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Director-writer-composer H.P. Mendoza chats about equally representing both gays and Asians in his latest film, Fruit Fly. And doing it through song.
After multitasking as screenwriter, composer, and actor in Richard Wong's 2007 indie cult film Colma: the Musical, H.P. Mendoza adds director to his list of hyphenates with Fruit Fly, which premiered in the Castro Theater at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Showing once again that he's the pro at the DIY musical -- there were less than five crew members on set during the majority of the four-week film shoot -- Mendoza took the song and dance to the next level, upping the production value, brightening the colors, diversifying the musical selection, and presenting a no-holds-barred celebration of the mishmash of gay culture, straight culture, youth culture, and artist culture that can be found in the tight quarters of San Francisco.
In addition to the Colma and Fruit Fly soundtracks, Mendoza has composed three other albums: 2004's Everything is Pop, 2006's Nomad, and 2009's Elsewhere, samplings of which can be found on his MySpace and YouTube sites. At this year's Outfest Film Festival, Mendoza participated in a "Words, Pictures, and Music" panel with a guest list which reads like a who's who of the contemporary Hollywood musical: Randal Kleiser (director of Grease), Bill Condon (director of Dreamgirls and Chicago), Peter Barsocchini (director of all the High School Musicals), Leslie Dixon (screenwriter of Hairspray), Linda Woolverton (screenwriter of both the film and stage versions of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), Winnie Holzman (author of Wicked), and Allison Burnett (screenwriter of the upcoming adaptation of Fame).
While Mendoza joked that he felt like a kid who had won a radio contest, sitting onstage amongst such prestigious company, anyone who watched the screening of Fruit Fly afterwards could see that Outfest got the right guy to offset the jaded studio talk and to represent a young, diverse generation of talent. --Ada Tseng
Interview with HP Mendoza
July 11th, 2009
Interviewed by Ada Tseng
Video by Warren Kenji Berkey
Camera by Warren Kenji Berkey and Oliver Chien
Asia Pacific Arts: Can you start by telling us what Fruit Fly is about?
H.P. Mendoza: Fruit Fly is a new musical about a Filipina performance artist [Bethesda, played by L.A. Renigan (of Colma fame)] who moves from the Phillippines to the United States to workshop a new performance piece that deals with her struggling with finding out where her biological parents are. And in the process, she ends up finding out that she's a fag hag. ["Fruit fly" is the more PC term for "fag hag," a girl who enjoys the company of gay men.]
APA: You had mentioned in the panel that you were looking for a gay audience with Fruit Fly. I don't know if you meant that so literally, but if so, why did you decide to tell a story through a fag hag, as opposed to having a gay man be the protagonist?
HPM: There were a lot of reasons that organically led to this. One of them was that it really bothered me that people kept saying L.A. [Renigan] was my fag hag. And I think they all thought they were being kind of funny about it, but she never liked it. And I don't think she's a fag hag. I think I might be the one gay friend she has. [laughs] Also, when we were making Colma: The Musical, I had wanted [L.A.'s charcter] Maribel to be really tertiary, but as she started getting fleshed out more, I felt like, "No, you should either have her be the quirky sidekick or have her be really fleshed out so people will really care about her." But she was somewhere in between, and finally, when I saw Colma onscreen, I found myself thinking, "This is really cool. I really wish I saw more of Maribel." So I asked her, "Do you want to work with me again? You want to do another musical? It won't be about me this time, it will be about you."
To me, Colma was a coming-of-age musical. And I wrote it, which makes it Asian, and because it's about me, it makes it a gay film. I'd like to think that. But a lot of people would say, "Oh, it's not Asian enough..." or "It's not gay enough..." So I was grateful to the Asian American film festivals and the gay film festivals that did take Colma. But it went to a lot more Asian festivals than gay festivals, because I think a lot of the gay programmers thought it wasn't gay enough. The critique was: why doesn't Rodel have a boyfriend? And -- he did! You're coming in at the tail end of [the relationship]. Why can't we have breakup movies? Why does every gay film have to be about the relationship itself? So when I said I wanted a gayer audience, it's more that I wanted the level to match the Asian audience. You had a ton of Asians watching it and a few gays, and I wanted it to level off. Because I feel like I'm exactly half and half. When people ask me, what are you? I say -- I'm Filipino and gay. [laughs] And I think that's what the movie is: it's Filipino and gay.
APA: Can you talk a little about your process when you put together a musical? Does the music come first, or does the script come first?
