Leaving it All on the Boulevard: An interview with Kayla Galang
If you had told me I would have been eating dinuguan in a backyard full of Filipino-Texan artists, aunties, and families during SXSW this year, I would have prayed you were right. It was a dream-made-reality by a generous invitation from Kayla Galang, a filmmaker with not only rich ties to the Filipino American community in Austin, but also in San Diego. The confluences of these life experiences foregrounded Galang’s short film, When You Left Me On That Boulevard, a loving, nostalgic buffet of textures, sounds, and milieu from the perspective of a Filipino American teenager in mid 2000s San Diego.
It was clear from Boulevard’s proclivity for gentle, angsty, specific, and communal sequences that Galang’s creative eye was very personal. It’s a perspective that is gaining a tremendous amount of attention, as the short received the Short Film Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and, just a couple days after our interview, the SXSW Texas Shorts Special Jury Award. I was overjoyed to sit down with Kayla during the festival to learn about her unique influences, propensity for collaboration, and effervescent attention to detail in her work.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Any SXSW highlights so far for you that you’d like to share?
Honestly, I did not adequately prepare for this SX because I feel like I’ve just been in a weird trance for the past month and a half. So I’m actually spending today looking at the schedule and probably going to catch the second screening to most things. But I guess the biggest highlight so far was our Texas premiere in the Texas Shorts Block on Friday night, which was just a very special and communal experience. It was such an engaging block that was just filled with boisterousness and hilarity and tenderness and quiet.
And then I ended the day with a really nice backyard show. So it was like unofficial SX, but I think that’s like my favorite part of SX, just getting to go to all the DIY shows and people’s backyards and getting some reprieve and quiet from downtown because it can be chaotic and overwhelming.
Can you tell me about what San Diego and Paradise Hills means to you?
Paradise Hills and San Diego mean everything to me. I grew up there. My dad was a marine, and so we kind of hopped around quite a bit before I was in kindergarten between California and Texas. And so we settled down in Paradise Hills when I was about, like, five or six, and I moved away in 2007 when I was about 15 years old. So I spent a good formative chunk of my life there, and so that was all I really knew for a while.
I don’t think I really understood what it meant to me until I left, just because I was immersed in what felt like a pretty homogeneous community of brown folks and black folks and FilAm people and everything. To contextualize it, I moved to Houston in 2007 in the whitest suburb in Houston called Katy, Texas. It was pretty alienating and jarring and kind of the biggest case of whiplash in my life to have to go there right after being so surrounded with people that looked like me and had family like mine, and just understood the specificity of my experience. Whereas once I got to Texas, that was being questioned left and right, and oftentimes they’re like, “Are you Chinese? Do you speak English?” Those were the two biggest questions I got my first year living in Katy, unfortunately, and I suddenly became one of three Filipino folks at my high school, you know?
So all this to say, like, I didn’t understand how much Paradise Hills meant to me until I left it and how much it raised and nurtured me and sort of created my lens for filmmaking. Because looking back, there’s so much vibrance and so much community and togetherness that I just really did not understand as a teen because I was like, this is it. This is life. This is what I’m in.
So this project has DNA from Austin and San Diego, like you mentioned. Can you tell us about the process of casting and crewing up for the project? Because it does seem particularly unique in that aspect, that it’s in between states and different homes.
I’d say that a lot of the core producing and department heads mostly came from Austin. They are my film school cohort. So my producers, three of them were actually from the University of Texas, where I went to college, and one of them was actually my childhood friend who moved to Austin from Paradise Hills. So that was a very special team to assemble together because there was someone else from my community on the team with us.
I met my DP, Rajinee, who also went to UT right after me, actually. And so she was like some big wunderkind and this person whose work and artistry really preceded her. And then you met Matt earlier, actually, and he’s my co-editor. We co-edit everything together because our brains just work. And my sound designer is also my partner, Will. I met him at film school too. So the core creative team outside of art, which is like a whole other story… they came from Austin. And so that kind of helped us create the framework through which we wanted to gather as a community for this project.
