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Henry Strzalkowski's rotund features could be seen in many B-movies made in the Philippines in the 1980s-90s. Playing villains, cops or mercenaries, he was one of Cirio H. Santiago's most frequent character actors. Very active in front of the camera as well as behind the scenes, Henry Strzalkowski was kind enough to grant us an interview and reveal us a few secrets about the highly entertaining Filipino movie industry.
Interview conducted by John Nada in August 2005.
To start with, could you tell us about yourself and your background? How did you get into the film business?
My early education was predominantly American. I studied in what was called the American School, which has since been renamed the International School for, or course, political reasons. That was in 1971. So, I was raised in what you could call a very cosmopolitan background. Most of the media here in the Philippines is in English, so I grew up looking and sounding more like a foreigner than a Filipino. I do consider myself more Filipino in thought, character and in spirit. However, this has not kept me from using this duality to my advantage. I am bilingual, though I am more comfortable communicating in English.
My university education was here in the Philippines. I was interested in film from an early age, but found there were no film schools here, although there was a thriving cinema industry going on. I enrolled in the University of the Philippines, the state university, originally in Mass Communications. Their department had one film course. After realizing that I would have to struggle through years of broadcast journalism, I shifted courses to Theatre Arts, where I felt I could at least get some sort of dramatic background. I also took several courses in English literature, which I found to be very useful. My idea at the time was to eventually graduate and someday go to film school abroad.
An extra part as a Nazi soldier for Henry in Cirio H. Santiago's "Future Hunters" aka "Deadly Quest" aka "Spear of Destiny" (1986).
Suddenly, it was 1975 and I was offered a job as an extra on Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now". I took it and it changed my life. I realized this was the world I wanted. Other extra jobs followed and I took them, both for the money and for the experience. Sidney Fury's "Boys In Company C" followed and then a number of extra roles with Kinavesa films and Cinex films. Sidney Fury came back a few years later to do the movie "Purple Hearts," starring Ken Wahl and Cheryl Ladd, and I, again, worked as an extra on that film.
This is the only photo I could find from "Apocalypse Now" that I am in. Although all you see is my back, it is me in the right foreground.
I, basically, dropped out of the film business for a while when I moved to Baguio, a lovely mountain tourist spot up North in Luzon. I ran a bar there called the Harlequin for a while, which became a hangout for the local Bohemian crowd of painters, musicians, photographers and movie people. It was there that I first met Cirio Santiago while he was shooting a film called "Final Mission." Again, working as an extra. A few months later, when I moved back to Manila, I heard about a casting session for a film called "Vindicator" (aka "Wheels of Fire"), a post holocaust, Mad Max genre film. I signed up, and on the basis of my past experience with Cirio's production and the fact that I was a trained theatre actor, I was given a bit part.
Wheels of Fire (1985).
By the way, I forgot to mention that while all this was going on, I was involved with the Manila Metropolitan Theatre as an actor, and performed parts in Jean Anouilh's "Becket", a few Broadway musicals and a lead role in "My Fair Lady," as Pickering. These were big productions, in the sense that they were directed by Lincoln Clark, director of the Seattle Opera and they featured the Manila Symphony orchestra.
An old photo of myself in formal tuxedo from my days on stage, when I was the character "Pickering" in "My Fair Lady."
So, my journey with Mr Cirio Santiago began. I became close enough to himself and the crew to be given a job on production as assistant casting director. Essentially, I had to be a wrangler for the white faces (extras) and had a hand in casting some very good 'natural actors'. One of which was Nick Nicholson, who has become one of my best friends over the years. Aside from having been two of three remaining actors who worked on "Apocalypse Now," the other being James Gaines, we worked on probably over forty films in front of and behind camera, in various jobs as casting director, third, second, and first assistant directors. My credits with Cirio Santiago's films are all listed on IMDB on the internet. Aside from these, Nick and I worked on other international films such as "Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July" and "The Siege of Firebase Gloria."
Most of the films of your filmography have been directed and / or produced by Cirio H. Santiago: what memories do you keep of this great figure of Filipino movie industry? Could you describe your work with the man, whether as an actor or an assistant director, and the atmosphere on the sets?
