Sean Ellis has been flying high over the last year with the success of his latest film Metro Manila: not only has it been a critical hit, but it has been picking up awards as well.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the movie, shooting in the Philippines and what lies ahead.
- Metro Manila is about to be released on DVD, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
It is about the journey of Oscar Ramirez, who takes his family his family from the provinces in the Philippines to the city of Metro Manila in the hope of a better life.
It is there that he falls foul of some despicable characters, and find himself in a no way out situation. He now has to protect and save his family from the very thing he has brought them into.
- You are in the director's chair as well as having penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you? And what sparked the idea for the story?
It started for me back in 2008 when I went on holiday to the Philippines, and I was struck at the energy and how vibrant a place it was. It is also a city that I have never seen on the big screen.
While I was there I saw two armoured truck drivers having an argument by their truck; they had machine guns and I thought one was going to shoot the other.
One of them ended up kicking the truck and then driving off. It left me thinking, I wonder what those guys were arguing about? That was really was the seed from the story.
- Speaking of the Philippines, you shot the movie out there. What kind of experience was that? And what kind of challenges did you face?
I think that the challenges are no different to any other film. When you are making a film, you have a hundred problems to solve every day, and you are aiming to solve eighty of them; if you are solving eighty of them you are doing ok.
There were just other factors that we had to deal with there. Heat was one of them and locations were difficult as well; trying to shut roads down was almost impossible. You had to run and gun basically.
We shot very much like a documentary film, in order to try and grab as much as we could without having to stop and get permits and shut roads down. While that does bring its own problems, it does add to the energy to the film in the end. Ultimately, it did work.
- How did you find that gung-ho filming experience as a director?
It was the first time that I have really done that style of filmmaking - my other two films were a little more staged and composed.
I kept saying to the editor ‘this is like gold-mining; we are out there getting as much footage in the camera as we possibly can. We will then look at those nuggets of gold in the editing, and piece them together that way’.
In my previous two films I was very sure of what I was doing and what I was getting in the camera before going to the edit room.
However, this really was about coverage and covering as much of the scene as possible from as many different angles and to really hone into the emotional side of the characters: I wanted it to be a movie that you followed emotionally as well as with your head.
It's not a complicated story, but if you are texting or cooking while you are watching it, you might miss something (laughs).
- You penned the screenplay with Frank E. Flowers, can you talk a little about that process? Did you pen the screenplay with any of the actors in mind?
We didn’t pen it with anyone in mind, because we didn’t really know anyone in the Philippines: the only person that I knew was Celine Lopez, who I met on my first trip there. She said ‘come to the Philippines and I will help you put the movie together, and I will put you in touch with people that you need.’ That was all that we had when we started writing it.
I had a twenty-page synopsis of this family, their journey and the situation that they find themselves in, and how they were going to get themselves out of that situation. It had the beat, the beginning, the middle, and the end, but it was just twenty pages: I didn’t have any dialogue or anything like that.
So, I called Frank Flowers - he is based in Los Angeles and is a very talented filmmaker in his own right - and asked me if he had a couple of weeks to help me because I was struggling to find the energy to turn it into a script. He said ‘just get out to LA and we will hit it for two weeks’.
And that is what we did. It was like boot camp, as Frankie was kicking me out of bed at seven o’clock in the morning saying, ‘come on, we have a script to write’.
We sat down for two weeks and we brought the twenty pages up to an eighty five-page script: it was complete with dialogue and was pretty much ready to go.
I then flew to the Philippines with that script as our blueprint. Once we started to do research and location hunting in the Philippines, we realised that some of the things in the script were not right, and that we needed to change them.
It carried on changing a little bit right up to the shoot day, and then once you are off you are off (laughs) there is no turning back.
- That does lead into my next question. I was wondering how much did the story/characters change from the initial idea to the final film?
We had no sense of the religion of the people - it plays quite a big part in the film now - but that was something that really came through the filmmaking while we were there. To see their devotion to religion was something that you can only experience by being there; it was not something that we could write in Los Angeles. That worked its way into the script while we were there.
Many of the visual motifs of religion crept in, because I was seeing it all the time while I was there; there are signs of Jesus and devout messages that are put everywhere.
To be honest, the background story of Alfred Santos was never in the original film, and was something that I found out while I was there.
It was such a poetic and heart-breaking story, I think it really ran a lot of parallels between the plight of Oscar. I felt that I wanted to bookend the film with this story: I started the film with Alfred Santos and I finish the film with Alfred Santos.
