Filtered By: Lifestyle

Cannes Film Festival is back in person and Mike de Leon’s classic 'Itim' will be there

Los Angeles — This year, the 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival will be in person and we are excited to be back at the La Croisette.

After being cancelled in 2020 during the pandemic and the 2021 event was scaled back, the French Riviera cinema soiree is back and ready to roll out the red carpet again to welcome filmmakers, industry shakers and movers and the Hollywood gliteratti to the Cote d’Azur spotlight.

Mike de Leon’s first feature film, Itim, has been selected to be part of the “Restoration World Premieres” section under the “Cannes Classics” category as one of the restored films that will be highlighted.

The critically acclaimed 1976 film features Charo Santos, Tommy Abuel, Mario Montenegro, Susan Valdez, and Mona Lisa, among others.

Written by Clodualdo “Doy” Del Mundo, Jr. and Gil Quito, the movie is about Jun (Tommy Abuel) a young photographer who returns to his provincial home and gets involved with Teresa (Charo Santos-Concio) who is ultimately possessed by her missing sister’s (Susan Valdez-Le Goff) spirit, revealing the painful truth about her unresolved disappearance.

We were able to interview by email writers Doy Del Mundo and Gil Quito as well as actors Charo Santos-Concio and Tommy Abuel and below are our interviews with them.

Doy Del Mundo and Gil Quito


Photo courtesy of Gil Quito

How and when did you find out that the restored 1976 film, Itim, is going to Cannes for the Cannes Classics? What were your immediate reactions? How did you celebrate? Who were the first people you shared the news with?

Doy Del Mundo (DDM): Mike emailed me about it, but it was not official yet and had not been announced by Cannes Classics. So, I was advised not to share it with anyone. Of course, it was good news, a recognition for Philippine Cinema.

Can you tell us more about who restored the film Itim and when? What other films do you know of are being restored or were restored? Why do you think film and TV restoration is important?

Gil Quito (GQ): L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, the world’s most famous and prestigious restoration house which is very selective on the films it works on, restored the film.

The first Philippine film L’Immagine restored was Brocka’s Maynila/Manila in the Claws of Light. Martin Scorsese initiated the restoration of this film. This was followed by Insiang (also at Scorsese’s behest), Mike’s Batch 81 and Kisapmata, and Avellana’s A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.

DDM: Film restoration is quite important. It’s not an easy task, and it’s not cheap. But it’s important that the country needs to do it. We have produced films that should be preserved and shown to future audiences, films that may be important historically, or films that manifest the Filipinos’ artistry, or films that may tell something about ourselves. Film is part of our cultural legacy. I think that’s enough reason to support archiving in general, and film restoration in particular.

You are both writers of the classic film Itim. How did your friendship start and how was the collaboration? How did you divide the work between each other?

GQ: Doy married my sister Dreena and afterwards moved into our house where Dreena and I grew up in a large family.

I’ve had the privilege to write a couple of films with Doy and it was a relationship of mutual respect and encouragement, however difficult the creative process could be at times.

DDM: I did Itim and ‘Merika with Gil. Mike was involved in the development of Itim from the very start. The process consisted of meetings, discussions, reacting to each other’s ideas; then, as screenwriters, we divided the work.

What is each of your writing process?

GQ: I have mostly done reportage (as past staff writer for CBS News and essayist for various publications) which involves a more straightforward organization of facts and concepts. For fictional work, I listen more for the story’s underlying music and its accumulation of feelings and revelations.

DDM: I usually work through the stages of writing the synopsis, treatment, and finally the screenplay. It works, especially if you’re writing with a team. The treatment is a scene-by-scene outline of the play; so, we can see the development of the film from the sequence of scenes; and we can divide the treatment or choose the scenes that we would want to write.

Reminiscing on those days, how was it working with director Mike de Leon? Did you have him in mind to direct the film? What was it about Mike de Leon that attracted you to him to direct the film?

GQ: The first time I personally saw a spark of what was to become Itim was in Mike’s office at LVN. I was then in the midst of writing my UP thesis proposing a Philippine film archive to rescue the then fast decaying and disappearing old films. I was interviewing heads of the old studios, including Mike, for a section of the thesis. At one point, Mike mentioned that he had just made a short film, which was experimental in nature and that he wanted to do a full-length film that would also have an experimental character. I said that a story involving the occult and maybe the Holy Week rites might lend itself to experimentation.

I mentioned how I was attending weekend seances at the house in Quezon City of the psychic healer Virgilio Gutierrez and his sister Becky Gutierrez, a brilliant lawyer in professional life, who was the primary medium at the seances. Mike said why don’t we do a film involving such séances? Doy, who was then living in our house after marrying my sister, immediately came to mind as a collaborator, having written the screenplay for Maynila that Mike had produced.

