At the back of a smart three-storey home is a high-ceilinged work space. To the right is an outdoor area where wooden racks stacked with bodies, limbs and plaster skeletons compete for space with row after row of helmets and boots from Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986). Inside the workshop, the head, torso and enormous black wings of a Mananangaal resembling a demented, fanged Michael Jackson casts its shadow from the ceiling.
Cecille Baun is THE pioneer in an industry that could barely acknowledge the area of prosthetics and special makeup, let alone train a person to an international standard. When you look at the rich history of fantasy and effects-based cinema in the Philippines, such a statement seems false, considering the inspired work of such figures as Richard Abelardo, the Hollywood-trained production designer responsible for the LVN spectacles Ibong Adarna (1941) and Aladin (1946), and Tommy Marcelino, special photographic effects master behind the flying scenes, spaceships and giants in Darna, not to mention the body-splitting Mananangaals in Dugo Ng Vampira (1969).
Cecille's magnificent clay bust of the late King of Comedy, Dolphy, sits in pride of place on her work bench, a conical Chinese hat perched cheekily atop the iconic features. His hardened face is evidence of the basis of countless latex contortions and evidence of one of Cecille's first projects assisting the older prosthetics master Ernie Carvajal with Dolphy's rubber nose in Cyrano At Roxanne (1973). Her mutually lucrative association with Dolphy continued throughout their careers, the high point without question being his four roles in the award-winning Omeng Satanasia (1977), in which Cecille's talents transformed Dolphy from middle age into an old man AND a gay Devil. In one scene, three of Dolphy's characters appear within the one complicated setup. "What we did, I had to copy his face to the brother Georgie [Quizon], because he looks like him, then the other on another person. All cheating, the effects!"
|Face cast of dimunitive actor Weng Weng|
Mounted on wire frames on the walls above the clay Dolphy is Cecille's face mask collection: literally hundreds of clay faces Cecille has personally cast in plaster comprising the mainstay of the Philippines' film industry. Her vast collection outgrew her former space in Caloocan in 2000, where her two daughters Marie and Chat ("my shadow") assisted. I'm cast in plaster and perched somewhere near Weng Weng. Fernando Poe Jr, too, is on Cecille's wall of fame, a souvenir of her work on Patayin Si ... Mediavillo (1978). "He has a disguise that I made, I make him like an old man. Then he asked me, 'Why do I still look like me?' I said, 'Change your hair do!' Because when there's a fight scene, he always wants to keep that hair well combed like that!"
|Cecille with her snake-god ZUMA (1985)|
Had the Fates not conspired, Cecille's life may have taken an altogether different path. It was 1970 - housewife Cecille had just graduated from a Cosmetology school and was caring for her youngest baby - when tragedy struck. Her husband, a large and loving man with the US Military, was buying a plot of land for the family in Pagsanjan. "The uncle of my husband called and said don't bring money," recalls Cecille. "I told him not to go there any more." Local criminals had targeted him, believing he was carrying large sums of cash for the land deal. His car was stopped by hoods in San Carlos, and he was shot several times.
After working on number of stage productions, TV commercials and photo shoots, Cecille found herself on the set of Night Of The Cobra Woman (1972), a co-production between Roger Corman's New World Pictures and local producer Cirio Santiago's Premiere Productions. The film stars statuesque black actress Marlene Clark as a World War 2 nurse transformed by a possessed cobra's bite into an ageless Snake Goddess. Cut to 1972, and pretty American UNICEF scientist Joanna (the playfully-named Seventies starlet Joy Bang) is researching snake venom in the Philippines when her boyfriend Duff (Roger Garrett) arrives to keep her company. Her stories of a remote hut in the Antipolo hills and a seemingly ageless snake handler named Lena and her cobra companion named Movini intrigue him, and he stumbles on a now horribly-aged Francisca, her mutant hunchbacked son Lope (also a cockeyed Diaz), and Movini's fangs injecting its elixir of living death into his veins. Now Lena's lover and companion, and hopelessly hooked on Lena's venom, Duff seeks out victims for her insatiable lust for young males' life force, leaving her victims drained and prune-faced while she sloughs off her rubbery old skin.
Local films soon followed, including regular work with pop sensations Elwood Perez and Joey Gosiengfiao, through their Sine Pilipino and Juan de la Cruz productions. Now considered a lost film, Lipad, Darna, Lipad! (1973) was groundbreaking, not only in its highly camp self-awareness and pure pop-culture-meets-European-arthouse sensibility, but in its directors' thoughtful application of special effects and prosthetics. Carvajal and Cecille transformed perennial bad girl Celia Rodriguez into Darna's snake-domed nemesis Valentina like never before in the series' previous three decades; likewise, Gloria Romero morphed into Impakta, and Liza Lorena became Babaeng Lawin. Cecille would continue her association with Darna in Darna And The Giants (1973) and Darna vs The Planet Women (1975), both starring Lipad…'s Vilma Santos, and the rebooted Darna (1991).
