Metro-Manila-Quad-PosterLast year, Metro Manila won the big awards at the British Independent Film Awards – Best Picture, Best Director and Best Achievement in Production. Before its huge sweep that night, it garnered wide critical acclaim (we gave it five out of five stars ourselves), and praise for the British filmmaker Sean Ellis.

The director lent us some precious time, revealing that such award-winning recognition hasn’t clouded his judgement. In fact, he’s like he’s always been; cool, collected, a sporting a passion for cinema that we’d like to see him take even further than the BIFAs. Read ahead for our interview with Sean – spoilers included – and be sure to purchase the film when it comes out on DVD on March 10.

I’d just like to start by asking; where did the idea for Metro Manila first come from?

It came from when I was on holiday in the Philippines in 2008. I saw two armoured truck drivers having an argument, and they were armed with guns and I thought one of them was going to shoot the other one; it ended with one of them keeping the truck and driving off, and I thought, ‘what were they arguing about?’ And that set the scene.

Was that something that stuck with you, or did it come back to you a while after? 

No, I think it was something where I was just telling everyone about the incident that week, and I thought wow, this could be a critical scene in a movie – I just needed to figure out what the movie was. I started thinking they were working for an armoured truck company, it must be about a robbery, one of them was blackmailing the other, the other was doing something he didn’t want to do – so I thought, ‘okay, so how do I get to the position where he’s being blackmailed into robbing the company they work for?’ And then I started adding backstory, and a migration story, where he basically gets put in this position of being blackmailed to do a robbery. So that was how it kind of developed, and then the other thing was that it was a heist movie, where the only thing you had to steal was something that, in order to steal it, you had to make a sacrifice in some respect – and I thought that was a really interesting concept. So that was all there in a twenty-page treatment, and then I took that to L.A. and I sat down with a friend of mine called Frank E. Flowers and he turned those twenty pages into an eighty-page script.

Is that the process with how you’ve made your previous films?

No, I think each project is very different. I mean, even the one I’m working on now is very different again – though working with a different writer – but I think ultimately it comes down to being passionate about the idea, the core idea, of what you’re making. I felt this was a very emotional, heartbreaking story of a man who was willing to sacrifice everything in order to save his family, which is actually a very noble gesture. So it was this cool idea that was driving me, and the fact I think that as a leading man and a character Jake Macapagal is very enigmatic and very watchable, and I was lucky to find him, especially as the story is told through his role as Oscar Ramirez, a character that I found myself wanting to be more like.

He’s a very noble, upstanding citizen, who’s caught in a bad place and has to make a decision whether he’s going to compromise his morals. He’s obviously intelligent enough to figure out a way of being able to get round this problem without having to sacrifice his morals, and I thought that was a very interesting concept, and I think that’s what drove me – and having seen the movie in my head, that’s the kind of thing that you’re chasing. In every movie that you do, you’ve got to see, or at least have a vision of what it is, and go after it. I think if you don’t have a vision, then you’re making it blindly – and when I say ‘vision’, I mean vision as well as emotional vision, because you’ve got to know with emotion where you are in the film, what is it that’s emotionally driving the characters and what’s emotionally driving you as a director. I think these are things that I look for in my project to make sure that I’m on the right track

You said that you were lucky to find Jake, who plays Oscar. Does that mean it was a very difficult process to cast?

No, it was actually a very easy process – I do consider myself very lucky to have met Jake. He was the second person I met when I landed in the Philippines. He was brought on board as someone who could help cast the movie because he was a theatre actor. We sat down for breakfast to talk through the idea of the film, and he said ‘I’ve got two friends of mine who I think would be perfect for the role of Mai [Oscar’s wife], I’ll get them down this afternoon so you can put them on camera’. Which we did, and that afternoon we read opposite them and I suddenly realised while they were reading on camera, that Jake was an incredible actor and he was staring me right in the face. And I asked him whether he’d be the lead in the film, and he said yes, luckily. He’s a bit of a star.

