As countries all over the world—including the Philippines—are still coping with rising COVID-19 cases, you can’t help but feel helpless and overwhelmed. The problem has not gone away and we don’t really know when this will come to pass.
In contrast, the leaves here in Massachusetts have changed from radiant green to golden brown. I’m extremely lucky to witness this beautiful autumn scenery. The landscape has actually put me in the right perspective to reminisce about Ang Larawan, a dream movie project that took many years to complete.
Neither any of us at Culturtain Musicat Productions—myself, Celeste Legaspi, or Rachel Alejandro—had produced a movie independently. In the 1990s, I had line produced two films: Mumbaki and Okay Si Ma’am, under Viva Films for a project of Johns Hopkins.
The idea to make a motion picture came up after two successful runs of the live stage musical at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Mounting Ang Larawan, the stage musical based on Nick Joaquin’s classic play A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, was truly one for the books.
Before the curtains rose for every single show, National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin would be at the CCP lobby shouting my name to ask for his daily set of complimentary tickets. We, the producers of Culturtain Musicat, were happy because Nick’s constant presence (with friends in tow) meant he loved our musical version of his play.
The Challenge of Continuing Nick’s Legacy
Inside the theater, he refused to occupy the National Artist seat reserved for him in the center. Instead, he opted to sit alone in the front row—the perfect spot from which he could heckle the actors on stage while holding his favorite San Miguel Beer wrapped in a brown paper bag. Without a doubt, Nick liked being at the shows and everyone in the production relished his larger-than-life presence.
Celeste and I co-own seven original Filipino musicals, but my favorite among these is and will always be Ang Larawan. My reasons go beyond the sentimental. Aside from Nick, three other National Artists are involved in this masterpiece: Rolando Tinio who created the libretto as well as the original stage direction, Salvador Bernal who was responsible for the production design for stage, and Ryan Cayabyab who is the genius behind the music and arrangements.
After the repeat had its last performance in 1998, Ang Larawan continued to live in my heart and brain. I was hooked. I made it a personal mission to ensure that Nick’s glorious Intramuros would be known to the Filipino youth.
In 2008, after staging our children’s musical Saranggola ni Pepe, a few unscrupulous producers did not pay us for some of our musical roadshows. Because of this, Celeste and I opted to close our production company.
Celeste then went into semi-retirement to savor being a first-time lola. Ang Larawan, the movie, beckoned to me again. In my mind’s eye, I already cast Joanna Ampil as Candida and Rachel Alejandro as Paula. I began meeting with potential film directors and thinking of casting popular actors for the role of Tony Javier. At this point, Rachel joined in my advocacy.
Rachel and I pitched the concept to some directors. However, their treatment did not jive with our vision. We thought we wouldn’t be able to find a director until Badong Bernal’s protégé Gino Gonzales, our film’s production designer, suggested tapping Loy Arcenas, a Filipino who worked in Broadway and had made two Cinemalaya movies,
Luckily, Loy committed to directing the film. Celeste agreed to rejoin the production and Culturtain Musicat was revived! As soon as Celeste got back, things moved quickly. Her daughter Waya Gallardo worked with Ryan and Loy to trim the three-hour musical into a 90-minute film. Celeste only had one major instruction in connection with the script: None of Rolando’s words were to be changed.
After we had found a director and got a solid script, the next hurdle was funding.
The magical thing about this project was that we met angels who were willing to help make our dream movie come true.
Our first million-peso investment came from Rachel’s husband, Carlos Santamaria, who said he believed in the project. Rachel’s Mom, Myrna Demauro, matched that amount. My sister Loida and brother-in-law Jon also pitched in. When I told my talent, Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski about Ang Larawan, The Movie she, too, added to the pot. A special angel, the late Roy Evalle of First Pacific Leadership Academy, became a major donor. Ben Chan and his sister, Virginia Lim, also contributed funds.
One night, I was in a restaurant waiting for my doctor-brother from New Jersey who was in the Philippines for a medical mission. My brother’s doctor-friend, Ricky Mabanta, was also going to meet him at the same venue. While waiting, Ricky and I chatted. He asked me about work. I opened up about Ang Larawan. Suddenly, Ricky blurted, “Do you still need money?” “Yes,” I admitted. “We haven’t completed our fund requirements yet.” He replied, “I might be able to join you in this project.” Whaaaatttt? I was dumbfounded. I wasn’t even selling the film to Ricky and yet he was willing to help. That’s what I meant when I said this film was magical; it was flying.
