BOBBY A. SUAREZ Interview with Andrew Leavold Part 2
[filmed in Bobby's backyard in Bulacan, November 2006]
Andrew: You've just had a meeting with potential investors. How do you feel at the moment about the future of Cleopatra Wong?
Bobby: I don't know them, and they believe that Cleo is still a name to reckon with. And they agree with other people like you, that the name Cleopatra Wong is a cult and Marrie Lee is known all over the world as Cleopatra Wong. I still call her Cleopatra Wong. Like James Bond, right? Cleopatra Wong and James Bond are the same.
You've always had a close relationship with Marrie Lee – what would you put that down to?
I just felt there was something in her. Also when I found out that she was orphaned from her father and mother, like me, there is that same feeling. So first there is respect, and then a little bit of pity, and then love. Love for a fellow man.
And mutual respect, too?
Yes. I respect her very much. Because, like they say, I discovered her I moulded her. Clay. And I made a Cleopatra Wong out of this clay. From Doris Young to Marrie Lee, from Marrie Lee to Cleopatra Wong. So I was proud, not for myself but for her. Because she was able to do it by herself.
She is obviously the face of Cleopatra Wong, but you are the person responsible for creating the character. What was the inspiration?
Remember the movie Cleopatra Jones? I said why don't we make an Asian heroine, not a Chinese heroine but an ASIAN heroin. Because there are none. You will agree with me that there were none at the time. So she is the first Asian actress and I'm happy to say the first Asian accepted internationally.
Cleopatra Wong was sold worldwide and it's fair to say it was an international phenomenon. It's been sold on video from
Well, I did it with One-Armed Executioner with Franco Guerrero – look, he's just an ordinary Filipino actor. But you know also that One-Armed Executioner was released in
On the flight from
For me it is, but Marrie Lee the actress, or Cleopatra Wong as she is known all over the world, deserves it. And the
The new film of Vengeance Of Cleopatra Wong, as it stands at the moment, looks like it will reunite Marrie Lee and Franco Guerrero?
Yes, and another Singaporean, an Eighth Dan in martial arts, Peter Chong. He is very happy when I contacted him; he said, “Bobby, it's a pleasure to work with you and I hope this will not be the last one.” I said, “Look, we are still young. Even if we are already in our sixties, we are still young!” And it's true. And I believe we can do something for him with Cleopatra Wong.
It would be incredible for him. His first film [1973's Ring Of Fire] was buried by the Singaporean authorities, and now he gets a chance to make a comeback film with Bobby A. Suarez, who he respects deeply.
And Gary Daniels, the European kickboxing champion, who's a British staying in
Would you as producer and director ever consider making movies strictly for the local Tagalog-language market?
I would love to, but the problem is the cost of hiring the services of the bankable movie stars here, it's too high and I can't afford it, I'm sorry to say. Even if I wanted to, I cannot afford it. I'm just a poor producer. For me, if I make 10 to 15 percent profit out of my capital, or a maximum of 20 percent, I'm already happy. If a distributor or exhibitor makes money, I am happy. Because they will keep buying my movies. If they lose money, there are a lot of movies all over the world, who am I? Let them make money. For them to help me make movies, that's more than enough.
It's an economic necessity to make films for the international market?
Not only that, because it makes me happy. For example you, as a film buff and an artist, a creator, people call you crazy. I am also crazy! I have been out of show business for quite some time and it was people like you, people from Europe and Scandinavia, from
Because I wanted to see you make more movies. We do it for a love of cinema.
People like you. Especially the video distributors all over the world, they want another one or two Cleopatra Wong pictures. I was so happy, I thought only here in Asia gives credence to Marrie Lee, but in
You have an eye for talent. I suspect it comes from a love of people.
Number one, I cannot make a movie for the kind of money that I'm spending. But you see, I care about my people, the lowest – the coffee boy, the staff, the crew. If I treat my actors and actresses – what I eat, what they eat, is the same food that my people eat. If they drink coffee, three or four cups of coffee, everything's the same. So I treat them like human beings.
It's always been said that when you make a movie with Bobby Suarez, you become part of the Suarez family.
And it's forever. Like now, if I'm going to shoot another movie, it's the same people who will be working with me. Not for me, but WITH me. Because they are my family.
Will you be shooting it on the same camera I just saw sitting in the cupboard?
