By Heidi Philipsen
New Jersey-based assistant director Isabella Olaguera has worked professionally on over 50 feature films, television shows and commercials since 2010 – including an Oscar-nominated short. She has every right to brag, but she’s been keeping a big secret: she’s only 20 years old! She may very well be the youngest member of New York Women in Film & Television.
Isabella sat down with producer, director, writer and actor Heidi Philipsen to discuss her work as the 2nd AD on the indie feature film All These Small Moments, a coming-of-age tale shot entirely in NYC, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival this month.
Heidi Philipsen: How long have you been an assistant director?
Isabella Olaguera: I’ve been AD’ing for about six years now, on features, short films, commercials, and television shows. I have to always mention my parents when I talk about my beginnings. Throughout my childhood, my parents were prolific freelance graphic designers with backgrounds in film production, acting, fine arts and photography. From an early age, they always encouraged me to pursue my artistic endeavors. While other kids’ parents became worried about their kids wanting to be artists, or tried to convince them to treat it like a hobby, mine always treated every interest like the beginnings of a possible career.
Did you know right away that this is what you wanted to do?
1st AD-ing is not only my full-time job, but it is also my main passion. I first learned about what an Assistant Director was when I was very young, because my brother was a SAG child actor and my parents always made sure there was also room on set for me while they were shooting. I remember watching them work, and being fascinated by how these AD’s could command their sets and kept everything in line.
Isabella Olaguera on the set of the Academy-Award nominated short My Nephew Emmett (dir. Kevin Wilson, Jr., 2017)
How do you navigate your career when you are surrounded by mostly older and mostly male colleagues?
Honestly, I was never hesitant or uncertain when it came to making my dream career a reality and I have to again thank my parents for putting that fearlessness and determination in my head despite so many things that could have discouraged me. I knew I didn’t exactly have it easy from the get-go, considering I’m not only young, but a woman, and a young woman of color to top it off. But I am also different from many of the people who came before me. I am born at the end of the millennial age, or the beginning of Generation Z, two of the first generations to be born after the trailblazers for equality in the age of technology. I was privileged enough to be able to grow up around the set life, with a female and/or POC role models of AD’s, producers and industry leaders.
What do you look for in leaders – in producers and directors with whom you work?
I guess the smoothest times I have on set are ones where everyone is sympathetic to each other’s plight. I like working for directors and producers who don’t see themselves above the rest of the crew, but a part of it—in short, in my opinion, the best leaders are the ones who care about the people they lead.
What hurdles – if any – have you experienced and how did you get over them?
Ageism is the largest hurdle I’ve had to overcome, even beating both sexism and racial prejudice. I have worked on over 50 professional productions, many of which have played at festivals, internationally, and one that was even nominated for an Academy Award this year.
A lot of people are surprised by my youthful appearance, especially when they’ve already had in-depth discussions with me over the phone, but by remaining composed, confident, and prepared, crew members gain a sense of respect for me that allows me to not only do my job, but get recommended for ones in the future.
Brendan Meyer and Jemima Kirke in All These Small Moments (dir. Melissa Miller-Costanzo, 2018)
What were some of your favorite experiences working on the film?
All These Small Moments was one of my favorite productions to work on. The entire film, to me, captures the essence of a modern John Hughes movie — a teenager struggling with the concept of growing up, and his positive discovery within himself despite the trials that are set before him: A perfect, simple, slice of life- story.
I know they’ve been advertising Melissa Miller-Costanzo as a first-time director, but to me, there is nothing “first time” about her. She’s a seasoned pro, and a powerful woman who not only has clear vision but knows how to achieve it.
Our producers [Lauren Avinoam, Katie Leary, and Jed Mellick] were all strong forces, each bringing their own expertise to the table. Our crew was a little army. Our cast had lots of credits and prestige to their names, yet included some of the most down to earth people I’ve ever worked with.
Molly Ringwald is one of the stars!
Molly Ringwald has also always been in one of the top slots of my “celebrity bucket list.” There’s a scene in All These Small Moments where Molly’s character sits at the dining table by herself, picking at her mostly untouched birthday cake. We shot it on the day I [substitute] 1st AD’d, and for the first few takes, everything was very standard. Roll, Action, Pick, Reset, Repeat, Cut. But on the very last take, she kept going. She made larger and larger dents in the cake with her fingers, and then all of a sudden — BAM — she smushed both her hands into the cake and mixed it all up! Molly started laughing, and then Melissa was laughing, and video village was laughing, and the crew was laughing, and the cast was laughing — I could even see Adam, our DP, giggling behind the camera.
And suddenly my anxiety and nervousness faded away and here I was, this 19-year-old girl — who didn’t follow the beaten path and didn’t go to college and didn’t listen to anyone who told her she was too young, yet still didn’t let ANYONE on set know how old she was because she was afraid they’d fire her for it if they ever found out — 1st AD’ing this huge set and KILLING IT.
And we made our day. Everyone told me I did a good job and it meant, and still means, more to me than they could ever know.