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[Only IN Hollywood] Producer Alemberg Ang reveals details on Isabel Sandoval’s ‘Moonglow,’ other projects

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] Producer Alemberg Ang reveals details on Isabel Sandoval’s ‘Moonglow,’ other projects

Ang, Sandoval, and Atayde on set of 'Moonglow'.

Moonglow Productions

'I felt completely in my element as an artist with a producer like Alem who had my back and fiercely supported my vision,' says actress and filmmaker Isabel Sandoval

LOS ANGELES, United States – “I felt completely in my element as an artist with a producer like Alem who had my back and fiercely supported my vision,” actress and filmmaker Isabel Sandoval said about Alemberg Ang and their first feature collaboration, Moonglow.

Moonglow was such a bold swing and a major risk for everyone involved – an ambitious project in both theme and production scale that we had to shoot in 20 days,” Isabel continued about the film for which she returned to the Philippines after many years in the United States.

She added about the high school teacher turned producer of award-winning indie films: “That Alem managed to assemble a team, both in front of and behind the camera, of the pedigree that he did so swiftly – Agot Isidro and Carlitos Siguion-Reyna among the supporting cast; acclaimed filmmakers like Remton Siega Zuasola and Whammy Alcazaren in our creative team – speaks to what a powerhouse and hardworking producer he is.”

Moonglow happened. Alem made it happen. I would work with Alem again in a heartbeat.”

Quite a compliment to Alemberg from Isabel, whose credits include the acclaimed features Lingua FrancaApparition, and Señorita, the short Shangri-La, and several TV series episodes, including Under the Banner of Heaven and The Summer I Turned Pretty.

Alemberg, who co-produced Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75, Japan’s entry to the 2023 Academy Awards, which starred Chieko Baisho, Filipina Stefanie Arianne, and Hayato Isomura, was equally effusive in his praise of Isabel.

Interviewed over gelato one afternoon during the Cannes Film Festival last May, the perennially smiling, bespectacled Alemberg said: “Oh my God, Isabel is the best person I’ve ever worked with. In fact, my stylist said she is my peg for chill. Can you imagine?”

Taking a break from his many meetings in the recent Cannes Film Festival, producer Alemberg Ang sat down with Rappler to talk about ‘Moonglow’ and other projects. Ruben Nepales/Rappler

“Isabel also wrote the script, by the way. And she’s the actress and the director. And yet, she’s also the chillest person.”

Born in Manila, Alemberg, boyish faced at 48, grew up and studied in Greenhills. He studied at Xavier School and Ateneo where he earned his BA degree in communication and an MA in basic education.

Alemberg returned to Xavier to teach Filipino language and literature for 10 years until he made the big switch to producing with his first feature in 2009, Alvin Yapan’s The Rapture of Fe, which won awards in Cinemalaya and Cairo International Film Festival.

The prolific producer’s work over the years has netted honors at the Gawad Urian, Young Critics Circle, Film Academy of the Philippines, Metro Manila Film Festival, QCinema International Film Festival, and Cinema One Originals, among others.

Moonglow is one of several projects of the busy producer. Isabel, who shot Moonglow early this year in Manila, told me why she decided on the title.

Now back in North Carolina where she is based, Isabel wrote via email,  “I wanted the title to evoke the particular mood and feeling I hope to conjure through the movie. It’s not your typical Filipino crime thriller but a meditation on fate, nostalgia, and memory.”

“It continues the aesthetic and dramatic trajectory I explored in Lingua Franca – a world of shadows and secrets yet rendered with lyricism and sensuousness. I want Moonglow to put audiences under a spell.”

Isabel and Arjo Atayde are the leads with a cast that includes Sylvia Sanchez, Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, Agot Isidro, Dennis Marasigan, Paolo O’Hara, Bombi Plata, and Rocco Nacino.

Alemberg recalled how he met Isabel. “Even before she transitioned, I already met her when she did Apparition for Cinemalaya (Philippine Independent Film Festival). That was her second film. I loved it so much.”