(Laughs) I think so. You know there is one Scandinavian director who came here and we became friends. When he saw my camera he said, “Bobby, is it for sale?” I said, “They got plenty of this kind of camera in
But it's not for sale!
Crazy, right? But that is the truth, that's what they believe.
They think the camera's blessed?
I think they will put it in one place, and say, “This is the camera that Bobby Suarez used to shoot Bionic Boy, his One Armed Executioner and the rest of his movies.
Do you think they'll stuff you and put you in a film museum?
I don't know! I don't want to be stuffed like that!
It's a strange series of events that have led you to reuniting with Marrie Lee after 27 years – can you please tell me how you got back in contact with her?
When she left the
And so you lost contact?
Yes, and she was afraid to call me up or to contact me. Because she knows my temper.
She knows you're a son of a bitch?
How did you get in contact with her recently?
I read several articles about her being not too busy, doing this and that. So I tried to contact Philip, one of my friends in
Can you tell me about Queen Cobra [a BAS Film project slated for production in 1978]?
Queen Cobra is the first Asian superheroine, like Superwoman, like Wonder Woman – she would have been like that.
Half woman, half snake?
No. Magical, like Wonder Woman.
Marrie said she'd even been fitted with a snake headdress.
When we were talking about the story, because it came from another place and another time, and the mother is the enemy of the witch. When they found out – like Superman – this witch followed her and tried to destroy her also. So there would be one Queen Cobra fighting another Queen Cobra.
Was it planned as a series?
We were going to... In the
That's indicitive of how Filipino films could be sold internationally back then. And also, your ability to sell BAS films.
For them, they do not consider my film a Filipino film. because my film is not like the movies that they made here, it's a totally different kind. You have seen a lot of popular
Could you tell me how you see the essential difference between the films you were making, and the Tagalog films made for the local market?
Here if you say 'action film', it's action from the start to the end without any let-up. When you say 'drama' it's a crying picture from beginning to end. And a lot of Filipinos will get mad at me again – I wanted to introduce the kind of little movies that you can sell even to the
So the difference is, Tagalog films don't traditionally travel well outside of the
Nowadays there is what we call 'festival films'. But commercial movies – I don't know. I don't think they're going to change, especially now. To make an action movie here in the
As I see it, one difference between your films and a lot of films destined for the international market is that the profits are coming back to BAS Films rather than an American or European film company. Back into the
Coming back here. because I use [the profits] again to make film. I'll give you a good example. You know the movie Warriors Of The Apocalypse? I was shooting it as Searchers Of The Voodoo Mountain. And then Mr Betzer, who bought the world rights except the
How did you find the Pygmies?
There is a night club, and the pygmies are the waiters. One of my friends said, “Bobby, why don't you go to that night club and see?” So when I saw the Pygmies, I said, “Well, why don't we use several of these Pygmies?” And when I approached them and offered them parts in the movie, they were overjoyed. “Yes, direk, we would love to do your movie.”
Andrew Leavold, Dr Tillman Baumgartel and Bobby A. Suarez at the Annual South East Asean Cinema Conference, Quezon City November 2008
You're telling me there's an all-dwarf bar in
One of these days I'll bring you there so you can see for yourself. You know what they said? “Can we make a sequel, but this time, make us Immortals?”
They don't want much, do they! Marrie told me she came across WW standing on your desk, while you were talking about possibly making a film about the Little Christ (Santo Nino).
Not exactly...but at the time we were thinking of doing something unbelievable. But not the Little Christ. Something unbelievable.
Do you remember what projects you were trying to fashion for him?
You don't laugh, eh? I think it's about Superman. Now you try to visualize it. Weng Weng as Superman!
Can I laugh now? I guess Weng Weng as James Bond was just as believable.
You accepted it, right? But you will also accept this is the new Superman.
This is around '78, before he made Agent 00 (1981)?
When he made his first movie, his producer approached me, because they cannot find a theatre – even ONE theatre – that will show his movie.
This is Peter Caballes?
