By Bob Couttie

Goodbye America began with an idea by Producer Mike Sellers as far back a I can remember. We’d met on the set of Rage, a thump’n throttle movie starring Richard Norton, Karen Moncrieffe and Tetchy Agbayani in 1991. In those days he had his office in Examiner Street, Manila. I and another Scriptwriter, Michael Cassey, used to footle around on a couple of Mac Classics working out story lines and diving out onto the balcony to smoke – Mike’s office/house was a no-smoking zone.

I`d already acquired a track record with scripts for BBC Radio in the UK in the mid-1980s but hadn’t been able to segue into the relatively closed shops of TV and Film (Yeah, yeah, yeah – `We’re always looking for new scripts and new writers’, put that in the same file as `The cheque’s in the mail’, `Your mother’s cooking is great’, `Honest, it’s only a Cold Sore’ and `There will be no cover up’)

One result was an action adventure script called Undertow, which went into the archives.

Mike wanted to make a movie that would somehow appeal to an international audience and the domestic audience in the Philippines and say something about both cultures..

The problem was that US audiences in particular, neither knew nor cared about the Philippines, it isn’t perceived as exotic or `sexy’. So even Mike’s most basic concept didn’t get much applause in LA. Most of our efforts in the early days were based on hiding the Philippines.

In 1991, the Philippine senate voted against a treaty that would allow US military bases in the Philippines. The US had to withdraw its forces by November 24, 1992. One of the bases to go was at Subic Bay, 70km north of Manila, where the US Navy had its largest overseas facility for nearly a century.

Going to Subic

Time went on, Mike and I lost contact. I moved around Manila, he went on to make Fortunes of War with Matt SalingerMartin Sheen, the late Haing S. NgorMichael Ironside and Michael Noury. He set up in Subic in November 1992.

In late 1993 I broke my ankle practising a movie stunt – and got a dose of something that felt like typhoid fever, or it might have been Malaria. Out of the blue I got a message to contact Mike Sellers at Subic. So I picked up a phone and got a busy signal, again, again and again, because there were so few trunk lines to Subic. It took three days to make that call (Phone lines have improved dramatically since then).

Mike wanted me to work on a couple of scripts. He’d got together with an Australian ex-pat producer called McCormick, talked over some ideas with him and decided to recruit me to turn them into scripts..

I arrived in Olongapo city, which the ex-navy base is part of, on crutches, in December 1993 to find myself in a bare two storey house with my computer, a desk and a fold-up bed. Mike had opened a restaurant, the Hollywood Steakhouse at Binictican Valley Golf Course.

After several pages, rewrites and bottles of Tanduay White Rum, we realized that we’d come up with a pretty good script called Save America. It’s still wandering around LA getting good comments but no takers – although we’ve had offers for the title. McCormick disappeared off to LA and we never found out what happened to him.

Mike was still keen on his Filipino-American project and we batted around story ideas, even got down to a couple of draft scripts, but none of them really flew creatively, and the markets weren’t jumping up and down shouting `Gimme’..

We’re back in the movie business

In 1995, there was a blast from the past in the shape of Jose ‘Bibot’ Nolan, who worked for ABS-CBN, the largest entertainment company in the Philippines. When Mike was first making movies in the Philippines under the Pacwood banner, ABS-CBN was setting up its motion picture division, Star Cinema. He’d approached them with a proposal for a tie-up for international movies, but ABS-CBN wanted to get its domestic movie act together first.

Now ABS-CBN was ready and asking us to come and knock on the door. The next few days were feverish – we had to put together a presentation, budget, market proposals, the lot. Plus find a movie to make – we knew that the existing Filipino-American ideas weren’t going to work. Mike came up with a simple concept – take three young American servicemen and put them together with three beautiful Filipinas during the last days of the US presence at Subic.

In about a week we’d put together and rejected something like 13 storylines. We ended up with something we thought was workable, and we came up with a title. Federal Express had decided to set up its Asian hub at Subic and wanted its ex-pat executive and their wives to go through some orientation seminars. Nearly every caucasian in the Philippines has been approached with `Hello, Joe’ and as I was putting together one of the seminar units dealing with the US presence it seemed natural to call it `Goodbye, Joe’. That became Goodbye America for the movie.

We walked into the Quezon City HQ of ABS-CBN, which looks something like an ocean liner inside, and met with Eugenio Lopez lllCharo Santos-ConcioFred Garcis and virtually the entire top guns of the company. We weren’t the only ones pitching and we felt a long way down the food chain.

Later on we were to meet with one of ABS-CBN‘s producers, Malou Santos, who was to become one of the executive producers, and Olive Lamasan, a part of ABS-CBN‘s creative think tank and a well-rspecte director in her own right.

