Once upon a time, our country wasn’t as chummy-chummy with our American bros as we are today.
The year was 1898. The Treaty of Paris had just been signed, which was really nothing more than a real estate deed transfer between Spain and the United States. For a measly 20 million dollars (seriously!), the U.S. bought us from the Spaniards, effectively pissing off President Emilio Aguinaldo, who declared war against the Americans. Turmoil took over the capital. In need of a capable military leader, he appointed General Antonio Luna to command the Philippine Army.
This is the take-off point of Heneral Luna, director Jerrold Tarog’s historical biopic about the infamous national hero. Starring John Arcilla (El Presidente, No Other Woman) as the titular figure, the film is a tense yet hearty mix of history lesson and high-octane entertainment.
It’s a period piece that doesn’t only aim to educate, but also keep you on the edge of your seat. And the awesome thing about this adaptation: Audiences will get the opportunity to see what, up to this point, has only been read in text books brought to life on the silver screen.
FHM was lucky enough to secure an interview with director Jerrold Tarog to talk about Gatling guns, gore, and our nation’s tendency to repeat its mistakes.
What made you decide to foray into doing this historical biopic? Have you always been a fan of General Luna's story and background?
It's always been my career goal to do as many different genres as I can manage. Historical epic is one of them. I wasn't expecting it to happen so soon though. I wanted to write a script about Antonio Luna soon as I realized how badass he was but I was told that there was already an existing script, so I looked for that one instead and asked permission to rework it.
What are some of the positive insights you've gained in creating a film such as Heneral Luna?
The larger the scale, the more prepared you have to be. That's why we had a tedious one year pre-production stage that involved all kinds of test shoots and planning. We just had to make sure these historical figures didn't come out as heroes and villains but as human beings with their own faults and motives. That's the only way to be fair to them in narrative filmmaking.
How did the process of casting for the main role unfold? Did you always have John Arcilla in mind to play Antonio Luna?
We were considering two paths: the blockbuster route in which we would've tried out John Lloyd Cruz (although we really didn't have a chance in the first place due to his contract), or the integrity route in which we stopped thinking about box office returns, and looked for the best actor for the role regardless of celebrity status. I'm happy my producers and I agreed on integrity.
In terms of production, how did you ensure that the authenticity of wardrobe, props, and set design were met? Can you give us an insider's perspective on what it was like to recreate this period?
We had consultants for the costumes and battle tactics. The production designers, Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tabije, also did a lot of their own research, using pictures and a balikbayan box worth of books for reference. They did their best, and I'm proud of them. Of course, there will always be nitpickers out there who will gasp at the thought of bright white military uniforms in the 1800s—which is funny because I think people are just used to seeing faded photographs of our ancestors and can't imagine them having white clothes.
We had prop rifles, Gatling guns, and cannons made—the works. Some sets were constructed but there was also a lot of CG involved and post-production cleanup for modern buildings and wires.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the duality the main character projects: that of being both a hero and a flawed human being. How did you create the balance to show his human and heroic characteristics?
I just imagined Luna in a contemporary setting, as if the fighting is happening now. That allowed me to tune the dialogue to a less formal and more immediate tone. There's this tendency to portray national heroes in a very stiff and glorified manner. We forget that they were just people dealing with the cards dealt to them. They didn't know they were heroes at the time. We needed some action, but the real conflict was the politics and the infighting, which was a deadlier battle that cost us our freedom.
What was the process like of generating those epic action sequences? Do you believe that the depiction of bloodshed is an integral part of this story?
It's always a constant dance between budget, imagination, and available resources. There were times when we could go wide and times were we had to narrow down and focus on details. I love shooting bloody scenes due to my horror background but the gore in this film wasn't just for gore's sake. There's a point to all of it.
You have an amazing supporting cast. What was the experience like of directing superb thespians like Nonie Buencamino, Joem Bascon, and Epy Quizon, just to name a few?
It's a directorial trick: Cast the best actors possible, and you won't have to do anything on set. On day one, we were shooting the cabinet meetings and almost all of the actors were there. All I did was sit in front of the monitor and watch in awe at the performances.
On a less serious note, what was fun about tackling this material and turning it into a movie?
I can give one example: there was a scene where Luna's officers had to improvise dialogue to congratulate him. There was the usual “mabuhay” and “maligayang bati,” but suddenly we heard "Yes!" and it kept happening for several takes. It was Alvin Anson, playing Gen. Alejandrino, who kept slipping into English. I think we even heard "Okay" at one point. I can't blame him though. Even I'd run out of congratulatory words in formal Tagalog and would probably say "congrats" at some point.
If you were to do another bio-pic in the future, whose life do you think would make for entertaining cinema?
Heneral Luna is part of planned trilogy. The second film is about Gregorio del Pilar. The third is about Manuel Quezon. But we need Luna to succeed to a certain extent for the other two to materialize. We're doing a Marvel thing here, where instead of a shared universe of superheroes, we have a shared universe of national heroes. Let's hope for the best.
The movie has screened abroad. How has the reception and experience of that been? What can we expect from you after this?
I haven't had a chance to attend the international screenings but I heard they were very well-received. But to be honest, I made this personally with the Filipino audience in mind. I'm not really interested in what foreigners think of it. After Luna, I'm going to take a break from big stuff. I'll probably move on to a different genre or maybe do a documentary. It all depends. But I'm at liberty to say that we're developing an adaptation of Arnold Arre's Mythology Class (a graphic novel originally published in 1999). I think that would be fun to see on screen.
The movie will undoubtedly translate as social commentary to most. Was there a conscious effort to send a message to the public or was the goal simply to entertain? As a director, is there a struggle in balancing these two?
Our historical movies are often history lessons combined with hero glorification. We went for a bit of history lesson, lots of entertainment, and a parting message about our culture that will hopefully start a conversation, or at least inspire some people.
Despite the setting, what do you think are the thematic elements in the movie that resonate in today's modern times?
Among many things, Heneral Luna is an attempt to portray our cycle of betrayal. It's something that's ingrained in our culture—this feeble sense of nationhood. We group together and build things out of emotion then let them fall apart due to lack of foresight. It's the same thing back then as it is now.