Catching up with Director and AFI Alum San-San Onglatco

Born in California and raised in the Philippines, San-San Onglatco (AFI Class of 2020) spent over ten years as a producer before deciding to apply to the AFI Conservatory where she became the first Filipina accepted into the Conservatory’s Directing program. On the cusp of graduating from AFI, Onglatco has shown determination, resourcefulness and tenacity in overcoming the obstacles that go hand in hand with completing her MFA in a pandemic.


She was also recently honored with the inaugural Sundance Uprise Grant, which seeks to uplift BIPOC artists whose careers and creative development have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The grant will allow Onglatco to develop her thesis film, ZENAIDA – a musical tragicomedy about an undocumented Filipino-Muslim caregiver who dreams of becoming a drag queen – into a feature.


AFI spoke with her about her love of Ang Lee and Billy Wilder, what receiving the Sundance Uprise Grant means to her and the importance of amplifying underrepresented voices in Hollywood.


AFI: Tell us a little bit about your background and why you decided to pursue directing?


San-San: I grew up in the Philippines where Hollywood movies dominated the box office. The usual TV programming were Filipino soap operas, Hispanic telenovelas dubbed in Tagalog and a lot of American shows. The occasional films from neighboring countries like Hong Kong and Taiwan would occasionally make it to our shores. My parents were cinephiles who exposed me to different kinds of cinema at a very young age, so I fell in love with the movies very early on.


While my classmates dreamt of becoming lawyers and doctors, I was harboring my dream of becoming a movie director. I told myself that I was going to make movies in Hollywood. I did not dare say it out loud. How could a young kid from the Philippines even dream of making movies in Hollywood? Was it even possible?


When I was around 12 years old, I watched Ang Lee’s EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN. Being Filipino-Chinese in the Philippines, my culture was hardly ever represented in Filipino films or television. This was the first time I watched a film that was similar to my background and my culture. I saw characters who were familiar and who I could relate to. It was then that I realized that I could tell my own stories. Ang Lee was from Taiwan, a neighboring country. He was the first famous Southeast Asian director that successfully crossed over to Hollywood and, suddenly, what seemed impossible was possible.


A few weeks later, I built up the courage to tell my mother that I wanted to become a movie director in order to tell my own stories.


AFI: What filmmakers inspired you the most growing up and why?


San-San: As a kid, I watched a lot of classic films. I was fascinated by directors like Billy Wilder, George Cukor, Steven Spielberg and, of course, Ang Lee. And I especially loved musicals. My family’s VHS tapes of WEST SIDE STORY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC and THE KING AND I were played to death. I started watching all kinds of classics from epics to screwball comedies.


I would tune in to Turner Classic Movies every chance I could get. It was through TCM that I discovered the great writer/director Billy Wilder. His films have had the most impact on me as a filmmaker. As a writer/director myself, a lot of my work is heavily influenced and inspired by him. I gravitate toward telling intimate stories about flawed characters who are pushed to their limits, but I always do it with touches of humor. Billy Wilder is a master at blending both comedy and drama. He has a knack for bringing out the humor and levity from even the most dire situation. There is so much humanity in his writing and in all of his characters without it being sentimental. His timeless stories, interesting characters and iconic dialogue never fail to make an impact.


If Billy Wilder was known to ask the question – “What would Lubitsch have done?,” I often ask myself, “What would Billy Wilder do?”


AFI: You worked as a producer for many years with your films screening at L.A. Shorts and New Filmmakers L.A. What made you want to transition into directing and apply to AFI?


San-San: I came to Los Angeles to become a writer/director. I got on-set and learned the ropes. I started out working in the camera department and eventually ended up line producing. While producing, I continued to write screenplays, and I would occasionally direct a couple of projects here and there.


One day, I realized that I was producing everyone else’s work but mine. I felt that I wasn’t growing as an artist and as a director. I needed to hone my craft. I decided to go back to school and earn my MFA. With the industry experience that I had, I felt that AFI Conservatory’s program was the best fit for me. And, working in the industry, you either hear about AFI or bump into someone who went to AFI. In fact, I actually worked on a few AFI film sets when I was starting out.


AFI: What were some of the films that you were passionate about that you worked on as a Directing Fellow? And what kinds of stories do you hope to tell in your career?


San-San: There are three films in particular that I felt I needed to make. One film told the story of an older Vietnamese-American immigrant woman who could not let go of her past. Another film portrayed an undocumented Filipina who needed to come out to her family who was visiting from the Philippines. And the last film is about a Filipino-Muslim caregiver who dreams of becoming a drag queen.


As a woman filmmaker of color, I have a responsibility to tell authentic and moving stories of the underrepresented. I would like to continue to tell intimate portraits of the immigrant experience. As a Filipinx filmmaker based in America, my focus is on the experiences of the Filipinx diaspora. There are stories about the Philippines and the Filipino people I would like to share from a historical and/or socio-political perspective.


AFI: Congratulations on receiving the Sundance Uprise Grant! Can you talk about what it means to you to be named a recipient this year and why this kind of mentorship and support is essential for BIPOC filmmakers?


San-San: I am thankful to Sundance for believing in me as an artist and filmmaker. I truly appreciate being a recipient of the Uprise Grant. The grant is specifically for BIPOC artists and filmmakers who were financially affected by the pandemic.


This kind of financial support is helpful to BIPOC filmmakers so we can continue to create films that we are passionate about. It is very important now, more than ever, for us BIPOC artists to tell our stories and amplify our voices.


AFI: As someone who worked on their AFI films during an unprecedented pandemic, what lessons did you learn from your experience that you’ll use as you move forward in your career?


San-San: When the pandemic hit, the whole world came to a halt. Suddenly, the delay of my thesis and having to put my career plans on hold felt insignificant amid all the sickness and death. Being immunocompromised, staying alive became the number one priority.


When something as life-changing as a global pandemic hits the whole world, there is a reassessment of priorities. You look inward and ask yourself what truly matters? From there, I asked myself, as an artist, what stories do I truly need to tell? I’m a go-getter type of person who likes to keep busy. It was hard for me at first to be still and listen. That’s what I did a lot during the pandemic. I listened to myself more. I became more mindful and more focused. I learned to accept what I could and could not control.


This pandemic has really shown humanity how vulnerable we all are. To be alive is to be human. You learn to appreciate what you have and truly count your blessings. 2020 was all about survival, but hopefully 2021 lets us be able to thrive again.


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