Threats from Angry Muslims Force Sigourney Weaver and Crew to Flee Manila and Hunker Down Under
05/03/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT
Drawn by the filming of a movie starring Sigourney Weaver and Michael Murphy, a crowd of nearly 10,000 Filipinos crushed into a tiny, airless square in the Muslim quarter of Manila. They were not, however, the usual movie location onlookers. Convinced that the film was anti-Islamic, the angry Muslims (reportedly agitated by the city's resident Iranians) squeezed tightly around the set, muttering curses and threats to the actors and crew of The Year of Living Dangerously. A few days later, letters and dozens of telephone calls threatened assaults and bombings if production went on. "You better stop the shooting," one of the notes read, "otherwise we will stop it for you." Co-star Mel (Gallipoli) Gibson remembers one of the menacing calls: "The guy kept asking me if I was brave. 'Are you a brave and courageous man, Mr. Gibson?' It was unnerving."
That was warning enough for director Peter Weir, who concluded that Living Dangerously had gone far enough. With eight days of shooting still remaining, Weir and producer James McElroy decided to pull the production out of the Philippines and to finish its scenes in Australia. "I think the threat was very real," says Weir, known to Americans as Gallipoli's Aussie director. "I received one of the phone calls and read one of the letters. Both combined religious fanaticism with that same kind of unpredictability and conviction that we saw in Iran. I was scared." The "evacuation" cost an estimated $120,000 and sent the 65 American and Australian crew and cast members into a scramble to pack their bags. "It was bizarre," says Weaver, who starred in Alien and Eyewitness. "We were having lunch and a representative of the producer came over and said in a solemn voice, 'It's now 2 p.m. By 2:20 we'll be having a meeting and by 4 you'll be on a plane out of here.' I threw the important things in a suitcase and ran out the door."
A misunderstanding about why the movie was shooting in Manila apparently sparked the controversy. Living Dangerously is a love story set against the revolution that toppled Indonesian dictator Sukarno in 1965. Filipino Muslims (less than 2 percent of Manila's population) were convinced that Indonesia, a Muslim nation, had prohibited filming because the movie was anti-Islam. "Since you have not been granted the permission to go on with your imperialistic act in Indonesia," said one of the threatening letters, "the Muslims here as well cannot bear with you." An Indonesian Embassy official says his country denied filming permission because the shooting schedule coincided with national election campaigns. But producer McElroy denies that the filmmakers were barred from that country. "We never applied because we weren't going there," he says. "We had intended to film in the Philippines and, of course, we had all the proper clearances."
After the frenzied pullout, some questioned whether Weir's evacuation was not as much a publicity stunt as a dash to safety. "Shooting in the Muslim district was finished," says an Australian diplomat in Manila. "The threat, however real or imagined, could not have been carried out." The stars, however, had no doubts about it. "There was unbelievable tension and hostility in the streets of Manila," says Murphy. "They were calling around trying to find out where I lived. It can get you very nervous. I was glad to get out." Sigourney adds: "There were guns every where. On every floor of the hotel there was an armed guard. They'd frisk you and check all packages. There's a line in the movie that reads, 'Think of your self as a grub in an apple and you'll know how these people feel about you.' I found that very apt in explaining the whole experience."