HPM: It differs from project to project. I've done some stage musicals in San Francisco, and the process is different every time. With Colma, I did write all the music first, and I wrote it with a story arc. Writing a script around that was pretty easy, because it wasn't just a bunch of songs. Fruit Fly was different because I really wanted to come at it from a different point of view. I thought, "Let's not treat it like there's a script, and there are definite gaps where we should play some music." I sat down and literally said, "Scene One: I want people singing about public transit, and let's move on from there." So for Fruit Fly, I wrote the songs at the same time.
APA: I'm thinking about the lyrics of Fruit Fly, and the word choice is very particular; it almost reminds me of poetry. I'm wondering if it's like that because it's part of a musical so you have to explain certain things, or would you say that it's reminiscent of how you write your music in general?
HPM: Well, thank you for likening it to poetry. That's really cool, cause of course, I can't say that, because I would seem cocky, but I'd like to think that there is something more clever about the lyrics than your average pop song -- where it's really about rhyming words like "never" with "forever", "love" and "of," and "you" and "true." I really wanted to have dialogue told through the songs, and you really can't just stick to those really safe rhymes. And sometimes you only have three minutes to work with, and I have a lot of these concepts that I want to get out there -- that people would be okay with if there was dialogue that lasted for eight minutes. It would still be a long scene, but people would be okay with that. But [with] an eight-minute song, people start looking at their watches. So sometimes I had to get a bit more floral with the rhymes. I do pride myself in spending a lot of brain power on writing the lyrics, but thank you for calling it poetry.
"I Do This For A Reason"
APA: [laughs] I really do think that. I was listening to "I Do This For A Reason," thinking about the lyrics and how, if it were poetry, the line break would go like this: "A million possibilities and all I want is one / thing to go right."
HPM: I love overlapping line breaks! I think it makes things more interesting. It gives everything double meaning. I do that a few times in Colma, but I do it a lot in my albums. I wanted to take stuff that I did in my albums and push that into Fruit Fly. I liked the music I wrote for Colma, but I'm not as proud of it, because the Colma songs were a gift for a friend, and I wrote it in seven days. I spent a lot more time on Fruit Fly, so I think the lyrics are more complex.
APA: I was listening to the soundtrack, and some of your lyrics are really biting, like you're skewering certain archetypes -- whether it's the self-absorbed artist, overdramatic teenagers, gay hookups, straight hookups... I'm wondering how much of it is observational, harmless humor and how much of it is criticism?
HPM: Well, it's easy for me to criticize because I've gone through it. I mean, who hasn't had a bunch of hookups? Gay and straight, by the way. It's really interesting how people say, "Oh that's such the gay lifestyle," and it's really just the sexual lifestyle. It's just that we're talking about fisting and bottoming, which makes it sound like a gay song. Switch out one character for a girl, and it's a straight song. "Skewering" might be a bit harsh.... I think maybe there's just one thing that I do skewer: I really have disdain for the lyrics of house music. You know? And I feel like, oh, so you can't write these new songs, so what you're going to do is take these old 70s or 80s ballads and remix them, and they all have the same trope [mimics house music beats] with a dramatic pause and then the chorus. So I wanted to write a song called "Gay Gay Gay Gay Gay," that is a total meta-song.
"Gay Gay Gay Gay Gay"
Everything else, I'm just criticizing myself for the stuff that I went through, going through the arts. You have to be a little self-absorbed if you go into theater. And I think sometimes people think self-absorbed means narcissistic, and not necessarily. You might just be working in a field that you need to be self-absorbed because you're talking about yourself. And I do criticize that too. I'm not in the most noble profession; I'm not like deworming orphans. I'm just telling stories and writing music.
APA: The title is "Fruit Fly" so there's the fag hag focus, but to me, it really is a film about artists. You were saying that a lot of Bethesda's personal background came from L.A.'s life, but was the part about living in the San Francisco commune from your experiences?
HPM: That's me. When I first left San Francisco -- as "Rodel" I guess [laughs] -- I first started joining artists' communes for the same reason that a lot of people join the communes: which is that it's free. And a lot of time, you're working with other people on their projects. Then I entered other communes that weren't really communes -- if you're paying rent now, is it a commune or is it a TIC [tenancy in common]? There's a fine line between the two. And after a while, I was just staying at communes that were just places that you rent for a few months. And when I moved back to San Francisco, I realized there were more communes in San Francisco, and I really based it on me coming back to San Francisco after not being there for so long and working with a bunch of artists right as soon as I landed. And those people happened to be the people that L.A. also knew, so it'd be like, "Oh that character's based on her. You know her!" It was really this cool coming-full-circle, the world shrinking again.
APA: What type of projects were you working on when you were living in the communes?
