Peque Gallaga: The director as raconteur

Bibsy M. Carballo - The Philippine Star

Whenever the name of Peque Gallaga is mentioned, the various reactions one gets could either be of awe, intimidation, dismissal, or unmitigated worship. Although he has followed a number of career paths (teacher, director for commercials, actor, director for television, production designer, director for movies, director for theater, screenwriter) Peque seems to be best known as a director and a teacher.  

His interviews are almost like a storytelling session cum lecture where one is given the forward, the background of the subject at hand, and examples to stress his point, punctuated by colorful cusswords. No wonder his workshops are often the talk of the town, and students flock to them especially those in Bacolod where he grudgingly admits he heads a sort of Negrense mafia or what he calls the “cultural sacadas.”

He has been teaching for more than 30 years, in schools, in non-classroom setups, holding workshops from Cagayan de Oro, Panay and all the way to Batangas, recently in Baguio with students from Abra to the Cordilleras. He declares he loves the interaction, the sense of community and continuity.  

The director looms large (literally and otherwise) on the horizon of Philippine cinema once a pioneer in Asia and today lingering on a deathbed. In many ways, Peque must feel it is actually the fault of those in the industry, born out of laziness and greediness. He acknowledges industry people have gotten old, don’t have their pulse on the audience. “Many of our producers haven’t taken the LRT, are hardly aware of YouTube, the blogging phenomenon or know how to handle the videos in their cellphones. So they continue propping up the old creaking formulas with more of the same stuff that hasn’t worked in decades. If that isn’t insanity, I don’t know what is.”

We wonder if he has given up on the movies. “Yes, I’ve given up on Industry movies. But to be fair, the Industry has given up on me as well.”

In a published interview regarding why he did his last film Pinoy Blonde, Peque reveals it was really out of frustration with the way his colleagues present the Philippines in clichés — the poor peasants eating kamote, the farmers in camisa chino, Pinoy children talking in singsong patterns reminiscent of Shirley Temple, and worst of all “ If you check out most of what is considered good acting by our most prestigious award-giving bodies, you will see a direct line between the acting of Vivian Leigh and Leslie Howard in Gone with the Wind as filtered through Lino Brocka, and it continues to this very moment. All these serious, solemn scenes between two people both gazing at the horizon and staying firmly within the frame.”

We ask him if he thinks he has a better picture than Oro, Plata, Mata (his second directorial assignment after Binhi co-directed with Butch Perez) and he answers,

“I think Virgin Forest, Unfaithful Wife, Scorpio Nights, Magic Temple and Kingdom, Isang Taon Walang Diyos (Wakwak), Tiyanak, Gangland and Pinoy Blonde are a lot better than Oro. A lot of the sequences from Shake, Rattle & Roll are better constructed and directed.”

Considering the complexity, ambition and limitations in the shooting of Oro, he will concede it was a pretty great job but adds it is not a complete picture, “There’s about one hour and a half of story that’s missing in there. There’s stuff there that doesn’t make sense or, if it does, it doesn’t receive the concentration and focus it deserved. I’d give my right arm for a chance to do a director’s cut on that.”

He is now making an appearance in the indie film Hubad, which will be screened again on Aug. 15, 6 p.m. at the CCP Dream Theatre.  Here, he plays the director of a play where the actors (Irma Adlawan and Nonie Buencamino) must deal honestly with their growing sexual attraction to one another and with the artistic problems of an actor both with honesty. Asked why he accepted the acting assignment which meant he would commute between Manila and Bacolod he replies he found the project intelligent and ambitious and welcomes the opportunity to give up artistic control of a project and put himself  totally in the hands of someone else.

He has done less than a dozen acting roles and confesses to knowing his limitations stating that, “I make sure that whoever is offering me a role knows exactly what he’s getting from me. So I warn them that I have absolutely no brains for memorizing — it all went the way of my virginity during the psychedelic years — I can’t memorize Tagalog, Ilonggo or English if my life depended on it….I ask them not to give me kilometric lines and, short of directing my scene, beg them to cover my scene with as many shots as possible so I can memorize and deliver my dialogue line by line.”

