The Search For Weng Weng: An Interview with Andrew Leavold

As a cult film scholar, former owner of Australia’s largest cult video store ‘Trash Video’ and more recently a video – journalist, to say Andrew Leavold is an authority on ‘cult cinema’ is more than an understatement – as an individual that has immersed himself in both the commercial and ‘fan’ cultures of the rare and bizarre. However his latest documentary about pint sized Filipino action star, The Search for Weng Weng ,was a crowd – funded passion project, taking him on an investigative adventure to the Philippines to seek facts, dispel myths and close the book on the cult movie icon once and for all. However, even Leavold couldn’t have possibly predicted how his own intervention with the vaults of Phillipine cinema would influence and re- situate domestic debate on ‘B – movie value’, igniting a whole new context for understanding the obscure, gimmick plagued legacy of the cult actor.

Originally catching The Search for Weng Weng during Sheffield Docfest’s programme, what initially drew me to the film were angles of investigative journalism and ‘cult movie’ history. Yet what The Search for Weng Weng truly achieves is the filmic re-creation of ‘the search’, creating a shared audience experience of the surprises and emotive swells that Leavold himself faced throughout the process. If the similar doc on obscure musician Searching For Sugarman was a dubiously constructed marketing aid to help transition Sixto Rodriguez back into the limelight, Leavold’s film is a more honest and sincere piece of work and most importantly, an extension of his own passions and experiences.

Catching up with the ‘Australian Tarantino’ in the midst of his European Search for Weng Weng tour, Flickfeast talks cult – movies, Philippine film culture and ‘adventure’ with the promising new fan – filmmaker and cult movie guru. 

FF: I understand you are in the middle of the Weng Weng tour at the moment… How has the experience of touring the film been so far? Especially the experience of returning Weng Weng to Cannes after 32 years?

AL: Cannes was the biggest head-trip of all, and not just for the obvious reasons. It was more the feeling of Weng Weng’s story coming full circle. A kind of vindication, in a way that his story could be told on the big screen in Cannes instead of playing like a cartoon, when For Y’ur Height Only was being sold there in 1982. First up after Docfest we played the movie in an industrial park in Berlin. We then played the first 20 minutes along with a French-dubbed Weng Weng film in a tiny cellar in Paris to around 70 crazed B-film fanatics. Last Thursday was in the last grindhouse cinema in Copenhagen run by American writer Jack Stevenson, a real hero of mine. Right now my partner and I are sitting in a wooden house between the forest and the ocean in rural Denmark so I guess it’s impossible to choose highlights – they just keep falling on your head.

FF: The perfect setting for a B – Movie you could say?

AL: Yes I’m still waiting for the sound of chainsaws

FF: I’d like to rewind back to Trash Video and your experiences with cult cinema. Your previous films seem to take inspiration from cult and exploitation cinema and you also have a hand in festival programming. What is it about ‘cult movies’ that you find so appealing and do you think the cult cinema audience differs across international borders?

AL: Good question. For me, my film addiction always fed on what I called “eccentric” cinema. Not only the obvious genre films, but the stranger, more personal ones. It was always a challenge to find a film more genuinely odd than the previous one. I’ve never been enamored with deliberately bad-for-the-sake-of-bad films so when For Y’ur Height Only appeared on the radar I knew this was a special film and the work of true outsiders What I’ve discovered is that a film like For Y’ur Height Only binds an audience of like-minded adventurers together and is – or should be – the real definition of “cult” cinema. A small yet devoted follower of a film relegated on the fringes of cinema and reviled or forgotten by most film watchers. You can’t manufacture that

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FF: To an extent do you think ‘cult’ cinema audiences played into the success of the Kickstarter campaign for the movie? Was this your first experience with crowd – funding?

