Centered on the indomitable character of Imelda Marcos, The Kingmaker examines, with intimate access, the Marcos family’s improbably return to power in the Philippines. The film explores the disturbing legacy of the Marcos regime and chronicles Imelda’s present-day push to help her son, Bongbong, win the vice presidency. To this end, Imelda confidently rewrites her family’s history of corruption, replacing it with a narrative of a matriarch’s extravagant love for her country. In an age when “fake news” manipulates elections, the Marcos family’s comeback story serves as a dark fairy tale. I sat down with Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles, Generation Wealth) to talk about this fascinating documentary.
Danny Miller: Watching this fascinating doc, my overriding question was how the fuck did you get such intimate access to Imelda Marcos? It’s just unbelievable.
Lauren Greenfield: (Laughs.) It was kind of unbelievable. I came in, really, after reading an article about Animal Island, the wild animal park in the Philippines that is one of the legacies of the Marcos regime. I thought that might be the movie with these parallel stories about the survival of the animals, but in this kind of doomed atmosphere. So I went to shoot the animals and on that first trip I also interviewed Imelda. I got access to her through this journalist William Miller who had written about the island and talked to Imelda for his article. He’s the one who introduced me to her and he ended up collaborating with me on the movie. Before that, she had always been a kind of iconic reference in my work on wealth.
And then the Animal Island story just morphed into one about Imelda and her persistent political ambitions?
Yes. To me the Animal Island was kind of the ultimate extravagance and it involved living things and human rights and the idea that this island would be depopulated to bring in the animals from Africa on this kind of Noah’s Ark. I thought Imelda would be one voice among many. But it was while I was there, the Marcoses started to have a political comeback. When I started, the people I was working with said they didn’t think Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, had a chance in hell in the upcoming election. At that time the Marcoses were in a political wilderness. They had some support in their previous strongholds, but Imelda was mostly perceived as a laughable figure.
By then she was already a Congresswoman?
Yes, and I was interested in how she managed to get that far again but I still thought it was more or less a figurehead position out of respect for a former First Lady. I also think that’s party why she agreed to talk to me, she was feeling a bit irrelevant in Philippine politics at that time.
I’m still surprised she agreed to participate, even when it was going to more about Animal Island which, as you know, became a kind of horror show. Did she feel that this film was going to be a flattering portrait?
Well, she believes her story and believes that she helped the Philippine people. We quickly moved past Animal Island in our conversations. She didn’t like the fact that most people just think about the shoes when they think of her. And frankly, after 1986, the world didn’t know much of anything else about her. I was interested in how she was able to return to the Philippines. And while I was there, Bongbong announced that he was running for the vice presidency which everyone laughed at but then he suddenly became a viable candidate. All of that totally shifted my narrative.
Because now you were covering his campaign?
Yes. I had interviewed Bongbong in the beginning and, frankly, he was so much less charismatic than his mother that I didn’t even use any of that footage in my original presentation reel for the Animal Island doc. But as the story evolved, his character became really interesting in relationship to his mother and I became interested in this idea of her as a “kingmaker” — someone who has a critical impact on political succession without being a viable candidate themselves. That was Imelda.
Yeah, she reminds me of the Angela Lansbury character in The Manchurian Candidate.
She’s a very political animal. She did run for president at one point, and when Marcos was president and was sick, many people think she was really in charge. For me it was an interesting brand of female power. She even says that one of the advantages she had was that people didn’t take women seriously.
It’s hard to think of her and not think of Eva Peron, including how she is constantly passing out money to random strangers.
We had a dinner at the end of filming where an American visitor asked her if she related to Eva Peron. Imelda said she disliked the comparison. “I was not a prostitute!”
Interesting. She should also get her own musical, though.
She already has one! David Byrne did a wonderful musical called Here Lies Love that was about Imelda. But I didn’t get into this as this kind of biopic portrait of Imelda. There had been a really nice film about her 16 years ago by Ramona Diaz. I wanted to show the political story and how strategic it all was.
Did you come away convinced that she really believes the things she says about the Marcos regime? Do you think she could pass a lie detector test about her interpretations of her family’s history?