Yes. So Peter approached me with his wife and said, “Bobby, can you help me?” At that time I was the Vice President of the Motion Pictures Producers' Association. So I said, “I'll try my best.” And then I approached ex-President Estrada and I said, “If we are not going to help the producer of this movie, he will lose a lot of money.” There is a chance that the picture can make good, but the theatre owner doesn't want to give a play date, eve two days. So I told ex-President Erap, “If we cannot help this small producer, I for one want out.” We were very close friends, so he said, “Don't worry, I'll try my best.” A funny thing is that ex-President Estrada promised me something because I hurt his feelings, because I said this Association is not fair, you only care about the big ones, the small ones you don't care [about]. “It is like this, I want out. And I will be putting up another one.” You know what he did? Called up Fernando Poe Jr and said, “Ronnie, my friend, my brother, I want your picture out of the Festival” - the Metro Manila Film Festival – 'as that is the biggest theatre in
So Weng Weng's movie was screened at the Metro Manila Film Festival?
He became a superstar because of that one movie house.
This is around '79? '80?
Yes. And Peter said after that, “How can I repay you?” I said, “Forget it. You deserve it, you worked hard for it.”
So in other words, you are indirectly responsible for Weng Weng being sold around the world! Would you say the
Yes, and I was happy about it. Very, very happy. I said “YEAH!!”
What was Weng Weng like as a person?
He's a loveable guy, but not a funny guy. And I resepcted him so much. Bacuase like you and me he's a human being, a beautiful human being, and you will love him. If you love his movies, you will love him better in person, because he's a human being. Humble. Very, very humble.
You mentioned once he was always bowing?
Because that is the way – like Japanese, right? But the Japanese say good morning (bows), good afternoon, good night. But this one for him is to show respect for you, so he would bow. That is Weng Weng. He respected people so much.
It's strange how Australian audiences connect with him as a person.
I'm sorry to say I didn't bother to see his movies. And the producer sent me about twenty tickets. So I returned the tickets, and said, “Look, don't issue free tickets, make money off your first movie, don't waste money.” And he did, he never issued free tickets!
I heard his family believed he was Santo Nino.
If his mother came from a very far province there is a possibility. Because Filipinos believe in superstition and so many things.
I also heard Peter Caballes adopted him and he lived like a superstar.
As his son. He adopted him, treated him like his own son. And you know, when Weng Weng went out, he was wearing a coat and tie! It's very hard to make a coat and tie for a young guy, and it costs probably three times more than the normal coat and tie. But the producer gave him what is due him. That I know because I've seen how he treated Weng Weng.
Peter Caballes would have been heartbroken when Weng Weng got sick.
I heard that he was drunk for a couple of days. Had a really hard time.
I heard that Weng Weng was quite poor when he died.
That I do not know. If he is poor, then somebody made money. But I don't think the Caballes stole it. because I saw how Peter treated Weng Weng.
What do you know of Weng Weng's origins?
Well, the first and last time I saw Weng Weng is like what Marrie told you. They came to the office, met the producer of Weng Weng. The producer told me, “Bobby, I owe you one. Weng Weng wants to make a movie with you, so that you can help him go all over the world.” I said, “Look guys, we did make a couple of sales – wait for the others to come, because I receive enquiries already.” So I gave them the list. I said, “Don't ask for Heaven, just ask reasonable royalty.” The buyer and seller, they're happy. And they made another movie.
Which wasn't as successful?
I don't know because for me, at that time, I'm busy going around the world trying to make friends, trying to look for buyers. And I'm happy I have friends all over the world. The small one who pays me a little money, but ON TIME. And if I need money, they send it to me without contract, no nothing. Advance? I say I'm going to make a movie like, for example, Devil's Angels, I don't have a cent. I don't have money, can they help me, and they did. Believe me or not, I was able to raise $50,000 and I made Devil's Three. Not my money, but my distributors' money.
Devil's Angels came hot on the heels of a film that was never completed [The Destroyers]?
It hurts me a lot. It's not my fault, on my side. It was supposed to be a co-production.
The Destroyers would have been the third Cleopatra Wong adventure?
Yes. Because Marrie Lee is known all over the world, some Malaysian producer wanted to rival the success of Marrie Lee. He was married to a Malaysian actress, and he convinced my distributor in
It's gone forever?
My wife asked me, “Why don't we continue?” I said, “Ma, I don't even want you to mention it.” Cleo was crying. I said, “Cleo, forget it. We're going to make another picture.” Then I made Devil's Angels. And when Lou George saw the picture during post-production, I didn't have a cent. I was in a small post-production studio in
I was the one who sold the movie to a friend of mine, Antonio Blanco of
I remember Marrie showing me a Variety ad from 1977 with the BAS Film schedule. There was not only Queen Cobra, but Vengeance Of Cleopatra Wong!
