Elephant in the Room

By Mara Coson

“He’s given Marlon Brando his jungle, Tom Cruise his Vietnam, Mel Gibson his Indonesia, and Claire Danes her prison nightmare. Jun Juban has turned the Philippines into every country except itself—until now”

IN THE 1989 FILM Born on the fourth of July, Tom Cruise and Willem Dafoe play veteran soldiers in wheelchairs quarrelling in the Mexican desert.  “You never fought that war, you weren’t even there, man!” Dafoe shouts at Cruise.  “The fuck you mean I wasn’t there, man?” Cruise yells back.  The characters may have been talking about the Vietnam War – but the accusations weren’t unfounded: the two actors weren’t in the MEXICAN Desert, they were in Ilocos Norte.
            “The Philippines has been the chameleon of sorts.” Explains line producer Lopezinio “Jun” Juban, Jr. who, for over three decades, has been the location wingman of Hollywood to the Philippine territory – or at least, territory that the Philippines can duplicate. “In Born on the Fourth of July, we were Vietnam and we were Mexico”.
            Award-winning director Oliver Stone calls him his “Far Eastern Secret.” When Stone won the Oscar for Best Director for Born on the Fourth of July, Juban recalls, “We got a deluge of phone calls, then all of a sudden we have another coup d état.” Maneuvering  through unpredictable political environments to house circus after circus of a big budget Hollywood films, Juban is himself like a war veteran Juban’s production house duplicates places like Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Columbia without anyone noticing a thing. Imagine trying ti tame the mess of the Philippine in order for the crew to shoot a more idyllic Hollywood-grade-setting-giving green lights through shooting permits, recruiting local film crews, and even sourcing pillows so that A-list celebrities have a good night’s rest.
            The family business started with Juban’s father, a military man who started out by renting military equipment to film studios,, eventually setting-up a movie gun rental company specializing in supplying blanks that would end up being fired by Fernando Poe Jr. Soon, Hollywood wanted to try their hand with a number of war films wanting to be made.
            During the filming of Francis Ford Coppola’s war epic Apocalypse Now, Juban was a young man tailing beside his brother, Dennis, who had run the show. “He told me, if Coppola were to ask for a “pink elephant,” you shout ‘coming!’ and we’d figure it out later.”
            The real pressure started when, in 1979, his older brother went location scouting with an American director and a British producer, and their helicopter crashed, killing his brother and leaving a “spoiled brat” that no one expected to take over to run the family business. “It was a challenge. I knew I had a backing of our crew, but at the age you’ve got nothing to lose – that’s what I always tell my kids – might as well make mistakes when you’re young.”
Which luck and daring, he proved himself with his work for director Peter Werner in Don’t Cry, It’s Only Thunder. “The success of (that) first war film led him onto more projects, including Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon, a few Chuck Norris films, twelve of 24 Survivor franchises from India to Denmark, and most recently, the recently released summer blockbuster, The Bourne Legacy.
            And most of the time, like telling Coppola that the pink elephant is “coming.” Juban does get things done. “The closure of Ramon Magsaysay Avenue for Bourne was one hell of a feat.”Juban looks back. A few weeks from shooting, the Bourne producers changed from their back street location to orchestrate a much grander and longer motorcycle scene, eyeing Ramon Magsaysay Avenue. The problem was that it was presidential route and that it was a busy road about a mile and a half long with four intersections. “They asked me, ‘Is it possible?’ and I said ‘Wow.”” But Juban plowed through, and brought back an approval from the Office of the President. “You always have to stand your ground, being the local guy. They have to believe you when you tell them that ‘look, we will try’ or it cannot be done.”
             The Bourne Legacy cast and crew is known to have loved the Philippines so much that Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz and Tony Gilroy even made a special video for the premiere.
            Does Juban ever get starstruck? “I am but I cannot show it. I guess I developed it throughout the years, that I can look at them straight in the eye and never blink.”He attributes this poker face to the level of trust and professionalism necessary on set.
