The Story of Lingua Franca, Isabel Sandoval’s Deeply Personal Post-Trump Indie Romance

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Lingua Franca, Isabel Sandoval’s third feature that’s premiering this week on Netflix, is the rare sort of film that upends your expectations without being even a little bit smug about it. At first glance, the film seems like it might be a relatively straightforward romantic indie-drama: Olivia (Sandoval), an undocumented Filipina transgender woman, spends her days in Brighton Beach working as a caregiver for an aging Russian woman named Olga (Lynn Cohen) and trying to find an American man who’s willing to accept cash to marry her for a green card. When Alex (Eamon Farren), Olga’s bad-boy slaughterhouse-worker grandson, moves in with the two women, Olivia begins to fantasize about and then fall for him, despite an increasing sense of unease about his intentions and implicit prejudices. But Sandoval isn’t interested in revisiting tropes about bigoted cisgender men grappling with their feelings for transgender women, or in limiting the very real horrors of present-day immigration in the United States to a mere backdrop. Lingua Franca is highly specific and yoked to the current moment, unfolding into a moody, nuanced, and often erotic film about finding sexual liberty, identity, and a sense of personal dignity while living in the grips of fear in Trump’s America.

Sandoval — who wrote Lingua Franca, directed it, produced it, edited it, and stars in it — shot her first two features in the Philippines to critical acclaim and international film-festival recognition; this marks her first primarily English-language feature, shot in the U.S. and backed by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY, as well as the first film made after her own gender transition. For these reasons, as Sandoval puts it, Lingua Franca “feels like my first film.” Watching it, and listening to Sandoval speak about it, you get the sense that she’s someone who’s work we’ll be paying attention to for a very long time. I caught up with her via phone just as the film premiered for a refreshingly candid conversation about the challenges and on-set tensions of making a deeply personal work in an industry that underestimates filmmakers of color, how the script evolved after Trump’s election, and the double-edged sword of being marketed as a “transgender Filipina filmmaker.”

Can you tell me about where this movie came from — when you first conceived of it?
After I finished my second feature, Aparisyon, which was about eight years ago — it’s a drama about nuns in the Philippines in the 1970s — I started my gender transition. It’s cliché to say it’s a life-changing experience, but I was experiencing changes, not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically. The very first time I realized I was attracting male attention, there was a singular experience: I felt both kind of an adrenaline rush, but also a sense of anxiety and danger for my own safety. Knowing that I was trans, and these men were not aware that I was trans. That strange combination of feeling both powerful and vulnerable at the same time was a feeling I wanted to distill and capture.

The sex scene [between Olivia and Alex] was among the very first scenes that I wrote for the film, and halfway through writing the script, Trump got elected. And just like any other minorities in the U.S., I was feeling a lot of uncertainty and tension and despair about what was going to happen. Around that time, the premise of Lingua Franca, about an undocumented Filipina trans woman who gets involved with a Russian Jewish slaughterhouse worker, came together. It was born primarily from that mood and atmosphere of New York City around that time, and also my emotional state at the time that I was writing it. Even though it’s ostensibly a romantic drama, I wanted it to quiver with unease and a feeling of claustrophobia and paranoia.

It definitely achieves that. Can you talk a bit more about how the script shifted after Trump was elected? Because it’s so specifically about his version of America — we hear his voice, we see news clips about the real-life consequences of his current policies.
Initially, it was more of a straightforward romantic drama. One of my influences at the time, which was also the reason I decided to set the story in Brighton Beach, is Two Lovers by James Gray, with Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow. The initial conflict, when I first started writing it, was about Alex not knowing that Olivia was transgender. Then it became more political after the election. So it became more of an intersectional drama and narrative, so to speak.

Were you always writing it with yourself in mind as the lead?
I believe so. You know, yeah. It’s my third feature film, but in certain ways it feels like my first because it’s the first I made after my gender transition. And my first to be set and produced in the U.S. So I really wanted to make sure that the movie was told exactly how I wanted it to be told. And I also felt like I wanted to prove myself, as a talent both behind and in front of the camera. I was trying to treat this project, essentially, as a calling card as a director, writer, producer, editor, and actor. I didn’t really think of those multiple roles that I took on as separate roles, necessarily. I had one job, which is to make a movie and to tell a story, and it just happened to have multiple aspects to it. And the character of Olivia is someone that I’ve become fond of, after writing her and developing the character for a little over two years. So it just felt right to me, to inhabit the role. Because I felt I was really channeling my headspace and my mood into the character of Olivia.