DDM: Mike did a short film entitled Monologo. The main character of that film is a photographer; that is the source of the character in Itim that Tommy Abuel plays. Mike de Leon is very much involved in any project, from the early stages of the project, as early as the conceptualization. So, we did not choose him, he chose us as his screenwriters. In Itim, Gil was more actively involved than I was. As he mentioned, he was already attending seances even before the idea for a film was brought up.

Itim is probably one of the pioneering Filipino supernatural thrillers that we have. What was your inspiration for writing it? How long did it take you to write it? Did you write it with the thought of making it into a movie in the future?

GQ: It took about a month to write.

DDM: The writing happened with the film in mind.

Charo Santos won the Best Actress Award in 1977 during the Asian Film Festival. Tell us more how you discovered or chose Charo and what made her perfect for the role.

GQ: Mike originally considered Alma Moreno and Hilda Koronel but those didn’t work out. Then Lino Brocka suggested someone who had just won a beauty contest, Charo Santos.

DDM: I started teaching at De La Salle University in 1975. One of my first students was a young woman, a cross-enrollee from St. Paul’s College, Manila, named Ma. Rosario Santos. I didn’t see a movie star then. She was a quiet student. Incidentally, Joey Reyes and Manny Castañeda were in that class.

Today, Joey jokes that they would have befriended Charo if they had known that she would be a producer and president of ABS-CBN. Anyway, I’m digressing. I just want to say that Charo and I knew each other when she was cast in Itim. But I had nothing to do with her casting. She was the Baron Travel Girl in 1976.

Tommy Abuel is one of the country’s most-sought-after actors during that time. What made Tommy perfect for the role? Did you already see the chemistry between Charo and Tommy during that time?

GQ: Mike originally considered Jay Ilagan and Bembol Roco for the role, but those didn’t work out.  He eventually enlisted Tommy Abuel who had just appeared in the role of Julio Madiaga’s friend in Maynila.

DDM: Another digression – Tommy Abuel and I knew each other through the musical play West Side Story, produced by Sta. Isabel College. Then, we got to work together again in Maynila. The main concern of Tommy in doing Itim was how to handle the still camera. But, of course, he learned it easily. We were not concerned about the chemistry between Charo and Tommy. It’s not a romance story anyway.

When was the last time you were in Cannes? What are you looking forward to doing or seeing with this year’s visit aside from the screening of the movie?

GQ: I was last in Cannes in 2019 as part of the delegation of Lav Diaz’s Ang Hupa.

Despite the circus-like snobbery and eruptions of crass commercialism, I respect the long tradition of support and celebration of arthouse cinema at Cannes.

DDM: Never got to attend Cannes.

With the world premiere screening of the restored Itim in Cannes, what do you hope younger and older audiences take away from it?

GQ: I know young people who avoid seeing anything older than five or ten years old. I’ve heard some say that new films (and music) have absorbed and surpassed past achievements when equipment was less advanced. I would say do look at some of these older works and a new dimension might just open up for you.

DDM: I hope audiences would see that in 1976 there was a group of Pinoy filmmakers who were serious about their craft.

Charo Santos-Concio


Photo courtesy of Charo Santos-Concio

Looking back, what was the most memorable experience for you in filming Itim? Most challenging?

All of it! Imagine, it was my first movie, and suddenly I was doing the difficult lead role! We spent weeks locked in Mike's home province in San Miguel Bulacan, living in the same ancestral house which stood for the haunted house in the movie. My sleeping quarters were the very same room where the twelve apostles were kept!

As for the most challenging, I would consider the possession climax the hardest. Not to give too much of the movie, but it was extremely difficult having to split my consciousness as two characters in one take! Since I was a newcomer, I was not able to control my emotions. My breakdown was so raw, it flowed uncontrollably, that I kept crying even after Mike shouted cut. It took almost half an hour to calm me down.

Talk about working with director Mike de Leon? Tommy Abuel?

Mike is a master of the film language. Nowadays, with light and small cameras, we can achieve extreme realism, but in those days of the bulky Arriflex, Mike had to innovate on each scene in service of the camera's best capture. There was one time when he had to follow Mario Montenegro through the stairs. So, without steadicam and dolly tracks, he had a ramp built on the stairs, and he rolled the Arriflex on a wheelchair!

Everything I knew about filmmaking then, I learned from Mike, who was a very generous teacher. He showed me his shot list. He walked me through the elements of mood-setting, from camera to costumes. He explained production design and color palettes. I watched him edit. He taught me the importance of sound design in movies.

Tommy, of course is a gold standard in the acting profession. He came from that generation of theater actors who brought their discipline to the movies, no airs, no entourage, pure talent. I was lucky to work with him, as well as Mona Lisa and Mario Montenegro, and Moody Diaz, who were all committed to their craft.

Please describe that stage of your life when you were doing Itim.

