2020 Natatanging Gawad Urian



Natatanging Gawad Urian for Production Design

Butch Francisco

Although film is a visual art form, it is a sad fact that production design is often a neglected technical element in local cinema. This is such a tragedy because that is one of the defining qualities of a truly great motion picture.

      Production design is actually the overall visual look of a movie. It covers the film’s required location, backdrop, props, wardrobe and even the actors’ makeup. Most producers don’t bother much with the nitty-gritty requirements of production design because that could eat up a huge chunk of the film’s budget. It also requires time-consuming research, especially for period movies.

     The level of production design was so low in the film production’s hierarchy that – for the longest time – the FAMAS recognized this creative effort under the category of best art direction. That practically reduced the production designer’s contributions to mere set construction and the selection of props and wardrobe.     

     The production designer’s responsibility is actually huge in any film project. His role is so important that he is called early on during the pre-production stage to help determine the film’s texture and look and that is achieved through a collaborative effort with the director, screenwriter, and cinematographer. 

     The Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino elevated the status of the production designer when it introduced the best production design category in its very first awards race in 1976.

     But even if production design was previously never given the importance it deserved, there were still some practitioners who soldiered on and came up with some of the finest works in Philippine cinema. One of them was Fiel Zabat, this year’s recipient of the Natatanging Gawad Urian for Production Design.

    A lover of film, Fiel had her fill of Hollywood movies even as a child. Among her favorites were the musicals of Leslie Caron and Cyd Charisse. Oh, she was also a big fan of Gloria Romero and Susan Roces – and, later, Nora Aunor. 

     The convoluted plots of local melodramas, however, were no match to the twists and turns of her family’s genealogy, particularly on her father’s side.

     The Zabats here in the Philippines originated from Greek migrants who eventually settled in Gapan, Nueva Ecija. A very talented family, the Zabats in 1820 formed their own orchestra, which is still active today with 80 band members. The musical group, in fact, sends scholars to the UP Conservatory of Music and continues to maintain the Zabat Museum that contains old and new musical instruments and literature about the band.  

     During the so-called peace time (sometimes spelled “pistaym”) – that period of prosperity and quiet before the Japanese Occupation – the family Zabat went to Japan to perform in various night clubs. They stayed there long enough for Fiel’s father, Vicente, to complete his medical studies at the Tokyo Imperial University.

     In Yokohama, Vicente met and fell in love with a Japanese girl named Hideko Matsukawa. This union produced two children: Rafael and Lina.

     During the last quarter of 1941, Dr. Vicente Zabat moved his young family to the Philippines – not knowing that the impending war would forever change their lives. When the Pacific War finally broke out, Japanese civilians living in the Philippines were ordered by their emperor to return to their native land. Hideko took the first boat back home – leaving behind her two children in their father’s care. She was reunited with them only after 34 years.

     Vicente would eventually join the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) and at one point was stationed in Quezon Province – when it was still called Tayabas. In one hospital in Lopez town, Vicente met Fiel’s mother, Nellie Corrales, who was a registered nurse.

     Nellie was not really from Quezon. She was from Ilocos Sur and was once crowned Miss Narvacan. One of her relatives was former Miss Universe bet, Mary Ann Corrales, who was in turn a cousin to the famous singer Pilita.

     Fiel never had the chance to trace her family’s link to Asia’s Queen of Song and is not even inclined to presume that they are related, especially since Pilita is from Cebu, while her mother was Ilocana. Nellie just happened to be in what is now Quezon Province only because that was where she was assigned during the war years. Little did she know that it was there where she would meet her future husband.

     Vicente and Nellie wed in 1944. They had five children between them.

     During the post-war years, Vicente built a house for his wife and the children from the two unions in the less flood-prone side of Basilio Street in the Sampaloc district. Fiel finished elementary and high school at the Far Eastern University. 

     Growing up, Fiel’s artistic inclination was nurtured by her half-brother Rafael, who did portraits in pencil. When she reached college, she wanted to please her parents by taking up medicine, except that she could never stand the sight of blood. She went to the University of the Philippines instead and majored in advertising and editorial design at the then combined colleges of Fine Arts and Architecture. The famed cartoonist Larry Alcala was among her favorite professors. 

     For her on-the-job training, Fiel went to ABS-CBN, which eventually absorbed her after she finished college. One of her early assignments there was to create miniatures for Studio City, an entire village set-up constructed in what later became the present sight of the Eugenio Lopez Jr. or ELJ Building.

