EDDIE ROMERO: A filmmaker of substance
By AGUSTIN SOTTO
Eddie Romero is that rare individual in Philippine Cinema: a man of erudition and consummate artistry working in conditions inhospitable to the tasks of general excellence. While the industrial mode of Philippine Cinema may be typified as crass commercialism and unmitigated sensationalism, Eddie Romero is counted among the very few artists who have managed to overcome the centrifugal mediocrity of popular concerns and produce works of great impact and astonishing originality. As one of Philippine Cinema's leading scriptwriters and directors, he has a few peers. He is also an indefatigable industry and cultural leader as well as a pioneer in the field of international co-productions.
Born on July 7, 1924 in Dumaguete City, Edgar Sinco Romero grew up in a charged atmosphere of literacy and political engagement. His mother, Pilar Sinco, was a schoolteacher while his father was a Secretary of Education and a Congressman. His uncle, Vicente Sinco, served as president of the University of the Philippines before the war. Given this background, it is not surprising that he exhibited precocity in the literary arts. While only in his early teens, he was already writing short stories for the Philippine Free Press. However, he confesses he had no affinity then with the works of Balzac and Doestoevsky, which were being rammed down students' throats. He had preferred to immerse himself in the humor of P.G. Wodehouse and James Thurber. He had envisioned himself as a pop writer, writing to entertain, rather than a stalwart of serious literature. The P.G. Wodehouse of the Philippines: that was his ambition.
It was one of his short stories that impressed film director and National Artist Gerardo de Leon who looked him up in Dumaguete, while visiting his future wife at the Silliman University, and offered him a scriptwriting job. Eddie Romero admits to having been scared at the opportunity, as a career in Filipino movies was not in his plans -- much less writing in Tagalog. He balked at his lack of facility in writing in the vernacular, but de Leon assured him that there would be an expedient translation of his screenplays. At that time, he was shuttling between Manila and Dumaguete, going wherever his father was based and taking up his high school and college at the University of the Philippines and Silliman University in alternance.
His first script was Ang Maestro for RDR Films about a city girl (Rosa del Rosario) assigned to a teaching post in the province and trying to adjust to country life. The inaugural offering of the Life theater, it was one of the biggest commercial hits of the pre-war screen. This was followed by Anong Ganda Mo, a slapstick comedy on the Philippine Revolution that disregarded realist conventions and liberally utilized deconstructionist techniques. However, World War II intervened in its shooting and the film could only be finished and shown during the Japanese occupation of Manila. Because of the global conflict, a third project lined up by RDR Productions, Margarita, had to be shelved. This was unfortunate because it was going to be his first directorial assignment.
Eddie Romero acknowledges that, at the start of his scriptwriting career, he had unsystematic working habits, allowing the inspiration of the moment to guide him into the knotty weaving of the narrative. It was Gerry de Leon who introduced him to the idea of a "treatment", to the laying out of a structure before the actual writing. It was only much later in his career, when he was writing his mature works, that he became familiar with the conceptual grid — with the many layers of meaning that could be developed in a plot and with characters who are representations of ideas at the same time individuals as idiosyncratic as in melodrama.
After the war, Eddie Romero became the managing editor of Manila Events Mirror, one of those several tabloids and magazines that proliferated in the interim. The magazine was published by Salvador Zaide, brother of historian Gregorio Zaide, and counted among its columnists, Jose Guevara, Doroy Valencia and Melchor Aquino. These wonders of the small press soon folded up after several months due to stiff competition posed by the then fledgling newspapers, the Manila Times and the Manila Chronicle.
Eddie Romero was again bidden to join the movies by Gerry de Leon. In he wrote de Leon's postwar-movie, So Long America, a light-hearted romance between a G.I. and a Filipino girl, similar to that of Victory Joe. In he scripted de Leon's Isumpa Mo Giliw, a flamboyant melodrama about mistaken inferences, petty jealousies, the intervention of war and amnesia - in an operatic ambience to boot. Despite its overwrought elements, the pieces held pretty well and the film garnered heavyweight reviews from the local critics.
In 1947, when de Leon was about to leave Sampaguita Pictures and was starting a movie for another company, Romero became associate director of Mameng Iniibiq Kita, a film of which he ended up shooting a large part. Again, Romero had reservations - this time of becoming a film director. He wasn't sure if that was what he wanted to do, but as soon as he got introduced to the craft, he was enjoying the act of shooting and had great fun, even with those infuriatingly cloying love scenes under the mango trees.
He made his solo directorial debut for Sampaguita Pictures with Ang Kamay ng Diyos (1947) with Gerry de Leon as a persnickety detective. Sampaguita Pictures would remain as his home studio until 1953. He was largely given a free hand in the direction and scriptwriting, applying his knowledge of literature to his craft, but in 1948, with his third film, Ang Selosa, the novelist lñigo Regalado became so incensed with the revisions of his work that he threatened to lead a boycott against him.
In 1950, his father became the ambassador to the Court of Saint James. He joined his family in London and, being an ambassador's son, he was able to make the acquaintance of some very distinguished representatives of the British film industry: David Lean, Karel Reisz and Thorold Dickinson, and an Italian director who was shooting in London at that time, Roberto Rossellini. He was given invaluable instructions on filmmaking from these eminent and generous individuals. He was allowed to borrow 16mm prints of films like Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin whose techniques he animatedly discussed wtih his mentors, leave Eisenstein to Eisenstein!" was the thunderous reply to many of his avid queries.
