Read our exclusive interview with screenwriter and director Ron Morales, who’s making his feature film debut with the drama ‘Santa Mesa,’ which is set to be released on January 21, 2011. The movie follows 12-year-old Hector, played by Jacob Kiron Shalov, as he moves to Manila from the U.S. to live with his grandmother Lita, portrayed by Angie Ferro, after his mother dies. Unsure how to handle his new life, Hector joins a street gang, led by Miguel, played by Pierro Rodriguez.
Jose, portrayed by Jaime Tirelli, a photographer, sees the trouble Hector is getting into, and takes him off the street to teach him important life lessons. Hector also slowly eases into his new life by photographing Rosa, played by Lynn Sherman, who helps adjust to his new life in the Philippines. Morales discussed with us, among other things, how people’s tendency to try to categorize other people was the inspiration for the film, and what the casting process for the main characters was like.
ShockYa (SY): You both wrote and directed the upcoming family drama ‘Santa Mesa.’ How did you come up with the story?
Ron Morales (RM): Originally, I started with a province boy moving to the city, with the same story line. But after several drafts, I looked at it, and said to myself, I really don’t know much, from my memory of being a province boy, going to the city. So I just imagined myself as a child, having to move to the Philippines. Which I almost ended up doing as a child, but it was only for a shorter span of time. So I kind of used a lot of those memories, living in Manila and going back and forth to my mom’s home province. That’s how I came up with the initial seeds of the story.
SY: What type of research did you do into the daily lives of Manila residents before you began writing the script, and during pre-production as the director?
RM: Actually, I was visiting the area of Santa Mesa quite a bit, talking to the neighbors and the neighborhood kids. That’s most of my research, talking with them, in that one particular area. That’s a relatively safer neighborhood to shoot in. It was so interesting to me.
SY: Since you wrote the script for ‘Santa Mesa,’ do you feel that helped you when you were directing the film?
RM: It did help me a lot, because I knew the characters and the situations they would be in. Since I had researched most of it, I kept going back and forth for about a year, in terms of photographing the areas. Not just Santa Mesa, but other Shanty town areas in metro Manila. So I definitely felt it was a much easier story for me to tell. I have directed shorts of other people’s work, and ‘Santa Mesa’ felt a little more like home to me.
SY: Since ‘Santa Mesa’ is your screenwriting and directorial debut of a feature film, did you face any challenges while shooting the movie?
RM: The biggest challenge I had was with casting, casting the kids and a lot of non-actors. That was the biggest challenge for me. I think I spent two-and-a-half months over there, trying to cast all the kid roles, all the teenagers. Then I think we spent about six months looking for, and trying to cast, an American to come over to the Philippines. To me, that was the biggest challenge.
Not to mention, being on a lower budget, that always limits you in terms of what we could do and the areas we were shooting in. There weren’t too many nightmares, in terms of shooting the film. But I would say casting was the biggest challenge.
SY: Speaking of casting, were you happy with your choices for the main cast?
RM: I was very happy with the choice I made with Jacob. If I had more time, I would have loved to cast more kids. But for the most part, I wanted it be authentic. I wanted to have an American who didn’t know the language, and has never seen Santa Mesa and the trolleys that were on the railroad tracks. The trains go by and pick them up, and load them. That’s something I really wanted to be authentic, and come across as realistic. I think Jacob embodied that younger child going back to the Philippines.
SY: What compelled you to cast Melissa Leo as Maggie in the movie?
RM: Melissa Leo, I met her in a coffee shop. I’ve always known her work. My producer was supposed to have a meeting with her to potentially play this role, and I was like, oh my gosh, if she says yes, it would be fantastic. I’m such a big fan of her work, and she happened to say yes. It’s a smaller role, but I think she nailed it. She’s a wonderful, wonderful actress.
SY: You have said you recognize people’s tendency to try to categorize other people, whether it is culturally, racially or socially, and that was the inspiration for the film. As a first generation Filipino-American, have you experienced this tendency in both the Philippines and here in the U.S.?
RM: As a teenager, yes, I felt that growing up. In the Philippines, you do feel it, but in a different way. They can spot me out in a second. I may look Filipino, but as soon as I open my mouth, with the English accent, their view of you changes. So I do think you feel that socially and culturally, when I was over there, growing up.
SY: You also said that while developing Hector, you looked to your own experiences to create a character conflicted between cultural identification and cultural shock. Do you feel this is a common occurrence in people who try to identify with their nationality, but live in a different country?
RM: I think so, because every time we screen the film, there’s always people who identify with it. I think I was in Sacramento, and there was a couple of Mexican-American teenagers who came up to me, and said the film really spoke to me. I really identify with this character.
Even when I was in Rome, several young kids came up to me. One was British, but living in an Italian community. She really identified with the character. I feel like it’s a common part of Americans’ lives, the first generation American, to identify with this culture clash.
SY: Do you think Hector’s experiences will highlight the difficulties people experience in foreign cultures?
RM: I definitely think so. It was really nice when I was on the film festival circuit, I met several kids who came up to me, and several adults also came up to me. A woman came up to me in Singapore, and she was in her mid-30s. She said this film really affected me, and it really spoke to me. She was Japanese, but was born in Singapore, and lived there all her life. She quickly stopped me on the street after the screening and talked to me. I spent about half-an-hour talking to her over a coffee about her experiences.
SY: ‘Santa Mesa’ has been named as an official selection for numerous film festivals, including the New York Asian American International Film Festival and Los Angeles Pan American Film Festival, and has been awarded several awards. What is the feeling like, knowing that you’re receiving such critical acclaim?
RM: I was so honored to be a part of all the film festivals and receive the three awards that I’ve gotten for the film. It was my first feature, it was my baby. It’s always nice to be recognized. It’s been at least five years I’ve spent on that project, trying to raise money, writing it, re-writing it, researching. It is a pretty rewarding feeling.
SY: Your next writing and directorial effort is next year’s crime film ‘Graceland,’ which follows a desperate father who risks everything to save his daughter from the men who are holding her captive. How is the shooting process on ‘Graceland’ similar and different than ‘Santa Mesa?’ Are there any lessons you learned from your first film that you brought to your second?
RM: ‘Graceland’ is a very, very different film from ‘Santa Mesa.’ It’s a much more brutal story. The lessons that I’ve learned from the two is that I’ve spent more time doing in-depth research on ‘Graceland’ than on ‘Santa Mesa.’ The flaws in the script for ‘Santa Mesa’ I’m trying to rectify in ‘Graceland.’
The budget was much lower on ‘Graceland.’ The shooting conditions were pretty harsh. The crew was a lot smaller. I was actually one of the camera operators on ‘Graceland.’ What I found was that the more research that I did, with the characters, the places and the themes behind a gritty kidnapping film, is almost night and day from ‘Santa Mesa.’
Written by: Karen Benardello