I weaved it into the story as one of Oscar's backstories, of where he is now and how he got out of the situation, by using this situation that happened to him.
That worked its way in while we were in pre-production. There were some pretty big changes while we were developing. However, I always saw them as gifts because I was convinced that I needed to go back to the Philippines to make this film.
When I went back and I was given these gifts, I knew that I was in the right place at the right time and I was doing the right thing.
- The movie brings together a great cast including Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega, and John Arcill. Can you talk a bit about the casting process? And what were you looking for as you were casting these central roles?
Celine Lopez was the person that put me in touch Jake Macapagal: Jake is a very well respected theatre actor and has a great network of people that he knows in the industry.
He was brought in as somebody who could help cast the movie, and he got a couple of actors down to read for the role of Mai. We put them on camera, and he read opposite them with his back to the camera.
While this was going on, I suddenly realised that he was a fantastic actor. A couple of times I got them to rotate so I could put him on camera.
At the end of the day, I was just convinced that he was out man. I asked him if he was prepared to take this journey with us, and he luckily said yes (laughs).
- How did you find working with the likes of Jake and Althea? And how collaborative a process was it between you and the actors as you were developing these characters?
All actors work very differently. Althea almost has her own style of acting: it is like actor's direction acting. Basically, she doesn't really want to know where she is in the script - she has memorised her lines - and she gives you her skills as a tool to direct.
She will give me the lines and say 'what do you want?' And you can be like, 'well I want it more angry' or 'I need a pause here'. A few weeks into the shoot, I realised that she hadn't even read the script: she was literally turning up, knowing her lines for the day, and then getting direction from me.
It was an interesting and refreshing way to work. Sometimes actors can get so deep into their roles that it can be... some of them need a lot of discussion about it. She just wanted direction.
Jake was more method, but he also comes from the stage and basically just acts with very little direction. It was a fantastic way of working with them.
All of our conversations were in English, and then each actor translated their lines into Tagalog: so there was not one script that was entirely in Tagalog.
The script was in English and then we would discuss about how we would translate those lines into Tagalog: there is sometimes no direct translation, and that was a bit tricky for them at times.
Once that was agreed upon, they would then settle on something that they felt was a representation of what their character would say that was similar to the line in English.
- How have you been finding the response to the film?
It has been incredible. So many people really respond to the film emotionally, and that is what every director really wants. Some people just come up to me, hold my hand, and look at me shaking their heads (laughs).
It is a dream as a filmmaker to touch people like this, and for them to be completely emotionally involved in the material.
There is something that sometimes takes over and becomes something else, and I was lucky to be in that situation with this film. I was very much aware of the material going in the camera and I was aware that this was something special.
You put it together hoping that it is going to continue that way: sometimes it can fall apart in the edit. Suddenly, when you show it to people and they have tears in their eyes, you just think 'it was something special and it retained its life and heartbeat'.
In a weird way, you shepherd through, and you are a weird and proud father of this thing that has become its own person that talks to people in its own way.
That for me, it the greatest success of the film. It is not for everyone, but the positive feedback that I have had has been very fulfilling.
- The movie won Best British Independent Film and you won Best Director at the British Independent Film Awards, and the film was nominated for a Bafta. So how have you found the last couple of months?
A little surreal. The awards stuff is a by-product of what you have done and, I guess, you feel like a proud dad because your baby has graduated. You just hope that it is going to go off into the world, make friends, and reach as many people as possible.
Those awards do help in that respect as they help to get it out to a wider audience. I am very thankful that it has been recognised by those awards.
- Metro Manila is only your third feature film, so how have you found the transition away from shorts?
You have to look at each project as its own individual thing - even if it is a short film, it is still a film. It is always you working, so you just get use to you working with other people.
I guess it is as if you are training for a race in a way; sometimes they are a sprint and other times they are a marathon. You try to train yourself slightly differently to be prepared.
I spent about a year and half trying to be proactive and find material, and that is sometimes very difficult. I am sure that people who know me think I don't work in between movies.
However, when you do work, it becomes this super intense marathon, where you are on four hours sleep and you disappear into the film for three months. It is very on/off and it is about preparing yourself during the off time.
- Finally, what's next for you?
I am about two weeks away from finishing a new script, which I would love to get on and make at some point this year.
What is great about what has happened with Metro Manila is that it has put me in a position where people are very open to helping you with what you do next. I think it is going to be another script that I have written.
It will be a period drama this time, which is nice because I have never done one. Hopefully, we will announce that in the next month or so.
Metro Manila is released on DVD 10th March.