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Though still very much a young man, Christopher Ad Castillo carries with him a lifetime of movie memories. His late father, the great Filipino director Celso Ad Castillo, was a defining force in Asian cinema; his son would often accompany him on-set, leading to acting roles in several productions. Now, the son is a directing force in his own right; Castillo's third feature, the independently-financed supernatural thriller The Diplomat Hotel, featured at the recent Cinemalaya Film Festival and opens wide in its homeland this week. SCREEN-SPACE spoke with the LA-based director about his ghostly tale, the role of memory and spirituality in his storytelling and the legacy left by his father’s love and talent…  

What were the origins and inspirations for your story?

My interest in The Diplomat Hotel began two decades ago when I was an actor in my father’s film. We were shooting a scene in front of the already abandoned place and strange things happened that night that I cannot explain. So right there and then I knew that the next time I came back, it was to do a movie about the place. I have always been fascinated by personal tragedy. We were put in this world to suffer tragedies. From there, we decide whether to rise above it or sink further below. The will to get up and get back in the game is something not everyone can accomplish. It takes a certain pedigree. And to a storyteller, tragedy is the battery that powers life. It is very interesting to watch people caught in it struggle to find a way back, to find redemption.
So if tragedy is the story then the idea of redemption is the soul. This is what (lead character) Veronica (pictured, below; lead actress Gretchen Barretto with the director) has to deal with. To have her great life ripped out from her in front of a mass audience and to climb back from the dead to get everything back that belonged to her. It’s always been a very interesting dynamic that is the basis for some of the oldest stories ever told. That’s the brave new world we live in; Veronica inspires people and she inspired me to write this story. 

Describe shooting at a site that is famous for its supernatural properties? What influenced you to decide to shoot on location, especially this one?

People leave traces of themselves where they live. And the longer you stay in that place, the stronger you embed yourself. Now that print could be about happiness or darkness. The Diplomat Hotel was built in 1913 as a rest house for Dominican priests and the 2nd World War is where evil emerged when the Japanese beheaded the priests and nuns. And the traces of the dead stayed in that place and as the years go by, their prints become stronger. Their souls become the building. So there’s something there. It cannot be spared from what happened. The place gets very uneasy as night time gets nearer and the coldness invades it. The main thing is the shadows. They appear in certain areas and you realize that there’s no angle of light from where it could originate. It’s not just me who saw it, several of us did.
And that is the idea of why I wanted to shoot there. If I could not make my film there, then there’s no use in making it. Unlike other real haunted places like the Amityville house where no one has really seen what the interior looks like, The Diplomat Hotel has become a tourist attraction and a lot of people have been inside. So cheating the interiors would be unnerving to people and would take them out of the story. Plus it’s the most haunted hotel in Asia. Who would not want to shoot in there? 

The great horror films draw upon and provide commentary on the society from which they are created. What did you see as the important underlying issues central to The Diplomat Hotel?

The Philippine culture is filled with stories of monsters and creatures that were partly used by our elders to scare us into doing their bidding. And they’re great stories, full of life and energy. As the stories get passed from generation to generation, the monsters get bigger and the stories get bloodier. That’s the idea behind The Diplomat Hotel. Stories have been told for decades now of headless priests, roaming children, wails and moans, and of evil itself. But what if it was not true? What if the place was not really haunted and it just became evil because society keeps talking about it and keeps saying it is? What if the energy of the stories gave it life? Words are powerful, enough to destroy nations and people. What if society created the persona of The Diplomat Hotel? What if we were responsible for it being evil? Those are the questions asked by Veronica and that’s the commentary that I built the story upon. (Pictured, above; from left, the director on location with cast members Sarah Gaugler and Mon Confiado).

You are revisiting the location after having worked with your late father on the site. Did the themes of memory and recalling the past hold special relevance for you during the shoot?

There were times leading up to the shoot and during the shoot and even up to now that I stop and think that the film exists because of my father (pictured, right). And how cruel fate can be that he’s not around to see it, that his idea decades ago of bringing me to a place I have never heard of has become something that I have offered to the audience as a creation.
I thought of the irony that I play with memory and the past in the film and I thought about him when I was alone. Memories are a very dangerous thing that can entirely consume a person and it helped that I was really busy with a very difficult shoot. I was able to set aside any sadness that I had.
It’s funny to think that a haunted hotel has become the last physical bond between a father and a son. This film was about much more than just me directing; it was also about me coming to grips that he is gone. I was exorcising any guilt that I had as a son as I finished the film. None of us are perfect and there are times where I think that maybe I could have been a better son, a better friend, and involved him more in my adult life. I should have told him how much I loved him more often.
I miss The Diplomat Hotel. No other film will be made about it. We are the first and the last. It is already being renovated and it will look totally different a year from now. And it will always be the place that I share with my father. Sometimes something good comes out of something evil.

Read our review of The Diplomat Hotel here.

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