As I moved up from casting director to second A.D., I learned the art of "guerrilla moviemaking." Remember we were working with low budgets, $300 000, sometimes a little more. We worked on VERY tight schedules, and as A.D., I had to make these schedules and see to it that we got them done. None of this was easy work.
What I respected about Cirio was the fact that he had total control on the set. He is a "general." If call time was 7am on the set, that meant breakfast was up to 7:30, by 7:20 he was already on the move and we would hurry down our meal, because by 7:30, the cameras were grinding. One hour for lunch, then the same. He pushed the crew hard, but still maintained a quick sense of humour and I can categorically state that after having worked for many different directors, Israeli (Cannon Films), Japanese and American, Cirio's set was the most fun. He would constantly poke fun at actors, crew and himself. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the man.
Equalizer 2000 (1986).
As far as his collaboration with Roger Corman is concerned, would you consider Cirio Santiago had some initiative or was he just an underling of the American producer?
Cirio's relationship with Roger Corman goes far deeper than producer/director. The two are old friends who share a similar vision of getting the most from what little you have. A dedicated Spartan crew who understand the ins and outs of filmmaking, the cheated shots, the production shortcuts and ultimately what will sell. Their friendship continues to this day.
There was some kind of a "clique" of western performers in Manila, including Nick Nicholson, Romano Kristoff, Don Gordon Bell, James Gaines Jr etc., some of whom had formed an acting troupe called "Pigs in Space". How close were you and do you still keep in touch with them?
The "Pigs in Space," yes... hehe. This was a small cabal of us foreign movie actors who went through quite a few interesting times together. Remember, the political situation here at that time, 1980's, was a period of upheaval and affected all of us here living the Philippines. During the anti Marcos' revolution, we participated and actually came under fire, from real bullets, we saw real bloodshed, not squibs and cine blood. This created a bond among us that has not broken. The name of our group is from a sketch on Jim Henson's Muppet Show, which was popular in the 80's. We smoked a lot of pot in those days and if my memory serves me, it was during one of those sessions that the group name came about. To this day, this small circle of crazies remain my most trusted friends. Some have gone, some remain, some have been successful in other pursuits, some not, but we remain friends nonetheless.
Nick Nicholson and Eric Hahn told us the stunt work and general shooting conditions were often quite risky in Filipino actioners. Would you agree with that, and do you have any personal memories about it?
Remember that many of us came from different backgrounds from our Hollywood counterparts and sometimes had less fear than we should have had. There were some accidents, some funny, some downright serious. Live rounds were sometimes used, like in the old films, I, myself got burned on an explosion stunt that went wrong. Not seriously, but it did make me a bit more careful. I'm sure you heard of a few accidents on other sets. Cannon films had part of their film crew lost in a helicopter crash on a Chuck Norris film. I, fortunately, never got hurt nor did any of my friends who have lived here in Asia long enough to be extra-aware of all that goes on around you.
With Robert Patrick, who began his career on the sets of Cirio H. Santiago's movies before starring as the famous T1000 in "Terminator 2".
Any memories or comments about Richard Norton?
Richard Norton is a charming gentleman and a consummate professional martial artist. I had the opportunity to work with him on "Equalizer 2000," "Raiders of the Sun," and a film called "Rage" (aka "Deadfight") produced by Anthony Maharaj. We were friends and enjoyed working together.
[They also both appear in "Future Hunters" aka "Deadly Quest" aka "Spear of Destiny" (1986), along with "Mission Terminate" aka "Return of the Kickfighter" (1987)]
"Mission Terminate" aka "Return of the Kickfighter" (1987), from director Anthony Maharaj.
"Angelfist" and the late Cat Sassoon?
Vidal's daughter was a bit of a primadonna and I am glad I only had to work as an actor on that one. Enough said.
"Silk 2" and the gorgeous Monique Gabrielle?
Yes... again enough said!
"Nine Deaths of the Ninja" and Shô Kosugi?
Perhaps the first Ninja movie ever. I shared a scene with character actor Blackie Dammett, who in real life is the father of Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His characterization of the crazed, crippled, homosexual terrorist is one of the weirdest, and perhaps most disturbing I have ever scene.
