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One of the gems of the 2006 Gay & Lesbian Film Festival was Colma: The Musical, featuring a script and songs by Filipino-American filmmaker/singer-songwriter H.P. Mendoza. Set in the titular California town, a tiny community outside of San Francisco, the film detailed the lives of a group of young slackers bemoaning their dead-end lives via catchy, quirky synth-pop. Now, Mendoza returns to Philly — which he called home for about a year back in 2004 — with another musical, Fruit Fly, this time adding director to his list of credits. Colma star L.A. Renigen returns as a performance artist taking up residence in a San Fran artist commune, and the links to Colma also include that film's director, Richard Wong, serving here as cinematographer. Mendoza will also receive the Rising Star award at the July 16 screening.
City Paper: Where did the idea for Fruit Fly come from?
H.P. Mendoza: Colma played a lot of gay film festivals and Asian film festivals, and because of that we got to go to all of the film festival parties. And when L.A. and I would go to the Asian film fest parties, they'd say it's really great to see Asian faces on the screen, but then they'd hint that it's too bad that they have to be gay faces. Then at the gay festivals you'd always have people walking up to L.A. saying, "Girl, you are so fierce. You remind me of Margaret Cho," or "You're fat-forward." And she wouldn't even have opened her mouth. Then we would watch as many films as we could at the festivals, thinking they would be super-progressive, but we'd go to the Asian film festivals and there'd always be that one film that has the "faggot," the really flamboyant guy who gets beat up in the movie and makes the whole audience cheer. And at the gay festivals there was always that one movie with the ching-chong Chinaman, playing the pizza delivery boy or something. I couldn't really reconcile the two, so I said to L.A., "There must be some way that we can make another Colma that's even gayer and more Asian."
CP: Your films both have a distinct and humorous sense of place — is that important to you?
HPM: I think it is, for this story at least. While Colma was on the film festival circuit I had no intention of coming back to California. But when I came back to San Francisco I realized it was actually beautiful. I took my home for granted, but I fell in love with San Francisco again and wanted to capture the neighborhoods I grew up in — as opposed to capturing what everyone else captures, which is Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley living in the Transamerica Pyramid and walking across the Golden Gate Bridge every day. They try to make it look like a bustling city, but San Francisco's really a very small city that goes to sleep every night. It's not New York.
CP: What attracts you to making musicals?
HPM: I do like musicals — actually, I shouldn't say that. That's so general, because most of them are bad. As with any genre, most of anything will be bad and you have to dig through the crap to get to the gems. But the ones that I love, I adore. And I always felt bad that those musicals I adore, I could never get my friends into. I remember when Rent came out, I took all my friends and they all fell asleep. So I realized maybe musicals aren't for everybody, and that attracted me even more. I decided I wanted to find other ways to make musicals. One of the weirdest, best, and worst compliments I get is, "I love Colma and I loathe musicals."
CP: What are some of the musicals that you do like?
HPM: I really got into Guys and Dolls. West Side Story is a huge favorite. My Fair Lady, Cabaret. Then there are the bad ones that I still watch: The Wiz, which should be good but it's not, even though the music is good. And Xanadu, which is a bad movie with bad music.
CP: I appreciate the fact that even though they have modern music and characters, your films are actually traditional musicals — they don't feel the need to send up the genre, or put everything into ironic question marks.
HPM: I loved seeing Chicago on stage, and remember thing that they could never turn it into a movie. Then they did and I saw it and thought, "Wow, why are all the musical numbers in her head?" It's almost like they were apologizing for it, saying, "Don't you worry, people don't actually burst into song." And while I know Cabaret is a great movie, it still doesn't really feel like a musical compared to the stage show, where people actually just go ahead and burst into song. I keep telling people, don't think of musicals as a genre; it's just a way of telling a story.
CP: How was the process different this time around, directing as well as writing?
HPM: Harrowing. Not during production, though it was really strange working with Richard Wong as my cinematographer. I'm glad that Richard directed Colma, but I feel like that's the last time I'll write a musical for someone else to direct. I feel like I know the musical beats and the film has to have the same rhythm as the music, and I felt like I conveyed that better with Fruit Fly. So during production I actually felt really confident. Now that we're out on the film festival circuit I'm nervous all the time. Someone actually likened me to Robert DeNiro doing A Bronx Tale, where everyone assumed he got Scorsese to help him because he couldn't have directed it on his own. Luckily the next thing I'm doing is not a musical at all, but a dark comedy about Prop 8. So as long as I get myself out of the pigeonhole of being "musical boy," I think I'll be fine.
H.P. Mendoza receives the Rising Star Award on July 16. Fruit Fly screens Thu., July 16, 7:15 p.m., Ritz East and Sat., July 18, 2:30 p.m., Prince Music Theater. Tickets are $10.