‘Recreating the Battle of Tirad Pass was a nightmare’: The making of ‘Goyo’

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“Goyo” was shot over 60 days with daily crews ranging from 300 people to 1,000. Though the film's pivotal scene wasn't shot in the actual Tirad Pass itself. “It wasn’t logistically viable to shoot there at all,” says the film's producer Joe Alandy. “It’s beautiful, though.” Photo courtesy of TBA STUDIOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In the 2015 film “Heneral Luna,” director Jerrold Tarog teased two more installments to make a trilogy: one on General Gregorio del Pilar and another on President Manuel Quezon.

“Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral,” is the trilogy’s second film where the young general (played by Paulo Avelino) grapples with his role in the Philippine-American war after the death of General Antonio Luna. It’s an immense film, weaving issues of nationhood, stories of love in the time of war, and the psychological toll of war on its soldiers into one cohesive narrative.

With “Goyo,” Tarog worked tirelessly to outdo his own work in “Heneral Luna,”  which grossed ₱256 million at the box office. Mounting a Filipino historical epic is no joke. For one, there’s a lot of research, location scouting, and construction that goes into crafting convincing sets when there’s a dearth of well-preserved historical locations to shoot at.

2.jpg Paulo Avelino recreates the famous portrait of Gen. Gregorio Del Pilar. Photo courtesy of TBA STUDIOS

There are a lot of moving parts on set while the film is being shot: extras, different production departments working on multiple setups at a time. “Goyo” was shot over 60 days with daily crews ranging from 300 people to 1,000.

In post-production, there’s a lot of sleight of hand that makes the filmmaking appear seamless. Visual effects came in on roughly 600 shots in the film, for battle sequences and sequences that required sets to be extended.

On top of all of that, all of this needs to seem effortless to the viewer in the hopes of keeping them in the story. Filmgoers should be able to tell that a lot of work went into making a film, but the moment they see the puppet strings, the illusion can fall flat.

We spoke to Tarog, producer Joe Alandy, cinematographer Pong Ignacio, and production designer Roy Lachica on how they crafted the world of “Goyo.” The following conversations have been edited and reordered for clarity.

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Jerrold Tarog: “Heneral Luna” was already a completed screenplay when I came aboard. I only revised the script to give it a more modern spin. Then I had to “adopt” a more bombastic tone cinematically to be able to give justice to the character as a director.

On the other hand, “Goyo” was built from the ground up. I wrote a lengthy treatment which Rody Vera turned into a screenplay, which I then further revised. So as to the question of differences or points of growth from “Luna” to “Goyo,” if anything, “Goyo” is closer to my personal sensibilities as a filmmaker, for better or worse. “Luna” was a kind of “channeling” which had its own really fun moments. I learned so much from that, post-screening controversies included.  

Joe Alandy: I worked on “Angelito” as a producer. We shot that in November of 2016, so as early as then, we were already having talks about “Goyo.” We had an initial script already and it was  daunting to read it because I’ve never read or imagined something that big.

As a producer from the very start, I was like, “I don’t know how we’re gonna make this film. I don’t know how much this film is gonna cost, but I do know that it reads a lot bigger than ‘Heneral Luna.’” So it took a lot of time talking to the bosses, Sir Ed [Rocha], Sir Nando [Ortigas], with my producing partner Daphne [Chiu] about how to mount something this big. We spent a few months figuring [it] out, assembling a team and then we all got together. The official start of the project was November 2017, because that’s when we all went to Tirad Pass.

We went together with the core team already minus Pong. We went there to get a feel of it, to see if it was logistically viable to shoot there. At the end of that trip, we said no. It wasn’t logistically viable to shoot there at all. The real Tirad Pass, it’s just not possible. It’s beautiful, though.

BTS-1.jpg Producers Joe Alandy, Fernando Ortigas and E.A. Rocha, and director Jerrold Tarog. Photo courtesy of TBA STUDIOS

Pong Ignacio: I came in because I did “Luna” with Jerrold, so I knew how much we needed to make this bigger. I had the same feeling that Joe did when I read the script, like how do we mount these scenes? I knew Jerrold had an idea, and if he didn’t have one, we would figure it out together and that was a confidence I had going into the film.

Jerrold Tarog: Reimagining and recreating the Battle of Tirad Pass proved to be the hardest as it was a logistical nightmare to get hundreds of people up a mountain and move them from hill to hill during the rainy season. It was particularly difficult blocking actors when you and your camera are on a hilltop and the actors are far down below, or vice versa.

Recreating 1899 Dagupan in a huge backlot was also difficult but at least we had the comfort of being relatively stationary. Still, it was a big headache, especially when we had to put in the CGI elements to complete the town. All in all, it was an insane undertaking. I don't know what came over me when I was conceiving the project.

Roy Lachica: I had two sets of carpenters, construction department from two locations working at the same time. The sets [were particularly difficult] because from the start, sabi nga ni Jerrold, we tried to look for locations that are already there, pero sabi ko right away, “I don’t think we can find the location.” What you see now, you go into any town and you see 7-Eleven, you see wires, so I suggested that we construct the set and he agreed naman and of course our producers agreed.

We started looking for a location where we can build and I think that’s the challenge: building the sets — the whole town of Dagupan — then another challenge was, for example, you turn the town of Dagupan into another town, so repainting, reconstruction, gano’n. And another challenge was Mt. Balagbag, because when they started construction, it was the season of typhoons, so the road was really muddy, it was so hard to bring up the materials, we had to hire a 6x6 truck.

