Isabel Sandoval has created a subtle, sensual story that goes beyond the trans narratives released by largely white, male, cis-gendered mainstream directors of today. Her film Lingua Franca is a relationship-based tale that follows trans Filipina Olivia in her struggle to find some joy and live her life authentically as a caregiver in Brighton Beach, while trying to secure a green card. Working as a caregiver for Olga, an elderly Russian woman, she meets and falls for her alcoholic grandson, and the two are challenged to deal with their insecurities and personal shame, as they attempt to build something authentic together. Writer/director/producer/actress Sandoval speaks about her aesthetic and the power of Lingua Franca.
Leslie Combemale: How do you describe your aesthetic as a director (especially as you have a hand in a number of other aspects of filmmaking, from performing to producing and editing) and how have you brought it to bear or played with it in Lingua Franca?
Isabel Sandoval: I would describe my style as a kind of austerity, and visual sparseness, but also infused with a delicacy and lyricism and sensuality. I thought that Lingua Franca would be interesting material to try in using that aesthetic and sensibility because on the surface it sounds like a social issue drama, and it does touch on very pertinent and very topical themes such as immigration and the trans experience in the US, I feel like I’m setting the expectations of the audience in a certain way, and in a certain direction, but I try to subvert that by hopefully having made a film that’s not seen as preachy or didactic, but subtle and complex and layered and a film that will linger for the audience for a few days or longer.
Combemale: In the press notes Lingua Franca is referred to being like a “hushed Sirk-ian drama”, especially as Sirk was a director who injected social commentary in films meant to have broader appeal. Though perhaps a bit of a generalization, do you agree with that assessment?
Sandoval: I think it was a strategy for commercial or mainstream directors at that time to make films that were accessible to a general audience, and that usually means doing something like a clear genre, like romantic melodrama, which was clearly a popular type of movie at that time. You kind of sneak in more complex and subtle and nuanced exploration of issues of the time, and Sirk was an example of that kind of director. He actually was not given proper recognition and his due until the 70s. It’s interesting that you brought up Sirk from the press notes, because his works also influenced Fassbender, especially in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which I consider one of the influences of Lingua Franca thematically. I like calling the film a hushed melodrama, because it also deviates from the more popular Philippine melodrama, that they do nowadays that is loud and obvious. Mine is a lot more muted and reserved and gets a little more quiet towards the end.
Combemale: Lingua Franca, the name of the film, is referencing a language that is adopted as a common tongue for two people whose native languages are different. Language is not necessarily about words, though. To me, perhaps, emotion is the ultimate ‘lingua franca’. What for you is the meaning of the title?
Sandoval: I use the title Lingua Franca quite ironically in the film because I feel that what’s most important between the two lead characters is what’s left unsaid and unarticulated between them. The arc between Alex and Olivia over the course of the film is trying to get to a deeper understanding of how they feel, and how they feel about each other and overcoming a sense of shame or guilt, in order to admit those feelings to themselves and make themselves vulnerable by expressing those feelings to each other. I also wanted to put an emphasis on not just the dialogue, but the silences, and the pauses, and the spaces in between, because my approach to character is that they tend to be interior and introverted characters, in that they don’t necessarily just display or express how they really feel, but you can deduce it and you can see it more by what they withhold. I wanted to give the audience the space to be patient and observe the characters that way.
Combemale: Although you play one of the lead roles, I’d say the film is an ensemble. I love the cast, and especially would love to hear about casting and working with Lynn Cohen as Olga, Eamon Farren as Alex, and Ivory Aquino as Trixie.
Sandoval: Lynn was the very first cast member that we approached for the film and she said yes almost instantly and I was very lucky to work with her. We approached her a little over a year before we started rolling and we met a few times after that, but she was a champion from day one. Her own parents were immigrants from the Ukraine, and she told me that this is the kind of story that needs to be told, and a voice like mine needed to be heard.
Eamon was also a great find. We had actually approached his agent with an offer for a different actor, someone who had been in a few very high profile films here in the US, but the actor was unavailable, and Eamon asked to read the script and he loved it. He actually sent a self tape. At that time he was in London, so we Skyped, and we hit it off. I thought he was extraordinary. We made him an offer, but I didn’t actually get to meet him in person until a year later which was a week and a half before shooting.
