Action Grandma: Leonor Will Never Die director Martika Ramirez Escobar on living with spirits

Like mother, like son: Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) and Leonor (Sheila Francisco). — Credit… Carlos Mauricio
Like mother, like son: Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) and Leonor (Sheila Francisco). Credit… Carlos Mauricio

Martika Ramirez Escobar talks about the nostalgic origins, eclectic influences, and long, liberating process behind her unclassifiable action hit Leonor Will Never Die.

To say that movies are important to Leonor Will Never Die writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar is not a strong enough statement. She feels movies, breathes and eats and sleeps them. Movies, particularly over-the-top Filipino action films, were woven into the fabric of Escobar’s life as a youngster growing up in Manila in the 1990s. And she’s dedicated her life to the art form, rising through the ranks as a commercial cinematographer while spending five years working on the screenplay for her debut feature.

Leonor Will Never Die, which made Letterboxd’s best of Sundance round-up, is about an aging filmmaker (Sheila Francisco) who returns to scriptwriting to service her grieving family’s unpaid bills, until she is plunged into her own unfinished screenplay after being conked on the head by a falling television set. The film cuts its Looney Tunes premise with a wistful emotional streak as tongue-in-cheek re-enactments of the most outrageous scenes Escobar remembers from the action movies of her childhood combine with touching family drama.

Aside from being “the most joyous proof that it’s impossible to do magic realism without a chain smoking ghost yet” (according to Straw), Leonor Will Never Die is one of several new movies from a Philippines Gen Z filmmaking community to confidently speak to Pinoy Letterboxd. As Rue writes, “it is so amazing and heartwarming to see my culture represented in a way that is unconventional. It is pure love and pure energy.” Headhunt, meanwhile, “was wondering how non-Filipinos will understand a lot of the social contexts that were mentioned here, but I realize it doesn’t matter.”

Theater actress and singer Sheila Francisco makes her feature film debut as Leonor. — Credit… Carlos Mauricio
Theater actress and singer Sheila Francisco makes her feature film debut as Leonor. Credit… Carlos Mauricio

Indeed, Chungobox writes, it’s “the best meta-narrative on filmmaking in years, so completely sincere and full of love at every turn”, with Ninae noting that Leonor “treats its characters with just enough distance and empathy to make them feel like real people with stories worth telling, pays homage to retro action films, just an insanely good full-length directorial debut.” “Dopest shit of the year for now,” Infamous Rous bluntly declares.

A labor-of-love eight years in the making, Leonor Will Never Die was selected to world premiere at Sundance 2022, but Escobar’s festival dreams were gutted when Covid case spikes from the Omicron variant canceled the in-person component. Still, she was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Innovative Spirit, making her the first Philippines filmmaker to ever win a Sundance award, and soon after she was on the road for genre fests and midnight programs in Istanbul, Toronto (winning the Amplify Voices award), New York, São Paulo and Sitges (winning the Noves Visions best direction award).

Escobar also found herself on a jury at Neuchatel International Fantastic Film Festival alongside Prano Bailey-Bond and the novelist Joyce Carol Oates, and in the same room as the likes of Park Chan-wook at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, where Letterboxd’s Katie Rife caught up with her.

Leonor Will Never Die was inspired by an eclectic mix of films, but it feels specifically like a tribute to Filipino action movies.
Martika Escobar
: It is. And what’s important to mention is that my generation in the Philippines is used to watching action films everywhere—on television, on the bus, wherever we are. So we remember these films, but not their titles. We remember the tropes, the lines, the characters. If you ask people, “Hey, do you remember this film? There was this guy playing billiards and he stabbed his opponent…” Stuff like that.

Wait—stabbed him with the pool cue!?
Yeah, yeah! There was [also a film where] this guy tried to kill the villain by releasing pigs into a pig pen. When I was writing Leonor, I was going off my memory [of these films], and not specific [titles].

Writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar.
Writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar.

Oh, interesting. So it’s more inspired by growing up, and these films being just kind of around?
Very much. And it’s not like the content was being moderated. It was an afternoon thing to gather with your neighbors and watch an action film. Even today, we gather at home and watch this show called Ang Probinsyano, which is a TV series remake of a famous film by Fernando Poe Jr., the icon of Pinoy action. It’s a community thing.

So were American action films part of this mix? Or was it mostly Filipino action films?
Mostly Pinoy action films. And when I was growing up, our president was a former action star—his name is Joseph Estrada—and back then I thought it was really normal to have an action star as the president. And then when I was writing Leonor, I had this epiphany: ‘What is it about films that make us feel different?’ I started to think that in the Philippines, we like presidents that have traits of an action hero. Fernando Poe Jr. ran for the presidency, and he almost won.

Do you have a theory on why that is?
It’s probably because the Filipino people feel [like they] need to be saved by a hero. I’m also a person who has learned a lot about life through films. I couldn’t ignore the fact that much of what I know about life I learned from movies. So maybe it works the same way [politically].

Rocky Salumbides and Pacifico Gayol arm-wrestle to victory in a scene from Leonor Will Never Die. — Credit… Carlos Mauricio
Rocky Salumbides and Pacifico Gayol arm-wrestle to victory in a scene from Leonor Will Never Die. Credit… Carlos Mauricio

So is that a natural extension for you, expressing emotions through the medium of film?
I think it is. It’s learning more about people and life and places and creating that I find so fulfilling as a filmmaker. Whenever I ask myself ‘why do I even make films?’, it’s because I learn so much by doing it. And a lot of times, I don’t really care as much about the final product as the process, because I enjoy the process so much. I think that’s why it took me eight years to finish [this film].

You didn’t want to give it up, huh?
It’s just so fun, and you feel so alive. It takes you out of your comfort zone. You have little resources, so you do everything by yourself or with your friends. To find the locations, we would drive around. To find the cast, people would come to [my] home and I’d take videos of them. It’s just so human.

When you said it took eight years, does that mean you wrote it eight years ago, and then you shot little bits off and on?
I started writing it in 2014. I’m a cinematographer and not a writer, so I got rejected for all of the grants I applied for. After that, I decided to enroll in every single writing workshop in the Philippines. I had good friends who helped me create the first draft, second draft… and after four years, I felt that the film was ready to be made. Then I found the producers, they found support, and we shot in 2019, for sixteen official days and five unofficial days.

That’s really short. It’s like five years—and then three weeks.
It is the shortest. But the difficult part is writing the script.

Knocked on the head by a TV set, Leonor is transported into her own action film script. — Credit… Carlos Mauricio
Knocked on the head by a TV set, Leonor is transported into her own action film script. Credit… Carlos Mauricio

Do you feel a kinship with Leonor as a character, then? Because she also sees her life and emotions through films.
Very much. I see life as one really long film that we continue to keep writing and revising until it’s complete.

When you look at the icons of Filipino action cinema, you don’t see a lot of women, but you have a female director in the film. I was curious why you chose to do it that way.
The idea of a grandma action star was what ignited the fire. I was at this workshop in the Philippines called the Mowelfund Film Workshop, and the people giving the lectures were all action film production staff. They would come to class dressed up as if they were action stars. So my friend and I pondered on that. Out of the hundreds of Filipino action films, it made us think, ‘Oh, why haven’t we heard of a female action star yet?’ We found one action film writer that was a woman, but she had already passed away, so I wasn’t able to talk to her [for the film]. So this film also became a re-imagining of the genre.

In Filipino action films they solve all their problems through violence, right? You kill a person before he speaks. So I just like [the idea of a] grandma in that role, because grandmas are so nice and kind… well, at least, my grandma is.