     Patterned after the studio lots in Hollywood, Studio City was a community of houses and shops, except that those structures were all just facade. ABS-CBN was able to use it as the setting for a late morning soap opera, but only for a very brief period. It was completely destroyed by Typhoon Yoling in 1970.

     Still at ABS-CBN, Fiel trained under some of the best directors in Philippine television: Fritz Infante, Freddie Cochran, Al Quinn, and Mitos Villarreal.  Her creativity was recognized early in her career by the local television industry:  At the very prestigious CAT Awards (Citizens Award for Television), she won the trophy for the most outstanding graphic design for TV in 1971. This was for her work in Jeanne Young’s musical show, That Young Image. 

     After ABS-CBN was shut down during martial law, she found employment as set designer in some of the networks that were eventually allowed to reopen by the Marcos administration. For a time, she worked in Aawitan Kita, the award-winning musical show of  Armida Siguion-Reyna.

     By 1975, Lino Brocka had become the most respected name in entertainment – thanks to the critical and commercial success of Tinimbang Ka Nguni’t Kulang and Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag. Fiel had become friends with the great director because Brocka often borrowed props from her for his TV anthologies Hilda and Lino Brocka Presents.

     In 1976, Brocka began work on Lunes, Martes, Miyerkules, Huwebes, Biyernes, Sabado, Linggo. At the start of pre-production, Brocka began to panic because no one among the production designers he regularly used for his movies was available. Soxie Topacio and Bobby Bautista were tied up with other projects, while Benjie Asuncion was in America. It was at this point that Brocka offered the job to Fiel.

     Lunes, Martes … is a drama about the lives of different nightclub performers as portrayed by Lolita Rodriguez, Mitch Valdes, June Keithley, Laurice Guillen and Lorli Villanueva. Set in Olongapo, the entire filming was finished in three weeks. The pacing of the production had to be quick since they could only shoot at night when there were actual customers at the club that they used as the main setting of the story. “Sometimes, drunk American soldiers would get rowdy and that would disrupt filming,” recalls Fiel.

     Receiving a talent fee of P3,000, an amount substantial enough in those days, her biggest challenge in the film was dressing up a night club stage that was a far cry from those swanky joints in Paris that showed Moulin Rouge. “The look was supposed to conform to what the nightclub actually earned at the end of the day. It can’t have the Hollywood influence,” points out Fiel.

     Dressing up the actors was no easy feat either. With the help of fashion designer Rikki Jimenez (who two years earlier had discovered Charo Santos), Fiel was able to make the female cast members look like cheap nightclub hostesses in their costumes that screamed of kitsch. 

     For this initial foray into film, Fiel got nominated in the 1976 Gawad Urian. She actually earned two Urian nominations that year because the Manunuri members also gave her the thumbs up for her second movie project, Brocka’s Insiang.

     Set in the slums, Insiang was originally written as a teleplay for Hilda Koronel’s weekly drama anthology, Hilda. As the lead character Insiang, Hilda was supported by Ruel Vernal as the brutish Dado, Joseph Sytangco as Insiang’s weakling boyfriend Bebot and Yolanda Luna as the heroine’s mother, Tonya. (Trivia: Yolanda Luna was the baptismal godmother of one of the Manunuri founding members, the late Mario Hernando.)

     For its transition to the big screen, major changes were made – beginning with casting. Sytangco had to be replaced because he looked too well-scrubbed to be living in squalor. While he was able to get away with that on TV, his college boy clean look would have been magnified on the big screen. His role was taken over by Rez Cortez, who was then being built up as a male sex symbol.

     The casting of Tonya was crucial since the character had been expanded into a lead part by screenwriters Mario O’Hara and Lamberto Antonio. To play Tonya, Brocka was determined to get Mona Lisa.

     Brocka was actually instrumental in drawing Mona Lisa out of retirement. In 1974, he had, in fact, sent an emissary – the movie writer Billy Balbastro – to the actress’ Cavite home to offer her a part in Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa. But no thanks to a major foul-up in communication, Mona Lisa ended up instead on the set of Joey Gosiengfiao’s Paloma, Ang Kalapating Ligaw. Two years later, Brocka finally fulfilled his dream of working with the pre-war and post-liberation actress.

     Satisfied with his casting, Brocka’s next concern was finding the perfect location as dictated by the film’s gritty material. Insiang’s TV version was shot within the confines of a studio – given the limited access to Outside Broadcast or OB vans in those days.

