‘Metro Manila’ goes places
British director Sean Ellis, with Filipino actors Jake Macapagal and Althea Vega, recounts the circuitous journey of “Metro Manila,” the UK’s entry to the Oscars for best foreign language film. CATHY MIRANDA/INQUIRER.net
It all started with a beach holiday in 2007 and, since then, there seems to be no end in sight for the incessant travels of British director Sean Ellis.
Six years ago, the idea for a film hit Ellis—while in Manila en route to Boracay.
He saw two armed guards arguing heatedly on the streets and the seed was planted in his brain.
Ellis, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker (for the short “Cashback” in 2006), began writing the script of “Metro Manila” soon after returning from that life-changing vacation.
“I told myself that I had to come back to make a film here,” Ellis said.
“Metro Manila” tells the story of an impoverished farmer who moves his family to the city, only to get entangled in a web of deceit and danger.
In 2010, Ellis started filming in the country, with an all-Filipino cast and crew.
Early this year, “Metro Manila” won the audience award in the World Cinema section of the Sundance fest in the United States.
“Metro Manila” has since been shown in places near and far: the United Kingdom, Singapore, Belgium, France, Finland. It is set to be released in Spain this month.
Last October 9, “Metro Manila” finally came home, opening in local cinemas nationwide.
Along the way, it has also earned the distinction of being chosen by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) as the UK’s entry in the best foreign language film category in the coming Oscars race in March.
It is set to open in the US sometime in February.
Ellis, with Filipino actors Jake Macapagal and Althea Vega, visited the Inquirer recently to recount the circuitous journey of “Metro Manila.”
How did “Metro Manila” end up as UK’s entry to the Oscars?
Sean Ellis: I submitted it to Bafta, the governing body that was appointed by the Oscars to submit a film to represent the UK. The Bafta committee chose it.
What are your plans for the Oscars?
SE: We can’t really campaign … at this stage … the academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) is now screening films from different countries. It’s a very busy time for the academy. They are watching two to three films a day. As of last count, there were at least 71 entries.
Jake Macapagal: I heard there were 76 entries.
Have you sent a copy of “Metro Manila” to the Oscars?
SE: A DCP (Digital Cinema Package) went to the academy.
When is your screening for the academy?
SE: I don’t know yet. The short list of nine films will be announced on Dec. 27. Then it will be whittled down to five on Jan. 16.
Do you have a US distributor?
SE: Yes. It’s Palladin/108 Media. We didn’t have a distributor when we went to Sundance, though.
When is your US release?
SE: It will be February next year. Just before or around the Oscars.
What is the significance of being backed up by the Bafta?
JM: It’s a huge compliment, for me as an actor. The people in the committee are discerning and knowledgeable about cinema.
Are you also in the running for the Bafta awards?
SE: We will vie for best British film and best film in a foreign language.
Are you ready for the Oscars red carpet and what will you wear, if ever?
AV: I’m very excited.
JM: You can post a message on Facebook, to ask designers to sponsor you in case we get nominated. Visualize!
AV: I will definitely be there.
SE: Just don’t wear red. Otherwise people won’t see you. You will blend with the red carpet and look like a floating head.
JM: People may mistake Althea for Sofia Vergara.
What was your Oscars red-carpet experience like, when you were nominated in 2006?
SE: It’s quite surreal. Incredible. What I loved the most were the seat fillers. There are lots of shots of the audience for the TV airing. Producers don’t want to show empty seats. So when someone has to go to the toilet (or present an award), seat fillers are called in to take over the empty chairs for a while. It’s a great idea for a movie. They pay models and good-looking people to dress up and stand in the aisles. Thing is, if you’ve been drinking a lot, you’d have to go to the toilet often. So you get to know the seat fillers very well.
How would you sum up your Oscars journey?
SE: It was like a school awards ceremony, but the people in the audience were famous. I saw a lot of Hollywood A-listers when I was there.
You have a photograph beside a huge Oscar statue.
SE: Those Oscar statues were everywhere. It was very Hollywood because the statues were hollow. It’s all wood. It was great to see how the set worked, though.
What was your initial reaction when you heard about the Oscars news?
JM: Sean called at 12:42 a.m. I fell on my knees.
SE: I knew he would be asleep and I wanted to wake him up!
JM: I cried. It’s not a nomination yet, but to be considered is a huge honor. If this is the peak, it’s fantastic.
AV: I read the news on Facebook. My friends told me about it. I was happy!
SE: We couldn’t ask for more. We just hope the Academy will see it in the spirit it was made.
Being in the Oscars race means a lot of important people may get to see the work of Filipino actors.
SE: They’ve already seen them. We’ve got so many requests from Hollywood producers and agents. Jake was signed by ICM (International Creative Management) in the US.
JM: It’s great that there’s buzz about it. There are casting agencies in the UK that are keen on getting us.
AV: This is my first international film, but I have faith that it will lead to more jobs.