That’s a really good question. I do think, as I said, that she believes her own story. But I’m not sure that you can call her delusional because I think it’s very consciously crafted to her benefit. It’s something they’ve come up with over time. A lot of times in her interviews she’ll say the same thing over and over again, like she has these stock lines that she wants to repeat. But then she’’ll drop a bomb with her candor from time to time, too. I think her “truth” is a survival mechanism so she doesn’t have to be accountable for all those terrible things that were done during the Marcos regime. In her mind, she’s a good person that’s helping the Philippines and she’s doing it out of this maternal instinct.
She definitely seems to embrace this role as mother of the country.
And I think she’s addicted to the adoration. I honestly don’t think it’s about the shoes or the paintings. Amassing wealth has been a big part of their strategy for power, yes, but I don’t think she’s in it for the “stuff.” I might’ve come to it looking at her from the perspective of wealth and materialism, but I did not end up feeling like this was her driving force.
How concerned what she about her physical appearance in the film?
She always had her own hair and makeup people on staff. From my work, you may remember that I’m always trying to get into the dressing room, into the bedroom. Imelda would always come out fully coiffed and I was never invited into the bedroom.
She seems like a real pro around a camera crew.
Definitely. She’s always trying to control the story. Remember the moment I left in where she asks her servant to move a statue of a gold sheep so it’s facing the camera? And then when we go outside and she shows me all the dictators that she was close friends with? All of those portraits in glass frames were set up before I arrived. She kind of art directs her world for the cameras.
That was one of the most chilling moments in the film for me. When she accidentally knocks over some of the portraits and glass shatters everywhere, she doesn’t miss a beat, completely ignoring what happened and signaling her servants to clean it up. That conveyed so much.
Yes, like the whole Animal Island thing. She would just repeat over and over that there’s nothing left on the island. And I went to the island and there are as was many animals there now as they were originally and they’re really suffering. She never bothered to visit this creation of hers, even though she’s been back in the Philippines for many years. So it’s like the broken glass — let other people clean up the mess. That’s why I ended with her saying that “the past is the past, in fact, it’s not even there.” And then you see the poor giraffe looking at the camera like, “I’m here! I’m here!”
I always feel like taking your films with me to a therapist’s office because they touch on all my own issues about wealth. On the one had they confirm the biases about people with great wealth, but on the other hand, you always humanize them in such a way that makes me see them in different ways. Part of me really liked the Queen of Versailles woman and part of me couldn’t help but get a kick out of Imelda Marcos!
When I started, I thought this might be a redemption story for her because here she is in the latter years of her life. She could have distanced herself a little bit from her husband. She could have said, well, he cheated on me and he betrayed me and he did certain things that were corrupt. I think the reason she didn’t get convicted in the big lawsuit against her was that people blamed him rather than her.
Yeah, even if she had downplayed what Marcos had done just a little bit and then done some really good things, that would have made a huge difference in her overall image.
Right, but instead it was like this Trumpian thing where she and Bongbong and the whole family were going to lean into it and say those were the best years for the Philippines. Martial law was terrific. We have nothing to say sorry for. That was the real turning point for me in terms of seeing how they were really trying to rewrite history.
And succeeding in many ways.
You end up including the voices of people who were terribly hurt by the Marcos regime. How do you think Imelda will respond when she sees the finished film?
She’ll probably like the scenes with her. I don’t think she’ll like the scenes of the truth tellers because she likes her reality being the one going forward. But this wasn’t her first rodeo. She’s been in other films, she’s been featured in millions of journalistic articles in the West. There are framed articles all over her home that show her ups and downs and a lot of them are very critical.
There’s no such thing as bad publicity?
Yeah, but I also think Imelda is a narcissist and probably assumes that everything is going to be good.
It’s horrifying to see how Leni Robredo, the woman who won the vice presidency over Bongbong, is now being vilified by the Marcoses and their supporters. If I had to place a bet, I’d say that Bongbong Marcos is going to president of the Philippines in the future, it seems like the train has left the station on that.
Yes, they’ve done this electoral protest where they’ve recounted three provinces, which he selected, and as a result of that, Leni Robredo’s votes went up, but he’s still not accepting it. The Supreme Court, according to Philippine law, should be dismissing the case based on that result but they’re not dismissing it because it’s a Duterte-controlled court. So Bongbong can stay in the public eye, proclaiming he’s a victim as Donald Trump often does. He’ll probably run for president in 2022.
I want you to go back in time and do a documentary where you interview Marie Antoinette and then get the people in the street to talk about how their lives were impacted by her.
(Laughs.) I would love that! And frankly, Imelda is a kind of Marie Antoinette.