            “Sometimes, the bigger ones are the ones that are grounded,” he notes, when prodded about his experiences with celebrities. “The ones who are up and coming, ‘yun ang kung minsan problematic.’
            When we think of celebrity experiences in the Philippines, we think of Claire Danes, who was banned, from the Philippines after saying in an interview that the Philippines “smelled cockroaches, with rats all over and that there is no sewerage systems, and the people do not have anything – no arms, no legs, no eyes.” Juban, who helped produce the 1999 Brokedown Palace starring Danes and Kate Beckinsale, once commented: “I cannot apologize for Ms. Dane’s acerbic tongue. I can only hope she chokes on it.”But he also believes the issue was blown out of proportion, that the unfavourable review was because EDSA had been impassable at the time, and that she was a shoot of a third world jail cell – of course there were cockroaches and failed sewerage: it was a set.
            Most actors and producers, on the other hand, are quite happy with their experiences. Kate Beckinsale, who ultimately became more popular than Danes, was very happy with the Philippines. Even Mel Gibson, whose wife had been pick-pocketed from a while shopping – all the security had been focused on Mel Gibson – shrugged the mishap off, saying that it could have happen anywhere. As the Bourne Legacy, Juban commented on how surprised he was that Rachel Weisz was so grounded. “I was telling her. ‘You know, if you have time, you can bring your kids to the Polo Club, you can even watch some polo games.’ She looked at me and she said, ‘Polo? ‘I’m not posh!”
            But it isn’t being tongue-tied in front of celebrities that Juban stays on his feet for, it is how tied his career has been to political stability. Measures need to be made, after all, to ensure all the “crazy” happens only within the film, with blank guns and special effects, and not by dictators and rioters outside of it. If a political film based in a country like Vietnam can’t be made, it can be made in the Philippines, and vice-versa. The Philippines got Year of the Living Dangerously instead of Indonesia because the film was about Sukarno regime (but since it was filmed in a Muslim compound, even actor Mel Gibson received death threats during filming). The Philippines lost Rambo when Ninoy Aquino was assassinated right before Stallone was about to give the location a final go-ahead.
             In the middle of producing the 1986 Vietnam War film Platoon, Marcos had fled the country a week before they were about to shoot. “That was crazy because the contracts and the permits that you had were done by the past regime. So overnight, you had to make sure that our contracts would be honoured. Fortunately, it was, or Platoon would not have been made at all.” When the film came back to Hollywood, it earned Stone multiple Academy and Golden Globe awards.
             When Juban filmed the six-hour HBO miniseries turned television film about the People Power Movement, A Dangerous Life, Juban and crew got sued out of the country. Someone had issued a temporary restraining order against them, forcing them to complete the film in Sri Lanka. “Can you just imagine, it’s about the Philippines and when we were doing the People Power scene I had in front of me a thousand Sri Lankans who instead shouting ‘Cory, Cory’ were shouting ‘Curry, Curry’?”
            While the Philippines was a popular location for Southeast Asian-based plots in the 80’s and the 90’s, we lost our polish due to political instability, Causing Thailand’s leapfrog as the new go-to. It is only now that we are re-entering the consciousness of Hollywood producers as a viable place – perhaps this time around, not merely a makeshift Vietnam fields but the Philippines as the Philippines.
            “If you film in Thailand, you see the temples. If you film in Bali – you see their roofs.” Juban laments that this is the weakness of the Philippines and something that he is working towards – so the Manila won’t be a place to duplicate other places, but be a place whose setting is itself. “You see McDonald’s signs – we’re too modernizing in a way – you don’t see the culture. So it’s really rare to use Manila as Manila.”
            But things are looking up. Following Bourne Legacy and two upcoming projects – one blockbuster and one reality show – the world will once again see Manila as Manila, and the Philippines as something else entirely. The pink elephants are coming.

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