IT WAS THE LAST GREAT YEAR IN PHILIPPINE CINEMA. Or, to be more exact and safe about it, the year that closed its second golden age. Nineteen eighty-five was the year its living masters did most of their last and least commercial works—Ishmael Bernal gave us Hinugot Sa Langit and Gamitin Mo Ako, and Lino Brocka his White Slavery and Bayan Ko: Kapit Sa Patalim. It was also the year we first shook hands with this new kid named Chito Roño, whose gritty and quietly potent Private Show made us think a new visionary had arrived.
It was an exciting time to be in the movies. Street demonstrations were getting louder, sparked by the Ninoy assassination that took place two years prior. First Lady Imelda Marcos, to divert the people's attention from the social unrest, gave the masses what she thought they'd always wanted: bold. Eager to keep her Manila Film Center alive, she opened her doomed edifice to foreign skin flicks, in the process encouraging local producers to make their own—with the promise they wouldn't be touched by censorship. It was in this mise en scène that Peque Gallaga's Scorpio Nights was born.
At the close of 1984, Peque suffered a major heart attack. Only three years into his directing career, the maker of Oro, Plata, Mata (1982), felt his time was over. Yes, he was heralded for his remarkably fresh vision and style but what producer would gamble on a director who might just croak in the middle of production? It was time for the punk mestizo to pack his bags and return to hometown Negros.
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But it turns out he was only waiting for the right call. And it would be a call from Douglas Quijano, the talent manager who was also doing project management work for Lily Monteverde's Regal Films. Mother Lily and Peque weren't exactly on the most ideal of terms during this period, surprised as she was that her Virgin Forest—which Peque directed and which she thought was going to be a bold film—was actually "a period movie," a love story set against the capture of Emilio Aguinaldo, with two or three sex scenes thrown in.
But Douglas surely saw something in Virgin Forest that Monteverde chose to overlook. “Hey Peqs, there's this thing that's coming up," Quijano told Peque on the other line. "We're actually gonna be doing porn! Full frontal, penetration if you want, no censorship whatsoever, and I've got Orestes Ojeda and Anna Marie Gutierrez signed up. Are you interested?"
Peque was, on two counts: he needed—and wanted—the opportunity to work again. Second, he was titillated with Douglas's proposition. "I was a porn enthusiast,” the director tells me in his airy living room in Bacolod. He can't stand watching porn now but in 1985 there was a new wave of the genre being made in other parts of the world, more craftily done than the usual Behind the Green Doors and Linda Lovelace stuff, invested with story and imagination that went beyond the usual in-out, in-out. One title stood out in his memory: this Swedish film called V The Hot One, about an elegant housewife who turns out to be obsessed with kinky sex. "They had porn sequences inside a movie house where you don't actually see genitals but they're just f@#king with people around them. And there was one scene with two skyscrapers, and the actors were having sex across the window, with a street in between!” The paradigm was shifting in adult filmmaking, and Peque wanted to explore it.
At the time of pre-production in December of 1984, Peque was still tied down to a hospital bed. Production manager Lore Reyes had plotted a tight shooting schedule of 13 days for the “porn” project, and Peque wanted to shoot as soon as possible, cause no delays that could incur additional expense. They had a budget of P1 million, and they had to start grinding by January 1985. “If I’m not mistaken, he actually escaped from St. Luke's,” Lore recalls. “He didn’t properly check out. Kasi I remember, sa emergency room kami nagdaan with his assistant director at that time, si Jenny Luber."
Peque lost no time in gathering his posse—which then included the production designer Don Escudero, the writer Uro dela Cruz, and Lore, who was also his production manager for Virgin Forest. They were a team that went by the name T.E. Pagaspas (which also appears in the credits of Once Upon A Time and Unfaithful Wife). Uro informed Peque that one of their art directors, Rommel Bernardino, a painter who worked under Don, had an idea for a story, one which he read about in a tabloid. It is about a policeman who killed his student border for having an affair with his wife. That short pitch immediately sparked an explosion of ideas from the foursome: from the molding of the characters, the possible compromising situations the troika might find themselves in, to the milieu they would inhabit.
