“Lingua Franca”‘s Isabel Sandoval on the value of taking risks

Isabel Sandoval in Lingua Franca Isabel Sandoval

We talk to a rising filmmaker about bringing rawness and reality into her work.

Isabel Sandoval is a pretty unique filmmaker. Last year, she became the first openly trans woman to direct a film in contention at the Venice International Film Festival for her upcoming feature Lingua Franca. In it, she plays Olivia, an in-home caregiver to an elderly Russian woman named Olga (Lynn Cohen). Olivia must struggle with both her status as an undocumented immigrant, and an erstwhile connection with Olga’s unscrupulous grandson Alex (Eamon Farren).

At the same time she isn’t defined wholly by her identity. Instead, she’s creating her own space as a filmmaker telling the stories that she wants to tell and bringing her unique style to redefine whom we allow to be an auteur. The Spool sat down with Sandoval to discuss Lingua Franca (coming this week to Netflix), navigating her triple roles on both sides of the camera, and advocating for the lives and humanity of trans women of color.

With Lingua Franca, you’re directing, writing and acting. Is that hard to balance? 

I actually thought it was a fun experience. I considered myself on a tour; wearing multiple hats doesn’t feel like taking on multiple jobs, or responsibilities. For me, I had one job and that is to tell a story. And making a script is one aspect of that. There’s also performance and direction. It’s just a way for me to really assert my identity and my authorial signature over the film that I’m trying to make.

So it could almost let you be more free to do what you wanted to do?

I felt that I was really telling the story that I wanted to tell by taking on the key creative responsibilities in the film. 

I think one thing that’s really apparent throughout Lingua Franca is the emotional rawness and the real sense of character and emotion the whole way through, how did you get those performances out of everyone?

First, I think it is very important to cast the right people. It’s like half of your job as a director. That’s done. Being an independent director, I don’t have the luxury of rehearsing, you know, with my actors.

In fact, although we talked about the script a year prior and his audition for the role, I only really met  Eamon [Farren] in person for the first time about a week and a half before we started shooting. It’s about trusting in your actors that they understood where their respective characters were coming from. I think there’s also the value of not endlessly rehearsing the scenes, because you get what you said, a sense of spontaneity and an authentic energy from the performances.

Do you think that added to the process, that the fact that there was less time to drill everything in?

Yeah, exactly.

Lingua Franca is about emotions, but there’s a lot of broader political ideas and themes going on. So how do you find the balance between those two in your work in Lingua Franca and more broadly?

I think it’s because I read characters that are very much part of the sociocultural fabric and the setting that they thrive in. You know, my characters don’t live in a vacuum. So, for example, in Lingua Franca, Olivia, who’s forming an emotional attachment to someone like Alex, the fact that she’s an immigrant who is undocumented, who is a trans woman of colour, organically makes its way into the depiction of her and fleshing out her character and all that she lives in. It makes it more complex and fraught and there’s tension, but I think that’s realistic. 

In a socio-political sense, but I think even physically, there is this constant sense of place throughout the entire film. How much do you find locations and spaces important to your filmmaking? 

It’s very particularly important in this film, because this is my first film as an immigrant in the US to be shot in and produced in the US. It opens and closes with a montage of imagery in Brighton Beach, but the voice over is in Zamboanga. That not only establishes a sense of place, but also that the protagonist and the emotional centre of the film is someone who’s a foreigner, who is experiencing and grappling with this place from her isolated perspective. 

Isabel Sandoval in Lingua Franca (Array Distribution)

Do you feel like this different perspective gives you a different lens on the Brighton Beach and the US more broadly than you would if you were, say, born in the US?

Absolutely. I wanted to reflect someone with a different background from say, Lena Dunham, hip edgy Williamsburg. New York has been filmed many, many times, countless times. You know, there’s the stylistically exciting brash work of Spike Lee that was also very distinct in style and signature. There’s the Safdie brothers, you know, where they’re very anxious. I also wanted to stamp my unique signature on the New York Film, you know, on the drama. There is a form of austerity to it, mixed with a stern delicacy and lyricism. And I think I’m closer to the films of say, James Grey or Ira Sachs. 

Although Lingua Franca is set in the present day, it’s set in such an idiosyncratic world and subculture — Brighton Beach, which is a Russian Jewish enclave which feels like a period film, a classic film in a certain way. It’s certainly very reserved and a lot quieter, you know?

Sounds like you’re making like a Sandoval New York! This is your take on the place. 

Yeah. And I think I want it to be seen as the work of an auteur, using the template of both the social issue drama (in that it touched on immigration) and the trans experience and also the New York Film. I can sense both those labels, and I’m able to really assert my own identity. And what’s really important these days for both a character like Olivia and someone like myself in the Hollywood ecosystem, it’s easy to be pigeonholed. You’re easily put in a box as a woman filmmaker, or you’re, you’re an immigrant filmmaker, you’re a trans filmmaker. But I’m using the formula of a social issue drama to take the audience to emotional places that are surprising, innocent, and unexpected.

Do you feel like you struggle with all those expectations that are projected onto you, as a filmmaker with all your identities? Did you still feel those pressures while making the film?