I was already producing. But mostly Cinemalaya fare, the smaller independent films. I loved Apparition. I told Isabel that and from there, we connected.”

Alemberg Ang, Isabel Sandoval and Arjo Atayde on set of ‘Moonglow,’ set in the 60s and 70s. Moonglow

“Then I never heard back from her again. And then I posted, ‘I’m going to New York, I want to meet some friends.’ ”

“Someone named Isabel Sandoval sent me a message. And she said, ‘You’re going to New York, let’s meet.’ I’m like, who is this? When I looked at the thread, we had a past correspondence.”

“So, I’m like, huh? We seem close but I don’t remember. And I think she sensed the hesitation because I didn’t reply and then she said, ‘Oh, by the way, I was Vincent Sandoval before I transitioned.’ ” (With Lingua Franca, Isabel made history in 2019 as the first out trans woman of color to compete at the Venice Film Festival.)

“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, okay, I know you.’ And that’s when I met her as Isabel in New York. From that point on, we were talking about working together. It was just catching up after so many years.”

Alemberg stressed, “I never thought I’d be working with Isabel because she has her own team to work with. Except that, we’ve been seeing each other in a lot of the festivals.”

“When she was pitching Lingua Franca, I was pitching another film. And so, we were almost always in the same Berlinale Talents sessions.”

“That’s when she was pitching Tropical Gothic (Isabel’s planned period drama set in 16th century Philippines, described as ‘an allegory on Western colonialism’) as I was also there pitching another film.”

Alemberg, whose other credits include co-producing The Portrait, Loy Arcenas’ musical adaptation based on National Artist Nick Joaquin’s Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, shared details about Moonglow:

“It is about this police investigator played by Isabel herself. It’s set in the ’60s and the ’70s during the Marcos administration. A police investigator, who is Isabel, was commissioned by the police chief to investigate a heist which happened at his home.”

“Somebody stole a lot of money from the police chief’s house and because he’s the police chief, he doesn’t want to tell people. So, he looked for somebody he trusted, who is Isabel, and the police chief’s nephew, played by Arjo Atayde, who is not actually a police officer yet.”

“He was a trainee before but he went to America to be a lawyer. He’s back for vacation. The chief hired the two of them to investigate this heist. And the thing is, the investigator and the nephew had a past.”

“She’s a housewife but she wanted to be part of the police force. So she didn’t go with him (to the States) and now that he’s back, they’re being paired together again by the police chief to do this investigation.”

While Moonglow is a crime noir, Alemberg pointed out, “But you know Isabel, she’s a very poetic, sensual filmmaker. So, it’s a different noir. This is very Isabel.”

Isabel Sandoval acts in ‘Moonglow,’ a crime noir which she also directs, writes and edits. Moonglow

On the script, Alemberg shared, “At first, Isabel conceptualized it with Sarge Lacuesta who is an award-winning novelist. But eventually, Sarge started filming his first film so he became quite busy. Isabel continued writing the script and working on it on her own.”

Asked if the film has political overtones since it’s set in the Marcos years, Alemberg replied, “Yeah. Well, you know my films, they always do. But we wanted to be accessible and we really didn’t want it to be in-your-face.”

“And that’s also why I like Apparition, Isabel’s second film. It was also set during Martial Law. But it’s not in your face. We’re not doing a documentary.”

He explained that Moonglow is in “Tagalog with English. Because in the ’60s and ’70s, they spoke a lot of English.”

On the photos I saw of the film shoots in Manila, Alemberg replied, “Yeah because the film has to look the ’60s, ’70s. So, we had to look for places that felt a little more authentic. We had to look for these places and most of them were in Manila.”

“We found some in Quezon City. So, we were also filming in Quezon City but mostly in Manila. In Chinatown, in Escolta.” He clarified that the film is in color, not black and white.

Alemberg commended costume designer Whammy Alcazaren’s contribution to the film’s look. “I love our stylist. He’s a filmmaker but also a production designer. His last short (Bold Eagle) that he directed was in Sundance.”

“I have a very fantastic team. Some of the heads of the departments were Young Critics Circle winners.”

