Remembering Danny Zialcita

By Jerome Gomez for Metro Him

Posted at Mar 12 2013 04:46 PM | Updated as of Mar 13 2013 10:09 AM

(Ed’s note: This article, with the original title “The Entertainer,” is written by Jerome Gomez for the September 2008 issue of Metro Him magazine of ABS-CBN Publishing Inc. We are republishing it with the writer’s permission. Zialcita passed away last Sunday due to health problems. He was 71.)

The heart, says Danny Zialcita, is 16 inches away from the brain. And today as I sit across him, listening to his stream of consciousness, his digressions, delivered in the rat-tat-tat manner the actors in his films are so good at, I worry that I can only barely keep up with his brain going full-speed, and I hope that by sheer proximity his heart is able to.

He has just come from running on the treadmill—which should explain the adrenaline—and while he has already changed into jeans and a white long-sleeved shirt (three top buttons open like in the old days), he is still profusely sweating.

Zialcita is now 67, his hair a deep gray with patches of white, his skin while ravaged by age is scrubbed clean. “Sabi nila when you reach 70, you’re already living on borrowed time,” he says, puffing on his first stick of Marlboro Reds, a pack of which sits on the table near a tall glass of Coke. “Before that you’re living on borrowed wings. Right now I just borrow money.”

This is the first time he’s agreed to do an interview since he left the movies in the late ‘80s—although he’d like to think he quit in 1984, the year after he did the Sharon Cuneta-Miguel Rodriguez-starrer “To Love Again,” and the year before “Bakit Manipis ang Ulap?” which starred Janice de Belen. “I will never open my mouth except to ask a question. Because once you open your mouth, you lose something,” he says. “So now I’m on the losing end.”

Life as a recluse

He has lived the life of a recluse for close to two decades, refusing interviews, turning down offers to do films again. His heart, he tells them, just isn’t there anymore.

He doesn’t watch television. The last time he was in a movie theater was a few years back, for a Bruce Willis flick whose title escapes him at the moment. “Once you retire you’re a dead duck,” he says, quoting someone. “You’ll be spending your life on nothingness, you have so much time allowed to yourself, you start thinking of the past and the past is never that beautiful anymore, di ba?”

He tells me this not with a hint of sadness, but with the voice of a man who has spent quite a bit of time in introspection. “You remember the good things, the beautiful things. When you’ve had the best in life, there’s nothing more to come.”

This was, of course, in early March. When his plan to reprise “Dear Heart,” the movie that made Sharon Cuneta and Gabby Concepcion, seemed to be having a hard time getting an audience with the big producers. He was toying with the idea of putting KC Concepcion and her mom Sharon in one movie, with maybe John Lloyd Cruz as KC’s love interest. And then Gabby Concepcion came home from the US (after 13 straight years of absence) later in the month and, suddenly, it seems the picture is beginning to complete itself, the return of Zialcita behind the cameras seemed closer to reality.

Fast forward to June and a project, while not a “Dear Heart Part 2,” is indeed growing legs. Gabby’s father Rolly Concepcion has been in touch with Zialcita to develop a movie he’s long had in mind. A “Thorn Birds”-style story, Danny’s daughter Beth tells me over the phone, which will have Gabby play a priest. Who do I think would be bagay to star opposite him? Claudine? Kristine? They’re planning to take the project to either Star Cinema or GMA Films.

But more than the excitement of trying to peg a leading lady, or the production company that could carry it, Beth sounds more jubilant over the fact that her dad seems to be up and about again, going to the malls, meeting up with old friends, sitting down for an interview. Maybe the best in life isn’t over yet. Maybe there is more to come.

Witty, rapid dialogue

While Zialcita began his career in the ‘60s directing action films like a few from the “Palos” series, and even dipping his feet on the bomba trend in the early ‘70s (he directed films such as “Gutom” and “Hidhid” when movie titles at the time were “Uhaw,” “Hayok,” “Daing”), his career peaked in the late ‘70s to the mid-‘80s when he started pursuing themes about marriage, adultery and homosexuality.

