Transcending Tribeca: Ron Morales of Graceland

Transcending Tribeca: Ron Morales of Graceland

Tasha Robinson recently visited 2012’s Tribeca Film Festival, which runs in Manhattan from April 19-29. The majority of films screening at Tribeca are independently produced, premièring at Tribeca, and seeking the distribution deals that could bring them to theater, cable, or home video. For this series of film focus features, Tasha spoke with the filmmakers behind her favorite Tribeca premières, the ones she’d most like to see picked up for major release post-Tribeca. Ron Morales’ action drama Graceland had its world première on Friday, April 20. For further information and updates about where Graceland is playing next, visit Twitter, Facebook, or the film’s website.

The people asking questions about narrative films at post-screening Q&As largely fall into a few broad categories. Festivals like Tribeca, which feature a lot of independent productions, tend to bring out the budding filmmakers who want to know the practical details: “What was your film’s budget? How did you get funding? How long was your shoot? What cameras and editing software did you use?” Every post-film Q&A everywhere features a handful of the confused, who want aspects of the story or imagery explained to them, or want to know what happens to the characters next. Then there are the show-offs and the speechmakers, who don’t have questions so much as agendas, which emerge in long, wandering statements that sometimes end with a token “Would you agree with that?”-style query. 

And finally, there are the handful of people who ask practical, simple questions. At the post-première Q&A for Graceland, a taut drama about a working-class Filipino man trying to get his kidnapped daughter back, the simplest question was “Why the title?” As writer-director Ron Morales explained, it has nothing to do with Elvis: It’s a conceptual place, like Chinatown in the Roman Polanski film. It’s about a place where everyone has made shady choices, but moments of grace can still happen.

It’s hard to see those moments in Graceland, a story about child sex trafficking, kidnapping, murder, and infinite moral compromise. Arnold Reyes stars as a chauffeur and fixer to a powerful Filipino politician (Menggie Cobarrubias) who regularly picks up underage prostitutes, and expects Reyes to pay them off and deliver them to their homes afterward. With his wife dying in the hospital and a young daughter to raise on his own, Reyes meekly does whatever he’s told. Then, after his daughter (Ella Guevara) and Cobarrubias’ daughter switch clothing while shoplifting a dress, armed kidnappers make off with the wrong girl and demand an exorbitant ransom to punish Cobarrubias for his sex crimes. Hard-bitten detective Dido De La Paz assumes Reyes is in on the kidnapping, and bullies him mercilessly; meanwhile, the kidnappers contact Reyes and bully him as well, demanding he get the money out of his boss anyway. The twists get grim and complicated, but the basic structure has everyone lying and compromising whatever ethics they have in hopes of getting out unscathed. Tasha sat down with Morales at Tribeca to talk about the film’s resemblance to Akira Kurosawa’s High And Low, the difficulties of shooting on the streets in Manila, and how his fake cop briefly broke up an actual gang confrontation.

The A.V. Club: You developed this film while researching an idea for another film entirely. What was that other film? How did it become this one?

Ron Morales: That other film was based on shamans in the middle islands in the Philippines. One of the characters I was writing was basically an ex-pat living and working in the red-light districts, and he’s kind of trying to find salvation, finding these shamans in these middle islands. Most of the research I was doing was interviewing a lot of sex workers in the red-light districts in the Philippines. That’s a totally different story. I’d say it would be more of an arthouse film, as opposed to what Graceland is now.

AVC: Do you not see this as an arthouse film? It’s a thriller, but it’s cerebral, it’s tied up in ideas about inequality, corruption, pressure, and societal changes in the Philippines.

RM: I personally do see it as an arthouse film, with elements of an action thriller. From a marketing standpoint, I’m always trying to push it as a social thriller. But yeah, most of the work I tend to push toward is more arthouse. The stories I love, like Treeless Mountain, Wendy And Lucy, Mammoth, Lilya 4-Ever, Hunger—those types of movies I’m really drawn toward are character-driven, movies that have a lot of weight.

AVC: What’s the film scene like in the Philippines, in terms of getting permissions to shoot, getting around, finding actors, finding crew? What’s the support system there like?