AL: Yes, my very first foray into crowdfunding. I had no idea how it worked before piecing the campaign together but as far as I can tell, the film was perfect for Kickstarter. It allows for an ever greater feeling of participation in the filmmaking process than just putting on fundraising screenings or selling T-shirts and the global Weng Weng Tribe had already been following the saga of trying to get the film finished for years. So to actually participate in funding its post-production, or to donate your “I Heart Weng Weng” photo for the final credits moves the relationship between filmmaker and film follower one step closer  and for a figure like Weng Weng who inspires such a strange devotion by his fans the relationship is perfect.

FF: So out of all the cult films you have been in contact with … Why choose Weng Weng?

AL: Who knows? I guess no other figure was swathed in such mystery. I mean, zero Information on the most basic of personal details. Name, place of birth. Filmography and even the most basic of facts. Was he alive or not? All adventures start out with a great mystery to solve and I guess I was the only one who bothered to start asking those questions or had the opportunity to go the Philippines and start digging. In the process, it’s completely transformed my life from video store clerk to globe-trotting filmmaker and the adventure, for the time being, just keeps going!

FF: In being perhaps the first person to formulate a history of Weng Weng, did you feel a responsibility initially towards representing him. If you had found out negative traits about him in the process do you think your own fanatic love for the icon would have interfered with your objectivity as a journalist – filmmaker?

AL: I’ve never thought about that before. As a filmmaker you DO for whatever agenda you are trying to push have a responsibility to present as unbiased version of the truth as possible. Otherwise your film is propaganda for whatever agenda you are trying to push so whatever facts I discovered about Weng Weng, they’re all on display. And sometimes all you have are opinions or speculation. The real challenge, I discovered, was piecing together a fair and honest portrait of Weng Weng from unreliable sources faltering memories or absent faces. Has my love of Weng Weng clouded the process? I don’t know.

FF: In regards to actually making The Search For Weng Weng, you previously described it was a very guerrilla filmmaking process. How did pre – production processes factor into the investigative element of the doc and what was your process for tracking down the myriad interviewees?

AL: When I started filming on the first Manila trip, I had so little to go on that I met up with Bobby Suarez – one of only two people I knew in Manila – and started from there asking the question “Do You remember Weng Weng? That was the question I asked everyone I met who was even remotely connected to the film industry! Each meeting was usually as a result of a Chinese-style introduction by someone else and so I just kept meeting people and asking the right questions, until I found Weng Weng’s brother. Then the story changed to become a very intimate one, a story of poverty, exploitation and betrayal. Then I knew I had a story to tell. As for the guerrilla aspect of the filmmaking process I was flying by the seat of my pants borrowing what little money I could to keep going back to Manila shooting on whatever camera I could lay my hands on from mini-DV to I-Phone (luckily Kickstarter paid for a Canon C300 for the final shoot). No plan, just blind luck and chance (and “chutzpah”!) that’s an appropriate word in this context, I think.

FF: Now to the star himself Weng Weng. How would you say your perceptions and views on the individual have changed throughout the whole filmmaking process?

AL: At the beginning of The Search For Weng Weng, the audience is mostly like me: fascinated by the absurd image of a tiny karate-kicking James Bond from the Philippines. Subsequently the audience goes through the same journey as I did over the seven years of filming – becoming more intimately involved in Weng Weng’s very human plight so that by the end of the film, you’re face to face with Ernesto de la Cruz, son of Felix and Rita, the child-like miracle kid who, through bizarre circumstances, achieves a weird kind of immortality through his films.

FF: If you had met Weng Weng, what questions would you have asked him?

Al: “How did it feel?” “What was it like?” Did you ever regret not making another movie? I want to know what was happening to him as he experienced his dizzying ride out of the Baclaran slums into what would have seemed like a fantasy life in the spotlight and then his equally dizzying slide back into obscurity. Regrets? Moments of happiness? The questions wouldn’t end then we’d probably go to a shooting range in a shopping centre and blast away on his custom-made .25

FF: Were you at all disappointed in what you found especially in regards to the sad circumstances of Weng Weng’s death?

