‘Metro Manila,’ which received a nomination for Best Film Not in the English language from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, has propelled Caymanian Frank E. Flowers into a new realm of movie stardom. He collaborated with friend Sean Ellis, the film’s writer/director/producer, for whom the project has been a labor of love for more than two years. Flowers talks to the Journal about the making of the movie, set entirely in the Philippines with an all-Filipino cast and shot only in the local Tagalog language.
Prior to “Metro Manila,” Frank E. Flowers had notable success with previous movies he wrote and directed.
His short film “Swallow,” about teenage drug mules, was selected for the Sundance Film Festival and won numerous awards on the festival circuit before being licensed by HBO in 2004.
He then wrote and directed the independent film “Haven,” a thriller which featured Orlando Bloom, Zoe Saldana, Bill Paxton, and Stephen Dillane.
“Metro Manila,” which won Best Independent Film at the 2013 British Independent Film Awards, and premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the coveted World Cinema Audience Award, takes a slightly different turn. Yet it has been winning awards and winning over critics.
After “Metro Manila” won the Hamburg Film Critic Award at the 2013 Filmfest Hamburg, the jury said of the film: “The themes of our times are what define this film: rural exodus and impoverishment, exploitation and poverty in the Moloch of overcrowded metropolises. Director Sean Ellis filmed this story in a language that is foreign to him – and yet still always manages to hit the right tone. He is emotional, yet never impassioned; poetic, yet never tawdry; raw without any hint of cynicism. A social drama that becomes a thriller, breathless and unstoppable. ‘Metro Manila’ deserves to be seen by many.”
Steve Rose wrote in The Guardian: “You could complain that the characters are a little thin (perhaps owing to the language barrier), but it’s a resourceful, distinctive film that builds to a satisfying crescendo.”
And, finally, Variety’s critic Alissa Simon had this to say:
“…The screenplay [co-written with Hollywood scribe Frank E. Flowers] boasts the stock characters and situations, sentimentality, foreshadowing and melodrama of soap opera. Yet by cleverly blending these ingredients with those of an action caper, the pic presents a fresher appeal.”
It has also received high ratings on the online review site Rotten Tomatoes.
“My favorite movie of all time is ‘Straw Dogs,’” says Flowers, “and this is similar in that it looks at a person who keeps being pushed to the limits until he breaks. I thought that was an interesting concept to explore.
“I think this movie has more heart than my previous movies. I wanted to take this movie to a level which was inspiring.”
Flowers says it’s a universal theme – a man is trying to take care of his family and be good.
“I know that’s a little cheesy, but it’s what I identify with. I’m now a father to a 1-year-old and so I really understand now, how, as a father, you think beyond just your own well-being, and I understand what true responsibility is, to look after someone who cannot look after themselves.
“To want to protect your offspring is such a basic need when you have children, and the lead character has to do the right thing by his children, even though he is in a place where he is pushed so hard he could go off the rails.”
Writer/director Sean Ellis’s quest for authenticity meant the movie was shot entirely in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines.
“I loved the idea of doing something in a foreign language,” Flowers says. “I found it interesting and exciting to tell the movie with pictures. Sean is originally a photographer, so he thinks in pictures,”
Flowers says it wasn’t much harder to write a movie in a foreign language.
“You just have to be more concise and condense a lot. You can be a lot more direct because the words are on the screen so you can get to the point quicker,” he explains.
Having the movie nominated for a BAFTA award is “a beautiful end to a remarkable journey,” Flowers says.
“To be recognized at the highest level is a great validation for Sean as a director and myself as a writer and everyone who participated in the movie.
“On the day, I will enjoy celebrating making the words come off the page. Sean risked so much to make this movie, so it really is a validation of all his hard work,” Flowers says.
While visiting friends in Manila, Oscar-nominated movie director, photographer and writer Sean Ellis witnessed a flight between two employees of an armored truck company, who were armed to the teeth with M16 rifles, bulletproof jackets and Kevlar helmets, screaming at each other in front of their armored truck. This event was enough to stimulate Ellis’s imagination.
“Sean and I had been good friends for about 10 years when he came to visit me in my home in Los Angeles,” Flowers says. “For the next few weeks we wrote the script of the movie together, fleshing out Sean’s 20-page synopsis. It came about quite quickly.”
The pair worked nonstop, creating the basis of the film. It wasn’t complete, but it was enough for Ellis to travel to the Philippines to see if it was possible to put the project together.
Ellis’s synopsis saw the main character, Oscar Ramirez, and his family deciding to move from the poverty-stricken rice fields of the northern Philippine mountain ranges to the capital city of Manila in search of a better life. Upon arriving in the big city, Oscar and his family fall afoul of various city inhabitants whose manipulative ways are a daily part of city survival. Oscar’s morality is put to the test under extreme conditions as the story unfolds.
“The idea came about from taking someone in the most extreme and desperate circumstances of poverty and at the same time see if they can hold on to their moral compass,” Flowers explains. “I identified with this from my Caymanian upbringing where it’s bred into our culture to hold fast to the right thing and act above-board. I thought it as interesting to explore this concept all the way through to the extreme, of life and death.”
Flowers says the two writers bounced the idea off each other until it all came together.
“I had the idea for the character, who he was, and where he would go. I’m an early riser, so at 5 a.m. I would start the process. It took about a month for the writing to be completed, which isn’t rare for a first draft but is really quick when you are going straight into filming – it was written and shot in a very short space of time. I normally like to write fast, knowing I’ve got weeks and weeks of editing ahead of me, so this was a new discipline for me and created a different type of energy and pressure.”
Flowers, the son of Frank Sr. and Eve Flowers and the grandson of the late Cayman Islands businessman Clarence Flowers, grew up in Cayman, graduated from John Gray High School and pursued a film major at the University of Southern California.
Among his other achievements, he received the first-ever “Rising Son” honor from the Caribbean Heritage Organization of America.
“I am always so incredibly proud of Frank E.,” says his younger sister Dara. “It has been exciting to witness his talent evolve through the years. I remain continually inspired by the passion and dedication he has for his craft.”
Flowers has lived in Los Angeles since 1997, but he has not forgotten his roots.
“Cayman inspired me to tell stories,” he says. “Having such a strong base of friends and family gives me the confidence I need to keep the fight going in such a competitive industry.”
The BAFTA Awards are scheduled for Feb. 16 at London’s Royal Opera House.