Casting Ivory, I met her at a screening of my previous feature, Apparition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We became friends. At the time I was also writing Lingua Franca, so I thought of her as perfect for Trixie, and that’s how she became involved.
Combemale: Although you are the writer/director/editor and have a producer credit, you have some wonderful collaborators. I’m especially interested in director of photography Isaac Banks, production and costume designer Clint Ramos, and composer Teresa Barrozo. Can you offer some thoughts about working with them?
Sandoval: First I want to talk about Teresa Barrozo, because she’s been a collaborator since my first film. She’s a Filipino composer who is based in Manila, and she’s actually worked on films that have won Cannes, Berlin, and Venice. She works a lot with Brillante Mendoza, who won Best Director at Cannes over 10 years ago (with 2009’s Kinatay). I love her work.
Isaac is one of the very first creatives who got attached to Lingua Franca, about 2 1/2 years before we started shooting. We’ve become good friends. There was really a lot of trust in the relationship. I was not wrong to place that trust, because he’s created what I like to think of as a visually exquisite film with Lingua Franca, along with Clint Ramos and Maxwell Nalevansky who are the production designer and art director of the film. They really created this world of Brighton Beach that is inhabited by these people. I wanted to make a different kind of New York film. Spike Lee makes one kind, The Safti Brothers, even Lena Dunham shows you the hip, edgy Williamsburg, but I wanted to show a kind of hidden or secret New York and Brighton Beach, as a neighborhood of mostly Russian Jewish immigrants has a very distinct and singular vibe.
Setting the film in Brighton Beach was a way to revisit the moods and textures of Two Lovers by James Gray, also a major influence stylistically of the film. He’s one of the very rare classicist filmmakers working today, and I do feel I’m working a little bit in that same mode as well.
Combemale: There are two scenes that really struck me and I feel are multi-layered in terms of symbolism and metaphor. One is when the power failure that happens, but only in Olga’s apartment, and the other is the darkly lit dance to Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. I’d love whatever you’d like to share about those two scenes.
Sandoval: The power outage, I didn’t really intend to give it a lot of metaphor, but it’s something that happens. It’s definitely happened in my neighborhood before, these random outages. I used that scene for where Alex gets this idea that’s been steadily forming in his mind, this outlandish story that’s meant to gaslight Olivia. It’s also that moment, A lot of trans narratives go the way of physical violence but I wanted to show a sort of quiet but more insidious type of psychological violence, which is gaslighting in this instance. I also didn’t want to show Alex as this black and white outright villain. This is a well-meaning but immature and flawed person who immediately realizes the effect of his actions on someone like Olivia, who is dealing with very real, concrete fears and anxieties.
The Smoke Gets In Your Eyes scene, I’m very proud of that. That was actually inspired by another influence of mine, which is Christian Petzold. I remember the final scene in Pheonix, when the Nina Hoss character sings Sing Low. You feel on the surface this is just a woman singing a tune as a man plays on the piano, but it’s so fraught and so packed with tension and implication, politically, personally, underneath, the kind of emotional elegance of that scene and that finish is what I wanted to accomplish in my own film, in the setting in up, you’re expected to go into a more straightforward suspense or thriller-ish direction, and then once it gets closer to the climax it just slows down and becomes a lot more quiet.
Combemale: Though your work has an intimate yet universal quality, being a trans actress and, I would say, auteur, is, until things change, necessarily an act of activism. How does that sit with you, or rather, how do you leverage that?
Sandoval: I totally agree. As a trans woman of color and immigrant making a film in the United States it’s inherently political. My activism and advocacy is to continue to make the stories that I want to tell and truly having authorship of it. That is primarily the driver of why I wanted to be both in front of and behind the camera for a story like this, because I feel like how the story is approached and the execution of it is not something that a cis gender white male director would do. In fact a lot of trans narratives made by these directors, almost always on the gender transition process. There’s a kind of fixation and obsession with that. I’m not saying it’s not an important or valid facet of our experience, but it’s just one. Lingua Franca, I’d like to think, starts where these trans narratives end.
EDITOR’S NOTE: You can view this interview on the Alliance of Women Film Journalists YouTube channel. Please subcribe.