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Cirio Santiago: Master of Filipino Genre Cinema

From The Grindhouse Cinema Database

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Cirio Santiago’s five Blaxploitation pictures (all filmed in his native Philippines) are credited with injecting the genre with new life by taking familiar crime-centered narratives out ofAmerica’s inner-cities and placing them in the scenic Philippine jungles. Though Santiago had produced and directed several films in his native country before making his American directorial debut with 1973’s “sexploitation” epic Fly Me, it wasn’t until that same years’ Savage! that Santiago hit his stride and carved a niche for himself as a premiere action/adventure director.

1974’s box office smash TNT Jackson, a female-hero revenge epic that starred former Playboy Playmate Jeanne Belle, solidified the director’s new position as both a Philippine ambassador and a quick-working craftsman who could bring in crowd-pleasing pictures—inexpensively. Along with his three other blaxploitation pictures Ebony, Ivory and Jade and The Muthers (both 1976), and Death Force (1978), Santiago’s other films include Cover Girl Models and The Pacific Connection (both 1975) and Hellhole, and Vampire Hookers (both 1978).

Cirio H. Santiago passed away on September 28, 2008 (age 72). At the time of his passing he remained the biggest producer of action/adventure pictures in the international film market.

The following is a reprint of an interview I conducted with Mr. Santiago. He made quite an impression on me. What I came away with was his pronounced humility. Mr. Santiago saw himself first and foremost as a public servant. My original interview with Mr. Santiago first appeared in my book Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide.

GCDb's Josiah Howard interviews Cirio Santiago


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You moved from producing films like “The Big Bird Cage” and “The Big Doll House” to directing. Was directing something you always wanted to do?

After I graduated from college I started directing local films in the Philippines. Then I met Roger Corman while he was passing through Manila and he said “some day when I get my own company together I want to work with you.” First I started producing films for him and then I moved into directing.

I understand that your films were made expressly for the Drive-In market.

Absolutely. At that time we were making films for less than $100,000. The Big Doll House was a bonanza for Roger and once MGM picked it up and distributed it, that kind of got the ball rolling for everyone.

How did you come to produce and direct “Savage!”?

Savage! was my first blaxploitation film. Roger came to me and told me he wanted a “black soldier of fortune picture”, so we did it. In fact just last week I got my first copy of the film from the internet. I never owned a copy and hadn’t seen it since it came out thirty-three years ago. Watching it was a very interesting experience for me.

“TNT Jackson” has a large cult following—not just the film, but the poster art as well. How did it come about?

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Well it’s based on a famous book called “Red Harvest” by Dashiell Hammett. Roger Corman got the rights, we re-wrote it, made the film and it became a huge hit. That film led the way for a large number of similar-themed pictures, most of them having to do with the after effects of the Vietnam War. I can tell you that I continue to make money on TNT Jackson from DVD and video sales.

“Ebony, Ivory & Jade” seems very much like a “G” rated film. Were you consciously tryingto move away from the exploitation market?

Yes, I was. I didn’t do that one for Roger, I did that for a company called Dimension Pictures. A couple of years ago I got a call from Quentin Tarantino and he told me that Ebony, Ivory & Jade is one of his favorite films.

The Muthers is your other Dimension Pictures film.

Yes, that one didn’t do very well. Ebony, Ivory & Jade was the bigger success. Maybe that is the picture to re-make since everyone is talking about the 2012 Olympics and the film centers around three female Olympic hopefuls.

“Death Force” starred husband and wife team Leon Isaac and Jayne Kennedy. How did that come about?

I read the script and liked the whole concept of the film. The producer didn’t have much money so we did it very cheaply—in just three weeks. At the time Leon and Jayne were a hot item. But the piucture was never distributed properly. Consequently, even though theychanged the title from Death Force to Fighting Mad, no one went to see it.
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Your working relationship with Roger Corman has now spanned four decades.

Can you believe it? Just this week I counted up all the films that I did with him and there are 45! Roger has a catalogue of over 400 films. My work represents 10% of it! All together I’ve now been the producer, director or screenwriter on 61 feature films.

You are, without question, one of the busiest directors

…From Manila!
Well from anywhere.
I’m very happy that I’ve been able to work so long.

The art of Karate is a major element in many of your films.

You know I had to convince Roger that it was worth showcasing. He wasn’t so sure. But once Bruce Lee started to get a lot of press he understood that there was a big market for films that featured Martial Arts.

Your pictures seem more politically conscious than other films from the era.

Thank you for noticing. When I make a film, I want to make a statement, I want to say something positive, especially for and about my people—Asians. The Philippine market was huge in the 1970s and I predict that, in the next five years, China will emerge as a major player too.
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Did you ever experience any racism in Hollywood?

Well, not with Roger. But when I first started in Los Angeles, I had to Americanize my name. There really were no other Asian directors directing in the states at the time. Of course Hollywood preferred Caucasian directors—that was what they were most comfortable with.

What did you think of some of the other blaxploitation films like Shaft and Super Fly?

I thought that they were very entertaining and were doing exactly what they were supposed to do for their given market.

Why do you believe that the blaxploitation cycle of films came to such an abrupt end?

Because the black audience started to find fault with the images in the pictures. I think it’s sad. I don’t believe the films are anything to be ashamed of. They should be a source of pride—not embarrassment.

Why do you believe blaxploitation films remain popular today?

Well, it’s a fact that every seven years there is a whole new audience for anything that is popular.

Which of your blaxploitation films is your favorite?

TNT Jackson. It’s got great actors—Stan Shaw is a favorite of mine; it’s got a great story; and it opened many, many doors for me.
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Several of your films feature the same cast of players. Did you like working with the same people over and over again?

Yes. Because I know them and they know me. They knew what to expect from me and I knew what to expect from them. We looked forward to repeating an enjoyable experience.

In many ways your films are like a Philippine travelogue. Everything is beautiful, the land, the culture and the people.

I’m very proud of the way I presented Phillipinos in my films. But I must say that I experienced many limitations at the time those films were made. Everyone kept telling me that if I made my pictures in the Philippines buyers would not be interested and audiences would not be able to connect with the characters or with the foreign locations. The idea was that blaxploitation films should take place in America’s urban ghettos. I’m happy to say that I proved them wrong.

How would you like to be remembered?

I would like to be remembered as the guy that tried to put the Philippines on the map. As far as the film industry goes, I think I was quite successful. Big films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon were all filmed here. I believe my efforts on behalf of the Philippine film industry have been a good thing.

For the last thirty-five years you’ve made at least one film a year. Why do you choose to remain so incredibly active?

I don’t talk about it often, but I support about eighty families who work for my film company in the Philippines. These are families that I inherited from my parents who were also in the film industry. Making films allows me to express myself creatively and, at the same time, help my fellow countrymen. What more could you ask for?
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Josiah Howard is the author of four books including the seminal Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide. His writing credits include articles for The New York Times, Reader’s Digest and The Village Voice. A veteran of more than 100 radio broadcasts he is a regular contributor to Grindhouse Cinema Database and in 2014-15 made regular appearances on TV One’s award-winning documentary series Unsung. Visit his Official Website.
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