The perks of being a Netflix junkie: sometimes you get what you ask for. Each I day I scour the Internet for international films that just might change how I perceive the world. I browse the Criterion Collection on HuluPlus, seek out French New Wave films that I haven’t experienced before and check MUBI shortly after 11 pm Central Standard Time, because I know that’s when their latest film of the day will be available to stream. Despite all this planing, sometimes a film randomly enters my life that swiftly knocks me off my feet.
Although Sean Ellis‘ Metro Manila has made the festival circuit over the past year and won the Audience Award: World Dramatic at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, I knew little about the Filipino-language film until four weeks ago when it appeared on Netflix. I watched the trailer, liked what I saw and promoted the film on Twitter, which was acknowledged by the film’s star, Jake Macapagal. And so, that’s how I came across the visually poetic and superbly acted Metro Manila. I subsequently watched the film and became enamored with a world that I knew nothing about. Where is the Benaue province and how do I get there? And who are these actors? After the initial countryside hook (a very good one), director Ellis shifts the attention to the gritty landscape of the film’s title. Oscar Ramirez (Macapagal) and his wife Mai (Althea Vega) arrive in Metro Manila, forced to leave their former life behind in order to support themselves and a young daughter with an infected ear. As both parents seemingly find solid work, the city’s harsh realities threaten their very existence. However, with a little luck, and a whole lotta love, the Ramirez family may find peace and a renewed vision for the future.
After watching the astounding performance of Macapagal, who earned a nomination for Most Promising Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards, I reached out to the veteran stage actor/acting coach and spoke to him last week about his life in film.
QVH: You grew up in Manila and moved to Germany at age 27?
JM: I started my career by doing community theatre, and then I started to do professional theatre when I was 16 – mainly doing musical theatre. So, if you are in the theatre business, somewhere in the 90s, you would have to be joining Miss Saigon, which a lot of Filipinos were able to do in 1989. Even though there’s a union in the United Kingdom, they allowed Filipinos to work because they were traveling around Asia and able to work in the West End. Then in 1994, I joined Miss Saigon in Germany, and I lived there for almost eight years.
QVH: What is Miss Saigon?
JM: It’s like Phantom of the Opera or Cats, but it’s a musical about the Vietnam War.
QVH: Who were your influences growing up in Manila?
JM: We’ve always had American films in the Philippines because English is our second language and a language of instruction as well. It starts from family. My father would be taking in some films that we’d watch all day, films like The Godfather, but personally, I was gearing towards serious actors. In theatre, you follow works from senior actors or actors that you admire, so I was looking at works from Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman. When I saw Marathon Man, I thought it was the best film. I was gearing towards more thrillers and action films — all those things that you don’t normally have in your life. When you don’t have adventure or couldn’t leave as a teenager, you’d be exploring films and films could take you anywhere — in America or Western Europe. I was also watching a lot of French films on TV that were available. I knew I wanted to be in film, but I was taking my time learning theatre. Eventually, I had a chance to go to Australia for a certificate to study film acting. It gave me a boost to know where I wanted to be and since I had been teaching, I felt confident about dissecting and reading a script. This is the same training you do in theatre – when you’re singing, you understand what you’re singing about. So, it gave me a boost to hop in and say, “let’s shoot.”
QVH: What was the transition like moving from Germany to Australia?
JM: It was a culture shock, of course, but I was excited. I was thinking more of doing a professional play, and it was time for me to be independent. It’s different culturally. In America, I think after high school you can already start working for yourself and your college degree. In the Philippines, it’s a little bit longer; you can still live with your parents, mostly because it’s a very clannish society. You can stay with your family until you’re 40 or 50 or live there all your life. At 27, I was more excited about being independent. I was excited about getting to know another culture and meeting other people from different countries. It was all excitement for me, more than the actual work.
QVH: When did you start teaching?
JM: If you are an actor in the Philippines, you have to do a lot of things like commercial work. I think even in LA it’s like that. You do commercial work, go back to theatre and a more stable job would be teaching classes or acting. There’s a huge network here in the Philippines that asked me to work with them and develop a curriculum for younger students or thespians.