Also on the Moonglow team are Remton Siega Zuasola (production design), Isaac Banks (cinematography), and Keegan DeWitt (music). “We really did it in 20 days,” Alemberg confirmed. “For American cinematographers, that’s only a few days but for us, that’s luxury.”

Alemberg elaborated on the film’s period costumes: “We had some costumes made and some were borrowed stuff from people.”

“At first, we were thinking how faithful we can be with the period. But eventually, Isabel said, ‘Let’s be faithful to the spirit of the film. Let’s be faithful to what we want to say. And all these other things that will slow us down or bog us down, let’s not be too worried about that.’ ”

“Because at the end of the day, it’s a good story, a well-made story that’s more important than getting the right button or the right shoes.”

On Isabel’s return to make her first film in the Philippines since Apparition in 2012, Alemberg said: “At the start, we were doing well. We were doing fine. She was able to adapt. She did films with budgets that are like peanuts. She was adjusting until the heatwave.”

The record-breaking heatwave struck the Philippines and parts of Asia in April and May, with temperatures soaring to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The extreme heat forced hundreds of schools to temporarily close.

“Isabel was having a hard time with the heat,” Alemberg said. “Because it was like 41, 42 degrees Celsius.But it felt like 50 plus with the humidity.And so, we had to pivot.”

“We shot most of the indoor scenes at night so that it’s not as hot. And then only the exterior scenes – we shot those during the daytime. But yeah, it was the heat.”

“But other than that, during the pre-production, the first few days, we were all so happy and all until… .And it was in the newspapers, the heatwave in Southeast Asia.It was that bad.”

“But everything else, like for example, we’ll tell Isabel, oh, I’m so sorry, that is too expensive, or something else happened. For example, we’re using vintage cars.”

“Imagine these vintage cars in Manila’s traffic in the heat. So sometimes, they don’t make it to our set.”

“We had to cancel some shoots because of the heatwave. Arjo got sick. Delays to the point that our last filming day was at 9 am on Mother’s Day.”

“We were able to wrap the shoot, I went home to finish packing, took a quick lunch with my mom for Mother’s Day, and then at 3 pm, I was on my flight to Cannes.”

On this overcast afternoon with showers in Cannes, I asked Alemberg how this working trip has been so far.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen my posts,” he said with his disarming grin about walking to countless meetings and events on the Croisette.

“I think the greatest number of steps I took was 24,000 steps in one day. I had a day of 20,000. What I do in Cannes is really reconnect with all my mostly European friends or partners.”

He crammed appointments with “co-producers, sales agents, festivals, and then distributors for all the projects that I have. Some in development, some about to shoot, and then some in post.”

“I was very fortunate a few years ago. I got into the EAVE or European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs. It’s an organization for producers who work in the European market. Practitioners, mostly in film, who want to work in the European landscape.”

“They give workshops every year. It’s very competitive. It’s super hard to get in. I applied three times. I got in on my third time.”

On why he thinks he finally made it, Alemberg cited, “For one, I was the first Filipino to get in and only the third Asian. I applied with an Afghan documentary. I was applying with Filipino projects before but this time, I applied with an Afghan documentary.”

“The director (Sahra Mani) has been through several good festivals with her first doc. She has a name already and I think I may have moved the needle a bit. Plus because it’s my third time to do it and I just finished Ties That Bind which is an EAVE program as well.”

“The people know me already and what I do. And so, I have built a stronger filmography and a profile of myself. So that’s why I think I made the cut. And then, it’s annoying, I keep applying, keep meeting them because I want to get in.”

Alemberg’s interesting-sounding coming projects include Pony Boys. “It’s my second film with director Joseph Mangat,” he said. “The first film that we did, also a documentary, is called Divine Factory (2022).”

“It’s about this small factory in Antipolo where they make rebulto, the Catholic figurines (or statues) like of the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph. But what made this small factory very interesting is most of the workers are LGBTQ. So, imagine LGBTQ making rebulto.”

“My favorite scene involves a transgender painter. She’s painting the Virgin Mary and my director asked her, ‘What were you doing before you were a painter?’”

