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Weed, ‘Final Fantasy,’ and Magic Sing: Kayla Galang crafts charming Filipino-American short film for Sundance

Ryan Oquiza
Weed, ‘Final Fantasy,’ and Magic Sing: Kayla Galang crafts charming Filipino-American short film for Sundance
'When You Left Me on That Boulevard' explores the warmth and liveliness of a typical Filipino-American family without ever resorting to mockery or parody

SAN DIEGO, USA – Kayla Galang received the news that her short film, When You Left Me on That Boulevard, was accepted into Sundance around the same time she was hosting friends and family screenings in San Diego, so naturally, it was hard to keep it a secret.

“The past two months have been a complete whirlwind,” Galang shared in a virtual interview. “I was just in complete disbelief and immediately just cried and called all my producers. Everyone came over, and I was the biggest zombie the day that I found out because I was very sleep-deprived.” 

Boulevard is a deeply personal film for the Fil-Am director. Born in Olongapo City, Philippines, she was raised in San Diego, California, before moving to Austin, Texas, where she studied and now works as a producer and editor at the University of Texas in the College of Liberal Arts. 

Her previous two films, Joan on the Phone (2016) and Learning Tagalog With Kayla (2021), both made appearances at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, the latter of which won the Audience Award. 

“Most of my films have been made in Austin. Boulevard is actually my first film outside of Texas ever. So it was a big homecoming of a film.”

Director Kayla Galang. Contributed photo

That homecoming involved shooting in her auntie’s house at Paradise Hills, gathering cast members around the area, and exploring the warmth and liveliness of a typical Filipino-American family without ever resorting to mockery or parody.

The film, set in 2006, is about a teenager named Ly (Kailyn Dulay) who gets high with her cousins before a boisterous family Thanksgiving, and it’s every bit funny, charming, and sentimental for it. It has all the hallmark Filipino party traditions, such as karaoke singing, classic tabletop delicacies, and aunts gossiping like there’s no tomorrow.

I spoke with Kayla to discuss her unexpected journey to Sundance and how the community aspect of the film was reflected not only on-screen but in the behind-the-scenes dynamics as well.

You found out you got in Sundance while you were doing the community screenings in San Diego, so were there Magic Sing Karaokes after that? How was the celebratory feast?

(Laughter) The celebration happened in Texas roughly a week after we flew out from San Diego. I had gotten the call after I had fallen asleep for 30 minutes on a Sunday night. Typically, I don’t fall asleep that early so on any other given day, I would’ve gotten that call. I woke up in the middle of the night and saw the missed call and email from Sundance, and I just completely flipped out because I was so sleep-deprived and couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. 

Everyone just basically came over, and we all just hung out the entire day and, later that night, ordered a bunch of chicken fingers from Raising Cane’s. We watched a movie called ‘Saved!’ (2004), one of my favorite mid-2000s movies, so it was just a homey, warm celebration, and then the big celebration came with the friends and family screening. It was nice to see the community approval and reception first before going off to Sundance. 

Based on watching this film and your previous ones, you seem interested in the mid-2000s. How has that transition between San Diego and Austin influenced your creative craft?

It’s interesting because just going from cool, breezy, and hilly San Diego and going to oppressively hot, humid, and kinda swampy Houston was one of the biggest cases of whiplash I’ve ever experienced. Just on a climate level, I think getting to live in these two vastly different places and seeing my family and community move to both places made me really interested in exploring various specific places and times. 

When I think about Houston, the humidity and the cicadas just create a palpable experience in my brain. And so, just getting to explore climate and landscape and how that informs the way that people in my community move to these different places, I think that’s become a huge interest of mine in filmmaking. 

Poster for ‘When You Left Me on That Boulevard.’

Given that homecoming aspect, what was it like going back to San Diego and shooting ‘Boulevard?’ 

I think it was around 2019 I visited my mom’s province, and she, her cousins, and childhood friends threw a big party for themselves by the water, like they rented this big karaoke cabana, and it was a very familiar scene of them cooking a lot of food and bringing them all over and chatting and laughing and dancing and singing. I actually watched one of my aunties sing Boulevard (by Dan Byrd) at that karaoke party, so that was a very spellbinding moment. 

So I guess sitting there and seeing this very familiar scene as someone in their late-20s, it occurred to me that the last time I had seen them all together was back in 2006, which I think was at my auntie’s house for Thanksgiving. It was very emotionally striking for me; it really made me meditate on the distance I had from the experience of being with them in San Diego. It was also around this time that I started to go to therapy as well. 