We actually built community standards and agreements that we adapted from other spaces that we really like just to understand how we want to collaborate together, how we want to move through and mitigate conflict together. Because when you’re in art making spaces and what you’re doing is so subjective, there’s bound to be conflict. There’s bound to be disagreement. There’s bound to be some alignment being needed.
So it really mattered to me that we had some sort of framework in place to know how to collaborate. And so from there, we actually started to get our art department exclusively from Paradise Hills in San Diego, because that’s worldbuilding. And it really mattered to me that we got people that weren’t only technically good at their craft, but just understood the specificity of homes and houses of Paradise Hills. I could explain things away all day to someone from here, for instance, but I really want production designers who knew where The Last Supper went or who knew where the Precious Moments figurines went or could know to look out for those things on location scouts.
We got our production designers, our wardrobe person who was my childhood friend — who sewed my first pair of pants, my first pair of skinny jeans in high school — and then a makeup and hair artist who grew up in Spring Valley. So it really mattered to have those creative touches from people in the area. And for all of them, it was their first time on set, which was really amazing to watch them just claim their artistry in this space and bring something really special, unique to it.
What was your favorite shot of the film?
I have three favorites.
I think that the one that I’m most proud of constructing with my team is the more split screenish shot where we have the aunties on one side and the cousins on [the other]. I really wanted that shot. It just kind of captures the chaos of a gathering. I really wanted the kids to be the current that ran through all those vignettes. You’d either hear them or see them snaking around a space while the adults were doing their thing.
I thought that was super magical because Elle, who plays Pinky, knows how to command a room and she knows how to be that person and it’s very clear that she is that person. But the kids were so impressive and magical to work with because they were just all in. They really loved games with big incentives and prizes. We had them playing hide and seek in that room. There were a couple of kids hiding the closet and one hiding behind the door. And even though they technically knew that there were people hiding, it was still such a genuine shock and surprise for them to find each other when they were playing hide and seek. So it was very curious and open. That’s why I love working with kids, surprisingly, which I didn’t think I would, because they’re just so curious. They don’t have those inhibitors and those blocks that I think you just naturally get just as a person or as an adult. So I think, technically, that’s one of my favorite shots.
Another favorite is the very brief wide that we have of the teens in the living room after [Ly] goes through that whole story, just because that’s a very familiar and very tender space for me. I grew up in those spaces, just lazing around and waiting for the day to end because I was bored. So I think that really just speaks to me on a memory level.
And then my third favorite shot is the bobbing dog because it just reminds me of the reunion I got to have with my auntie in the process of making this. We shot at her house, and we would just drive around together whenever I visit. And I remember she just has this row of bobble dogs across her van’s dashboard. And I was like, “Those dogs are going to be in my movie. Those are the three.
So I’m totally in awe of how you capture the texture of a Filipino party, because I’ve seen a couple done, and this might be one of my most favorite depictions of it, especially the sound. I felt like I could just close my eyes, and it felt like I was home. I think that’s super special to acknowledge for the project. In regard to the production design and sound, what was it like to capture it? Was it all very planned or how much of it was improvised if at all?
First of all, thank you for the very kind words. It really means a lot to me for you to acknowledge the texture, just because that was something that we really painstakingly thought through and really wanted to capture, authentically… at least my experience and my community’s experience. And so when it came to the production design, it’s funny because I felt like we were more additive than we were trying to create something from the ground up. So I think that’s why we initially decided to shoot at my auntie’s house specifically, because that’s already a very Filipino American Christian home that’s already imbued with all those details.
And so our production designers were coming in and making those extra touches to make it more of Pinky’s home. For instance, my auntie really likes apples, so she had a lot of apple motifs and visual details in her house that we just had to kind of ease up on to make it more like Pinky’s home. And Pinky’s a big entertainer. She’s loud and boisterous and so she loves the more campy details and some religious iconography in her house.
So [the production designers] were more so peppering in what they knew and then also adding in the era details because it does take place in the 2000s. There was a lot of securing of old tech like big blocky television and cable boxes and old cell phones and all these little things that just speak to the era. I’d say it was nice to have people from the area that grew up in these kinds of homes and just immediately stake their claim in their art and what they were doing. I didn’t really need to lend as much direction as I previously have on other films.