We visited the Hubad set and true enough found idiot sheets everywhere for Peque.

“I’m proud to have done bits and extra appearances from Mario O’Hara to Maryo J; from Marilou to Laurice and the only bastards who totally ignored me and shot me totally tuhog were Mario O’Hara and Denisa and Mark. I remember having to memorize this huge speech in Majayjay for a whole week because I had a feeling that Mario would double-cross me and tuhog that speech which he ended up doing. He did the same thing to me in some telemovie on San Lorenzo Ruiz and I remember hiding my cue cards behind religious statues and props. When I did the refectory scene in Rizal for Marilou, my cue card was right under the ham that I was eating.”

Denisa and her co-director Mark Gary are ecstatic over Peque’s acceptance of the role. Not only was he most cooperative in terms of fee, assistance in promoting the films, moral and artistic support, his presence in the picture has undeniably given it a bigness it deserves.

The best thing about Peque Gallaga is that he shuts his mouth off, doesn’t mince any words, and gives opinions with all those added invectives that a more showbiz type of individual would be careful of uttering. He gives kilometric answers to a one line query which we absolutely enjoy since it provides one with a peek into the man’s personality, not to mention making the interviewer’s job so much easier.  This, plus his talent as raconteur. 

When we ask him to comment on film adaptations from other literary forms, he articulates in his usual amusing classroom lecture manner — “All movies proceed from a cinematic idea and principle — you really have to write it from scratch. The storytelling in cinema is completely antithetical to the storytelling on stage or in a book. This is basically my fight with a lot of movies here — they’re really not very cinematic. I know many people feel that I’m blasphemous when I consider (Lino) Brocka a better dramatist than filmmaker.”

Not that Peque is unaware of people’s reactions to his candid opinions, and we have a feeling that he has lately tried to edit himself but then too much editing would rob him of that roughish charm. People seem to enjoy subjecting him to questions like comparisons between Ishmael Bernal and Brocka. Although he has worked with them both, respects them both, he has always answered that he is solidly in Bernie’s corner.

In an interview he once said that Brocka represented the heart, and Bernie the mind. “When we waited for an hour on a Bernie set, it was because he was trying to solve an artistic problem. On the other hand, when we waited for hours on a Lino set, it was because he was out there somewhere fighting with the producers on some social inequality problem or marketing.”

We ask about his last picture three years ago Pinoy Blonde which was a digital movie that spoofed everyone but didn’t seem to get its message across. Perhaps then it was ahead of its time, we suggest?

“I have absolutely no idea. I thought I was sharing everything I loved about movies to people who shared the same love of movies. It was really a lark, doing things that major studios would never dare do with a set of the most gifted actors you could find in the Philippines and I got a lot of hostility instead. I was attacked for being pretentious. (???!!!) A lot of reviews claimed I was actually simply copying Tarantino when I was spoofing Kill Bill and stuff like that. If I wasn’t so old and grizzled, it would have broken my heart.

“I hate to insult my detractors, but I’m really coming to the conclusion that a lot of people who love movies don’t really understand movies. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the extremely scanty feedback I get raving over  Pinoy Blonde  are from extremely intelligent people. Oops, I just ruffled a few feathers again!“

 We prove, “If you had all the money in the world, wha would be the movie you would choose to produce and direct?”

“I’m sorry… you’re talking to a glutton, “ he quickly replies. “If I had all the money in the world, I would produce and direct:

A) Olympia — a period epic of love and war

B) Boy D — an exploration of impersonal cellphone teenage sex with a boy who thinks he’s a vampire.

C) Agaton And Mindy — top secret

D) Epic film based on the book Ordeal in Samar — the Balanggiga Massacre

(E-mail the author at [email protected])

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