AN INTERVIEW WITH ISABEL SANDOVAL
Isabel Sandoval is a New York-based Filipina filmmaker and MacDowell Fellow in film. The Museum of Modern Art has cited her as a “rarity among the young generation of Filipino filmmakers” for her “muted, serene aesthetic.” She is the first transgender director to compete at the Venice and BFI London film festivals with the New York-set trans immigrant drama, Lingua Franca.
Teresa: I loved your film, I thought that it was so awesome. I was just amazed how you could do all of those things, like acting, directing, and editing. I was like, wow.
Isabel: Thank you.
Teresa: I’m really drawn to films that kind of convey subtlety. I’m not a huge “oh this message is so obvious.” A lot of your film relies on conveying messages through things that go unsaid. Have there been any particular scenes or messages that were most difficult for you to convey through this medium?
Isabel: I feel like, having made three feature films now and becoming more of a purely visual storyteller and filmmaker, that actually makes the title of “Lingua Franca” rather ironic - and I do use that ironically in the film. The dictionary definition of the term is “a shared or bridged language.” And in the case of a Filipino woman and a Russian-Jewish man, although he’s technically American, they would communicate with each other through English, which would be the lingua franca.
But in my film, it’s actually the silences and the pauses and the gaps that carry more emotional and dramatic weight, and are more revelatory of the emotional and psychological states of the character. Making a film that was subtle - that’s been my evolving aesthetic, I think, since I started making films. But I feel that it becomes more evident and palpable setting a film that’s set in New York City. That’s a big, you know, metropolis and with its distinct soundscape it might feel busier, or more hectic, or louder. But then I decided to tone all that down to have a sound design that feels a lot more intimate and quiet as a result.
Sam: I definitely noticed that intimate feeling to the film. Kind of going off of Teresa’s question, something that I wondered was - it seems like in this story there are so many, I guess what could be described as political issues, and I know that art and politics are obviously very intertwined. How did you strike the balance between trying to focus on those political issues and just telling the story in general?
Isabel: I think, for me, thematically my films tend to be about women who are at some sort of disadvantage or who are marginalized in a certain way - who are forced to confront intensely private and personal conflicts and choices in a fraught, socio-political setting point of view. In Lingua Franca, that’s the air of escalating paranoia and anxiety surrounding ICE arrests and deportations.
I’m still able to really develop the characters in a way that’s complex and has depth because of my approach towards the character and the setting. The characters are very much influenced by and, in Alex’s case, are very much the product of their surroundings, their environment.
So Alex, being a third generation Russian-Jewish immigrant in the US, growing up around Brighton Beach, which is a community that tends to be somewhat misogynistic or conservative and transphobic, those issues, I think, become interweaved into the narrative more organically, in that sense. That’s just part of the character and the setting that they thrive in.
Sorry if I’m rambling. It’s still very much focused on the characters and that they’re character-driven, but they do not exist in a vacuum; they exist in a setting that’s very clearly defined, socially, culturally, and politically.
Teresa: That makes sense. I’m currently in a screenwriting class and that’s something we learned. How your characters don’t exist in a sort of vacuum, and sometimes when I’m writing I get kind of a stuck on like the setting and place, when really it’s the characters that are driving the story and you can build the world around them, if that makes sense.
Isabel: Exactly. I feel like as someone who belongs to a minority community in a number of ways, like I am a woman, I am also a woman of color and a trans woman, and I’m an immigrant, I’m a lot more conscious and cognizant of, you know, matters like gender and race and citizenship status in the stories that I come up with.
These are themes and issues that might be invisible to someone with privilege. White people don’t really notice prejudice and discrimination as palpably and as consciously as someone like myself or other people of color do.
Teresa: Yeah. As a person of color, it’s sort of crazy to think that like some people just aren’t aware of the things that we notice, that are so obvious.
Teresa: I know that a lot of your film transpired because Trump took office, and that really hardened on immigration regulations and the racism already in this country, etcetera. Did you have any idea that you wanted to do a film like this even before Trump took office?