Certainly — when applying for grants, for instance, I feel as if someone like myself is expected to make a particular kind of movie. I fully understand that, in a very, very tense political and cultural moment, everything is seen as a political statement and we’re meant to represent our community and other marginalised voices. Also, like I said, I wanted to use that to also reveal who I am and that I’m more than the sum of these individual labels or rights, just like Olivia is.

I’m using the formula of a social issue drama to take the audience to emotional places that are surprising, innocent, and unexpected.

When you’ve got this romantic connection between Olivia and Alex. That struck me as something that you rarely get to see in film, you rarely get to see trans women, especially trans women of color, in a romantic and sexual connection without that being through a fetishistic lens. How important were those scenes to you? 

It’s very important for me to see not only a character like Olivia being central, but relishing and reveling in her own sensuality. She’s allowing herself to feel sexy. That fantasy sequence for instance; it’s important for me, because it establishes her not just as the object of desire, but the one desiring — the agent of desire. 

In the more conventional sex scene that happens a few scenes after that, it’s not just shots of the gyration of naked bodies against each other – it stays on her face. It’s also a character moment. We’re seeing this woman, allowing herself to be central, but also thinking of the implications and repercussions of engaging in that which may be exposing herself and her wellbeing to a certain danger, being intimate with a man who does not initially know that she’s trans.  

I think there’s also something very powerful about seeing women thinking. You know, it’s an assertion of identity and power and just seeing women being sentient. And that they exist not as something to be objectified, or the object of the cinematic gaze, but as the one gazing, analysing and thinking.

Do you think approaching the film as an auteur allows you to break out of the objectifying gaze, and actually crave that agency in your characters?

I really wanted to do that, particularly in a film like Lingua Franca that was made outside the Hollywood studio system. The budget is slightly under $500,000, it’s a really low budget. And because of that, I wanted the film to really reflect my unique aesthetic and sensibility. I feel like the bigger the budget is and the more private equity and more money comes in, the less creative control and autonomy that you have. 

So it was important for me for a project of this scale and size to really reflect my voice as an auteur, because that’s how you ultimately distinguish yourself from the work of other filmmakers. That’s how people know Pedro Almodovar, Wong Kar-wai, for instance, or Chloe Zhao very recently. They establish their distinct identities and voices by putting out auteur work, even though it’s less fashionable now than they were back in the ‘70s with Scorsese, Coppola.  I think there should be a resurgence of auteur cinema, especially for upcoming and emerging independent filmmakers.

You have a very specific and individual approach to filmmaking. So obviously, you’ve got a lot of firsts with this film. How does it feel to be like, “Yeah, I’m the first in all these things!” 

It’s such a surreal, exhilarating feeling.

I think I was able to make it happen because I didn’t overthink it. Because if I really thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m editing this film, I’m writing, producing and directing!” I would just get anxious and nervous. I really just took the plunge. I think what was very important is that I had a very clear idea of the film that I wanted to make, and the story that I wanted to tell from the very start. So that was what fuelled me and emboldened me to make Lingua Franca

So far, it’s worked for me as a filmmaker, but I’ve always taken risks. If I make something that didn’t challenge me in any way, or that I didn’t feel like I was ambitious enough and push me as a filmmaker, then it’s not a film worth making. 

So, risk is central to your filmmaking?

Yeah, I think so. Because that’s how you surprise yourself and grow. Of course, people make mistakes. I didn’t go to film school, for instance. So my film school was exposing myself to many different words of master filmmakers whose work I’ve come to admire. And then making my films and learning from the mistakes that I make in my own films.

What do you think you learned making Lingua Franca?

I think one is that, paraphrasing Maya Angelou, at the end of the day people might not necessarily remember the plot points in your film or specific attributes of your character, but they will never forget how you made them feel. With Lingua Franca, it’s been quite well received internationally but it can also be a polarising and divisive film because it doesn’t traffic in easy, obvious, straightforward emotions. 

It’s not necessarily a movie that you sift through and you can tweak your reaction right after that. The emotions Lingua Franca deals with are subtle, complex, ambivalent and even elusive. And it’s because I like to think my films are an invitation for people to pay attention and listen. To think more deeply and critically about the characters and the world that we live in. 

Before we come to a close, would you like to talk about your next film that’s coming out? Given your talk about risk taking, this sounds like you are really taking risks here.

Oh my gosh, you may fall flat on my face with this next one. Tropical Gothic, which is my fourth feature, is set in the 16th century in the Philippines. It’s set in 1570, which is just a few years after the Spanish colonists arrived; a priestess is stripped of our property in foreign land. And as a retaliation — this is the Gothic part — she pretends to be possessed by the ghost of the dead bride of her Spanish master. She’s avenging her political subjugation and that of her people by colonising the mind and heart of her master. And it’s a riff on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. 

This sounds very cool.

Oh, yeah. It’s the film that I have been working towards. John Cocteau said filmmakers make the same movie over and over and over again across their careers. And I certainly do notice that with my own work — I revisit the same themes and obsessions, issues and conflicts. But the execution becomes more tactically confident and masterful. And when I think about it, if I were to step back and to assess my own body of work so far, it feels like a remake of my first feature.

But yeah, I’m excited. I just finished the script!

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