After the Philippine release, what’s next for “Metro Manila?”
JM: I am looking forward to the US release in February.
SE: The American release will be a small one. There’s only a modest market for foreign films in the US. I guess that’s why 20th Century Fox bought the remake rights to this film. They want a version in English.
Do you have an idea who will direct and star in the remake?
SE: None. They are working on it now. 20th Century Fox bought it from me. The studio executives believe that it’s a story that can be set anywhere. They think they can make versions of the film set in India or South America. I remain as the remake’s executive producer and have first-refusal to direct. I’ve already made the film, and for me to do it again doesn’t make any sense.
Who are the Hollywood actors you envision for the US version?
JM: Maybe John (Arcilla) can play my character and I can play John’s part. I am too possessive of this role. I haven’t thought about that.
How about you, Althea? Angelina Jolie?
AV: Why not!
JM: If ever this would get remade, it would be great because people would always go back to the original.
They’d have to change the title for the remake, though.
SE: Yes! It was my producer Mathilde (Charpentier) who suggested “Metro Manila.” It’s a clever idea. It’s a foreign language film but with an English title. Plus, there’s no Filipino in the world who won’t recognize the name.
And Filipinos are everywhere!
SE: Which we discovered. When we were in Sundance, Filipinos drove from San Francisco to watch the film. We received amazing support from Filipinos everywhere.
JM: My friends who live in Germany traveled to France, by busloads, to watch it.
SE: Some countries wanted to change the title, but I warned them that if they did, it would alienate the Filipinos based there.
Why is it important to have screenings in the Philippines?
JM: It’s a real homecoming. It’s a Filipino story, but it also deals with universal themes: sacrifice, family …
AV: This is about real life. We portrayed the lives of our countrymen.
JM: I am very proud of our work in this film. We are not the only ones responsible for this film. There are lots of people who helped us along the way.
What was it like working with Filipinos?
SE: I was bowled over by the professionalism of the Filipino cast and crew. They were well-prepared. They were keen to support the movie and solve problems—and filmmaking is all about problem-solving.
JM: Filipinos are good at that.
SE: I mean, (Filipinos) have a hundred problems a day … if you get to solve 80, you’re doing okay. Experience has taught me that you have to surround yourself with people who are problem-solvers.
You were pretty brave to work with an all-Filipino crew.
SE: I had to … It was the only way it was going to work. If I brought my European crew with me, it would’ve doubled the budget, with the airfare and the hotel fees (alone). As a filmmaker, I also wanted to immerse myself in Filipino culture. The cast and crew helped (in that regard). I was open to their suggestions.
JM: He was collaborative. He listened.
SE: When Filipinos watch this film, I want them to forget that it was directed by a Westerner. In order to do that … I had to dive into Filipino culture and become a Pinoy.
But you only learned about the Philippines and Filipino movies when you got here.
SE: Filipino friends introduced me to (filmmakers) Brillante Ma. Mendoza, Raymond Red, Lino Brocka. I watched “Banawe,” “Oro, Plata, Mata” and “Bona.” I watched those movies so I could understand what shaped the culture.
There is concern that the film will depict the Philippines and Filipinos negatively.
JM: When we had screenings in the UK, there was always a Filipino who would ask the same question. The answer dawned on me … We’ve always had a problem with transparency. People deceive us. They don’t want to show certain parts of our society. We don’t talk about the elephant in the room. Why don’t we have the courage to confront the realities of our time?
SE: As an emerging economy … you want to put your best foot forward. But we are not making a political statement or a tourism docu. It’s a piece of cinema. It’s drama. Drama is about the story. A good story comes from drama.
And drama is created through conflict. If I made a movie about the good aspects of living in Manila, there would be no conflict … there would be no drama.
This film is shot in a documentary style. It feels very real. When my music scorer (Robin Foster) first watched the rough cut, he told me that he wanted to give money to Jake’s family (in the film) so they could buy a house. People connect with it on a very emotional level. You know the story is working when that happens.
JM: It’s curious that a foreigner noticed that in the Philippines, security guards are in every corner, armed with a shotgun.
SE: It was shocking at first.
JM: For us, seeing armed guards is normal.
SE: Someone commented that the movie is about the defamiliarization of the Philippines. When a Filipino sees the film, he will recognize the city but from a somewhat unfamiliar point of view. For me, noticing those little details was fascinating as a viewer.
How do you balance universal appeal with being culturally specific?
SE: That was the aim. Not only Filipinos, but even kids in Glasgow got involved in the film’s story.
What’s your take on the interest in the Philippines in the global scene? Our films are shown in festivals abroad and foreign productions shoot here.
SE: The Filipino story and Philippine cinema are what a lot of people are talking about right now. There seems to be a new movement of independent filmmakers here …
But shooting in the Philippines is a different ballgame. What convinced you that you could make a movie here?
SE: Blind faith.