Interview: Director Andrea A. Walter
By Melissa Slaughter
If you’re a fan of cinema and you love indies, then look no further than Empty By Design. This film has been opening and closing all kinds of film festivals and is something worth seeking out. Empty By Design is the gorgeous directorial debut of Andrea A. Walter. Her film beautifully captures the isolation and lonesomeness that comes with never really knowing where your home is.
I’ve met up a few times with Andrea. Once for a podcast recording with actor/producer Osric Chau and once for a film review/interview. We even got to hang out at the Asian American International Film Festival. Andrea, actor/producer Dante Basco, and actor/producer Desmond Chiam were all in attendance. I caught up with Andrea on the phone shortly after AAIFF, when she and Dante were on their way to yet another film festival.
First, let me ask you very easy questions. What is your mix?
And you grew up in the Philippines, right?
Yes, I grew up mostly in the Philippines… and I spent a lot of time in England. Back and forth.
Cool! And you grew up going to international schools?
Yes, an international high school.
So we use the word Hapa. But when we hanging out, you were saying mestiza. Did you grow up calling yourself mestiza, or do you remember the first time somebody called you that?
Yeah, I remember that was always a word that was used towards us. “Hapa” was only used to refer to me when I came to America. And I had to ask, like, what do you really mean by that? Back home it was always mestiza or third culture kid.
So, mestiza, is that the term you prefer to call yourself?
I always preferred mestiza. I think that’s because in the Filipino culture back home it was my upbringing. It’s just what I’m used to. I prefer Eurasian or mestiza.
So because you have this international experience, this third culture experience, at what point did you realize, “I’m mixed; I'm different.”
Very early on because I was raised majority in the Philippines… It's always been a thing for me, that I know I'm very different and I just have my sister.
The nicest thing about international school is that all of us were different. So there was a community thing, and we never spoke about it. We were just all like, “Well, all of us are different so we’re all going to hang out.”
There is this thing of being part of the Asian diaspora where you are always on the outside and always othered. Did you grow up with that feeling? Do you feel most comfortable in spaces like the Philippines or international school?
I still feel more comfortable in an international environment… because there’s a certain way we are different. It’s very subtle. Like with one of my friends who’s Indonesian but went to an international school (she now lives in Los Angeles), there are certain moments where we feel different at exactly the same time.
So, we know that there’s a difference between the Asian experience and the Asian American experience, but are you saying there’s a different experience even from that?
Yes, there is a huge difference. It’s so stark when you see it. When I first started making friends in the Asian American community, I thought, “Oh my god.” It’s so different from the Asian/mixed kids in an international environment. ’Cause the thing with the international kids who are Asian is that we’re around Asians all the time. We don’t feel like a minority in the sense that the Asian Americans kids do. ’Cause we see that everyone looks like us. Eurasian kids, I can’t even describe that mess. That’s a whole other beast.
But you know, here in America, I’m the only British-Filipino I know. There are no British-Filipinos in my group. I’m the only one. Here in Los Angeles, I stick with all the Asian kids who aren’t Asian American. You know, my closest friends are Chris Pang [who’s Taiwanese Australian] and Osric [Chau, who’s Canadian Chinese].
Well, you definitely have the most varied background of anyone I’ve interviewed for Hapa Mag. At what point did you decide to turn to the arts and to filmmaking?
I've always been interested in writing as a kid. The classes I excelled in were English and Literature. I graduated high school when I was sixteen because I kept getting bumped up…
That was a whole different beast, me being two years younger than everyone in my class. I had more of an isolated feeling that had nothing to do with my race.
That was when I figured that yeah, maybe I might do filmmaking, but I never really understood you could be a film director as a job. Not because I'm a woman or Asian. It just never occurred to me that was a job… My dad gave me a film camera when I was in high school and that’s when I kind of got the bug.
It wasn’t until I was in university (They take a group of students to Sundance every year, and they took me. I think I was nineteen.) that I saw for the first time, “Wow! There was a whole world to this that you can join and be a part of. This can be a job, this can be a career.”
But I was really distraught about it, because I truly never saw anyone like me doing it… up until a couple of years ago when I found a group of people that all were like me.
In the review that I wrote for Asian Cinevision on Empty By Design, I talk about how you do such a beautiful job of highlighting the feeling of isolation in the story. But then whenever you guys talk about it, you discuss this mass group you put together to help create the movie. It feels like you really crossed a bridge in that by making a film about feeling isolated, you’ve actually created your own community.
You’re welcome! Speaking of intersecting identities, you're also a bisexual woman. How does that influence the way that you either see yourself or the way that you do your work?
Honestly, it’s influenced me a lot nowadays because I decided to be open about it. For the longest time I wasn’t, mostly out of fear. Like, I'm already biracial; I got that one on! [Laughs]. I wasn’t really open about it until twenty-six, twenty-seven. I came out pretty late. When I told my family about it, they were like, “Yeah, we know.”
In Empty By Design, your lead female character Samantha is bisexual, but it’s never explicitly stated. There are just a few subtle references.
Yeah. The way it’s influencing my work now is that I just want it to be accepted in the same way I want my ethnicity to be accepted. In the film, we never say, “Hey I'm gay.” It’s not a thing; she’s just a person. It’s not a big deal. At the same time, I noticed that there is a constant need for acceptance for just being another human.
A lot of Hapa Mag is not just talking about the differences that we have, but also celebrating them, and you do that so well in Empty By Design. What was the inspiration for the movie?
Pretty much all of us immigrants… Asians who live outside of their culture and third culture kids. Trying to find a sense of home. The inspiration was that we would all tell our stories and hang out, and once we eventually came together as a group of friends [Osric Chau, Chris Pang, Dante Basco, and so many more], we realized we have all the stories. We can just make a movie about us.
I keep saying I’ve never seen myself on screen, and now that I think about it, I have. I just haven’t seen myself portrayed that way [like in the film.] I just wanted to tell that story.
I do have one thing I realized on the flight back from New York after the screening. I purposely didn't show any parents, and I was wondering why. I didn’t want to put a pinpoint in everyone’s ethnicity. I mean, one day I’ll have to tackle it in my storytelling, but I just didn’t want everyone to say “That’s her dad; he’s white. That’s her mom; she’s Asian.” You know what I mean? I just wanted to leave it. Maybe one day I’ll figure it out and I’ll tell that story.
So my last question is one I ask everyone I interview for Hapa Mag. Because I think that Hapas and mixed people and mestizas have the best food because we get to have two different cultures of food. So what is your favorite food?
Oh my god, my favorite food is Filipino food. Number one. Top notch. Then Indian food, because of being English, and no one likes English food. Everyone likes Indian food. Third is Japanese.
Specifically a favorite dish? Sinigang.
End of Interview
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Melissa has lived in all four time zones in the contiguous United States. A former actor in Seattle, WA, Melissa now resides in NYC as a content creator. She is the producer of the We're Not All Ninjas podcast, which she also hosts with fellow Hapa Mag writer, Alex Chester. Melissa also writes for online blogs Nerdophiles and The Nerds of Color. Find her @NotAllNinjasPod.