QVH: What do you think the biggest myth is for young film students?
JM: It’s funny that you asked that. I think the misconception is that you think a role will land on you or be discovered in the streets. It’s a lot of hard work. Whether you do it for advocacy or to help people, you continue to inject yourself with things that would be beneficial for your career.
QVH: I initially started an image-based blog called Vague Visages to keep busy, and it was devoted specifically to French New Wave films. At a certain point, I wanted to expand to cover all film, and I thought vaguevisages.com would be a perfect way to move forward. It’s fun for me.
JM: See, that’s the same thing in this career if you want to be an actor. It just doesn’t stop. You have to connect yourself. You have to enrich yourself. You can study or if you don’t want to, you can keep on taking jobs to legitimize yourself. It might not be that job that you wanted, but you can still legitimize it and give it 100 percent. And you just never stop doing that. And somehow, along the way, a small door will open…and there you go.
QVH: As a film critic, I need to continue learning about the French New Wave, Italian film, global cinema – everything that I can get my hands on. So, that makes perfect sense to me.
JM: That’s exactly it. It’s very easy to be wide-eyed and impressionable when you’re young and to think that doors will automatically open for you. I think they open when you’ve actually accumulated a lot of hard work. And somehow you meet people and then you’re connected. I thought that an offer would come right after Metro Manila, although I did get connected with an agency (ICM). I didn’t know that it would take longer, but it’s perfectly ok. People have seen my work and somehow, some way, we connect.
QVH: How did you first get cast in Metro Manila and what was the pre-production process like with director Sean Ellis?
JM: He came here and a common friend of ours, Celine, said, “Let’s get connected with Jake. He’s from the independent film industry, he can get us cheaper rates and lead us to people that can help.” But I never even imagined that I would be offered the lead role. I was imagining that I would be able to help and make a cameo role. I didn’t know when I met Sean that he was already thinking, “Ok, I have my Oscar Ramirez.” It was like a dream. I wanted to help out, but it turned out that Sean offered me the role. He said, “Would you like to take this journey with me,” and I wasn’t so sure that I could commit 100 percent because I was doing other jobs. From then on, we had a casting week, and I was recommending people that I knew from theatre. Hence, the supporting cast came mostly from theatre, and I was so happy that they were part of the film. Then, Sean offered me the position of associate producer, because I was working hand in hand with him. As far as post-production, there was about a year of work in London and France after finishing the shoot in January 2011: the editing, the sound engineering, the CGI, the grading – it cost Sean a lot of money. He had to mortgage his house, and all of that happened in about one and half years. We tried to get into festivals like Cannes, but they rejected us. Toronto, Telluride…we couldn’t get into any festivals. We did imagine that Metro Manila would be the film to get on the list right away…but we didn’t. There were some months where Sean and I were really depressed and said, “Was it all worth it?” Since most of the producers thought Sean would be doing an English-language film, most were not interested in supporting a Filipino-language film. It’s a smaller audience. And so, Sundance offered a screening for January 2013 and since it’s been a lucky streak. We won the Audience Award, and all of sudden we were invited to all the other festivals. Our top moment was getting the best British film award last December and to be nominated at the BAFTAs. But it’s not that easy; if you’re not an A-lister, if you don’t have a name, if you’re not tied with a nomination or if you’re not backed by a studio executive, it’s very hard to get your film seen. What I’m happy about is that we reached 21 territories. America was the hardest; we thought we’d be screening right away after Sundance, but we only started last month and then got into Netflix. The U.S. screenings are selective, and we also just changed distributors, so I’m not sure what’s going on. I’m just happy that Metro Manila is reaching people who are interested in film who either read about it or e-mail me. Maybe I don’t have to concern myself with the quantity but instead the quality of people who really appreciate the film.
QVH: Absolutely. I check Netflix every day to see what’s new, and I found Metro Manila. I’ve the film twice now and ask myself why I didn’t know much about it before. Here’s a perfect example of Hollywood not embracing independent cinema: Godard’s Goodbye To Language isn’t screening anywhere in Los Angeles for some strange reason.