HPM: I was doing theater. I was working with, believe it or not, magic. Just a little bit of magic. There's a magician named Christian Cagigal, who plays Gaz Howard in the film. He's a musical actor and a magician. He's pretty successful, and I said, "Do me a favor, read [this scene]." And he went, "Oh, this is hilarious--- Wait, this is me. This is me, isn't it? You're making fun of me." And I said, "Oh, maybe, a little bit. [pause] Will you do it?" And he said, "Yeah... why not." So yeah, I co-wrote his shows for a while, and now he's big, and maybe one day he'll still remember me when he's huge like David Copperfield. But I also worked with other theater troupes writing their music for their musicals. But my main thing now is film.
APA: Speaking of Gaz, I want to ask about audience reaction, as you've been traveling with the film to different festivals. Comparing the world premiere in SF to the screening in LA, one thing I noticed was the different reaction to the Gaz character. I don't know if you've noticed that...
HPM: I've noticed that. [laughs]
APA: I think he's hilarious, but some audience members are just horrified by him. Horrified by the idea that Bethesda would date him.
HPM: Audiences will groan. They're mortified by the idea that she'd even consider the idea. And when Karen says "I just think that if you're not interested, you shouldn't even sleep with him. Be empowered, girl," of course the whole audience is cheering. But it's different. Some audiences really feel for that, and some audiences are just like, Oh he's a funny character. Then some people are really offended and will hiss at him onscreen. It's pretty cool.
APA: Have you found any other differences in audience reactions, to particular scenes?
HPM: Well, this also happened with Colma, where I'd feel like, "Oh no... stop laughing! That's not the joke yet!" And then they'd laugh over the real joke. In Fruit Fly, Bethesda walks into a gay bar, and one of the gay guys says, "Wow, you're so fierce. You remind me of Margaret Cho." And I said, make sure there's a gap there, so you don't know what he's going to say. So he delivered it like I thought would be great. But at Asian festivals, when they hear "You're so fierce," there's this uproarious laughter, and no one ever hears the Margaret Cho line. And then you go to the gay festivals, and no one laughs at "fierce," until they hear the "Margaret Cho" line. Which is cool, but I think it's unfortunate that Asian audiences don't get to hear that, cause that joke was for gay Asians. [laughs] And I think it's one of those things where Asian audiences will hear "fierce," and go "Oh haha he's gay!" Whereas, gay audiences are like, "Ok, we've heard that in every other film at this festival," and then they get to hear the Margaret Cho line.
APA: I'm also wondering about that line where Bethesda says to Wyndam, "What, you think you're the first white guy to...
HPM: ...the first white guy plant your lips on my gash?"
APA: [laughs] Yeah, does that have different reactions in Asian film festivals vs. gay ones?
HPM: So this is the interesting thing. This is a sociological experient for me, that line. At a lot of the Asian festivals, a lot of women will be cheering. Like, "Oh whooa, she's super loose!" But it's cool for them to see a character like this onscreen; they're cheering and unabashedly laughing. At gay film festivals, you hear a lot of "Oh, I'm not sure if we should be laughing at that..." And they're laughing but kind of keeping it to themselves. And you notice that a lot of them are gay men going "oh, haha what a disgusting joke." But then it's great cause it's followed by the gay guy onscreen saying "Hey, I don't want to be the stereotypical misogynist fag who squeals at the mention of female genitalia... but EW!" And I think that kind of shuts up a lot of gay men in the theater. Like, "Oh my, is that me? Am I being misogynistic?" [laughs] So I think in terms of louder reactions, the Asian audiences laugh more at that line.
APA: When you write your songs, which comes first, the music or the lyrics?
HPM: You know, that's a hard question to answer because it changes. A lot of times I'll be in the shower, and I'll think I'm humming a song, but I'm actually singing it. And it's like, hey I have a lyric. And I don't know which came first. "You Do This For A Reason" is a great example of that. I had this sound, and I was just singing it one day: "What if we'd been found.. twenty years from now..." and I don't even know which one came first. And then I went to the piano.
But then you have "Fag Hag," which I wrote first before I came up with a melody. Because really, it's not even a song. He's just sort of screaming "Fag hag, homo honey, fruit loop, goldilocks.." And he goes on forever, and I said, "I definitely want this to sound like a moderized surf-rock song, without the guitar." I wanted it to be super electronic. So there's an example of the lyrics coming first.
APA: Were there any songs in Fruit Fly, where the style came first, where you wanted a certain sound for a certain scene?