     For the big screen adaptation, Fiel and her team initially looked around Navotas, but were unable to find a neighborhood squalid enough to fit the story’s requirements. But in the very bowels of Tondo – in Smokey Mountain – they saw a spot that could be used to film the part where Rez Cortez is beaten to a pulp by Ruel Vernal and his gang.

     It was also in Tondo – in Barrio Magsaysay –  where they ended up doing their principal photography. Five years before Insiang was shot there, Barrio Magsaysay figured in the news after His Holiness, Pope Paul VI, went to the place to visit a shanty occupied by the impoverished Navarro couple  – Carlos and Elena. That humble home was razed to the ground five months later when a conflagration ate up practically the entire squatter community.

     By the time Fiel and the rest of the production crew scoured the area in 1976, the number of illegal settlers in Barrio Magsaysay had already doubled, perhaps even tripled  – providing the perfect setting for Insiang. 

      Off one of the tributaries that flowed out into Manila Bay, they hit the jackpot when they discovered a small fish landing – a “tambakan ng isda” in fish monger’s term – that could be used to build the shanty where much of the story takes place.

     That fish landing was just a protruded wooden platform that had rusty corrugated roofing and was open on all sides. It was Fiel’s job to make it look like a house – more of a hovel, really. She achieved this by using second hand lumber purchased cheap from a tableria in Tondo. From those scraps of wood, she was able to make detachable walls that could be removed at any time for camera placement. This allowed cinematographer Conrado Baltazar to have depth in his camera shots. Fiel even had ledges built around the platform to allow the cinematographer to position the camera at any desired angle.

     One important piece of prop used in the film was the flat iron that figured prominently in the highly-charged dramatic confrontation between Hilda and Mona Lisa. It was actually a de uling (charcoal) type that was then still being sold in Central Market. Buying one, however, went against any production designer’s favorite mantra: beg, steal or borrow.

     Fortunately for Fiel, her grandmother Maria Corrales, kept her de uling plancha despite having long switched to the more manageable electric flat iron. Fiel brought that to the set every day – along with her lola’s ironing board. 

     Local film chroniclers insist that Insiang was shot only in seven days. Fiel wants to correct that misinformation. She claims that the actual filming extended to 16 days because of additional scenes.

     Working on Insiang also proved to be a crash course for her on how to put texture on film as a production designer. It is the “magaspang” or rough feel in this case – as taught to him by Brocka, whose favorite film topic was the slum life.

     Fiel recognizes Brocka as one of her early mentors. In time, they also became very good friends. On many occasions, Brocka would spend nights at the Zabat home in Sampaloc to avoid curfew hours (this was during martial law). And since he was very familiar with the Zabat residence, Brocka decided to use it for Ang Tatay Kong Nanay.

     Ang Tatay Kong Nanay is the story of a gay beautician (Dolphy) who is left to care for the child (Nino Muhlach) of his ex-lover (Phillip Salvador). In the story, the Dolphy character, Coring, lives in an apartment in the heart of the city.

     Brocka felt that the Zabat house could pass for Coring’s house. While it is not an apartment, it could be made to look like one. The trick was simple, says Fiel. To make the place look tiny and cramped, the cinematographer Joe Batac always had his shots to the right. That sure fooled the moviegoers who never suspected that the film was actually shot in a single-detached home that stood on a 150-square meter lot.

     The production crew could have used an actual apartment, but that would have made it difficult for the cinematographer to move around with his camera. Besides, the rest of the Zabat home didn’t exactly lay idle during the shoot. It was used as holding area for the cast members and the usual hangers-on ever present in any film production.

      Ang Tatay Kong Nanay was relatively easy to mount compared to her first period film, Boy Pana, an action movie produced by Regal Films. The biggest challenge for Fiel in Boy Pana was dressing up the actors (extras included) in 1960s attire. Since there was a dance hall scene, a lot of people had to be costumed in Hawaiian shirts, a style that stayed quite long in the fashion scene. 

     Fortunately for her, the thrift stores in Bambang in Sta. Cruz, Manila were already operational then – “pero halos bagong sibol pa lang,” quips Fiel. It was the fashion designer Ernest Santiago (Santiago de Manila to his upscale clientele) who tipped her off about those rows and rows of shops in Bambang that sold vintage costumes. Hawaiian shirts were aplenty at P5 apiece.