JM: I don’t want to be one of those actors that says, “We need the minority voice represented in western cinema!” At the end of the day, the producers and executives have their niche – it’s their money – so it all depends how much they really believe in you, right? So, maybe just by having this chance to break through on Netflix, or in special screenings, I’m sure there’s somebody who says, “We need this actor” or “We need this film.” It’s like a domino effect, but it’s very hard to start a brigade that says, “We need more colored faces in western cinema.” It’s quite tough to do that. It’s only recently that African-American stories are heard or even women. It’s getting better, but it’s still evolving.
QVH: You have excellent chemistry with Althea Vega in Metro Manila. Were you friends before?
JM: No, she’s one of the newest Filipino actors. The reason she bagged the role, I think, is that Sean saw something innately fragile in her along with a lot of want and need as a person. What I mean by that is that she had no training and thought cinema would be her best way to break into something. When she was introduced to me, I told her to relax, read and just be natural — and she was. For the first shoot, we had to go the province that you see in the opening sequence and that took us about 18 hours to travel there. It’s really quite far, and we traveled by small bus. So, we became close, and I knew her quirks. She would listen because she wanted to learn, and she didn’t have to try because she trusted me. She knew that I wouldn’t take advantage of her or make a fool out of her. She trusted her instincts, and we had our bonding moment during the travels.
QVH: And you have a history of teaching, so I’m sure that gave her a sense of relief.
JM: Definitely. In fact, one piece of advice that I told her was not to jump into bold films after Metro Manila. There’s a market for films where young girls have to take off their clothes or have lousy scripts, so I told her not to make a film like that. Once you make a film like Metro Manila, you have to up the ante and make something better. You can’t do something lower than what you’ve done.
QVH: Tell me about the acting history of your partner in Metro Manila. He is hilarious!
JM: Yeah, John is different. We’re both in theatre and he also sings; it’s a small community of theatre actors here in Manila. I know him, he knows me and we’ve done a film together called Compound. We know how to listen to each other, and the great thing about that is his attack it totally different from mine. We sort of compliment each other. It’s funny that you noticed, because he has his own style and we would have clashed if I started to match it. It’s like a Ping-Pong kind of thing – just listen and not try to outdo each other.
QVH: Metro Manila is a powerful drama, but I could see you two in a buddy movie.
JM: That’s a good point. Every time I get to sit down with John we always talk about where the film has gone. I’ll let you in on a story: it’s not until we see the rushes that we can really judge if it’s going to be a great film or something you get on DVD. There are a lot of foreign directors who come to the Philippines, but that doesn’t mean that it will get somewhere. So, John and I we knew Metro Manila was special. When we had to dub scenes and saw the rushes, we were in awe. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing, and I said, “Wow, John, we really hit it this time.”
QVH: The cinematography was beautiful.
JM: That’s it, because if you’re doing a lot of independent film in the Philippines, you know what you’re going to see. You see in on television; you see it on the films that you’ve made, but there’s a certain poetry that Sean has because he doesn’t live here. I don’t know if you remember but most of the scenes are quiet. You hear the sound of the city, but there’s very little music. It’s all in the images. It’s quite intoxicating when you go on the trip and see the sunset, and you see the people muddle, and you see commerce in the street. Of course, on top of that, you put in the music and then you have something.
QVH: Given that you worked with Sean, who was not from the Philippines, did you learn anything new about Manila?
JM: Most people who live in the city probably would blind themselves from the harsh realities of a developing country. You know that corruption is magnified, and poverty is extreme. The divide between the rich and poor is quite extreme as well. If you live in the Metropolis all your life, there’s a way to cope with that. You turn a blind eye and go on living. Sometimes people don’t even see it, because they come from their air-conditioned houses to get into cars with tinted windows and then go into their building. I think if you’re an artist or an actor, a struggling one at that, your eyes and senses are opened to the realities that help you become more grounded as an actor. Lucky enough, I like my industry. I’ve always been in the moment looking for things that are new and developing in the street. Even the pedestrian lanes are not really made for walking, but since I don’t have a car, I just walk from one block to another, and you see things.
