A Journey Into 'Graceland'
Morales knows about life on the business end of a film shoot. While Graceland (released this week through Drafthouse Films) is only his second stint behind the camera as writer/director, he is a seasoned grip with credits on over 40 features. However, he slipped behind the lens for 2008's drama about an American child in the Philippines, Santa Mesa. It's hard not to see something autobiographical in that tale of an American-born Filipino boy being immersed in the culture and country of his parents. Morales said: "My parents were fortunate. They grew up poor, but they were educated and the left the country. So I grew up with that mentality that you need to leave."
Graceland takes him back to the nation of his forebears. But, by contrast to his first feature, it presents a country that would be the last place you'd want to raise your kids. Marlon (Arnold Reyes) is the driver for Congressman Chango (Menggie Cobarrubias), charged with taking the politician's daughter to school every day. But there's a darker side to his job: He also procures underage prostitutes for Chango. Their comfy world of moral corruption collapses one day when kidnappers come looking for Chango's child. Morales said: "This film is a very bleak outlook on the society and the culture, but at the same time it's changing there. It's becoming better economically, but for the most part it's been very repressed. I just wanted to give those people a voice, because they don't have one."
Kidnapping is a core part of the plot, and the Philippines has a long history of professional kidnap gangs. However, Morales wasn't worried about invoking their dangerous ire by exposing their "profession." He said, "I wasn't afraid to show that, because it's already known." Nor he was not interested in peddling cliches about the gangs or the people upon whom they prey. He said, "I just wanted to humanize all the characters, their needs and their wants and their goals."
There is no character more morally compromised in Graceland than Marlon: A loving father complicit in his boss' grotesque crimes. Morales was initially concerned that Reyes was too conventionally handsome for the part and wanted someone "more humble-looking" to play his hardluck lead, but was won over during auditions. When the film starts to examine the moral compromises he makes – for his daughter and for his sick wife – then his lead finds himself making what Morales called "not so clean choices." The kidnappers "are punishing all these people and making them corrupt. In fact, they're all corrupting one another."
Morales doesn't simply point finger of blame at Marlon, and the same goes for the influential Congressman Chango. When Morales first met Cobarrubias, he said he had "the persona of an aristocrat." However, as Chango he becomes "this dirty man with this fetish that he can just take and reap from society. Those elements are not stereotypical but very typical Filipino corruption, and I wanted them to ring true on the side of the Philippines – how people there feel about society and how it represses them."
The shoot itself was the epitome of guerrilla filmmaking – what Morales called "an ultra-low level indie." He said, "The whole film was done on a whim." Producer Sam Rider read Morales' script in June 2010 and convinced him that it needed to be shot, then fellow producer Rebecca Lundgren flew back to Los Angeles to help ramp up production. Morales said, "We raised a little money and, lo and behold, a month later we were buying tickets to the Philippines."
The plan, he said, was "to make this gritty feel but also feel realistic, but still light it in a Hollywood way." However, their indie budget gave them only 17 days to shoot, rather than the 25 they originally scheduled. Morales and his director of photography Sung Rae Cho (most recently serving as a camera operator on The Americans for FX) worked with what the Philippines gave them. "We could not afford an extra day," said Morales. "We just slashed the schedule in half and did 20-hour days."
Much of Marlon's family life was sacrificed in the script edit, as was a major subplot about organ donors, but even with the cuts they faced a grueling and physically exhausting shoot. That was tough on the cast, but it lent authenticity to the film. Morales said, "Since the story is so compact and spans several days, it felt natural that everyone was physically drained." However, he made sure to take care of the film's large cast of child and teen actresses, who were already dealing with an emotionally powerful script and some disturbing scenes. Morales said, "We really had to tightly schedule them around us, in terms of when they should be there, because we didn't want to overwork them and take advantage."
That meant more pressure on his adult cast and crew. They weren't just location scouting while they were shooting: They were shooting in between shoots. Morales said, "When the company moves between locations, it takes at least an hour, hour and a half to get anywhere, and sometimes we'd have three moves a day. Creatively, we said we need to be shooting while we're moving, so we did a lot of car scenes while we were relocating."