It was an unusual time in my life, when everything happened so fast. I was 20 years old who just finished doing her TV practicum in what was then KBS, channel 9, as a requirement for the Mass Com college course. My contesera mother put me in the Baron Travel Girl Pageant, and I won. That paved the way to my getting the part in Itim.

Can you recall how you landed the part and your audition if you ever had one?

It was exactly the day after I had won the Baron Travel Girl title. Apparently, Lino Brocka watched the pageant, so he called me. I could not believe my ears, the Lino Brocka calling! He said he would recommend me to a fellow director doing his first feature film. That director turned out to be Mike de Leon.

At first, I was not allowed by my father to audition. But my mother prevailed, on the condition that I would do only one movie. So, I went to the audition knowing that this would be my first and last time to experience being in cinema. As we all know, fate had other plans.

Are you going to Cannes? When was the last time you were at Cannes and how was that experience?
I wish I could, but my family needs me at this time. I do have fond memories of the Cannes Festival, but with a different Mike de Leon film, Kisapmata, another film gem which I got to do, years after Itim. I came to Cannes in those days when cinema was at its peak glamor, and it was so magical then to experience the La Croisette, seeing Hollywood stars walking alongside us. I really enjoyed the moment. Years later, I would make several trips to this lovely resort town, no longer as an actress, but as a media executive, an all-business role so different from that of the wide-eyed actress who first went to Cannes.

Why is it important to restore our films and even TV shows? What films or TV shows do you want to see restored and why?

Cinema will always be the most outstanding cultural treasure we can ever get to possess. Imagine history alive before your very eyes, the sights and sounds of another time, ready to be experienced over and over. If we are a country that values our history, and the stories of our people, then cinema restoration must be a top priority.

If you had a chance to do another film right now, what kind of film would it be and why?

Any actor will tell you that any role, big or small is always an irresistible temptation. But nowadays I am drawn to strong, empowered women.

What are you busy with these days?

I help out ABS-CBN's Star Magic in shaping their actors. I am developing film and TV projects, but in my own pace and time. I am going to train to be a Carl Jung coach, as Jungian psychology is my biggest passion in recent years. I am the same as I have always been all these years--trying to understand the heart of the human person, in stories and myths.
Tommy Abuel


Photo courtesy of Tommy Abuel

Looking back, what was the most memorable experience for you in filming Itim? Most challenging?

Looking back, it was indeed very challenging to film Itim. We did not have all the gadgets and modern equipment that we use today in film making. One of the most challenging scenes was the staircase scene where I was going down the stairs and the camera was behind me. Guess where the camera and the camera man were? Seated on a wheelchair! Rolling down in an improvised railway following me down the stairs, the wheelchair being controlled by ropes held by the crew. And we had to do it several times since Mike was and is a perfectionist and a very technical director.

Talk about working with director Mike de Leon? Charo Santos?

As I mentioned before, Mike was a very technical director and a perfectionist. Doing Itim with him was a pleasant experience and I learned a lot from him about film acting. But get out of his way when he is in a bad mood. It was also a pleasant experience working with Charo and since it was her first acting experience in film, we all made her feel at ease.

Please describe that stage of your life when you were doing Itim.

I did Itim after I did Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag where I won my first best supporting actor award. I have just crossed over from stage to TV and film acting. The medium was also new to me at that time, and I was still adjusting my acting style to the film medium.

Can you recall how you landed the part and your audition if you ever had one?

The film was offered to me by Mike De Leon after I did Maynila where Mike was the cinematographer and producer. He brought up the idea with me for the film and I readily accepted it since I wanted to work with him again after Maynila but this time as a director of the film and his first directorial job.

Are you going to Cannes? When was the last time you were at Cannes and how was that experience?

Going to Cannes? How I wish! But I have not received any invitation. Hehe. That's alright. Restrictions are still enforced, and the pandemic and COVID are still with us. No, I have never been to Cannes. Maybe someday?

Why is it important to restore our films and even TV shows? What films or TV shows do you want to see restored and why?

It is important to restore films for posterity and for the next generation to see what we did yesterday. One film I want restored is Diligin mo ng Hamog ang Uhaw na Lupa directed by Augusto Buenaventura. Starring Joseph Estrada and Gloria Diaz. Why? Because I believed it was a good film and tackled so many issues from NPA's to agrarian reform to abusive landowners.

If you had a chance to do another film right now, what kind of film would it be and why?

If I had a chance to do a film now, I would want a film version of the stage play Mga Guerilla sa Powell Street. About World War II veterans staying in the U.S. waiting for the war benefits promised them by the U.S. government that never materialized. It is a heartbreaking story!

What are you busy with these days?

At the moment, I'm in the cast of FPJ's (Fernando Poe Jr.’s) Ang Probinsyano. I had been doing it since last year. —JCB, GMA News