‘I just enjoy storytelling wherever it takes me’

/Interview by Natalia Dukhovnikova/

Nolan Brian Rabanal Tiongco is a Filipino American filmmaker, born and raised in Pasadena, California. He has created “Pickpocket” in order to show the world how it is to be hungry, and not only physically hungry. Creativity means everything to Nolan and he can’t imagine his life without the opportunity to tell magnificent stories with the help of movies. We talked to Nolan and found out what role cinema plays in his life and how to make so aesthetically beautiful first film in your carrier.

Image on the left: Nolan Brian Rabanal Tiongco

Is «Pickpocket» your first serious project?

Yes, this is the first project that I’m putting out publicly and feeling proud of showing it to the world. There are a few ones that I’ve done before but didn’t release. I knew I could do something better. So now «Pickpocket» is here, the first film where I put my own serious money. 

In the statement you say that your film is about hunger: not only physical hunger but creative hunger as well. Can you explain this meaning more?

I want to tell stories that make people think and ask questions. “Pickpocket” is about hunger, in the literal sense, but more importantly in the creative sense. I’ve always been the type who tries to see things differently and inject creativity into everything I do. Telling stories, for me, is how I try to express my creativity and unique point of view.

How much time did it take to make this short film?

It all started in 2019 when I suffered a foot injury and couldn’t walk around so I took a notebook and started writing a script. In autumn of 2019, I began shooting “Pickpocket” which took approximately 4 shoot dates to complete. When the covid came, it extended it all from 2020 to 2021. So it took me two years to get it from concept to finished project. There is nothing like the feeling of finally completing something that you’ve put so much time and effort into from beginning to end.  

What was the most difficult part of the filmmaking process?

I think that it was working with the budget I had. Not only did I self-produce the entire film, I also invested all my savings into it. To be both the producer and the director posed a lot of challenges including making sure that everyone was safe and felt comfortable on set while simultaneously making sure everything was in order logistically. I couldn’t have done it without everyone involved who helped me. Not only that, they pushed me even when I, at times, didn’t believe in myself or the project.

And another difficult part was to make the right stomach sound that I really love now as a story from that time. To achieve the ‘right’ stomach growl I had to starve myself for days, holding a microphone to my stomach waiting for it to growl. For those moments I could truly say I was ‘a starving artist’. I was starving for my work in a literal sense and that’s very funny.

Have you done post-production by yourself?

Yes, I did most of the editing. But two friends of mine, Dale Chung and Alexis Soto Jr., helped me with music and audio work on it.

The onset photos shot by Allen Negrete

And then what is your favorite part in film production?

I think collaborating with people is probably my favorite part. As a writer and director, I definitely had a certain vision of “Pickpocket” – how I wanted to shoot it. But when you bring other people into the project, they add different perspectives and creative opinions to the story, which was something I needed to be open to. So was I, and these people helped create “Pickpocket” as it is today. That’s an amazing part of all this.

And what are your plans for this project?

This is more like a concept film for me, just to see where I am in the industry and to gauge where I see myself creatively. One of the reasons I decided to make this film was to see how an audience would react to my film, and more importantly, my vision. I wanted to find out if I had the chops to be a director. I have two other stories that I’d like to tell and hope that this film gets me enough recognition to move forward with them.

Where did you find the actors for your film?

I got very lucky. I live in Hollywood and there are a fair amount of people who want to be actors. The main actress, Every Heart, just came in our audition and killed it. She already had this look that told a story, without even being a part of this story. Her look in general gave so much to her character. Some of the other actors were just friends and fellow filmmakers who were willing to help out.

And talking about Hollywood, do you think it is necessary to go there to become a great director?

In my opinion, it’s not as necessary as it used to be. Nowadays you don’t need to be in the studio system or somewhere people say you need to be to make films. I think today film equipment and techniques are very accessible to a lot of people. And you don’t need to be shooting hundreds of rolls of film, you can even shoot on your phone with a couple of friends. But, of course, being in Hollywood does help because there is this kind of mecca of creatives here. They give you the necessary energy.

Have you ever studied at any film schools?

I studied post-production at California State University, Long Beach for 3 years. The influence it had on me is that I’ve opened to myself various international cinema. For example, I took a Japanese cinema course. There I watched movies without a serious plot and stories didn’t matter in them but the most important thing was their style. It was then when I got that you can make a movie with the only style and it works. I realized that I want to do something like that, just have these bold colors, make films that break the rules that American cinema has always said that you need to follow. 

Shooting «Pickpocket». Nolan Brian Rabanal Tiongco and Every Heart

How big is your experience in the film industry in general?

Now I’m working at Warner Brothers in post-production. It’s more of a technical job. That’s what I do for my living. But this job allows me to watch a lot of movies and behind the scenes. I’m learning a lot from just being in the film business, being a cog in the machine.

Why have you changed your direction in film industry from post-production to full film production?

I’ve always wanted to be a director. However, I wanted to learn post-production because that’s where the film is made. You learn what to do, how to do it, and what decisions directors make during their filmmaking. You need to understand what exactly to shoot and how not to waste people’s time. It’s a big puzzle to figure out why directors make decisions in post-production and I like to learn in that way. I am slowly falling in love with the writing aspect though. 

Would you like to work for a company or be a self director? 

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind. I would love to work with other people on their projects. The reason why I’m doing it on my own is that I need to prove myself as a director and a writer, to make sure I can tell stories. I would definitely love to help others tell their stories and allow me to find myself in them.

How have you learned to film so aesthetically and professionally?