His movies were famous for their kilometric titles—“Nagalit Ang Buwan Sa Haba ng Gabi” (or, as a joke said, Nagalit ang Buwan Sa Haba ng Title), “Gaano Kadalas ang Minsan,” “Bakit Manipis ang Ulap?”—and their dialogue: witty, poetic, delivered in rapid fire speed.

His characters were always incredibly articulate, from the leads down to the yaya. “Bawal ang bobo sa pelikula ni Danny Zialcita,” says Mark Gil who starred in several of the director’s films including “Sugat Sa Dangal.”

When Zialcita says “Action!” he doesn’t watch his actors do the scene, he turns his back and listens only to how his dialogue is delivered (Martin Nievera had to do 12 takes once on the set of “Always and Forever.” His line: “Goddamit.”).

“For him, every dialogue is a song,” says Mark. “May intro, may refrain. You don’t go to the refrain right away.”

Consider this confrontation scene between Vilma Santos and Nora Aunor in “T-bird at Ako.” Nora’s character, a lawyer, has just expressed her romantic intentions to Vilma, a nightclub dancer, who responds to the proposition, quietly, with “Nandidiri ako.”

Nora: “Bakit, sino ka ba? Ano bang pinagmamalaki mo? Katawan lang yan ah, sa’n ba galing yan? Sa putik!”

Vilma: “Putik nga ako pero kahit ganito ‘ko nagsisimba ako kahit papa’no. At ang sabi ng nasa itaas ang sala sa lamig, sala sa init, iniluluwa ng langit, isinusuka ng Diyos!”

Which takes us back to Mark’s statement. First, you have to be a competent actor to come to work without a script. Danny is famous for not doing scripts, only rough storylines and sequence guides that get revised easily on the set when a new idea strikes him.

“I don’t want them coming to the set with a planned line, a planned movement. So that they can surpass their own,” says Danny.

Second, you have to be an intelligent actor to deliver lines like the ones above, to convince the audience that the character is capable of churning out knockout philosophical punches at the tip of a hat—which, incidentally, people wore in Zialcita films.

‘Glossy film’

Zialcita made some of the most glamorous movies in Philippine cinema. The phrase “glossy film” was coined during the height of his career, and it was his films that defined that phrase. In the celluloid world of Zialcita, women arrive by helicopters to appear in a hearing, and they wear clothes by Christian Espiritu. Men are always in well-fitted suits and aviator shades. People dine in hotels or, when at home, under a chandelier and around maids in complete uniform. They own antique shops and, as did the balikbayan Hilda Koronel to old friend Vilma Santos in “Gaano Kadalas,” they sit for a portrait while playing catch up.

“He was very sosyal,” says Gloria Diaz who wore a black hat with a tulle veil in the famous wake scene in “Nagalit Ang Buwan.” “I think he just wanted to work with me because I speak English.”

It was the ‘80s, the Marcos years, and you were either a Lino Brocka making angry films about society, or a Zialcita who, well, captured his own realities. “His films were about the rich because that was his background,” says Gloria. “He would also hangout with the little people on the set, he was cool with everyone. He was down to earth—pero in English.”

Ladies’ man

Zialcita is a son of a banker whose wife took care of the kids and the home. If he had a knack for narrative, it must have come from his paternal grandmother who wrote short stories for Liwayway Magazine. Danny studied at the Ateneo de Manila up to high school before he was sent by his dad to the Sophia University in Japan to take up business management—and to cut the budding romance between his son and the actress Charito Solis. While he was indeed enrolled in a business course in the beginning, he was soon moonlighting in the film editing classes, and ended up just focusing on the latter.

He wasn’t able to finish his studies and at 19, got married to Leonor Vergara, a favorite leading lady and then girlfriend of Fernando Poe Jr. Despite Danny’s reputation for being a playboy, the two have been married for 47 years now, and have three grown children.