AL: Disappointed isn’t the word I was gutted by his producers’ treatment of him while he was in their care and particularly the way in which he was sent home to Baclaran after he had outlived his usefulness to them. I think Filipino audiences react most acutely to the part of Weng Weng’s story where the Caballes take him into their care, announce to the world they have “adopted” him, and call themselves his Ninong and Ninang (Godfather and Godmother) which, to Filipinos, is a sacred, life-long bond. That betrayal affects local audiences on a most profound level. Once Weng Weng leaves the Caballes’ care, his connection to the film world is broken so he slips instantly back into obscurity and poverty, except for the attention of his immediate neighborhood, and dies anonymous and penniless. Still, he had an amazing ride for several years so really, there’s a balance to his story between incredible highs and lows I mean, what an incredible personal narrative!

FF: Alongside having birthday tea with Imelda Marco, having spent a lot of time in the Philippines, were there any difficulties that you faced during the filming?

AL: Access to archive material, for one I discovered after many frustrating months that the TV station’s vaults had gone up in flames during the revolution to oust the Marcos and the government tanks rolled right through the walls and blew them up! All of Weng Weng’s TV appearances no longer exist, same as half of Weng Weng’s 14 films. Getting permission to include clips from his Tagalog films also proved impossible. Also when I first started travelling to the Philippines, a good percentage of people I talked to were upset that I was investigating their more disreputable genres instead of their artistic achievements – “Why Weng Weng?” was often their response. It took a while to win them over and re-frame the discussion so that their B films could be seen as an important component of their own cultural history. I still encounter resistance even now when I’m waiting for my PhD to arrive and I’ve been lecturing at Filipino universities since 2008 teaching kids their own film history! Yet I’ve managed to make some influential friends in film circles and I’m not the freak I used to appear to be (or maybe I am and don’t know it!!!)

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FF: What’s your assessment on modern Philippine film culture having spent so much time there?

AL: Film is a lot healthier now than when I first visited in 2006 back then everyone had given up on cinema – local cinema which was down to less than 50 features a year was a hell of a decline from over 300 films a year in the early 70s! Digital film-making has changed everything and now no-budget “indies” are playing in multiplexes. Filmmakers like Brillante Mendoza and Lav Diaz are playing prestigious festivals all over the world and even genre films like On The Job are getting a theatrical release in the US so the spotlight has finally been shone on the Philippines after languishing in the shadows for twenty-plus years. For me, the timing of finishing the film has been fortuitous because the Philippines is back on everyone’s radars and The Search For Weng Weng is travelling on that wave of interest much further than I would have dreamed of back in 2006. Now, if only I can get that Filipino action film I want to direct off the ground…

FF: Although you are with Monster Pictures at the moment have you found international distribution for Search For Weng Weng an what are the future plans for the film? What’s on the horizon for future Leavold projects?

AL: Monster Pictures are both Australian and UK distributors and international sales agents. At this moment I’m not sure how many territories they’ve sold but we’re trying to get the movie out there as wide as we can. If all goes well, we’re off next year on Film Safari – a six part TV series going to the last uncharted outposts of ‘Weird Cinema’. It seems like a sensible next project, I think.

FF: What is the best way for people to support and track the progress of the film in the future?

AL: Best way to track us is on Facebook either under “The Search for Weng Weng” , my personal page (I make friends with everyone!) or by email: [email protected]

FF: Finally you have been described as the ‘Australian Quentin Tarantino’ several times before. How do you feel about this label and what is your opinion on the recent popularity of exploitation movie pastiche?

AL: Personally I’m not a huge fan of pastiche or self-aware, post-modern filmmaking and tend to prefer the originals, so I’d take the original Django and its namesakes over Django Unchained any day. I think the “Australian Tarantino” tag came from my 15 years in the video store trenches rather than a shared philosophy in filmmaking but I suspect if I ever get to meet him we will have a shit lot to talk about.

“The Search For Weng Weng will be released on DVD by Monster Pictures before Christmas 2014”

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1 Comment

  1. Profile photo of Tue Sorensen
    Tue Sorensen says

    I was at the Copenhagen showing! Very cool experience! 🙂

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