Isabel: I started writing the film around 2015 as I was going through my gender transition, and at that time it was more of a straightforward romantic drama, where the main source of conflict was Olivia becoming romantically involved with a cisgender white man who is not aware that she is trans. But, two thirds into writing the script, that was when Trump got elected, and even though I lived near a very progressive city, I got plunged into a sort of emotional and existential crisis - I was definitely feeling a lot more vulnerable and tense and anxious and just paranoid about what would happen.
Especially, shortly after his inauguration, he implemented this travel ban prohibiting people from seven Middle Eastern countries from coming in [to the US] even though they had visas and, in some cases, a green card. I actually got my own green card as a US permanent resident exactly a month before Trump got elected.
I think the first six months of his presidency, it’s like going through the seven stages of grief. There was a certain denial and just anger and frustration, and Lingua Franca is fundamentally a distillation of my emotional and psychological state during those first few months. That it’s really, predominantly the mood and atmosphere of the film even though we’re being immersed in the life of Olivia - actually it goes through her daily chores and daily rituals, like in looking after Olga - and in the process of falling in love with someone like Alex, there’s that tension hovering from the first frame to the last of the film.
Sam: I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about what you felt like the role of New York was in the movie. It seemed like a very intentional choice. I know you [Teresa] just asked about New York at the start of the call too, so what is that relationship?
Isabel: It was definitely by design, in that, when you think about New York City or films and TV shows set in New York City, it’s almost always either of a touristy vision of New York - shots of the Empire State Building or aerial shots of Manhattan skyscrapers. And having lived in New York, I know that New York City is not one monolith culturally. Especially having lived in the outer boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens, that’s made up of diverse neighborhoods of various ethnic or immigrant communities.
In Brooklyn alone, there’s the Orthodox Jewish community that’s different from the Hesidic Jewish community. There’s also the Caribbean community, there’s different Latinx communities as well, there’s Italian Americans. I wanted to show one neighborhood of New York that feels somewhat hidden, or a secret New York.
I definitely feel that about Brighton Beach. Although I live in Crown Heights, which is very white hipsterish and gentrified now - it’s a lot like Williamsburg and Lena Dunham’s “Girls” on HBO - if I take the Q train just half an hour down to Brighton Beach, I feel like I’m being whisked off to a totally different country, time period even. I feel like I’m going back to the fifties and sixties, because as a neighborhood it’s [Brighton Beach] so quaint. As a group of Russian immigrants living in New York City, they very much retained their cultural identity and tradition and heritage. I wanted to show a New York that’s like that.
I also made it a point that I’m opening and ending “Lingua Franca” with a montage of sceneries in Coney Island. These images are very iconic in American culture and cinema, and I’m juxtaposing it with my character’s voice over in my native Cebuano. It’s like, with the very first sequence of the film, I am plunging the audience into a story set in America, but with the voice and sensibility of a foreigner and in this particular case - a Philippine ex-trans woman foreigner.
Sam: I thought it was beautiful how you highlighted the neighborhood of Brighton Beach. I showed a friend the trailer for the film, and within ten seconds, probably sooner, like a couple of seconds, they’re like “Oh that’s Brighton Beach.” It was just so clear in the way that you chose to highlight it and I thought it was super beautiful.
Isabel: Thank you.
Teresa: Kind of going off this intersectional identity - I read an interview that you said you didn’t go to film school. At what point did you want to make intersectional identity themes inform your art and when did you realize you wanted to even dedicate your life to art?
Isabel: I think I’ve said before that we don’t choose our passions, our passions choose us. Ever since I was a kid, I felt like my natural mode of creative and artistic expression is through - when I was a kid, I would just come up with images and scenes play in my mind and these scenes would connect to different scenes and when they’re strung together they form a narrative, and that’s how I knew I’m a filmmaker and that I prefer to tell stories in a visual medium.