After we’d made our presentation, Eugenio Lopez said “Your’s is the most honest presentation we’ve had so far.”. While we were digesting that, he went on to say “We’ll do it.”. No ifs, buts or maybes. What we’d expected was `We’ll think about it’.

Here was the situation, Mike Sellers had been considered one of the `Big Three’ foreign picture producers in the country then, after Fortunes of War, he’d hit the doldrums. The mainstream film community had counted him out and there was a feeding frenzy of gossip, none of it complimentary. Now he was bouncing back in a partnership with the country’s biggest and most advanced entertainment company, with the biggest budget movie in the country’s history – and a project that had all the potential of being, in the Philippines, the biggest bang since Bikini Atoll.

ABS-CBN didn’t seem to think like anyone else in the Philippine movie industry. They understood our strengths and weaknesses as well as their own, they knew the limitations of what was being produced domestically and knew that the usual Filipino movie wouldn’t hack it overseas.

As a writer I had justifiable concerns. The last time I was involved in a Filipino movie with international pretensions was as an extra in a movie by a small outfit – and I’m not telling the name of the movie or the outfit. On the first page of script it had a bunch of off-duty US marines in a Hanoi bar after the end of the Vietnam war. What were described as `renegade Viet-Cong’ came into the bar to start trouble and one of the marines says ‘The war’s over, there’s an armistice, can’t we be friends…’

Mike and I went back down to the parking lot and climbed into his car. There was a second or two of silence Then he said “We’re back in the movie business”.

Writing The Script

The damn script just refused to get written. Going from the storyline onwards it became clear that the complexities of the plots were awesome. We put together a treatment and scene outline and met with Star Cinema’s people.

It soon became clear that they were placing themselves in our hands. We had virtually complete creative control – they trusted us. That was both great, and frightening. There was no room for a mess-up. And no room for failure. Star Cinema didn’t just want a movie that made money, they wanted a quality production with a meaningful story.

Goodbye America is as much about the divorce between two nations as the relationship between its characters. We wanted to give it an epic, panoramic quality. And it had to be culturally faithful – this couldn’t be just a couple of foreigners writing about Filipinos, we wanted the audience to learn something about Filipinos, to come of the theatre knowing more than when they went in. And we wanted Filipino audiences to see beyond the stereotype of the rich white American.

Ricky Lee came onto the team. Ricky Lee is a gentle, tiny man who’s round eyeglasses give him an owlish look. He’d worked with Mike before on a Tagalog language production called Umiyak Pati Langit (`Even Heaven Cries’, in non-Filipino markets it became `Tears of Heaven’). He’s got a string of awards and is probably the finest screenplay writer in the country.

Most writers in this business keep their cards close to their chest (The movie industry dictionary doesn’t start with A, it starts with R, for Rip-Off). I’ve known the Philippines for 15 years, I learned more about the Philippines from Ricky in 15 minutes. We thought we’d got pretty close, but Ricky zeroed in with laser-like precision on things we hadn’t covered – A US audience doesn’t care much about the family of their characters unless it’s a family movie, for Filipinos it’s a vital element in their understanding of the character.

I liked Ricky enormously, he’s a man who likes to share and to teach.

Finally, Mike and I had to write the script. Ricky’s workload – he’s on staff at Star Cinema – prevented him from having the time to work with us in full.

There was only one thing to do. Shut ourselves up and write. Mike got a couple of rooms at Heaven, the bar featured in Goodbye America, run by Anders, a Swedish guy you should meet if you ever get to that neck of the woods.

We worked a 24-hour, round the clock system. I’d write, starting at four or five am till 10 am or longer, on one of my least favourite machines, a Mac Powerbook. We were using Final Draft software for the script and at that time Final Draft wasn’t available for the PC. Then Mike would take over, work through what I’d done, then we’d go on, turn and turn about.

In a period of two weeks we went through 21 major rewrites. It was a fairly unforgiving schedule and, yes, I did take advantage of the proximity of beer. Mike and I argued lie a married couple, went into huffs. I should say that we’re physically very disparate. Mike is around six four, I’m five nine, he’s American I’m a Brit, he’s action-orientated I’m a drama writer, Mike likes to construct a script in a logical, hierarchical manner, I like to get in there and thrash around. Physically and emotionally we’re very different.

We didn’t come to blows, not quite. One morning, while I was feeling that things were going in the wrong direction we met. I said ?I thought we’re were writing a drama, not an action movie?, Mike snapped back ‘You’re pissing me off!’ and stormed out of the room – usually it’s me doing that. An hour later Mike turned up, handed me a beer, we made our peace and got on with the script. Mind you, I’ve been harsher on Mike.