     Boy Pana’s budget for costumes and props was an incredibly low P3,000. Producer Lily Monteverde was thrilled no end.

     Even better news came around during awards season: Boy Pana earned a lot of Urian nominations (Chanda Romero won best supporting actress) – including one for Fiel for best production design. This prompted Ms. Monteverde to go around telling everyone in her broken Tagalog: “Buti pa Fiel, sa P3,000 budget, may nomination pa.” That statement by Ms. Monteverde embarrassed Fiel no end, especially when uttered within earshot of other production designers.

     Boy Pana turned out to be a mere dress rehearsal for a bigger period film she was tasked to do in 1979: High School Circa ‘65, which was about school life in the 1960s.  This was a more complicated project to accomplish since it required a lot of attention to details – beginning with location.

     For one, they had to be careful with the houses they were going to show in the film. “The architecture shouldn’t go beyond the 1960s. At dapat maingat na maingat ako sa bawa’t detalye ng mga bahay, including those jalousie windows kasi iba ang jalousie in the 1950s (all wooden) du’n sa jalousie in the 1960s (glass mostly),” volunteers Fiel.

     The houses used in High School Circa ‘65 were located in Kamuning and in the old section of San Juan – far off from Greenhills, which was called Barrio Mapuntod prior to its development in the 1970s. For the campus scenes, Kamuning Elementary School was used – although they were only able to shoot at night and on weekends when there were no classes.

     “Nahirapan ako sa lahat ng mga projects ko, but High School Circa ‘65 was particularly difficult because there had to be a lot of nuances all over, including those little items hanging on the wall that all had to be from the mid-1960s,” points out Fiel. “And it was no joke dressing up 250 students!”

     One scene that caused tension on the set was the junior-senior prom. Fiel dressed up a basketball court by using yards and yards of crepe paper that were popularly used as party decorations in the 1960s.

     After she was done setting up the place, it rained and she had to redo everything all over again. What pained her was the fact that the producers (from Agrix Films) reprimanded her even if she had no control over the weather.  All that hard work she put into High School Circa ‘65 eventually paid off: It won for Fiel her first Urian for best production design.

     A relatively easy and fun project for Fiel was Marilou Diaz Abaya’s Moral, a feminist film about four coeds from the State University. Since a large portion of the story took place at UP’s Diliman campus, shooting Moral was like a homecoming for Fiel.

     The film surely brought back a lot of memories. Some of the characters in the movie, for instance, were inspired by former UP students – like the one played by Anna Marin, a coed who got married young and kept getting pregnant, while working on her college degree.

     Cathy, the character portrayed by Gina Alajar, was loosely based on the life of Dexter Doria as a UP college student enrolled in liberal arts. Fiel and Dexter were campus friends. She remembers her modeling for couturier Dante Ramirez  during their UP days.

     Dexter’s bubbly personality became the peg for Gina as Cathy. Dexter, incidentally, has a short, but important role in Moral as the wife of Ernie Garcia, the lover of law student Sylvia – as played by Sandy Andolong.             

    The production design of Moral was not particularly difficult to mount for Fiel since the story is told in contemporary times (the early 1980s). She had to pay close attention, however, to the attire of the four principal characters. In most of the scenes, the actresses brought their own clothes, but these had to be submitted to Fiel prior to the shoot for better clothes coordination.

     The maternity dresses worn by Anna Marin, of course, had to be provided by the production. For Gina Alajar’s costumes, most of these were borrowed from Renee Salud. There was even a sequined gown in silver that had been previously worn by Melanie Marquez the night she was crowned Bb. Pilipinas- International.

     How the rather petite figure of Gina Alajar was able to fit into the gown of Melanie Marquez, who then stood at 5’9” (she later even grew taller to about six feet) was no fashion wonder, so claims Fiel. All she had to do was pull the skirt up and – with a little folding and pinning – adjusted it at the waist without necessarily altering the dress. The gown was returned to Renee Salud after the shoot in its original state.

     After Moral, Fiel was reunited with Abaya in one of her most challenging projects as a production designer: Karnal, a period film set in 1926. Written by Ricardo Lee, Karnal was based on a legal account published in the magazine Mr. & Ms. This true-to-life story happened in Bicol.

     Another director would have immediately dragged his crew to the south of Luzon because of the coconut plantations there that conjure images of sex and passion – what with all those coconut trees that supposedly represent phallic symbols. Little wonder Seiko Films shot most of its pictures in the Southern Tagalog region when sex in the movies was the trend in the 1990s.