RM: I was very lucky. My first film, Santa Mesa, I ended up using my local line producer, and since it was five years ago since Santa Mesa, he’s gotten bigger in the industry, and with the DSLR boom for independent cinema over there, people are shooting so much, there’s a lot of influx of all these new directors and an array of talent that’s coming out. So it was fairly easy. The hardest part about it is physically shooting in Manila. You shoot one scene outside, and there’s, I don’t know, 600 or 700 people looking on, directly behind the camera, looking at us. For a small production like ours, it’s hard to push them back, or do any kind of crowd control. It’s extremely difficult. Not to mention sound recording. It’s not the easiest either.

AVC: Does having small digital cameras actually assist you in terms of dealing with crowds?

RM: It’s relevant because of the speed at which we could make the film. It’s a little bit less conspicuous. You can move throughout the city, these big company moves, from three locations. The way Manila is set up, it’s such a hard place to get from one location to the other—you could be stuck in traffic for three to four hours. With [DSLR cameras], we could just hop on local transportation or a subway and just move from one city to the other relatively quickly, and get everyone on a subway ticket. It was invaluable that we shot on the DSLR.

AVC: You’re personally based here in New York. Did you do your casting here, or did you do it all there?

RM: I got a couple head shots from my line producer, but most of it, the second that I landed, I set up three weeks’ worth of casting every single day, having meetings with some of the top actors there, from top independent actors all the way to non-actors.

AVC: Who was your biggest discovery? Who were you most surprised by in terms of the auditioning process?

RM: Ella Guevara, who played Elvie. She blew me away. There’s a great little story of how we cast that as well. We were casting in a Burger King, upstairs where there was a kiddy playground. I had her audition the scene where her best friend gets shot. In the background, there’s all these kids playing, and we’re acting out the scene. And then I shot her friend, and the expression on her face—I knew she was it. She blew me away. My other producer was there. You could feel it. In this Burger King. It was pretty amazing, and I thought that would be a total distraction for her, but she was so professional, so spot-on.

AVC: How did location scouting work for you? Was there a similar situation where a potential set particularly surprised or excited you?

RM: I was really excited that we actually were able to get the garbage dump. That was probably one of the most difficult locations to shoot in. The garbage dump, it’s mainly in a valley, and we were shooting during the rainy season. That area is prone to flooding, and the morning that we shot, the day before, there were heavy rains. We had to go through six or seven inches, up to 12 inches of mud to get all the vehicles into the dump, including our picture car. [Laughs.] It was a series of taking 4-by-8 sheets of wood and just flopping them one after the other, slowly getting everything up the, maybe 1,000 feet up to the location.

AVC: Is it like in the States, where you need the city’s permission, the location owner’s permission, all this paperwork to shoot somewhere? Was it generally difficult to get clearance to shoot?

RM: It was difficult in some of the inner boroughs, where a lot of the TV shows are being shot, because of permits. It’s difficult if you’re shooting in the major locations where all the TV companies shoot. But we managed to find all the locations fairly outside of that TV zone. There are some places where, yes, you do need to get permits. But most of the time, how it works there is, you ask the location, let’s say like the garbage dump, and then you need to bring in local law enforcement. That would be our so-called permits. We would be hiring the locals to help to look after us if we ever ran into any trouble. That’s mainly how it works over there, especially for a production like us, because it was so small.

AVC: A lot of the film is about corruption in the Philippines: in the police, the government, the criminal system, in people employed by these people. Was that something you actually ran into while you were shooting, while dealing with the local government and local institutions?

RM: Not so much. I remember talking to Arnold [Reyes] about how, you know, when I was growing up, Filipinos were afraid of police. They’re more afraid of police because some of the police can plant drugs on you or—there definitely is that corruption within a developing country. It’s inherent in that culture. But luckily, we did not run into any of that. We could have, but because Rolly [Palmes], my local line producer, had such great connections, we kind of slid under the radar. 

AVC: Was there ever any issue about police cooperation, given the content of the film, and its general image of corrupt cops?

