Interview: Isabel Sandoval on the Unspoken Truths in “Lingua Franca”

If “Lingua Franca” was going to live up to its title, Isabel Sandoval was going to have to insist on a few extra days of filming. Having wrapped principal photography on her third feature, Sandoval lamented that there wasn’t as many scenes in the native tongue of the film’s central two characters, Olivia, the Filipino caretaker she played, and Alex (Eamon Farren), the Russian-American who falls in love with her while she’s looking after his mother Olga (Lynn Cohen).

“One thing that changed between the screenwriting and the editing of the film is that there were fewer Russian lines in the final film, just because some of our actors were having a tougher time nailing the Russian,” recalls Sandoval. “And that’s also why I made sure in the scenes in the church between Olivia and [her friend] Trixie, which were in Tagalog, I added those in the reshoots because I wanted more non-English dialogue.”

The more cultural markers Sandoval could include in “Lingua Franca,” the stronger the evidence is that ultimately whatever divides there may be are negligible in the grand scheme of things, as each of the characters find themselves in limbo and their struggle knows no difference between them. As Olga uneasily segues into her golden years, Alex is reintegrating into civilian life after a prison stretch, taking a job at a local butchery where his boss never fails to remind him the lack of opportunity elsewhere for felons, and while Olivia comes to nurture them both, she faces the most precarious situation of all, recently making a gender transition and living as an undocumented immigrant after the 2016 election when ICE raids have become common in her neck of New York.

The film is the first for Sandoval after making her own transition in real life and it seems audacious for the fact that while bringing that experience to the screen, it never feels heavy-handed, only adding to the notion that the people we pass by on the street have rich, complex lives that can only be appreciated by spending a proper amount of time with them. “Lingua Franca” offers that kind of rare window, full of compassion for those who no longer know their place in the world and finding the beauty in whatever stable ground they can provide to each other. With the film set to premiere on Netflix, the filmmaker spoke about making a film set in her native New York that looks like what she sees in her daily life, wearing so many hats on the production and divorcing one job from another, and how less was more throughout the making of the quiet yet powerful drama.

How did this come about?

I read somewhere that a filmmaker or artist makes the same film over and over again and having made three features so far, I feel like there are some certain thematic fixations or obsessions that I keep coming back to. All three of my features are about marginalized women who are forced to make intensely personal decisions in a fraught sociopolitical context. My second, “Apparition” was about Catholic nuns in the Philippines in the ‘70s during a time of growing political unrest, and [with “Lingua Franca,”] I wanted to do a chamber drama within the context of a very anxious and tense political moment, so it’s about an undocumented Filipino trans woman who is trying to pursue a path of citizenship as she’s becoming emotionally involved with a Russian-Jewish slaughterhouse worker who does not know she’s transgender at the outset.

How did you find the Russian-Jewish culture as a parallel to Filipino culture?

I’ve lived in New York for the last 14 years. I moved there from the Philippines and when you think about New York film, there’s almost always shots of skyscrapers, the Empire State Building in Manhattan or if it’s in Brooklyn, the Williamsburg of Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” I just wanted to show a kind of forgotten face of New York where it’s really a place of a diverse spectrum of immigrants and I set it in Brighton Beach, Coney Island because I felt like when you go to that part of New York City, it feels suspended in time, so in a way I felt like I was making a period film.

Coney Island and Brighton Beach are of course Russian-Jewish neighborhoods and I wanted to make a film about immigrants of different generations and different ethnic backgrounds, so we know about Alex and Olivia, who are the [central] lovers in the film, but there’s also Olga, who’s a Russian-Jewish eighty something lady with dementia, and they’re mirror characters in the sense that they’re both immigrant women – Olivia moved to the U.S. of course a few years ago, but Olga moved to the U.S. half a century ago.

Did you always envision yourself as the lead of this?

Yeah, I hope it doesn’t make me come off as pretentious, but I’d like to think of myself as an auteur and wearing multiple hats while making the film, I didn’t necessarily think of them as different roles. My one goal is to make the film I want and that involves the script, the direction, the performance and when you think about Olivia, the main protagonist in the film as a transgender immigrant, is essentially the stand-in for the director, so it made sense for me to play that part and I felt I was making a statement that as a minority filmmaker, I’m able to make films where the talent both behind and in front of the camera are minorities, and in this case, transgender immigrants.