“She said, ‘I was a cam girl,’ like a camera girl. I would pose on the internet for Europeans and Americans. I would perform and if they like me, they come and spend a week in the Philippines with me.’”

“So, I guess it’s some type of online prostitution. It’s just so fascinating that she’s telling us this story while painting the Virgin Mary. And you have Mother Teresa (figurines) on the table.”

“That went to DOK Leipzig, other festivals. We also presented at Cannes Docs before and we won that time. So, they asked us again under the Docs by the Sea program, a documentary incubator program in Bali.”

“And they have a showcase. They chose four projects. Two from Taiwan and two from Southeast Asia. And they chose Pony Boys. It is basically about the horse handlers in Baguio.”

“Remember when you go to Baguio, people would like to ride the horse at either Camp John Hay or Wright Park and go around Baguio? These are the ones who are pulling the horses, feeding the horses, taking care of the horses.”

Joseph found the lives of these horse handlers intriguing. Alemberg gave Joseph’s background:

“He lived in New York for a very long time. He studied in San Diego; his family is in San Diego. Then he moved to New York in Brooklyn.”

“And then while working on Divine Factory, he decided to move back to the Philippines. He found a news article during the pandemic about how there was no money to feed the horses.”

“The horses will have injuries and there is no money to take care of the horses. It’s very expensive. There are no tourists. The whole country is shut down. So, no tourists are going to Baguio.”

“He found this interesting. Initially, we were documenting what was happening to the horses. Some horses are being sold for horse meat. Some are eating manure.”

“And so, since they can’t take care of the horses, they let them go, they brought them to a ravine, let them go and they are roaming there to fend for themselves.”

Alemberg Ang and Joseph Mangat, who directed the two documentaries that Ang co-produced, ‘Divine Factory’ and ‘Pony Boys,’ in this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Ruben Nepales/Rappler

“We were documenting this and then one of the things Joseph noticed was that a lot of the horse handlers are young, like teenagers. Apparently, that’s the work they’re looking for.”

“And these people are not from Baguio. Because those from Baguio know the work and they don’t like it. So now they’re hiring from the lowlands, from Pangasinan, Pampanga, from other places.”

“This tradition of the Pony Boys started during the American Occupation when the Americans found the lowlands to be so hot that they carved Baguio City from the mountains.”

“And they brought this whole tradition of cowboys and taking care of the horses up in the mountains. So, after generations and generations from Baguio who did this, now they’re hiring from the lowlands.”

“We’re exploring how the Ifugao culture, the culture up in the north, and infusing this with the cowboy/Indian culture. The handlers like to wear mohawks.”

He added about these Pony Boys: “They live with the horses. Because they’re from the lowlands, they don’t have a place to live so they live in the stables. This is what the documentary is about. The lives of these horses and their handlers.”

Asked how he met Joseph, Alemberg recounted, “Joseph actually wanted to do a feature film and do research on the rebulto factory. His cousin was my student at Xavier School.”

“The student said, ‘I have a cousin who’s a filmmaker. He wants to go to Manila. He wants to do research on these figurines in Antipolo.’ I thought, maybe I could go with him. That’s how it started.”

“And in his research for his fiction film, Joseph found the whole place so interesting that he turned it into a documentary.”

As for the update on the Pony Boys, Alemberg reported that with the pandemic over and tourists back in Baguio, the handlers are back in business.

“Yes, they are,” he confirmed. “And that’s what we’re shooting now. We’re 80 percent done. So, we just want to shoot the last 20 percent.” He added that the handlers were able to take back most of the ponies in the ravine.

As we wound up our chat, the sky finally cleared. I told Alemberg I can’t wait to see Moonglow.

“Isabel is editing now,” he said. “We hope to send it to maybe the autumn festivals or if not, then the winter festivals.”

“And then our grand ambition – maybe it can be the Philippine entry to the Oscars. But we don’t know. This is like a dream. I think it’s every filmmaker’s dream.”

“So, we don’t know. We’re just doing our best and hopefully, we’ll get there.” –

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.