Friday, May 8, 2009

Cirio H. Santiago interviews

Cirio on the set of Stryker (photo courtesy of Steve Rogers)


Interview by Erika Franklin in Firecracker Magazine #17

Who can resist the appeal of a B-Movie? With a raft of films ranging from relentless post-apocalyptic desert action (his self-styled Mad Max imitation phase) to unsentimental, snappy and surprisingly tight Vietnam War movies (starring David Carradine, no less) and exploitation/women-in-prison flicks with a cult retro following (starring Pam Grier and including early collaborative efforts with Carl Franklin), and the odd martial arts actioner, Cirio H. Santiago has done them all. The titles of some of his films alone read like the ultimate drive-in movie programme: Stryker, Equalizer 2000, Path of Fire, She Devils in Chains, Caged Fury, One Man Army, Bamboo Gods and Iron Men (and not forgetting, Firecracker).

His fans include the ultimate movie-geek, Quentin Tarantino, who actually namechecks Santiago’s Foxforce (also known as Ebony, Ivory and Jade – a mutli-ethnic female martial arts actioner) in Pulp Fiction (Tarantino is said to have cast both Pam Grier and David Carradine in his own projects partly after seeing them in a number of Santiago films…). “He said to me, that when he worked in the video store, he saw all of my films – I couldn’t believe it,” says Santiago.

At 70 years of age, enigmatic and low-key, Cirio H. Santiago is not only sprightlier than counterparts over fifteen years his junior but, incredibly, he continues to make at least two films a year and has to date directed and produced around sixty films – all shot in English, filmed on location in the Philippines, created specifically for international export. He says, “That’s what I do – I make 'American' films for export – that’s what I’ve been doing for the last forty years”.

Cirio on the set of Stryker (photo courtesy of Steve Rogers)

Born and raised in the Philippines to a family with a filmmaking heritage - his father co-owned local production outfit Premiere Productions, launched to capitalise on a burgeoning Tagalog film industry in the mid 1940s - Santiago took to filmmaking in his late teens and soon began working with some of the greatest Filipino directors of the time, including Ishmael Bernal. He continues, “I had my fingers burned – at first, I tried making Filipino films for the export market but they didn’t work. No one wanted to watch them, especially in the 60s and the 70s. When I made my third film, I tried to Americanize my name, or at least Anglicise it, because at the time if the buyers saw the name of the director or producer was Asian or they knew the film was made in Asia, they would not buy it. But then my agent told me "Use your real name!" Thankfully, the climate has now changed. But that was my lesson early on. I lost a lot of money making films that I wanted to make, so I thought, OK - I’ll follow what audiences want. If they want burgers and hotdogs, I’ll do burgers and hotdogs - and the market bought it. They are lousy scripts, but that is what they wanted. It was like a new frontier - I like new frontiers.”

Through the embassy in 1960, Santiago met B-Movie director Roger Corman on one of his visits to Manila (known for his “hamburgers and fries” style of filmmaking which began in the 1950’s with titles including the original Little Shop of Horrors and Attack of the Crab Monsters). They became friends and soon launched a production company, then called New World Pictures. The pair began working on a sound, economic-based, lower-risk filmmaking model. Santiago says, “Corman gave me my first break - $3,000 to make Savage, also known as Black Soldier [which sparked Santiago’s exploitation / women-in-prisons phase in the last 60s and early 70s]”. Utilising the low-cost of movie-making in the Philippines, the diverse landscape (“We can fake many places here: Florida, Vietnam, South America…we have jungle, desert, beaches… it’s all here”) in addition to the pan-Asian appearance of Filipinos who could masquerade as anyone from Vietnam to Hawaii (“as long as we are wearing Hawaiian shirts, we look Hawaiian!” he jokes). Santiago says, “Roger [Corman] believed there were three ways of making a film, the right way, the wrong way and the Corman way.” As it happened, these English-language (or “American”) films made in the Philippines began to make money. The model worked: in much the same way that LA became the centre of the Hollywood film industry given the diverse locations on its doorstep, the Philippines too became a location hub for international productions, many of which Santiago advised. Largely substituting Vietnam, they include Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.