RM: No, because again, we really tried to stay under their radar. There was one instance where we were actually shooting in a police station within the film where Ramos [De La Paz’s detective character] is sitting there trying to figure things out, at the end of the second act in the film. In that sequence—Dido De La Paz knew the police officers, so he managed to get in and say, “Hey, could we shoot this scene? Ron Morales is a student from University UP.” I told them, the rest of my crew, the Americans and Swedes, “Just stay in the van, and we’ll be out of here. Give me 15 minutes.” [Laughs.]

AVC: Are you familiar with Akira Kurosawa’s High And Low? It has different themes, but a very similar plot about mistaken identity and an employee whose child is mistaken for his boss’ child and kidnapped. 

RM: Yes. Yes I am. I was a very big fan of that. I loved the twist in the beginning with the two boys. When I first started writing Graceland, I hadn’t seen it. Then I saw it after the first draft, and I was like, “Dammit. Everyone’s going to be like, ‘This is such a Akira Kurosawa knockoff.’” But, I think, two very different films.

AVC: His film is about duty and honor, whereas this seems to be about how the pressure of corruption in one aspect of society creates corruption in other places. Would you say that’s an accurate description?

RM: Yes. I do think, especially over there, on a layman’s level, everyone is susceptible to that corruption. It doesn’t need to be as heightened as it is in Graceland, but that’s what I loved about all these characters. The kids are doing something really childish in stealing a dress, but that has consequences. Everything has consequences. I would say that’s a fair perception of the film.

AVC: Your lead actor, Arnold Reyes, is terrific. What were you looking for in him, and how did you know you’d found him when you cast him?

RM: Arnold was not what I expected. When I first saw his headshot, it looked like this really handsome model-type. I looked at his credits, and “He looks more like a soap-opera, Gap model for the Philippines.” When I auditioned him, he was the last audition I had that day. This was about the third week of auditions. I was waiting to meet a very big actor, and he kept canceling on me. Arnold managed to be the last one that day. When I sat down with him, I spoke to him, and I explained the character. What really hit me was when I was describing his backstory and his family. Arnold said, “I completely understand. My mother’s in the hospital right now. She has kidney disease. She’s doing dialysis.” There was this heaviness in his face. [Pauses.] It was like the weight of the world was right there on him. I could feel the love and concern he had for his sick mother. I said, “You know what? Let’s stop right there. I’d love you to read the first couple lines.” [Pauses.] And he nailed them. It was actually the last take. I actually forgot to record it. [Laughs.] But I remembered it, looking through the viewfinder of the little Canon DSLR, and it was fantastic. I knew right then and there.

AVC: Is it true you found yourself shooting in the middle of a gang war at one point?

RM: [Laughs.] We were shooting the driving scenes with Arnold and Menggie [Cobarrubias, the politician], and we came back, and Dido was trying to break up a fight between a gang. He pulled out his fake weapon, and they dispersed, and then the guys started coming back with more and more guys. We heard on the walkie, one of our electricians—he was freaked out. We were off the major highway on a small dirt road where it’s just shanties upon shanties upon shanties. We had a little bit of an incident the night before. What happened was, those guys ended up coming back with more of their gang members, so we were literally stuck in the middle between these two gangs trying to get back at Dido for pulling this fake weapon. They started giving trouble to our electricians, and there were more coming out of the woodwork. We called the police. Our local law enforcement could not handle that type of— [Laughs.] I could say they could have handled it, but they did not want to. Those are the areas where you don’t really want to be stuck in the middle of those gangs. We just hightailed it out of there, and we continued shooting in a separate location wherever we could.

AVC: What was going through Dido’s head, do you know? Was he in character? Did he just see an opportunity to try to help? Why did an actor feel he needed to wave a fake weapon and try to intervene in a gang confrontation?

RM: Dido comes from a military family, so he’s got a lot of aggression. He’s a great, great guy, and he wants to help. The gang members were actually harassing one of our crew members who was a camera intern. He just told them to get off our car, get off her car and get away from her. He was really stepping in to help when nobody else was around to help her. 

AVC: You shot the brothel sequence in an actual working brothel. How did you get permission for that, and what was it like shooting there?

