Interview: Filmmaker Isabel Sandoval Discusses Lingua Franca


"Lingua Franca" 
  • a language that is adopted as a common language between between speakers whose native languages are different.

That commonality is at the heart of Isabel Sandoval's excellent Lingua Franca. A modern love story set in Brighton Beach, New York, Lingua Franca follows a Trans Woman and Filipina immigrant, Olivia (Sandoval) as she seeks citizenship through marriage. Working as a live-in caretaker for an elderly woman with dementia, Olga (Lynn Cohen in her final performance), Olivia has an arrangement with a man who she's paying to eventually marry her. One day that man calls her to tell her he's met someone and he's breaking it off leaving Olivia stunned. Little does she know that Olga's grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren), who has just returned from a stint in rehab to live with his grandmother until he's back on his feet, is slowly falling for her. As their love unfolds and things are left unsaid, the "common language" becomes less verbal and more secretive. 

Recently debuting on Netflix, after being acquired by Ava DuVernay's Array, the film has had an immediate impact. Praised for its stunning visual lyricism, gorgeous cinematography and quietly bold work both in front of and behind the camera from Sandoval, Lingua Franca has swept up acclaim and awards, most recently at the Queer Lisboa Film Festival in Portugal where it took top prize. The third film from Sandoval (who didn't just write, direct and star, she also produced and edited) but her first in the US, it marks the arrival of an auteur with something new, ambitious and powerful to say, a rarity in a Hollywood that's becoming increasingly homogeneous.  

Brandon sat down with Isabel Sandoval to discuss the film, its importance, embracing being an auteur, Klute, New York and so much more.

Brandon: I was thinking about this recently because of Lingua Franca, I remember reading an interview with Ramy Youssef where he talked about how one of the things he wanted to portray with his show (Ramy) was that Arabs could just be people. Basically to show the American public that they were more than their stereotypes. That's a sentiment that stuck with me for years because as a cisgender white man, even if I want to call myself an ally, I still have many regrettable blindspots and things that aren't top of mind. So what really hit me watching your film, I can't think of many films that A.) just feature a Trans person living their life and that it isn't inherently at the forefront. You've said that the film is a love story foremost. And B.) seeing two Trans woman just talk to each other and that the conversation was just two friends talking. I guess what I'm wondering, was that always important for you to get across while conceiving Lingua Franca?

Isabel Sandoval: It's certainly one of the reasons why but the characterization of Olivia was that I wanted to have a Trans woman character that was layered and complex and flawed and ambivalent. So the story and the premise for Lingua Franca came organically from that. When I was growing up in the Philippines, Trans women were portrayed in a very stereotypical fashion...very flamboyant, boy-chasing types. And I know that there are women like that there but that's just very flat. I think for that reason, I didn't realize I was Trans until after I moved here to the US. On Youtube I saw different Trans individuals from various was a writer, one was working in a non-profit organization, some were married and had families. And they were asking themselves the same questions that I had been asking myself. So that's when I had the epiphany that maybe I was Trans. 

Olivia is the kind of person and the kind of Trans woman that I'd like to see more of, especially in American cinema. I also wasn't trying to come up with a checklist in order to represent Trans Filipina women the "correct" way, I just tried to make a film that felt authentic, that had true subjectivity, that I was telling the story from my point of view and that I wasn't trying to pander to a broader, gendered public. There are some aspects of the film that seem narratively sparse and that's deliberate and intentional because I don't want to over-explain myself. Or to come up with a movie that was essentially "Transgender For Dummies" (laughs). I want the audience to meet me halfway as a storyteller and as a filmmaker.

I think that's so important because I've seen myself on film since I could watch movies. It's easy for me to relate because I can see myself on film everywhere. But seeing a character like Olivia really hit me because I'm so introverted, like her and have a hard time opening  up the way she does. So seeing someone so unlike myself in many ways but also very relatable to me was incredibly powerful. You mentioned coming to America, when was that?