There are a lot of obvious parallels between the two of you. I’m curious how much of the film came from your own lived experience and how much of it was completely fictionalized?
Like Olivia, I’m a Filipina transgender immigrant living in Brooklyn. The rest of it is fictional, but her experiences and details in the film, and some of the scenes, are a composite of actual, real-life experiences from my friends. Some of whom are caregivers, and transgender women. And people that they know. In a way it’s like a fictionalized documentary, in that these are accounts of lived-in, authentic experiences that I incorporated into a fictional drama.

How did making this movie — which is personal in those ways and, as you said, the first you made after your transition — specifically feel different from making your first two?
Before I transitioned, making my first two movies in the Philippines, I was never — being a minority director was not something that I was made to be conscious of. Especially developing the film. Every day on set, I felt like I had less pushback from people questioning me about every creative decision or creative choice, producers getting behind my back and trying to make important production decisions without my knowledge. But that’s definitely something that I felt making Lingua Franca. In fact, the budget was originally three times what it ended up being. It was supposed to be $1.5 million; I pushed to get it to under $500,000. I just wanted the budget to strike that perfect balance between high enough so that everyone in the production gets paid decently, but also low enough that I’m given autonomy and the complete freedom to pursue my artistic vision for the film.

On set, it was a little tense. But it has to do with — I’m very conscious of the fact that, as the director, I maintain the morale of the production at a certain level. So when things become tense I’m not the type to yell or throw my weight around. I do internalize everything. So at the end of the day, I feel really drained and wiped out. But having made the film, and now that it’s coming out, I feel vindicated. [Laughs.]

What were some of these tense moments?
One would be that I decided to shoot the sex scene on the very first day of the shoot. Kind of just to prove a point. I felt the pressure of proving to people that I was capable. I was like, “Let’s shoot the sex scene the first day!” I’ve never done anything like that before. I’ve only acted once before this, and that was before my transition, and in my own film [Señorita]. But I thought because I knew the story very well, and I knew Olivia very well, that I could nail it. It was a closed set, we made sure that it was really just three people: me, Eamon, and the cinematographer inside the room. But I still felt, I don’t know, violated somewhat. It’s such a complicated thing to describe because I felt I was responsible for that feeling, because I was the one who insisted on shooting the sex scene on the first night. But I kind of just used that feeling to fuel my performance for the rest of the shoot. After the fourth or fifth day, I felt closer and back to normal again.

That’s really interesting, the idea of writing and directing a scene for yourself that then turns into you feeling like you’ve violated yourself. How exactly did you feel violated?
I felt like I was exposing myself. Granted, I didn’t really show that much [physically] on the film, but that’s when I think the film truly felt personal to me, in that, even though it’s not narratively autobiographical, it was psychologically and emotionally truthful. That sex scene is about what I described earlier, that feeling of both experiencing sexual pleasure, but also the creeping anxiety about being intimate with a man who is not aware that you’re transgender. In a way, I was baring my soul to the camera in that scene, even though it was a performance, so to speak.

Wow. I think in other films that deal with that idea — a cisgender man sleeping with a woman who he doesn’t realize is transgender — you expect the narrative to go to a place where he’s angry, maybe he’s violent; there’s instant conflict. But you don’t go there. Can you talk a bit about your narrative choices in that story line?
Part of why it has the premise of a standardish social-issue melodrama is because I did want to cultivate the audience’s expectations in a certain way, so that it felt like, This is going to be just like any other drama about trans women characters finding themselves in romantic relationships with cis men. And that’s when I turn the table and take it in a totally different direction. And this is not just specific to trans women in particular, but to women in relationships with different power dynamics: Violence in relationships can also be emotional and psychological. That kind of violence is in fact more insidious because it’s not obvious; it’s invisible to the eye. And I wanted to really burrow that deeply into the conflict of the personal and the political: Alex feels “betrayed” by Olivia, quote, unquote, after learning that she’s trans. He’s leveraging the fact that he’s a citizen, and that he’s a man, to emotionally terrorize Olivia. He’s gaslighting her about looking after her.

I also did not want to portray a character like Alex as an outright villain, but ultimately, just a product of his upbringing and the environment that he grew up in, having been raised in a Russian neighborhood that’s pretty conservative and somewhat misogynistic and transphobic. He doesn’t have the emotional sophistication to deal with what he learns about Olivia in a mature and sensible way, so he retaliates the only way he knows how. And he realizes slowly after how he’s gaslighting her, and how that’s affecting her, and he spends the rest of the film trying to do the right thing. And bring her back. But it’s too late.

His character is relatively subtle, but I also think that casting Eamon, especially after playing the villain in —
Twin Peaks! Yes. I know Eamon played a villain in that role. But I think he has a really fascinating face, as a character actor. I didn’t want to just cast some, you know, regular, bland, pretty boy. I wanted an actor who could convey both vulnerability and a sense of erotic danger. I think there’s an element of volatility with Eamon where you don’t know what he’s gonna do next.