Before the Douglas offer came up, Peque had gone on a location hunt for a movie about a bunch of rural manananggals newly migrated to the city. The idea was that these half-and-halfs would establish residence in little rooms of an urban tenement, or what is called an accesorya. Escudero remembered seeing an old mansion in Binondo divided into tiny little apartments; and he thought it would be great to recreate something akin to it for the new project. "At that point, it developed already from a pure porn film to, ‘Wait a minute! What if we make a statement, that this is like a microcosm of Philippine society?'” Peque recalls excitedly, as if he were back at the brainstorming table. "We never leave that house. We just open it outside just to show where it is, and we go in and we stay there!"
The accesorya idea became a springboard for the sound design. Says Peque: “Each neighbor would have a distinctive radio thing, like somebody would always listen to Mario Lanza records, then we could hear all of Binondo through the sound of karetelas outside. Every night there will always be somebody being killed by an M16. You could hear the rat-tat-tat-tat-tat!”
What started as a gist for a porn flick was slowly evolving into something more subtle and seductive. Peque realized that while he had the license to show real sexual penetration, that road was not the one he would take. “Let’s go into frontals,” he told his team, seducing them with his ideas, "but the frontals will be a sense of discovery. The first time the border lifts her dress, he is also discovering it himself, as much as the audience is discovering for themselves the thrill, the peekaboo! Instead of just, ‘Here’s a puki.’”
The Negrense has been fascinated by human behavior revealing itself at the dining table, but that’s been done. He did it in Oro, Plata, Mata, the film about rich Negros families holding onto dear life and lifestyle during the Japanese-American war. If Oro is, in Peque’s words, “about what they ate, and how they ate it, while a conversation is going on,” Scorpio Nights would move the mirroring to the marital bed—the stage in which he would strip naked the sexual politics of a married couple, and the stranger that comes between them.
Every sex scene in Scorpio is there to move the narrative along, each hinting at character and motivations. From the almost mechanical first intercourse, when the security guard (Orestes) comes home and planks himself on top of his sleeping wife (Anna Marie); up to the first time the young neighbor Danny (Daniel Fernando) is made aware that the sikyo’s “sleeping” wife knows exactly who is f@#king her; up to the final set piece with the gun. Perhaps the only sex scene that might be called gratuitous is the one where Daniel and Anna Marie make love while wrapped in a plastic raincoat—a suggestion from Don who thought that since they were already practically doing an encyclopedia of sex, why not shoot a sex scene that’s just potentially beautiful and cinematic?
Entranced as Don Escudero was with the Binondo accessorya, nothing was actually shot there—except for one outdoor moment where Danny sends his boardmates off to their destinations for semestral break. Everything else was shot in an old depot owned by Mother Lily across the Cubao overpass, beside what was already a dilapidated Maya Theater. The place was a repository for the studio's discarded vehicles, generators, and movie set paraphernalia.
It was there that Escudero would create his own accesorya: a patchwork of used wood, tin sheets and plastic, where fractions of walls and floors easily came off to allow camera lenses to come in and pull out. Building an entire set—which included a basketball court, a welding shop, a sari-sari store, a staircase, and a common bathroom—ate a good part of the film’s budget, but it proved more efficient. There was no need to egress at the end of the day and build the same set the next. There was no need to transport props. "We would come in at six in the afternoon, shoot the whole evening, and then we would leave by six in the morning," recalls Madie Gallaga, the director’s wife, who was assisting Douglas. “Para lang kaming pumapasok sa opisina,” Lore Reyes quips.
Because most of the film required an evening effect, the entire Scorpio Nights set was wrapped in black cloth, making the shooting environment at times oppressively hot — the beads of sweat you see in the actors are likely not sprayed-on water. This condition was only made worse by the heat coming from the constant torching of aluminum and metal during scenes that featured the character Genio (Eugene Enriquez), a welder who becomes the film's voice of wisdom, privy as he is to his friend Danny's secret affair.