I came to the US about 14 years ago and I was actually already based here when I went back home to shoot my first two features. It wasn't until after I transitioned that I set a film in the US and specifically in New York City for the first time. I think by that point, which was about 2017, I felt like I'd been the US long enough that it was starting to feel like home. The turning point was especially after I transitioned, because here in the US I can legally change my name and gender marker. But in the Philippines, about 10 years ago, they actually passed a law (which Olivia alludes to in a scene in Lingua Franca) that prohibits Trans people from changing their name and gender marker. So I just didn't feel attached to the Philippines anymore because it's not a place that I feel safe or accepted for who I am.

The sense of New York feeling like your home really comes through in the film because I haven't seen a "New York" film that feels so lived in like this in quite a while. When I think of a "New York" movie,  I think about your contemporaries like the crime movies from the Safdies or the upper-middle class comedy-dramas from Noah Baumbach but I think with yours, it's been so long since I've seen one that felt this different. What made you focus on Brighton Beach and the working class families there?

About a few years ago, I fell in love with the films of James Gray, especially Two Lovers (with Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix). And I think what I love about living here in New York City, especially the outer boroughs like Queens and Brooklyn is that each neighborhood, is that if they're an ethnic or immigrant community, they have their distinct character and personality...and that's radically different from what most people think of New York City. For example, just in Brooklyn alone, there's Orthodox Jews, there's Hasidic Jews, there's a Caribbean community, there's the Italian-Americans further down south...there are also Russian-Jewish in Brighton Beach and Coney Island. 

I live about a half an hour north of Brighton Beach, I live in a neighborhood called Crown Heights which is culturally similar to Williamsburg. So it's a lot of white hipsters (laughs). But when you take the Q train down to Brighton Beach, I feel like I'm whisked off to a totally different country in a way, a different era. I feel like I'm back in the 50s and 60s. So that's why I feel like setting Lingua Franca in Brighton Beach not only makes it easier for me to make a New York film with a distinct flavor and personality but one that felt like a period drama. 

I've seen you on social media and elsewhere talking about Klute and Jane Fonda and that inspired me to rewatch it and in doing so much of what you were talking about fell into place in relation to Lingua Franca. There's a lot of ambiguity, a lot that's left unsaid, especially with the ending. 99% of the time, a film like this would end on a happy ending and it's not that yours is unhappy, it's just maybe not what the viewer necessarily wants. So I'm wondering how much of that film (and others from the period) were an influence?

Yeah! Definitely the films of Alan J. Pakula. It's so shocking because Klute came out in '71 and only a few years earlier, Bob Fosse had Sweet Charity with Shirley McClaine. And while it's just a matter of two years, those two films are so diametrically opposed to one another. Sweet Charity feels like it belongs to the Golden Age of Hollywood and Klute feels hyper-modern, especially the character of Bree Daniels (played by Jane Fonda). She feels like such a modern construction of a New York City Woman...just in terms of how deep and complex that character is as someone who's trying to steer her life in a different direction and leave behind her past, but keeps being haunted by her own demons. So for me, as someone with a bachelor's degree in psychology, I find that endlessly fascinating. 

The Bree Daniels character was actually the inspiration for the main character in my first movie Señorita...But instead of a full on inspiration, I kind of mutated and mangled that inspiration. It feels very, very different and you would not think it was inspired, somehow, by Klute. 

So in making Lingua Franca, I wasn’t actually thinking of Klute consciously in terms of referencing it or homaging it. But I feel like during an artist’s formative period, when we’re looking to the works of certain masters for influence and we’re affected by their stylistic choices or thematic flourishes, the impression these films make somehow get lodged in us...consciously over time until it becomes subconscious. 

Another example is that I’ve mentioned that Wong Kar-wai was more consciously an inspiration on my first feature. I hadn’t really thought about him for Lingua Franca but when I started showing the rough cut of the film to a few friends of mine, who are also cinephiles, two or three of them brought up that it reminded them of In the Mood for Love and I hadn’t even thought about that. 

Your background is in psychology but what was it that brought you to filmmaking? Did you go to school for that at all or are you self taught?

