He directed over 70 action movies in his three-decade career. Movies topbilled by some of the biggest names in Philippine show biz—Eddie Garcia, Lito Lapid, Richard Gomez, Cesar Montano, Philip Salvador, Rudy Fernandez, Ian Veneracion, among others.
To the newer breed—Coco Martin, Xian Lim, Ejay Falcon, Joseph Marco, Jake Cuenca, Dingdong Dantes, Dennis Trillo—he generously shared his vision, helping them carve out their own name in the pantheon of action stars, but this time on television.
His comrades in the Directors Guild of the Philippines (DGPI), of which he was one of the founding members, credits him for the resurgence of the action genre in the 1990s.
Thus, with his recent passing, the local film industry lost one of its heroes.
Working in ‘Platoon’
Ever since Toto Natividad discovered Philippine movies, he knew he wanted to be part of it. He had been a big fan of action stars since the time of Fernando Poe, Jr.
As a teenager, Toto would often wait for his father, a jeepney driver, to pick him up past lunchtime and drop him off at the cinemas, he told a video interview published on Facebook in June 2020. His brother and another relative worked as film editors, and so the young Toto would find himself at the FPJ Studios in Del Monte Avenue, Quezon City immediately after classes at Torres High School in Tondo, Manila. “Doon na ako umiistambay. Nag-a-apprentice ako noon bilang editor,” Direk Toto shared in the interview.
This early exposure in moviemaking only heightened his interest in films such that he started to plan his life around it. He dropped out of San Beda College in his freshman year to continue working in movies. He was then an apprentice editor and envisioned himself climbing up to the assistant editor post in two years. Except the break came sooner than expected—he became an assistant editor at 18.
What nurtured his chops was his exposure to international films. Not as audience but as worker. In the late ‘70s to ‘80s, Toto worked as part of the editorial staff of big budget action movies shot in the Philippines: Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” Peter Weir’s “The Year of Living Dangerously,” Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” Joseph Zito’s “Missing in Action,” and Menahem Golan’s “Delta Force.” These international productions became his training ground. When film editor Claire Simpson accepted her Best Editing Oscar in 1986 for “Platoon,” she made special mention of one “Toto from the Philippines,” who was part of her editorial staff.
Working with some of Hollywood’s brightest directors encouraged Toto to set another goal in his film career—to be a director himself. But he knew no producer at that time would gamble on a newbie like him, so the relentless Toto used up his savings and bankrolled his own action film.
The budget for the directorial debut wasn’t much—“Maliit lang ang pera ko. Nagji-jeepney lang ako pag pauwi ng bahay. Buti nailusot ko yun,” he said in the same interview. But what the first-timer lacked in money, he made up for with his film knowledge, tapping on his learnings and experiences from the foreign productions he participated in. The movie was 1989’s “Durugin ng Bala si Peter Torres” which featured action star Jess Lapid as lead. “Ako nag-produce, nag-edit, nag-direk, naglagay ng music—parang thesis.”
The movie, about a man sent to prison because of his brother’s crime, got the attention of Regal Films—to the newbie director’s surprise. The studio would give him his follow up directorial project— 1990’s “Ibabaon Kita sa Lupa,” this time starring the other Lapid in show biz: the future senator Lito. From then on, the projects just kept coming.
For Direk Toto, it was more challenging to be a director in the 90s. “Mahirap noong araw—walang video assist,” he shared in the interview which took place in his office in Navotas. He was barangay captain in North Bay Boulevard, South Kaunlaran for close to three years. “Ishu-shoot mo [ang scene], maniniwala ka na [okey ang] ishinoot mo [kahit] hindi mo sya nakikita...Ide-develop mo pa ang film bago mo makita.”
So he would stay beside the camera as it rolled. “Pag tumatakbo ang camera, tumatakbo ka din. Parang video assist mo na ang mata mo,” he said. With those limitations, it was important that he trusted his camera men and visual effects team (the ones in charge of pyrotechnics). “Napakahirap mag-shoot noong araw.”
There was also the limitation on the number of film rolls he can use. “Sasabihin ng producer, 20,000 feet ka lang ha,” he recalled. And so retakes were avoided so as to avoid extra cost. It helped that Toto was a film editor first before he went into directing. He knew what he wanted from the get-go. “Pag nage-edit na ang editor, alam ko na ang mga materyales na gusto ko,” he said.
