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Director Martika Ramirez Escobar on her debut movie, 'Leonor Will Never Die'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Retired screenwriter Leonor Reyes is smoking a cigarette in her garden when a television set comes falling out of the sky.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEONOR WILL NEVER DIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, screaming).

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SET SHATTERING)

CHANG: She's knocked into a state that's somewhere between sleep and consciousness when she begins to revisit one of her half-written screenplays. This is the premise of the film "Leonor Will Never Die." It's a genre-bending ode to pulpy Filipino action films from the 1970s and '80s. It mashes up over-the-top action scenes...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEONOR WILL NEVER DIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, grunting).

CHANG: ...With melodramatic family dynamics...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEONOR WILL NEVER DIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, crying).

CHANG: ...And with hammy musical numbers with huge dance moves.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEONOR WILL NEVER DIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing in non-English language).

CHANG: The mastermind behind this film joins us now all the way from Manila, Martika Ramirez Escobar. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MARTIKA RAMIREZ ESCOBAR: Hello, Ailsa. Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: So this is your debut film. And just to explain to people, it's not linear at all. It's like this movie within a movie. There's also this blurry line between what's dream versus what's reality. But, you know, throughout the film, there is one constant grounding force, and that is the main character, Leonor. Can you just describe her real quick?

RAMIREZ ESCOBAR: I think she is many people at once. She's the type of artist who's concerned about what will be left of her work when she's gone. I think she's also concerned about how to write the best version of her life.

CHANG: Well, why was it important to you to have an older woman like Leonor - someone who's partly based on your grandmother - to have someone like that be the star of an action movie?

RAMIREZ ESCOBAR: Imagining an action grandma is fun. But I think it's equally meaningful at the same time because the existential crisis is higher at that stage. And I see myself as a person wanting to make films for the rest of my life. But it's really difficult and expensive, and there are a lot of sacrifices involved. So I think Leonor is also my reimagining of a possible future and also me trying to face my fears in a joyful form. I think it's also because the action genre is very macho, and I wanted to see a woman in it...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEONOR WILL NEVER DIE")

SHEILA FRANCISCO: (As Leonor, non-English language spoken).

RAMIREZ ESCOBAR: ...How she solves the problems through communication...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEONOR WILL NEVER DIE")

FRANCISCO: (As Leonor, non-English language spoken).

RAMIREZ ESCOBAR: ...Not just violence all around and killing all the people she thinks are bad. So it's just a different take on this genre that, you know, people very much love, particularly in the Philippines, where we had multiple action star presidents, like, literally action star presidents.

CHANG: Right - all men, of course.

RAMIREZ ESCOBAR: Yeah.

CHANG: What was it like to shoot some of these scenes with actors who aren't normally performing in the action genre and some actors who maybe were never in a musical? Was that challenging?

RAMIREZ ESCOBAR: It's challenging. The entire process of making the film is challenging, but it's also fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEONOR WILL NEVER DIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, grunting).

RAMIREZ ESCOBAR: So, like, the stunt scenes - we had a stunt choreographer. But he's young also. And I think it's a reimagining of that era. That's why what appeared in the film looks familiar or looks similar to the '70s and '80s action films.

CHANG: Yeah.

RAMIREZ ESCOBAR: But it's really different.

CHANG: (Laughter) Right.

RAMIREZ ESCOBAR: And the priority was always to just have a good time.

CHANG: You know, underlying everything unfolding in this movie is the fact that Leonor is grieving the death of one of her sons. She's ignoring bills that she has to pay. She seems to be mourning her screenwriting career, perhaps feeling less relevant to the world. What do you think Leonor is ultimately searching for in this movie?

RAMIREZ ESCOBAR: Oh, no, big question. What is Leonor searching for? I think she just wants to find that connection to the world before leaving the world. Like what I mentioned, she wants to rewrite and revise her life in such a way that her regrets will be solved. She just wants to feel fulfilled somehow because we all want to write our lives well. We all want to fix our regrets somehow. And I think this film is a concretization of that.

CHANG: You are the first Filipina to win an award at Sundance. You won the special jury prize for innovative spirit. Your film is about to hit streaming platforms. It's gotten some positive early reception in the U.S. and in Canada. How surprised are you to see a film that's based on Filipino cinema do so well abroad?

RAMIREZ ESCOBAR: I'm still surprised until right now. I'm surprised we even have a distributor. Even getting into Sundance was not even my dream because it sounded too impossible. And after a year of rejections, I was just like, well, why don't we try submitting? Surprisingly, when we got in, I'm like, really? This is so weird. And I often describe it as surreal because we are the formula of unlikeliness. It's a small film. It's a first film. And it's a strange film. So to actually be in Sundance is already, for us, a dream, an achievement and also - I don't know - a miracle for me.

CHANG: Martika Ramirez Escobar, director and screenwriter for the movie "Leonor Will Never Die." Thank you so much for spending this time with us.

RAMIREZ ESCOBAR: Thank you, Ailsa.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

"Leonor Will Never Die" is streaming on multiple platforms starting today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.