He returned to Manila in 1951; hooked on the film business and very eager to start production. However, Doc Pinggot Perez, who became the Sampaguita studio head, felt that the public might not be keen on watching a film by Eddie Romero and changed his directorial monicker to Enrique Moreno - not because of any threat of boycott by the Tagalog novelists, as implied by some quarters. He directed many of the successful Tita Duran-Pancho Magalona musicals: Kasintahan sa Pangarap, Ang Ating Pagibig, Barbaro. He applied what he learned abroad, especially the technique of controlled pacing.
In 1951, he became the first recipient of the Maria Clara award for best director for Prinsesa at Pulubi, an adaptation of The Prince and the Pauper. In 1953, his film Ang Asawa kong Amerikana won for Luciano Carlos the best screenplay award at the Asian film Festival.
Romero also has some amusing anecdotes of this period. On the set of Maldita, the film which introduced Rita Gomez, Eddie Garcia came to the set drunk. It was an important scene and the shooting could not be deferred. "I had him drink five cups of coffee and made him run around the block five times. He was half dead by the time we were ready to shoot. That was the last time I ever saw him drunk. Now, Eddie Garcia holds his liquor very well."
But by 1953, he had enough of the Sampaguita dream factory and wanted to explore other directions. He was not earning much as a studio director and could have had a more lucrative profession in advertising. He had earlier directed an independent production, Buhay Alamang produced by his uncle, Vicente Sinco and had liked working as an independent. However, when he finally decided to leave Sampaguita Pictures, he was not aware that his action would spark a walkout among a few stars and filmmakers. Tita Duran, Pancho Magalona and Alicia Vergel were among those who left the studio. To this day, he is being blamed for leading the walkout though he avers time and again that he never encouraged anyone to leave. If I did, then directors like Artemio Tecson should have joined the walkout because they were the closest to me in Sampaguita."
Now an independent, Eddie Romero got back his name and directed spritely comedy of manners for Lebran and Deegar Cinema. He directed films like May Isang Tsuper ng Taksi and Torpe. Another film, Maria Went to Town (1955) was liked very much by President Ramon Magsaysay who asked to borrow the film for preview in Malacanang. The film still has to be returned.
By 1957, Eddie Romero got together with Gerry de Leon again to produce films for the foreign B-film market. Though, of course, it was difficult to compete with the Hollywood product, they at least wanted to make films that aspired to American technical standards. The first of these was The Day of the Trumpet or Cavalry Command. The film had an impressive showing abroad and led to other projects. One day, in Washington D.C., Bill Phipps, an actor in The Day of the Trumpet introduced Romero to Burgess Meredith, who expressed interest in watching his film. After viewing the film, Meredith was visibly impressed and asked if Romero would consider shooting a picture with him. Romero was overwhelmed but realized he couldn't afford his talent fee of $25,000 a week. Eddie confessed he only had a pittance, $2000 for three weeks, which Burgess accepted. Romero was told to schedule the shooting with his agent who was mighty incredulous with the deal and thought his client was crazy. The agent called up Meredith for confirmation and found out that a deal had indeed been made. The film was Man on the Run, a suspense thriller about a kidnapping set in the premises of the Jai-Alai, the Central Market and the Tutuban train station. After this successful venture, Eddie Romero set up Lynn-Romero Productions with Kane Lynn, a retired Lt. Commander of the American Navy who had connections with the Texas oil people and who had a yen for filmmaking. Lynn was in charge of the finances while Romero took over the production side. Among the films they produced were The Scavengers with Vince Edwards, a film set in China about the search of an American fighter pilot for his estranged wife and Terror is a Man, a horror film with Francis tederer that received good reviews from the New York Times.
Lynn-Romero Productions was dissolved in the early sixties. Eddie set up Hemisphere Productions which continued the co-production ventures. He produced and co-directed among others, The Walls of Hell, The Brides of Blood Island, Mad Doctor of Blood Island - the last two being horror films that have attained the status of cult classics in the United States. In the seventies, his production company turned out exploitation films for Roger Gorman's American-International: Twilight People, Woman Hunter, Black Mama, White Mama, Sudden Death, to name a few.
In 1975, Eddie Romero had to make another one of those important decisions of his life. He had been based in the United States and realized he had to become an American if he wanted to get into major distribution. Since he felt isolated from the Filipino communities in the West Coast, he realized he could never be an American citizen. Also, he had heard of the renaissance in Filipino filmmaking "coming out of the woodwork" and of the movies of Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal. He wanted to be part of resurgence. "I took the path of least resistance and returned to the Philippines," Romero says. His comeback Filipino production was Ganito Kami Noon . . . Paano Kayo Ngayon (1976), certainly one of most significant Filipino films ever made. Set during the Katipunan uprising and the eventual American takeover, with a simpleton as guide, the film takes a journey down the main-travelled routes to Manila in order to sum up the meaning of "Filipino", a concept still nebulous to the greater majority at that time. This was followed by other noteworthy films: Sinong Kasiping, Sinong Kapiling (1977), Banta ng Kahapon (1977), Aguila (1980), and Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi (1987). The last aforementioned film was a co-production with Beijing Studio and has for its conceptual grid, the trip to the Forbidden City by a group of datus who wanted to find permanent solutions to their internecine wars and to learn about statecraft in the mighty kingdom.
Aside from his film projects, Eddie Romero is active in the realm of cultural affairs. He has been deputy director of the Film Academy of the Philippines and presently is chairman of the film committee of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts.