Field Notes


This article was originally written by Mario Cornejo as a cover story for Rogue Magazine, October 2016 issue. There’s also an adorable video of Annicka that comes with it.

annicka rogue.jpg

She’s a little smaller than you think. No matter how often I see her, she’s always smaller than I think she is.

I first met Annicka in 2011 at a party that was aptly called The Great Cinema Party. It was a gathering of filmmakers, critics, educators and artists that was being filmed at Casa San Miguel by Raya Martin, the cinematic wunderkind. He eventually turned that party into a movie because of course he did.

“Who’s that girl?” I asked. The girl in question was laughing and dancing, flirting and just being young and beautiful.

“That’s Annicka. She’s the future of Philippine cinema,” said Raya. He’d used that line before to me referring to six or seven different people. But still, I took notice.

Later that night, the party moved to the beach. Around a hundred filmmakers and artists lay on the sand under the moon. Annicka took off her clothes and walked into the water in her underwear. Nobody was looking at the sky.

It turned out I had seen Annicka act before in a film I liked very much. Aureus Solito’s PISAY was about young kids in Philippine Science High School and Annicka played a studious young love interest, Wena. Annicka was great in it, but nothing about that performance reminded me of this free spirit swimming in the dark night waters, her white skin flashing in the moonlight as she laughed and dove below, breaking the surface only when we drunk and high onlookers were sure she was drowning.

Years later, my partner Monster Jimenez and I were writing a movie called APOCALYPSE CHILD. We needed a character who was young, who was youth. “Like who?” Monster asked me. “Kind of like Annicka,” I said. “Annicka like when we met her.” Monster understood immediately.

So we wrote the character of Fiona, a 19 year-old balikbayan. Fiona arrives into the surf town of Baler and immediately catches the eye of Ford, a surf instructor just past his own youth, in his early thirties. Ford has been the star surfer of Baler his entire life, but as he crosses the line of just past his prime, he finds himself stuck in the role of the young surfing prodigy and the supposed love child of American director Francis Ford Coppola. 

“This particular girl really should resonate with him,” I told Monster. “He wants to move his life forward, and this girl should make him feel like he might actually do it this time.”

I needed a character who can make life seem possible. “If only we could cast Annicka from five years ago,” Monster said.

When we finally finished the script and started casting, we saw all manner of young girls. Some of them were really good actors who did a good job on auditions. But they weren’t quite Annicka. We needed a 19 year old, the age was a major part of the story, and while we had heard that Annicka had played a high school student just the year before, she didn’t seem like a viable option at 26 years old.

‘Let’s bring her in,’ I said. ‘Just let her read. She probably won’t work anymore, but what can it hurt?’

So she came in to audition, smaller than I remembered. She looked great.

‘You look great,’ I said. She smiled. 

‘Thanks!’ she said.

I told her about her character, Fiona. In my mind, Fiona was this young, beautiful girl who had never really been hurt, because that was what I thought happened to young, beautiful girls. Monster and I handed her the script and had her read with Vives, our assistant director.

Most times when you have a reading, you’re only hoping for a sense that the actor will be able to handle the role, may have something unique to contribute. If you’re really lucky, you see a spark of life in the words as they’re spoken.

It was clear to everyone in the room that we had our Fiona. Marks on paper turned into a moment, a real moment, when she read the words.

Annicka isn’t different when she acts. She doesn’t become someone else. She just becomes herself, but more so. There’s somehow more of her, and no matter how wide the shot, her essence fills the screen. And when the scene is over, you turn the camera off and there she is, smaller than you think.

We brought her in to read with other actors, and one day it was time for her to read with our lead actor, Sid Lucero who we had cast as Ford. It was a chemistry test of sorts. Ford and Fiona had to be completely comfortable with each other, so the actors had to really get along. For example, in one scene Fiona does a headstand while naked, just to make a point. And you really have to be comfortable with someone before you do a naked handstand with them.

Sid and Annicka’s initial reading did not have the naked handstand scene. It was a simple dialogue scene and in it Fiona only had three lines. But the scene played beautifully. When Annicka left the room later, Sid just pointed to the door, and astonished look on his face.

‘Did you see her?’ he asked, dumbfounded.

With three lines, Annicka had won him over completely.

As our workshops and rehearsals wore on, Monster and I got to know Annicka better. And we saw how much she was adding to the character. And we realized that as much as we liked Fiona, we loved where Annicka was taking the character more. There was so much similar between Fiona and Annicka, the freedom of her movement, the sheer joy of life in her. But Annicka was funnier, and her laugh was light and infectious. And unlike Fiona, Annicka had a real past, had experienced real pain.

