Meet the young filmmaker behind PH entry to Sundance 2
Director and screenwriter Martika Escobar says she feels happy that her film “Leonor Will Never Die” has finally found a home—at Sundance Film Festival no less.

Inside the mind of Martika Escobar whose directorial debut just won a spot at Sundance

The filmmaker behind “Leonor Will Never Die” talks about her process, why making movies is her great teacher, and about not flying to Sundance
RHIA GRANA | Jan 09 2022

Just when you think you had it all under control, life throws you a curveball. 

A few days ago, 29-year-old filmmaker Martika Ramirez Escobar and the “Leonor Will Never Die” team had it all planned. They were running on full steam finishing the movie to meet the Sundance Film Festival’s deadline. They had their visas prepared. They were supposed to fly to Utah for the festival events scheduled to happen from January 20 to 30, 2022.

But just a couple of hours before our interview Thursday, Escobar finds out Sundance has canceled the entire in-person festival and is reverting to an online edition due to the surge in coronavirus cases. When ANCX sits down with Escobar for this video call, however, the lady does not appear the least bit perturbed.

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“So this is you—sunny, cheerful?” we ask.

“I don’t think so,” she says. “But I try kasi yun ang mas nagbibigay ng comfort sa atin.” 

The bright-eyed filmmaker speaks softly and almost always ends her sentences with a smile that will make you forget even your own canceled flight—if you had one.

“I think ngayon mas natatanggap ko na yung uncertainty of everything kaya hindi ako as affected as I used to be,” Escobar continues. “Okay, ganun talaga ang life. Wala naman tayong magagawa. There are more important things in this life than getting to the festival.”

The bright side is at least now she doesn’t need to rush completing the movie. At the end of the day, she feels #blessed because “Leonor…” has found a home. It’s been rejected twice. When she submitted her script to Sundance, she had zero expectations. “Hindi ko naging dream [to be part of Sundance], pero nangyari siya. So medyo surprised,” the 29-year old says when asked how she felt about the festival invitation.

Indeed, everything happens in its own time. In fact, the film was eight years in the making. “Yung script, nabuo siya part by part thru the years. Sinulat ko muna siya based on what I think is nice. Pero dahil nga revise ako nang revise, hanggang shoot, hanggang after shoot, nagre-revise pa din ako, naiba na siya. Yun ang process niya—it’s a changing script,” says the young director.

The film’s journey is also like Leonor’s life in the movie. It’s like Escobar’s and everyone else’s lives—it keeps unfolding and changing with every unexpected twist. And just as “Leonor…” is a peek into the mind of a fictional director, we thought we might as well get into the mind of this real life filmmaker. In this interview, the UP Film grad talks to us about her creative process, how she discovered her gift, and why making movies has been her great teacher. 

Martika Escobar
"Leonor Will Never Die" is eight years in the making, says the director and screenwriter. 

Tell us about your process in creating the film ‘Leonor Will Never Die.’

Una siyang nabuo nung 2015. We started filming in 2019. So medyo matagal-tagal din. Nagsimula siya as a concept with a classmate from Mowelfund. Sabi lang namin: bakit walang local Pinoy film about an action star grandma? Yun ang pinaka-seed. Pero through the years, nag-evolve siya into something more reflective on life and how we keep on revising our lives based on what we think the next best decision is. Leonor is a writer na sinusulat niya ang life niya as it’s happening and as it’s ending. So medyo may pagka-existential crisis.

In the eight years that we worked on the film, nagbabago din kasi ang intention at concept e. And I think sinasabayan niya rin ang age ko at kung ano mga nangyayari nung time na yun. I was 21 when I started writing it, 29 na ako ngayon. Lahat naman tayo ibang tao eight years ago. So yun ang isa sa mga special things about this film. Nag-aadapt siya thru time. I sort of treat it like a living thing. Para siyang sarili niyang being na nabuo with co-parents, the crew of the film. And then now it is something I never expected even eight years ago. Hinayaan ko lang siyang mabuhay on its own.

Who is Leonor? Was the character based on or inspired by a real person?

Sa simula, the action star grandma wasn’t based on anyone. But thru research, we found out na meron palang known na Pinoy female action film writer, si Maria Saret. Pero hindi ko pinatern ang character ni Leonor after her. Mas naka-pattern ang character nung bida to people I know. Pinagsama-sama siyang interesting things na napupulot ko about people.

Sheila Francisco as action film writer Leonor Reyes in
Sheila Francisco as action film writer Leonor Reyes in "Leonor Will Never Die."

Tell me more about Leonor, the character.

May pagka-imaginative and peculiar. I think very similar siya sa kung paano ako I guess in real life. (Laughs) In this film, she used to be a popular writer until accidentally her son got killed sa shooting ng film niya. Since then, she stopped doing films for many, many years. Until one day, she saw an ad. Parang Cinemalaya, call for entries. So naisip niyang mag-try ulit magsulat. At nung nag-try siya ulit magsulat, na-relive ang past niya at nabalik ang mga problema niyang gusto sana niyang maayos in life. As in na-transport siya dun sa film. Nahulugan siya ng TV accidentally and she fell into a coma kaya siya mata-transport.

You mentioned having similarities with Leonor. What are these similarities?

Mahilig siyang mag-spend time na nagmumuni-muni lang. Marami lang siyang tanong. ‘Gusto kong gumawa ng film. Pero bakit gusto kong gumawa ng film? Para kanino? Para saan? Ito ba talaga ang gusto ko?’ Ganoon si Leonor. She tried to look for the answers to those questions in an action film.

Martika Escobar
Escobar with her lead actor Leonor Reyes (played by Sheila Francisco), who fell into a coma in the film due to a freak accident.

Which filmmakers do you look up to?

