Kayla Abuda Galang talks about her Sundance-winning film When You Left Me On That Boulevard, her Filipino-American roots, and not going into debt for a film.
Perhaps included in every filmmaker’s wishlist is to be part of a prestigious and highly coveted event like the Sundance Film Festival. And for those aspiring artists in the indie scene, Sundance is particularly special as it is only the largest independent film festival in the United States with thousands of creatives, enthusiasts, and cinephiles heading to the wintry town of Park city, Utah, every year just to revel in some cinematic heat. And one artist who has realized this dream is Kayla Abuda Galang, a Filipino-American director who not only got selected in Sundance’s very competitive short film program, but also emerged victorious and copped one of the highest accolades of the fest.
A CINEMATIC VICTORY
“We were shocked and elated,” Kayla tells NYLON Manila about her Sundance win. “I don’t know that it’s sunk in yet and I’m trying not to think about it too hard so I don’t psyche myself out.” Kayla’s coming-of-age short film, When You Left Me On That Boulevard, bested almost 11000 entries (a record-high number in the festival’s history) and 64 selected films in the short film program where it won the Short Grand Jury Prize award, the highest honor in the said category.
A second-generation Filipino-American filmmaker, Kayla was born in Olongapo City and was raised in San Diego, California, and Houston, Texas. With degrees in journalism and film, Kayla aims to explore themes of home, family, and belonging in her cinematic works. These are much foregrounded in Boulevard, which is set in mid-2000’s and follows a teenager named Ly (Kailyn Dulay) who gets high with her cousins before a family Thanksgiving party.
“I was initially inspired by my own family and the emo subculture in mid-2000s southeast San Diego,” shares Kayla, who’s now based in Austin, Texas, and works as a producer and editor at University of Texas’ College of Liberal Arts, her alma mater. “I wanted to pay a loving tribute to my experiences of both by having them sort of in conflict with each other and seeing how that impacts a teenager.”
Moreover, as further revealed in her director’s statement, it was Kayla’s emotional memory of her visit to her mom’s province in 2019 that served as the foundation for her film. Spellbound by her aunties singing Dan Byrd’s Boulevard in a karaoke cabana and by the thought of having last seen them 13 years prior, Kayla ultimately made When You Left Me On That Boulevard as a “loving attempt” to encapsulate the vibrance of her family and community.
“There’s no set message or takeaway,” says Kayla who wrote, directed, and edited the film. “I just want folks to recall what it’s like to be held and loved by someone who loves you, whether that someone is a mother, sibling, friend, whomever. Selfishly, Boulevard is also a gift for my family and further generations of my family when I’m long gone.”
ONE BIG LABOR OF LOVE
Another special thing about Boulevard is that Kayla has rallied her own community to bring her story to life. The award-winning film was shot in her auntie’s house in Paradise Hills in San Diego, California where she grew up. The cast and crew, on the other hand, were composed of her childhood friends, old neighbors, and grade school classmates, who all made the four-day production, as per Kayla, a “one big labor of love.”
“The initial drafts came from my emotional memory and scattered recollections of specific conversations, with some translating help from my mom,” relates Kayla of her research process for Boulevard. “After casting, the actors really led the way for me in the revision process. They all claimed their characters so naturally and brought to each rehearsal these backgrounds and histories I didn’t want to ask about unless something wasn’t working. We rehearsed the same three scenes every weekend and after every rehearsal, I revised the action and tweaked the dialogue and tried to lean into their truth as much as I possibly could.”
If there’s something that she would never forget from making Boulevard, Kayla highlights the intimidating yet fulfilling undertaking of working with children for the first time. “A memorable moment was playing ‘Red Light, Green Light’ with a couple of kids in the backyard to motivate some playful movement in a scene,” she enthuses. “They were really in it to win. It was a joy to level with the kids and create something fun and freeing for them to do. Working with kids like this really affirmed my belief in creating scenarios for actors of all ranges to get lost in. For me, that’s how you find the truth in a performance.”
Before Boulevard, Kayla Abuda Galang has previously made successful short films including Joan on the Phone and Learning Tagalog with Kayla, which both premiered at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival; the latter went on to win the fest’s audience award in 2021. She describes her decision to enter Boulevard into Sundance as a “here goes nothing” kind of submission since she’s aware of how competitive the film festival is. “I’ve had films declined by Sundance in the past too,” she furthers. “So, while I was hopeful, I wasn’t banking on it for the film’s success. I wanted to get in but did not expect or prepare to get in.”
Regarding the narratives that she aims to hero and champion, Kayla looks to delve into character-driven journeys that are rooted into her own experiences and upbringing. “I’m very driven by character and environment and draw inspiration from my lived experience and emotional memory,” she says. “Learning Tagalog specifically tackled feeling bored, sad, and trapped inside one’s home, and Boulevard tackled being a shy teenage girl in a big, wild family. I know family is a big focus of my work these days, so there will be a lot of familiarities there for a lot of people.”
Currently, Kayla is developing two feature-length comedies: ‘06-’07, the story where Boulevard is adapted from; and the dramedy On Earth As In Heaven. “‘06-’07 will expand on Boulevard as a coming-of-age story observing a momentous school year for the same character,” explains Kayla. “On Earth as it is in Heaven will meditate on familial grief, specifically for two adult siblings and their mother, in present-day Houston. I want to find the truth and humor in the characters and worlds of both stories and see what happens.”
While When You Left Me On That Boulevard’s Sundance recognition cemented Kayla Abuda Galang as one of the filmmakers to look out for, she encourages aspiring artists to never make awards or film festivals be the end-all and be-all of their filmmaking journey and to always pursue truth. And knowing how expensive making a film is, Kayla also shares a practical nugget of advice to keep in mind.
“Find and build your filmmaking community that shares your collaborative values, and grow with them. And never make anything largely for the validation and success of a festival or award because you might end up with a hollow movie that has all the hallmarks of a “good” movie but nothing to connect with as a viewer. Make something that feels good and true to you, do it with heart, and do it at a budget level that you won’t go into debt for. For that last point, I am painfully speaking from personal experience.”