“Ask the girls,” says Mark Gil, with a knowing laugh when I ask him to comment on the director’s ladies’ man image. And Zialcita always had the most beautiful women on the set: Lyka Ugarte, Dang Cecilio, Pinky de Leon, Rio Locsin, Hilda Koronel, and Gloria, of course.

“My favorite is still upstairs,” he tells me when asked who among the actresses was his favorite. “I believe in duty, responsibility and continuity…I have a way of hiding what is important.” And then he adds, “Mapagbigay ako.”

“He loved women,” says Gloria. “He is very cariñoso, very touchy, laging nakasampay sa’yo. Even with the men.” But Danny never made a move on her. “How can he? We were always shooting in his house; his wife was upstairs.”

The Zialcita movie atmosphere, they say, is always relaxed. Mostly because he is the producer of most of his films he can take his time, and he was usually shooting at home, in the old Zialcita mansion on Lee Street in Mandaluyong.

“Basta may painting at may salamin, it was shot in Danny’s house,” Mark Gil says.

“Kaya ‘yung mga walls namin puro butas,” says daughter Beth. He would just change the paintings and the look of the house for every film. They would also shoot in the house across owned by a relative. “Even while he was doing his bomba movies, he would do it here,” adds Beth. “I would come home from school and see people in the house na walang damit.”

While he did collect many paintings, ivories and sculptures not only for his films but also as a personal hobby, Danny also collected still photographs of scantily clad women whose blown-up incarnations Beth would see posted in his private den. His wife Leonor, says Beth, never seemed to mind. “She is a very cool wife.”

Zialcita also likes to pull off pranks once in awhile; he is always entertained by how people react. On the first day of shooting for “Nagalit Ang Buwan,” he asked Dindo Fernando to bring three choices of suits. And since actors have no scripts and are not informed of what scenes will be shot, Dindo just randomly chose the suits he brought to the set, picking bright colored ties to go with them. The day of the shoot, he was surprised to discover that Zialcita has decided to shoot the last scene first: the wake. And all Dindo need to do that day was lie in a casket—wearing his bright colored tie.

Why he quit

From 1979 to 1986, Zialcita was on a roll, doing one film after another, pulling off nine hits in a row beginning with “Gaano Kadalas” in 1981 up to his sex comedies that include “May Lamok Sa Loob ng Kulambo.” He could demand anything from a producer and his wish would be granted. When Viva Films asked him to do “Gaano Kadalas,” he told Vic and Mina del Rosario that he will only do it if they get George Canseco to write the theme song (most of his popular films had songs by Canseco), and that Hilda Koronel would be one of the leads. Viva granted him both—even if it had to pay more for Hilda than for Vilma. “May utang ako kay Hilda eh, I took her out of ‘Langis at Tubig.’”

He was in his late ‘40s and there was a time he was doing three movies all at once, all of them without scripts. Up to now, he seems amazed at what he was able to do. And it is amazing, especially when you are familiar with his films, and how complex the stories are, how six to 10 characters weave themselves into each others’ lives, how each one is able to make an impact. “Divine intervention,” he tells me now, seems the only reason he can think of.

So why did he quit when he was at the top of his game?

“Nagsawa ako,” he says. “I had the money at that time and there was no need to work. And besides I was beginning to make the bad ones.”

When I asked his daughter Beth the same question, she traces it first to Dindo Fernando’s passing in 1987. They were like brothers, Dindo and Danny. Dindo was his favorite, a “compleat artist.” “He got depressed when Dindo died, parang he said he cannot find that kind of quality anymore in other actors.”

While Beth wouldn’t readily say it was the drugs that did her dad in, she remembers the drugs came in around 1986. Because Danny would characteristically just hang out in his den for hours, no one in the family had an idea he was into shabu. “We didn’t know what shabu was,” Beth tells me on the phone, “my lolo felt so bad when he found out.”

