H.P. Mendoza launched his career with an unlikely topic for a movie musical—a group of twentysomethings trying to escape the cemetery capital of the world. Perhaps equally surprising is the fact that Colma: The Musical, which he composed, wrote and co-starred, became a surprise indie hit in 2006. Now, he’s back with another musical, Fruit Fly, this time as a director and composer of the film’s 19 original songs. Mendoza’s twin root systems in music and film are inseparable and have served him well. Shot in HD over a 20-day period in the Castro and Mission neighborhoods Fruit Fly reunites Mendoza with Colma vets—cinematographer Richard Wong and leading songstress, L.A. Renigen. Renigen plays Bethesda, a Filipina performance artist who searches for her birth parents, tries to get her career off the ground and, as Mendoza once did, lives in a San Francisco artist commune, whose tenants are a rainbow coalition of ethnicity and sexual orientation. Mendoza is currently working on a non-musical: a dark comedy about Proposition 8. Fruit Fly, which was funded by the Center for Asian American Media, has its world premiere March 15 at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
SF360: Why did you want to direct a musical?
H.P. Mendoza: I’m guess I’m one of those guys who doesn’t buy hit singles. If there’s a band or an artist I like, I’ll buy the CD or album, play the whole thing from start to finish and I’ll see it as a full experience. People have forgotten the art of the album, having songs put in a certain order to get an emotional response. Sometimes, I’ll soundtrack my day. Even if I don’t have my iPod on, I’ll be walking around and scoring my own emotions—that’ s how I come up with the songs. Screenwriters and directors walk through their lives thinking they’re in cool movies like Reservoir Dogs or Goodfellas. I do the same but there’s always music in my head which means there will be a rhythm to the way I write.
SF360: Who’s on your private soundtrack these days?
Mendoza: I’m in love with the Magnetic Fields, specifically Stephin Merritt, the main writer and front man. My eternal favorite is They Might Be Giants.
SF360: What musical styles did you incorporate into Fruit Fly?
Mendoza: There’s a lot of synth pop, for sure. There’s a little IDM, some modernized go-go/surf rock, traditional musical waltz, grrl riot digital hardcore, electro-clash, some gay house, late ’50s / early ’60s power ballads and some plain old rock.
SF360: What are the challenges of directing a musical?
Mendoza: I used say it’s just like directing any film, except that it has music, but now that I’ve been behind the camera, I think differently. A lot of the rhythm is found through the editing. You watch a movie like Wendy and Lucy and I can almost guarantee that a lot of the beautiful rhythm of that movie was found in the editing. When you’re dealing with songs in 3/4 time or 4/4 time, you have to think things out in advance. There are beats you have to follow; you can’t cut out a lyric or a bar. I’m proud to say that all the music is intact because of strict planning.
SF360: This film was more informed by gay themes. Why did you focus on this subject?
Mendoza: One of the critiques I got was that Colma wasn’t gay enough. I said OK, let’s have some gay banter in this but the movie isn’t about that. It’s about Bethesda, her identity and shaking off labels.
SF360: Bethesda befriends Windam, one of several gay men in her orbit and, in short order, is labeled a fag hag. What’s that about?
Mendoza: Let’s be fair, it’s not the nicest term. Whenever I hear a woman say, Oh, I’m a fag hag, I think she’s ignorant. I didn’t want to make a movie about how gay men mistreat women but I wanted the characters in the movie to be aware of the misogyny.
SF360: Love and its complications is a preoccupation of yours, yes?
Mendoza: Everyone experiences the loss of love and pines for it. Whenever I see a movie that challenges the idea of the romantic comedy, I’m always turned on. Synecdoche, New York, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Armistead Maupin are big influences for me.
SF360: Are there Asian movie stereotypes you find objectionable?
Mendoza: Sometimes you have an all-white cast that has three black friends, one Latino and then there’s always the Asian guy with the funny accent who’s delivering the pizza or else he’s the engineer, the emasculated nerd. When you deal with gay cinema, there are jokes about the Asian who can’t get a man. They’re made more effeminate than the gay white men and are referred to as geishas or lotus blossoms. I’d like to think things are more open; but, if I see one more Asian American film at a festival that has no qualms about using the word ‘faggot,’ I’m going to scream. I can’t believe how many of them have one gay character that, for some reason, is dressed like Liberace and behaves like Richard Simmons. Then, when he gets beat up, the audience cheers.
SF360: What scenes or movie moments have been the most transforming?
Mendoza: I think one of the most transformative scenes, cinematically (in that it changed how I watched movies), would be the last shot of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Everything about that last long shot, from the expression on Rachel Roberts’ face to the creepy last sound, is brilliantly nuanced. It really had a profound effect on me and made me want to make movies like that. John Waters’ Desperate Living made me really appreciate black comedy and the absurd, though there’s nothing socially redeeming about it. I’d even say it’s one of the most repugnant films ever made but the first 10-15 minutes are histrionic gold. Mink Stole’s over the top performance cracks me up to this day. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the few films that terrified me as a child. It tapped into a lot of what I found scary about being chased.
SF360: Do you like shooting in the city?
Mendoza: Yes, absolutely. It’s nowhere near as accommodating as shooting in L.A. where there’s a film crew every block. Here, people are more suspicious but, if you have permits, a shoot going on a city block and your crew with a bunch of lights, everyone treats it like magic. I’d like to shoot in the Tenderloin. One night, there was a major blackout in San Francisco and I ran around the Tenderloin with my video camera capturing the neighborhood lit by flares. I’d also love to shoot from on top of Coit Tower.
SF360: If you could film your dream scenario, what would it be?
Mendoza: A dance number on the Golden Gate Bridge in which the only sounds are from production audio—no recorded score—and dancers are doing rope ballet from the tops of the spires. It bounces back and forth between elegant and snappy as they twirl themselves into the ropes and unfurl onto swings against a suspension cable. At that point, their boots would stomp out a rhythm, causing a cacophonous clanging that resonates through the bridge. All of this is underscored by the traffic down below. At the end of the musical number, the dancers lower themselves gracefully through the thick layer of fog that skims the bottom of the Golden Gate Bridge.
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