Q&A: Director Ron Morales on His Film "Graceland" and the Filipino Crime World

Q&A: Director Ron Morales on His Film "Graceland" and the Filipino Crime World
Still of Arnold Reyes and Menggie Cobarrubias in "Graceland"
(© Imprint Pictures)

LOS ANGELES — “Graceland” is a fictitious tale that takes a bold look at the grim reality of the crime world of kidnappings, sex, trafficking, and violence in the Philippines.

In the gritty thriller, Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes) is the longtime driver of a corrupt politician, but their personal lives become entangled when their daughters are abducted in an elaborate scheme for revenge.


The movie opens in limited release on April 26, and is currently on VOD.

Director/writer Ron Morales spoke with ARTINFO about his sophomore project.

I understand you didn’t start off wanting to make this movie and that you came up with the idea as you were researching another project. How did that happen?

I was doing a ton of research on an almost mood piece that was more about the human trafficking side of the Philippines. One of the co-producers, Yusuke Kamata, and I were working on this for about three years, going back and forth to the Philippines interviewing sex workers. What happened was we had funding, but lost it. We couldn’t scrap all that research so I went into a hole and started writing the screenplay. My buddy Sam Rider, who is one of the producers on “Graceland,” read it and said, “You have to do this,” and I said, “We have no money.” He was like, “Let’s do a Kickstarter or whatever we can do to get this going.” Literally within two months we bought tickets to Philippines and went out there and did it. It was pretty amazing.

Is this film based on a true story in the Philippines or your interpretation of an event that happened?

It’s more of my interpretation of several different articles I’ve read in terms of the kidnapping side in the Philippines. Kidnapping for ransom was pretty rampant in 2000 to 2007. There was maybe about 150 to 200 kidnappings a year. In certain circumstances it was pretty violent. I just wanted to transplant that to metro Manila where they target a lot of higher profiler Filipino Chinese. I felt like it was pretty accurate and true in terms of the violence that happens there or used to happen there. It’s died down quite a bit. It’s still a business over there.

What is the business? Why were so many kidnappings happening?

The south wants their own separate state. So in terms of that, they would use that fund to line up against the Filipino government to try to separate. The northern states are capitalized and the southern states are poor. Historically, that’s really what’s happening. From what I’ve heard on the streets and read, the kidnapping for ransom are targeting the lower class kidnapping their kids, taking their $1,000 or whatever they have. They will do it on a grand scale. They will kidnap like 50 to 100 kids, but that’s just all out of pure greed and crime. It’s awful.

I approach my work with more of a documentary background so I really love jumping into the investigating and I like to assimilate myself into the culture.

What I loved about the main character was that he was representing the lower class and did have a submissive mentality. However, he stopped being powerless and did what he needed to in order to save his family. 

I wanted to be very true to this character who does represent the lower class. They are somewhat of a subservient society because they have been colonized and there’s a colonial mentality that’s still there. It’s slowly dissipating and I think that’s what drew me to that character.

What does your family and people in the Philippines think of the movie?

My parents saw it and were really engaged. I don’t think it’s truly sunk in with them. When we screened it in the Philippines for the Oscar submission, we got very positive feedback.

This film examines an important subject matter that needs to be seen, but it focuses on such a dark and ugly side of the country, so it’s surprising you haven’t gotten more negative feedback.

That’s what I was afraid of, but at the same time, I know it’s what they see all the time. There are too many pockets of this sex trade world that are in plain sight. It’s so in your face that sometimes you forget it, but just to be reminded of it is enlightening.

In the movie, you do touch upon the sex trafficking issue and you show a fully nude young girl trapped in this world. How did you feel about that scene and why was it essential to the story?

I didn’t want to dumb down that experience. That does happen. The girl is 18, but she plays a much younger age sex worker. I felt like I could have cut around it, but I wanted the audience [to know] this is really happening. I think I did it in a very tasteful way. I could have gone much further, but I think it was very simple. I think it was powerful and haunting.

You take a different approach in revealing the kidnappers’ motives behind their justification for what they’re doing. How did that come about?

I wanted to humanize the villain. It’s one to have just your pure evil villain, but to twist it and turn it around to show he’s doing it for other reasons besides money I thought was interesting. I wanted to have this fine line between good and evil characters. Even though the congressman is a monster, he is losing his daughter and I also do want the audience to feel just a little bit for him. I also want them to feel for the villain and that he’s not so much wrong. He did this for a reason.