Apocalypse Child was about people stuck in their stories, and how their past controls them to this day. In my mind, the other characters, damaged people, were going to hurt a young innocent girl, like chemical waste burns a flower, destroying what’s pure around it.

It was too easy a characterization, and Annicka was bringing a more nuanced role.

‘What if it’s not about damaged people ruining a young girl?’ I said to Monster one day. ‘What if we have four characters stuck in their pasts, unable to move on from their stories, and this one young girl who has moved on, the only one who was willing to change?’

We called Annicka and asked to meet her that night. She was having dinner with her sister, but said we could have coffee outside the restaurant.

‘What’s up?’ she asked. She smiled.

‘I need your permission,’ I said. ‘I want to change your character to be more like you, but I was thinking of using some of your past.’

Like what, she said. I asked about the scars on her arms and legs. Well, she said.  What do you want to know?

We talked about what made her think of doing this to herself in her youth. I wanted to know what she thought of herself now, years later.

I was scared, and she was so, so open. She seemed nervous, but reassuring. I wondered whether I was doing the right thing.

‘I haven’t known you too long,’ she said. ‘But I trust you. Go ahead.’

Beautiful girls get exploited. All the time. I felt the burden of that trust. I remembered that this was the same girl I first saw, so willing to jump into the dark waters while everyone else watched.

In the first dialogue scene in the film, Ford runs his fingers over Fiona’s scars.

‘You can ask,’ Fiona says.

‘Ikaw ba ‘to?’ Ford asks.

Did I do that? No, some other girl did that to herself,’ Fiona answers.

That scene, born out of those intimate conversations between Annicka and myself, established Fiona’s character completely. No more backstory was necessary, and Ford’s responsibility to be careful with this young girl was clear to the characters and the audience.

That collaboration with Annicka made me braver, more willing to try things. She has that effect. That first adjustment set the tone for the rest of the shoot, and we started to do the same thing with our other actors.

Annicka has had an interesting life, to put it mildly. And like Fiona, she’s been hurt by people who should have been more careful with her. But she’ll still look you in the eye and tell you she trusts you.

Apocalypse Child was shot entirely in Baler, Aurora. It’s a beautiful, magical surf town where Francis Ford Coppola shot the surfing scenes of the classic film APOCALYPSE NOW. Local legend has it that when that film wrapped, they left a surfboard prop behind floating in the ocean. Five local boys used that board and taught themselves to surf, becoming the first Philippine surfing champions. When shooting on our film  began, the entire cast and crew fell under the spell of Baler, maybe Annicka most of all. She committed completely to her character, which manifested most obviously in two ways.

First off, she decided that Fiona wouldn’t bathe very often, so she decided not to bathe unless absolutely necessary. In the hot Baler sun, Annicka soon had a five-foot olfactory force field. As gorgeous as she was, nobody in the crew wanted to get that close to her.

But there was one person who wasn’t thrown off by her scent. I think he reveled in it. And this brings us to the second way that Annicka was committing to Fiona’s character.

As we watched Ford and Fiona fall in love in Baler, it soon became apparent to the entire production that something was happening between Annicka and Sid as well. Their eyes lit up when they saw each other, and they soon were inseparable.

I didn’t confront them directly about what was happening, but I didn’t have to. Sometimes they made some noises about their closeness being part of their acting process but it felt like bullshit to everyone. We knew what love looked like.

One night, after a few drinks, I said as much as I felt I had a right to.

‘Annicka. Be careful with yourself,’ I said. ‘At the end of this shoot, you’ll have to go home.’

She nodded. She knew what I meant, though it was obvious she didn’t know what would happen to her future either. Set romances are common enough, but there was something more happening between her and Sid.

By the end of the production, I had witnessed some amazing performances from all of our actors, and not least from Annicka. She was raw and real, a pure actor. One of my favorite scenes in the film consists of a single shot of Fiona in the dark. She says two lines and breaks my heart, even though her back is to us and we’re thirty feet away.

Soon enough, it was time to say goodbye. The wrap party in Baler was fueled by too much alcohol, and that was my first experience with fun-drunk Annicka. Much later, I’d meet not-fun-anymore-drunk Annicka. But for this particular night, things were great.

‘You don’t know how much this experience has changed me,’ she said. I hoped things would work out for her.

Months later, Apocalypse Child was finally finished and showed at the QCinema Film Festival, where it won Best Film and a few other awards including Best Supporting Actress for Annicka.