I’m an autodidact, so to speak, so I didn’t go to film school. But I’ve been in love with movies for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of when I was four, my mom taking me to a movie palace (is what we used to call them) downtown in my hometown Cebu. We were watching a comedy film by the Filipino Charlie Chaplin and his four year old son. The movie itself was forgettable but that memory stuck with me. I then became exposed to Filipino movies, melodramas or slapstick comedies and as I grew older my tastes became more selective and more sophisticated...I was introduced to the Kurosawas and the Fassbinders and the Hitchcocks. 

I deliberately did not go to film school, and this is maybe a little arrogant (laughs) a creative person, visually, I come up with ideas for scenes in my mind and I felt that if I went to film school, I would just end up absorbing the philosophy and aesthetic of the teachers I was studying under. I did not want to limit my growth as a filmmaker, within the confines of the teachers that I (would potentially) study under. 

So my film school was getting my hands on film, the canon films as I grew up. In the Philippines there really wasn’t a lot of access to those types of films. But piracy was pretty rampant (laughs). So I actually got ahold of my first copies of Fassbinder movies from pirated DVDs. 

Speaking of the Philippines, you said you made your first two films there. What are some of the differences between making films there versus here? 

When I made my first two films it was both cheaper to make the films there and a lot less regulatory with restrictions, unfortunately, when it comes to the number of daily hours and safety and health protocols. Now, that doesn’t mean I worked my crew to death but I also work well within the confines of an independent film. I can work fast without compromising the quality of my work. When I get on set, I’m always prepared and ready to go. We shot my first feature, Señorita in 15 days...we shot my second feature, Apparition in 8 days, mostly because it’s one location. And I shot Lingua Franca in 16 days.  

I’ve read that you insisted on lowering the budget for Lingua Franca which I think many would find to be a crazy thing to do but it’s a pretty admirable in some ways. What was your thinking around that?

For me, even though it’s my third feature film, in many ways it feels like my first. It’s my first as Isabel and it’s also my first English language film   So this is the first work of mine that the American film business is going to seriously consider as my work. The budget was initially under $1 million and we had a producer who raised it to $1.5 million. But when you look at the items that brought the budget to that new total, they’re not necessary. 

I felt that they were gratuitous additions that did not make sense. I fought to bring it back down to $500k because I wanted the budget to strike a balance between high enough to make sure that the cast and crew were paid decently...the actors (Eamon Farren and Lynn Cohen) did not attach themselves because it’s a “paycheck” role. They wanted to work on it because they liked the script...but also low enough that I didn’t have equity investors breathing down my neck, forcing me to make choices to make the material more commercially accessible. I mean, it’s already niche in and of itself you know? A movie about a undocumented, Filipina, Trans women is never gonna make as much money as like a Booksmart let alone a Marvel movie (laughs). 

I just wanted to have a budget  where I had creative autonomy and given the space and space to make the film I wanted to make, exactly as I envisioned it. 

On some level that’s a pretty impressive calling card because if you can make a movie that looks that good under a million, I can’t imagine what you can do with more. 

Exactly. One of the co-producers was telling the team, we’d rather have people saying ‘I did not expect that your budget was that low when your movie looks pretty good.’

You brought up Eamon Farren and Lynn Cohen. The first time I watched your film, I kept trying to remember why I recognized Farren and it hit me that he was one of the villains in Twin Peaks. So I’m wondering what the casting process was like because he emanates “villain” to me and you were able to kind of subvert that. He’s not necessarily a villain here but he does villainous things like gaslighting Isabel. What was that process like?

I was also a fan of his performance in Twin Peaks: The Return. I think Eamon is a fascinating actor. He has an interesting character actor charisma and look, he reminds me of a young Christopher Walken. He’s not a generic, bland, tv pretty boy. He exudes that combination of vulnerability and unpredictability...a sense of danger about him. I was also kind of playing with audiences’ emotional history of him as more of a villain but as we see throughout the film, there’s more shading and layers to his character. 

We made an offer to his team and we did a Skype call with him in London and I in New York. We did a few line readings and I thought he was phenomenal. So he came on board shortly after that. 