With his knowledge of the country’s incredible landscape (the Philippines consists of 7,107 islands), Santiago was able to move easily between genres and themes, creating a string of highly watchable Mad Max / Post-Apocalyptic imitation movies in the mid to late 80s (“I did four Mad Max-type movies, shot in Ilocos Norte – all desert. Perfect… it’s beautiful over there – the road is fantastic – the people are very nice…”) through to a series of action-packed, unsentimental, David Carradine-starring Vietnam war movies (including Path of Fire, which was shot in only five days) in the late 80s and early 90s, all in time for the straight-to-VHS heyday – a perfect distribution environment for B-Movie filmmaking. With a number of the same cast members recognisable from film to film, and featuring a number of expatriate American actors living in the Philippines at the time including Nick Nicholson and Henry Strzalkowski.

Cirio working on his final film, the as-yet-uncompleted Road Raiders

Does Santiago believe audiences tastes are changing? “MTV changed everything…I heard Michael Bay says that we shouldn’t stay more than seven seconds in a scene –that’s very short, no? He says you must get away, cut away any excess – and move to the next scene… boom – boom – boom – [clicks his fingers]. Audiences are so used to MTV that if you stray from this – there is a chance you will lose them…”

“[Corman] and I believed it was all about editing…shooting the beginning of the film, and the end of the film and working to shoot as much as possible in-between and editing will take care of the rest!” he said. Quick to dismiss any notion that it is as easy as it sounds, he says, “The only way to do this is to make sure you work within the budget – that’s the secret of Corman. After all, he has been around for fifty years. It’s simple: it's economy, not egos. That’s how you should work, then you’re a business – it’s an economy. The moment your ego becomes part of this, it will not work. That’s how we survive. But some people, when they make a hint of success, it overcomes them. And that is not good…When looking to make a film, you should be scared. When I approach projects, obviously you need to have focus, but then you need to be scared. That fear is good.”

I then wonder what his advice would be to people looking at starting a career in filmmaking. And in his characteristically dry but charming way, he smiles and says, “My nephew wants to direct movies – I told him, try directing traffic first…”

Serious Cirio: Five seminal Santiago flicks...

TNT Jackson (1975) Santiago does blaxploitation and Jeannie Bell is a “one mama massacre squad” as TNT Jackson, kicking some substantial bad guy butt searching for her brother’s killer in Hong Kong.

Firecracker (1981) Santiago has a line in female fight flicks, and this one has a great title, though the alternative - Naked Fist - maybe gives away a few more clues to the content, a revenge flick with a dose of B-Movie nudity, and wall-to-wall action.

Equalizer 2000 (1986) In the post-nuclear apocalyptic world, oil is scarce, and when outlaws outbound and power resides in the sinister hand of the “Ownership” it sure helps if you have a really, really big gun, like, say, the “Equalizer 2000”...

Dune Warriors (1990) More post-apocalytpic desert drama, this time bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Seven Samurai, but expectedly, somewhgat terser, and heavy on the action. David Carradine wears a toga, spouts lines of cod-mysticism, and successfully leads the good guys in defence of a water-rich village under attack from a mercenary band of similarly outlandishly-attired bad guys.

Kill Zone (1993) Forget Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, here’s the real “mad colonel in Vietnam” deal. In one of the last in Santiago’s rapid string of ‘Nam flicks, with the requisite wall-to-wall machine guns, relentless action, and a group of guys sent on a mission fraught with fatalities, David Carradine stars as bonkers Colonel Wiggins enraged by the “numbnuts” who expect his soldiers to fight the war “with their mittens on”.

THE ‘SO-BAD-IT’S-GOOD’ Cinematic World of Cirio H. Santiago

by Eric S. Caruncho [First published on page Q1 of the December 4, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, reprinted on the Inquirer's website]

VAMPIRE hookers, topless kickboxers, biker commandos and kick-ass female convicts in scanty clothing: These are just some of the denizens of the amazing exploitation films of legendary Filipino director and producer Cirio H. Santiago.

