Isabel Sandoval considers ‘Moonglow’ her ‘homecoming’ project

New York-based Isabel Sandoval considers ‘Moonglow’ her ‘homecoming’ project

/ 12:15 AM April 01, 2024

Sandoval with producer Alemberg Ang

Sandoval with producer Alemberg Ang –MARINEL CRUZ

The four-month screenwriters’ strike in the United States last year gave Filipino director-actress Isabel Sandoval an opportunity to pursue her own personal projects, like writing the script to what will soon be her latest full-length feature, the crime-thriller “Moonglow.”

The film, to be shot noir style, is set in Manila during the ’60s and ’70s, and will feature Arjo Atayde in the lead.


“I was doing OK financially that I didn’t have to work during the strike, but I sympathize with and am in solidarity with the writers, directors and actors. In fact, I also joined the rallies in New York,” the US-based Isabel told Inquirer Entertainment two weeks after she arrived in Manila to do some preproduction work on “Moonglow.”


“I also took it as an opportunity to accept invitations to be on the jury of festivals that I’m a fan of, like Cannes (under the Queer Palm category), Locarno and Mumbai. It was a creatively exciting period for me. I got to write a script and get in touch with something I miss doing, projects like ‘Moonglow’ in which I have complete freedom and autonomy, a situation that’s quite different when you’re working as a director for hire,” she added.

Isabel helmed two episodes each of the Hollywood series “The Summer I Turned Pretty” and “Tell Me Lies,” as well as an episode of the miniseries “Under the Banner of Heaven,” starring Golden Globe winner Andrew Garfield. Prior to this, she megged critically acclaimed full-length features “Señorita” and “Aparisyon” (both as Vincent Sandoval), as well as the award-winning immigration drama “Lingua Franca.”

“‘Moonglow’ started out because I wanted to make a film in the Philippines again. Over the three features I’ve made, I’ve been having this fascination with the noir style, with characters having dark secrets and, visually, with frames and images that have a dance between shadow and light,” she began. “So when Hollywood went on strike last year, I thought it was the perfect time to sit down and write a script that’s a full-on noir in the tradition of ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Chinatown,’ set here in the Philippines. I approached producer Alemberg Ang who was thrilled and immediately came on board.”

Actor of nuance

Alemberg suggested that Arjo would be a great fit to play the male lead, Isabel shared. “I ended up watching some of Arjo’s works and found him to be an actor of nuance and gravitas—this is unusual for someone his age. There’s also a kind of brooding, enigmatic quality to him, and that’s when we started conversations with the possibility of Arjo and his (family-run production outfit) Nathan Studios getting involved,” she added.

Arjo Atayde

Arjo Atayde –STAR MAGIC

The two formally met in Switzerland in August 2023, when Isabel was a jury member of the Locarno International Film Festival, where Arjo’s action movie, “Topakk,” was also in competition. “The partnership became official,” Isabel said.

The film, which opens in the late ’70s, is about a jaded female detective named Dahlia (Isabel), who breaks into the mansion of a police chief and steals a large sum of money, which he essentially got through corrupt means. The police officer (Dennis Marasigan) enlists his nephew Charlie (Arjo) to crack the case about who stole the money. When Charlie finds out that it was Dahlia, whom he had a bit of romantic history with—“a very muted romantic past in 1966”—he now has to make a choice between his loyalty to his uncle or protect Dahlia because he feels that what she did was justified.


Bold choice

The film will be shot in Binondo and Escolta in Manila and at the LVN Mansion in Quezon City starting April. “We’re also doing something unique and bold in terms of production design,” added Isabel. “There will be shots in the film where we will show present-day markers in the periphery. Even though it’s a period film, it’s ultimately about the present.”

Isabel was the first transwoman of color to compete at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 with “Lingua Franca.” Since the film’s release, Isabel has made strides in Hollywood both as an artist and as a transwoman. In 2022, she was invited to be a voter under the directors’ branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hosts the annual Oscar Awards. She is also a member of the international feature film committee.

“I think my being Filipino is very evident in the projects that I choose to make. This is some sort of a homecoming for me. I want to be able to pay it forward,” said Isabel, when asked how much of her being Filipino is reflected in the work she does as an artist.

“I was very lucky that ‘Lingua Franca’ did as well as it did. I now want to work with talented Filipino artists both behind and in front of the cameras, like Alemberg, who’s part of ‘Plan 75.’ We have extraordinary emerging filmmakers among our departments like Whammy Alcazaren and Remton Zuasola,” said Isabel, who was born and raised in Cebu.

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Another project in development for Isabel is “Tropical Gothic,” which is set in the 16th century and is about the early years of the Spanish regime in the Philippines. “I do them in between developing projects as a director-for-hire of some studios in America. I usually listen to my gut, and it has somehow brought me back to the Philippines to make a film set in the ’60/’70s, that’s noir and in Tagalog,” she declared. INQ

TAGS: Arjo Atayde, Isabel Sandoval

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