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Poised to become a cult favorite amongst dorky-cool musical appreciators, Colma: The Musical has been getting rave reviews and festival buzz, picking up two Jury Prize Awards along the way (at the SFIAAF and VC Film Festival). APA talks to director Richard Wong about the concept to conception.
Colma: The Musical began as a concept album that H.P. Mendoza wrote as a birthday present for his friend. He recorded it because he didn't have enough money to buy his friend the annual video game that usually sufficed as a simple, yet always reliable default gift. Forced to show he cared (in a non-monetary fashion), creativity kicked in, and twelve songs were written, one of them a cheeky homage to the empty, small town of Colma that the two of them grew up in.
Colma, located right outside San Francisco, might possibly be the most depressing town ever -- on paper. If you check out their official town website, it's almost as if they didn't try. Here are the selling points: 1. "[Colma] is truly a regional destination known for its cemeteries, shopping centers and auto sales district." 2. "Colma is perhaps best known for its 17 cemeteries which comprise approximately 73% of the town's land area." The town is clearly proud of its deceased, among them William Randolph Hearst and Joe DiMaggio, and they should be, because "the dead outnumber the living 1500 to 1."
What a perfect backdrop for a musical.
The story revolves around three friends, Rodel (H.P. Mendoza), Billy (Jake Moreno), and Maribel (L.A. Renigen), who have just graduated high school. They have always had their lives carefully structured, and now that theyˇ¦re given some freedom to direct their lives towards a focus of their choice, they're starting to realize their own limitations. Limitations of the small town. Limitations of their friendships. Limitations on whether they are able to or desire to break out of said limitations.
All in all, Wong and Mendoza have crafted an engaging film. The songs are catchy; the characters are infectious and endearing in their own ways. Colma: The Musical successfully taps into the all-knowing-while-knowing-nothing mentality that comes with youth, letting us fondly reminisce about the time before responsibility when we define who we are through randomly picking and choosing things to be frivolously stubborn about. It also captures how magnified and important everything becomes whenever we are taken out of our comfort zones and hit with possible turning points in our lives.
This is director Richard Wong's first feature and first collaboration with writer-actor-composer H.P. Mendoza.
APA: Can you tell me a bit about your background? How did you get into filmmaking?
Richard Wong: I was born and raised in San Francisco and didn't really consider film until college when in my first year. I thought taking a filmmaking class might be fun. Before long, it was my major, despite [the fact that] I thought the chances of succeeding were slim. "Success," anyway, was hard to define. Making film became something I found very fulfilling, on every level. Directing or shooting. Just working on a film at the time was never considered working. According to some people in my family of course, "success" was about making money, and I had some family members want me to major in business and perhaps minor in film. Even then, though, I knew school was really just a springboard for a more apprentice-driven business. I never really intended, nor was I motivated, to actually graduate from college, especially in filmmaking. I've never heard of anyone getting a directing job on a movie because of his degree. So I went to learn and mainly to shoot stuff. And when I started getting work outside of school, I quit. I started working at a rental house in San Francisco called Videofax, and there I learned about the nuance of video -- very complicated stuff and a dying artform.
APA: On your bio, it says you broke into entertainment as a video engineer, most recently on Arrested Development. First, can you explain what a video engineer does, and secondly (because I'm a huge fan of Arrested Development) -- what was your experience like working on a show of that caliber? What did you learn from it?
RW: In San Francisco, the video engineer has always been important but not in LA. But with the rise of HD production in LA, there was a sudden need for video engineers there, and I started working there almost exclusively on television shows -- mainly FOX television shows. What a video engineer does is something hard to explain because video to the world of consumer video is just a plug. You plug it in or you turn it on and you watch or you shoot. But traditionally, with high-end cameras, there is a guy who sits at a very expensive color critical monitor and has complete control of how the camera responds to light. He has control of mechanically optical things also, like the iris, but he controls the processing of the image, which is to say the color, the contrast, quite literally how the camera sees light and how it interprets it. The range of how a video camera sees light is very very wide. So in essence, it's like on-set Photoshop with live moving images. So on a television show like Arrested Development, I'd sit there and work with the DP, and the Gaffer, Key Grip and I would talk about the picture and we would do our part to make it better with our respective abilities: the gaffer with lighting, the key grip with taking light away, and me with video processing. It's such a difficult job to explain because it varies from person to person, but that was my role on the shows I worked on.