     Abaya, however, envisioned a more picturesque setting for her film. She wanted it to look like an Amorsolo pastoral scene. So she went north with Fiel and together they saw the perfect location in the Zabat home province of Nueva Ecijia.

     For the house of Gusting (played by Vic Silayan), they found in the sleepy town of Jaen an ancestral home that turned out to be a property owned by a distant Zabat relative based abroad. Fiel lost no time contacting the long-lost relation to ask if the production could rent the house for the shoot. Once more, Fiel had to perform one of the most arduous tasks of a production designer: haggle to the lowest price negotiable. “Yes, kasama sa trabaho ng production designer ang tumawad,” laughs Fiel.

     A lot of research went into the production of Karnal. Fiel studied photographs of women from the past and had their dresses copied by Renee Salud. And since the lead character Puring (Cecille Castillo) was a city girl, she had to be clad in the Western footwear of the era – in this case, Mary Jane shoes that had straps and heels. To Fiel’s relief, those types of shoes were still sold in Carriedo up to the 1980s.

     Karnal is a period film truly rich in detail. In the movie, it isn’t enough that Castillo is shod in the correct footwear of the period. There is also a scene in the film where she is shown rubbing one foot with a piece of damp Japanese paper. According to Fiel, the order of the day then was for women to have clean feet – complemented by pinkish heels that could artificially be attained by using red coloring.

     To copy the hairstyle of the era, Fiel used a tenaza (more like a pincer), which was the hair curler of the pre-war period. It was used to create the soft wave in the hair of women from the 1920s till the 1940s. Fiel was lucky to have found the tenaza in the storeroom of the house they used for shooting.

     In Gapan, Fiel was thrilled to have discovered that one general merchandise store still carried aluminum mervin clips. She used those clips (also for curling) to vary the hairstyle of the female characters in the film.    

     For the ladies’ accessories, Fiel borrowed from her relatives in Gapan several pieces of antique gold filigree jewelry that were called sampaloc and camachile because of their respective shapes. Abaya also lent a tambourine gold necklace that once belonged to her mother, the former Felicitas Correa.

     As in any of her projects, Fiel always went for authenticity.  For the birth scene in Karnal, even the placenta that was thrown into the river was real – taken from a hospital in Cabanatuan. “Women in the rural areas gave birth near the river in the old days to be able to clean themselves at once,” volunteers Fiel.

     Sadly, Karnal was trounced by the inferior Kapag Kumalat ang Kamandag in the 1983 Metro Manila Film Festival. It lost in practically every category. The film did better in the Gawad Urian where it won the following awards: best actor (Phillip Salvador), best supporting actress (Charito Solis), best supporting actor (Vic Silayan), best cinematography (Manolo Abaya), best music (Ryan Cayabyab) and very deservedly, best production design for Fiel Zabat.

     Fiel proved to be the biggest winner in Karnal: She won the grand-slam – the second industry member to do so after Vilma Santos scored the same feat for Relasyon in 1982.

     By 1984, Fiel had already spent eight years of her life in the movies. She had already mastered by then the various intricacies of film-making, including how to avoid the usual pitfalls of production designers while working on a picture. According to Fiel, the biggest mistake any production designer can make is “allowing the actors to wear what they want.” She went through this predicament when she worked on the period film Alyas, Baby Tsina.

     The dutiful film practitioner she had always been, Fiel researched thoroughly on Baby Tsina’s material, written by Ricky Lee and directed by Marilou Abaya. Set in the late 1960s, it is the true story of a bar girl, who gets raped and is later put behind bars after getting implicated in a murder case. 

     Fiel had the chance to meet in person the real Baby Tsina (Evelyn Duave Ortega). Very chinita (thus the moniker), the woman was quite statuesque at 5’7”. “She also lent me her photo albums, which was why I knew the kind of clothes she wore,” shares Fiel. The woman had a tiny waistline, which must have been the reason why she was confident about wearing peek-a-boo dresses which were very much in fashion at her prime.

     Unfortunately, Vilma Santos, the actress portraying Baby Tsina, was reluctant to slip into those revealing peek-a-boo dresses. Vilma was 31 years old then, had already given birth and was no longer sporting her Burlesk Queen figure. Whatever little flab she had was guaranteed to show – what with those large holes on both sides of the dress.