I did not go to film school because I felt that, while cinema and telling stories through film feels like second nature to me, if I studied under film teachers I would end up absorbing their philosophy. Their artistic philosophy and their worldviews, so to speak, about what stories are valid and how to tell stories. I did want to limit or circumscribe my growth and development as a filmmaker in that sense. I wanted to be able to curate and create my own curricula as a student of film, so to speak, and I did that by exposing myself to a diverse range of films, not just American or Hollywood films, but films from Ozu, Kurosawa, [indistinguishable], Chantal Akerman - so world cinema, essentially.
As I grew older, my taste evolved and became more selective and sophisticated, and I owe it to the cinematic masters: how I learned to express myself as a filmmaker through images and sounds. I think with Lingua Franca I’m now becoming an artist with enough confidence to have my own distinct, singular vision. Even though I might have nods and homages in my films to the cinematic masters that influenced me, I’m able to transmute them and appropriate them in a way that feels distinctly mine and refreshingly original. Still.
Sorry if that’s a long-winded answer, but I also wanted to touch on the intersectional identity themes in my film. It comes naturally to me because, like I mentioned earlier, I write characters that do not exist in a vacuum, but they exist in a clearly defined setting and environment, culturally and politically. That’s just been my approach and that definitely informs the realism of the characters and the worlds that I try to build in my films.
Sam: Definitely. Kind of going back to what you were saying about the film school thing, about how you didn’t want these different perspectives to shape how you see film. I know that you’ve been making films for a long time now, and I’m sure you’re very kind of engrained in that whole festival world - how do you make sure to keep fighting against those very white, heteronormative perspectives that I’m sure the film world can be surrounded by at times.
Isabel: I think it’s because I’m such a film snob that I barely, to be honest, watched mainstream Hollywood films. In the last ten years, I have not seen an Avengers movie in its entirety - I know that’s such a bad thing to say but yes - but I watch a lot of European arthouse cinema and with my three films so far I’ve worked in an independent space and that’s why I have a lot more creative freedom and autonomy to make films according to my own idiosyncratic vision.
As a storyteller, I’ve never felt the pressure to make films that pandered or that I had to filter down the themes and perspectives of my films to be more palatable, quote unquote, or accessible to broader audiences. I realize that, moving forward, I do want to have a sustainable career that’s financially viable. For me, the challenge is striking a delicate balance between having and keeping, protecting my unique aesthetic style and voice and just bringing in a wider audience. Sort of not compromising my own voice while my films become more marketable to a wider audience. I think Jordan Peele did that excellently with Get Out and Us, and that’s the kind of career path that I’m considering.
Teresa: I think that, I don’t know, I feel like this is an issue that I come across a lot. The films that I think have the most important stories often when we interview directors they’re like “it’s so hard to get funding”. Also, the films themselves are harder to understand for more mainstream audiences. How do you see yourself striking that balance between wanting to reach a broader audience for people who rarely get to see these stories but also telling a story that feels truthful?
Isabel: I’m trying to do that with my next feature, which I’m very lucky and fortunate that - although I’m not able to make an official announcement yet, as of last week I’m being repped by a major Hollywood talent agency as a writer, director and as an actor and they’re going to help me package and finance my next feature script. It’s called “Tropical Gothic,” and it’s my most ambitious feature so far.
It’s set in the 16th century in the Philippines in 1570, which is just a few years, very early in the Spanish colonial regime. It’s about a native priestess called Ababylan, who pretends to be possessed by the spirit of her Spanish master’s dead bride in order to psychologically manipulate him. It has shades of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”.
I decided to have the dialogue be in English for that one, not because I wanted to pander to a broader audience but because it is an allegory in colonialism and imperialism and when we think about it today, the world superpower is the US and it’s not Spain. Even myself, growing up in the Philippines, I was taught and conditioned to think that English is the superior language, and it’s actually been the medium of instruction in Philippine schools and colleges beginning in the second half of the 20th century because the US colonized the Philippines from 1898 to 1945.