And then when it comes to sound, that was such a big pillar for me going in. I really wanted the whole film to feel as palpable and textured as possible. And so we took a lot of notes from Lovers Rock by Steve McQueen because the sound design there is so layered. You can hear literally everything that there is to hear in those spaces. It’s such a beautifully crisp film. And obviously it has the whole sonic element going for it because it is about music and dancing and togetherness in a party.
It’s funny because I don’t remember as much of the visuals when I think about parties and gatherings as much as I do the sound of it. You’re always hearing the clinks and clangs of pans and the stove exhaust pan and children running around and aunties cackling and laughing. It really mattered to me that we captured every single element of that, so we built the sound design over the course of a year before we even got to set.
We went to my Lola’s church in Houston, to her luncheons. We gathered various items from different gatherings, like post church luncheons and everything. And also I went to San Diego a few times with my iPhone and got my partner Will’s guidance on how to best capture certain aspects and sound, sometimes discreetly, at my auntie’s house. I just wanted to capture everything that my mind’s eye could possibly hear.
Whenever I think back to these spaces, I’m so glad to have this very visceral memory in these spaces. I really do appreciate that you acknowledge the sound because that was just as important. The cinematography, obviously is such a big pillar, but the production design and sound… I was gonna die on those hills. And I did.
So me and my partner, sometimes we feel like we’re the only people in the world who love Daphne Loves Derby. Can you tell me about the music in the film and also incorporating one of the best songs ever, “Middle Middle” by Daphne Loves Derby.
Yeah, it’s it’s so funny because everyone’s always like, “The Blood Brothers!” No one ever mentions Daphne Love Derby when they talk about the music. And I love both bands, obviously. I guess I can’t really speak extensively to the music so much [just that] hese were details and textures of my life that I just want to really revisit and pay tribute to.
I love thrashy, angsty, hard music like the Blood Brothers, but I was also such a soft girl at heart and so that’s why Daphne Loves Derby came in. So “Middle Middle” was just so beautifully mellow, and I didn’t even realize that it was Kenny’s tribute to his mom. I think I was coming from a place of retrospection when choosing that song. The unfortunate part was that everything is temp music until you’re like, “Oh, crap, I actually really like this song.”
So by the time we got to wanting to soundmix everything, we’re like, okay, we have to license these songs. They can’t just be temp. These literally inform the scenes on a level that just is deeply felt and understood to me and other people in the community. And so it was just a no-brainer to reach out. And thankfully, the band was so receptive and kind and they let us license because we were having a very hard time trying to track down all the licensing and the rights to everything.
It’s always such a toss up and a maze game. But I feel like [having] those songs were just very much non-negotiable for me, even though they were technically temp songs in the cuts, I was like, “No, we’re going to keep them. We have to.” And it was the right choice.
How did San Diego Filipino Cinema get involved? Did you reach out first? Did you already have a relationship with them? How did that go?
So I was very fortunate to be a part of the inaugural San Diego Filipino Film Festival, and so that’s how I got connected with everyone there. And I was just so grateful that they were a space, just because I didn’t have that growing up and wanting to be a filmmaker back in 2007 as a young Filipino femme, there wasn’t a lot of community around that.
It was still a very novel thing, and I guess it still is kind of a novel thing no matter where you are. But the fact that they came together down the line and created this whole space to honor the art and navigate the industry and all the hard aspects of trying to be a filmmaker, I really appreciate them for that. And so it was a no-brainer to also submit to that festival. I got to meet Benito and Emma and Marissa and Edrian and all these folks. And so as we were gearing up for pre-production and everything, we would reach out to them and be like, hey, do you know of any resources here or there? Do you know anyone we could crew up with?
They were always so quick on the draw. They were like, “Here are these people, here’s a space. Let me know if this didn’t work out for you.” And Benito and Emma, they’re like Kuya and Ate to me. They’re such mentors. They’re such encouraging community advocates. And so by the time we were really starting to get into the casting of everyone outside the department heads, it really mattered to me to be able to hire locally and get people from the community.
