When director Dan Villegas and I brainstormed on what was to become Ilawod, we had no idea that we were going to create what is essentially a coming-of-age film. Dan wanted to work on the theme of possession because it was so rarely done in Philippine cinema. At first, he wanted the film to revolve around demonic possession, like in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, though I’m glad that didn’t push through because apparently, as I learned from Richard Somes (who directed Yanggaw, my favorite Filipino horror film), movies that deal with demonic possession have been thought to be cursed.
Aside from weird goings-on on set that seem to be the norm not just for horror films but for film production in general, the curse also took lives. The last victim was Julie Vega, who passed away in 1985 from Landry’s Paralysis. Despite this scientific reason, her cause of death has become the stuff of urban legend. One of these is the belief that her death was caused by her starring as a girl possessed by a demon in Lovingly Yours, Helen: The Movie, her last film before she passed away. Even Hollywood has its own share of stories like this. Whether you believe in such things or not, sometimes it’s best to let other people take that chance.
Back to my story. At the end of the brainstorming session, Dan and I had agreed on a story. It was to revolve around a family plagued by an elemental. But what elemental?
People who are familiar with my work know that a lot of my stories revolve around bodies of water. “Sidhi” and “The Child Abandoned” take place along the Pasig River, “The Bridge” involves the San Juanico Strait, and “Stars” happens on Balicasag Island in Bohol. The Philippines is an archipelago, so it’s easy to imagine water elementals everywhere. Water is beguiling because we need it to live, but it can also take lives.
Once we had our elemental, we needed a name. It was director Antoinette Jadaone, who is also Dan’s girlfriend, who suggested “ilawod,” which means downstream in Tagalog (it means other things in other Philippine languages) and is the opposite of the more familiar “ilaya,” or upstream. We had never heard the word before, but it intrigued us because it played perfectly into our analogy of water as a force of life and death: if you can swim upstream (or preferrably, to the riverbank), you live; if you are swept downstream, you die.
And so we reached a happy compromise: we had a story of possession, and it didn’t involve an actual demon. No curses for us, thank you very much!