Since then the film has had it’s share of critical success, competing in film festivals in places like Italy, New York and Korea with upcoming festivals in Poland, Toronto and Laos. We’ve also had some local success with seven Gawad Urian nominations and nine Film Academy nominations, the bulk of those being for acting. Our five main actors, Sid Lucero, Annicka Dolonius, Gwen Zamora, RK Bagatsing and Ana Abad Santos made our film what it is and deserve every nomination and award they have coming to them.

They proved to me that old adage that 90% of directing actors is casting.

I’ve become closer to all of the actors since the shoot, and I’m thrilled at all the success they’ve had. But as far as their personal lives are concerned, there’s one success story that brings me more relief than joy.

One year later, Sid Lucero and Annicka Dolonius are still together, and if you want to liven up a party, you can’t do better than inviting them to your festival event or birthday party. They still look at each other like they did when they were playing Ford and Fiona, and it’s still obvious to everyone how in love they are.

I called her and asked to meet recently.

‘What’s up?’ she asked. They want me to write about you, I said. About how I met you, what it was like to work with you. But I’ve gotten to know you, maybe too well, and I wanted to know how much I can say.

She looked at me, nervous but smiling. She took a deep breath. She dove in like she always does, braver than she ought to be.

‘Write what you like,’ she said. ‘I trust you.’


Designing Apocalypse Child

Production Designer Christina Dy writes about her creations and challenges in Apocalypse Child.

One year ago, Mario + Monster called me to say they were making another movie, and did I want to PD it?

I hadn’t designed a movie (or anything!) in years. I felt rusty. I felt like I wasn’t ready. But I liked the script and it would be shot in Baler with people I liked. So the answer was YES.

That Baler look

The first thing I noticed when we got to Baler was that everything was gray. Gray sand, gray sea, gray sky. Everything looked like it was stripped of its shiny top coat through years of being exposed to sun and salt and wind. So I decided that the film would be in shades of sea and sand. Worn out grays, murky blues, dusty browns. There would be no pinks, no purples, no neon, no bright reds even. No bold graphic prints.

We looked at houses, so many of them. They liked paintings. They liked knick-knacks. They liked holding on to things, filling up spaces. They kept things that reminded them of specific moments. They kept things that were just pretty. They kept things just because. That was a challenge for my minimalist aesthetic, but perfect for the story of people holding on to stories of who they are.

To get that authentic Baler look, the plan was to get most of the set pieces, props, and costumes from Baler— from the houses there, the offices, the markets. This would prove to be harder than we thought.

The PD team

Personnel and scheduling problems arose, which left my supposed to be Art Director and setmen in another shoot. Tippi Sy the costume designer stepped up to be Art Director. Candy Reyes sent one of her setmen on a bus to Baler after her shoot wrapped. Most of the time it would just be the three of us, with other setmen coming in and out.

Creating characters

Tippi and I assigned a wardrobe scheme per character. Chona was browns, Ford was blues, Serena ended up being white. Rich’s look would be resort wear; Fiona had tattered shorts and sweats.

One of the ideas that I fought for was for the actors to not wear makeup. People in Baler were there to surf, not to be seen. Parties were post-surf, over beer, not in fancy clubs with DJs. Red lipstick and mascara would look so out of place in Baler.


Creating spaces

Most of the locations were bare, or filled up with things not relevant to the character.

We spent a lot of time in the markets. There were no department stores, or art supply shops. Everything was in the palengke. We were there so much that we already had a suki. We also had a suki hardware store, and thankfully they still sold incandescent bulbs. We bought 200 pieces.

There was to be a bonfire party, on an empty beach. Ford’s room was empty. Rich’s room was a girl’s room. That was all manageable given our three-man PD team. And then, we had to convert an empty corner of the Baler Museum into a lived-in congressman’s office.


We weren’t allowed to paint the walls, or to nail on most parts of the walls. We brought in two carpenters. Bought plywood, paint. Made a chandelier from scratch. Things were going well until we had to do set-dressing. We managed to get a chair, table, and shelf from Baler. But the offices and libraries were reluctant to lend us law books and other office furnishings. They asked us to write letters and I didn’t have time to wait for answers.

So I asked a setman in Manila to go to a prop house, gather furniture and office furnishings (typewriter, flag, sofa set, side tables, chairs, law books, etc) enough to fill a van and deliver the items to Baler. We shot everything in that location for a day, packed everything, and sent it all back to Manila.

Now that was fun 🙂

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Spent 22 days in Baler (with 15 minutes in the ocean) with a PD team of 3 people, lost 5 pounds of muscle mass, slept an average of 2 hours every day. Would I PD another movie by Mario + Monster again? Definitely YES.

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.


‘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?’


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.


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.