With this one, I feel like this is the kind of film that can really showcase my unique sensibility as a director. I don’t want it to feel like a stodgy and conventional period piece. I want it to be a film about obsession and my goal is to make the most erotically-charged film about colonialism without there actually being a sex scene in the film. The fact that I’m getting it made in Hollywood also ensures that I attract A-list talent to my scripts, and elevates that. I think I’m trying to carve a career as a filmmaker, an immigrant filmmaker in the US, by making ambitious, adventurous, and transcendent art that would attract also high profile talent.
Sam: That plot description doesn’t sound at all like a stuffy period piece, that sounds pretty awesome. But, one other question we had was have you always seen yourself as a jack of all trades, directing and writing and acting? And is that something you want to continue in the future, or are you looking to focus more on one of them?
Isabel: I think of myself as an auteur, which means author pretty much. In the last two months as I’ve been promoting the film, that term auteur has gone from taking on a purely aesthetic dimension or aspect to it to one that’s more political given my status as a minority filmmaker and voice - making this particular type of film with Lingua Franca in our current political climate. The reason that I took on all those roles with Lingua Franca and the fact that I didn’t find them particularly intimidating was because I really had a clear vision of the film that I wanted to make from the outset.
It’s actually those specific roles, writing, directing, playing the main protagonist, editing, and being co-producer are the most critical ones - that would mean I translate my vision from the page to the screen faithfully and without compromise. I consider writing, directing, and editing, still writing pretty much. But one happens in pre-production, one happens during production, and editing is really just writing dream posts, and writer directors tend to project themselves into the main protagonist, and that’s definitely how I feel with Lingua Franca. I plan on continuing to take on multiple hats creatively in my films.
Just moving forward, it might just be different configurations, like “Tropical Gothic”. I’ll definitely be writing and directing the film. I don’t think I’ll act in it, because I feel that another actress would do a better job in bringing a native priestess to life. I do want to play a vampire in 1940s Hollywood at some point, so that’s another project that I’m developing.
But if there’s one important role that I would never give up, and that I think is most important, and if I were making process it is as an editor, and part of me thinks that I’m doing the other things that I do on set, like writing, directing, and acting is because it gives me as an editor exactly the right to raw materials that I need to make in order to finish the film.
Yeah. I conceived my films as cutscenes, that I edit together. That’s why I feel most at home editing.
Sam: That’s really interesting. Asking about the editing on Lingua Franca, how long was the rough cut - like how much did you have to end up trimming down?
Isabel: I can say that the film really came together in post, because it took about four months from a very rough assembly to final cut. Rather than shooting the film, there was actually a subplot involving the grandmother, and again in a very subtle and nuanced way, about her having nightmares from the time in Ukraine before they immigrated to the US, which was then grappling with the aftermaths of the Holocaust.
But when I looked at the scene as an editor in the footage that we shot, I was just not sold on it, emotionally; I didn’t believe it. And I got into a few arguments with my cinematographer. The scenes looked great, they were exquisite and beautiful, but I told him these do not work for the film that I now am realizing I do not want to make. So we cut those scenes out.
One pushback that I got from my collaborators in the film was editing my own film. It’s not very common, and it’s rather unusual actually. But one thing I can say for myself is that I can have an emotional distance towards my own work, and I can be completely impartial and self critical about it. And that’s the only reason why I think me editing the film worked out, ultimately.
Sam: What do you want people to take away from “Lingua Franca?”
Isabel: What I want people to take away from “Lingua Franca” is a deeper and more critical way to approach not just the themes of immigration and the trans experience in the US, but to understand a woman like Olivia. The film is ultimately an exercise in empathy, and that it’s subjective and impressionistic because it’s not just giving a purely objective and realist view of these things, but it places you in the mindset and the emotional and psychological state of someone like Olivia. So that even though you’re coming from a different background - you’re a cisgender, white, heterosexual person - that you’re able to sympathize and empathize with what someone like Olivia is experiencing and going through.