Richard Wong and H.P. Mendoza, reanimating "Colma: The Musical"

Matt Sussman June 20, 2007

Capping off a whirlwind year of charming audiences from Hawaii to New York on the festival circuit (and walking away with a handful of awards in the process), director Richard Wong and composer/writer/actor H.P. Mendoza’s suburban high school musical dramady "Colma: The Musical" was finally scooped up for national release by Roadside Pictures. A sort of anti-"High School Musical," "Colma" follows three friends in the flush of their new post-high school freedom, who are also caught in the headlights of their as-yet-uncertain-yet-fast-approaching-futures. Set in the San Francisco suburb of Colma — a suburban necropolis, literally and existentially — Wong and Mendoza’s film refreshingly portrays the limbo of young adulthood without recourse to patronizing sentimentality, while managing to score its vicissitudes to ridiculously catchy indie pop-inflected musical numbers. Longtime friends themselves, Wong and Mendoza diffuse our conversation with same buoyant energy that courses through their film. Whether explaining their shared love of "West Side Story," hating on irony or impersonating Norma Desmond, these guys are more than ready for their close ups. The film opens Bay Area theatres this Friday.

SF360: You both are San Francisco natives. What initially attracted you to Colma?

H.P. Mendoza: I went to high school there. I was living in Daly City and my best friend lived in Colma, and if you’re both going to Serramonte, so it made sense. But for the most part — and I’ve said this over and over again — the movie’s not about Colma; that’s just where it happens to taker place.

Richard Wong: We don’t want the town to be some sort of grandiose metaphor.

SF360: But it’s the perfect setting for a post-high school movie. It’s so Goth as a backdrop — most of the town is dead, it’s always covered in fog, it’s the total antithesis of a cool place to be for someone in high school.

Mendoza: But how many fresh out of high school movies take place in a metropolis? I think it’s mostly because you assume you have the hustle and bustle of school life, and then the kid goes out into the hustle and bustle of life in the metropolis. For a movie that doesn’t make for a good transition and that’s why those kind of movies don’t exist.

SF360: I wanted to ask you about irony versus sincerity. Perhaps people might assume that because this is a musical being made by younger guys that it would be ironic or a piss take on the genre. There are some ironic touches in ‘Colma’ — certainly the musical within-a-musical spoof on community theater ‘Friend Joseph’ — but there are also many sincere moments. Mirabel loves her hometown as much as she bitches about it. There are mixed emotions there, which is also something I don’t think that movies about high school-age youth often depict.

Mendoza: I’m sick of irony. We’re in the age of irony where everything is drenched in it. There are so many movies that fit that genre you’re talking about — kids figuring themselves out in small town — and we are expected to look down on those characters and that town. ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ is this movie where we’re supposed to empathize with them, but by the end of it you have to ask yourself would you hang out with Napoleon Dynamite? Would he really be a friend of yours? In our movie the only thing we’re ironic about is the music — but it’s the characters’ attitude, not ours.

Wong: Every decision I made in the movie was based on the idea of whether it would feel real or not. I guess that makes it more based in sincerity than irony.

SF360: Yes. I think in another film Rodel would’ve been softer. But he’s cruel, and at time unabashedly so. I enjoyed that there were times when you couldn’t side with him just because of his horrible home life and the fact that he’s a gay teen. Would you ever want to do ‘Colma’ for the stage?

Mendoza: Sure I would — on a small stage about the size of this room [he gestures around the small conference room]. People always ask me this and say, ‘It would work perfectly!’ and I’m just like, ‘Tell me why?’ I mean, look at how quiet the dialogue is. It’s a little more subtle than —

Wong: It’s a very intimate movie so it would have to be a very intimate play. It’s not, like, ‘Sunset Boulevard.’

Mendoza: [Doing his best Norma Desmond impersonation] ‘You there!’ [Everyone laughs.]

SF360: Well, she does have all those scenes in front of mirror trying on clothing. Tell me more about the Hulk Hogan bar fly character. Was he a concept you had in mind beforehand or was he a local who you came across while filming and thought, ‘He has to be in the movie?’