Arrested was definitely the best show I worked on. I worked on a string of failed half hour single camera comedies for Fox, but when i got offered Arrested I was really excited because I had not done the first season, though was offered it. So the second season was very exciting coming off the Emmy win for best comedy. I learned quite a bit on that show. It was a machine and had a very very good crew -- really smart ADs and a very smart producer. I learned a lot about handling logistics from that show and all the shows I worked on. But what I specifically learned on Arrested was from watching directors. Arrested was the first show I worked on that I was actually a fan of, so I read every script and had my own ideas on how jokes should be delivered prior to shooting it. As the video engineer, I sat right next to the director every day so it was interesting to see their take on that joke and then the actors takes on that joke and the collaboration that is inherent in TV because these actors know their characters better than anyone does. So the director many times is the technical executor of a joke, meaning where to put the camera which is of course a very important aspect of a joke. But in watching this and having my own opinions on each joke, I felt like I wanted to give myself a shot at being the guy, so I did.
APA: Can you tell us about the first time you heard H.P.'s album? What inspired you to turn it into a musical?
RW: The first time I heard anything from Colma: The Musical the concept album was [the song] "Goodbye Stupid." H.P. was living in Philadelphia, and I was in San Francisco. He wanted to see if it was good enough to put on his MySpace, so he sent me that and "Colma Stays." Of course, back then, he was singing all the parts, and I just thought it was amazing. The first thing I thought was, "Wow, this would be such a fun movie." I had worked in LA for the last four and a half years and had decided to consciously take a break from working, having saved up some money. So I asked him how much he thought it might cost to make, and from that moment on, I knew we were going to make it. I couldn't sleep that night just thinking about it, and the next day we were on the phone talking about making it into a film. I asked him to write a script, and in seven days he had a first draft. Through the month of May we worked and reworked the script. He'd write a script, I'd have notes, and he'd write another one. At the end of May, I had a draft I thought was worth shooting.
APA: What are your favorite musicals? Are there particular scenes in Colma that are directly inspired by something that you thought was cool and wanted to reinvent in your own way?
RW: H.P. and I both really love West Side Story. "Crash The Party" has a homage to it, when Billy and Tara meet. That was a huge influence. I made it a point not to watch any movies during this whole process. I really wanted the aesthetic to be inspired from the script and not other movies. The only time I broke that rule was the night before we shot "Goodbye Stupid," the last day of shooting. My original plan was something like 33 shots but we only had 6 hours to shoot it at the location I wanted. So I had remembered "Oom Pah Pa" from Oliver! and thought, what the hell, let's pop it in. I watched it, and it's very simple and all done through blocking, and there are actually very few cuts. I figured since we had such little time, this was a perfect thing to do. I have this piece of paper with the outline of the blocking of the scene that H.P. and I devised at 2am the previous morning. Of course, the next morning, the owner of that bar forgot about the shoot and let us in an hour late, meaning we only had 5 hours to shoot "Goodbye Stupid" and the various talking scenes in the bar. But it was a testament to the professionalism and efficient machine we had become by that time.
APA: What was important about finding your leads that would carry the movie in the correct way, and what about the actors caught your attention during casting?
RW: With such an accelerated pre-production schedule we saw a lot of people very fast and then had one day in LA where we saw something like 50 people. When I saw Jake in LA, I immediately thought he was the right guy. He came in with the wrong monologue cause his agent told him it was a drama, so he had this very serious monologue. So I asked him to just tell a funny story. The story wasn't very funny, but the awkwardness was perfect. Billy was always meant to be more awkward than funny. He just thinks he's funny. L.A. was the same way. Her audition had a kind of energy that is specifically L.A.. And she brought that to the character of Maribel who I think was written to be much dryer. H.P. playing Rodel was out of necessity, but was again just one of the many happy accidents that any successful film must have. We simply could not find an Asian male of that age at the time we needed him. There was another film using primarily Asian actors in San Francisco shooting at exactly the same time, and there apparently aren't enough Asian actors to go around. So the clock was ticking and H.P. offered to do it. His argument was that he didn't have to learn all the music or the script so it would be a very efficient decision. All good points, but I also thought he would be perfect for the part; I just never thought he wanted to do it. And the final result I think speaks for itself.
APA: In your director's statement, you talk about producing the music in your garage.