Right, and the Twin Peaks role carries over, if you’ve seen it, bringing a sort of innate, visceral fear with it.
Yeah, I also used the fact that he’s known as a villain to kind of make the audience feel that it’s going in a certain direction. But then there’s actually more shading and layer to his character, and also to Olivia.

The film has been described as “mysterious.” There is a certain degree of remove, things left to the imagination. Did you cultivate that sense of mystery on purpose?
Yeah! Because being aware and cognisant of the fact that this film is going to be promoted and marketed as a film by a transgender Filipina immigrant, and a story about that kind of person, I feel like people in the audience might conclude or think that they already know everything about a character like Olivia, or someone like myself. In the climactic scene, Olivia makes a decision, turning down Alex, that seems counterintuitive and impractical. And at that moment, I’m letting the audience know that Olivia is more than just a trans woman looking for love, or an immigrant without papers. The story is about her gaining back her agency, and her ability to determine for herself what her future will be. Although her future as an immigrant remains uncertain.

And this is obvious to me, as someone who wrote Olivia: I would not marry a man who exploited my trust and my deepest fears and anxieties in order to get a green card. In that moment I deepen the characterization of Olivia, as being more than just a sum of sociological markers and labels attached to her. And I wanted the audience to put in emotional work, to truly try to understand why she decided the way that she did. If I make them do that work, and whether they agree or not with the decision, I feel like I’ve accomplished my task of having the audience attempt to empathize with someone like Olivia.

What you said about her being more than her socioeconomic markers makes me think of, as you said a minute ago, how you knew that this film would be marketed as a “film by a transgender Filipina immigrant.” Has that idea of not wanting to be limited by your socioeconomic markers translated to your own experience promoting the film?
Yeah. For sure. I mean, I’m a Filipinia transgender immigrant, but those things do not encapsulate my experience. Just like a movie by Ari Aster or Robert Eggers is not marketed as a “cisgender white male movie.” I wanted to take the audience to a surprising and unexpected emotional place, and also, even though they enter the film with some information about its politics, that they leave thinking, Oh, this is a director that has a unique and distinct aesthetic and sensibility, whose work I’d like to follow.

To that point, I noticed in a few of your older interviews that you refer to yourself as an auteur, which I love, in part because it’s so rare for women filmmakers to self-identify like that. What does that term mean for you?
Yeah! [Laughs.] I feel like it’s kind of become controversial or provocative for me to say that. But the films I’ve made so far have been made independently, and I like to think that each of them has an imprint of my style and my voice. And I think especially for a story like this, which has a very particular and specific point of view, it’s important for it to feel very different from a studio production or something that’s done for hire. It’s all right with me if not everyone likes it, or if they hate it. But I want them to come away thinking, This director, this auteur, did it her own way.

You’ve talked about how you didn’t go to film school and were self-taught. Who influences you? Who inspires you?
For this film, James Gray, who is one of my favorite filmmakers — Two Lovers, The Immigrant. I think he’s just the classical filmmaker working in contemporary American cinema. Also, Wong Kar-wai, In the Mood for Love. Chantal Akerman, News From Home — the opening and closing montages of Lingua Franca where we see scenes in Brighton Beach juxtaposed with voice-over in Filipino and Tagalog. I like the dissonance and the contrast between the image and the sound — the voice of the immigrant staking her claim in this foreign territory. And Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the prolific queer German auteur from the ’70s. Especially Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, an interracial love story between a German woman and an Algerian immigrant.

It was emotional to see Lynn Cohen in what I think is her last work, right?
Yeah, it’s one of her last performances.

What was it like for you to release this film just a few months after her death?
It’s definitely bittersweet. When we had our world premiere in Venice, she couldn’t come because she had a shoot around that time. But Lynn was actually the very first cast member that we attached to the project. We made the offer; she read the script and loved it. Her own parents were immigrants from Ukraine, so it became a personal commitment for her to be part of this film when it got made. And we’d been meeting for at least a year on a regular basis, for lunch and at her place. We became friends, for sure. I think she added gravitas to the film. I was honored to have worked with her in one of her final film roles, after being a fan of her as Magda on Sex and the City for years!

Weren’t we all! You’re already working on your fourth film, which you have described as your “most ambitious.” What can you tell me about it?
It’s called Tropical Gothic. It’s a colonial drama, with surreal elements. It’s about the haunting of a Spanish conquistador by a native priestess in the Philippines around 1570. I like to call it a vampire film without vampires. And it’s kind of my own riff on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which I thought was very male-gaze-y. I really wanted to turn that male gaze on its head.

Isabel Sandoval Gets Candid About Indie Drama Lingua Franca