I should say that Mike buying a beer is a major event – not because he doesn’t buy beers, but, I think, he has that ambiguous puritanical streak that one often finds in Americans.

For the first time, I realised how alien American culture and thinking was to a European. Newcomers to the Philippines usually make the mistake of analysing it in western terms because most Filipinos speak English and there is a veneer of Americanism. In fact, the Philippines is a complex mix of Asian-Hispanic cultures and knowing that actually makes things easier. Goodbye America in some ways looks at what an American is, what makes an American tick.

As a Brit, there are commonalities with America, but I realised that Churchill was right when he spoke of the British and the Americans as two peoples separated by a common language.

Two serious sticking points were the final confrontation between two of the American characters and a confrontation between another character and his father (I’m not going to spoil the movie). On the first issue I wasn’t prepared to give ground because I felt the alternatives were trite. Mike and I met and he asked me ‘Do you truly, honestly believe that is the way it should be?’. I thought very carefully, and had to say ‘Yes’, the scene was the climax of the issue of the responsibilities of friendship, loyalty and honour.

We worked at it, got a confrontation that both of us felt was workable and Mike took the script with him to LA.

I think the most difficult thing for any writer to adjust to is the collaborative nature of screenplay writing, it’s very different from anything I’d been prepared for. I’d adjusted, with great difficulty to working with another writer, getting it together with what happened next wasn’t so easy.

Mike took the screenplay to LA. They liked the script but wanted to change everything – that’s the way in Hollywood. In particular that confrontation. The general feeling was that Americans would have a problem with it.

Fred Bailey was brought in to polish the script on an uncreditted basis. His contribution was much more and made a positive impact on what we ended up with. I still haven’t met or spoken to Fred because the opportunity wasn’t there, and I think life would have been easier if we had. I think it would be interesting to work with him more fully.

Production

Finally, we made it into production, with a confrontation that had been substantially changed and which I was unhappy with, as far as I was concerned it was a wimp out. At the time I was reading `Huxley in Hollywood’, which should be required reaiding fror scriptwriters because Hollywood hasn’t changed much. It was time for guerilla tactics.

As principle photography went on there was the usual socialising between actors, production crew and so on. Just before that confrontation scene was due to be shot, a bunch of us ended up at the Swiss Tavern in Barrio Barretto listening to what is probably the best live rock in the area. In between that cacophony I spoke with John Newton and Corin Nemec about how I saw the scene going.

The next day, Corin and John got together and wrote the confrontation scene together. I didn’t see it until watching the first edit, and I think it’s great. If you’re reading this Corin and John, thanks, you done good.

Three directors were in the running for Goodbye America and the final selection was a Swiss-American, Thierry Notz., who had directed Fortunes of War. Another Fortunes veteran was Brent Schoenfeld, the editor.

Thierry is quiet, carrying an expression of quiet bemusement. Brent is intense, sensitive and creative.

Among the challenges of Goodbye America was its complexity. There are around 260 scenes while a movie at this budget level usually has around 150 or so.

Ted Diamondopoulos came in as AD and eventually had a role – a doctor.

From Israel came Sharon Meier, a young cinematographer with a shaven head. With him came Yoram. Together they were very much responsible for the moody look of Goodbye America. Initially, there wasn’t a budget for Yoram and Sharon shared his fee. Eventually, Yoram was included in the budget.

The Filipino crew, who did virtually everything else, were great. The main things I saw was some confusion over terminology – the Philippine industry is slightly different from the US – and noise. Virtually all movies in the Philippine are dubbed and getting quiet on the set can be a problem.

One of the big differences between Star Cinema and most other Filipino film maker is the degree of organisation. When a Filipino movie starts shooting there’s often no script, just a screen treatment and the script is written on the set. Star Cinema does things the other way around.

There was a lot of knowledge transfer taking place and for Filipinos and foreigners it was a learning experience.

Mike went to LA to get the US cast together. The first big surprise was Michael York, a very British actor who had starred in the Oscar winning Cabaret as well as Romeo and Juliet, playing a Carolina senator. You probably couldn’t play against type more if you tried.

Michael York in Goodbye America
MICHAEL YORK

MICHAEL YORK

With him came his wife, Pat. Both of them took everything in their stride and sort of sailed above the chaos around them. Michael York is devoid of ego and put up with the most incredible conditions.

My lasting impression of him came when we were shooting a scene in a hospital. A major, and nasty (Though rare) typhoon came storming into Subic. Meal time came and we were in a hut walled with chicken wire and nothing else but a roof, with the rain coming horizontally through the walls. Michael York came in clad in a green parka, looking like a particularly evil monk (He should have been in Name of the Rose). He was a trooper.