Yes. When we finished Cleopatra Wong and Dynamite Johnson, we are supposed to make the co-production movie [The Destroyers], right? Afterwards we were to make one picture after another. But then Cleopatra vanished into thin air.
What was the original idea for Vengeance...?
Actually I said to myself, how can I make this girl acceptable all over the world? Before I became a producer and director, I was a salesman. I would buy Chinese pictures, dub it into English and sell it to the
Soon after you went to
Actually I went there because I was fighting with another importer from Continental Films of Hong Kong, I was Intercontinental Films. I was there to buy Summertime Killer (1972) for the
And you ended up working as a...
You literally started at the very bottom!
Senor Isasi already told me, “Keep your eyes, ears open, but your mouth closed. Lust look and listen.”
It must have been an invaluable experience!
After that was Cleopatra Wong, as producer and director that was my first. But using my Filipino name, who cares? So I said what name should I use? I tried to think of an American name, then the American name [George Richardson] came into my mind. So when I'm sitting in the movie, they said, “Who's George Richardson?” “Don't you know him?” So everybody is asking me who is George Richardson? Now I said, “Look, I made a mistake.” Because they said, “Bobby, you should direct a movie.” They don't know the director? “We will buy your movie, even if we don't have to see the movie.” “Well, I produced the movie... So I thought that if I used an American name as director, you guys would buy it Because everyone wants Americanos.” They said, “No. You started with Chinese pictures. We cannot even spell the name of the Chinese producer or director, we don't even know how to say the Chinese actor's name. But we buy them because of YOU, because you told us it's commercial and we're going to make money. So why don't you trust your own self?” So the next movie I used Bobby A. Suarez.
And then continued... When you were dubbing Chinese films and selling them to the international market, at any time did you look at Filipino action films and think you could dub and sell them too?
Tony Laxa, the head of the film industry, is the brother of Tony Ferrer. He approached me and said, “Bobby, this market that you are selling these Chinese pictures in, why don't you buy our old movies, the X44 movies?” I thought, “I'm sorry, I cannot do anything.” “Why not?” How can I explain to them that the quality is not saleable? Tony Laxa considers me as a son and I consider him as a brother. Now Tony [Ferrer] is not up there anymore, he's down here. That's truth, because he's kaput. He's no longer accepted here in the
Did it revive Tony's career?
I released it here, nobody wanted to come. They said, “Tony Ferrer? He's already dead!He won't make a cent.” If you are the theatre owner you should get one date, and if the picture doesn't make money, what happened to your movie house? They're going to close it. So what I did was rent the biggest cinema at that time, Cinerama, the biggest and the best, and don't laugh – at that time I paid 5,000 pesos a day, but I have to have a theatre to show Tony Ferrer's movie. And by God, I was lucky the picture went VOOM! It opened, first day, nothing. Second day, full house. Third day, overflowing. And Tony Ferrer again came alive, and he made movie after movie, and then died again a natural death. Then he approached me again and said, “Bobby...” I said, “No. I helped you once, I told you don't destroy your name, make good quality movies. I spent a fortune to revive your career. And you yourself destroyed it.” I remember after Black Dragon, there is a movie made in
Was Black Dragon a hit outside of the
That is the problem with me. People buy my movies because I produce it. Suppose I open my movie like Black Dragon, you don't know anything about it. Who is Tony Ferrer? I said, “Look, for the whole of
I interviewed Boy Vinarao, your editor.
He was one of the best, at that time. He had several assistants, so he just supervised the editing. K didn't know anything about movie production and direction, just slowly I learn it. And don't laugh, I learnt a lot from Senor Isasi, but prior to that the Chinese pictures, if I feel they're talking too much I'll just ask somebody to trust it to me, and I edit the movie. The sound and everything, if you edit a finished movie, a 35mm print, if you cut it and you put it together it goes “pop” so I have to erase that. I'm going to try to edit it the way it should be done without destroying the movie. So before I became a director, I know already how to edit movies. I learn.
An intuitive process! And completely hand-on. So you are Bobby A. Suarez, intuitive film genius!