And the thing about Oscar’s story that struck me the most, is that I simply couldn’t figure out if I would – or wouldn’t – do the same things that he does, whenever he’s faced with a difficult decision. Which I find fascinating; was that always your impetus when writing the script?

Erm, yeah – here’s the thing. You say, ‘would you’ or ‘wouldn’t you’? When in reality, you probably wouldn’t. And I think that’s why he becomes quite an inspiring figure. He did it, but at the same time he knew he was going to pay the ultimate price for what he did. I remember when I was writing it, my girlfriend, who was producer on the film [Mathilde Charpentier], her big worry was, ‘you have to be careful that you don’t lose your audience,’ in the sense of they will ask ‘why didn’t he just leave with his family?’ Wouldn’t it have been best to just leave with the family, and not have any money and live in poverty, than to sacrifice himself and get the money? She thought it could fall into a very grey area very quickly, so with that note we tried to put Oscar into a situation where the audience got the idea that there would never be any relief for them if they left without the money; that they would be hunted, and the company would figure out sooner or later that he was involved in something and would’ve come after him.

So there was a scene between him and Buddha [the villainous boss of the company in the film] where Buddha says, ‘well find out what happened here. I won’t rest until I find out’. And it’s structured in such a way that he almost believed that Jake had something to do with it. So he’d have to sacrifice and throw Buddha off the trail, and allow his family to get away. And so, back to your original question, with the audience in mind knowing it was a situation where we wanted the audience to ask themselves ‘what would you do?’ But also, not get into a situation where they say, ‘why didn’t he just leave?’ There was almost no way out for him, and so we wanted the audience to feel that there was no way out for him. So I think that when he decides to actually do the heist, you’re on the edge of your seat thinking, ‘fuck, he’s going to do it!’ And then you’re hoping that he’s going to get out. But then further down, you realise that he’s actually got this plan, and I think that when that’s revealed, it’s very satisfying in that respect – because it’s something that most people didn’t see coming.

photo-Metro-Manila-2012-2The film’s obviously in the Philippine language; was there ever, at any time during pre-production or production, that you thought, ‘damn, maybe I should’ve made this in English’?

No, no; once I’d made the decision to go back there with the script, I was pretty much hell-bent on making it there. I wanted to make a world cinema film, I wanted to make it in a language that I don’t speak. I thought it was a very interesting challenge – I mean, I love world cinema, so I’d love to continue making films in languages that I don’t speak. And I love being able to go to a place and totally immerse myself in its world, and the Philippines was a world that I hadn’t really seen at the cinema. And the take on the heist movie felt new and fresh for me, so these sort of elements are very much ‘this is the sort of thing that I want to do’, and ‘this is the way I want to do it’ – and then I think when I go back to the Philippines, I was given a gift. You know, like Jake was a gift, and all the way through filming there were scenes that we were doing where my mouth dropped open and I was like, ‘wow, I can’t even believe we just got that.’ And so, I often had the feeling that I was in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time – so I’m very thankful for that.

Then I just continued on my path, really, not really knowing if I was actually going to have a film at the end of it because you never really know. You sometimes look at great footage, and people look at the rushes, and they all get excited and then suddenly it’s just not working. So it wasn’t until I started seeing what Richard Mettler [editor on Metro Manila] was doing; he put together an eight-minute sequence which was the J.J. Bar sequence, and when I saw that, it was pretty much what I had in my mind, and it really had the emotional spinal cord that I wanted to have – so I knew I was on the right track when I saw that. I thought if I had that wrong, I was probably going to dump the movie. I wasn’t going to put out a bad movie – what’s the point? The world is full of bad movies. But after seeing those eight minutes and realising there was the emotional side of the story which started to shine through, it gave me the confidence to continue and to finish the edit, and do it in a fashion that’s sort of a bit unusual, really, because we didn’t have any completion on it.