 

James Brolin in Goodbye America

JAMES BROLIN

James Brolin was someone I didn’t know so well. A wonderfully facial actor with a chameleon-like ability. He looked entirely different from what one expected – his dark hair had become grey and he’d built a backstory to his character that’s outside the movie. He developed an incredible depth to the character of the bar owner, and he put up with some awful conditions – for most of his scenes we had a typhoon, though you wouldn’t know it.

 

Corin Nemec in Goodbye America

CORIN NEMEC

Corin Nemec was the first actor to arrive and we met in the Hollywood Cafe on Magsaysay Street. Frankly, he was not what I expected his character to look like. Corin has a very spare physique, the character we’d written was physically larger. What hooked me was his intensity. He was the character we’d written and he was inside that character. He takes his craft very, very seriously and I felt very comfortable that he could handle the complexity of his character.

 

John Newton in Goodbye America

John Haymes arrived next. If someone asked me for comparisons, I think he’d be great as Cary Grant. In many ways he had the weakest role because his character is more of an observer for much of the movie and he didn’t a lot to work on – a problem we were aware of. He didn’t even have a love scene.

 

Alexis Arquette in Goodbye America

ALEXIS ARQUETTE

Alexis Arquette was just about what we needed. He fitted the character like glove and gave some stunningly good performances. His character is the most conflicted in the movie and he brought together both the weakness and the strength of the character marvellously.

 

Rae Dawn Chong in Goodbye America

Rae Dawn Chong is an interesting case. Her character, Danzig, was originally male and the special agent in charge, SIC, of the Naval Investigative Service at Subic. When Mike came back from LA we had some interesting discussions about this – we played around with reality quite a lot but a female SIC just wasn’t on – yup, we argued about it..

A bit of trivia that probably won’t be noticed – everything in the NIS office is totally authentic down to the folders on the desk, the notepads and even the pens. The only thing that isn’t authentic are the body targets on the wall.

The US Navy refused to have anything to do with the movie – they just wanted to forget they’d ever been in Subic – there’s still a lot of bad feeling that the Filipinos kicked them out.

 

Wolfgang Bodison in Goodbye America

WOLFGANG BODISON

Wolfgang Bodison, whom I’d seen in “A Few Good God Men'”, turned out to have a great sense of humour, not a lot of ego but great care for his craft. He always seemed to look more ‘military’ than the others, possibly because of his size – he’s pretty big.

Maureen Flannigan, who was to play Alexis Arquette’s girlfriend was certainly the right choice for the cool Angela. I’m not surprised Bladon had a problem choosing between them.

Nanette Medved was very much the character of Lisa and I couldn’t fault the casting. She has strong nationalist feelings which translated well into the character. We didn’t get on that well, she’s politically to the right and I’m a liberal. Her character was in part based in my wife – both have a strong moral sensitivity.

Alma Concepcion had the meatiest role dramatically. In domestic movies she’s known more for doing risque stereotype roles. She handled the complexities of Emma in a way I didn’t expect and proved herself to be a fine actress. If anybody’s interested her character is based on a girl called Madonna (Not the Madonna).

Angel Aquino is a relative newcomer. She is stunningly beautiful and has an innocent child-like quality which hit the mark exactly for the role of Maria. She handles the intricacies of her role enormously well. Ironically, her character is also based on my wife.

Richard Joson was an interesting choice. He’s a theatre actor, not a movie actor. He had an innocent, boyish look that conflicted with the villainous character he plays. He wasn’t what I expected the character to look like, but I think he’s terrific.

Raymond Bagatsing is something of a movie idol in the Philippines. The original character was a lot older and not so good looking, but he got the character I wanted beautifully. I’d have liked to have taken the conflict between him and Corin’s character further but there’s only so much you can do in 90 minutes.

Daria Ramirez, who played Brolin’s wife, is a very respected actress. She’s great fun and fitted wonderfully into her role. Her first international movie was South Seas with Troy Donoghue in 1974. She’s got a great, incredibly expressive face, watch her.

Olongapo City was one of the problem characters, and it is a character. Unfortunately, the action of the movie ends at the point when the people of Olongapo proved their worth. The US Navy R&R industry was only a small part of the town’s life. The problem we always had was somehow showing that to people.

Both Richard Gordon, who now administers the former US Navy base (And acted as himself – he was the mayor of Olongapo when the base closed), and his wife, Kate, who is now mayor of Olongapo, gave us unprecedented freedom to shoot the movie. There are a number of sensitive issues involved and both of them showed an understanding of what we were trying to do and didn’t interfere.