Peque, still not strong enough to keep moving around, especially in a warm set, dispensed instructions mostly from his bonbon bed (remember those?) beside an electric fan. These instructions were supported by sketches the director drew himself. Peque was especially particular with his shot list. A simple sequence could take as many as 50 set-ups. If he needed a breather, he would step out of the set and get whatever fresh Cubao air he could get, then he would return to his bonbon bed. "I was lying down 80 percent of the time," the director tells me.
But Peque would step into Orestes and Anna Marie's apartment to choreograph a sex scene, with a little help from second assistant director Uro dela Cruz and second unit director George Ledesma, who would sub for the main actors during the pre-roll demonstrations. Uro would play the male part, while George would do Anna Marie’s part. Uro and George would enact the movements while the actors watched. In the beginning, Anna Marie resented the fact that there needed to be someone to act out a scene for her, but eventually she acquired an appreciation for George’s very feminine, "very Japonaise" ministrations, and she started to follow him while adding her own touches as soon as the cameras rolled. "Anna Marie was such a good mimic,” recalls Lore. "May mga actions siya na bading na bading, kunyari may inaabot sa floor. Baklang-bakla!”
All three main actors knew from the onset the film required full frontal nudity—Douglas took care of convincing them before they signed up. Still, they had to undergo a workshop. In one of the function rooms of the CCP, they were asked to undress in front of each other, an idea from acting coach Mario Taguiwalo. But Mario also thought asking the actors to strip in front of everyone else was unfair; the creative team should undress, too. Peque later chickened out from said session, saying he was sick, while his cinematographer and assistant directors went through the ordeal.
The exercise made a huge difference on the set, as per Peque. When in the beginning the actors would put on their robes or wrap their privates with a towel as soon as Direk yelled “Cut!”— after a while, naked bodies would be seen casually walking around the Scorpio set.
Scorpio Nights was acting newbie Daniel Fernando's baptism of fire. The boy had just come straight from Bulacan. He was picked by Peque from an audition in his New Manila residence. The director had no intentions of showing male genitalia in the film, except in the last sequence—but Daniel’s lack of acting experience changed all that. "Of course now people remember the nudity of Daniel Fernando, which was all accidental, kasi even Peque has instructions to Ely Cruz [for his camera] to keep avoiding the penis of Daniel," Lore recounts. "So Ely kept avoiding it, but during the first shooting day—remember Daniel was not an actor—can you imagine, you're 18 years old, tapos nakahubad sa harap mo si Anna Marie?”
Peque would include the accidental shots in the final edit anyway, but recalls that Daniel needed help in another aspect of the celluloid-style intercourse: the young man couldn't "pump cinematically.” After several takes, the director was already getting frustrated. So Uro again to the rescue, his hand on the small of Daniel’s back forcefully pushing it onto his partner’s body.
The neophyte would learn the ropes later on and deliver an unexpectedly mature performance. And so would Gutierrez, whose only claim to fame in those days was that she was part of a group of screen nymphets called “Dolphy's Angels" (they were in the Comedy King's action-comedy potboiler of the same title). "Anna Marie was a darling to work with. Ang galing niya umarte. We didn't know anything about her [before Scorpio Nights]. A very decent person, matalino, magaling, ang sarap katrabaho," recalls Lore of the film’s female lead. She had no qualms about anything. She only had that one rule: "She said, 'You can do anything you want,'" Peque begins, repeating his star's statement, “I’ll do a frontal, no problem. I have only one condition. You can’t touch my boobs.’”
As for Orestes, who is now an art dealer, Gallaga says they had dinner after the director had a one-man-show in the actor's gallery Art Verite. They talked about Scorpio Nights, of course. "He feels it's one of his best. [Orestes was telling me] he's considered, like, The Patron Saint of Security Guards!” Peque says, amused. “They see him as an idol. A hero! He felt that was one of the best performances he ever gave. Because he thought he was gonna do a sex film, and then we were doing psychology [pala]. And really, he's wonderful there."