So we’re going to play a quick lightning round of overrated/underrated. Let’s begin with Halo-Halo.
Perfectly rated. I love it.
Vans Warped Tour.
Overrated. For reasons…
Anonymous messages on Tumblr.
Overrated. That got really sketch so quickly. Overrated.
Perfectly rated. Perfectly rated. No brainer.
Completely overrated. Completely.
Perfectly rated. Perfectly rated. Texture of my life. There’s actually ASMR. Yeah, that exists. I looked it up when doing the research. I actually made a pre-vis for Boulevard and I got some mahjong tiles into the soundscape.
Oh my gosh. Perfectly, perfectly rated. Yeah. I actually have like a little jar of it in my bag right now. That smell! If I could put a smell in a film, I think it would be that smell.
And that’s the end of Overrated/Underrated! Thanks for playing. Just a couple more questions for you. Are there any unexpected inspirations for your work?
I really love Joe Pera. I love what a gentle piece of filmmaking that is through and through. It’s always gentle and compassionate. I love how comprehensive and specific that world is. I just really love very lived-in worlds. And I love the more observational cinematography. It’s always very quiet and understated, but you just feel the breath of that world from Joe Pera.
And I love short watches. I love short films in general. And so I love episodics that are just really bite sized. I love The O.C., the show. I feel like the emotional undercurrent of that show and what it lent to me as a teenage girl is just forever imprinted in me, and an emotional undercurrent of Boulevard. I love a lot of teen dramas, very much influenced by teen dramas like Skins. I loved Skins growing up. Really great music, very great sense of place. At least the first two seasons.
I’m very much influenced by all the late night programming I watched growing up that I can’t remember the name of. When my parents got digital cable, we got Sundance and IFC. And so when I was up in the middle of the night, I’d get to watch these weird short films that would complete an hour of programming when a movie would end at, like, you know, 4:13 AM or something.
I got to see little collections of short films here and there for whatever reason. I don’t remember their names, unfortunately, because this is way before streaming became more popular for short films, but I appreciate what these weird little nuggets did for my adolescent brain in the middle of the night.
Can you tell us about any future plans and anything next for you and the film?
Yeah, right now, with Boulevard, I’m just really excited to reach the audiences it needs to reach. And so whether that’s at a big festival here, Sundance, it’s been a real joy to be able to connect with a lot of audiences and see their responses to it. Even in its very cultural and geographic specificity. People find something in common with it. That’s been a very unexpected gift. And so I get really excited about the journey ahead, where I get to connect with other filmmakers at different junctures of their career and get connected with other audiences from different communities.
I’m really stoked about regional festivals I get to play at next. And then as far as next projects, I’m developing a couple of features. One of them is inspired by Boulevard. I’ve been inspired by Boulevard because I learned and adored so much in that filmmaking space. And that just captures a school year for the same character in Paradise Hills. And so you get to see more of the suburban high stakes and adolescent life and all the heartbreak and the woes of being a teenager.
But then I think before that, I want to make a more shoestring budget feature in Houston that kind of meditates on grief in a comedic way. A patriarch dies and we just watch two adult siblings and their mother kind of move through not only the waves of grief, but the funeral planning logistics, which can be really bizarre and very inhuman and often comes with a really high price tag that no one really thinks about or expects.
The boisterousness of family that comes in and travels and all these people you have to see as you’re grieving and then ending with the quiet aftermath. And so I’m actually right now casting for that and trying to develop the characters and get to know them better before I write the story.
So right now I have an outline and I’m trying to take a more experimental approach to filmmaking just because from Boulevard, I really loved building the characters with the actors and seeing how they claimed them. So those are two things I’m excited for and currently meditating on managing. And also sign on to the commercial directing roster because I need money to make my art. Things are cooking up, but also still trying to make my art. Trying to make it truthfully.
This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort in-person at SXSW 2023 in Austin, Texas on March 12th, 2023.