POSTCARDS ON WRITING 5: Cesar Hernando tells stories through cinema

Posted in, Postcards on Writing

When I first met Cesar Hernando, I was an art student and he was my figure drawing teacher. I knew him as the guy who looked over our shoulders as we drew portraits of the men and women that stood naked before us on a wooden platform. I’d later learn that Sir Hernando (which is what we all called him) had worked in the film industry for several decades as a production designer, director, actor, and writer–and he was an important part of some of Philippine cinema’s most iconic films.

Poster for the exhibit ‘Mula sa mga Aninong Gumagalaw’ (‘From the Moving Shadows’) featuring behind-the-scene photos taken by Cesar Hernando. The picture above shows actress Vilma Santos on the set of SISTER STELLA L (1984) directed by Mike de Leon. “This is Ate Vi making pa-cute (acting cute) for my camera, while Laurice Guillen (an actress and director) fixes her veil.” says Cesar. “It was shot in one of the side streets of Makati, near Evangelista Street. It’s one of my favorite photos.”

I got in touch with Sir Hernando about a month ago to ask if I could interview him, and what began as a discussion about ‘telling stories through film’ turned into something more beautiful: an almost cinematic recounting of what it was like to grow up as a boy in love with the movies, comics, and radio back in the 1950s. Reading over his answers feels like watching a coming-of-age film, filled with nostalgia for a lost golden age, interesting characters (Sir Hernando’s family sounds amazing), and a sprinkling of cameos from some of the great directors of Philippine cinema.

Sir Hernando sent me this sample movie flyer ad of the 1937 film ‘Nasaan Ka Irog’ (‘Where Are You, Darling?’)

Tell us about where you grew up and the kind of child you were. When did you realize you wanted to tell your own stories? 

I grew up in a close-knit family in Manila in the 1950s. My dad was a plainclothes police detective in the Homicide Section of the Manila Police Department (back when they were called ‘Manila’s Finest’). He really enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of his job, and I always heard him talk to my mom about his exploits hunting down criminals. My mom was always worried that she might end up a widow (my dad died from cardiac arrest in 1990). At night, during bed time, my dad would tell stories to put us to sleep–his stories fascinated me and my siblings, and the problem was we never got to sleep because we were curious about the endings of his stories.

Dad was a voracious reader of all sorts of books, newspapers (we had three newspapers that were delivered by a young man on a bicycle, everyday), magazines–and comics, foreign and local. My dad had a collection of Detective Comics, where Batman and Superman started, from the 1940s (unfortunately, they were kept in a baul [chest] and were eaten by termites, along with my mom’s collection of movie flyers. Back then, these flyers were given to moviegoers at the theater before the movie began). We always looked forward to Sunday, because Sundays were reserved for watching movies in downtown Manila after a church mass, and eating at a Chinese restaurant. From dinner time up to bed time, we talked about the movie that we’d watched that afternoon–the story, the acting, the way the scenes were shot, etc.

Front cover of the movie flyer for ‘Nasaan Ka Irog.’ which stars Angel Esmeralda (son of zarzuela king Hermoges Ilagan, actor Jay Ilagan’s father) and Elsa Oria (who passed away a few years ago in US). “The size of these flyers was roughly half of a piece of bond paper, and printed on newsprint.” Cesar says. “The back of the page usually had songs from the film. These movie flyers are very rare now.”

We regularly read the local komiks (comics)–Pilipino Komiks, Tagalog Klasika, Espesyal Komiks, and Hiwaga Komiks. It was from the komiks that I learned how to draw–by copying  them. My elder sister would teach me how to draw realistically, and my eldest brother would teach me how to draw in a cartoon-ish manner. I remember I created my own komiks inspired from The Classics Illustrated (which adapted classic literature into comic form). I grew up to be more of a visualizer/illustrator than a writer. My younger brother is a writer/journalist and used to edit Sunday Malaya (a newspaper). My elder sister (who passed away in Pennsylvania, USA in 2001) was very good in English.

The cover of an issue of Pilipino Komiks from the 1950s, featuring a beautiful rendition of the popular and enduring Filipino comic book character, Dyesebel.

