The Making of an Epic
Award-winning filmmaker Jerrold Tarog sits down with the Philippine Canadian Inquirer to talk about ‘Heneral Luna’, his craft, and making it to the Oscars.
When award-winning filmmaker Jerrold Tarog (‘Sana Dati,’ ‘Confessional’) started playing with the idea of making a historical movie, he knew he didn’t want any of the usually glorified heroes from school textbooks.
He wanted something more. He wanted a complex “anti-hero.” Enter Gen. Antonio Luna.
Historical movies are nothing new, often assigned as required viewing for history classes. But “Heneral Luna” is no ordinary historical film. It gives more than justice to its genre—it is a historical epic.
“Heneral Luna” follows the life and tragic death of Gen. Antonio Luna, a brilliant Ilustrado who became one of the country’s greatest military tacticians. The General is also famous for his temper, intensity, and boisterous laughter.
The movie was based on Vivencio R. Jose’s book “The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna” and Jerrold admits this is his biggest project so far.
With over 500 extras plus the main cast and crew, it took more or less three years to complete the movie. But the original script itself—written in English by Henry Francia (†) and Executive Producer Eduardo Rocha—was 17 years old when Jerrold asked their permission to turn their words into film.
“Malakas ‘yung feeling ko na maraming makaka-relate sa kanya given na ‘yung struggles niya noon ay struggles pa rin natin ngayon,” Jerrold said.
(I have a good feeling that a lot of people would relate to him, given that his struggles back then are still our struggles today.)
The Perfect Cast
In order to achieve the delicate balance between drama and comedy with the Philippine-American War as the backdrop, Jerrold and his team at Artikulo Uno Productions had to make sure they have the perfect actor for each role.
For the role Luna, Jerrold shared three actors were considered: John Lloyd Cruz, Mark Abaya, and John Arcilla. Casting Cruz would ensure a box-office hit, but his contract at that time kept Cruz from working on other projects.
Jerrold recalled feeling relieved when the producers agreed to take on the route of integrity in building the film. This left Abaya and Arcilla bidding for the role of the feisty general.
“Pareho silang may (they both have this) fire… but we went with John (Arcilla) because he was more experienced,” Jerrold said, adding that he’s still thankful that Abaya agreed to do a cameo in the movie as the younger Antonio Luna.
It goes without saying that Arcilla was tailor-made for the role of Antonio Luna. From his stance to his mustache to the indefatigable fire in his eyes, he lived and breathed the General’s intensity.
The Line Between Fact and Fiction
The beginning of the movie shows a disclaimer saying “creative liberties” have been taken in making the film to accentuate the story. Jerrold openly pointed out which parts of the movie were embellished with fiction, but for the sake of those who haven’t seen the movie yet, this author won’t discuss it here.
Despite fictional content, a painstaking amount of research and consultation with historians and experts were still done in order to keep the story as historically accurate as possible. From the General’s outbursts to the buttons of the military uniforms, the team worked day and night—some even had to go through a balikbayan box of research material—to make sure every detail was correct. Jerrold said all this attention to detail was the main difference of “Heneral Luna” compared to his previous projects.
The Importance of Comic Relief
If you’ve already seen the movie, you’d know how the film struck the perfect balance between historical accuracy and natural dialogue. According to Jerrold, one of the goals of “Heneral Luna” was to “portray heroes as human beings—flaws and all.”
Despite the gravity of the film’s message, the movie was also intentionally peppered with moments of comic relief as homage to the unbreakable Filipino spirit.
“’Yung idea na ang Pilipino sa gitna ng calamity, may mahahanap na katutuwaan ‘yan,” Jerrold said. “Tapatan mo ng camera, ngingiti ‘yan.”
(The idea that Filipinos, even in the middle of a calamity, will find something amusing… Point a camera at them and they’ll smile.)
For 31 days in the span of three months, the team shot scenes from various locations in Ilocos, Tarlac, Laguna, Batangas, and Bataan—using digital manipulation and on-set production to turn modern day locations into 1898 Philippines. And in those days, Jerrold and his team worked hard to make sure every scene was as unburdened with high falluting words, resulting to a more natural discourse between the characters.
