Interview: How Director Andrea A. Walter and Actor Osric Chau’s ‘Empty by Design’ Became a Love Letter to Manila and the Asian American Filmmaking Community
If I’ve learned anything during my week-long foray into the world of Asian American film at the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF), it’s that the community is there to help. Time and time again, I kept seeing the same faces, the same people, and the same bursting enthusiasm that radiated from the audience throughout each and every screening. Despite its intimidating tongue-twisting acronym, the LAAPFF is more than just another film festival–it’s a little thriving community of its own. But perhaps nobody knows this better than director Andrea A. Walter and actor Osric Chau.
Empty by Design, the 2019 LAAPFF’s closing night film, is a love letter to that same community that has supported them throughout the entire making of Walter’s directorial debut. As first time producers and self-helmed filmmakers, Walter, Chau, Filipino American actor Dante Basco, and Australian actor Chris Pang often performed double duty–figuring out the ropes while they were shooting, as well as directing or starring in the film. While Walter and her self-proclaimed “work-husbands” sorted things out, they found encouragement through their other friends in the field. Oftentimes random friends would fly out to Manila, where the film is set, just to support them. It was through these friendships and bonds that the film overcame its obstacles and eventually found its way to the big screen.
Starring Filipino starlet Rhian Ramos as Samantha and Osric Chau as Eric, the film explores coming to terms with what home is through bustling, modern-day Manila. Together, the two form an unlikely friendship as they figure out what it means to truly belong. Similar themes of existential milieu also draw from Walter’s two biggest influences, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Wong Kar Wai’s filmography, which can be found scattered throughout the film’s subtext.
Before the world premiere of Empty by Design at the 2019 LAAPFF, I had a chance to talk to Andrea and Osric about the film–revealing the laborious process behind the film’s conception, the inspirations behind the film, and how the Asian/Asian American community rallied together to create it.
Tell us a little bit about why you named your film Empty by Design… how did you come up with the name, and how did the whole project come to fruition?
Osric: I did a project two years ago with Chris [Pang], and it was the worst project I had been a part of. By the end of it, I just felt like a puppet for no greater purpose. It wasn’t even like we had creative differences, but I felt used in the weirdest way that I had ever experienced before. On that project, Chris was the only person that really anchored me and vice-versa. We would’ve gone insane if it weren’t for each other, and we just bonded through that experience. On the way back, this just lit this fire for me. If I’m going to work on shitty productions, I want it to be my own shitty production. There and then, I just had to make a movie.
Fast forward to Sundance last year. I went with Andrea, and this was my first time at a film festival really attending a film festival. She took me on this crazy Sundance experience where all we did was watch movies. That’s all we did. I was watching all these films, there was the Q&As, and I would look at these people and think, “Wow, these are incredible people,” but I couldn’t shake the idea that they also just reminded me of us. Right then and there I was like, “Andrea, we have to come back with a film next year.”
Andrea: He actually said that every screening!
Osric: I just kept saying it and saying it and we moved in together. I was like alright, let’s do this! Andrea was like, “But we have to go to IKEA, get furniture… we’ve got to settle in!” We did the math, and if the Sundance deadline was in August, we would have to do pre-production here, post-production then… and I’m like [to Andrea], can you write a script in a month? So we started brainstorming as we went to IKEA every single day, and by the end of that, she was like “I think I have the title of the movie!” She was just talking about IKEA and was like, “ah, it’s so empty by design…” And I was like, “AH! That’s our movie title!” That was the working title and we never changed it.
But then LAAPFF happened. For me, it was one of those big moments that I’m always going to look back to. We were working on the script and pulling the package together. Things were moving, but in the back of my mind I was still like “I don’t know if this is going to happen.” Most of the things I’ve ever tried to do fell short. We attended LAAPFF and we kind of got into the habit of showing up to support people and our community, because after Sundance, I loved it so much and thought, “Why haven’t I done that for my own community?” Leading up to LAAPFF, we were just showing up for anyone and anything. Me and Andrea starting inviting every single person we knew to every single screening. Sometimes we wouldn’t get in and we’d just hang about and get boba. We just showed up and that was the important thing. We didn’t have a movie or a project or friends that were in it… we just showed up to support the festival. Throughout the process, with my big mouth just kept telling everyone that we were going to the Philippines to shoot a movie, even though we had no idea how it was going to happen.
Andrea: You would see my face, and I would be like, “No, no! Don’t say that!” He decided to say it when we went to the Searching screening. Him and Chris did it to the red carpet! I was in the middle of eating popcorn, ready to watch the movie, and a Filipino reporter asked me, “What are you doing in the Philippines?” It spiraled from there. And I was stuck now, because it was on TV. We have to do it!
