Fernando Poe Jr as Daniel Aguila.

The drama behind Aguila: Walkouts, diva turns and confrontation on the set of FPJ’s best film

Even with some of the best actors of its time in its cast, and with a prestige director at the helm, the colossal three and a half hour film — restored recently and is screening in this month’s CinemaOne Originals Festival—took two years to finish. We have a few ideas why. 
Bam V. Abellon | Nov 12 2019

In February 1980, Eddie Romero’s ambitious epic, Aguila premiered in theaters. After audiences got the chance to see the more than three-hour movie, many were in agreement: this may be Fernando Poe Jr.’s best film.

It’s fortunate then that this generation will get a chance to see this masterpiece, produced by Bancom Audiovision Corporation, with cinematography by Mike de Leon (he quit at some point in the production, though), art direction by Mel Chionglo, and music by Ryan Cayabyab. Aguila will have a special premiere at the Cinema One Originals Film Festival, Tuesday, November 12, 2019.

The film required 7,000 extras.

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The Making of Aguila

The three-and-a-half-hour movie gathered some of the biggest stars of the early 80s era: Fernando Poe, Jr., Amalia Fuentes, Christopher de Leon, Elizabeth Oropesa, Eddie Garcia, Jay Illagan, Chanda Romero, Charo Santos, Daria Ramirez, Celia Rodriguez, Orestes Ojeda, Susan Valdez, Andrea (before she was Sandy) Andolong, Johnny Delgado, and FPJ’s bruh, Conrad Poe.

Elizabeth Oropesa

It’s a story that spans four generations of the Aguila family, from the 1890s to the 1970s. At the beginning of the film, the wealthy clan celebrates the 88th birthday of their missing patriarch, Daniel Aguila (FPJ), who has been presumed dead for three years. One of the patriarch’s son, Mari (de Leon), a politician and businessman, soon finds out that Daniel is very much alive, and is living in a far-flung forest. As Mari searches for his father, the Aguila family’s saga is revealed—interwoven with real significant moments in Philippine history.

According to a story that appeared in the Philippine Panorama (published on February 3, 1980), posted on the blog Video 48, the movie employed the talents of 60 production staff and crewmen, and 7,000 extras, to film the 204-page script for 100 days. It took two years to finish the entire colossal project.

Johnny Delgado

What could have contributed to the project’s delay? The screenwriter Raquel Villavicencio, then an art Director, shared some of her memories of making the movie with ANCX. “Director Eddie Romero was never early on the set, usually arriving in the mid-morning” she says. “Some major stars arrived even later than him, and we’d spend the whole morning sitting around, waiting for them. Or, for one reason or another, some of them didn’t show up for work at all. And we’d be informed of this only on the day itself.”

Despite the tardiness and absences, Romero, whom Villavicencio describes as “a cool director,” was tolerant of the different personalities on the set. On many days, the vibe was “relaxed and easygoing.” Romero would even have long tables set up, so that the actors could eat together. Meal breaks took hours, and while it was time-consuming, it gave the cast a time to bond and chitchat.

Jay Ilagan

However, anyone outside of the actors and actresses’ circle had quite a different tale to tell. On Villavicencio’s side of the set, everything was hurried and urgent. With four generations worth of stories, the team from the art department was always speeding of from one location (out of a hundred locations) to the next. They roamed the country to build elaborate sets, including a street that evoked the Binondo district of the 1890s, a 1918 Muslim waterfront, a Japanese garrison, a 1920s cabaret, a 1924 courthouse, and villages of different indigenous groups.

At the time it was shown, people questioned why even FPJ didn’t look as old as his role was written to be.

One time Villavicencio had to borrow the carruaje of her cousin, who lived in Angeles, Pampanga. As an art director, who felt that she needed to be protective of most of the props on the set, Raquel accompanied the carruaje in a 6x6 truck all the way to Binondo, with her on the passenger’s seat. The carruaje appears in the movie for one minute.

“It seemed impossible to accomplish this on a budget of 5 Million pesos,” the screenwriter and now actress says in retrospect. She adds, “But somehow the film got done on this budget, which by today's standards, is the budget of a regular indie film.”

Eddie Garcia

Then, as this was Tinseltown, a little bit of drama occurred here and there. Amalia Fuentes refused to age despite the fact that she played FPJ’s mother from boyhood to adulthood. Rio Locsin, who was slated to play a Huk commander, was replaced by Chanda Romero because the former did not show up on the first day of shooting. There was a walk-out scene by Mike de Leon, who will soon be heralded as a genius with a famous bad temper. Then there was the conflict-filled relationship between Romero and Chionglo, the production designer.

Amalia Fuentes famously refused to age in front of the camera.

Villavicencio recalls, “They [Romero and Chionglo] were both stubborn and they were both good at what they did. Mel, being the non-confrontational person that he was, would come early to the set (before Eddie arrived), check that the set was ready, and then disappear for the rest of the day. It was only the art directors who knew where he was actually: sitting in the back of our art department service vehicle, as he smoked one cigarette after another. That was his way of cooling off from another argument with Eddie. So the art department would have meetings with him in the service jeep to receive his instructions or relay messages to him from Eddie.”

Christopher de Leon plays Mari, son of Daniel Aguila.

Romero had his demands, too. When he wasn’t so happy with a location, he would ask the team to find a new one—at once, and on the same day. During one of those times, the team went back to the set empty-handed.

Villavicencio remembers being so upset with Romero for giving such short notice: “I came back to the set during lunch break, and couldn't wait to pour out my frustration on Eddie. Not caring if he was in the middle of a merry lunch at the long actors’ table, I marched up to him and told him that his demand was unreasonable and just impossible to deliver that day. I had to have another day to look for exactly what he wanted. Eddie insisted that he needed that set right after lunch. I just lost my cool and got into a short argument with him. I didn't realize until afterwards that the whole table had suddenly fallen silent, with all the actors sitting there and witnessing this scene.”

Charo Santos with Poncy Quirino.

In the end, the sacrifices and grueling hours, had borne a movie that earned laurels at the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) Awards and Gawad Urian Awards.


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