For a while, I was actually thinking of shelving the project when Trump first got elected [because] around that time, there was just a mood of anxiety and tension and as an immigrant artist, I was feeling vulnerable and I was really questioning is it worth it for me to expose myself and put myself at risk making this kind of story. But my producers told me if there’s a time to make this film, that time is now and they were right.

How did you find Eamon to play Alex?

It’s funny because we actually offered the role to another actor, but he couldn’t do the film, so his agency in London passed it onto Eamon, who of course is very talented. He just came off “Twin Peaks: The Return” by David Lynch and he did a remarkable job, so he read the script and he sent in a self-tape and when my producers and I watched it, we were just blown away. He’s an outstanding character actor who can really get into the layers and contradictions of a character like Alex and just a complexity and vulnerability to his performance. so we Skyped and Eamon came onboard as the main lead and we were all very, very happy and very proud to have worked with him.

Did you let him know beforehand you’d be filming in a real slaughterhouse?

What’s funny is we actually checked out that slaughterhouse a few weeks before the shoot, but we didn’t get it until two days before, so we had to think on our toes and we only shot all those scenes in one day because Eamon and Lev Gorn, who was in “The Americans” and plays the slaughterhouse manager, and our crew were such complete professionals. We were able to get all the footage of the scenes that we wanted and they turned out great.

That may have been it, but was there something unexpected that happened that you like about the film?

There was this driving scene in the film when Alex and Olivia were going to drop off her package to the Philippines and in this scene, they end up talking about the different languages in the Phillippines, that scene was actually unscripted. We shot a scripted version and then when we were doing alternate takes, we ended up having that very spontaneous, impromptu conversation, but when I was watching it, I really liked the energy that came off from the characters and the kind of chemistry that they had, and I think that was one of the most pleasant surprises.

In general, the way Tagalog sounded in the film was so beautiful.

Yeah, I wanted it to be jarring in a pleasant way that you have a movie set in New York with these American actors and you hear a foreign language like Tagalog and Cebuano in the film.

You’ve said you wanted the silences carry as much weight as the words – what is it like to find that weight?

As a filmmaker, I make dramas of interiority where the characters are mostly inward and sometimes they’re not emotionally sophisticated or articulate enough to express how they feel. That’s why my films tend to be quiet and observant and sometimes even when the characters do say something, they might not be forthright and candid about how they’re feeling, so they’re using the words to actually obscure how they’re actually feeling, so it’s important to give the audience the space to ponder the silences between the characters because they can be as revelatory about the characters as the verbal exchanges between them.

Do you find yourself pulling things out during the edit to create that space?

In terms of editing with the sound, I’m not a big fan of non-diegetic or extraneous musical scoring, especially because it can get too emotionally didactic or sentimental. I feel like an effective film should be able to elicit those emotions from the audience just from the image and the sound mix, so that’s why the sound design, if it’s done really well, can evoke those emotions subtly and naturally.

And I’ve had a few people ask me whether it was better if we hired an outside editor to cut the film because I wrote and directed and acted in it and sometimes it can be quite difficult to distance yourself emotionally from your own project. But I can be truly relentless and unforgiving when I’m in the editing room, and I’m no longer the director or the screenwriter [there]. I’m just the editor and I don’t have any problems cutting scenes that don’t work in the final cut. We actually shot a few scenes that looked very, very beautiful, but at the end of the day, they didn’t really serve the story, and we actually ended up doing two days of reshoots because I thought based on the footage that we have, there were actually scenes that I thought were missing to give the characters and the narrative the arc I wanted.

What’s it been like bringing this out into the world?

I’m very, very proud and just honored that we’ve traveled to a lot of international film festivals, and I also have a few more festivals coming up in the next few months, so it’s been great that it’s reaching a really broad spectrum. It’s been picked up for distribution in France and Israel, so I’m going to be in Paris in March to promote its theatrical release there, and this is my first feature after my gender transition, so I wanted it to really showcase what I can do as a filmmaker and hopefully people can recognize that I have a distinct and unique voice. A lot of Flipino films that tend to be programmed in international film festivals are grim and gritty neorealist dramas and they’re accused of being poverty porn. When you read the premise of “Lingua Franca” on paper, it might sound like that kind of movie, but I take that premise and use that as an opportunity to infuse the film with a certain lyricism and poetry and sensuality, so that audiences come away thinking that there is a different kind of Filipino cinema, and hopefully that Isabel Sandoval is a filmmaker to watch out for.

“Lingua Franca” will start streaming on Netflix on August 26th through ARRAY Releasing.