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15 Questions For The Man Who 'Shot' Heneral Luna

Cinematographer Pong Ignacio tells us why Juan Luna's Spoliarium was such a big influence on the film.
by Gelo Gonzales | Oct 5, 2015
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At movie's end, Heneral Luna was shot and stabbed so many times that if the film had been a cartoon, that would have been the perfect time for our tragic general to drink a glass of water and demonstrate the damage wrought upon his body.

Fortunately, it isn't a cartoon drawn by animators. Instead, it's a beautifully shot film by Pong Ignacio, the film's Director of Photography (DOP), whose previous works include Quark Henares' Rakenrol in 2013; 2011's Bang Bang Alley, which featured Ely Buendia's directorial debut; and Shake, Rattle & Roll 13, also from 2011, where Ignacio took on the DOP reins for Heneral Luna director Jerrold Tarog. Shake, Rattle had been Tarog and Ignacio's second time to work together after having worked on a short film called Eksena Sa Gubat in 2010. 

Gubat is a short film that our 32-year-old cinematographer (pictured below, saluting behind John Arcilla) describes as something that "nobody would probably see"—directly the opposite of Heneral Luna, which has now broken past its P200-million breakeven point. Third time's the charm for this pair.

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Here, we talk to Ignacio about how he saw Heneral Luna—currently the Philippines' favorite historical figure—from a perspective that's uniquely his: behind the lens. 

1)   The film has breached P200-million in the box office. What can you say about people’s reactions?

It’s pretty incredible. In its first week of release, cinema owners were already "sliding theaters," meaning they were splitting a theater between an international film and a local film. We were worried we were going to get pulled out very early on.

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But I guess iba talaga ang power of social media. The target audience for the film is the younger generation, the millennials. A lot of them posted and they reacted—and a lot of them were also bringing their entire family to watch the film after they saw it—and that really helped the film to gain momentum.

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2)   Did you have a feeling early on that the film was going to be embraced this way? 

Well, of course, you wish for the best. We knew Filipinos were the primary audience. At first, we tried to do the rounds internationally—in New York, L.A.—but we knew Filipinos were the most important audience. We looked forward to the Philippine premiere.

As for expectations, you just really work hard on a film. You never expect it to be that big. But you work on the material, you do your best, and hope for the best.

3)   Is this your favorite film to have ever worked on? 

It’s definitely the most challenging. Before this, I worked on short films and trilogy films. My first film was Quark Henares’ Rakenrol, which also had three cinematographers, myself included. In terms of scale alone, Heneral Luna might be the biggest challenge I’ve had.

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You can just imagine what a challenge it would be to do a period piece, and of this scale pa. It’s not just any period piece. It’s set in rooms. It’s set in battlefields. It’s also a real challenge to be under the sun for months. Nailing the production design and all the details we had to create and manufacture—just to create the visuals of the period—those were challenging too. In terms of CGI, we worked closely with the company, Blackburst, and they were very hands-on and dedicated in adding to the visuals of the film.

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4)   What particular aspects are you most proud of?

The shooting took around three months specifically, 31 shooting days. That in itself is a feat. We had a variety of scenes—the battlefields, staging the assassination—and we had a lot of actors, locations. But it was a very efficient set. The director was very organized, and everyone knew what was going to happen on set before we even got to the locations.

Our secret was that we had a long pre-production—around three months. And a few months before that, we went around to scout the locations. We had to find the proper locations, and at the same time, made sure that the locations weren’t overused. Or if they had been used before, we looked at how we can change things up to set it apart from the films that have been done there.

What I’m really proud of is the fact that everything just clicked. From the director to the production designer, the cast, the assistant director, and the extras, the production just clicked.

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I’m also proud of how our visuals were able to allude to the grandmaster, Juan Luna. It felt poetic with Juan being the brother of our main character. 

5)  You sought inspiration from Juan Luna’s works. What were your motives beyond the fact that Juan and Antonio were brothers? 

When I was studying cinematography, people talked about how paintings are a big influence in lighting movies. And it was when I studied Juan Luna and his approach on "chiaroscuro" (an art style that uses strong, heavy contrasts between light and dark) for this film that I understood what they said a lot more. 

When you look at his images, especially the Spoliarium, it’s quite tragic. There’s tragedy; there’s an emotion that comes out of it when you look at it. And I believe part of it can be attributed to the lighting he created for the scene, the colors he chose, and the little accents.

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If you look at the painting again, there’s a woman on the side that’s wearing blue. And I’m sure that was symbolic of the country’s state at the time. His works had those little details in them. It's those little cues, which were descriptive of the country’s state at the time, that made Juan’s paintings appropriate for the film—beyond the simple fact that Juan and Antonio Luna were brothers. There was something in those images that resonated with the team and I.

Additionally, Juan Luna also has a painting of his brother, which we saw when we were at the National Museum. Juan's perspective—along with our visit to his old house in Binondo—helped us visualize our version of Antonio Luna.

6)   What things did you learn about Antonio Luna by looking at Juan Luna’s paintings?

You realize that while Juan Luna is considered as THE artist in the family, Antonio was also an artist himself. Antonio was also artistic. He’s a renowned musician. He’s a writer, and had a poem published at an early age—he was 15, I think. As you know, he’d later team up with Jose Rizal and the other Ilustrados to write.

7)   That shot that looked like the
Spoliarium—was that shot planned from the very start?

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Very much so.

If you noticed the scenes leading up to that actual shot, we showed you a number of miscellaneous characters. May nuns, may taong bayan, and then there was that lady in blue that I was telling you about. They were actually cast for those roles—roles which would kind of “pay off” eventually in the money shot.

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The Spoliarium tribute was the money shot for the film. And it had always been planned in our shot list.

