Origin Stories, Kuya Edwin, and Not Knowing

Director Mario Cornejo writes about the beginning of his film journey and the legendary surfer who inspired him.

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‘I don’t know.’

Every time I say that phrase, people’s hearts skip a beat. When you’re directing a movie, people expect you to know everything.

‘Where should we put the camera?’

‘Over there under the shade so we don’t get hot.’

‘Where should the actors stand?’

‘Right there under the sun so that the light hits them just right.’

‘Won’t they get hot?’

‘Yes, they will.’

‘Do you want Sid Lucero in the grey costume?’

‘Yes.’

So far, I know the answer to all of these questions. So the questions continue.

‘Do you want to stop traffic?’

‘No, it’s better if we see cars moving behind them.’

‘Is there any chance we’ll finish before sunset?’

‘Not a chance in hell.’

‘Is Sid Lucero supposed to be angry at RK Bagatsing in this scene?’

Boom. There it is. A question I have no answer for. So I say the most liberating sentence you can ever say.

‘I don’t know.’

There’s a popular image of what a good director is, like a mad genius who has the entire vision of his film in his mind, complete and pure. He chips away at his actors, environment and staff until he’s sculpted this perfect relic.

Maybe some films require that kind of precision, that attitude. But not this film. This movie needed to find itself while it was being made. This film needed to not know where it was going sometimes.

Consider the origin of the film.

I started writing APOCALYPSE CHILD seven years ago. Back then it was about four middle-aged women who travel to the province to bury their dead friend. It ended up being about a surf instructor named Ford who’s been told his whole life that he’s the son of Francis Ford Coppola.

That’s an origin story of our film. It’s a good one, but like all good stories, it’s incomplete, and kind of untrue.

You could also say that this film sprung from a myth.

In 1976, Francis Ford Coppola shot his landmark movie APOCALYPSE NOW in the Philippines. It was in Baler that Robert Duvall squatted on the beach of Baler one morning, loving the smell of napalm as his soldiers surfed.

After the production left, local legend has it that the production left a surfboard behind, floating in the ocean. A fisherman sold the board to some local boys, who then taught themselves how to surf, eventually becoming the first Philippine surfing champions.

It’s a good story, and incomplete, and kind of untrue. But from this myth came the germ of an idea. What if the production left behind more than a surfboard? What if they left some children behind? And what if one of those children was the son of Francis Ford Coppola?

I think I came up with that story, but my partner, producer and co-writer Monster Jimenez thinks she did. So who’s right?

I don’t know.

We met one of the boys who learned how to surf on that Apocalypse Now surfboard. His name is Edwin Namoro, and when we went to Baler, we told him we were researching a film, and we wanted to know his story.

We met with him and drank with him and bought him gin. We asked him what Baler was like during the shooting of APOCALYPSE NOW. He told us there that the entire town was involved, that the bulk of the crew and extras were housed in the public school. He told us that Coppola never really stayed in town, that he’d fly back to Manila after every shooting day. He told us in whose houses a young Lawrence Fishburne and Robert Duvall lived. He asked us when we’d actually make this movie that we were researching.

We told Kuya Edwin the truth. We didn’t know.

Here’s something real and true: There was no real surfing to speak of in Baler until the shoot of Apocalypse Now.

Edwin told us that the fishermen got angry when he and his friends would surf. They thought that the surfers were disturbing the sea gods, and every empty net was blamed on Edwin and his friends, riding the waves, angering the merfolk. Eventually, Edwin and his friends became local legends, and tourism and surfing became the main source of income for Baler. Only then did the fishermen begrudgingly leave them alone.

So if local legend is to be believed, Apocalypse Now is the source of Philippine surf culture.

In Pagsanjan, Apocalypse Now’s other shooting location, the film has a darker legacy. It’s been said that the child sex trade was a direct result of those foreigners being there for months at a time, and that the film created that local industry of pedophilia.

Is that true? I don’t know.

Over the years, I met with Kuya Edwin a few more times. Each time he met with us, had a drink or two, and sent us on our way. Finally, I told him that we were going to make the film. We had gotten into the QCinema film festival. We had written the script, and rewritten it three times, and had finally, sort of found the general direction of our movie. I didn’t know everything, but I knew enough to start shooting. Edwin looked surprised, and sort of doubtful. I didn’t blame him. But when we did shoot the film in Baler, we made sure we shot him in a cameo scene.

Eventually, the movie became about myths, about the stories that we tell ourselves, and the way you get trapped in the story of who you are.

It was also about fathers, and the effects that fathers have on their children, even if your father is a famous film director that you’ve never met. When I started writing the film, my partner, producer and cowriter Monster Jimenez and I were trying to conceive a child. This film became about fatherhood as much as anything else. By the time we released the film, our son was turning three years old.

Here’s another real, true thing. I thought we were making a comedy, but it turns out we were wrong. Being honest meant abandoning the comedy. I found myself masking the truth with a joke, deflecting the pain with a punchline, trying to make something that people would like. In the end, we threw all of that out the window and ended up with a film that was a farce but wasn’t a comedy, a surfing film that wasn’t really about surfing, a coming of age film about a man in his thirties, a story about fatherhood that didn’t have a single father in it. So I thought, well, nobody’s going to respond to this strange movie. And once again, it turns out I knew nothing.

Our film won several awards that QCinema festival including Best Picture. We’ve shown and competed in festivals in Italy, New York, Korea, Toronto and other places. We received seven Gawad Urian nominations and nine Film Academy of the Philippines nominations. Our five main actors, Sid Lucero, RK Bagatsing, Annicka Dolonius, Gwen Zamora and Ana Abad Santos each have received multiple nominations for their painfully honest portrayals. I honestly think the magic of their performances happened because I tried my very best not to tell them what to do.

edwin-cameo

In final cut of the film, Edwin Namoro, that giant of Philippine surfing, has an almost subliminal cameo. If you blink, you’ll miss it. Still, he had to be in the movie. Earlier this year, after the film had been seen around the world, Edwin died before we could bring APOCALYPSE CHILD to Baler.

We’ve changed the end credits since, dedicating the film to Edwin Namoro and the people of Baler.

I wish he could have seen it. I don’t know if he would have liked it. But sometimes there’s a magic to not knowing.

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