By T.J. DeGroat
Named after a city just a few miles south of San Francisco where, thanks to the innumerable cemeteries, the dead outnumber the living, Colma: The Musical is the brainchild of H.P. Mendoza, a Bay Area native who created the project as a birthday gift for a friend.
Maribel (L.A. Renigen) and Rodel (H.P. Mendoza) in Deadwalking.
A year and a half later, the gift recently premiered at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. But don't label this an Asian-American film. The cast is multicultural and the story is universal. Colma follows three friends as they struggle to find their paths post-high school. It's a story about self-discovery -- set to an indie-pop soundtrack.
In HATCH's first instant-messenger interview, Mendoza, who just celebrated his 29th birthday, talked about his pre-premiere anxiety and the movie's unique journey to the big screen.
HATCH: Colma: The Musical premieres in a week. Are you excited, anxious -- a combination of both?
HPMendoza: I think at this point I'm more anxious than excited. I've hit that point where it's just a matter of days before opening night and I'm starting to think horrible things like, what if nobody shows? Or, what if the theater gets bombed...you know, the common worries.
HATCH: What would be worse? Literally zero people showing up or the building being bombed?
HPMendoza: The sensitive answer? Zero people showing up. But honestly, if the building got bombed, we'd premiere somewhere else. I mean, there's a ton of theatres that we could finagle into showing our movie. But you know...that's just from my standpoint. I respect human life and all.
HATCH: That's sweet. So, the big day is quickly approaching, but this has been a really long journey. When exactly did it start?
HPMendoza: I wrote Colma: The Musical in November of 2004 as a gift for my best friend. I was being a poor broke nomad in Philadelphia and I'd forgotten that his birthday was coming up. Normally, I'd ship him a video game for his birthday, but I seriously had no cash. So, I wrote him a musical based on the two of us growing up. Next thing you know, months later, Rich calls me up and says, "Hey, for shits and giggles, how much would it cost to turn this into a movie?" That was in February of 2005.
HPMendoza: So from conception, I guess I'd say November of 2004.
HATCH: Rich is the director?
HPMendoza: right. Richard Wong.
HATCH: So, you had studied film in school but was this your first foray into the film world professionally?
HPMendoza: Yeah, I'd done some theatre and scored a couple of short films for Rich about ten years ago. But this is my first professional feature screenplay to be produced.
HATCH: I mean, there are a few insane things about this: 1. Most people don't and can't put together a musical as a birthday gift. And 2. The jump from fun gift to full-on film is HUGE.
HATCH: Were you hesitant or even unwilling to believe it was possible?
HPMendoza: Yeah, actually. I didn't write it with the intent of it being seen. It really was more of a concept album. A "concept musical" like Ben Folds Five's The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. Or Pink Floyd's The Wall.
HPMendoza: wait, that was turned into a movie.
HPMendoza: Anyway, yeah. As soon as Rich reminded me of how well we meshed in film school, I knew it was going to be the kind of movie Rich and I would want to see, and that's all we really wanted.
HATCH: But at the end of the day it's a potential money-maker. And if it never was meant to be consumed by the masses, was there a lot you had to tweak to make it digestible and sellable?
HPMendoza: Oddly, no. The original version of Colma was very marketable and palatable. When we started working on the film, we definitely wanted to make something a little more oblique. Something that raises more questions at the end. The original Colma could have played on Nickelodeon.
HATCH: So there was tweaking, but in the other direction?
HPMendoza: Yeah, I do this thing when I write for people. When I make music gifts, I tend to give them what I think they would like. I don't want to bore them with artsy-fartsy stuff that they might not want to spend any effort on. I mean, it's a gift for them. But, now that it was going to be a movie that I would want to see, I decided it was okay to tweak it in the direction I would normally go in.
HATCH: All this talk about Colma, but what exactly is it all about? Can you give a synopsis, preferably a really oblique one? :)
HPMendoza: Well, the oblique one is all I have. I'm real good at being evasive. Let's see...
HATCH: Sell it!
HPMendoza: Colma is the story of three friends fresh out of high school who are suddenly faced with the prospect of growing up. When small events occur that show some promise for the progress of each of the friends, they have to re-evaluate their priorities, even if at the cost of their friendship.
HATCH: And it's all scored!
HPMendoza: And it's all scored!
HATCH: Since it was a birthday gift for a friend, is it based on your relationship, stuff you guys have gone through?
HPMendoza: Yes and no. It's pretty tame compared to the real life story. I wanted to make sure the script wasn't too convoluted. But, yeah. Ten years after high school - it was kinda weird reconnecting with my best friend and watching the movie with him.
HPMendoza: ok, twelve years.
HATCH: You wrote the screenplay and the music/lyrics. As if that wasn't enough, you cast yourself as one of the leads! Were you expecting to play one of the roles?
HPMendoza: Not at all. One of the running jokes on set was, "Damn it, if I knew I'd be playing Rodel, I would have given myself easier lines to deliver!"
HPMendoza: At one point, Rodel is supposed to do a Sean Connery impersonation. I'd never done a Sean Connery impersonation. I hope it sounds okay.
HATCH: Is Rodel the closest character to you? I mean, was he based on you?
HPMendoza: Yeah, he's based on me and a few other people in my life. The chronology is a bit condensed, but yeah. He's based on me. Not expecting to play him, I also had fun basing him on some of the guys I went to high school with. And I knew a TON of Rodels. Literally, there were at least four guys in my high school named Rodel.
HATCH: Can you enjoy the movie as a whole without picking apart your own performance?
HPMendoza: after the thirtieth viewing, yes.
HPMendoza: But it did take that long.
HATCH: This is a multicultural cast and there is a gay plot line. Is that just a natural reflection of the diversity of where you grew up or was there some conscious desire to create something diverse?
HPMendoza: I think a little of both. Colma is pretty diverse, and so is Daly City. The mall in Daly City, Serramonte, is often called SerraManila by the locals. But in high school, at least from what I remember of my friends, we were the Power Rangers. It wasn't predominantly anything. Maybe a few more Filipinos in the group, but not many more.
HPMendoza: But, oh, I was in the closet in high school, as were many friends, I found out way later. I didn't want to make a coming out plot line, though. I just wanted Rodel to be gay.
HATCH: Was it rough emotionally to play that part, then?
HPMendoza: Yeah, it was. And the funny thing is I wasn't expecting it to be. It would hit me the morning of each shoot. I'd look at the call sheet and my heart would sink. "Oh...we're doing that scene, today." Not that I would dread it. I just wasn't emotionally prepared - which probably worked out for the better.
HATCH: You've got a lot to do still before the premiere. I know it's been non-stop work for quite a while. Are you going to take a break or are you ready for the next project?
HPMendoza: Well, the only break I'm thinking about taking is a trek from Baltimore to New York. Just a quick one. I'm flying out soon after the premiere. But I'll be back, and I think I'm just going to start working on the next project right away.