The Death Scene
Spoiler Alert: Gen. Luna dies.
The General’s death is one of the most heartbreaking things this author has ever seen. And all that heartbreak, according to Jerrold, was intentional.
“Ang ini-imagine ni Ed Rocha was something closer to [Quentin] Tarantino, with all the blood and gore,” he recalled. “[We decided] na madugo parin pero mas masakit panoorin, ganon nalang ‘yung treatment namin.”
(Ed Rocha was imagining something closer to the films of Quentin Tarantino, with all the blood and gore… We decided to still make it bloody, but more painful to watch, that’s the treatment we went with.)
The movie’s vague portrayal of who’s the bad guy and who’s the good guy was intentionally done to keep the audience thinking, according to Jerrold.
“Bahala silang lumabas na may sarili silang interpretation (It’s up to them to walk out with their own interpretation),” he said.
“’Pag napanood niyo ‘yung pelikula, pwede mo siyang tignan as Luna vs. Aguinaldo, or mga probinsya vs. Cavite, pero itapon niyo lahat ‘yon. Ang mas tignan niyo ‘yung angle na Filipino vs. Filipino,” Jerrold pointed out during one of their school visits in Cavite.
(When you watch the movie, you can look at it as Luna vs. Aguinaldo, or the provinces vs. Cavite, but throw all [those ideas] away. You should look at the angle of Filipino vs. Filipino.)
Indeed, the General’s last minutes are not for the faint of heart. But true to historical accounts, the brutal murder of Luna today just stands as another reminder of the movie’s famous line: “May mas malaki tayong kalaban kaysa mga Amerikano — ang ating sarili.”
(We have an even greater enemy aside from the Americans — ourselves.)
Jerrold has solid plans of making two more historical epics after “Heneral Luna.”
“It’s sort of like an Aguinaldo trilogy,” he said. “The sequel is [already planned] in my head. If hindi man with the same financer, I’ll find another way to make it happen.”
He plans on making a follow-up movie to “Heneral Luna” depicting the life of Gregorio Del Pilar, one of the youngest officials in the Philippine military and an alleged henchman of Aguinaldo. Jerrold said he’s already planned the Battle of Tirad Pass in his head.
The last movie in the trilogy will be about the presidential race between Aguinaldo and Manuel Quezon.
For him, his historical epics are “not about cleaning up the names of certain people,” but it aims to show the infighting among Filipinos.
The Overwhelming Support
When “Heneral Luna” debuted on September 9th, it was being shown in over 100 cinemas nationwide. On their second week, the number of cinemas dwindled to half. But as of posting, the historical epic is back on more than 100 cinemas. The movie is going strongly into its third week.
With the pleasant surprise of the success of “Heneral Luna”—despite several establishments declining to show support for the movie before its premiere—Jerrold said he was not expecting the people’s positive response.
“Sanay na ko sa ganon, mas nagulat nga ako na dumadami (ang cinemas). Mas sanay ako sa disappointment,” Jerrold said.
(I’m used to that, I was actually surprised that the number of cinemas is increasing. I’m more used to disappointment.)
He adds, “You don’t make movies expecting [great] response. You just go in there, do your best to tell the story, and just cross your fingers.”
For Jerrold, making the movie was about creating something entertaining with a strong social significance.
“We were trying for something higher, trying to transcend the idea of movie promotions,” he said. “We’re making this an act of nation building.”
As of posting, their marketing team is also in the process of planning a U.S. theatrical release in October or November of this year, with hopeful plans of a Canadian premiere, as well. Jerrold also assured this writer that a DVD release of “Heneral Luna” is in the works.
With the huge success of the movie, “Heneral Luna” has been chosen by the Film Academy of the Philippines as the country’s official entry to the 2016 Academy Awards for the Foreign Language Film category.
Jerrold, being a veteran of international film competitions and festivals, sent a message to the Philippine Canadian Inquirer, saying, “We made ‘Luna’ with the Filipino audience in mind and that’s all that matters to me personally. Anything outside of that is a welcome bonus.”