Osric: So we were telling anyone and everyone that this was happening. During this time we pulled our pitch deck together. We had our team that we wanted to use–Dante connected us to a producer in the Philippines, but we still needed to raise money and I was just going to self-finance it, and we were going to do it on peanuts. I had like ten different companies and private investors that seemed interested but no one fully jumped on board. We gave ourselves a deadline and we passed that deadline and we thought, “what are we going to do?” It came down to, “We’re still going to do this.” We all bought one-way tickets to the Philippines, and decided to figure it out there!
Andrea: For me it was okay to buy a one-way ticket because I have a house there, but I started feeling this very pressure… “Oh god, my friends are coming with me on this really ridiculous thing!”
Osric: It really felt like one of those very scary moments, but at the same time I had a weird confidence about it all. In the back of my mind I just thought it was all going to work out, and I trusted that.
Andrea: When we got to Manila, we were approached by two different companies and we just went with the first one that felt right. It happened so fast… all within one or two weeks.
Osric: We were so happy to find a partner in Cignal Entertainment. They’ve been wonderful and they saw us for what we were trying to do. That whole process was so eye-opening for me. And it was so cool that they were just like okay, we trust you guys and we’re going to let you do what you’re going to do. And we were like, “Really?” We don’t really trust ourselves, but okay!
Andrea: It’s not some crazy cold studio, they call us in to hang out. I was just talking to the Vice President of the company through Facebook.
Osric: They really brought us into their family, and I’m really, really grateful.
Andrea: When we thought of the movie, we’re both nerds, we would want to do action/sci-fi. But I knew at this time of our lives, there’s different stories for us to tell. We thought to make a movie that touched on both of our stories–mostly based on mine and Osric’s life, but also based on a lot of our other friends who have relatable stories. You’re from another culture and you live somewhere else. When you come back, you’re not really sure who you are, and who you identify as. I know a lot of Asian Americans here have that disconnection. I have that whenever I’m here [in the US]. When I started living in America longer than in the Philippines, I started to realize I’m not really sure who I am anymore. That’s where the big theme of the film came from. Who are you? Not just as an Asian, but as a person in this day and age. What’s home to you? As we made the movie, it was way later when I realized the answer to all that, which is that home is the people you surround yourself with. It took filming a movie to actually understand that.
After watching Osric do so much work, I’ve never seen him play a role that other Caucasian men would play. He’s always been given the side best friend, the Buddhist etc. This is the first time that Osric gets to be himself on screen. He gets the role that he’d never get. It was so nice as a friend to give him that opportunity, and for me to direct an Asian male playing what I would normally have to do with my Caucasian friends. It was a different experience for me, and it felt nice.
Osric: From my perspective, more than anything it’s the people, it’s the community. Us screening at LAAPFF… the significance of screening at LAAPFF is so much more and I never realized it. Standing now, looking at this film–yeah, the film’s cool and all and we did it–but it’s the people around us. We got to see our friends go through such an endeavor with us, and we really felt like we got to create our own industry. Our purpose for this film was to set a precedence that we could keep making movies and basically hire our friends because we know that they’re amazing at what they do. They all pooled their talents together on this one project and all we hope for is that it can lead to the next one where we can pay them their dues.
LAAPFF–another nice thing is because we showed up all the time, halfway through the festival we had the festival directors stopping us and saying “Thank you for showing up.” It just showed us the importance of showing up and being part of it! Our friends always step up for us and we want to give it back. At LAAPFF this year, we’re going to be crazy busy with our film but we’re going to show up for as many different screenings as we can.
Movie aside, the most important thing I’m taking away from this experience is that feeling of community and finding that place where we feel like we finally belong.
How much of the characters and the story is inspired by your own life?
Andrea: I would say a huge amount of it is based off of me and what I see my friends go through. Even though the lead character has a lot of resemblance towards myself, I pulled from my best friends. It’s exaggerated a bit because there are some things in the film that I’ve never done. But [Osric’s] character was pulled from our friend Yoshi [Sudarso], who was in this middle ground of being a stuntman and being an actor. A lot of our friends in the Asian community that are male (or female), they’re stuntmen and they’re trying to be actors but they keep getting pulled back and forth between each.
Osric: Yoshi and I shared a very similar life. I went through this exact story over 10 years ago. When I met Yoshi two to three years ago, I saw him and thought, “He’s doing exactly what I was doing, but he doesn’t realize it yet.” One of the first things that I told him was at some point, you have to start training your mind. That’s literally what I told myself because I knew that at some point I was going to get injured, or older and slower, so I needed to train my mind so I could stay sharper for a little bit longer. That was that journey. When we were going through Eric’s [the character’s] story, it was pulling from my own life but it was easier just to watch Yoshi and pull from his too.
