Brighton-born filmmaker Sean Ellis, whose new independent film (Metro Manilla) has been nominated for the Best Film Not in the English Language BAFTA, has made an incredible journey to get to where he is now.
Starting his path in 1984, a 14-year-old Ellis was ecstatic to see that his black and white photograph of a swan by the Palace Pier had been published in the Evening Argus. He had taken up photography at school after feeling that his art did not hold up to that of his friend, Jason Brashill (who later worked on the cult 2000AD magazines and covers of Judge Dredd comic strips) and his dad suggested he use a camera instead of a pencil to capture the vivid images that he saw in his head.
This new opportunity inspired him to constantly take photographs around the home, as his head was swimming with new ideas. However, his mum found that what seemed to come out of his head was occasionally a bit worrying, as one time he set his Action Men on fire to get his perfect shot.
He did well at school, but eventually became complacent with his college course, so he found work as a photographer’s assistant. He worked in a studio doing pack shots of products for small clients, helping to develop his ability to light static images in a unique style in an effort to impress his boss. Eventually branching out on his own into London, Ellis began working for his own new clients, which landed him a job as an assistant for celebrated Vogue photographer, Nick Knight. He lived in his car for six months after turning full-time and started shooting for Dazed and Confused magazine after leaving Knight’s studio.
His cinematic style led to record sleeves and, after doing an album cover for All Saints, was invited to shoot the video for the girl-group’s smash, Never Ever. He won a Brit Award for the production. He realised afterwards that a lot of his images were being constructed like film stills and that he wanted to do something more. However, despite being an expert in light and composition, he had to develop new skills in editing, sound and narrative if he wanted to succeed in the film world.
After a few commercial misses, his constant hard work has finally paid off, as Metro Manila is his first film to make a successful impact at the box office. The bleak story of a family’s struggle to build a better life in the Philippines capital won Best Film, Best Director and Best Achievement in Production at the 2013 BIFAs.
The inspiration for the social realism-crossed-with-crime thriller came from his first visit to the picturesque country. He came up with the idea of the movie after seeing an intense argument between two armed truck drivers. Of all his ideas, the one that excited him the most was that one of them was being blackmailed into taking part in a heist. What follows on in the final piece is what he feels to be a very a universal story that just happens to be in the Philippines, that he was able to shoot in just 35 days.
It became clear that he could make an inexpensive, good-looking film on the go using the new digital 5D SLR camera, which are entirely portable but have a distinct film-esque quality. He insisted on filming in the local Tagalog language to make it authentic, which made funding the film difficult. So he re-mortgaged his house to pay for the film, which he justified by simply saying, “I come from nothing, so I can easily go back there.”
By Lewis Parker and Charlotte Scott