The last time I spoke to Martika Ramirez Escobar, last January, her debut feature Leonor Will Never Die (2022) was about to premiere at Sundance. Covid-stricken and trapped at home, Escobar longed to see the film on the big screen. Within the year, Escobar had fulfilled the dream of seeing her film on the big screen with festival audiences around the world—winning Noves Visions Best Director at Sitges, the Special Jury Award for Innovative Spirit at Sundance, and the Amplify Voices Award at TIFF along the way. (It was recently nominated for Best International Film at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.)Leonor Will Never Die follows a retired 1980s action filmmaker who is thrust into her unfinished screenplay when a TV falls on her head. A comedic meta-narrative that blends the 1970s–1980s Philippine action film sensibilities with absurdist and experimental filmmaking, Leonor Will Never Die is an exploration of how creation can disentangle humans from their own grief.
Escobar and I met again in early November at a cafe on Maginhawa Street—one of the food hubs in Quezon City, Philippines. We spoke about the value of genre films and genre film festivals, arriving at a distinct visual language for the film's multiple worlds, and how films grow even after the credits roll. This interview has been translated into English and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
JTL: The last time we spoke, your film was just about to premiere at Sundance. Now, it’s screened all over the world, including as the closing film of “Midnight Madness” at TIFF. How has it been so far?
MRE: However surreal it was at the start, that’s how surreal it still is. The surprises of the film continue to unfold. I don’t know if I shared this before, but I felt like it was a growing film while we were making it and I realized that it’s still a growing film now that it’s released. The response toward the film changes depending on the place, the time of day. I thought that growth would end with my collaborators on set, but now it’s growing with the audience, with whomever we’re partnered with for distribution, and with whomever is on board as a volunteer. It feels like it’s just the beginning, and there are so many lessons with the process of screening the film itself.
JTL: Have you noticed a difference between how local audiences and foreign audiences react to the film?
Surprisingly, people in the festival circuit understand the film. We had a Q&A in India where an audience member told us that they understand the joy of watching replays of action films on TV. So I realized that there are things [about the film] that aren’t just in the Philippines. That nostalgia exists everywhere else in the world: even if you weren’t part of that era, you feel it. I wasn’t born in the ’70s or ’80s, but I still feel it whenever I watch [classic Philippine action films].
JTL: What has been your favorite screening?
The screening at TIFF may be the best screening ever. Maybe even better than Cinemalaya! I think the reason is that the audience was honed into responding to the film that way by the programmer [Peter Kuplowsky]. The “Midnight Madness” program is known as the “crazy” program of the entire festival. It’s really semi-rowdy. There are games before the screening and this host has a gimmick where they’d throw a hat onto a skeleton onstage. Before, they’d throw a beach ball into the audience!
A month before, Peter asked for a playlist of Manila soundtracks, and before the screening, he played those songs to set the mood. It was really an experience. When the film started, people had memorized the trailers and the chants of the pre-film material, so we’d hear marching in front, screaming, and clapping, even if nothing was happening. I realized this is the culture of a genre fest. Now I dream of creating a genre festival in Manila. There’s a genre fest in Mindanao—Ngilngig [Asian Fantastic Film Festival]. But here, there isn’t. It seems fun to do.
JTL: What do you love about the genre film festivals that have welcomed your film?
I feel everyone can be a genre fanatic if they discover the joy of watching a genre film in a cinema. Film students during our time were pa-art [high brow but in a pretentious and shallow manner]. So when you say you’re a fan of genre films, you have no taste. But now I realize how stupid that is. The genre community is so nice, the kind of people who have pure love for watching films and who just want to share what they find with other people. The vibe is so different from other festivals that are non-genre.
Sitges, Fantastic Fest, and “Midnight Madness” at TIFF? The craziness is on another level, and so is the warmth. They just want to share what they discover, and their films are particularly strange and unconventional, low-budget, extreme, abnormal films. It’s just so beautiful. With Peter, I discovered that filmmakers only need that one person who will champion you in a sea of films, the kind who will put you in a place where it will be best to find an audience.
JTL: Your film is a stunning portrait of grief and, for me, it’s really two films—the one Leonor makes for Ronwaldo and the one Rudie makes for Leonor. How did you make sure that the threads were clear when writing it and then later when editing it?
The presence of grief is natural because of my grandmother’s story—her son passed away at a really young age. I always imagine what will happen if the people I love die, and for me, it’s the worst thing that could ever happen in life. I think I try to put that fear into a film in a way that allows me to extend my time with them, fix my mistakes, and change any accidents before I die sometime in the future. But I didn’t intend for it to be there. It sort of naturally emerged.
I think it comes from fear. Even Leonor wanting to make a film that she hopes people remember comes from fear. Like what Sir Ricky [Lee] says, everything comes from a bubog (wound). Even if it is a fun film, Leonor Will Never Die comes from so many different wounds in different aspects of life—the fear of being forgotten as a filmmaker, the fear of making terrible work, of making mistakes when you can make a wonderful life.
JTL: What’s the main difference between that draft and this final draft? What did you let go of?
