There is something extraordinary about those small introspective moments on television. It could be that we are invested with these characters, and watching them struggle with their own morals and beliefs evokes a level of empathy from us that is unique to television. 

While Under the Banner of Heaven is a true crime story that has a focus on Mormonism, the sixth episode brings all of the characters to a moment of reckoning, and director Isabel Sandoval handles these moments tenderly, allowing the characters’ emotions to be on full display. 

Sandoval, who is known for her films Señorita, Aparisyon, and Lingua Franca, brings a much-needed breath of relief, sensitivity, and empathy to the series that is distinctly unique to her style of filmmaking. Through the trusted collaboration between the cast and crew, Sandoval was able to capture the quietness of introspection that highlighted the themes and character arcs of the series beautifully. 

We spoke with Sandoval to discuss her work on Under the Banner of Heaven and what she has learned from her experience directing a TV episode. 

Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: Congratulations on your directorial debut for television. As your first time as a TV director, were there any adjustments that you had to make?

Isabel Sandoval: I think the main one compared to making a feature film as an independent filmmaker [is that] I had complete creative control and autonomy over my vision. I was directing the sixth episode out of seven [on Under the Banner of Heaven], and the tone, the visual language are set in the pilot. You have to make sure that you're able to adapt your style and sensibility to the tone that has been set.

But it's also striking a delicate balance between making sure that your episode feels of a piece with the rest of the series, both visually and dramatically. Also finding opportunities and moments to infuse your own aesthetic flourish and aesthetic style into the series, so that while it feels coherent with the rest of the series, you could also call it your own in a way.

NFS: I was reading that your style is heavily influenced byIn the Mood for Love, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and especially by your mentor [Ava DuVernay]. How do you carry that style into something like Under the Banner of Heaven when there's already this set aesthetic?

Sandoval: What was great about directing this episode of Under the Banner of Heaven is actually the most introspective, in a way the most soulful episode of the series because the rest of the time, it's a very propulsive, true crime, murder mystery, thriller. It's all sound and fear and action, and in fact, the finale is all that. It's the chase after the culprits.

But episode six can feel like a standalone episode, in that it really highlights the crisis of faith of three of the main characters of the series; Sam Worthington, who plays Ron Lafferty, Brenda Lafferty, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and the murder victim, and most importantly, Andrew Garfield's character. Each of these characters has their own scenes of either catharsis or spiritual transcendence that I think we call some of the scenes in my own work. In fact, my second feature film called Apparition is about nuns who find themselves under siege in the early 70s, in the Philippines during a dictatorship.

Under_the_banner_of_heaven'Under the Banner of Heaven'Credit: FX

NFS: When I was watching the episode, I was intrigued by a lot of the decisions you made to show those introspective moments, especially with the window shots that you had. And your choice of eliminating eye light, especially in the scene where it's Andrew Garfield and Billy Howle's character in that last interrogation scene. What was the decision behind that, eliminating the eye light?

Sandoval: For me, what I was really focused on in that scene is, when it comes to the character of Jeb Pyre, that's played by Andrew, it's really about the escalation of the erosion of his faith. I opened that episode [with] the first shot of Andrew looking behind his back for this encroaching threat, the danger. What at first seems like just a threat of physical danger, essentially and ultimately evolves into a moral and spiritual danger when he finds that the more he learns about the bloody history of the Mormon Church, the more his faith gets tested.

In that scene with Billy Howle's character, it wasn't the eye light I was most emphatic about, but the camera essentially approaching Andrew and cornering him, so that he's backed into a corner. That's where we ultimately find him, as he lands in the garage, sitting in his car alone. It culminates a seemingly interminable and dark night of his soul for him if that makes any sense.

Under-the-banner-of-heaven-review'Under the Banner of Heaven'Credit: FX

NFS: It does. That last scene was, for me, the highlight of the season so far. Can you walk me through what your creative process was for that final scene, that final shot?

Sandoval: Yeah. At first, it was actually supposed to be set in a bathroom, but I was thinking there's already a scene set in a bathroom between Pyre and his mom, which is a tender scene. But logically, if he's trying to hide the book from his family, the bathroom is one of the first places that they would look. His wife would look for him. I thought of setting the scene, instead, in the car in the garage. It's technically that part of the house, but it also heightens the feeling of alienation and isolation for him of being separate. Separated not just from his family because of his own doubts, but also from his faith.

