It seems an ambitious undertaking to create a Filipino film laden with songs and music for an audience that would go to cinemas mostly for the blockbuster variety or the local romcom and horror flicks.
Yet two longtime friends, talent manager Girlie Rodis and singer-actress Celeste Legaspi, owners of Culturtain Musicat Productions Inc., a production company aiming to merge culture with entertainment, appear determined to make a heritage film out of their first cinematic project, “Ang Larawan.”
Based on “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” a play by National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, “Ang Larawan” is set in prewar Intramuros where two sisters try to cope with the financial ruin brought on by a father who could no longer paint for a living. His last work, a self-portrait, fascinates Manila society, but what it ultimately symbolizes causes a dispute between the daughters.
In 1965, Joaquin’s play was turned into a black-and-white film by Lamberto Avellana, dubbed the “Boy Wonder of Philippine Movies.” About 20 years ago Rolando Tinio, national artist for theater and literature, wrote the libretto, with Ryan Cayabyab penning the music.
Another national artist, Salvador “Badong” Bernal, was production designer of the original stage version. His protégé Gino Gonzales now leads the film’s production design team.
What Rodis and Legaspi essentially have in their hands is a piece of significant Filipino literature that they want to memorialize in a popular format.
Rodis admitted that bringing the musical to the silver screen can be expensive. In fact, she has been working on “Ang Larawan” full-time, bringing in more than half of the film’s estimated budget.
Among her investors are Resorts World Manila, individuals who want to help produce heritage films, as well as the Film Development Council of the Philippines, which has offered a modest grant.
“It’s mine and Celeste’s favorite musical [of the seven original Filipino musicals owned by Culturtain] because of what it stands for… There have also been too many geniuses involved in this project,” said Rodis, referring to the national artists and performance industry icons who have lent their talents in interpreting the story through different platforms.
Inquirer Lifestyle spoke to Rodis and primary members of the production team during the first full music rehearsal of the cast with the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra and Cayabyab, who wields the baton and is the film’s musical director.
The music rehearsal was meant to prepare the actors and musicians for recording the movie soundtrack. Filming begins this month with a scene that involves reenacting the La Naval procession in Intramuros.
Cayabyab’s melodies echoed throughout the sixth floor of ELJ Communications Center (ABS-CBN building), accompanied by the voices of the virtual constellation of stage, film and television talents gathered for the project—leads Rachel Alejandro and Joanna Ampil, who portray sisters Paula and Candida, respectively; veteran actors Legaspi, Noel Trinidad, Bernardo Bernardo, Nanette Inventor; seasoned thespians Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and Nonie Buencamino; young talents Cris Villonco, Aicelle Santos, Cara Manglapus, Sandino Martin, Paulo Avelino, and one of the most powerful OPM voices, Dulce.
“Ang Larawan” will also feature cameos by Ogie Alcasid, Zsa Zsa Padilla (who was cast in the original theater production) and Mikee Cojuangco in a nonspeaking part.
Award-winning Broadway production designer Loy Arcenas directs. He had previously helmed the Cinemalaya entries “Niño,” about an aging opera singer portrayed by Fides Cuyugan-Asencio, and “REquieme!,” a film that looks into Filipino culture and practices involving death and burials.
Rodis said she was impressed by the director’s body of work. “It’s his first [musical film] but he has done independent movies that have a musical background … so he has the sensibility [for directing ‘Larawan’],” she explained.
Reflection of the times
His approach, said Arcenas, was to treat the songs as dialogue.
“The songs are not set pieces. They have to blend with the text,” he said, by way of explaining why he has called for many rehearsals during which actors deliver both songs and speaking lines.
Asked why it had to be a musical in the first place, Rodis replied: “If we did a straight play, it wouldn’t be as entertaining to young people. As a musical, even if poignant, [the material] would have funny and light moments like the one with the [high-pitched singing by] ‘pokpok’ girls (one of whom will be played by Villonco).”
The story may reflect the sensibilities of a different period, said Rodis, but it is no less thought-provoking.
“Especially now that we’re such a materialistic society and kids are all about buying the newest gadgets … I want them to talk about this film,” the producer lamented.
“Why did she (Paula) burn her father’s painting? She could have made so much money. Even if they don’t agree with Paula, I just want them to discuss why she did what she did.”
The producer recalled an encounter she had with somebody from SM Cinema five years ago. The man told her there was a dearth of films to offer schools that request for relevant and educational viewing for their students.
“I felt that this material could be that … to have an alternative because it’s all romcom and horror, ’di ba,” said Rodis.
“We don’t want to compete with the local movie companies. We just want to offer … an alternative,” she stressed.
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mentioned Loy Arcenas as having directed “Niño,” a Cinemalaya entry “about an aging opera singer portrayed by Cherie Gil.” The film starred Fides Cuyugan-Asencio in the role of the opera singer. Gil would portray a similar character in another film, “Sonata,” directed by Peque Gallaga.]