[Producers] Mario [Cornejo] and Monster [Jimenez] were essential in making sense of the randomness of the first draft. I felt like older drafts were diaries, and the two of them looked for the connections in everything. They were the ones who searched for the parallel stories of grief between Rudie and Leonor. They were the ones who told me the ending was lacking, and that it needed closure. Whenever the film is recognized, I always make it a point to say that it was a collaborative effort, mostly between the three of us. I think they’re the best producers in the country. The film used to have so many gimmicks that, for me, made sense with the story. But if you see it onscreen, it’s overwhelming. They’re close readers, and I think that’s what I think we’re missing nowadays. They’re the ones who can identify the weaknesses of the film.
JTL: There’s a sequence involving brain scans, which you’ve said was the first image in the film and the last image to make it in. Could you talk about that?
I’ve been interested in brain scans for a while because you see how the person responds, even if they seem asleep. I love the colors and the movement, and it feels like there’s another world entirely just through the scans. I thought it fit perfectly with Leonor’s character and with the way she imagines her life. I had our online editor test it pre-production because I felt like it was the scene that was difficult to articulate. We couldn’t find stock footage of the brain scans [that looked] the same way I imagined it. We tried a lot of modifications and it didn’t work. Even [in] the film we [were about to] submit to Sundance, I let it go. [I thought] it would take too much time and additional budget that we didn’t have [to get it made].
But I was the cinematographer on a shoot for [filmmaker] Bebe Go. [Tona Lopez] was on the computer and doing artwork on a thing called StyleGANs—AI things. She was working on rocks, and it was exactly what I wanted for the brain scans! She was able to create exactly what I imagined. It adds to the collaborative nature of the film because these are the brains of strangers that for me feel like the brains of the people who will be watching the film eventually. There are so many of them but they fit into one moving image. It’s one of my favorite clips of the entire film.
JTL: How did you achieve the look of the ’80s action film? Not only the action sequences, but also the lighting and the specific cuts?
It was difficult, but Maui [Carlos Mauricio] is just so great. He’s a hip person, and I think if you combine that with a love for the language of cinema, and because he’s so open and collaborative, it’s possible to create something different. I sent him a lot of links to [action star] FPJ [Fernando Poe Jr.] films uploaded on Youtube, which I think he had already studied somehow.
It was more offline editing and VFX. I set the grain and scratches and the other details because I noticed that you need to look closer. You can’t just put a filter on it. There are so many little nuances—the small pieces of tape damage, the chromatic abrasions—that I think I couldn’t communicate with the online editor unless I was the one who said it. When you set the filter, it looks a bit . . . fake? So we took a year to strike the right balance because every scene has a different setting. Especially if it’s a day interior and a night interior.
JTL: The film has an immense sense of place—from Leonor’s home to the hospital to the homes within the action film. How did you manage to find those locations?
Whoever provided the location for free, that’s where we’d go. [laughs] The warehouse was in Malabon and was owned by our executive producer. But we only found it after we scouted for so long. We looked for locations for almost a year, and it was really just driving around and pointing.
Leonor’s house [arrived] magically. I don’t know how they found it. It is in Kamuning and is owned by a former production manager of films—Soc Jose. In that home, there were a lot of film posters and it had the Leonor vibe of a hoarder. But sadly, his wife passed away a year or two ago. There was a loneliness in the place and it made us extra careful and respectful. I loved the place.
For sure. But as a person who writes and directs, I’m not conscious of it. I understand the complicated relationship with the father because I don’t know my biological father and I grew up with my stepdad. It’s my existential crisis forever.
In Pusong Bato, I never had a partner, and so there are so many what-ifs. What if I fall in love with something instead? What if I fall in love with a rock or a film? Is that even possible? What does love even mean? Relationships don’t always have to be romantic. You can be in love with an object, with your friends. Those are my thoughts as a human being. What is the perfect version of my life? I imagine these alternate realities. I like dealing with these natural mysteries.
JTL: Why end with a musical scene?
The musical was one of the first images of the film. When I figured out that there were two worlds—the action and the real world—and I wanted to see them in one sequence, that was a musical. It just makes sense to blend different worlds in a musical or a dance number. I liked the idea that there’s a celebration at the end. There are so many problems at the beginning and they go through a lot. But by the end, they’re all brought together, watching this film that people within the world make, that those who are outside are witness to.
That’s why we added the “meta” parts. It was where the two worlds collide, but it becomes three worlds. My favorite is when the audience reacts to that because it becomes four worlds. I knew early on that I wanted to screen it in a cinema because it was the kind of film that would trigger the senses, make you move in your chair a bit, talk to the person next to you, laugh, and even clap. It’s a relationship between the audience and the work itself.
JTL: What’s next?
Self-distribution? Failed attempts at making another film? [laughs] After traveling around, I want to observe how screenings function, and what programming approaches [work], and I want to talk about what else we [in the Philippines] can do to make that experience closer to audiences. Not because I think we should mimic other countries, but because I feel that the viewing culture in the Philippines, the audience literacy and the film literacy, need so much improvement. But I also know that there are so many problems in a third-world country under this darkness.
There’s also the “next film.” I had a dream first feature that wasn’t Leonor that I want to pursue. I want a smaller film and less pressure. I think that traveling and getting into these festivals affected me in the sense that, if I want to do something, it needs to have scale. I want to go back to the feeling of making films in high school and grade school. I want to take a step back and regain the sensibilities of a child.