If John Hughes were to make a film of small-town teenagers who occasionally burst into song, he still would be miles away from Richard Wong‘s little-indie-that-could, “Colma: The Musical“. Written by HP Mendoza and directed by Wong, “Colma” is a musical loveletter to their hometown and to teenagers struggling to find their voice. Boosted by loving New York Times and Variety reviews, Roadside Attractions opened the film July 6th. Director Richard Wong talked to indieWIRE about how the film came together.
Tell us about yourself and how you became a filmmaker?
I’m 30 years old, born and raised in San Francisco. I worked myself through film school by cashiering at Costco (actually I ended up quitting, which is to say, I also dropped out).
When I was in high school a friend and I did a video for economics class. It was cheesy, poorly shot, stupid and really really fun. So, when I went to college the following year with no idea what to do with my life, I thought about how fun that video was, and took up film.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
I went to film school for a while, until I started working at a camera rental house and ultimately dropped out. I never really intended to graduate – it was pretty clear to me that a diploma in film didn’t exactly equal a job. I do have to say that much of my aesthetic I figured out while I was at school, but mainly because I shot as much and as often as I could.
While working at the rental house, I started working on shoots as a video engineer and that led me to LA where I worked on TV shows for 5 years. My time in LA, working as closely as I did with DPs and directors, I would say was the second part of my film schooling because I learned so much about how the film business works and how films are made. Main thing was that I sat next to all these directors and kept wondering why it was him/her and not me or Mr. Camera Assistant over there or any of the people who work on films hoping to one day direct. And what I kind of saw was that many of them just went out and made something and got attention for it – not necessarily waiting for that one big break or that one perfect script.
Where did the idea for “Colma: The Musical” come about?
After 5 years in LA, I got burned out, and had hit a point where I wanted to change direction in where I was going in the film business. Basically I was creatively starved and wanted to give myself a shot at directing, I mean, if I didn’t give myself the shot, who would? So I moved back to San Francisco for the summer and ran into a friend of HP’s at Little Shop of Horrors one night. HP and I had been very good friends in college but had since drifted and had not spoken in 8 years. He told me HP had moved to Philly, so I gave him my email and soon, HP emailed me. We picked up where we left off and quickly became good friends again.
One night he played for me a couple of songs he made from this birthday gift concept album he made for his friend’s birthday about them growing up in Colma/Daly City called “Colma: The Musical”. When I heard it, it truly hit me – that we should just make this into a movie. I asked him to write a script and 7 days later we had a first draft. We worked the entire month of May in 2005 to refine the script and everything just went from there.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
A huge challenge was getting all the people together. Movies aren’t made by one person. Finding all the creative talent who were as passionate about the project as I was was like trying to get a thousand stars to align at the perfect spot at the perfect time. I didn’t have ton of money for it so I couldn’t really pay people. Belief in the project had to be the currency and we were lucky to find such great people who happened to be available.
How did you finance the film?
I self-financed the film. I entertained the idea of raising money but didn’t want the possibility of financiers later telling me to cut out all the music ala “I’ll Do Anything”.
What do you think defines “independent” film?
Independent film to me means making films independent of commercialism. Not that these films are not commercial, but they just are made without the commerce in mind. Part of what making “Colma” was about was being able to do what we wanted and not have to be concerned with how much money it will make and not having to cater to as many audience types as possible to ensure high grosses. That kind of freedom is so rare in Hollywood, but is understandable, which is why independent films exist and thrive.
What are some of your all-time favorite films?
“West Side Story“, “Thin Red Line“. Those two movies are markers in my life, they both really changed how I watched movies.