HPM: There were different sounds that I wanted to use, things that I could not do in Colma. The Colma music, because it originated as a gift for a friend, had to sound like it was all piano rock. And I wanted it to be an album. And now I'm doing Fruit Fly, and now people can hear a bunch of different genres on one CD and say, "Oh this is your playlist." I liked that someone actually said that at the panel, that a musical can be a playlist. So I wanted to attack different sounds, I wanted to have this electro-pop sound for "We Are The Hag."
"We Are the Hag"
But the first song ["Public Transit"], I definitely wanted to have a kind of staccato rhythm to it, that sounds like people just going about their business. And I really wanted her to be this loose voice that floats above all that rigidness. Which is funny because I was wondering where I got the idea from: it's super electronic, there's a woman who has this wispy voice over something that's really staccato. And I realized, Oh my God, this reminds me of [sings] "My baby takes the morning train..." [referring to Sheena Easton's "Morning Train (Nine to Five)".] And I thought, Hey why not? It doesn't sound like it at all, but it's about trains. [laughs]
So there are certain things like that. While of course, "You Do This For a Reason," I wanted that to sound like the most analog song. Everything else in it sounded very digital, and I wanted to use Commodore 64 synthesizers and Sega synthesizers for the sound. I'm really influenced by video games, hence the Tetris and Guitar Hero references in the film. So I'm actually playing with sound that I don't think actually exist, since pop doesn't usually use those 8-bit sounds.
APA: Speaking of video game influences, can you talk about the animation in the film?
HPM: Yeah, it's great cause I feel like if you don't know video games, they're just cool graphics. But if you do know the video games, then it's cool, cause you'll see Guitar Hero in there. "You turned the cars into Guitar Hero! And [the buildings] into Tetris!" We went to a read-through of the script, and everyone was like "Huh. So you're going to turn the entire San Franciso skyline into a graphic equalizer. Hmmm. Oh, Tetris pieces. But how can this work?" And even Mark [Del Lima, Fruit Fly's animator and HP's partner] was like, "You want what?" [laughs] "I mean, it sounds fun, but I can't really see it." And I said, "Okay, I want these interstitials." And it ended up being a lot more complex because at the time the Center of Asian American Media [who funded the film] was saying they would provide us with any stock footage that we want. And I wanted the film to open with buildings being demolished. And I wanted to cut to colorful, modern buildings being built up. I had that in my mind when I was writing the song itself; I wanted it to be this ball smashing through things. But when I gave them the proposal, they realized this was going to cost them a lot of money. Each piece of footage could cost $5000. And I didn't know that. [laughs] So I went home and thought, what can we do? And I turned to Mark and said, "How would you feel about animating that whole opening sequence?"
So it was really cool, cause he came up with that font. He came up with the flower, the dandelion. Basicially he wanted to echo the dandelion in the movie itself. So of course he wanted to have this blossoming dandelion that's blown at the end. And yeah, I think he did a fantastic job. A great credit sequence and the interstitials are really good. I'm really proud of him! [smiles]
APA: In the "Words, Pictures, and Music" panel, the panelists were talking about the differences between casting musicals for theater vs. musicals for film. How, in film, the great actor with the medium voice will usually get the role, but in theater, the medium actor with the great voice will get the part. Is that something that registers for you in your work?
HPM: They come from a different world. They're so studio. And the expectations are so high when you're dealing with these studio musicals. If you want everyone to see them, you have to market it a certain way. And that means you kind of have to pander to the lowest common denominator and say, "Ok, we're going to cast this pop artist in this movie." Or "Who's the person that people consider the best singer these days? Let's cast her!" And there really is this sort of American Idol mentality to all of it. There's this sound that I'm not a big fan of myself. It's fine, they're great, but I'm not a big fan of the belters with all the beautiful voices. And I'm glad that the writer of the new Fame adaptation actually said this. He said, "The people who were in the original Fame didn't have the best voices, so I feel like now with the new one, there's a little bit of soul that's lost by being soulful." When you're a soul singer, you hear more of the training, than the connection to the character itself.
And I'm telling you, you know Jennifer Hudson's big song from Dreamgirls? Try singing that with your friends. In a van going across the country. No one's going to hit the high note except for one girl, and everyone's going to look at her and go "Damn girl, you can sing." And then no one else is going to sing along, because we now know who can sing in the group. I like writing songs that everyone can memorize the words to easily, and everyone can all sing. I feel like that's the way The Wizard of Oz was. Even Judy Garland's ballad, it's not like it's the "Star Spangled Banner." That's the first musical I ever saw, and I like that anyone can sing those songs.
Click here to go to the Fruit Fly official website.
Click here to buy songs on the Fruit Fly soundtrack on iTunes.
Date Posted: 7/31/2009