I never got to write stories after this, and neither did my other siblings. Maybe unconsciously, we were bombarded with so many things to read that we didn’t have time to create/write on our own–except my elder sister, who wrote stories (that never got to print). Maybe my awareness of all this [of storytelling] I learned through my experience when I was a kid reading komiks–learning how the story goes, how the characters communicate, and how the illustrator visualizes the story by the novelist (this was also how I learned to make drawings. Ang lakas ng influence ng komiks! [comics had such a strong influence!]) And since most of these stories were made into movies, I was fascinated by how the filmmakers or the screenwriters translated the komiks form into film. Most followed how the komiks went. They executed the film like following a drawn storyboard, panel by panel. Kaya ang haba-haba ng mga pelikula noong araw [that’s why the movies back in the day were so long]. Some comic-to-film translations succeeded, others did not.

The same thing was being done with the medium of radio. Most of the radio soap operas back then were made into movies, like Prinsipe Amante [Prince Amante]. But imagination had to run high with this kasi nga [because there are] no physical images–just dialogue, sound effects, and music all combined.

My mom was a typical housewife who ran the household. She was hooked on radio soap operas, which she listened to while cooking meals, during lunchtime–so whether you liked it or not, you were going to hear these soap operas. It was very aural, compared to komiks, which were purely visual–in komiks they had to write the sound effects: Bang! Boom! Pak! In radio, you told the story and characterization through sound: the good characters always have nice, pleasant voices. The villains have low voices inclined to always laugh satirically (parang demonyo [like a demon]).

My mother’s younger sister, who was one of the players in Prinsipe Amante, once brought me to the radio station. In a small air-conditioned room, the actor/readers were lined up in their seats, reading their parts from the script in front of a microphone. The director was like a conductor, pointing to the one who was next; he was the one who motivated actors to speed up the delivery of lines by gesturing with his hands. There were folly guys, who made the sound effects– footsteps, or crumpling paper to denote a fire. There were all sorts of props to make sounds: a fake door for scenes that involved opening and closing the door; a small bell, a telephone, a piece of glass for breaking, etc. anything that the script demanded. The script was well-timed. Dapat exact sa oras [they had to be exactly on time].

Kaya yung pelikula ang the best kasi nundun na lahat ng art forms [that’s why films are the best because all the art forms are there]–literature, visual arts (like painting, photography, komiks), theater, architecture, music, or even dance.

What was the first story you ever wrote, and how did you end up working in the film industry?

I’d say I’m not really a writer. I always think in images. And from the images, I create concepts. I took up a film course at the Film Institute of the Philippines, held at Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (University of the City of Manila). Among my classmates was Doy del Mundo, who would write Lino Brocka‘s Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, and Mike de Leon’s films – ItimKakabakaba Ka Ba?KisapmataBatch ’81. Doy introduced me to Mike de Leon, the grandson of Dona Sisang and owner of LVN Studio, and he’d bring me there to watch old LVN movies in 16mm or 35mm film formats (!) (Now, you can watch these films on DVDs). From FIP, I got to work as assistant director to Ishmael Bernal‘s first film Pagdating sa Dulo in 1971.

Cesar Hernando took this picture on the set of ITIM (1976) directed by Mike de Leon. “This is Tommy Abuel’s dream sequence (he is the guy going up the stairs)” says Cesar. “This was shot in the old house of Dona Sisang of LVN pictures at San Miguel, Bulacan.

By the way, my very first short film, Botika Bituka [which literally translates to ‘Drugstore, Intestine’; these words are part of a popular Filipino tongue twister] shot in Super 8 in 1986, is being shown now at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, together with the works of Raymond RedRoxlee, and others. Botika Bituka, which is 2 and a half minutes, is tongue-twisting words that present images that connect the drugstore and intestine. As the tongue-twisting words go fast, so do the images.

What kind of books do you read? 

I only read during my spare time. I’m not a bookworm like my dad and my siblings. Among the books I read when I was in college at UST Fine Arts are the James Bond books (before they were shown in the theaters), Crime and Punishment, Siddharta, The Little Prince, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Alfred Hitchcock pocketbooks, The Painted Bird, Pinball, A Clockwork Orange, Carlos Castaneda, etc. (the classic literature I read from The Classics Illustrated.)

The controversial 1965 novel ‘The Painted Bird’ (Der Gemalte Vogel) by Jerzy Kosiński is set in Eastern Europe during the second world war, and tells the story of a wandering young boy’s experiences with peasants that are up to all sorts of sexual and social deviance.

Tell us the difference between writing fiction in prose and writing a screenplay.

I haven’t tried writing prose fiction. I’ve written screenplays waiting to be filmed like Ang Imbestigasiyon ni Juan Diego [The Investigation of Juan Diego], Singalong Sing-Along, and the unfinshed Mga Aninong Gumagalaw [The Moving Shadows].

What would your advice be to those who attempting to write their own screenplay? 