RW: The garage studio was always a part of how we were going to do Colma. I used to do sound mixing for production just a little bit and I had access to a Schoeps mic, which is a very high quality mic but not necessarily the standard mic for singing. But one problem I think people have in musicals, myself included, is that the singing comes out of nowhere; the audio quality and the sound of the voice in general drastically changes between singing and dialogue, and I always thought that contributed to [the problem]. So recording with a production mic and being very conscious of getting that "on-set" sound was very important to H.P. and I. So, I borrowed a mixer, the Schoeps, and set up a studio in my garage using sound blankets and a c-stand to hold the boom which was poking into the sound blanket room where the actor would perform. Outside the sound blanket room, I setup a desk and a computer where H.P. did all the recording from and ultimately all the mastering from as well. H.P. loved that studio and it really was representative of how we were making this movie. We had to be creative in every aspect. So with the studio built, we scheduled a week where the actors came in and recorded everything that needed to be lip-synced including all the dialogue in the "Crash the Party" sequence. My apartment served as the production office, so Paul and I worked on all the pre-pro stuff while H.P. did his thing downstairs and I'd check in every so often or join them when there was dialogue.
Speaking of my apartment, the film was essentially edited there as well. I usually build my own computers, being a PC guy, but I was too busy with other stuff so I had my friend Wayne build me one specifically to edit Colma on. I edited with Avid DV Express and finished with Avid HD Pro on the same computer. I copied all the media to separate external drives as backup and I can edit on my laptop with those if need be. I edited in San Francisco after shooting until December when I went back to LA to work on Pepper Dennis. I brought the computer with me and worked on it there. The final touches were made back in SF when I brought the computer back after my time on Pepper Dennis and finished just in time for the world premiere.
APA: When you write a script for a musical, how much of the visuals are written in?
RW: The script initially had little visuals written into it. Through our conversations H.P., we was able to incorporate ideas that I had that tended to be very visual. I also made a pass detailing a few visual things like where the split-screens were going to be and what was in each screen, and "Colma Stays," which is very visual and hard to convey in script form. The script has the essence of what "Colma Stays" is now, but the final film is much more detailed and textured. The beauty of funding the film and directing it was that I didn't have to explain everything to everyone. I could keep some of it in my head even if only for the sake of saving time.
I did have specific ideas for certain visuals in mind that was not in H.P.'s earlier drafts and as we talked more he was able to incorporate them, such as "Things Will Get Better (reprise)" where the three walk down the street but don't speak to each other, "Deadwalking" with the waltzers, and the dolly in and out for "Crazy Like Me."
APA: Did you guys have experience in dance or with working with choreography? Any of it improvised?
RW: The choreography was something that was left for the very last minute save the waltz. The waltz was planned but very simple. The rest of the choreography was done by H.P. pretty much on the spot and is part of his theater experience. The final film is very close to the final script. Certainly there are things that changed, scenes cut, etc., but we had worked a lot out in the script phase so I had confidence that sticking to it would be wise. Of course, during shooting there are always things here and there that change because I think it would work better, but generally it went as planned and the film is very close to how I envisioned it when reading it the first time.
More specifically, every scene has some level of improvisation to it. I mean, we all gather, play out the scene, see what is working and what isn't, and try to fix what isn't. And sometimes it's me who figures it out or H.P. or Jake or L.A. or Paul, etc. My job as a director is to have the singular vision and carry the movie toward that vision and to wrangle everyone's talent toward that vision. I had a very talented group of people, and they all constantly were working to make the movie better and better.
"Mature Part 1," where Paul is cartwheeling in the background is probably the prime improvisation example. The cartwheeling wasn't written into the script. I had always planned on that being a slow motion song, but when I had set it up, I realized there really wasn't enough going on in the shot. So I remember turning to H.P. and saying half jokingly "What if Paul is cartwheeling in the background?" and we all lit up. It was the right thing at the right moment.
APA: I'd imagine one of the challenges with making a musical is to have the singing and dancing appear natural. I was wondering about what kind of approach you guys took with that for Colma.
RW: H.P. and I were very analytical about what audiences do not like about musicals. H.P. and I went and saw Citizen Dog, which I loved, and after a nice prologue, there is a musical number. I personally was moved by the number, but everyone in the audience was laughing. People singing equals funny or goofy. I didn't want that with Colma. One goal I had for this movie was for it to feel real, and every decision was centered around that goal. I wanted the characters and situations to feel real and fimiliar so that the audience could connect to what these kids are going through. H.P. and I talked extensively about how the stakes in the film would be low, but they'd be big to the kids and that makes them big. So the singing definitely had to be integrated and not a distraction. It is always my aim that the singing and dancing feel a part of the story and not thrown in for novelty's sake.