Orthodox film historians, who still light votive candles at the musty shrines of Brocka and Bernal, tend to gloss over Santiago’s oeuvre as an embarrassing commercial detour for a filmmaker who started out so promisingly. How could the same guy who co-wrote the script for Gerry de Leon’s classic “Ifugao” and produced “Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo” and “Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo” also be responsible for such atrocities as “Machete Maidens of Mora Tao” and “She Devils In Chains”?

Old-timers fondly remember Santiago’s local hits, such as Dolphy’s classic “El Pinoy Matador” and Nora Aunor’s “Lollipops and Roses.” But Santiago’s place in the history of world cinema will—for better or for worse—likely be sealed by such films as blaxploitation landmark “T.N.T. Jackson” (said to be slated for a Hollywood remake starring Viveca Fox) and the “Mad Max” rip-off “Stryker” (filmed in Paoay with a cast of dwarf extras from Hobbit House).

Arguably, Santiago is the best-known Filipino filmmaker outside the country, having produced over 50 films and directed 30 more for foreign release, nearly all of them low-budget productions for the drive-in theater and straight-to-video market. Many of these are still video rental staples, such as the “Bloodfist” series of kickboxer movies and Vietnam war actioners “Kill Zone,” “Eye of the Eagle” and “Final Mission.”

The tide of cinematic taste has also turned: Once dismissed as unredeemed trash, some of Santiago’s exploitation films are now viewed as cult items in an ironic, post-modern, so-bad-it’s-good kind of way.

Big name beginnings

Quentin Tarantino, for one, is a fan, hiring former Santiago staples Pam Grier (“Jackie Brown”) and David Carradine (“Kill Bill”) and even name-checking him in his own works (in “Pulp Fiction,” Uma Thurman’s unreleased pilot is called “Foxforce Five,” after Santiago’s “Foxforce”).

Many Hollywood big names also got their start in Santiago’s cheapie productions, notably directors Jonathan Demme (“Silence of the Lambs”) and Carl Franklin (“Nowhere to Run”) and actors Carradine, Grier, part-Ilocano Marc Dacascos (“Crying Freeman,” “Brotherhood of the Wolf”) and Robert Patrick (“Terminator 2: Judgment Day”).

Santiago himself hasn’t slowed down. Still slim and energetic, he looks at least 10 years younger than his 69, and still runs Premiere Entertainment Productions, Inc., his production company. He still keeps an agent in Hollywood, and commutes to L.A. regularly to scout for projects. He recently released “Bloodfist 2005” and is eagerly anticipating the Christmas release of “Aladdin and the Adventure of All Time,” his first venture into animation.

How did he manage to sustain his passion for making movies over more than 50 years?

“That’s what my friends always ask me,” says Santiago. “It’s creation: you’re creating something that people can enjoy. At this point in my life it’s not really the money. It’s good money, but if I can create something that can entertain people, I’m happy.

“From the beginning, I always watch my movies from the front row, and I look back at the audience,” he says.

“There are only two things I watch out for: If they start coughing or smoking—you used to be able to smoke in theaters—you’re losing them. The moment they’re not glued to that screen, the moment they notice that the curtain is red, I’ve lost them. And if I lose them, I’ve failed them.”

Santiago was born, appropriately enough, in Divisoria, to a well-to-do family. His father was a surgeon, and his mother a pharmacist. The family owned the successful Hermoso Drugstore. Right after the war, a family friend, cinematographer Ricardo Marcelino, persuaded Santiago’s father to get in on the ground floor of the emerging Tagalog film industry, and the family started Premiere Productions in 1946.

Hit after hit

“Our first production, ‘Probinsiyana’ with Carmen Rosales and Pempe Padilla, was a fantastic hit, and then we made ‘Bakya Mo Neneng’—hit after hit,” recalls Santiago. By 1947, Premiere was making 18 to 20 films a year and was counted as one of the “big four” studios—along with LVN, Sampaguita and Libran. It employed the top directors of the day, among them the legendary Gerardo de Leon.

