(Early last April, the country got a good news—a rare occurrence these days—that Filipino actors Soliman Cruz, Bart Guingona and Noel Sto. Domingo have been cast in a movie, “To the North,” a psychological thriller co-production of producers from Romania, France, Bulgaria.
Coming during the pandemic which has left the arts and culture as one of the worst devastated sectors in the country, the news became a welcome celebration, more so because it became yet another confirmation that the Filipino artists are among the best in the world. They have always been and continue to be the nation’s pride.
The three actors are now filming in Romania.
With the readers of TheDiarist.ph, Guingona, the multi-awarded actor and director and the moving force behind a few leading theater companies in the Philippines, shares a bit of his European sojourn.—Editor)
After a week of intensive rehearsals in Bucharest with writer-director Mihai Mincan, we left for the coastal town of Constanta (pronounced “constantsa”) on March 29, 2021. The two-and-a-half hour trip showed us some of Romania’s countryside, flat and barren in the winter cold. Noel (Sto. Domingo) remarked in Tagalog, “Look at all that land! In the Philippines that would be turned into Camella Homes.”
Arriving on a freezing night, we checked in, exhausted, and went downstairs to the restaurant for, what else? Cold beer and vodka shots. We were served by a waiter, Don, who, recognizing Pinoys when he sees them, broke into Tagalog. Pinoys represent!
Before retiring to our rooms, we stepped out of our hotel onto the smoking patio to admire the full moon reflected on the Black Sea, which in the darkness of night actually looked inky black. Before finishing our cigarettes, trembling in the 2-degree cold, we retired into the comfort of the heated hotel.
It took daylight to reveal that this was a really small beach summer town, facing wide, empty stretches of sand by the Black Sea. We were told the beach, almost as wide as it is long, gets pretty crowded during the summer months. Hard to imagine. But now, everything was closed for the season. Turns out this was not Constanta, but a suburb thereof—Eforie Nord (pronounced “eforye”). The town was filled with empty summer homes, hotels closed for the season and shuttered shops: a suburban haven with little parks and strip malls. Think off-season Boracay multiplied by four (in size). I was told the season starts mid-May, during which time the place swarms with whole families, back-to-back with topless and bikini-clad summer revelers.
The town is also known for its spas and its summer rave parties, as well as Romanian vacationing families holding outdoor barbecues. We were in Eforie Nord for so long, this being the location of the majority of our shoot, that by the time we left, winter had bloomed into spring.
This location was selected by our producers because of its proximity to our shooting location. The location was the port, five minutes away by van, on which was docked our actual set: a de-commissioned ship named after the port city where it was built, “Mangalia.” We were briefed thoroughly about protocols, given hard hats and reflective vests to wear throughout the port area. After the safety protocols briefings (impressively thorough, touching on both maritime and COVID safety), we were toured around the vessel, shown our individual “cabins,” the make-up cabin, the costumes cabin.
One would still be impressed by the Art Nouveau structure overlooking the convergence of the Black Sea and the terminus of the Danube River
It was freezing inside the ship. Every surface you touched felt like the inside of a freezer. Thankfully we were provided with winter jackets to keep us warm while on the vessel, as well as portable heaters in each of our cabins (which also contained cots and blankets and a little work desk).
Already the ship was abuzz with activity. Crews were setting up generators, electrical outlets, lighting and camera equipment. Sol was going to be the first of us to work the next day. (More descriptions of the work in a later post.)
Wanting to take advantage of the free day, I invited Noel to take a trip with me to Constanta proper, which is about 20 minutes away by car.
Unfortunately for us the Casino, the beautiful Belle Epoque building at the edge of the city that dramatically overlooks the Black Sea—originally a gentleman’s club in the late 19th century, then converted into a war-time hospital in both world wars—was closed for repairs, and partially obscured by scaffolding and safety nets. Nevertheless one would still be impressed by the Art Nouveau structure overlooking the convergence of the Black Sea and the terminus of the Danube River.
Constanta, we learned, was an important Roman Empire city. The Roman poet Ovidius was exiled here, and fragments of Roman buildings—cornices, columns, steps—have been unearthed and are on display in an outdoor park museum. Noel, himself a poet of mean ability, was so thrilled that he hammed up a “tribute” pose to a statue of the poet in the main square.
The town itself has a main cobbled street lined with cafes connecting the boardwalk to the town center, with its collection of museums and official buildings housed in 19th century structures. It also has a large mosque some blocks away from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Back in Eforie Nord, I received a text from our 2nd assistant director Diana Molnea (whom we learned to affectionately call “Mudra”), saying Noel and I were to start work the next day.
The work itself was often grueling, just one or two scenes shot over an entire workday. There was camera repositioning to simulate shifting points of view, meticulous lighting, meticulous sound design and engineering, constant costume checks and make-up retouches, blocking rehearsals, line rehearsals, camera rehearsals.
After one particularly punishing nighttime of filming towards the latter part of the Constanta shoot, the production people went straight to the hotel’s restaurant patio, ordered beers, opened bottles of wine, and poured rum. It was 7 in the morning. We went outdoors in the early spring day, were regaled by songs from Don the Pinoy waiter (whose day-off it was), and celebrated spring (or maybe it was a celebration of having survived the difficult night) the way only movie workers can—with wild abandon. I was told the party lasted until 1 a.m. the following day. I wasn’t there; I had made my drunken French exit at 7:30 p.m.