Shooting the movies within the movie sounds like it was really fun. Did you use VHS cameras and stuff like that?
We used digital cameras, but we used a different set of lenses for the real world and for the action world, and different cameras as well. We had a set of rules to create the world more specifically. And then all the behind-the-scenes footage was from various cameras—some of it was from a casting camera, some from a cell phone, and some of it came from our intern, Marty. [Laughs]

Leonor Will Never Die plays around with form as it nods to the history of Philippines action cinema. — Credit… Carlos Mauricio
Leonor Will Never Die plays around with form as it nods to the history of Philippines action cinema. Credit… Carlos Mauricio

You mentioned a set of rules to keep the different types of footage separate from each other. What were the rules?
For the real world, our rule was to stick with one lens, a 19mm LENA. And our goal was to use the least number of shots possible. Most of [these scenes] are done in one wide shot with people entering and exiting the frame, but sometimes if I felt like it needed more, I added another shot. And for the action world, we were committed to what I remembered Pinoy action films being like. It’s a lot of bad zooms, shaky dolly shots…

Intentionally bad filmmaking?
But we didn’t do it intentionally. It was hard to achieve clean shots because the equipment we had was… not the best. [Laughs] So we didn’t have to try, we were just being ourselves. It was more fun shooting the action world.

So this film is based on a specific memory of a specific time and place, which is Manilla in the ’90s. What do you think is culturally specific about Filipino action?
It’s made by 100% Filipinos. These films are inspired by, or learn from, films from the West, or from Hong Kong. We just interpret it in a Filipino way. So sometimes it looks silly when they’re bantering in English, or when they’re wearing tuxedos in a very tropical and hot country. That’s something we explored [in Leonor] as well. And it’s not just specifically action—even the romances and the youth flicks, when you watch them in the Philippines, most of them are fully in English. It’s because we were colonized by America. That’s the trace of it.

Rudie (Bong Cabrera) and his ghost brother, Dead Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon). — Credit… Carlos Mauricio
Rudie (Bong Cabrera) and his ghost brother, Dead Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon). Credit… Carlos Mauricio

There’s a ghost in this film, but it’s very realistic. It’s just part of the fabric of the story.
That’s how it is in the Philippines. We just live with spirits. We know they’re there, and it’s not going to bother us. It’s not going to make us act differently. The character of [Leonor’s deceased son] Renwaldo is based on my grandma’s stories of her son who passed away around that age. She would say when he passed away, she would see her bed sink as if he was seated right beside her.

So is Leonor a little bit you, a little bit your grandma?
She’s a little bit of everyone I know. Sometimes when I meet a friend and she does something I really find interesting, I’m secretly writing. I’m not really a good writer, but I like writing because you get to synthesize all of your thoughts onto one sheet of paper.

Song and dance are naturally woven through Leonor. (Rea Molina as Isabella/Majestika). — Credit… Carlos Mauricio
Song and dance are naturally woven through Leonor. (Rea Molina as Isabella/Majestika). Credit… Carlos Mauricio

How did the film develop and change while you were shooting it?
I think it started to change when I looked at the film as its own life form. I was a more rigid person when I began directing this film—I had a storyboard, a shot list, a script with complete details [in it]. And then I realized that it was making the footage feel too “written”. I also had to embrace the unwritten-ness just so we could get through the days, because we were shooting a lot. So I had to adjust. I had to trust people more. I had to listen more. And I think the film grew by itself. And when we didn’t have an ending, my editor suggested the ending which is in the film. So it was all of us adding to the film until it felt complete.

The person who actually decided when the film was complete was my producer. I would tell her, “I think it’s complete”. And she would say, “You don’t have a film”. So I kept trying until she said that I was done. It matters to me that someone else, not just myself, sees the film as a fully formed being.

As its own living entity.
It’s really all of us breathing life into the thing.


Leonor Will Never Die’ is now screening at Metrograph NYC and coming to further US cinemas via Music Box Films, and is a nominee for the 2023 Spirit Awards’ best international feature film.

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