“I was 16 years old then, and first year college at the Ateneo de Manila where I majored in business and economics, when I got interested in filmmaking,” recalls Santiago.

The young Cirio got his feet wet in the emerging film industry as a film editor, putting together the trailers for Premiere’s productions.

“Manong Gerry (de Leon) told me, ‘If you know how to edit, it will be easier for you to direct. You’ll know the shots you want, the tempo of the film, etc.,’” Santiago fondly recalls his mentor. “He said, ‘I cannot teach you much, the best way to learn is to be with me on the set,’ so I made sure I was on the set for all the Manong Gerry Films: ‘Sisa,’ ‘Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo,’ ‘Kamay Ni Satanas,’ ‘Doble Kara’ and the best ‘Dyesebel’ that’s ever been done. Unfortunately, most of these films no longer exist.”

Something must have rubbed off, because in the summer of ’57, when he was just 17, Santiago directed his first feature, “Paltik.”

“Of course my mother gave me all the support,” he recalls. “She gave me the best cast: Efren Reyes, Pempe Padilla, Arsenio Francisco. But most of my films didn’t make money because people said they were ahead of their time. My favorite film was ‘Mga Yapak Na Walang Bakas,’ a suspense thriller. I was very happy because it was nominated and got good reviews, but unfortunately, it ran against (Gerry de Leon’s) ‘Noli Me Tangere.’ How can you beat the master?”

Nevertheless, by 1960, Santiago was made. At 24, he was the youngest ever to receive the TOYM award. His success is best summed up in a subhead for a 1958 Sunday Times Magazine cover story written by Adrian Cristobal: “Young Man In A Hurry.”

Second to foreign

But by then, the Big Four were in decline, undercut by emerging independent producers and the increasing popularity of foreign movies.

“We were always second to foreign films because we were limited to two theaters—Life and Dalisay,” recalls Santiago. “We didn’t have the screens to market our films. I felt the industry had to look for a bigger market, and I began to look to L.A. as a place where I could work and export our films.

“I started looking for a different market because I couldn’t compete with the stars. FPJ, Erap and everybody else started making their own pictures, and it became prohibitive to hire them,” he continues.

“I decided the way to go was to go for the foreign market. But I also discovered that we couldn’t export our local films—it was like trying to export adobo and dinuguan (blood stew). Since you’re targeting the American audience, you had to sell them ‘American’ films, meaning films scripted by Americans.

Enter Roger Corman, legendary director of B-movies since the 1940s, among them “The Attack of the Crab Monsters,” and the original “Little Shop of Horrors”—exactly the kind of “hamburgers and steak” that American audiences ate up.

“I was very fortunate,” recalls Santiago. “I met producer-director Roger Corman in 1960 when he visited Manila because he was endorsed to me by the US Embassy. We became friends, and he said he wanted me to join him when he started his new company, New World Pictures, which became huge in LA until he sold it. It’s now Concord-New Horizons.”

Flirting with the market

The ’60s and ’70s were the heyday of exploitation pictures, mostly driven by demand for product for drive-in theaters and urban “grindhouses” (corresponding roughly to our “second-run” theaters) and cranked out on the cheap by independent producers. These were low-budget genre movies: sci-fi, horror, spaghetti westerns, action, soft-core sex, atrocity films appealing to the baser instincts of lower common denominator audiences.

Filipino directors had flirted with this market before. Eddie Romero (“Beast of the Yellow Night”) and even Gerry de Leon (“Terror Is A Man”) had tried their hand at Grade B horror in the early ’60s, but they had done so gingerly, as if forced to stoop to such depths by economic necessity.

Not so Cirio. Once he had set his mind to it, he plunged into the genre blender at full steam.

“Corman gave me my first break,” he recalls. “He paid me $3,000 to produce and direct my first film for him, ‘Savage’, a.k.a. ‘Soldier Black’.”

