If I were to list down the life-changing moments of my life, there would be an entry there that just says “Nora Aunor.” I can’t even say exactly which incident with her because there have been many, and all that has led to what is happening to me now.
Back in 2011, when I was still working as head of entertainment at TV5 and pitching a project to her that would bring her back home after eight years of living in the United States, I never thought she would say yes. I never thought she would say yes when TV5 offered her long-term contract, and that she would be managed by TV5. I never thought I would become her de facto manager, because she was under my department. I never thought I would be involved in convincing her to do her first “indie”—Brillante Mendoza’s acclaimed Thy Womb, which led to a whole new wave of awards to add to her already houseful of trophies. It was already quite surreal really that I was the one talking to her and mapping out the next steps in her already illustrious career.
It was at this point that I first discussed with Ate Guy—as I and most everybody else have taken to calling her fondly—the possibility of doing a horror film. I said it would be amazing to see her use her eyes to show fear. It would be a different kind of horror film for sure. She liked the idea and so I spoke to my husband, Jun Robles Lana, and we developed the story that became Dementia. I actually wanted to produce it and have Jun direct it. Ate Guy was excited. But she already needed to shoot Thy Womb and later Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti, and then Jun also got busy working on Bwakaw and later Barber’s Tales. By 2013, their schedules still would not match. Meanwhile, I decided that I wanted to take a break from network life. I really had no idea what I wanted to do next. But I still wanted Dementia to push through because it was a project I knew only Ate Guy could do.
Jun suggested that since I was so passionate about the project and suddenly had time on my hands, why don’t I direct it? I didn’t take it seriously at first. I never thought of myself as a director. But in a conversation with Ate Guy, I mentioned it to her. The “Yes!” that I got was so enthusiastic that whatever self-doubt I had just vanished.
Then when I sat down and started preparing, the pressure sunk in. This is Nora Aunor we are talking about! She has legions and generations of fans who adore her and would wage war (sometimes quite literally) for her. She is collecting Lifetime Achievement awards faster than I can collect Starbucks stickers. She has worked with the best of the best in this industry. And me? Well, this was going to be my first movie. Who wouldn’t feel pressure?
But that made me prepare a lot harder. I went through so many script revisions with our screenwriter, Renei Dimla. I was so adamant that I wanted this to be visually different from any other Pinoy horror film that we went all the way to Batanes to scout for locations—and subsequently overhauled the script again when we found them there. I drew storyboards. I made maps of the island in my head. I drew up floor plans of the house I imagined. I watched so many horror films, and looked for pegs and pegs and pegs. I did all this not just because I needed to prove myself as a director. I need to prove myself worthy of directing Nora Aunor.
And it wasn’t just me. The whole team worked doubly hard preparing for this movie. The pressure heightened when rumor spread that Ate Guy may be named National Artist. Can you just imagine what that was like?
But the ironic thing is, you feel the pressure when you’re only thinking of her and you’re not even with her yet. When you do come face to face with her and start working together, she makes you feel so at ease, and she makes you somehow believe that, yes, you can do this. Maybe it is that legendary modesty of hers. I mean she would say “po” to everyone in the cast and crew. How can you feel inferior? Maybe it’s the way she patiently waits for directions and asks, after every take, if I was happy with what she did. Maybe it’s the way she breaks down physical barriers by embracing you every time you see her in the morning and every time she packs up for the night.
And then there is the magic onscreen. I don’t know how she does it. The way she finds her camera instinctively—even when her back is almost turned to the camera, she has a way of drawing the eye and still owning the scene. There is one scene in Dementia where I shot her in full profile and backlit, almost making her a silhouette. Nonetheless, she was able to catch enough light on her face and raised her hands at just the right angle, thus allowing you to feel her emotions and the motivation for her actions—even if you can barely see her. It worked so well that I didn’t even need to do a close-up. Then there are those eyes. I tell her that those eyes should win their own Lifetime Achievement award. Those eyes have their own light, I swear. She must be able to switch it on from inside her head because even if the scene I was shooting had very little light, her eyes never failed to catch even that miniscule amount and reflect it onscreen. How she does it, I really don’t know. Her eyes can capture so much light that when I did an extreme close-up of it, we had to do a bit of CG work to erase the reflection of the camera crew in her retina.
I can go on and on. And if you ask each one of us in the production team of Dementia, I’m sure we would have endless anecdotes about working with Nora Aunor. Now that we have finished the film and the reviews have started to come in, I’m still in utter disbelief that all this did happen. I’m writing this at noon of September 24—the opening day of Dementia. Somewhere, in 67 cinemas nationwide, there are people watching our work. Watching the Nora Aunor I caught on film. On the Internet Movie Database, I am now listed as a director.
All this happened because I crossed paths with one Nora Aunor. And all because Nora Aunor can make you believe—without any drama or fanfare, with only the most subtle of gestures and with all sincerity—that you, too, are a superstar.
Produced by Jun Robles Lana and Ferdinand Lapuz and distributed by Regal Films, Dementia is directed by Percival M. Intalan. It stars Nora Aunor, Jasmine Curtis-Smith, Bing Loyzaga, Yul Servo, Chynna Ortaleza and Jeric Gonzales. It is now in theaters nationwide.