IN JUNE 18, 1985, close to five months after production wrapped, Scorpio Nights finally premiered at the Manila Film Center, but not without controversy.
Trouble was brewing between the film's director and his friend Johnny Litton, then a top honcho at the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, and who Peque used to direct in a talk program called The Johnny and June TV Show (with June Keithley). It came to the director’s knowledge that the ECP had requested for an edit of Scorpio Nights without his knowledge and consent.
Peque questioned the move in a letter to Johnny dated June 15, 1985. "I have always been open and reasonable about any cutting or editing to be done to the film for its exhibition at the ECP, as long as it was done by me and with my full approval or at least foreknowledge," the letter said. "Now I am told that someone from your office had my editor delete portions from the film that were not discussed beforehand.”
The portions the director was referring to were the exchange of saliva between Daniel and Anna Marie and the violent sequence in the final reel. In a very businesslike tone, Johnny responded to the letter, saying Mother Lily "offered Scorpio Nights to the ECP for exhibition at the Manila Film Center. After previewing the film, we informed Mrs. Monteverde that the film will be acceptable for exhibition if certain conditions are met. We were assured that she was going to take care of everything to meet ECP's conditions—part of which was the editing of certain scenes which we felt were not compatible with the existing criteria in the Manila Film Center...These commitments by Mrs. Monteverde were incorporated into a formal contract, wherein the conditions presented to her were accepted."
The disagreements between the two men quickly went beyond the propriety of correspondence. On the day of the premiere, according to Peque, he got a call from the film's editor Jess Navarro who was at the ECP office at the Manila Film Center, informing him that the ECP officials were asking for more cuts on the film, including the word "nagbabate,” which was part of actor Pen Medina's line. The director was fuming. "Why, I thought there was no censorship?" he told Jess. "What the fuck is going on?!"
Peque quickly got in touch with Lore, ordered him to load their editing machine into a car and drive to ECP in Pasay. "Sabi ni Peque, 'Let's steal the print. Let's put everything back!" Lore recalls. Jess had apparently told Peque the film was just lying around in one of the projection rooms unguarded—it would be too easy to get their hands on it if they wanted to. “Ako nagnakaw, tsaka I was with two others. I don’t remember who," says Lore, his smile laced with mischief. "Dalawang five-thousand-footer, binaba namin sa parking lot. Binalik ni Jess Navarro yung cuts. Tapos binalik namin kung saan namin ninakaw."
It was a packed theater that premiere night, with everyone excited to see the most talked about bold film of the year. Also in the audience were ECP people who Peque says were responsible for deciding on the edits: theater stalwart Zenaida "Bibot" Amador, Johnny Litton, and Boy Noriega, who congratulated the director before the screening: "Great film, I saw it!"
But no one expected the tisoy Negrense's one-two punch. He began with a speech to introduce the movie. He spoke about how amazing it was, and how it shouldn't have been meddled with by the censors. "Pero gusto ko long sabibin kay Johnny Litton, the head of ECP,” Peque went on, "Pu@*ngina mo, Johnny Litton!”
The crowd, even though most of them did not know who Johnny was, went wild, and broke into applause and cheers. "And of course they [Johnny and co.] were still sitting in front," Peque recalls, "wondering exactly what fuck was going on. And then the movie comes on, and all of their cuts were back in!"
Peque and Johnny would talk after the screening, apologies would be exchanged. But it turns out their evening was far from over. Peque and Lore have slightly different versions of this story, but here is the gist. Back home after the screening, Peque got word from Lore that Hammy Sotto, the film critic who at that time was also working for ECP, was at Regal Films—which was also Mother Lily Monteverde's residence in Valencia. Lore picked his director up from New Manila and the two drove to Regal. He told Peque that Hammy was ordering edits on Scorpio Nights to Jess Navarro. "Sinulsulan ko si Peque,” Lore continues. "'Pegs, takutin mo, wear your boots!’"