QVH: Did you have a say in the location of Oscar’s home? The Tondo neighborhood?
JM: Yes. We did want to shoot in Tondo, but it would have been more dangerous for Sean and the crew, so we opted not to shoot there. There would be days that Sean and I would drive around and I’d say, “I want this,” so he’d know the deeper parts of Metro Manila, which is made up of Burroughs. There are different municipalities and districts.
QVH: As I viewer, I was expecting to see Manila right away, but then there’s a beautiful shot of the Benaue province. I absolutely loved that opening shot and also when you get out of the vehicle and look up at the surroundings of Manila. That can translate to any country or city.
JM: That’s a good location from Sean. I’ll tell you something; when I first watched that on screen at Sundance with an American audience, I was so excited. That scene that you’re talking about with the drive from Benaue all the way to the city, and the images of the greenery, and the city hustle and bustle, and then the music kicks in – I was bawling. I was crying. There’s something that he (Sean Ellis) got there that was totally on point. When you go to festivals like that, you think of something else and the possibilities of advancing your career. Then you watch the film and are reminded that the majority of your countrymen actually lived that way. That’s a very strong scene for me, and Sean was able to encapsulate that.
QVH: Who’s on your wish list of directors to work with?
JM: I’d love to work with David Fincher, because I think he’s really an actor’s director. I’d love to be able to make a film with Christopher Nolan. If Stanley Kubrick was alive, maybe him!
QVH: Who are some local directors that people need to know about?
JM: There’s a Filipino director that actually won the Palme d’Or a couple years ago. His name is Brillante Mendoza. I’m more excited about the younger ones, and there are a couple of directors that are coming up like Jerrold Tarog, Lawrence Fajardo and Carlo Ledesma. The film that really made a buzz in the Philippines was On The Job; it’s an action-thriller by Erik Matti. He wished the film would have been the Filipino Oscar entry, but it made a little buzz because it had a premiere in Cannes.
QVH: I’m a huge boxing fan and used to watch Manny Pacquiao train at the Wild Card Gym when I lived in Hollywood. I read that you made a boxing film called Kid Kulafu. What’s your role?
JM: Kid Kulafu was actually the name of Manny when he was younger. It covers his life until he was 15 years old when he came to Manila. It’s a biopic about his struggle to survive and I play the trainer before he became famous. It’s a small supporting role, but Paul Soriano is an exciting director. Pacquiao’s climb to success is impressive. All the other things he’s doing is another story, but from where he started when he was just a fisherman and all the other drama is great for cinema. It’s really quite impressive how he picked himself up and learned the footwork of boxing.
QVH: What does independent film mean to you?
JM: What it means to me to be truly independent is to have the freedom to do the work that you want without being bound by society or studio executives…or by a norm. To be a truly independent artist, you don’t succumb to what’s normal practice for everybody else. For example, when Ridley Scott didn’t want to support us, Sean still continued producing the film and mortgaged his house. I think that’s truly independent. It also means not being backed by a big studio, meaning that eight people will be working on the set. You know that when you’re truly independent there won’t be any support coming from the media, but if you have a fantastic film all those things will be added. You can’t turn down a good film. I’m just happy that we have DVD, Blu-ray and YouTube, so it will be there as some sort of legacy for me.
QVH: What’s next and how can people stay current with your career?
JM: When I went to Palm Springs I met a prolific Israeli director named Guy Nattiv. He’s the husband of Jaime Ray Newman from Catch Me If You Can, and we’re trying to do a project about the Jewish rescue during World War II in the Philippines. Not a lot of people know about that. The Philippines opened its doors to refugees from Germany and Austria in order to have a live in Manila. That’s the script that I really want to push, and we’re looking to get the ball rolling by 2015. I’m also doing a project in the Philippines about a bus hostage — more like Dog Day Afternoon or Munich. If people want to stay in touch and see what’s happening, I’m most active on my Twitter @jakepromac.