It has been quite a few months for Sean Ellis, director of Metro Manila. The huge financial gamble he took by re-mortgaging his house to help fund his Philippines set thriller/social drama appears to have paid off culminating in recent wins at the British Independent Film Awards and even a Bafta nomination.
Ahead of Metro Manila’s DVD release on 10th March, we had the opportunity to catch up with Sean and discuss the difficulties that come with filming abroad on a shoestring budget, the film’s excellent reception and his future plans.
Flickfeast: There was a five year gap between the release of Metro Manila and your previous full-length feature, The Broken. Was this a conscious decision in order to find the right project?
Sean Ellis: It was partly a conscious decision to make sure that I had something worthwhile proceeding with but I was also in directors’ jail and needed a project that wasn’t a mess. My last film had become a bit of a mess which means making the next one becomes more difficult.
FF: Where did the idea for Metro Manila come from and was it a film that had to be made in the Philippines?
SE: I got the idea from the Philippines in the first place after witnessing an argument between two security truck drivers and felt that it had to be made there even though it wasn’t good for financing purposes. People are put off when they know the film is not going to be in English and my last film was not considered a success. This meant that it would have to be self-financed but that gave me 100% control over the film.
For Metro Manila, the story led the visuals and not the other way around which I felt happened with my last one. I’ve always believed that good foreign language films transcend subtitles but this is also a story that is commercial enough should an English language remake be needed.
FF: One of the most interesting things about Metro Manila is the way it combines social commentary with a crime thriller. Which of these two elements came first?
SE: The social aspect comes from the archetypal migration story of the Philippines where the rich/poor divide leads to the poor coming to the cities and getting abused. This is a well-known story and eyes rolled in the Philippines when I said that is what I wanted to make a film about. However, the addition of a heist story adds a fresh take that I think differentiates it. So the driving force was the social commentary but I love thrillers and world cinema and get to combine the two in this instance. World cinema can sometimes lack a higher gear as well so it was interesting for me to put this together with a thriller.
FF: What was it like to try and make the film in the Philippines? Would you be willing to do something similar again?
SE: Yes I would but it was really tough. We just took cameras, a small crew and a suitcase of cash initially and had to place a lot of trust in people we met out there. I really didn’t know how it would work out. We decided on three weeks of pre-production and if it wasn’t working out we would come home and try to figure out how to mount it again. The first two weeks were very stressful and there was a lot of self-doubt and touching up of the script to adjust and Philippino it but then it started to come together.
It was very difficult working on such a tight budget as well. We could just about afford what we had planned but had to rely on several elements that were provided free of charge like the trucks and uniforms. We could only use the trucks on Saturdays when they weren’t needed so a lot of the logistics had to come together at the last moment. The whole shoot was only 35 days so that gave us 4 days of shooting with the trucks. We also had difficulty getting hold of a 747 for an important scene near the end but Philippine Airlines stepped in at the last minute to offer us use of one of their planes.
FF: How did you find the process of directing in a foreign language?
SE: I’d already made a short film in French so I had some experience of this and I’ve never wanted to be a director that just sits in the UK and makes films there. The world is a rich and colourful place, as corny as that sounds. Directing in another language allows me to widen my horizons. Being British, we aren’t exposed to different languages the way other European filmmakers are, and only knowing English means we end up playing second fiddle to America.
When I made the French film, it was a liberating experience as I found I was really watching the performances rather than worrying about the lines. I enjoyed it and realised I could do it again. But it would be harder in a country that doesn’t speak English as a second language. Everyone spoke it in Manila so I could communicate with the cast and crew which helped.
FF: The film has received an excellent reception. What impact might this have on your future projects given that you have received acclaim before and still had difficulties?
SE: I don’t take the nominations lightly and this is a business so it really helps to convince financiers. Nothing speaks louder than an Academy Award or Bafta nomination. But ultimately, they are by-products of the work and you can’t put the cart before the horse. You have to concentrate on the work first rather than thinking about awards. Then the nominations, if they come, can really help a film to get recognition and find an audience. This is a competitive industry and there are plenty of great films that never quite find their audience.
FF: Given that you had to work on such a tight budget, is there anything you would have changed in Metro Manila if you’d have had more money?
SE: That’s a horrible question to have to answer. It’s like asking myself would I have a facelift if I had a spare £4,000. I think you have to learn to live with what you have and give your best work on a tight schedule and it will be what it will be. When I was making this film, we’d been shooting for 35 days and I really didn’t know if there was a film there. It was only in editing that it started to come together and there were a couple of occasions where I would have liked to re-shoot but it was what it was.
There is always a problem when it comes to translating your ideas onto film. The initial idea came from watching two men arguing by a truck and this image I had in my head after that was never going to be as visceral on film as it is when I think about it. It means I come away disappointed looking at it but then I realise that the film does what it was supposed to and you learn to live with it.
Also, where do you stop? If I had more money I would still be unhappy for the same reason so when is enough enough? There is a part of you as a director that has to learn to let go. Pointing a camera and filming something is not reality so trying to translate that memory of a real event is really tough. A lot of this job is learning how to fix it or accept it. Learning acceptance is a great thing for a director. So would I do anything differently again? I guess that answer has to be no.
FF: Finally, what’s up next for you? Have you got anything lined up?
SE: I’m actually a couple of week’s away from finishing a new script and hopefully will be able to announce something shortly. This one will be another left turn again, this time into period drama. I’m really excited about figuring how to do it. The great thing about filmmaking is figuring out how to tackle new challenges. I get bored doing the same thing again so this should be interesting.
We’d like to thank Sean for taking the time to talk to us. Metro Manila is released on DVD on 10th March.