Andrea: His whole storyline is him being gone for so long in the Philippines, and he comes home because of a job. At first he’s really excited because the job is taking him home, but the moment he arrives he realizes this is not my home. How can I make it my home? He spends the whole movie trying to figure it out. It’s through the girl’s friendship–this is not a romance–that they both realize that they can find home through the culture of people, not necessarily the country. He reconnects with his family, and she reconnects with her family, and also the community she was a part of.
It’s definitely a quieter movie. It has the pacing of Kogonada’s Columbus. That was a big inspiration for me, that one.
In one of your interviews in the Philippines you mentioned that Jasmine Curtis was going to lead the film, but Rhian Ramos is instead leading the film. How did she get involved in the making of the film? What led to that change?
Osric: Rhian was definitely on our short-list, and we reached out to five–Jasmine was the first one to respond. We had planned the movie with Jasmine as the lead up until four days before the shoot, and right before it happened her management just got back to us and was like, “Oh my god, this movie that we had already been doing just happened and now we can’t get out of it.”
Andrea: It was nothing to do with her, it was just bad scheduling.
Osric: At the time it was one of those moments… “We just lost the lead of our movie four days before the shoot… what are we going to do?” We reached out to Rhian, and she was down to do it! She hopped on the day before we started.
Andrea: She’s amazing. She did all her homework really fast.
Osric: But I gotta give credit to Cignal on this one too. We had just lost Jasmine–she’s one of the biggest stars in the Philippines! We weren’t sure if they were going to approve of anyone else, and they were like, “We trust whoever you’re going to use.”
Andrea: I love how much Cignal understands that if you let the creatives work, you’ll get something that is really great instead of them just walking all over the project. They’re so supportive of us.
I actually still talk to Jasmine–she’s actually dating one of my high school friends! I still want to work with Jasmine in the future, but I have to give Rhian so much credit because she was working another movie at the same time so we had to schedule her.
She did great… she came in and did all her fittings, got her hair done, it was amazing. I’m really thankful for how hard she worked and how much time she gave us.
One of the most interesting things about the film’s conception is the Philippines press junket that led up to it. What was it like to go through that?
Andrea: I think MJ’s was the first.
Osric: Cignal TV… they have their own news network. We walked by and Chris had just met JR [Filipino musician], so JR left in the middle of his interview to say hi to us. And then we started talking to MJ, so we just did an interview… right after. We just hopped onto national TV right there and then.
They also had a Comic-Con there. Someone messaged me was was like, “Hey, do you want to do an interview?” I did it and I was telling them about the movie. I asked them if I could bring my producer and director and they were like, “Yeah, sure, why not?” There was just a series of interviews with all these people.
Andrea: Mind you, Osric and Chris were used to this. I thought I was just coming to hang out. I wasn’t ready. You know when an interviewer comes out and then keeps switching–I’m sitting there going, “What is happening?” And then we did the radio show where we accidentally got lost! We were at the wrong road and I was so confused, but it was great.
I think we were just really excited at the end of the day. That’s the first time the three of us we were making something together as a group. It felt nice.
In a lot of the interviews, Andrea has compared Empty by Design to other films about people finding themselves… particularly Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Wong Kar Wai’s films. In these films the location of the film is just as important as the characters themselves. How does Empty by Design use the city of Manila as its own unique entity? What are some Manila-centric features of the film?
Andrea: Everything is very Manila-centric. I didn’t notice it until my foreign crew pointed it out from the script. I didn’t realize how Filipino I was until I made a Filipino film. Our other producer wasn’t able to go on set–he gave me my script notes and he kept going, “You need to translate this, you need to translate this. I don’t know what this is, I had to Google it!” He wasn’t being hard on me, he was just saying I don’t know what this is. From the get-go I realized that I did write a very Manila-centric film.
In the film you’ll notice that we shot a lot of it in the cosmopolitan of Manila, which isn’t really featured in international Filipino films. Most of what you see that leaves our country are–I hate to use the word–poverty-porn and drug movies. We tried our best to do Philippines from my point of view. The hipster kids–we would go to bars in the downtown Manila area or I would hang out at random coffee shops. Stuff you would see in Filipino movies, but not in international Filipino films.
Aside from them actually saying in the dialogue, “I don’t belong here,” you can actually sense them figuring it out just by watching them interact with small things. There’s a moment where Osric goes to see his grandma and they don’t really say anything to each other. He can’t understand what she’s saying, but she can understand what he’s saying but she can’t speak English. So what brings them together is them making food–which is very Asian and very Filipino. She makes him make food with him. There’s no dialogue after that. That for me is him finding his place just from that one moment. There are moments like that.