A lot of that work looked like extending loving kindness to my younger self. I feel like when I was living in San Diego and just being a teenager concerned with affairs of the heart, I developed a lot of uncharitable views and habits about myself, and so I think just the alchemy of seeing my aunties for the first time and starting to interrogate my younger self and her place in my adult life, that’s what made me interested in going back to San Diego.

Behind the scenes of ‘When You Left Me on That Boulevard.’ Contributed photo

On the whole idea of extending loving kindness to your younger self, is this film autobiographical or semi-autobiographical in any way? 

I feel like it has the vague shape of my family and me, but none of it is really autobiographical. I think it’s only spiritually autobiographical on some level. It’s funny because my mom saw a cut, and she was very horrified; she was like: “Did you actually smoke weed on Thanksgiving?” It does pull from my emotional memories of every Thanksgiving party I’ve been to up until now, even in Houston, where I celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. It’s a vastly different Filipino-American community in Houston than it is in San Diego. Though, I feel like there are still the same elements and scenes, and so I’ve always just gravitated to those aspects of the parties. 

Can you elaborate more on what were the challenges, learning experiences, and general realizations you had during the shoot?

The funny thing is, I feel like this was one of the smoother shoots I’ve been on, which is very surprising to me. I think that was validated by seeing a lot of people having fun and generally in a flow on set; I thought that was really special. One of the biggest challenges really was a pretty common one in that we were all just trying to make the day and trying to stay on schedule, I think that’s always something on a film set. A lot of us came from other sets beforehand, we’ve had some pretty awful experiences, and we really wanted to avoid that, and we took careful steps to avoid that. I think that the payoff was awesome, and I wanna take my time for the next one.

Behind the scenes of ‘When You Left Me on That Boulevard.’ Contributed photo

In terms of the collaboration aspect, your actors and the people you worked with were new. Do you think the community aspect played a role in making the shoot smooth?

Yeah, because I think there was so much community investment and excitement. Three of our principal cast members were actually from the area and actually grew up there. The other two were based in Southern California, so they were very familiar with the aspects of the community, so they immediately got it. They were very excited, and it was also scary for me because I was like: “Oh, there’s pressure to really make this experience worthwhile for them.” I think it was that community involvement that immediately gave them a boost and an understanding of what this story was and what it meant to me personally because Paradise Hills is such a special place, and I miss it all the time. 

Your short film is peppered with many Filipino customs and even little bits like gossipy aunts, overcrowded celebrations, and the segmented lines between generations in Thanksgiving. What makes you drawn to point a camera at these things?

It’s something I hadn’t really seen. Oftentimes, when Filipino culture, elements, or customs are highlighted, they can often be satirical or farcical in a way that doesn’t really sit well with me. I just really wanted to turn my camera on people of a specific place, and yes, a lot of these things we have in common across our families. Again, whether it’s in Houston or San Diego, the scene is always familiar. I just wanted to commit that to film because I didn’t want to just live in my brain that warmth, appreciation, and gratitude I have for that kind of space.

Your film is branded as a comedy and looking at your future work, you’re currently developing two feature films: ‘’06-’07,’ a coming-of-age comedy set in mid-2000s southeast San Diego, and ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven,’ a comedy about familial grief set in present-day Houston. What makes you interested in this kind of comedy wherein you’re honoring emotional memories and you’re trying to be kinder to your younger self?

It’s funny because I never endeavored to be a comedy kind of filmmaker. I didn’t really start calling what I made a comedy until very recently when people started laughing at the things I was doing—for better or worse. So, I didn’t necessarily know that I had a gravitation towards comedy so much as it is just in my DNA to be a little bit goofy and to laugh at things. I think that, in any case, life in itself is really funny and doesn’t make any sense, and the universe doesn’t really act, at least to me, with any sort of judgment, righteousness, or justice. So, I’m really interested in gravitating toward the really dumb things that happen in serious and quiet moments and clashes. 

For instance, with the scene of Ly sitting in the bedroom and the karaoke song coming on, that’s something that happened to me before, just suddenly getting disrupted by really loud music and my auntie’s having a really good time in the room while I sulk and harbor a crush. I just really wanna turn the camera on things that make me laugh, whether that’s funny or not to other people; I dig it, and I wanna share it. 