APA: How did you think about the first scene and how you wanted to represent the film from the beginning?
RW: One theory I had about musicals or movies in general is that the audience is sitting in the room watching you film, so they are gonna give you some benefit of the doubt immediately. But like anything else, the first impression is what sets up the universe for them. However, once the universe is set, then you can go anywhere within that universe, but you can never go out, hence the laughing in Citizen Dog. The singing comes out of "nowhere." So, "Colma Stays" is the setup for the universe of Colma: The Musical. On the surface, "Colma Stays" introduces our audience to the town of Colma, but setting up the universe is its equally important, if not more important, function. Many of the movie's techniques are introduced in "Colma Stays" so that it feels natural later. Split screens, sudden bursts of dancing and, of course, the most important technique: singing.
APA: I feel like it's an interesting balance -- having characters and moments draw you in because they seem emotionally real and compelling, but then somehow having a bit of distance from reality so the audience isn't thrown off when people start doing cartwheels and waltzing in the background. As a filmmaker, is audience involvement something you're constantly aware of?
RW: This film is meant to be nostalgic. I think part of what makes Colma feel "real" is that people can associate with these kids through their own experiences. We were all idiots at 18 to some degree. These kids lack perpective, which is why we wanted to keep the stakes generally low. Their lack of perpective makes these stakes much bigger, and someone who is past that phase in their life and gained some perspective through experience, can watch them go through this and remember what it was like to have such a perpective. In that sense, the audience does participate, but what great movie doesn't involve the audience to some degree? It's the movies that don't involve the audience that fail.
APA: The film is going through the festival circuit right now. What have been some reactions from festivals? Any that are surprising?
RW: The overall reaction the film has been overwhelmingly positive, which itself is a surprise to us. "It's not going to be for everyone," was something you would hear on set constantly from me and H.P.. We never thought about target audience or anything as clinical as that when making the film. I always think you need to be true to your own aethetic and that is what people will either love or hate about your work, but work that is intended to please everyone (which I think is an illusion) I think can get compromised and neither here nor there. I really set out to make a movie that I myself liked and if other people liked it, well, that would be great too. That was also why I decided to fund the film myself even though I had spent a couple of months pursuing other means of funding and had offers. But in the end I didn't want to have to answer to investors. Not on this film. I understand how the business works and that is an inevitability on some level, but this film was about H.P. and I making a film that we wanted to make and doing it the way we wanted to do it. I was always conscious of how special this opportunity was and how it may not happen again. So, having such a wonderful response from such a diverse range of audiences has truly been a surprise to both of us.
APA: I heard you guys in the Q&A for the VC Film festival, and I think you guys contrasted yourselves to The Debut. The Debut is an Asian American, specifically Filipino-American, film, whereas Colma is a film that happens to have Asian Americans in it. And Asian Americans behind the scenes. I'd assume it's similar in terms of gay issues; it's not necessarily a gay film, but a film that happens to have gay characters in it. That's a concept that's very easy for an Asian American or someone in the LGBT community to grasp, because race and sexuality don't tend to dictate every single action we make in our lives -- but is it harder to get others to see that. In terms of typecasting the film? That would be my guess, but in your experience, is that true?
RW: I love your comment about race and sexuality. My views on Asian American cinema and LGBT cinema are the same. I think focusing too sharply on these issues can alienate audiences and I think that can be counter-productive if the goal is to be accepted by a wider audience. During the process of making Colma, H.P. and I never talked about the film being gay or Asian. It didn't actually become part of Colma until it started playing those specifically-themed festivals. But Colma definitely is neither. It is a film about humans and their flaws. I think that is the message every minority themed film aims at getting across anyways: that we are all human -- gay, straight, Asian, black, white, etc. -- and we all have relatively the same problems. And perhaps through seeing that, there can be more empathy all around: majority to minority and minority to other minority. I understand there is a place for films that pinpoint this message and I respect what they do and say. But I think making films about Asians without pointing out that they are Asian is also an important step towards a wider acceptance of Asians in the media. Because that is what acceptance is: when you are no longer pointed out for being "different."
APA: Are there plans for a sequel?
RW: Plans for a sequel, yes. H.P. wrote a really amazing script for the sequel called Serramonte: The Musical which is about the microcosm of mall life. I submitted it for a grant and was awarded it but something else has come up and we are now currently working on making a neo-noir detective story musical that takes place in San Francisco's Chinatown. It's very ambitious so wish us luck.
Official site: http://www.colmafilm.com
Date Posted: 9/19/2006