Shot in the Philippines, in Tagalog, and telling the story of Oscar (Jake Macapagal), a family man driven to desperate lengths by grinding poverty, British director Sean Ellis’s heist drama Metro Manila is a tough sell. But it’s also one of the films of the year, winning hearts, minds and an audience award at Sundance. Ahead of its release, Ellis explains its strange genesis…
GFW: The idea came to you after witnessing an altercation between armoured truck drivers while on holiday in the Philippines. What was it that struck you about the situation?
Sean Ellis: Well, it's not every day you see two armed guards with flak jackets, Kevlar helmets and machine guns arguing in front of an armoured truck. It ended with one of them in a great deal of frustration, which he vented by kicking the truck. I was thinking, 'They're both armed, it could kick off at any minute!’ But in the end they just got in the truck and drove off. And I remember wondering what it was they were arguing about, and I thought, 'There's a movie there.’ I started to think that one of them was blackmailing the other into helping him with a robbery. Then I thought, ‘Why is this guy in a position where he can be blackmailed?’ so I started to work backwards from there.
Did you think someone was going to get shot?
It’s a country where traffic wardens have shotguns, and I don't feel I ever really got used to the sight of guns on the streets... it's every Starbucks, every bank. Every guard is armed with something quite substantial, and the guys who deliver the money are armed with something even more substantial – automatic weapons. So when it does get violent, it gets super-violent.
Did you ever feel threatened while filming?
Before I went out there in the news there was an actor who was shot and killed while making a film. They were filming a bank robbery and they thought they'd locked the street down, but obviously they hadn’t done it well enough. The actor came out of the bank brandishing a gun, and an off-duty policeman saw him and shot him thinking he was stopping a bank raid. I heard this and I remember calling up my producer and saying, ‘We're going to get killed!’ It really was like Hearts Of Darkness, we were going into the unknown. Having said that, I never felt any bad energy towards us, only positive, and I have to say that the Filipino people really welcomed us with open arms.
If it’s so violent, why shoot in Manila?
The problem is, if I transposed the story to England it would just be another crime thriller and that's the last thing we need, you know? ‘[Insert overused British action star here] is a farmer with no money who goes to London to try make a better name for himself, but gets blackmailed into doing a robbery while his girlfriend has to dance at Browns topless bar!” For me it didn't resonate. The Philippines is so rich and beautiful and dangerous all at the same time, a place that I hadn't really seen at the cinema, so for me the idea for me was to make a very universal story within a very culturally specific location and that felt exciting. Also I didn’t want to be unfaithful to the original idea because I was given that gift in the Philippines. So I felt I should go back and make it there.
Gareth Monsters Edwards, Gareth The Raid Evans… there are a lot of British directors heading abroad to make movies these days…
Especially if your surname begins with 'E'...
You should form a club. Is there a degree of exploitation involved in going to poorer countries to make films?
Well, exploitation is a strong word. For me, I would defend my actions in a sense because the original story came from the Philippines and so it was a film I wanted to make there. It also happens that it is cheap to make a film there. So is it exploitation? We were two Westerners that went to the Philippines to make a film, we hired local cast and crew, and so in a way, I’ve invested in the Philippines.
And there’s an American remake on the way?
We sold the remake rights to 20th Century Fox.
For how much?
[Laughs] Put it this way, I made my money back!
Congratulations. What’s next?
I’m working on another script with the same screenwriter, Frank E Flowers, there's another idea there that's going to take us back to another country in Asia, and that's quite interesting. We have the core idea – the “armoured truck argument”, the seed – so we're going to be writing over the next couple of months. What’s important is that you work on things that excite you. My school report used to say, ‘Only does well when he's interested in the subject’, so it's a mantra I try and live my professional life by.
'Metro Manila' is released in UK cinemas on 20 September. Canadian release pending.