Monday, April 22, 2013

S is for Cirio Santiago, No Better Than He Had to Be

One of Roger Corman’s last films for American International Pictures was something called Gas-s-s-s! So you can see that Roger definitely likes the letter S. In thinking back through the cast of characters of the Roger Corman world for the A to Z Challenge, I came up with plenty of S names: like actor William Shatner, director Katt Shea, and the marvelous poster artist John Solie. Then there’s Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest directors to have emerged from the Corman stable. Not to mention Alex Stapleton, whose recent Corman documentary I am happy to say was inspired by my book, Roger Corman:Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers.

But I’ll go with none of the above. Not when Cirio Santiago is waiting to get his due. Cirio hailed from Manila, where he followed in the footsteps of his filmmaker father, who had founded Premiere Productions in 1946. It was not long before Cirio had created his own film empire, specializing in English-language action films shot in the Philippines. Of course  Roger Corman soon got wind of Cirio’s talent for making do with little, and soon Cirio was producing (and sometimes directing) New World women-in-prison and blaxploitation flicks. Like The Big Bird Cage! And Fly Me! And who can forget TNT Jackson?  As tastes changed, Cirio’s projects did too, encompassing Mad-Max-type apocalyptic sagas and a whole raft of war dramas in which the Philippines stood in for Vietnam. (I have a screenplay credit on one of the latter, Beyond the Call of Duty.) The Roger and Cirio connection ebbed and flowed, but at one time, when animated films were all the rage, there was even talk of setting up an animation studio in Manila under Cirio’s auspices.

When Cirio visited the Corman headquarters, we were always happy to see him. He was an affable fellow, quick with a joke, and he sometimes brought little gifts for the office staff. But I’m glad I never worked on a Cirio set. As a director he got bored easily, and would sometimes walk off mid-scene in order to go play golf. More seriously, he had a cavalier attitude toward danger. He had easy access to the Philippine Army for battle scenes, and real weapons (modified to shoot blanks) were used with casual enthusiasm. Clark Henderson, who was there, remembers how “they would fire guns up in the air to make the crickets stop.  Guns all over the place, everywhere you went.”

Though the Filipino stuntmen were fearless, they couldn’t be used to double tall American actors, which is why Corman stalwart Rick Dean shattered his collarbone on a Cirio set, after riding a motorcycle through fire and then jumping fifteen feet in the air. Still, Rick called Cirio “a great man,” noting with approval his treatment of actors who think too highly of themselves. One leading man kept demanding retakes of a scene because he wasn’t satisfied.  Cirio reshot the scene multiple times, “but there was no film in the camera.  Cirio was just sittin’ there smiling and laughing hysterically.”

Cirio survived various changes of political leadership in the Philippines with grace. We worried about him when President Marcos was ousted, but he popped up next as the Minister of Film in the new Aquino government. He seemed unsinkable—until lung cancer got him in 2008. Here’s Jim Wynorski’s off-the-cuff tribute: “I loved Cirio personally.  But I never saw a Cirio film I could actually watch.”  


  1. Great article! I've never found any Santiago film boring. They were always filled with shootouts, explosions, multiple squibs, karate fights, and scarred villains. You could always tell the actors were sweating like crazy and exhausted, but having fun as always. Cirio's trademark dolly camera shots are missed greatly. His 'Nam War movies are very underrated and deserve a second look.

  2. Thanks for your appreciative comment, Eric. There are lots more Cirio stories out there, and someday I'll get to tell more of them.

  3. A fantastic overview of a filmmaker whose work is never fairly judged. Mr. Wynorski's line is funny, but I'm with Eric - Mr. Santiago's films were always a tonic for an action junkie looking for a cinematic hit - plenty of action and stunts - and never too taxing on the brainpan. I will be waiting with breathless anticipation for more Cirio Santiago stories, Ms. G!

  4. I think I've got a good one, but now's not the time. Do remind me, Mr. C.