Ang pinaka-idol ko ay si Agnès Varda. Parang siya ang peg human being ko in life. How she looks at the world is very tender and imaginative, which is something na nagre-resonate sa akin. Napapanood ko ang film niya and I go, ‘Uy ganoon din ako tumingin sa things.’ For me siya yung the filmmaker.

How did your interest in filmmaking develop?

It was my childhood dream to become a filmmaker. Alam mo yung gagawin ko siya kahit walang bayad. Gagawin ko siya kahit hindi kailangan kasi it’s something na na-enjoy ko since seven years old. I’m the type of kid who would borrow the video camera and I would document family events.Nung grade school at high school, palagi akong photographer ng events. Mahilig lang talaga akong gumamit ng camera and when I got to college, it just felt right to take up Film. Some parents would tell their kids who want to pursue the arts na mahirap maghanap ng trabaho dyan. So I’m lucky that my parents allowed me to pursue it. They supported me sa gusto kong gawin.

What was it like growing up?

I’m an only child, so sanay akong mag-isa. Medyo loner. Mas madaming oras na nagmumuni-muni kasi walang kausap. Pero fun ang family ko; they embrace the arts. Bata pa lang ako, in-encourage nila ako na masayang gumawa ng arts and crafts. Masayang mag-take ng photographs, ng videos. Sila ang pinaka nag-spark ng interest ko in any art form, especially sa film and video.

Yung lolo at lola ko, nung pwede pang manood sa sinehan, forever silang nasa sinehan kasi libre naman ang mga seniors. Nauubos nila lahat ng films buong taon. They really embraced the arts kaya siguro yun din ang comfort zone ko, gumagawa ng pelikula, ng creative things. We used to watch films together, pero magkaiba na ang taste namin now. Andun na ako sa medyo obscure films. Gusto lang nila nag-eenjoy sila. We still talk about movies and madalas kaming mag arts and crafts sa bahay, magpinta ng mga pots at placemats.

Since you’re a loner, I guess you didn’t have to adjust a lot during the lockdowns.

Oo. Ang na-miss ko lang is… mahilig kasi akong magsulat sa labas. Magko-coffee shop hopping. Yung tipong andun ka, tapos may kakilala kang nagsusulat din, kaunting chika tapos back to work. Nami-miss ko lang ang ganoong energy. Yung outside space. Kasi nae-engganyo ka din. Parang nava-validate na, uy the world is still moving around you. You don’t get that pag nasa house ka.

Martika Escobar
"I like being behind the lens and translating what I imagine," shares the 29-year-old filmmaker.

What do you enjoy more—writing or directing? 

I enjoy the idea of translating kung anuman ang nasa head ko onto paper or onto video. Doon ako most interested sa process—how to communicate and translate. But between being a writer or a cinematographer ("Hello, Stranger: The Movie," "A Long Way Home," "Fish Out of Water") mas gusto ko ang pagiging cinematographer since I’m more of a visual person. I like being behind the lens and translating what I imagine. Pag paper kasi, parang nasa head pa din yun e. Pag visuals, mas kaya mong i-share yung same image. Kaya ko lang isinusulat ang films ko kasi feeling ko as the director of the film, ako ang mas nakakakilala dun sa material.

What do you consider the most important decisions you’ve made in life?

Isa yung pag-pursue ko ng film and advertising as a long-term plan. Also yung pag-convince ko sa family ko na okey lang maging freelance. Ang tagal ko nang struggle yun. Gusto nila akong mag-work in a company. They would tell me, ‘Paano ka mag-iipon niyan?’ ‘Paano ang future mo?’ ‘Paano ang benefits mo?’ Isa sa mga decisions ko ay pinanindigan kong kaya naman na maging freelance. Kailangan lang ng extra work. Sinuwerte din na I’ve been surrounded by people na nagbibigay ng opportunities sa akin.

Another decision is yung pagiging patient sa pag-produce ng Leonor Will Never Die kasi may option ako before to make this film in 2018. It was shortlisted in the Cinemalaya. Pero for me, good decision din na nag-antay pa kami kasi this is the type of film that needs patience and time.

What are you looking forward to?

Ang pangarap ko is magkaroon tayong lahat ng mas maginhawang life—kung anuman ang ibig sabihin ng ginhawa at this point. Kasi ang tagal na nating nage-experience ng iba’t ibang form of suffering. Yung uncertainty ang daming nahi-hinder na dreams, and hindi siya masaya.What am I looking forward to? Hindi ko masabing another film. Hindi ko rin masabing another festival. Ang isang realization ko is that, akala ko before, dream kong ipalabas ang film na ito sa sinehan. Ngayon cancelled ang dream pero hindi ako nalungkot kasi na-realize ko na ang tunay ko palang dream is to stay close sa loved ones ko and gumawa ng good memories with them.

Leonor Will Never Die
Escobar describes Leonor's character as imaginative and peculiar. "I think very similar siya sa kung paano ako I guess in real life," she offers.

You’ve been making films for more than a decade. Why do you keep doing what you do?

Eto sobrang linaw sa akin. Filmmaking is my greatest teacher at this point kasi ang dami kong natutunan about life and people when I make films. It’s not even just the film itself, but it’s the process of making the film that allows me to learn these. Yun for me ang isa sa biggest takeaways ko. There are films that allowed me to realize a lot about life after watching them. I can say that there are films that have changed me. And so pag gumagawa rin ako ng films minsan, gusto ko rin makabigay ng ganoong effect sa mga nanonood.

What message do you want to put across with “Leonor Will Never Die”?

Walang specific message. It’s more of sana after mapanood mo ang film, sana mapagmuni-muni ka lang about life. Simple lang. Yung may ganoong ambag. Mapaisip ka lang about life.