8)   What places were you able to visit shooting the film?

We went around Luzon. 

The trench battle scenes, those were in Tarlac—Capas, I believe. We had backhoes to dig up the trenches.

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Luna's riverside camp was shot in Pagsanjan. Tomas Mascardo's fiesta scene featuring that large church—that was shot in Ilocos.

The scene featuring Luna on a hill, contemplating—that was shot near the battlefield for our trench scene. We just crossed the highway and went up that hill. It was quite the efficient set. On one side, we could stage this scene, and on the other side, we could film another.

9)   How about the assassination scene? 

We had two locations for the assassination sequence. The church façade is of Magdalena Church (pictured below) in Magdalena, Laguna. That's where Luna and his two officers "parked" their horses.

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The interior, though, was shot in Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar (pictured below; it's a heritage park owned by New San Jose Builders mogul José "Gerry" Acuzar) in Bagac, Bataan. It’s a place where they get old houses and old structures and reconstruct them. Marami na ring na-shoot dun na ibang period films. We shot there for four days.

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As for that chicken vendor scene, that was in Taal Church (pictured below). The interior we used during one scene—where Luna has that prayer with his officers— that was in the corridor inside Taal Church. I was really adamant that we shoot a scene there because it was a really beautiful hallway.

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10)   Can you talk about your approach in framing Luna?

If you notice, in the earlier scenes, Luna commands the frame. Heneral Luna is always in the middle of the frame. He commands the camera. But towards the end of the film—where Luna is kind of losing his grip—we added a treatment where the camera is just handheld and is kind of shaky. We thought it was our way to visually tell people that he’s losing control.

Aside from that, when you see Luna inside those boardroom meetings, politicking, he’s kind of in shadows. I felt like it was an allusion to the tragedy that was going to the come.

11)   The flashback/dream sequence was hypnotic. Was it hard to pull off?

Yes it was. It was a four-minute shot without cuts, and it had always been envisioned to be a one-shot sequence. Everything was planned, orchestrated and choreographed. It took an entire day to do that sequence.

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It’s a very important scene, and it was our way of getting the audience to get into the psyche of Heneral Luna. It was experimental, and we’re grateful to the producers for giving us that room to experiment.

I don’t remember the exact number of takes we had, but I think there were seven great takes. We built the set in the morning, rehearsed in the afternoon, and shot it at night. We shot it in the studio—the only scene we shot in Manila apart from those shots with Joven, Luna’s mother, and that scene where the Spaniards turn over Intramuros to the Americans. (That was shot in PUP, which had a portion that looked like Intramuros.)

There’s actually a funny picture of our Steadicam operator, JR Misa (pictured below, on the left), just lying in bed right after we finally got the shot we wanted. You can just imagine how hard it is to carry a rig that weighs 45 pounds around for an entire day! Along with his knowledge in filmmaking, JR thankfully has a background in bodybuilding, so that may have helped! Haha.

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(ED'S NOTE: Ignacio shares two behind-the-scenes photos from the flashback scene. The first shows Bing Pimentel, who plays Heneral Luna's mother, prodding Heneral Luna to close his eyes in the scene leading up to the flashback sequence. Below it, we get a glimpse of Jose Rizal's execution scene, with Marc Abaya in the far right, playing the younger Antonio Luna.)

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12)   What were your thoughts after going through the process of making the movie?

That there’s just so much more to our history. Kasi we don’t actually discuss some of our heroes in depth—Heneral Luna, to be specific. Kaya ngayon mapapaisip ka talaga ‘di ba? How would Heneral Luna’s spirit feel right now? What is he thinking right now? After the movie, people know him more know—apart, of course, from the people in Ilocos where he is well-known. There, he has a lot of statues, and even has a café named after him.

13)   Do you think it's Aguinaldo's spirit that has more to worry about now?

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Ha ha! May mga nagsasabi nga na parang gusto nila itapon yung mga limang piso nila eh.

Nakakatawa pa si Mon Confiado, who played Aguinaldo. Mon said natatakot na nga raw siya lumabas ng bahay ngayon. Para na rin siya yung mga actors who portray the kontrabida in soap operas na hindi makalabas ng bahay. Parang ganun na rin daw yung pakiramdam niya.  

But let me clarify that Confiado never really meant to portray Aguinaldo as a villain or a kontrabida. He meant to portray a character who simply had his own aspirations and motivations.

If you think about it, Aguinaldo was very young—he was 27—when he became president of the revolutionary government.  You can just imagine. Our heroes were very young. The Jacintos, the del Pilars—they were in their 20s. Those guys were leading an entire country at their age.

14)   Did you intentionally select Nonie Buencamino to play Felipe Buencamino?

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I’m not sure if they actually, like, sought Nonie Buencamino to play the role because of the shared surname.

I do know that he had his hesitations with playing the figure—his ancestor even. But it was Jerrold’s approach that may have urged him to sign on: “Maybe 'wag mong isipin na contravida ka. Huwag mong isiping traydor ka. Isipin mong meron kang motivation.”

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Again, that’s how we tried to portray the characters in the film. They all had their motivations. Even Luna had his own motivations, his own dreams for the country. But did everyone share that idea of nationalism? That’s the big question. It’s easier to understand “nationalism” now that many of us have been properly educated. Pero noon, hindi pa ganoong kadali maintindihan 'yung konsepto na 'yun.

So we really just tried to portray characters—people with their own decisions and struggles and motivations.

Just to finish, Nonie was incredible to shoot. 'Yung last monologue niya, isang take lang ‘yun. It was just perfect.

15)   Are we going to see Gregorio Del Pilar on the big screen?

I’m hoping! But we’ll prepare for it the same way we did for Heneral Luna.

Behind-the-scenes photos courtesy of Pong Ignacio 
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