Santiago and Corman next turned to the emerging “women in prison” genre, churning out the classic “Big Bird Cage,” starring now-iconic Pam Grier and co-starring Vic Diaz and Subas Herrero as a pair of gay prison guards. (Little-known factoid: Pam Grier has Filipino blood—one of her grandmothers is Pinay, according to Santiago).

“Those films made money, and that’s how Premiere Entertainment got started,” says Santiago.

As he did with Gerry de Leon, Santiago soaked up whatever he could learn from Roger Corman, who is 10 years his senior.

“Roger used to tell me, ’There are three ways to make a movie: the right way, the wrong way, and the Corman way’,” recalls Santiago.

“The big secret of Corman and myself is economics. We were doing films for $300,000 which was unheard of in LA. When they saw the finished product, they couldn’t believe we only spent $300,000. That’s why we’re still here. But it’s hard work. You have to finish a shoot in four weeks. Roger used to tell me, ’After four weeks there’s no more money, so shoot the beginning and the end first, and if you can’t finish the middle, editing should still save us’. And it works, up to now, although the budget is now closer to a million, because everything has gone up.”

As the name suggests, exploitation films succeed by copying other successful films, short of a lawsuit. When Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” started a trend for Vietnam War films, Santiago made “Field of Fire,” “Final Mission,” “Kill Zone” and dozens of others.

“Tarantino got David Carradine because he saw him in ‘Field of Fire,’ which we shot in five days,” recalls Santiago. “Tarantino used to be the manager of a video store. He told me, ‘Cirio, you won’t believe this, but I’ve seen all your films.’ I said, the good ones or the bad ones? He said, ‘All of them.’ That’s how he fell in love with Pam Grier and David Carradine.”

Sometimes, Corman and Santiago would mix‘n’match genres, as in “Nam Angels,” which had the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang sent on a mission to Vietnam, thereby combining the biker film with the ‘Nam action film.

(“I had coffee with Steven Spielberg at his mother’s restaurant,” recalls Santiago. “I thought he was going to hire me, but all he wanted to know was if it was true that we did ‘Nam Angels’ for only $400,000.”)

When Mel Gibson broke big with “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior,” Santiago made a string of post-apocalyptic action epics, among them “Dune Warriors,” “Wheels of Fire,” and his biggest moneymaker, “Stryker.”

“Where in ‘Mad Max’ it was oil, the plot of ‘Stryker’ was, he who controls the water controls the wasteland,” says Santiago.

New lease on life

When there was no promising new movie to rip off, Corman and Santiago ripped off themselves. After all, why waste a good script? “T.N.T. Jackson” (1975), about a kung-fu fighting soul sister who goes to the Philippines to avenge her sister’ death, was repackaged as “Firecracker” (a.k.a. “Naked Fist”) in 1981 and again as “Angelfist” in 1993.

Although drive-in theaters are fast becoming history, Santiago’s output still has an audience in the straight-to-video market, which has gotten a new lease on life with the emergence of DVD.

“The straight to video market is $15 to $25 million worldwide, except in Asia because of the pirates,” says Santiago.

But some things have also changed.

“You can’t sell a movie now without a star,” he says. “Now when you do films in L.A., you have to pick an A-list star and a B-list star before they will even consider your picture.”

Occasionally, Santiago still produces films for the local market, but he sees dismal times ahead for the industry.

“As of today, from 200 films a year, we’re only producing 40, and it’s diminishing fast,” he says. He adds that prospects are dim for independent producers because of the prohibitive cost of promoting films, which is a third of the total cost.

In spite of the industry’s decidedly downbeat prospects, Santiago himself remains upbeat—which probably accounts for at least part of his longevity.

“I still have two dream films. One is Raja Sulayman. They say it won’t make money, but the story of the King of Tondo fascinates me. It’s a Filipino story. My second obsession is to make a film about our old songs—we have fantastic music.”

For as long as audiences still go to the movies, Cirio Santiago will be sitting in the front row, looking back.

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