I think it started with post-production really. I took some classes at New York Film Academy which is a small school down in Burbank. And there we shot film there and learned to get what is really important. I think being prepared and having an intent of shooting is what is important and that’s how I think I learned to shoot professionally. Thanks to the post-production experience I learned why you cut for reactions.  And why you should let your films breathe sometimes. Silence can be just as important as sound. 

What type of cinematography attracts you?

I like international movies more than typical action ones because they are more focused on life as it is and on the art of it. I think that’s where a lot of my influences come from. Film school gave me the opportunity to watch various international films of amazing directors from all over the world: Japanese, Italian, Sweden, etc. In all these places they do cinema so differently than America and I love it. 

Talking about genres that attract me, I can say that I’m a fan of 1950-1960s types of movies. I really find myself in them. I love their independence. Stanley Kubrick comes to mind. You watch all of his movies and there is really no one genre that he sticks to. It’s more about being an auteur and asking the big questions of life.

Shooting «Pickpocket», Carlotta Elizabeth Vargas and Jordan Martin

What do you think, are there enough opportunities for young filmmakers to realize their ambitions nowadays?

In my opinion, now there are so many opportunities for everyone to tell their stories. Especially with social media. You have these platforms, you don’t need to be tied down to a studio to tell your own story. You can get your creative abilities out into the world. It wasn’t accessible before. But as a Filipino-American director, I want to have the opportunity to tell my stories on a proven and traditional medium like film and television. There are a lot of stories that haven’t been told, that I feel I can tell.  

Do you prefer films based on true stories or fantastic ones?

I like both. Films based on true stories are able to tell a perspective of what is happening in the world today from various aspects. Thanks to such movies you can show how people respond to conditions. I would love to tell some Filipino stories. There is a particular story I’m interested in that is called “The Bataan Death March”. During World War II, American soldiers were marching in the Philippines because they were taken by Japanese soldiers. And Filipino soldiers tried to hide them, even being under the risk of being caught. My dad always told me about these stories and I know we had relatives among them. I think it’s important to find stories that speak to you, and this is a story that is speaking to me. I think for the American audience it would be interesting to see that dynamic between the three countries. There are no bad people in this story, there are just people in a tough situation with different perspectives. 

Is your family connected to the film industry?

My dad had a minor part in some Warner Brothers movies. He worked on “Space Jam” in 1997, was working on the technical side. And I remember seeing his name in the credits and that’s when I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And the funny thing is that today I’m at Warner Brothers working on “Space Jam 2”. My uncle and cousin are both in the technical post-production side of the film business.  

Why did you decide to become a film director? 

I was thinking about this earlier too: where did this stem from, this need to be creative?  I wanted to become a film director at a very young age. I have this production card called “little conductor” that my brother came up with. It comes from my time in elementary school when I was 7 or 8 years old, we had this concert and my teacher saw me pretending to be a music conductor like Mickey Mouse. That was a cornerstone memory of me craving this creative hunger. And after that my elementary school made a tradition out of it. I thought that was kind of cool. The “Little Conductor” production card means a lot to me, it’s starting small and connecting things together. I began to understand how I wanted to conduct myself to the world and not just be the main creative but to be a creative behind the creative.

Nolan Brian Rabanal Tiongco by Wesley Matthew Tiongco

In your opinion, does a film always need to be filled with serious problems and ideas?

I think that this is the main beauty of cinema and art in general: they can be both drama and comedy. Right now the reason I’m doing dramas is this is the way that I’ve tried to understand the hardest parts of my life. And this is my way of coping and dealing with depression. To find some meaning in life and what to do with it. The ability to tell stories has taught me to understand myself in this world. But sometimes I remind myself that I should write something lighter and more positive, something like a romantic comedy. I want to try that too. I’m trying to be more present in the happy parts of my life and use them as an inspiration for my creativity. 

Is there a problem for you to watch a movie not noticing the cinematography aspects and not thinking about all the technical details?

Right after graduation from film school, it was impossible to watch a film. I couldn’t really enjoy the movie. But you learn how to read films in film school and learn about the subtext of filmmaking and storytelling. But the good stories are the ones that pull you into their world without effort. If there is a good movie, I will watch it multiple times. The first time I will watch it as an audience member. Then I watch it and try to figure out why I liked it. To question the reasons why you feel the films pull the emotions out of you – that’s what I’ve learned in film school.

Is it smart to follow someone’s example?

There is a phrase “good artists copy, great artists steal”. I think it means that you should use all influences that you have. For example, in the first shot of “Pickpocket”, I moved the camera from right to left and I chose this way because of the psychological tension that you are getting from an opposite movement to the natural one that we do during reading. And I got it from “The Killing” by Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. And in this sense, I stole it but they use it for those reasons and it works. You need to use the techniques that the great masters have and aim to move the art forward. 

Is it possible to create an absolutely original story?

Original stories are hard but they are important. But everyone is inspired by something or someone. Even my story is kind of based on Japanese anime “Cowboy Bebop”. So maybe there are original stories, maybe not. You know people say there are only two Original stories are hard but they are important. But everyone is inspired by something or someone. Even my story is kind of based on the Japanese anime “Cowboy Bebop”. So maybe there are original stories, maybe not. You know people say there are only two stories: “a man comes into town” and “a stranger leaves town”. You can boil down most stores into those types of things. But that is the main fun and challenge, trying to create something original. At least it is what I’m always trying to do when telling my stories. The experiences that we bring to a story are unique and it is the emotions that connect us together.


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