Wong: When we were working on the script we had in mind someone like Hagrid [from Harry Potter] — big, burly, bearded. ‘Goodbye Stupid’ is the kind of song Hagrid would sing.

Mendoza: So we tried to cast Hagrid and we had these Woody Allen-type guys showing up to auditions being like ‘I’m here for the part of Hag-red.’

Wong: And then Jim came in. And we were like ‘Dude, he doesn’t look like Hagrid.’

Mendoza: And he was saying, ‘Aw, I can’t really sing,’ which was perfect, because the character’s not really supposed to be able sing. So he didn’t look like Hagrid, but we thought that he looked like Hulk Hogan, but of course we weren’t going to say that to his face. So finally, we said, ‘Jim we want you for the part but you don’t look like Hagrid, do you have any ideas of you could resemble?’

Wong: And after he had suggested wearing a wig to look like Hagrid and growing his beard out like Gandalf, we finally suggested Hulk Hogan. And he’s like ‘Aaaw man, I’m always getting compared to Hulk Hogan.’ His nephew actually bought him that ‘Hulk Rules’ shirt that he wears in the film and he was such a sport.

SF360: Well, his number is such a high point in the film.

Wong: It’s a real crowd pleaser

Mendoza: And it’s actually the last happy moment in the movie — it’s the last time the three main characters are all in the same frame. The next time we see them together at the end of the film it’s when they’re side by side in a split-screen.

SF360: Are you working on another project together?

Wong: Yes. Right now we really want to get this other musical made. It’s pretty big. The creative process is really big — even bigger than ‘Colma,’ and I consider that to be a huge creative process.

Mendoza: And we’re not talking budget, we’re talking concept.

Wong: It’s very personal and there is a huge amount of music. It’s a very musical musical. People have this idea that all musicals are the same, when in fact there are many different types.

Mendoza: The music-to-dialogue ratio is much higher than it was in ‘Colma.’

Wong: I’m excited about this project because it’s completely different from ‘Colma.’

SF360: What attracts you to musicals, and what bothers you about them?

Mendoza: There’s this unspoken sense of magical realism to musicals, and with a lot of movies that use that same magical realism they’re winking at it. But in our favorite musicals, music is a means of communication. People just walk around, and when they have a broad concept they want to get across they sing it.

Wong: There’s just something chemical about music and pictures together. Music videos aren’t musicals because in them the pictures serve the music, but in a musical you have music serving a story and something about that really works for me. I don’t know how to be clinical about it. It’s just magical. It just works. I don’t know why certain things give me the chills; I just love that form of storytelling.

SF360: What are some of your favorite musicals?

Mendoza: ‘West Side Story.’

Wong: Yeah, ‘West Side Story.’ It changed my life. I saw it [the film version] when I was 11 or 12 and it was a marker for me in the way I looked at film. It really was the first movie I ever watched where there really were no bad guys. It’s like real life. I mean, how many real bad guys do you know? Everyone has some kind of intent.

Mendoza: Aside from ‘West Side Story,’ and this is so gay — as if my mom didn’t know it then — I used to watch ‘Mary Poppins’ every weekend. I knew that movie so well. And watching all these other musicals, I kind of forgot that ‘Mary Poppins’ is a musical.

SF360: And now it’s on Broadway.

Wong: Did you watch the Tonys? They did ‘Stepping Time’ [from ‘Mary Poppins’]. My God, you know, stage shows are stage shows and you’re supposed to watch them from one point of view. But the director of the Tony Awards was editing like crazy, and the number started to be like ‘Chicago,’ with ten cameras.

Mendoza: I have a clip reel of the Tonys over the past ten years and you can see the editing change and become more complex. After ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,’ you all of a sudden have ten cameras on the stage.

SF360: If you were to direct or create a fantasy musical would be the subject?

Wong: This is going to be hard for you, since you have like 20 musicals in your head.

SF360: You have unlimited funds.

Mendoza: Okay

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.

  • Oct 19, 2011

    Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

    Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.