The first actor we attached was Lynn Cohen. We sent her the script and she liked it a lot. Her own parents were immigrants from Ukraine so there’s also a personal attachment for her. She was actually one of the most ardent champions of the film. We met regularly for about a year before we started shooting. She became a friend because of it. 

There’s something powerful about how you write their characters to also be immigrants. It kind of unconsciously illustrates the disparity of being a white immigrant and an immigrant of color for the viewer. 

I wanted to make a film about immigrants because save for The Native Americans, America is really a country of several generations of immigrants. It’s just that once your family of immigrants has been in the US for two or three generations, then you transition to becoming ‘Americans.’ 

Essentially, Olga and Olivia are mirror characters in that they face their own individual crisis of displacement. For Olivia it’s political and geographic. It’s more obvious because she’s a recent immigrant. For Olga, who immigrated to the US about 50 years ago, it’s a lot less obvious because her displacement is more psychological due to her dementia. She’s cut off from her history and her memories. 

You touched on the political nature to this, I’ve noticed that politics are inextricably tied to your art. How necessary or important is it for you to tie the two together?

It’s not always intentional on my part but I am always drawn to stories that explore questions of power dynamics and that’s what politics are. It’s really about power differential between groups. Señorita was set during local elections, Apparition was set on the eve of the declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines which is one of the darkest moments of contemporary Philippine history...I now see a pattern in my work that one of the themes that I’m drawn to and return to over and over again are stories about women or a marginalized person who’s experiencing a kind of disempowerment or is forced to make an intensely personal choice within a sociopolitical setting. So what’s happening in society at large inevitably affects and impacts this person’s personal situation and decision. 

For example, Alex gaslighting Olivia is essentially an assertion of his privilege and power as both an American citizen and also as a cisgender man. 

Speaking to that further, I’ve noticed that in the two I’ve seen, religion pops up in your work. It’s overt in Apparition and less so in Lingua Franca. Is religion something you’re drawn to?

I feel like it’s inextricable from who I am as a person. My childhood is very much linked to religion, but only in that the Philippines is a neurotically Catholic country (laughs). I went to Catholic school from nursery until college. Although, I don’t consider myself religious and have an ambivalent relationship with Catholicism now. 

My characters have kind of an internal dichotomy within them in that they’re torn between two polarities, goodness and evil, vice and virtue. Our perception of nuns or the church for instance, is that they’re the embodiment or the paragon of ‘goodness’ and that’s something my characters tend to subvert or rebel against. 

You spoke earlier about Klute and I remember that one of the earlier quotes by Bree Daniels in that film (in the voice recording) is ‘it’s good to have inhibitions.’ It’s good that we can overcome them too. (laughs)

You’ve often embraced the term ‘auteur.’ It’s something that gets debated quite a bit in film communities. How important is that term to you?

The strict definition of Auteur Theory as defined by André Bazin is ‘a film or a body of work having a distinctive style and aesthetic sensibility.’ 

I didn’t realize that the term had become so loaded...but that’s the kind of cinema that I grew up in. I want to stand out and have a voice and a filmmaking style that really distinguishes itself from what the other filmmakers are doing. That’s why it becomes a political statement now, especially for a filmmaker who’s considered a minority. I like to joke that I’m a ‘Gold Star’ minority because not only am I a woman, I’m a Trans woman of color who’s also an immigrant. It feels like a power move to say that I’m in control of the narrative for Lingua Franca both in front of and behind the camera. So the term ‘Auteur’ transcends merely being an aesthetic term and takes on a political meaning in our current climate. 

I think it’s so important that you’re embracing that too because we live in a world where the industry is a little homogeneous. Things being greenlit by major studios always need to fit a certain kind of mold, so it’s important that you stand out. 

Especially for a movie that costs a half a million dollars. There are countless movies that are made  for very low budgets and it’s easy for a film like that to fall through the cracks. I want my films to really have a striking, bracing and singular aesthetic. 

I’d never heard the term “Lingua Franca” before seeing the film and when I looked up the definition, even more about the film fell into place. Especially in how what’s being unsaid is the “common language.” How did you come to that title?