RM: It was hard to find that brothel, because it’s actually a KTV bar, which essentially are brothels over there, the karaoke TV clubs. A lot of locations do not let you shoot in brothels. Again, we had to go further and further outside of the shooting zone, so that people would look at us as “Okay, this is an independent, local film. They’re not from America, or they’re not going to exploit us.” It was more difficult finding the location—both production-design wise, and again fitting into our schedule and price. Any of these KTV clubs could cost an arm and a leg. We happened to find a place that would allow us to shoot during the day before they were open, and hire some of their waitstaff without intruding in their operational hours. The scene itself, the major scene in the brothel, was as uncomfortable as it was onscreen.

AVC: You started out with a degree from the Parsons School For Design in photography. What led you there? Were you always looking to transition into film, or was there a period where you just wanted to do photography specifically?

RM: I originally wanted to work as a photojournalist, actually. My first year at Parsons, I was documenting this town square in a small city near where I grew up where a lot of my friends ended up just hanging out, and strange characters like heroin addicts and this woman called “Cat Lady.” That’s ultimately what I wanted to do, but every time I started talking to the community and getting involved, everyone knew me. I started listening to their stories. I thought this was where I wanted to be, up until the second year, where I was doing a color class. I told my professor, “Listen, I want to shoot color, but I want to shoot Super 8 film.” And from that moment on, all my work kept moving, so I said, “You know what? I need to get out of Parsons,” even though I loved the education there. “I know that this is not my place. I know I need to go to film school.” So that’s what I did.

AVC: Do you think your work in photography strongly informs your sensibilities as a filmmaker?

RM: It definitely is a huge portion of influence in my filmmaking. It’s not in the credits, but I’m the B-camera operator on most of the shots in the film. [Laughs.] I think if I didn’t take up photography, it wouldn’t have that same gritty feel from my documentary background. 

AVC: You’ve got something like 40 credits on the IMDB as a camera or tech operator on major films. What have you learned from those films that you bring into your own films? What have you learned from camera operation on films like The Departed or Michael Clayton that has become part of how you make movies?

RM: The most that I learned from these big Hollywood productions is the importance of production design, and placing lights as a practical in the background, and popping out certain areas just to make it look authentic. Especially at the dump, there’s all these fluorescent lights in the background. Throughout Asia and the Philippines, they always have these green fluorescents. I utilized environmental-lighting schemes and strategically placing them, so you get the same kind of feeling and grit and sense of the places. I was lucky enough to work with some great DPs and directors and be so close to watching actors and watching other directors work.

AVC: Could you isolate the best and worst experiences as a crew member on these big studio films?

RM: It could be on Spider-Man 3—I think I was just carrying sandbags up and down stairs. [Laughs.] But one of the best—actually, there’s two. I worked on this film called Holly, in Cambodia. It’s also about human trafficking. Yaron Orbach, who was my DP on Santa Mesa, I’m sort of learning his lighting style and incorporating that, and how I see things on a budget. For instance, we ended up bringing and making a lot of our lights for Graceland, much like what we did on Holly. It was purely aesthetics, and budgetary constraints. That was probably one of the best experiences. And a film called Paper Man, the other DP, Eigil Bryld—the way he placed his camera and camera movements, he really had a way of maneuvering the camera and blocking a scene, in terms of just one orchestrated movement that I haven’t seen people do that well.

AVC: What’s up next for you?

RM: I’m working on two scripts right now. I kind of want to go back to the original script I was working on, about the shamans, because that’s two and a half years of research. But I’m also writing a script for the United States. It would be a border-crossing film, U.S.-Mexico. That’s kind of it for now. There’s a lot that’s happening, so I’m trying to choose the best one in terms of both style and career choice. It’s pretty open right now. I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do. There’s a couple scripts I’m reading that could potentially be, but I’d like to go somewhere down the similar vein as Graceland—still arthouse, but have a little bit of commercial appeal.

AVC: Has there been distribution interest in Graceland? Do you have hopes for getting it picked up?

RM: I’m hoping. [Laughs.] There have been some bites, so I’ve heard from the producers, but I’m hoping that after all the dust settles in Tribeca, something good will come out of it. If not, we’re just going to keep trucking on through with Fantasia [International Film Festival] next, and then hopefully some more festivals will be knocking on our door to help get this film out there. 

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