Read books on screenwriting. They will help a lot in guiding you from the concept to actual writing. Read Clodualdo del Mundo’s Writing For Film (1981, Communicatio Foundation for Asia), and Ricky lee’s Trip To Quiapo.

What’s the difference between writing for mainstream Filipino films and writing for independent films?

Mainstream writing for a film means having big budgets like the English-titled rom-com movies of Star Cinema. Writing for independent movies are more experimental in nature. The films I’ve worked for as production designer for Cinemalaya projects of Raymond Red (Kamera Obskura) and Mes de Guzman (Diablo) have scripts but don’t have dialogues (!) kaya manipis ang scripts. They improvise on the set and let the actors do their own dialogue as long as it’s within the concept of the story. I’ve tried this with my own film Puso ng Kadiliman [Heart of Darkness] which is still on post-production stage. It is about an hour or so, and has no dialogue.

Another of Cesar Hernando’s behind-the-scene photographs, taken on the set of KISAPMATA (1981) directed by Mike de Leon. “This is actress Charo Santos’ dream sequence.” Cesar says. “But it was cut off from the final edit. It shows Jay Ilagan with a gun in hand and Charo lying on a hospital stretcher.

How does one break into the local film industry as a screenwriter?

You may try joining Ricky Lee’s screenwriting workshop IF there is one. I know he has stopped doing this, since he works full-time at ABS-CBN [one of the largest television networks in the Philippines]. Ricky is a friend and I once attended his workshop.

Are there local screenwriters you admire? 

I admire Doy del Mundo, Ricky Lee, Mes de Guzman, Lav Diaz, Ralston Jover, Shugo Praico. I like their works maybe because of the themes.

What kind of stories do you enjoy the most?

I guess I enjoy reading mystery or detective stories. I just finished rewriting my full screenplay Ang Mekaniko ni Monica [Monica’s Mechanic], which is in pre-production now. My biggest problem is the budget, because the story is set during the early to mid-1950s. Sobrang liit ng budget [the budget is so small]. It’s going to have an automotive repair shop that calls for vintage cars.

What was the most challenging thing about writing this screenplay?

The challenge of writing Ang Mekaniko ni Monica is that is was like solving a puzzle. The idea started with the tongue-twisting words Minekaniko ng mekaniko ang makina ng minica ni Monica [a popular Filipino tongue-twister] or something to that effect. I thought I could weave a story based on that. Since I’m fond of doing films about the CIA in the Philippines, I thought I could set the story in the 1950s with a love triangle so there would be conflict. And what would that triangle be but about the mekaniko [mechanic] and Monica, plus Monica’s husband, who happens to be the owner of a talyer or automotive repair shop. Add the political background and I have a story.

Why were you so interested in telling this story?

I’ve been obssessed with stories about CIAs. Parang [it’s like] Spy Vs Spy in Mad magazine; it’s like going back to my childhood days when the American CIAs were quite active. My two short films Maalinsangan ang Gabi [The Night is Hot] and Kagat ng Dilim [literal translation is “The Bite of Dark”, but the phrase means “The Onset of Night”]  deal with CIA’s presence in the Philippines in the 1950s. There was so much paranoia during that time that they were afraid that the country would turn communist. My dad’s theory was that the CIA was responsible for the death of President Magsaysay in 1957 because Magsaysay was becoming nationalistic and wanted to have dialogues with the Underground [movements]. The CIA was also resonsible for the ascendancy of Magasaysay from being the Secretary of National Defense during Quirino‘s time to being elected landslide as president in 1953. Magsaysay was billed as ‘Man of the Masses.’ Maybe Magsaysay wanted to live up to those words.

A five centavo postage stamp featureing Ramón del Fierro Magsaysay, seventh President of the Republic of the Philippines. He served from 1953 until 1957, when he perished in an aircraft disaster, which a popular conspiracy theory says was orchestrated by the CIA.

President Ramon Magsaysay and his wife, First Lady Luz Magsaysay, with Eleanor Roosevelt.

What are your hopes for this film?

I’m hoping that this movie will have artistic, as well as commercial success. No local films have tackled the CIAs presence here. This would be timely as the Americans are back again!

For more on writing, see the other Postcards on Writing or How I Lost My Novel.


  1. Jul 7, 2012

    I’m glad you wrote about him! For me, Kuys or ‘Sar, as I fondly call him, is one ‘Renaissance Man’. All the best to you!

    • Jul 13, 2012

      I agree–he really is a Renaissance Man!

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