And of course, the props, the guns — everything had to be made, everything had to be manufactured. We had a big workshop in Pasig and that’s where the factory is. The props guys, they did nothing but just build, build, build. Even the karwahes, the kalesas were made. The cave was made, the trenches were made.

Pong Ignacio: I guess I can just talk about the chroma. We tried to figure out how to mount how many walls we had for green screen. We built walls because we couldn’t put cloth in our locations because of wind, because of rain, all of that. So if you see foreign sets, when they extend a set, for example, there’s a huge chroma wall that’s like 20, 30 feet up and 100 to 200 feet wide. We had those on set and then the other question was how to transport those to our locations because we shot in Ilocos, we shot in a mountain in Balagbag. How do you bring those up? That was important for us to extend the visuals of the film, to extend the sets to a much bigger scale. So that was in itself something we had to figure out.

Joe Alandy: We shot our very first day near the end of May [2017], so that whole process of putting it together was a very long pre-production period of seven months. We initially scheduled it for 55 or 56 shooting days which eventually became 60, because of all the considerations that were happening in terms of weather, in terms of logistics.

What we don’t like understating is we had to have a lot of people involved for this to happen. There’s a lot of talks about “How many people actually worked on ‘Goyo?’ How many people were on one shooting day?” At the very least, we’re talking about 250 to 300. At the highest end, 1,000. Basically we had our own community.

BTS-4.jpg Tarog with actors Paulo Avelino and Robert Seña. Photo courtesy of TBA STUDIOS

Jerrold Tarog: Then there's also the stuff related to craft, particularly improving the visual language. This time, we had the budget to do wide shots with conviction so we made sure the frames were full but also strategic in conveying information. A lot of work went into sound design also, particularly in defining space and distances during the battle. Then the CGI, of which there were approximately 600 shots, were supervised strictly to reach a point of being presentable, at the very least, to being seamless, at best.

I'm aware of my limitations as a storyteller so I'm just happy and grateful whenever I'm given an opportunity to wrestle against my own mediocrity. I hope “Goyo,” with all the risks that we took, is still a positive step forward.

Joe Alandy: After November, we basically spent the next nine months in post-production. This was a very long process. What’s different about this project, well, it’s time. Everyone talks in the press about how the budget is bigger, more expensive, most epic but no one talks about the amount of time we spent on this film, which I think is something that’s also very important to talk about, because we couldn’t make this film — no matter how much money you spend on a film, if you don’t give it the time, it won’t be that product.

Pong Ignacio: I just watched “Luna” a few weeks ago with my nephew ... and when I look at “Luna” and when I look at this film, my God, it’s so different. Ang layo talaga in terms of scale, in terms of visuals.

The sets are much bigger. We learned a lot even in the post-production of it, in the mounting of the scenes and in the CG. In terms of the technicals and the story and the character development that we tried to incorporate all together. There’s so much growth and you feel it, definitely. I think audiences feel it, definitely. It’s a very different film, it’s a different character, but the technicals also are very different.

The culmination of “Luna,” the climax is when he gets assassinated — that’s not a spoiler. In “Goyo,” it’s Tirad Pass. Everyone remembers the assassination scene in “Luna.” I remember Jerrold and I trying to mount that scene and we had rehearsals and all of that and it’s like, how do we mount this elaborate assassination in “Luna” in a town square and we shot that in three days and it was like, wow, that’s the longest scene we shot.

We shot Tirad Pass in 20 days or something. We were there in Balagbag for 20 days. It was exponential in terms of the scale and the mounting of it. [Jerrold] was trying to top what the audiences were getting when they watched the culmination of “Luna” with “Goyo” in Tirad Pass.

Jerrold Tarog: One of the reasons for doing the trilogy was to humanize our so-called heroes, to show their good and bad qualities and let the audience decide if there is merit in lionizing people or if we should take that extra step in discussing both their contributions to society and their shortcomings.

For “Goyo,” I wanted to push this concept further by showing a hero who was breaking down right before our eyes. I wanted to separate Gregorio the boy from Gregorio the hero. There were events in Del Pilar's life that presented an opportunity for this kind of treatment. Plus we were aided by Nick Joaquin's iconoclastic “A Question of Heroes,” a book that just didn't give a shit.

BTS-2.jpg “‘Goyo’ is closer to my personal sensibilities as a filmmaker, for better or worse,” says Tarog. Photo courtesy of TBA STUDIOS

But I do have to mention the conscious effort to do something completely different from “Heneral Luna.” Perhaps I'm just being stubborn and stupid but I didn't want to pick apart that film to find a box office hit formula so that we could do it again for “Goyo.” I wanted this new film to feel like the outcome of Luna's death. Hence, the elegiac tone and the introspection.

Plus the idea of constructing an ensemble piece with varying viewpoints instead of just focusing on Del Pilar. It's going to screw with people's expectations, of course, but it is what it is and I can only be endlessly grateful to my producers for deciding to go with the idea.

As for “Goyo”’s role, I can only speak for my intentions, which is to use stories to foster discussion and create social commentary. I suppose there is always value in that. “Goyo” has lots to say about who were back then. If it is treated as mere entertainment, that is fine. If it is used as an educational tool, that's great. If it is treated as a mirror to compare how much or how little our country has changed, then all the better.

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“Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral” is in cinemas nationwide.