     Vilma’s concern was valid and she wasn’t exactly being unreasonable. Playing the title role, she was the one who carried the weight of the film and needed all the confidence she could muster to be able to pull off the character. 

     During the production stage, there was a long struggle between the actress’ camp and Fiel as the production designer. Happily, they eventually reached a compromise: Flesh-colored nylon material cut out from stockings were sewn into those holes – thereby concealing the actress’ perceived body imperfections.

     Alyas, Baby Tsina was Fiel’s last project prior to joining her family in New York for good. Her parents had earlier migrated to the United States and Fiel had, in fact, been a green card-holder since 1981.

     While the country was in turmoil in 1986, Fiel was called back to the Philippines to do an epic film – The King and the Emperor (Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi), a joint project between the Philippine and Chinese governments. It was directed by Eddie Romero, along with his counterparts from China, Hsiao Lang and Wang Hsing Gang.       

  The King and the Emperor project started as a research done by Ambassador Narciso Ramos, the father of former Philippine President Fidel Ramos and Senator Leticia Shahani. In China, the older Ramos discovered a monument dedicated to a former king of Sulu. 

     Further research showed that before the colonization of the Philippines by Spain, the Sulu king, along with other pre-Hispanic leaders from the archipelago, traveled to China to meet with the emperor of the Ming dynasty. This was at a time when most Europeans still referred to China as Cathay. The movie starred Vic Vargas, Rosemarie Sonora, Dan Alvaro, Ruben Rustia, Isabel Rivas, Tanya Gomez and the first Manunuri chairman Nestor Torre. There was also a large assembly of Chinese actors, led by Xin-Gang Wang as the Emperor Zhu Di.

     Initial filming was done in some of the beaches of Batangas. To approximate the white sands of Sulu, the crew shot in Batangas’ Laiya Aplaya.  Another boat ride brought them to Laiya Napayong for the rougher white sands that they tried to pass off as the old Lingayen. To recreate the land and seascape of old Manila that had black sands, they went to the Catmon border of Batangas and Quezon.

    For the Muslim-inspired costumes, the production borrowed several pieces from the CCP, a few from choreographer Ramon Obusan and had the rest sewn  by Renee Salud. Fiel felt confident about her work in The King and the Emperor because the team was guided every step of the way by the Islamic Studies Center of the University of the Philippines.

     Fiel was able to join the China leg of filming – in Hanchuo, Suzhuo, Shanghai, Beijing and Inner Mongolia – but had to leave at the tail end of production because her re-entry permit to the US was about to expire. She made sure her costumes were all in place before turning over her responsibilities to her Chinese counterpart.  

    Back in America, she constantly pined for her job as production designer, except that she had no choice but to live in New York where most family members had settled. To make a living, she joined the retail industry. She initially worked for Macy’s and was assigned to the Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren brands. “Kahit anong ganda pa ng mga items mo, tindera ka pa din du’n,” Fiel laughs today. In the US, she grabbed the opportunity to go back to school and enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology for some refresher courses on design.

     She later also found a new career as a fashion model for the label Georgiou that specialized in executive dressing. The company pushed for multi-cultural diversity and Fiel was there as the Asian face.

    In 1990, Fiel underwent a gender reassignment and had since become legally a woman. Since Fiel is a Spanish word that means faithful, it has no gender. There was no need therefore for Fiel to change her name. But she had to add Corrales because the US requires its citizens to carry a second name to avoid confusion in the phone book.    

     Fiel returned to the Philippines in 1992 to accompany her parents. On her second day in Manila – in the old Sampaloc home –  a script was sent to her by producer Ben Yalung who wanted her to be the production designer for the religious film Divine Mercy sa Buhay ni Sister Faustina. This is a dramatization of the life of the Polish visionary in the Divine Mercy apparition.  Donita Rose was tapped to play Sister Faustina Kowalska.            

     The story of the Divine Mercy happened in Poland before the Second World War. Since there was no budget to fly people to Europe, the crew filmed mainly in an old convent in Tagaytay, at the Christ the King Seminary along E. Rodriguez and in the interiors of the San Sebastian Church for Sister Faustina’s wedding to Christ.  

     For the nuns’ habits, a sastre (tailor) from Project 7 was brought in to do the sewing. The lead star, Donita Rose, made the job easier for the production team by applying her own makeup – but still under Fiel’s guidance.    