In Sine Pilipino's similarly madcap, multi-storied and multi-director follow-up Zoom, Zoom, Superman (1973) starring Ariel Ureta in the title role, Gina Pareno undergoes a Planet Of The Apes-styled facelift from Cheetah the chimpanzee to giant gorilla Kangkong, while Celia Rodriguez goes bald as The Spider Woman. With a greater emphasis on photographic and prosthetic effects, Perez, Gosiengfiao and their cohorts were forcibly lifting the bar with regards to the quality of local films. "The director Elwood Perez said, set up the table, he wants more prosthetics, we can do it! We are brave to do it, because we can do the idea, how to do it. So after that, every time we make a movie, it's growing, growing, growing with prosthetics. We reach the fullness of prosthetics locally." One could also argue that local cinema became a lot smarter in general after Sine Pilipino.
Cecille's work on the Shake Rattle And Roll series, starting with Peque Gallaga's "Mananangaal" episode in the 1984 original, forever changed the way the Philippines perceives its own mythological creatures. The searing image of Irma Alegre's naked torso splitting in two in gruesome detail and spouting bat wings is easily one of the most iconic images of Pinoy horror of all time.
If you're creating an Aswang or Tiyanak, do you start with a drawing? "No. Modelling. The production design, they talk with the director. They'll say 'Tomorrow you're going to do this…' But give me something to know what kind of idea you want me to do! Maybe he's too lazy because he knows I can do it. That's giving me a hard time. I almost dream. I almost have done it in my dreams, because before I go to sleep I think of that. It happened in Oro Plata Mata . Because I have the face of the Japanese who's going to have his head cut off in the stream, with Joel Torres. Then the one who has his tongue cut off, Ronnie Lazaro. He has cut his tongue, then blood is coming out - I was the one who do these. I put in a tongue, of course. Latex. And much blood inside."
Cecille returned to work on Elwood Perez's Puri (1984), a twisted, damaged, and very European tribute to Hitchcock: twin sisters, incest, murder, madness, potent erotically-charged imagery, and a bell tower scene straight out of Vertigo (1958). Elwood pulls the carpet from under your feet the entire film, and the late Stella Strada - destined to commit suicide soon after filming - in her twin roles is simply magnificent (I love the final shots where she imagines her twin screaming at her from her coffin!).
Another iconoclastic director Cecille collaborated with was the late Tata Esteban. What is known of Tata Esteban (real name Steve Regala) has been coloured by his own much-publicised personal narrative, carefully constructed following his conversion to revivalist Christianity as an almost cartoon-like fall from Grace and subsequent redemption and salvation. A “hardcore womanizer, flesh trader and shabu addict”, he is described on a Christian ministry's website, “promiscuous since he was 13, and constantly wallowing in money as he traded and bedded women, and showed off their wares in his hit nightclubs and movies...” A stroke, several heart attacks and his two year-old son asking for a hit of daddy's shabu, reportedly turned his life around in 2000, before a final heart attack in 2003 claimed Esteban for good; friends and colleagues remember him prior to his conversion as a talented if troubled artist whose personal demons no doubt got the better of him. It's tempting to draw parallels between Esteban's turbulent private life and his skewed filmic fantasies.
The film's most gruesome set-piece is vintage Cecille. Eva Rose Palma, as Mark Gil's girlfriend Christine, is at a mirror when her possessed blow-dryer takes on a life of its own and turns against her.
There’s no denying the talent of Esteban as a filmmaker, or his intentions to make a genre film with style and depth. Somewhere along the creative process, however, things have gone terribly wrong. Aside from the green-and-red neon pornucopia of set-pieces, there’s very little on which to pin the film, and Esteban instead resorts to endless and pointless club sequences, sex scenes, confusing flashbacks and hallucinations, and of course the samurai sword sequence, which must surely rank as one of the most unexpected and repellent images in commercial erotica. Once again, it's vintage Cecille.
Cecille's work on international productions took an interesting turn in 1976 when she was offered a makeup position on Francis Ford Coppola's gargantuan Apocalypse Now (released 1979). "I did not push through with this. They just asked my services only for two weeks, because the director Coppola wants to start the shooting on August 22, because it's a 'lucky day.' And all the different departments could not get here. We shot in the Plantation where they have this salt. I was the one there who started it. When we transferred the location to Pagsanjan, I told Joey Romero [line producer Eddie Romero's son] that I cannot push through because Joe Don Baker is here, I accepted already the offer of one of the productions here [Chequered Flag Or Crash (1977)], then they permit me to go. So at the very start I started with that. It's the biggest production. Then I worked with Susan Sarandon and Joe Don Baker, the guy from Walking Tall ."
Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986) was another massive overseas production shot in the Philippines. "A very big memory that I can share!" says Cecille, who is clearly proud of her work on Stone's award-winning film. "There were so many interviews, and it's supposed to be together with Susan Sarandon again, because for the second time she was meant to be in town again, for I talked to the producer, 'You're going to be assigned to Women Of Valor .' OK, I said. Then one time, it's not yet time for me to join the movie, because we're just preparing for that, and one Filipino producer, Jun Urbano, has two movies to do at the same time. There was a call for me to go to Cavite, and I thought it was Women Of Valor, so I was prepared, and when I was there the makeup couple interviewed me. I said, 'Is this Women Of Valor?' Nobody said that to me! On the truck I can read that this is Platoon. 'Yes, it's Platoon!' They asked me, 'Are you working with us?' Then Gordon Smith and Jeannie, his wife, then said, 'You come off the truck.' They're prepared to do the movie already! And they're arranging like that. They ask me, 'What if we lose some makeup and there's no more makeup, do you think we can do something about it?' I said yes. 'Where can we buy cotton, simple makeup materials?' I said yes, we can do it. Then they gave a piece of paper to the office.
"For war films, for Platoon, it's OK because I had a couple working with me. But for Hamburger Hill , it's something that I managed to do alone. Instead of having a counterpart, I do all in me. Then I ask John Irving the director, 'OK we'll give you an assistant from Germany', his name is Neville Smallwood. I find working together with him is so much fun, and so much an adorable man. After that he got sick so he had to go back to Germany. He said, 'Do you want me to get another assistant to help you?' I said no more, but I need to give some workers, I don't need any counterpart. To do this movie, to finish it, with your name in it, we'll carry on, but I will have to add some more workers, another four assistants, and then I'll give reparations to the lower, to give them a bigger job, assistant but on a higher level. So I don't know if he was not able to carry the water here, but he was always drinking the beer…
What's the secret to your blood recipe? "It's edible! It's safe to take the mouth or wherever you want to use it. Even the makeup that I use for the wound, and even if it's a very delicate part, it's much safer if it's food also. So I use for blood, it's Caro sugar with colour, the colour is all red.
|Cecille (white shirt) on set with Bruno Mattei, ZOMBIES THE BEGINNING (2007)|
Several of Cecille's largest prosthetics jobs have been on recent low-budget Italian productions with the notoriously cheap genre specialist Bruno Mattei and producer Gianni Paolucci. Mattei had been previously based in the Philippines in the late Eighties directing a number of action, horror and science fiction-themed films, before the market for Italy's Tin Pan Alley industry of copycat B features dried up. In 2000, Mattei's former production manager Gianni Paolucci formed his own production company, La Perla Nera, to embrace the digital filmmaking revolution and bankrolled films similar to Bruno's Eighties' B features, but shot on HD video for a fraction of the cost, and thus released cheaply onto the 2000's direct-to-DVD market for a more modest rate of return. Cecille worked on Mattei's The Jail: A Women's Hell (2006), Island Of The Living Dead (2006), and La Perla Nera's most ambitious film to date - Zombies: The Beginning (2007) - which would also be Bruno's final movie, filmed on Corregidor and in Paranaque's RS Studios just before he passed away in May 2007.
Despite the digital camera's unforgiving eye in picking up the budget's deficiencies, Cecille's work throughout the film is awe-inspiring. "All these zombies, the children playing with big eyes… Every movement of that film is really work for us. There is not a day that we are not assigned to do all this makeup. For makeup requirements it's BIG." Sons Ramon and Ray also assisted with the massive prosthetics job in creating not only the zombie babies but their adult counterparts, the skin tearing, gallons of blood, bursting bellies, bullet squibs, bad teeth, the LOT. Cecille received a special effects credit in the end titles. "Imagine, we are not effects, but we do the effects - I have to move the Brain that we made, a very big Brain that's going to control all these babies of the zombies. I said I am not an effectman, but I am really thankful that we were able to do it, with the help of the effectman."
"But before I joined this movie [business], there is no award for the Production Designer. Before, they were asking us to set the table and everything; it was not our work but we were happy to be doing that for the sake of it. But now later on, the Production Design, we were considered in our yearly Film Fest, we were also awarded, but the basic is that the Production Designer is getting very much involved in it. But it's really very much helpful with me because I depend on [the Production Designers], whatever they want us to do with the directors."