Badass Interview: Ron Morales On Drafthouse Films’ GRACELAND

The writer and director of the riveting thriller talks about his tough shoot in the Philippines. 

Drafthouse Films' Graceland hits theaters today and is also available on VOD and iTunes (see where you can watch it here). The film is a breathtaking crime epic that follows family man Marlon, chauffeur to a powerful politician whose daughter is supposed to be kidnapped when, by accident, Marlon's daughter is taken instead. I had a chance to talk to Ron Morales, the writer and director of Graceland, earlier this week. 

It seems like it was a tight shoot. What were some of the limitations of shooting in the Philippines on such a short schedule?

Well, of course, one of the biggest was budget. We had very limited resources. We had very limited time. We did a 17-day shoot over there, we shot 20-22 hours a day, which was pretty hard. You know, there’s a bit of a language barrier and a bit of a culture barrier that we had to come to terms with.  I could go on and on. Location permits are pretty tough to get, especially the brothel and the dump site. Those are some of the more miserable ones that come to mind.

Can you talk about shooting in the brothel?

The scene in the brothel was a pretty tough scene, because we ended up using a working brothel. What I wanted to do with that scene is really show what is happening behind those doors throughout these pockets in the Philippines. And it is a very uncomfortable scene, and the actress who played it, she had a tough job. She was a first time actress. And I wanted a little bit of a reminder to the audience what goes on. But I don’t feel like I went over the top with the scene. I felt like this was pretty tasteful, in my opinion, but that’s all you can try to do. Some people think it wasn’t done in that way, but a lot of people commended me for the way I filmed it. But it was a very uncomfortable scene to shoot.

Why did you decide to call the film Graceland?

While I was writing the film, most of the characters that I thought were interesting and exciting were all about people who were corrupting one another. And I just felt like all the characters in all the buildings in the story were characters who had fallen from grace. It’s just a world without grace, a land without grace. So that’s why I named it Graceland.

I know you were researching another film that eventually became Graceland. Can you talk about what that movie  was, and how it became this movie instead?

The first movie I was working on with a co-producer, Yusuke Kamata, was more about the human trafficking side. So we were doing a lot of interviews with sex workers in communities throughout the Philippines. And we had funding for the film but then we lost it last minute. And I felt like I couldn’t let the resources I had go to waste. So I went back to Graceland, and I put all that energy into the screenplay. My friend Sam Rider came over in the summer of 2010, and he read the screenplay and he said, “We should do this.” We could do it on a microbudget, and it ended up two months later, we were buying tickets back to the Philippines.

Are we ever going to see the film you were originally working on?

I feel like I could try to do that other film, but I wouldn’t want to tackle the same subject matter again in another piece. It is much more of an arthouse piece. But, you know, you never know. I could pick it back up one day.

Having worked on some really big films like Michael Clayton and The Departed, are there certain key  lessons that came in handy when you filmed Graceland?

Most of the stuff I learned on these huge movies was scheduling and trying to get the most out of what we can. With my background in camera support and lighting, we learned to create the best we could with what we had. This was a true, true indie project, but all of us had worked on major films in the past and we utilized that knowledge that we had.

I know the poster went live this week from Mondo (above). Did you have any input in it? It’s a beautiful poster.

Oh no, that was all Drafthouse, but it’s a fantastic poster. We just let them do their thing.

Arnold Reyes is amazing as Marlon. How did you end up casting him?

My production manager, or line producer now, he actually helped with casting a lot. So I had back to back meetings with somewhat unknown talent there. And we had to see who could work with us and the budget that we had. And we had some challenges to find the right people in the right roles. But for the most part he was actually one of the easiest parts that we cast.

The film did really well on the festival circuit. What was it like representing the film at these different festivals?

We didn’t have any challenges. We’re just excited that it got into so many different festivals and the response has been pretty positive.

What are you working on in the future? Do you have some  projects in the pipeline?

I’m always working on different screenplays and I have a couple of writing partners, but right now, it’s more just trying to get Graceland to as many people as we can. So we’re super excited about it.