino film that graced the affair to this date. The first Filipino movie that competed at the Venice Film Festival was Genghis Khan by Manuel Conde which lost the top honors to Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa. Nympha was shot in black and white and I used lots of montages and dissolves and used photo lens to capture extreme close ups of the eyes of the leading lady who incidentally acted for the first time in that movie. She was nominated for best actress in that picture and became a much-sought-after actress afterwards. The movie was about the conflict between sex and religion. But my real inspiration in that movie was Citizen Kane of Orson Welles.
How did people react to Nympha and your other films of sex and violence?
I believe that any type of movies done with class and in good taste will be acceptable to the audience in general. Nympha and the other sex films I directed had been considered as classic in Philippine cinema. They, in fact, became prototype of that particular genre. Violence in my films, however, were not limited to the physical or literal interpretation of that genre. They could be violent in terms of subjects or themes or essence but even if I do real gory movies, they had to be romanticized with the Sam Peckinpah style, the American director who revolutionized violence in films.
I was into sex and violent movies early in my career because that was my defense mechanism against the prevailing star system during that era. I did not need big stars to compete in the industry as a film director. Without big stars and with quality as my common denominator, I was able to establish a style or a signature of my own. Just like Picasso’s cubism or Salvador Dali’s surrealism. After I had established my mark as a director, I was able to do other films such as drama, horror, fantasy, comedy and films with social consciousness. And the audience accepted them because they bear my filmmaking style.
Why are you attracted to fantasy and horror stories?
I deal with fantasy and horror subjects in my movies because I believe that the purpose of man is to explore his mind and imagine what this life is all about. We call this age the new age because we deal with ourselves in relation with our own persona. Horror and fantasy are not normal occurrences in reality so I make these kinds of movies for my own experience. I want to be terrified myself and fantasize on things I will never experience as a human being.
How did the idea for Snake Sisters come to you?
The idea for making Snake Sisters came when I thought of creating my own version of the Garden of Eden. We all know that the main protagonist in the old story is the serpent that deceived Adam and Eve by telling them that by eating the forbidden fruit they will become godlike. In Snake Sisters, the main protagonists are the snakes themselves. Only that these three snakes were born in human form. Upon reaching the age of maturity, the three snake sisters were advised by the father snake that they can leave the cave where they had been hatched and explore the beauty of nature that God has created for them to admire and to enjoy. But beware…let no man touch your bodies lest you get copulated and revert to be snakes again. Maybe I can call this story of paradise a surrealistic film as I have always been a great fan of Salvador Dali’s surrealism.
Was Snake Sisters a difficult film to make and shoot?
I had some difficulties making Snake Sisters from the start because I knew I wanted to do an avant-grade movie but didn’t know the formula as to how to intellectualize it in filmic language. All I had was the story of paradise when I arrived on location in an island, together with the three actresses and one actor. The real problem was their costumes. There would be a prologue in the movie that a mother snake bore thirteen eggs and when hatched, three of them turned out to be in human form. Logically, the three girls were supposed to be nude because they all grew up inside the cave.
There was no shooting on the first day. Then I decided that they needed to cover their bottoms for hygienic purposes in real life, but definitely there was no reason to cover their breasts. The second problem was the dialogue. They need to speak their own ethnic language so I had to create a vocabulary of their own as the shooting progresses. The whole shoot was executed through instincts and intuitions. The movie was a real experience for me. It took me 30 calendar days (practically 27 shooting days).
Do you always know exactly what shots you are going to use in your films?
I try to figure out the mood of photography in my films. I consider the color tones, the light and shadows, the camera movements and techniques, the tools needed for the scene to be in motion. For example, do I need the crane shots, the dolly tracks, the zoom lens and so on? And how much of the film has to be shot with a hand-held camera. It will depend on what kind of movie and in what period and time the story is going to happen. But the shots are of course decided upon during the principal photography. I function by instinct during the actual shoot. I don’t use storyboards. I rely on my intuition. I call it the director’s gut feel.
What inspired your style of filmmaking where the editing and framing seem more sophisticated that most Filipino films?
I guess my being a painter and a visualist makes my camera composition effective. I help edit and compose music for my films too and practically score the music and stay during the entire process until all the tracks have been mixed by the sound engineer.
What are you trying to achieve thru cinema and do you think you have realized your ambitions?
What I would like to achieve is for my movies to transcend its ethnic origin and merge with the diversified cultures of the world. Only then can say I have realized my ambitions as a movie director.
What are the most difficult things about making films?
I consider that the most difficult things about making movies are: first, you got to tell a story that touches the audience and, second, you got to faithfully translate this vision into images to tell your story. The director must have the ability to see the movie edited in his mind complete with music, dialogues and sound tracks even before he starts shooting it so that what follows is simple execution. Otherwise, there is no reason for the director to be on the set.