El Pogi: The mestizo director on the set of Oro Plata Mata in Negros. Photo courtesy of the De La Salle University Library

Goodbye, El Pogi: Joey Reyes on Peque Gallaga and their last merienda in San Juan

The screenwriter of Peque “El Pogi” Gallaga’s magnum opus Oro Plata Mata recalls a surprise catchup with the cinema giant—which would turn out to be their last. “If there was one thing I learned from Peque Gallaga — it was how to be a director.” By JOEY JAVIER REYES
ANCX | May 07 2020

We had not seen each other for years since he decided to be based in Bacolod.   The only news I would get about him was through his youngest child, Wanggo, who works in the same program as I do in the College of St. Benilde. 

But I knew he was in town because he wanted to see the exhibit put up at the School of Design and Arts celebrating the work of National Artists for Film, Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal. He was a good friend of Bernie, or Ishma (the monicker Bernal’s close friends gave him). And he showed up at our office before he proceeded to see the exhibit with curator Gerry Torres.  

Later on he set a casual merienda get-together in a condo he was renting while in Manila. I was pretty surprised why after all these years he wanted to do this catch-up but I missed him. There was never an uninteresting moment talking to him because even when I met him half a lifetime ago, he had always been bigger than life. He was capable of talking about anything and everything. He can talk not only about films but about cuisine, history, politics, Negrense culture. He was a hundred percent your La Salle conyo kid and more.

Peque at the Gaston house In Silay, with production designer Don Escudero, who introduced the author to the director. Photo from the De La Salle University Library

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In that merienda, he spent three and a half hours talking about all the years that came in between: about friends, those who are still around, and those who are gone. About the state of movies and television. About our favourite and not-so-liked people. About life and all the lessons we learned from it. There was a platter of cold cuts between us which we ate and ate and ate.  

But that was the way it has always been with him, even from the very first time I was introduced to this mestizo production designer extraordinaire who did Bernal’s City After Dark and Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? (co-designed with Laida Lim-Perez). My friend, Don Escudero, brought me to his apartment in New Manila because he was looking for a writer to do the screenplay of a dream project he had in his mind for years.

Directing the ambitious tuhog scene that opens the 1981 classic, where the author and screenwriter appears very quickly as a cook. Photo courtesy of ABS-CBN Film Restoration

He had a rough sequence treatment about two families caught by the Second World War in that elegant world of Ilonggo elites during Peace Time. It was a coming of age story about a Mama’s Boy and how the war stole his innocence — and, in turn, how all the values that were once kind and genteel shifted when society was thrown into tests of survival. He called his project The Jungle Movie. My greatest contribution to Peque Gallaga’s masterpiece was to give it the title, Oro Plata Mata.

We talked about the good old days that afternoon in his condo in San Juan.

We talked about the grueling pre-production we went through, how he literally dragged me up the rocky waterfalls of Ara-al so that I knew exactly the location of each and every scene to be shot. We were laughing as we discussed that whole day rehearsal for the opening scene of the movie — and how in the very early 1980s we did not have steadycams. We deposited our cinematographer, Rody Lacap, onto a wheelchair to do that continuous shot threading the various rooms bursting with dances and party frolicking. 

We laughed at the memory of Direk casting me as the Chinese cook in that opening scene — and how when I watch the movie on DVD I would freeze those milliseconds I am onscreen so I can see how I looked at the age of 27.

We talked about the years that came in between — how Direk Peque became the master of the horror genre, and his beautiful yet controversial movies that defined an age in Philippine cinema. The man who gave us Scorpio Nights and Unfaithful Wife was the same genius who brought us Magic Temple and Puso ng Pasko. He will be best remembered — aside from his classic Oro — for the iconic horror films he did for Regal Entertainment that included some of the best Shake, Rattle and Roll episodes, as well as Aswang, and Tiyanak.

What people may have forgotten is that Peque Gallaga was also an excellent actor. He was nominated for an Urian Best Supporting Actor award for his role in Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. And who could forget him as the burly archbishop in Marilou Diaz Abaya’s Rizal?

Trained in theatre and unequivocally one of the strongest influences in the development of Bacolod’s school of filmmaking, Peque has served as mentor to an entire generation of Ilonggo filmmakers. In La Salle University in Bacolod, Peque remains the single most important pioneer of its theatre and film programs. In his latter years, Peque spent his time developing projects for younger filmmakers and going back to an old love of pencil drawing (he had an exhibit in Manila a few years back).

With Oro’s stars Fides Cuyugan Asencio and Cherie Gil in a forest in Negros. Photo from the De La Salle University Library

We were talking about all this. About how we missed Don Escudero. About my plans. He asked how I was coping, how I survived all these years in the business. In turn, I asked him questions with great hunger because of the wisdom he has harvested and kept through the years.

If there was one thing I learned most from Peque Gallaga — it was how to be a director.  

A director is not a god but an inspiration for collaboration. A director is a leader because he is a teacher, provoking people to do their best because it was fun being better and trying harder. What I learned from Peque is that a movie set is a community of people exchanging ideas —with a director as the conductor of an orchestra of talents.

When I found out he left us before lunch today, I cried.  And I have been crying between zoom meetings and chatting with people, talking about the end of an age in Philippine cinema. Brocka, Bernal, Abaya, De los Reyes, O Hara, Portes, Chionglo, and now Peque Gallaga. They formed a chapter of the Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema.

I did not realize that the merienda that afternoon with the Direk was our casual way of saying goodbye. Peque Gallaga may have left us but he is not gone—as long as his masterpieces still find themselves on screens both big and small, and as long as there are filmmakers who have been touched not only by his genius but by his humanity, Direk Peque … El Pogi … Nelson Bakunawa. He lives forever. 

Pack up na, Direk. Mabuhay ka, my friend.