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Tommy Bui interviews GRACELAND director Ron Morales

Hey everyone, Johnny D. here with another written piece by newest flick geeks member Tommy Bui. Today he talks to the director Ron Morales about his new film from Drafthouse Films entitled: “GRACELAND”. Which comes out today on VOD and Tommy also got to see the film earlier this week and his review will be up later today. So for now, check his his interview with Ron Morales.

TB: Can you discuss the genesis of the project? The kernel, if you will, of the project’s fruition. Conceptually or otherwise.

RM: The idea behind GRACELAND started while I was in a car driving around in Manila. I recall reading a recent news article about a kidnapping then all of a sudden a police motorcycle pulled us over. Now in the Philippines the police are known for shakedowns and corruption. So I imagined what if something horribly went wrong in this situation. Eight days later I finished the first draft of GRACELAND.

TB: Can you elaborate on your writing process a bit? Was the composition of GRACELAND a long and arduous process or one of those creative flurries where you had a draft within two weeks?

RM: I constantly work on screenplays back to back. The initial draft for GRACELAND was done in eight days. It was quick because I was in Manila at the time and I could investigate and emerge myself in my culture. But the transition from a first draft to a shooting draft is a whole different story. GRACELAND was not the script that I was pushing for many years to make. I actually did more research on another script involving human trafficking. Unfortunately we lost the funding for that film, and that is when Sam (Rider) and Rebecca (Lundgren) took a look at the screenplay of GRACELAND. Immediately, they jumped on board to make the film knowing the low budget and scope of the project, and here we are!

TB: Marlon is a morally complex character. Which makes him all the more relatable and interesting to the audience. Can you talk about some of the difficulties (or lack thereof) of crafting such an unorthodox anti-hero?

RM: This kind of flawed character is something I am drawn to because his choices and dilemmas are very human and relatable to the viewers. A simple man must do everything in his power to save his family even though he doesn’t know martial arts nor is he an ex-military CIA secret agent. He’s just a common driver. People root for these types of character because they see a little bit of themselves in him. The most difficult part about such a character is balancing the emotional rollercoaster that he (Marlon) is going through in the film and keeping the audience engaged with him until the end.

TB: Have you been satisfied with the film’s reception so far? With the twenty/twenty vision of hindsight, is there anything you would’ve done different? Longer principle photography? Different approach in terms of marketing?

RM: The reception of the film has been great. It’s one of those films that lingers in your cerebrum long after you’ve left the theater. Of course, I would have loved to have more money, more time, but this project really shows the core of indie filmmaking. Make it work with what you have. I think this always makes one more creative and flexible, because most importantly you need to tell a good story. If you asked me if I would do it again this way my answer is, “hells yes.” As for marketing the film lets see how well it will be received on a commercial level. I don’t recall the last Filipino film that really made waves in the US market so fingers crossed.

TB: What are some of your influences? Directorially or otherwise? What were some of the films you watched countless times as a youth?

RM: One of the first films I remember watching, as a kid was THE SHINING and FULL METAL JACKET. Now those films linger in your head for decades as they did mine and still do. I really am a fan of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick. I came from a photo/fine art background so my influences are mixed within these art forms. For GRACELAND, my cinematographer and I watched CHILDREN OF MEN, LILYA 4-EVER, and 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS & 2 DAY. We loved the realism and the kinetic camera work in these films. We took the approach of shooting with wide-angle lenses to convey the feeling of intimacy or more so intruding on personal space so to speak. Most of the shots we are inches away from the actors. With this kind of shot and angle, it intensifies the scene so much more psychologically, forcing the viewer right in the car seat next to the character.

TB: I feel this is a bold narrative that sheds light on the deplorable issue of the flesh trade. What’s been the critical response to some of the more disconcerting imagery of the film? In particular to the scene with the child prostitute? Has there been any negative backlash or accusations of exploitation?

RM: If you film a scene like this, there is always a backlash. As for exploitation there are far worse scenes in films that go above and beyond mine. The scene is supposed to be uncomfortable and meant to not turn a blind eye on the simple reality of not just an issue in the Philippines, but also in all parts of the world. I think the scene disturbs people not just because of the nudity but also because of her dialog. I tried my utmost to keep this scene genuine as well as keep the artistic integrity.

TB: What was the casting process like? And what was your working relationship like with the principles? Did you all grow pretty close throughout the filming?

RM: Casting was intense. We had a very limited amount of time to audition, and I think I saw over two hundred people. I work very closely with the actors. I try to understand where they come from in terms of their life experiences and sometime use this for motivation during the filming process. Shooting independent film is like summer camp, we all become family and after it’s over we want to do it again next summer. We spent twenty hours a day for seventeen days in the span of three and a half weeks together.

TB: What’s next on the docket for you? What projects are currently percolating for you at the moment?

RM: I am currently working on several screenplays with my writing partners. One is an US/Mexico border crossing thriller and the rise and fall of a drug lord.

TB: What are you watching these days? In your opinion, who’s doing the most exciting work? Which up-and-coming filmmakers are you keeping an eye on? Are there any upcoming releases that you’re looking forward to?

RM: Aside from catching up on the Oscar movies, I have really just been concentrating on discovering new actors and studying great roles. During the festival circuit, I met Margarete Tiesel the actress starring in PARADISE: LEIBE. It’s a great film with a wonderful performance by Tiesel. She is someone, whom I would love to work with in the future. As for upcoming movies, I really loved A PROPHET and need to find some time to check out Jacques Audiard’s last film RUST AND BONE.

TB: Do you have any advice to aspiring filmmakers out there? Some pearls of wisdom to impart or something you wish you would’ve known when you were first starting out?

RM: Write, rewrite and keep writing. It costs nothing but is so important.

TB: I can’t imagine tourism will boost for the Philippines after this film’s release. To counteract that, can you describe your perfect leisurely day in Manila? Where’s it begin and where does it end?

RM: My perfect day in Manila is to take a long walk through the crowded streets, hop on every form of public transportation and disappear into the masses. Then stop at the local food stall and grab some soul food and end the night at a bar with some of my actor and director friends to talk about stories.

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GRACELAND releases theatrically on April 26th 2013. It will be available on VOD March 28th 2013.

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