Osric [to Andrea]: Is there anything specifically that you might’ve taken as a direct homage from Wong Kar Wai or Sofia Coppola?
Andrea: Actually, there’s a scene in the hotel where we do tinikling, which is the traditional bamboo dance. I was paying homage to a scene that Sofia Coppola did in Lost in Translation where Scarlet is walking through the hotel and she sees the Japanese flower arrangements, and that’s where I got that inspiration. She’s just wandering throughout the hotel (which Osric does a lot of in his free time) and they just welcome her in, which is very normal in our culture–when you see someone who doesn’t know what to do you just welcome them in–they get him and they try to get him to dance and he’s not too sure how to do it. I think there’s a lot of direct things. The way I shot it too–a lot of people say that I attempted to do the Wong Kar Wai style–there’s no way I can ever shoot like Christopher Doyle but I tried my best to get that feel of bright colors from the city, and that raw wave of having the camera follow the actors. A big thing with the movie is that we structured the cinematography to feel disconnected. A lot of the shots that you’ll see–instead of having the regular headroom [in the shot], we raised the headroom. As you watch a whole movie do that, you start to feel very alone and that there’s so much space inside someone’s head. At first it was really scary to do that, and it’s not traditional, but as we went through it the actors understood. It created a sense of isolation.
What roles do Chris Pang and Dante Basco play in this film?
Osric: In the movie, Eric [Osric] is Jun Jie’s [Chris’s] stunt double and he travels with them. Chris’s character and Eric are really good buddies, and the story is they do everything together. Chris wants more for his stunt double so he’s the one who encourages him to get into the acting thing and do something that leads to something else. We got a cool bromance going on throughout the whole thing.
Andrea: Dante plays the director of the shoot, and my favorite thing was the whole time I didn’t realize that he was watching me and then just mimicking me. He was mimicking me and one other friend. The day I noticed it, we had just finished a lunch or a meeting, and he sees an eyeglass store and goes, “Andrea! Which glasses would you buy?” I don’t know… that one. He goes, “Perfect!” And he buys it. You don’t need glasses… “I know, I’m trying to be you.” And then I looked at him, and we were wearing the same thing. I was horrified!
Osric: Acting aside, Chris and Dante are our two main producers on board. Even for me… for all three of us, it felt like acting was secondary to our producing duties.
Andrea: Much to the boys’ credit, anytime Osric had to do a bunch of stuff, Chris and Dante knew to take more of the workload. The nicest thing with Chris–because of the movie that they did that was awful for them–he helped me as an acting coach because he was an acting coach on that film as well. I can never lose this dynamic. This dynamic helped me so much as a first time director. I feel very spoiled having the three of them.
Osric: Part of it was luck, but we knew that we had complimentary skill sets. We all bring something different to the table. We didn’t have any major gaps that we couldn’t figure out and we’re very fortunate for that.
What is Manila’s film scene like?
Andrea: This is the Philippines’ 100th year of cinema, and that’s another reason why I feel eternally grateful for our film to release this year. If you look at how big our film industry is, it’s massive. They can live without other cinema. With that being said, they want new stuff and they want to change… you can see the younger generation craving for more.
Osric: Cinema in the Philippines is nothing new, but for the most part they’ve only made films for the Philippines. They’ve never really looked beyond that. It’s there that we see the opportunity to help be the ambassadors for the Filipino culture. I see it in films all the time but it’s never ever showcased as Filipino so people don’t know. You know of this stuff, these things are familiar but you never thought of it as Filipino. I think part of what we want to do is to showcase Filipino culture to the world that kind of already knows what it is. I think it’s there that we can create our own little niche in the Filipino film industry and hopefully bring more people over to the Philippines.
Andrea: Two of my friends in the Philippines have had their films played outside, and a lot of movies have played in Venice or Berlin or Cannes. But I feel like what we need as Filipinos is to all come together and push our movies not just inward but outward. Talking to a lot of my friends, we–as Filipinos–want to be recognized in the same way Korean, Japanese, and Chinese cinema are. We want that same prestige and put in that same boat. We feel like we have enough to say and enough experience, and it takes a group of us to do this–not just us.
Osric: I feel like we are definitely equipped to do that–we’re all a mix of the East and the West to a certain degree. We have the tools and the story that can resonate on both sides. We want to export Filipino culture to the world. We want to be a part of that movement.
This interview was conducted in-person by Li-Wei Chu on April 7, 2019.