Sister Stella L: Behind The Scene

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The idea of doing a film about an activist nun occurred to director Mike De Leon in 1982 while he was thinking of a possible story material for a Vilma Santos starrer at the suggestion of Marichu Maceda, producer of his critically-acclaimed Batch’ 81. Mike’s production company, Cinema Artists Philippines, was then applying for a loan from the Film Fund where Marichu was then administrator. “I can’t remember why I chose the subject,” said the 34-year old scion of the moviemaking family behind LVN in an interview with a Sunday magazine. “I’ve been hearing about nuns who are politically involved for sometime although I did not really know anything about them.” When Mike learned that an associate of noted screenwriter Pete Lacaba had a story idea entitled Sangandaan (about a nun who gets involved in the problem of agrarian arrest), he saw it as a good starting point for the movie project. Marichu, however, suggested some changes. “Why don’t you make the setting urban to make it more commercial?” She reportedly told Mike and Pete, pointing out the movie going public has difficulty accepting Vilma Santos in rural milieu. The change in the story setting thus explains how Stella L. came to deal with urban labor problem. A less explosive issue than the original theme. Stella L. touched on the labor issue but it focused more on Vilma as cloistered nun who awakens to the need for involvement in matters less personal than the psychological problems of her wards in Caritas, a home for unwed mothers run by her congregation. An elder nun (played by Laurice Guillen) guides her in the development of her new commitment until she is fully involved with the more pressing problems of workers staging a strike in a city-based cooking oil factory. This involvement results in conflict between her and her superiors and exposes her to the dangers not found within the convent walls. Her commitment, however, is so strong that when the elder nun leaves for larger concerns, Sister Stella L. takes her role in the strike. In the process, she finds an unexpected ally in her former boyfriend journalist Nick Fajardo.

In December 1982, the loan was approved and part of the 800,000.00 Mike gave to Vilma as down payment. Meanwhile, events taking place in the local political scene that time started having distinct parallelisms with the themes being dealt with in the movie: press freedom, labor unrest and religious involvement. The Film Fund backtracked. “It’s dangerous to continue with it,” a top official of ECP was said to have forewarned Mike in late 1983. By then, the director was about ready to start shooting: the cast had been line-up, contracts had been signed (Joseph Sytangco and Chanda Romero were originally tapped to play the militant journalist Nick Fajardo and Sister Stella B, respectively). Mike was asked to re-write Stella L. and turn it to a love story. But the director was firm he turn down the overtures. As events would have it, Stella L. was shelved. The director looked for anyone who might be interested in buying Vilma’s contract. So he could pay back the Film Fund. He tried Viva films, which asked him instead to direct the “political” film, “Ang Imbestigasyon Ni Juan San Diego.” For sometime, it seemed that Mike had totally forgotten Stella L. when he immersed himself in the production of Juan Diego – that is until Viva suddenly dropped the project. In the meantime, Regal Films’ Lily Monteverde had been sending feelers to Mike to work for her movie outfit through several intermediaries. In August 1983, after the dumping of Juan Diego and the Aquino assassination, Lily repeated her offer to Mike. He could do whatever he wanted, she said, as long as casting is left to her discretion. As things turned out, Mike told her all about Stella L. and Lily, obviously impressed with its possibilities, agreed to bankroll the film. Mike was totally surprised to Lily’s decision since he had warned her about the controversy the film may create. The only demand Regal made concerned casting, particularly the choice of Joseph and Chanda. Lily wanted Joel Torre to play the male lead role. The idea, however, had to be dropped when the revision of the script based on Joel proved unwieldy. The director reckoned that Joel, who was supposed to play a campus writer-activist, was too young to be Vilma’s leading man. The role of Nick Fajardo, the ex-boyfriend of Sister Stella L eventually went to Jay Ilagan.

The film was finally shown amidst controversy. In a public gathering, a top government official denounced it as “negative” and admitted that the government was wary of it’s possible influence in the movie going masses. The official has gone on record as saying “we were apprehensive that it may further agitate the people…so they kept on telling the President not to approve the film but the President said, ’No, let it be!’,” The censors board apparently followed the presidential direction and approved the film without cuts and for general patronage. The producers were said to have been bitter over Stella L disappointing box office performance, losing as it did to the immensely popular Sharon Cuneta rags to riches starrer “Bukas Lulohid Ang Mga Tala,” but they can content themselves with the fact that the movie has been unanimously acclaimed as a milestone in the history of filmmaking. – Alan Trambulo. Published at V magazine Issue No. 7 Literary Issue April 2005

RELATED READING: MIKE DE LEON: DIRECTOR OF THE MOMENT (Movie Flash, July 19, 1984)

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