When then senator Ernesto Herrera gave a speech in 1990 naming people in show business who were suspected “pushers,” Beth went to “See True” to clear her father’s name. “He’s not a pusher, user siya,” she said on TV. Danny began spending more and more time in his den, entertaining guests. Whether they were selling him paintings or bringing him drugs, it was difficult to tell.

He wasn’t interested in making movies anymore. In an effort to bring her dad out of reclusion, Beth decided to bankroll a project for him: the film was 1995’s “Paano Ang Kahapon Kung Wala Na Ang Ngayon,” starring Cristina Gonzales, Timi Cruz and Jaclyn Jose. Mark Gil, who was then in the US, was asked to come home to play lead. The movie took longer than the usual Zialcita film to make, and it bombed at the box office.

A miracle would prove to be the turning point in the life of the Zialcitas. Beth, who was for a long time suffering from an extremely bad case of scoliosis that made it difficult for her to walk and kneel, was healed after hearing a Benny Hinn service at the Luneta. Since then, she had turned Born Again.

When I visited her dad in March, she has just come back from Israel to get baptized. Danny, however, judging from the wooden bracelet with laminated Jesus and Mary images he is wearing, has yet to completely yield to conversion from Catholicism. “I believe we are only born once,” he says, cackling. Still, he tries to read the Bible, and while he avoids TV, is obligated to watch the Tristate Christian Television channel because that’s what Beth listens to most times of the day.

Beth operates a small ensaymada business called Tender Trap in the Zialcita compound, and is now helping her dad put together the “Thorn Birds” project. Just recently, he asked her to teach him how to use the computer.

Gloria tells me Danny paid her a visit at home a couple of years back. He was impressed at her collection of paintings. “Alam mo Danny, more than half of this collection came from my earnings from your movies,” she told him.

“He is one hell of a person. A true genius. A great storyteller,” says Mark. “When you’ve worked with him, you’re a made actor, that’s why he only works with a certain group of actors.”

“Danny was an original,” Gloria adds. “Sorry, is an original. He listens to his actors. I could tell him, ‘I don’t wanna get crazy na lang in the end, can you just make me feeble?” And he would change the storyline. “Even when he was just borrowing from an old film, he would give it a twist that would make the story his own. Most of the time he would be wearing his glasses, reading. He read a lot. Sometimes he would just throw away a script and read a book. But he was manic-obsessive. Pag may iniisip ‘yan, hindi siya makatulog. On the set, he would consume so many glasses of Coke, or when he was into coffee, overkill naman. I don’t know what happened to him. Pero sayang.”

Gloria should see him now. Because he could regale her again with his wit, his charm and humor. At 67 and now long over the substance abuse, he is sharp again, and quick, his verve infectious.

I worry, though, how his genius would fit in in the present moviemaking system, where the big studios have creative committees and it is not unusual for scripts to suffer up to a dozen revisions. Where a director and an actor has to get a scene right in one or two takes maximum due to the high cost of film stock—or else there will be a buzz about you and you may find yourself getting less and less work.

But he is not interested in directing anymore. He is more interested in developing projects, conjuring storylines. He just might finally learn to sit down and write a script.

“Why did you come here?” he asks me. “To find out if I’m still alive? Whether I can still come back?” He switches to poet mode, his voice lower now. “Maybe this time, my love, before my time is up.” And then matter-of-fact: “If I can contribute…I’m not asking for anything. Let’s see the project first before you give any kind of compensation.” And then. “Tapos, doblehin mo kung maganda.”

For years, he refused the offers to go back to filmmaking because he said his heart isn’t in it. But his spirit seems to have been revitalized in the past months, his mind active again. And if it is true what he says that the brain is just a mere 16 inches from the heart, then all the better. At the risk of sounding like a title of his movie, madali nang utusan ang puso.