      After Sister Faustina, Fiel returned to the US because her mother suffered a series of strokes due to the tropical heat and had to be flown back to New York where the old woman’s doctors were based. And so back to retail business she went. She worked for Bergdorf, where she handled accessories like scarves and jewelries and, later, at Bloomingdales where she was put in charge of the Fendi and Ralph Lauren labels. 

     In 2000, Fiel gladly accepted the offer to do the production design of American Adobo, which used New York as its principal location. According to Fiel, American Adobo was only one of the very few film productions that was allowed by the city of New York to shoot in the Queensboro Bridge (the others were Conspiracy Theory and Contagion).

     In 2014, Fiel made a comeback in the movies via Janice O’Hara’s Sundalong Kanin, a war film set in 1941. Shot in various locations in Batangas, it bagged the Audience Award in that year’s Cinemalaya. 

     Fiel describes herself today as “happily retired.” Her last job was for Chanel where she was a sales specialist.

     Her interest in film though has yet to wane and she finds an outlet for this passion by taking part in Sinehan sa Summer, an annual exhibition of Filipino films in the Big Apple. Sponsored by the Philippine consulate in New York, Sinehan sa Summer was a project started by film enthusiasts Vincent Nebrida and Gil Quito.

     Fiel therefore gets to watch some of the latest local movies and among her recent favorites are Peque Gallaga’s Sonata and Jerrold Tarog’s Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral. She is particularly impressed with the production design of Roy Lachica in Goyo, a period film about Gregorio del Pilar. It is set during the Fil-American war.

     Without necessarily putting down the work of Lachica, who does a truly impressive job in Goyo, the production designers of today have it easier – thanks to advancement in technology. The decorations on the uniform of a military official, for instance, may now be added digitally during the post-production phase. Even the tenazas and mervin clips that were difficult to procure when Karnal was being filmed in 1983 are now available in Lazada – with upgraded functions at that.

     And unlike the time when Fiel brought with her less than a dozen assistants to the Olongapo set of Lunes, Martes, production designers these days have an army of people working under them in every film project. Movie stars today, in fact, have their own individual stylists.

     To top it all, the going rate of some production designers of this generation may run up to P600,000 per project. They never really had it so good: Fantastic pay for relatively lighter work – thanks mostly to the internet that aids them in research.  

     But when Fiel used to work in the movies, she functioned as the hairdresser, seamstress, lavandera (she sometimes washed the costumes herself), planchadora and even carpenter. “Today, isang batalyon ang tauhan ng production designer,” marvels Fiel. “But during my time, the production designer was the mother of the year!”

     Despite the changing times, however, the basic rules on how to come up with correct, accurate and creative production design remains the same. “Everything starts with reading and studying the script,” says Fiel. “Research is very important, especially when doing period movies.”

     Fiel insists that a production designer has to be like an actor who knows how to immerse himself into the role. In her case, she studied each and every character in the story of all the projects she did so that she’d know how to dress them up.

     According to Fiel, a production designer also needs to understand the psychology of colors. “If you want your female character to look ultra-rich, dress her up in beige. Her attire shouldn’t look too busy.”

      She says that it is very important for the director “to trust and have faith in you.” This applies not only in the creative process, but also when handling finances. “For example, alam ni Lino na matipid ako,” states Fiel. “At dapat, marunong kang mag-sauli ng sukli,” notes Fiel, “because budget is always the eternal problem in every production.”

     Fiel may have only spent a decade working as a production designer in the movies, but she was prolific in all those years – with each of her output noteworthy.

     In this year’s Gawad Urian, Fiel makes cinema history by being the first recipient of the Natatanging Gawad Urian for Production Design. Although the late Peque Gallaga, who was also an acclaimed production designer,  had been accorded the same lifetime achievement award in 2008, he was honored primarily for his work as a film director.

     Every year, all the local award-giving bodies hand out trophies for best production design. But to be recognized for a lifetime of work? Most likely, this is the first time this is happening – as most awards organizations are inclined to stick to glamour by paying homage mainly to actors.

     But the contributions of people behind the camera like Fiel Zabat can no longer be ignored. Fiel valiantly carried on with her tasks at a time when the industry paid little attention to production design. 

     From her end, the works she did on the big screen made the scenes pretty. Or ugly – as need be. But every object or image in her film works reflects real life, which is how cinema as an art form should be like.


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High School Circa ‘65


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The King and the Emperor

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Sundalong Kanin

American Adobo

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