How does one fit into a place they should have a connection with, but have never truly been in? That’s the question Samantha (played by top local actress Rhian Ramos) and Eric (played by Hollywood TV and film actor Osric Chau) must navigate and grapple with in Andrea A. Walter’s Empty By Design, her international feature debut which she wrote, directed, and produced along with Cignal Entertainment.
The questions and themes of returning to one’s roots and feeling a sense of loneliness in a land they were told is theirs have resonated strongly enough not just with the Asian-American community, but also with the rest of the world—it’s won the Best International Feature Film award in the 2019 SOHO International Film Festival, and also closed the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
But despite these accolades, Walter did not make Empty By Design to chase awards. She and her collective of Asian friends simply aimed to recount, for a wider audience, experiences they knew all too well, and to tell stories they felt were not told enough. The film only wants to shore up the representation of the diaspora, of mixed-culture kids exploring a world they never really knew anything about, something all too common with Asians in the West.
For its part, Cignal saw the potential in how a story like this would resonate with anyone who comes across it.
“What we at Cignal always want to do is to keep inspiring and empowering Filipinos with everything we create, and we saw Empty By Design as an opportunity to touch the lives of Filipinos abroad,” says Cignal Entertainment President and CEO Jane Basas. “We’re definitely happy the movie got the recognition and awards it did. Through Andrea’s story, we wanted to show that there’s a home waiting for them, even if it seems daunting.”
And if anything, it’s worked. Walter shares reactions of fellow Asians watching the film and wanting to come home. By painting a picture of the motherland—and the air of detachment while one tries to reconnect with it—as completely normal, even if it’s also intimidating and sometimes painful, she’s shown with Empty By Design’s vignettes that it can be a worthwhile and meaningful adventure.
Did you expect to win?
Walter: Nope, I don’t care for awards. Not in a bad way. It wasn’t as big as the LA [Asian Pacific Film Festival]. I heard about the win when I got off the plane. Honestly, it’s just been a really wild ride. Getting closing night at LA APFF was the biggest win for me. Variety picked it up, the trailer went on Deadline, that’s a big deal for us as a community to see that. Because a lot of Filipino films will play there, and so for me, it feels really nice to have Diane [Paragas]. I look up to Diane, she opened with Yellow Rose, Lea Salonga’s movie, and we’re closing, back-to-back, it feels good. I can never see an indie film play that big with such a crowd. Henry Golding was there, everyone was there, but they’re all my friends, so it’s just kind of nice. It’s [like] 774 seats filled for a tiny Filipino movie—that, to me, was a major win. From the get-go, I knew we did something okay and we did something right.
How was the reaction there?
Walter: People generally liked it. The New York crowd’s really nice, they’re into cinema. I think my favorite crowd so far aside from LA has been Austin, because they really gravitate toward cinema and art.
Is the movie based on any Fil-Am’s particular story?
Walter: It’s based on a lot of us. It’s a cumulation of myself, Osric—it’s not necessarily Fil-Am, but Asian-American. It’s based on a lot of the cast and crew that have worked on the project, we took a lot of stories from them. That’s why it feels like a lot of vignettes.
What drove you to put these stories on film?
Walter: A lack of these stories. That’s mostly it. Growing up in so many cultures, you don’t see these kinds of stories told. No one speaks about this displacement, this way of living. That’s really it. We just want to be a collective or group that wants to make films together, we just want to tell honest stories. Even if it’s in a different genre. It doesn’t matter if it’s drama, comedy, or sci-fi. We just want it to be honest. The reason to create all of these for this one is just to show something that’s never seen or understood.
How did Cignal come to you guys?
Walter: There were a lot of big factors in picking Cignal. One was there were a lot of females on the team, which was very rare in all countries with a film industry. For me, I felt comfortable—the boys did, too. We’re so tired of being in such a male-driven world in film, which really can destroy a story because you’re not getting a balance of perspective. So that’s one big reason I told them I wanted to work with Cignal. Another one is they allow us, it’s rare a studio will let the reins loose on filmmakers–especially when making an art film, you really need a group of people to understand and take the risk. With art films, in comparison to more commercial films, the risk is higher in making a project, to have this company be like, “Just go. Give it a shot.” That was another reason.
How often does someone of mixed heritage find themselves lost in their homeland or culture?
Walter: Every minute. It’s a closer feeling of displacement. Even if you’re in your own homeland, you know you’re an outsider when you’re in a foreign land, you feel just exactly the same, especially when you don’t look or sound like what you’re told to sound like. I obviously don’t look Filipino, but in England I don’t sound English, and in the States I don’t sound American. So it’s a constant feeling. The cast, they’re not actually Asian-Americans, but Commonwealth Asians, Canadian, Australian, European, we all don’t constantly feel at home. You’re an outsider your whole life. Nothing’s gonna change that.
What’s the most meaningful or poignant reaction to the movie you’ve heard or seen?
Walter: The most meaningful one from a lot of people is “I was able to see myself.” People accepted being able to see themselves in immigration and accept that it’s okay to be scared when you go to your home country. Specifically, the Filipinos in the States who have watched it, I think it’s been really exciting to hear them say they wanna come home. A lot of them don’t want to, because one, they don’t know anything about the Philippines, and two, they’re really scared they’re not gonna be accepted, which is completely normal. I’m never accepted everywhere I go. But for them to watch the movie and see someone go through it, it really helps them understand that it’s gonna be hard. There’s not a lot of stories that tell that.
And most stories don’t feature a young Filipino girl. Just a normal girl, she wakes up, she eats, she’s on her phone, she goes out with her friends. She’s Filipino—most of the time, that’s given to a Caucasian. For them, it was more like, “I’m so happy to see myself on screen.”
What kind of stories are you looking to tell next?
Walter: Personally for me, I love the science fiction genre, and action-adventure genre. Those are high-budget ones, but specifically I’m trying to tell stories that are meaningful for myself and those I work with. No matter what, I always wanna cast Filipinos in my film. Whatever I’m going through at the time, in the story I wanna tell. Whether it’s a movie that’s heartfelt, like Empty By Design, or a movie that’s just fun. I like movies that are fun.
Do you look up to any Filipino movie personalities?
Walter: Definitely, when I was younger and up to now, Matthew Libatique, my favorite Filipino, he’s a cinematographer for Darren Aronofsky. He just did A Star is Born and Venom back-to-back. He goes from Iron Man to Black Swan. There’s just an appreciation of being able to do a wide variety of genres.
But aside from Matthew Libatique, all of us look up to Lea Salonga. When she sang, I watched Mulan, I was like, “Oh my God, what’s this?!” And I have a Darna pin on me all the time, she’s dope, she’s always been cool. I didn’t even know Wonder Woman existed for a long time—I thought it was the same person. That’s mostly it. It’s mostly the Filipinos that are more international or mixed, because I can relate more growing up. I don’t look Filipino. It’s hard.
Empty By Design is directed by Andrea Walter and is co-produced with Cignal Entertainment.
The film is slated to premiere in 2020 via Cignal TV’s over-the-top streaming service Cignal Play.
Visit www.cignalplay.com or download the app via App Store and Google Play to enjoy more of Cignal Entertainment Originals plus over 600 more hours of on demand content. Currently open to all Cignal subscribers.