To be honest, I like the term Lingua Franca. That term could also very much be the title for my next film which has more of a fixation on languages, but that’s going to be called Tropical Gothic

For me, ‘Lingua Franca’ is used ironically in the film in that, as a filmmaker, the more films I make, I feel like I’m becoming more of a purely visual storyteller and that I’m relying less and less on dialogue to tell the story of my film...and second, it’s used ironically in that English being the ‘Lingua Franca’ in the film, no matter how much Alex and Olivia communicate with each other, what’s most important is what’s left unarticulated. 

It’s because of that and the onus that I put on the audience to really get into the subjectivity and perspective of someone like Olivia. That’s where the movie really comes together emotionally. In the spaces in between, so to speak. 

To circle back a bit to inspiration for the film, were you always going to play Olivia?

For this role, yes. It’s not autobiographical but she’s (Olivia) someone that I lived for a few years. I also think the main protagonist of a film by an auteur is essentially kind of their psychological alter-ego or double. So although she’s not based on my own real life experiences, there is definitely a part of me that I see in her. There’s definitely a psychological and emotional truth in me playing Olivia.

The main protagonist or central performance really helps determine the mood or tone of the film and that’s why I wanted to play her. 

Do you see acting as something you’ll continue to do alongside filmmaking and do you ever see yourself acting for another director?

The more that I’ve thought about it, especially since the movie has come out, the more I’m becoming open to the idea of acting for another director. I’m likely going to be very selective and that’s why I’m trying to pursue more directing opportunities first. 

I think acting is a unique kind of challenge that I want to take on more. 

What was your approach to acting while taking on the role of director, writer, editor and producer?

I just tried to be present and in the moment. I wanted to have the performance seem as natural as I can and not have it feel like acting with a capital “A.” I just wanted her to feel like a real person, a real immigrant in that situation...and I know that choice might put off some people and it can be divisive but I also feel like it adds to the unvarnished realism and naturalism of the performance and world I was trying to build. 

Have there been any responses to the film that surprised you? How has the film being out there been in general?

To be honest, I feel the reviews on Letterboxd have been a lot more erudite and actively engaged with the film. Especially with what I’m trying to say with the film. Trade reviews tend to really assess films as products. As something a distributor could make money off of. There are a few reviews on Letterboxd that say (the film) feels like an articulation of someone’s artistic vision and I consider that to be the highest compliment. Because it did feel like I took some risks and that it was ambitious in some ways in that it tried to deviate from typical, lazy tropes that a film with this premise veers towards and indulge. 

We’ve all been in quarantine for what feels like years now, are there any comfort films you fall back on or have you discovered any new favorites?

I’ve actually had a quarantine movie club since March, every Monday night. It’s just six of us on the east coast and west coast and we either watch classics that we haven’t seen in years or watch a film that’s in the canon. That’s been one of the bright spots of my pandemic so far. We’ve seen titles like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Chungking Express, Zama, Black Girl, Vagabond and recently Black Narcissus. 

You mentioned your next film is called Tropical Gothic? Is there anything you can talk about yet?

Yes, it’s called Tropical Gothic. It’s set in the 16th Century in the Philippines. It’s a colonial drama with surreal elements. It’s about a native priestess who pretends to be possessed by the spirit of her Spanish master’s dead bride in order to escape persecution as a witch. It’s a riff on Hitchcock’s Vertigo and I like to call it a vampire movie without vampires. 

The one ambitious challenge I’ve set for myself in this film is that I’m going to make the most erotic film without actually having a sex scene in the movie. I want the eroticism to seep through every frame of the film from start to finish. 

That’s exciting! I only saw Vertigo this year but I have mixed feelings on it. I think I liked it but I need to see it again but it makes me even more eager to see your film. 

I mean, I don’t love Vertigo. It’s essentially a documentation of Hitchcock’s obsession with blonde, white women. It’s very male gaze-y and hopefully mine (Tropical Gothic) will subvert that male gaze back onto itself. 

-Lingua Franca is currently streaming on Netflix. 
-Apparition is available to rent on iTunes and Vimeo. 

-Brandon Streussnig