We found other contributors like Kingson Sian of the Resorts World group, then Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista whose QC Council through the city’s QC Film Commission gave a generous grant, Herbert’s sister Harlene who heads the Bautista family’s independent production company Heaven’s Best, Mother Lily Monteverde who allowed us to use her Valencia St. studio as rehearsal venue for a year and added to our pot along with her corporate lawyer Alex Cruz, Quantum Films’ Atty. Joji Alonso who extended credit for post-production, Ernie Villavicencio who allowed us to shoot in their heritage home in Batangas for a negotiated rate and partial investment in the film, the Intramuros Administration, FDCP, and NCCA through the Negros Foundation. The ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra graciously agreed to perform Ryan’s wonderful music. Another angel came in much later like a miracle when we needed to shoot additional scenes and refused any film credit. She only wanted us to promise her we would make the best film we could.
Choosing the right actors was just as important as securing the funds.
For Candida, we got Joanna Ampil on a break from her West End commitments. Rachel reprised her role as Paula from the stage. Cris Villonco and Aicelle Santos were picked to play the vaudeville starlets Violet and Susan. Nonie Buencamino was cast as Manolo and Menchu Lauchengco as Pepang.
Celeste agreed to take on Dona Loleng with Robert Arevalo as Senator Perico and Cara Manglapus as Patsy.
We organized auditions for the roles of Bitoy and Tony Javier. Sandino Martin was selected as Bitoy. I took the chance of asking Leo Dominguez if his talent Paulo Avelino would read for Tony Javier. I was surprised when he said Paulo was even willing to audition. We were impressed that he promptly arrived for the audition and, when talked to by Celeste and Ryan regarding possible voice lessons, he agreed to put in the work.
All that was left was casting the oldies and Don Lorenzo Marasigan. We were delighted that Bernardo Bernardo, Jaime Fabregas, Noel Trinidad, Nanette Inventor, Dulce, and Leo Rialp so warmly accepted our invitation.
We decided that we wanted to have as many from the original cast to play cameos and hoped other stars would join our special film. ZsaZsa Padilla, our first run Paula, accepted the role of Elsa Montes. Ogie Alcasid played a policeman with Jojit Lorenzo as his sidekick. Rayver Cruz accepted the role of Charlie. We had Mikee Cojuangco, Martin del Rosario, and Ricky Davao as well as Ryan, Emmie and Toma Cayabyab appear in the opening as citizens of Intramuros. In our grand La Naval Procession, we had Rachel’s Spanish husband Carlos and his friends, plus the late Carlos Celdran play priests.
We shot Ang Larawan, The Movie in 15 shooting days in Manila and Batangas; 13 days in 2015, and two additional shooting days in 2016. We had to compress the schedule because the money on hand was barely enough to cover the expenses. Before, during, and after, the production experienced hiccups both major and minor. The owner of the house across the Villavicencio mansion suddenly prohibited our scaffolding to be set up near his property. In the middle of filming a complicated scene, one cast member had to leave in haste due to a family emergency. The scene where the entire Marasigan family was looking out the window could be shot only from an angle where the electrical wires were visible; and so those wires were painstakingly removed in post-prod. Editing and sound design were meticulous and arduous with repeat dubbing sessions and cast recordings at HIT Productions. As the costs kept adding, I was not sure if our budget would be enough or if we’d find the money to fund the additional expenses. Miraculously, whenever there was a new need, money came in the form of an investment, a grant, or a partnership.
An Amazing Journey
These are a few of the priceless memories and unforgettable anecdotes of Ang Larawan, The Movie.
The process was challenging every step of the way, from rehearsals to pre-production, to principal photography to the additional shoots in 2016, even until the screening at the 2017 Metro Manila Film Festival when Ang Larawan was pulled out of many theaters due to low box-office receipts. Our film regained theaters and made a good theatrical run after we won MMFF Best Picture, Best Actress for Joanna, and four other major awards.
While the ongoing pandemic can make a person so susceptible to despair, I think of the many seemingly insurmountable problems we encountered to make Ang Larawan, The Movie, and how, through God’s grace and the help of many people, it turned out to be a legacy project that we are very proud of. The film has made the rounds of many festivals, schools, offices, and special screenings in and outside the Philippines: from Brussels to Bohol, from Cubao to Canada to Colorado, from Tokyo to Taft Avenue and so many other places. Each time, the audience’s response has been the same: enthusiastic, appreciative, and heartwarming.
The result has given me, Celeste, and Rachel the courage to produce our next movie Song of the Fireflies, a story of how the Loboc Children’s Choir rose from obscurity to world-class renown. We are grateful that this project has gotten the support of Cignal Entertainment and the provincial government of Bohol, as well as other angels who are willing to join us on this next musical journey.
After Ang Larawan, I cannot be a skeptic.
Similarly, the remarkable trees of fall urge everyone to reflect. How can you not believe there is a God when you see a beautiful tree? The changing seasons have the answer. Life will get better.
Exclusive Videos from the Team Behind Ang Larawan…
Girlie Rodis, fondly called GR, is a talent manager, producer for film, concert, and stage, ana marketing executive. She is President and CEO of her company Global Resource Creative Exchange Inc. Together with Celeste Legaspi, and Rachel Alejandro, GR is founder and co-executive producer of Culturtain Musicat Productions.
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