Peque: "I had British tank boots that were steel-toed. I put them on. I knew what I was going to do. And I brought my cane.” He always had a cane back then, a necessary accessory after his heart attack. "Hammy claims I brought a bodyguard to do the dirty deed, but I did not. I just went on my own.
"But of course I had a caregiver, who was a stuntman, because of my heart condition…
"I was rehearsing in my mind how I was going to confront Hammy. Was it gonna be intellectual? ‘Hammy, what are you doing? You're a critic, why are you cutting somebody else's work?’
"When I opened the editing room, he was sitting down, cutting it with Jess, and he had three young people watching. He was explaining what he was cutting. I had no time to plan or anything. I went there, I hit him with my baston, he fell down. I kicked him really hard in the ribs. I think I cracked one rib."
And then, theatrically, Peque continues, "The reel fell down, cinematically, it unspooled to [the length of] three rooms, all the way out!"
“Dumugo cheekbone ni Hammy," says Lore. “Ang lakas ni Peque. Hawak ko sa isang kamay, si Jess Navarro sa kabila. Eventually we were able to push him to the other editing room, tapos sinubuan ko ng Valium, tsaka yung— meron siyang poppers noon, yung mga ginagamit ng mga na-heart attack that I had instructions from his wife to give him when he's stressed." Peque calmed down soon enough. Mother Lily came down from her room and called the security guards. "Sabihin mo kay Johnny, wala na," Lore recalls Mother Lily saying. "Wala na. Huwag na tuloy showing ng Scorpio.”
Johnny Litton would soon threaten to sue Peque for what he did to Hammy, and Peque would threaten that he would sue the critic "for cutting an artist's work." Consequently, however, Douglas Quijano requested for his director to apologize. "And since Douglas saved my career because of Scorpio Nights, I apologized," says Peque. It happened in a breakfast meeting at the Mandarin Oriental in Makati. "I told Johnny, 'I apologize, Johnny. But I apologize because of Douglas... Please send my apologies to Hammy.”
The film, of course, would still go on to show at the Manila Film Center, despite Mother Lily's words. Scorpio Nights became a mammoth hit, staying at the Film Center for a good three months, inspiring enterprising individuals to open shoe rental operations outside the building for those who came in slippers—slippers were not allowed at the Film Center. "You would see a mountain of tsinelas [outside]!" recalls Peque, his tone thick with pride. "I actually went there during a typhoon, and there was a sea wall coming in with waves 10 feet high, and people were shivering. I've never seen anything like it.”
Manila had never seen anything like Scorpio Nights. Nor has it seen anything with its combined daring and poetry in local cinema since. It pushed the boundaries of Pinoy bold films into something close to art, invested as it was with an actual story, remarkable cinematography, impressive acting, stunning art direction, and a vision. It sparked a discourse about the difference between art and pornography. Now three decades old, its maker is unsure if today's audiences will relate to it. "I've lived with these movies," he says, "and now they're ancient history." He doesn't watch his own movies, he tells me. Although his now directing partner Lore does. Lore would sometimes tell his friend, “You know, we didn't do so bad on that one."
Not that Gallaga has ever doubted the achievements of Scorpio Nights. "I'm not gonna be modest. People think that Scorpio is the best Filipino sex film. Nothing comes close to it.”
Don't you agree? I ask.
"Sure I do!"
Some have called it art. To some it's just porn with better lighting. Some people thought it anti-feminist, while others noted, hey, the woman keeps getting what she wants. Peque gave everything to Scorpio Nights. Studied every detail. Risked life, limb, career. But there’s one thing he remembers people have said about this film that seems to stand out particularly, for some reason: "There’s only one thing that bothered me with that whole movie,” he tells me, echoing the comment. "Every time they fucked, she never wiped herself. She just goes back to sleep! I could never go back to sleep with sperm inside me!”
The director pauses, reverts to being himself and admits, "I missed out on that one.”
This article originally appeared in Rogue Magazine, November 2015 issue. Published here with permission. Photographs from Peque Gallaga’s collection, the De La Salle University Library.