Behind the scenes of ‘When You Left Me on That Boulevard.’ Contributed photo

What are some of your influences in terms of the 2000s-inspired styling, the production design, and generally the mood of the film?

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what my influences are. It’s an amalgamation of everything I’ve ever watched and experienced. A big recent influence is the animated film Only Yesterday (1991) because I just love the way that it tackles little slice-of-life vignettes with such humor and heart; it’s just a very beautiful film. I also really loved Yi Yi (2000); I loved how the camera is just so static and observing. I found that, for better or worse, I like to stay on sticks because not only is it cheaper to do so, but I just really like watching things flourish within a frame, and I love seeing people navigate a frame or move within a frame. I have also recently been into this show that recently got canceled called Joe Pera Talks With You (2018) because there’s a slowness and quietness to it, and it’s following this guy who’s basically a grandpa in the real world, but the world is never mean or unkind to him, it just accepts him as who he is.

Did you get help from your aunties and relatives and ask them what was the best way to show how a Filipino family is? Did you have that sort of consultation with them?

I mostly got help from the actors, actually. Elle Rodriguez plays Auntie Pinky, and Melissa Arcaya plays Pacencia, who’s Ly’s mom. I’d say I got a lot of insight from them because they were living and breathing these characters, and they had their own experiences to bring. I was a little bit nervous to bring the concept to my family because of the subject matter. It’s funny because I shot at my auntie’s house, and whenever I talk about the scenes there, I was like: “Oh yeah, and she smokes weed with them because her cousins are really bad influences.” So I was a little bit afraid to bring it to my family for any gut-checking. But I’d say that Elle and Melissa were such saving graces in that they really brought their experiences, and they genuinely felt like my real aunties, especially Elle. The bridge between her and her character was not very far, and she just reminded me of all my aunties just jam-packed into one. So, I guess, in a way, they turned into my family.

What was the best experience on set?

I was very much dreading working with children, but we had to have kids on that set because it wouldn’t be a party without them. And so, I was really just tense going into the idea of directing children because, again, I’m not a really good mentor. I’m not really maternal or nurturing, so I was really scared at the prospect of that. But we got to set, and it was really fun to hang out with the kids and so much fun to direct them because we gave them so many really silly objectives with big incentives. 

At some point, to motivate them to run around the house, I was just like: “Who wants to play ‘Catch the Orange?’” I took an orange from the orange table, and then the amount of screams like: “I wanna do it, I wanna catch the orange!” Y’all were just in it, y’all were ready (laughter).

Behind the scenes of ‘When You Left Me on That Boulevard.’ Contributed photo

So it was really fun to work with the kids. We got to play ‘Red Light, Green Light’ with them. We got to play Tekken with them. There was one shot where I had them playing hide and seek, we had two kids hide in a closet and another hide behind the door. In one of those shots, we just see a real hide-and-seek game happening, which was really thrilling to see in real-time watching the monitor. I just felt like that was such a big triumph and such a core memory from that set. Just working with those kids, they were so amazing and so much fun and so game for everything.

You’re a gamer, and you’re a Final Fantasy person. What was it like exploring those minute details of the 2000s? What was it like getting those old materials and putting them in your film’s set?

It’s funny because those were choices by our production designers. I didn’t really have input on the games they’d actually bring. And so, it was just a connect-the-dots moment: “Oh gosh, you guys played this too.” We all had fun with it, and it made me feel more connected with my team. Getting to magically run into those details on set was such a joy because I really loved Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Square-Anything, and I love Tekken. I actually even played Tekken with our Script Supervisor at one point — that was a lot of fun. Then, at one point, I had to do my job, unfortunately, so I didn’t get to do it for long. 

What message or insight do you hope viewers will take away from watching your film?

I don’t think I’ve ever considered any message or takeaway message or a thesis to my film so much as I wanted to impart a familiar experience. So really, what I want for anyone who watched it is I really want them to call their person and tell them they love them because I think that’s what this whole thing has been, just being able to tell my community and my family that I love them on a really ridiculous level of making a movie about it. –

When You Left Me On That Boulevard will be premiering in the Short Film Program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival beginning January 21, 8 am PST and online on January 24, 7 am PST. For more information, visit the Sundance website.

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is the chief film critic of and one of the hosts of the film podcast Sine Simplified. He has written for both PhilSTAR Life and CNN Philippines Life. He is an alumnus of the Ricky Lee Screenwriting Workshop. He is currently studying at the University of the Philippines Diliman.