“Noon pa man, alam na alam na niya ang mga gagawin niya,” wrote the director Lav Diaz in a Facebook post. “Idi-demonstrate niya lagi ang mga action routines at choreography na gagawin niya —hindi pa man siya nakaka-shoot ng pelikula noon.”
Lav and Toto were contemporaries at DGPI, and they would hang out at the Screenwriters’ Guild office near the LVN Studios back in the day. “Inaabot kami ng 24 hours lagi sa kuwentuhan lang, nangangarap; kumakain sa mga karenderya sa paligid; naghihintay lagi ng mga magpapainom at magpapakape,” Lav wrote.
He’s got rhythm
Direk Toto’s commercial movies may not have made it to critics’ lists but for Mauro Féria Tumbocon, Jr., Filipino International Cine Festival (FACINE) artistic director, Direk Toto’s invaluable experience as a film editor allowed him to be “a truly effective action filmmaker”—one who not only has “a feel for narrative, but [also] a good sense of rhythm.”
Even the younger generation of directors who have witnessed him work acknowledge the guys’ unique talent and style. “He could shoot interior scenes outdoors by just holding up a detached jalousie window, with the actors standing behind it against a clear sky or something. Funny pero ang galing para sa amin, knowing how film productions are in this country, na laging minamadali, kapos sa budget, and here he was goodnaturedly pulling through with the power of film language,” says Pam Miras, who has worked in both television and movies, and directed “Pascalina,” Best Picture winner of CinemaOne Originals’ Currents Section in 2012. “That I guess was what I admired most about him. The way he mounted scenes were always dynamic whether action yung genre or not. Na hindi kailangang elaborate ang execution. Hindi siya simple, pero lean and tight. I guess kasi galing siya sa editing background.”
An actor’s director
Asked about his style of directing, Toto said there was nothing unusual about how he did his job. “Normal lang. Mag-uusap kami [ng actor], sasabihin ko ano ang gagawin namin. Hindi ako nagmumura sa set, hindi ako naninigaw,” he said.
The director counts himself lucky that he was allowed to make the films the way he wanted to. He liked exploring the potentials of his actors, which was the case with Victor Neri in “Notoryus.” “Kinalbo ko yan,” he offered. “Nilagyan ko ng hikaw dito [sa kilay]. Sabi ko sa kanya, babarubalin kita. Willing naman sya. Sabi ko sa kanya, gawin na natin, tutal isang beses lang naman ito. Kasi ilo-launch sya noon bilang action star. Sabi ko sa kanya, itodo na natin ito.” He also made special mention of a few of his favorite actors—Rudy Fernandez, Philip Salvador, Cesar Montano, Coco Martin, and Ejay Falcon, who were all willing to experiment on the characters they were tasked to portray.
Direk Toto considers directing ABS-CBN’s “Ang Probinsiyano” as the most challenging project he has done in his career. He was co-director of the long-running series for five years. “Puso’t kaluluwa ang ibinigay ko dyan. Lahat ng alam ko, nilagay ko dyan,” he said. He left the show in 2018 to do GMA-7’s “Cain at Abel,” which starred Dingdong Dantes and Dennis Trillo.
He never had any problems with his actors. AJ Muhlach, one of his lead stars in Viva Films’ “Double Barrel” in 2017 can attest to this. “Si Direk Toto ang isa sa pinakamabait na direktor na nakatrabaho ko,” said AJ in an interview with PEP. “Very passionate siya sa kanyang mga project at maalaga sa mga actors niya. Hindi ko makakalimutan kung paano niya ako na-guide at inalagaan sa pagganap ko sa ‘Double Barrel’—mula sa mga kilos hanggang sa pagsasalita ng character ko. Every after take, kinakausap niya ako at sinasabi niya kung ano yung mga nakita niya na pwede pang ma-improve at kung ano yung kanyang mga nakita na magagandang ginawa ko.”
“He gave so much of himself to his projects while sharing his talents and knowledge to the people he worked with,” Direk Toto’s son John Isaac Natividad told ANCX. “He always wanted everyone around him to learn, get lifted up, and succeed with him. He was a trailblazer, undaunted to try new things and take risks.”
Federico Natividad Jr., or Kap Direk Toto succumbed to Covid complications last April 27 at the Green City Hospital in San Fernando, Pampanga. He is survived by his eight children and seven grandchildren. He was 63 years old.
Photos courtesy of John Isaac Natividad