I was telling Andrew I was directing only one episode out of seven, and at that point, he and the rest of the cast knew their characters a lot more intimately and more profoundly than I ever would. Although we, of course, discussed the different scenes and episodes prior to shooting them, for that episode, I told Andrew, "You know what to do, after all that Jeb Pyre has been dealing with." 

We both agreed that it was the climax of his emotional and spiritual arc, not just for the episode, but for the whole show. Because in the finale, we're back to a propulsive mystery thriller-type series.

Andrew asked for half an hour to just get into the scene. And what I wanted to do as a director, working with a talent like Andrew, is to create the space and the environment that allows him to be raw and vulnerable and present. Andrew took my breath away when he did it.

NFS: Everyone in the cast is phenomenal. It must be so exciting to work with talent who's so invested in the story and is wanting to give you their all every single take.

Sandoval: Yeah. For my very first TV show, no less.

Under-banner-heaven_0'Under the Banner of Heaven'Credit: FX

NFS: What would you say were some of your biggest challenges that were unique to directing this television episode?

Sandoval: At first, I thought I'd be a lot more intimidated and daunted by working with these superstars, but they were all incredibly warm and supportive and just impressive. Especially Dustin Lance Black, who's an Oscar-winning screenwriter for Milk

On our first days working together, it was like working with a mentor and a friend, because it's not about, "This is what you need to do." He was giving me tips and pointers that would really help me significantly to adapt to the show, what the challenges have been so far, and what worked out great.

I felt empowered with the right knowledge and with the right information to be able to deliver as a director on the episode that I did. The actors themselves did not have any egos. As you mentioned, they were very generous with their talent and with their willingness to work with someone like myself. I'm not American, so I don't have a thorough and intimate familiarity with the story or the themes, but they trusted and believed me as a director. I think our collaboration benefited from that greatly as a result.

NFS: I'm thinking about what you just said, where it's like you don't have the knowledge on certain themes of the show. But I think especially with episode six of Under the Banner of Heaven, it is like you said, a very intimate look at the characters’ journeys.

Sandoval: Thanks for bringing that up because you're right in that I don't have a thorough knowledge of the LDS or Mormonism per se, but I was able to relate to that nonetheless because of my background growing up and being raised conservative Catholic in the Philippines and how, as I grew older and learned more about the history of Catholicism. 

Also, realizing that I was queer, I became aware of the atrocities and the crimes against humanity that the church has committed. That has led in turn to my growing ambivalence about my faith. That has helped anchor my approach to directing this episode.

Under_the_banner_of_heaven_isabel_sandoval'Under the Banner of Heaven'Credit: FX

NFS: Is there a shot or sequence in this episode that you are most proud of?

Sandoval: Besides the car and the garage scene, I also really liked how we shot the hot tub scene with Ron Lafferty. I wanted to make it feel transcendent and spiritual. I think working with a cinematographer like Tobie Robitaille, we were able to capture that mood and that tone, especially in that opening shot of just these two hands coming together in the water and coming up to the surface. Yeah. I relish those kinds of scenes because it's a radical departure, again, from the action and the thriller aspects of the series to find moments of serenity and quiet reflection that the characters faced.

The other scene that I also liked was the scene between Andrew and his mother in the bathtub. It just feels very tender and connected. I think it also really demonstrates that besides Jeb Pyre and Bill Taba—Andrew Garfield and Gill Birmingham—the other great chemistry in the series is between Andrew and the actress playing his mother, Sandra Seacat, who is actually his longtime friend and his acting mentor.

NFS: Is there any advice that you would give to up-and-coming directors and filmmakers?

Sandoval​:Having been someone who did not go to film school or did not have a conventional film education, when I made my first feature, I just wanted to take as many ambitious creative risks as I can and make the film that I wanted to make. The best advice I could give to aspiring filmmakers is, defy formulas and go against expectations, and make a film that nobody else can make.

Don't be too concerned with the budget or the technical polish, because what festival programmers or studios are looking for in your first film is going to be the originality and the boldness of your voice.

You can watch Sandoval's work on Under the Banner of Heaven on Hulu on May 27.