I worked on four movies with David Carradine, "Behind Enemy Lines," "Dune Warriors," "Field of Fire" and "Firehawk." A very moody, but otherwise professional actor. Perhaps, it may have had to do with the state his career may have been at the time. It is great to see his career has once again bloomed with "Kill Bill."
Behind Enemy Lines (1986).
A slightly trivial question: in some flicks you acted in, you have a moustache, in some others you don't. Was it sometimes preferable or even required to change looks from a film to another in order not to be recognized? [looks like a silly question but, for instance, Bruce Baron told us Kinavesa's boss K.Y. Lim often rotated the lead roles, simply because he couldn't have all the films with the same unknowns as leads]
My moustache was shaven off to make me look younger sometimes, but I have kept it ever since 1991.
Was your work in movies your only professional activity in the Philippines during all those years?
During the years between 1983 and 1994, my work was predominantly on films. I worked in pre-production, of course, in production (in front of and behind camera), and in post-production I usually handled the dubbing or ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement). Actually, this was a skill I had developed while in university. My first professional job was voicing for Japanese robot cartoons in the mid 70's. I have had an ability to change my voice for the role. To this day, I still do ADR work with a company called Digilink that do versioning (Chinese to English). This is essentially dubbing and occasionally stripping the soundtrack either to sweeten the effects or the music. I worked with this company from 1994 till 1999 as a non-linear editor. Editing had become my new interest and I was getting too old for the physical stresses of action movies.
« Fatal Mission » (« Mission Manila », 1987).
Did you ever contemplate leaving the Philippines in the 90's, while the Filipino industry was seriously on the wane and many of your Western pals left the country? What determined you to stay in the P.I.?
I still live here in the Philippines simply because it is my home. My small family lives here. Although separated, my ex wife and I get along very well and we both remain mother and father to our young son.
A recent photo of me, at work in the Handlebar.
With the hindsight, what look do you take at this experience in the cinema in the Philippines? What are your best and your worst memories? Do you have personal favourites in your filmography?
Upon reflection, I have no regrets whatsoever about having been in the movie business. I suppose I could have chosen a more lucrative and stable profession, but certainly would not have had the rich experiences and fun that I had. I had the opportunity to meet, work with, or at least see famous actors like Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Lawrence Fishburne, David Carradine, Jan Michael Vincent, Charlie Sheen, Willem Defoe, Tom Cruise, Tom Berenger, Robert Patrick, Lee Ermey, and many others. How many people can say that?
Henry Strzalkowski and Nick Nicholson, in "Eye of the Eagle" (1986).
My favourite film would have to be "Apocalypse Now," for the mere reason that it was the first film set I ever was on and it was what made me want to act in films. Aside from this, it is a film that I feel will stand the test of time as one of the last grand scale productions ever, in the same class as Cecile B. de Mille's great productions. Remember that this was before the age of CGI and budgets of $200 000 000 plus.
Could you tell us about your present activities? You have apparently been working on a film lately, could you tell us a bit more? Do you have other plans for the future?
Last month, after a hiatus of 10 years, I have just worked on a Cirio Santiago/Roger Corman co-production called "Crashpoint." Roger Corman's son was here in an associate producer capacity and Cirio acted as line producer. The film stars Theresa Randle, Mark Dacascos and Jeff Fahey. An American director, by the name of Henry Crum, directed, and I did a two day bit role. Again, I enjoyed myself thoroughly.
For the last few years, I have been in the Food and Beverage business. I am currently running a bar and grill here in Manila frequented by many expats, and still enjoy my memories of working in feature films back in the eighties. But lately, I have formed a small production company called BulletTooth Productions [and now named "Abstract Ranch"] which is involved in television productions. I and a few talented friends are producing a reality-based TV show that will cover the clubbing scene in Manila and around the country. It is fun, humorous, edgy and fresh, and we have high hopes for its success. I serve as associate producer and help in talent procurement, writing, shooting and editing. It is a very exciting experience as, best of all, it has revived my creative spirits, so to speak.
Well, here is the end, so, to conclude, on behalf of all the members of our team, I would like to thank you warmly for your time, and for having been so open and so friendly Mr Strzalkowski. All the best for the future!
I hope that has given you and idea of the interesting time I have had here working in films in the Philippines and I hope you enjoy this correspondence as much as I have had writing it! Bonne chance!