Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Kayla Abuda Galang, the Writer-Director of “When You Left Me On That Boulevard”

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a front-row seat for the bright future of independent filmmaking. While we can learn a lot about the filmmakers from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival through the art that these storytellers share with us, there’s always more we can learn about them as people. This year, we decided to get to the bottom of those artistic wells with our Backstory questionnaire!

Kayla Abuda Galang’s advice to filmmakers? “Make a film that only you can make!” And that’s exactly what the writer-director did with her short film When You Left Me On That Boulevard, which premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize presented by Shutterstock. 

The 13-minute film follows teenage Ly and her cousins as they get high before a rowdy Thanksgiving gathering at their auntie’s house in San Diego in the mid-2000s. “I want it to be a vibrant and loving window into a community that held and nurtured me as a child,” says Galang. The writer-director’s coming-of-age tale is currently touring the festival circuit, where it continues to resonate with audiences. 

Below, discover Galang’s inspiration behind the film, how she approached working with children, and why depicting the little moments within underrepresented communities is so important today.

What was the biggest inspiration behind the film?

The initial idea for the film stemmed from a time at a family reunion in April 2019, when I saw one of my aunties sing a karaoke rendition of “Boulevard” by Dan Byrd. I immediately clocked it as an unmemorable power ballad, but as the song wore on, I found myself a little spellbound by its slowness and longing — along with the sight of all my aunties reunited, chatting, cackling, singing, and dancing. The last time I had seen them all together was at one of their houses in Paradise Hills in South Bay San Diego, California, in 2006.

Describe who you want this film to reach.

I very much want this film to reach all my aunties and the South Bay San Diego community, first and foremost. Outside of that, I want to reach folks in the Filipino, Asian, and Pacific Islander diasporas, as well as third-culture millennials who will feel called out by the screamo, choppy fringe and side bangs, and skinny jeans.

Kayla Abuda Galang

Why does this story need to be told now?

I think this story needs to be told now because it reimagines representation outside common themes of identity, survival, migration, and assimilation. The film doesn’t comment on a current moment or issue. Instead, it focuses on the universality of little moments to create an honest portrait of an underrepresented community on its own terms. I’m proud to say that the film is truly for and by the community it depicts without over-explaining or infantilizing it.

How do you want people to feel after they see your film?

I want them to feel a little heartache-y for their first crush! And I want them to call their mothers and aunties to tell them they love them.

Tell us an anecdote about casting or working with your actors.

When we began casting, we asked for self-tapes of answers to story prompts specific to each character. I had a couple of folks who were like, “Hard pass,” and, “This is stupid,” which honestly made me feel a little silly and insecure. But I was interested in seeing what sparked people, how they naturally narrated their lives and passions, and how much they were willing to let loose and play along. I wanted a sense of how I could bridge people with their characters. Elle Rodriguez, whom we cast as Auntie Pinky, ended up sending in a whopping 20-minute self-tape filled with hilarious and terrifying stories of her upbringing in the Philippines. The bridge between her and Pinky was not very long at all.

Your favorite part of making the film? Memories from the process?

I have too many favorite parts to name because production was essentially one big party! But a surprising standout part for me was working with the kids. I was honestly dreading that aspect of production. I am generally not very great at communicating or connecting with kids. But there was so much fun in playing games like Tekken and hide-and-seek with them and giving them simple, effective objectives and incentives. At one point, I grabbed an orange from the craft table and yelled, “Who wants to play ‘catch the orange?’” to the excited screaming of young children.

What was a big challenge you faced while making this film?

The biggest challenge was — surprise, surprise — funding. For production, we were declined by every grant we submitted to. Not only were we not getting the material support we desperately needed, it was also pretty discouraging and scary! For months, I didn’t know if there was a place in the world for this film.

Tell us why and how you got into filmmaking. Why do you do it?

I got into filmmaking because I’ve always loved the feeling of being immersed in and rattled by some of my favorite films! Especially the ones I’d find in the middle of the night on the Sundance and IFC channels, when the late-night programming was a little weirder and wackier. I do it now because I want to share all the little corners of paradise I’ve had the privilege of moving through in this here life.

Why is filmmaking important to you? Why is it important to the world?

Filmmaking is important to me because it’s my way of sharing immersive windows into all the worlds and places I’ve lived in, physical and existential. I think filmmaking is important to the world for this exact reason.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be doing?

I would be baking and trying to talent-manage my cats into internet fame, probably.

What three things do you always have in your refrigerator?

Lots of unsalted butter for all my baking projects. And cold filtered water. And chili crisp!

What’s the last book you read?

I don’t read much, but I’ve slowly been moving through Atomic Habits by James Clear. My life needs help and structure.

Early bird or night owl?

I am an absolute night owl, for better or worse.

What’s your favorite film that has come from the Sundance Institute or Festival?

I recently got to catch Leonor Will Never Die by Martika Ramirez Escobar, and that film completely rocked my world. A few other favorite shorts of Festivals past I want to shout out are Raspberry by Julian Doan, Like the Ones I Used to Know by Annie St-Pierre, and Snowy by Alex Wolf Lewis and Kaitlyn Schwalje!

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