I was doing shitty commercials and using the money from the commercials to pay for post-production. When we finished shooting to when we actually finished, it was eighteen months in post-production. But it was also a question of getting it right; another thing that I’m most proud of is the score of the movie. I mean, Robin Foster did such an incredible job on the score, and what was nice was being able to give Robin the time to finish the score. Robin had nearly a year to work on it. There were no cues that I allowed on the film that I wasn’t 100% happy with, and Robin – bless him – was very patient with me. Generally, you finish a film, and you give it to the composer and you say, ‘I need a score in six weeks’. So you bash out this score, and sometimes it’s not right, and you don’t have any more time and before you know it, the film is ripped from your fingers. But what went right here was we gave Robin the time that he needed to explore all the themes, and for me to be 100% sure, and Robin was very patient with me with over something like three hundred cues for the movie – I think we ended up with twenty-four on the film. So it was a very long, long process, but I’m very proud of the score.

The British Independent Film Awards… that night, what did you think when you won? 

You know, I thought it was great. We obviously weren’t the favourites going in; I thought we might tie third place with The Weekend and Philomena with like five nominations, and then there was Starred Up and then there was The Selfish Giant. Obviously, I thought it was an incredible recognition for the body of work on the film, that we’ve been recognised with five nominations, and basically the fact that John Arcilla [Ong in Metro Manila] and Jake both being recognised in their acting categories; you know, I thought that was a lovely compliment to them, especially it being the British Independent Film Awards, and then being a film not in the English language, but it was being recognised as this British film – I thought that was a lovely touch for them. And I know they were super-honoured to be included in that. You know, we were up against big British movies – you look at what Philomena’s done on the world circuit, getting nominated for BAFTAs and picking up Oscar nominations, and again The Selfish Giant. I think, to be honest with you, going in, I think if there was one award thinking that we might get would be achievement in production because obviously we made it on a shoestring, it was done in a country that was difficult to film in and in a language that wasn’t British, but by a British team. So I thought if there was one award that we had a good chance on, it was achievement in production. But yeah, to sweep the board like that, it really was a shock to be honest (laughs).

Did you have a big party that night?

We were on a high that night. It really was a fantastic night. I mean, to receive that recognition and to win Best Director and Best Film, we were obviously the happy ones and there were a few people that weren’t happy – but that’s the way it goes. It went slightly different for the BAFTAs, but I mean, hey, these things, they’re by-products of the film. The recognition was fantastic, it’s great, and it does help getting the next project going – but ultimately, you’ve got to concentrate on the work, not the award.

Do you think such sweeping success has helped gear you up for your next project?

I think it does, because you know, I feel like Metro Manila is a bit of a comeback film in a weird way, because my last film [The Broken]  hadn’t really connected with an audience in any way, and hadn’t really connected with any critics. And I understand why; I think going into that movie, I was very… I had the wrong mindset. And I knew a lot less than I do now, about film structure and story, and I was experimenting, and basically it didn’t work. I think what happened then is that I made a film that people aren’t talking about, and it’s hard to get other stuff going on the back of that. So Metro really was a bit of a comeback film, trying to get off the campus a little bit. I always hoped that Metro might be a film that gave me back a little bit of heat for my next project, and I never dreamed that – well, you can always dream – but you have to dream that every film you do is going to win an Oscar, to a point where it tells you that you’re passionate about the material, that you do have a material in front of you that has the ability to make you go the whole way. And I think if you’re not thinking that, then it means that you don’t care enough about the material. You’ve got to really want to go all the way, because you believe in it – but ultimately, what it really is you have to be passionate about the material. I was passionate about the material, and I hope that a film that was seen by enough people would give me the chance to have a shot at mounting another film. So I hope to dream that things go very well – but I never did dream that it actually would really go as far as it did, and connect with the people it did. I think what’s happened now off the back of that it does enable me to go into my next project with heat. You know, people are still talking about this film that’s been up for major awards, and that really does help when you’re sitting down with financiers who are entrusting you with their money.

And can you tell us about your next project?

(Laughs) I can’t just yet… but I think we’re going to run an announcement very soon – but it is another script that is something completely different, and I’m very passionate about it and very excited about it.

Metro Manila is released on DVD on 10 March.