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Four In Focus: “Fruit Fly” Director H.P. Mendoza

Four In Focus: "Fruit Fly" Director H.P. Mendoza

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a collection of interviews with the filmmakers from Outfest 2009’s “Four In Focus” selection, which features work from four first time directors

Fruit Fly, directed by H.P. Mendoza

As described by the festival: “The creator of ‘Colma: The Musical’ returns with another tuneful tale from the Bay Area. Filipina performance artist Bethesda moves into an art commune to search for her long-missing biological mother. Along the way, she comes to realize that she just might be a fairy princess/fag hag/fruit fly. With an appealing cast performing 14 catchy musical numbers, writer-director H.P. Mendoza brings San Francisco’s vibrant art scene to vivid life.”

Please introduce yourself…

Hi, I’m H.P. Mendoza and I’m the director of Fruit Fly. Even though the few people who know me know me as the guy who created Colma: The Musical, Fruit Fly is actually my directorial debut. And even though a handful of those few people know me for my music, Fruit Fly is going to be the last musical I do for a long time.

How did you become interested in filmmaking? How has this interest evolved throughout your career?

When I was five, my father came home from Reno with a Super-8 camera. I used to try to make replicas of my favorite films, stop-motion animations with my stuffed animals and once I even tried to make a 3 minute roller coaster simulator. My father never developed any of the film for me, so the rolls of film just sat and I decided to re-tell the stories through flip books and illustrated “novellas” that my kindergarten teacher confiscated because she thought my trees were nuclear explosions and that I might need counseling.
I was mostly into theater up until my senior year in high school when they offered Film History and Literature. That class re-awakened my obsession with film and I decided to pick up the Super-8 again to work on an animated film with Christian Cagigal (“Gaz Howard” in Fruit Fly) which was never finished because it was hand drawn cel animation and we never got through painting more than a third of all of the cels because we were seventeen and stupid.

In college, I met Richard Wong (director of Colma: The Musical) and I actually scored two of his films (and appeared in one in which I got to flex my acting muscles by conveying surprise followed by death). We formed a bond that could only be broken by distance and I went to the east coast to do more theatre until I could afford to do film. I ended up joining a band and immediately going solo while writing music that I dreamed would probably go into my movies, someday.

Now, after Colma: The Musical and Fruit Fly, I want to keep doing the scripts that I’ve had stacking up and collecting dust. I’m proud of all of them, and I’d like to keep making movies that generate dialogue and don’t offer simple resolutions or pat packages.

How the idea for your film come about? What were you trying to express with it?

When Colma: The Musical did the film festival circuit, we ended up going to almost all of the gay film fests and the Asian American film fests. And, while I always felt empowered seeing Asian faces on the big screen, there was always that ONE film that has the “faggot” that gets beat up and everyone in the audience cheers. So, when I go to the gay festivals, I look for similar empowerment (and often find alienation) but there’s always the ONE film that has the “ching chong Chinaman” that delivers pizza and when he meets his violently funny demise, everyone in the audience cheers.

L.A. Renigen (“Maribel” from Colma) and I would go to so many of the gay parties and it never fails. Someone would always walk up to L.A. and say, “You are so fierce!” followed by “You remind me of Margaret Cho.” By the way, L.A. Renigen wouldn’t even have opened her mouth, yet, at this point. She would ask me, “Why do I remind gay men of Margaret Cho?”

“It’s because you’re Asian.” I’d say.

So, seeing as how Colma: The Musical went to all of the gay and Asian festivals, I figured that there must be a way to reconcile both of these issues in a subtle way. That and, since Colma was really about my life, I thought it might be fun to write about L.A.’s life as a performance artist.

What were the biggest challenges? Artistically? Financially?

I prepared myself for artisitc challenges due to financial challenges because of my experience with Colma, but it sure was nice to be funded this time! The Center for Asian American Media gave me a huge support system, but there were certain things that required time. A lot of scenes had to be shot right at that moment before the weather changed. It’s San Francisco, after all, and a hot sunny day can turn into a cold foggy night and back into a clear blue sky within 24 hours. Because of that, we had to jump into scenes spontaneously and it got a little nerve wracking, sometimes, for a dozen extras to run into a trolley and just start singing on command.

It reminded me that, while the budget was much bigger than that of Colma’s, time is still the most expensive resource and we had to shoot the movie within 23 days. So, I’m very proud of the impromptu choreography I came up with for musical numbers that had to be shot within three hours. Amidst barely cooperative doves, public transit security guards, club bouncers and just general civilian passers-by, we managed to use every guerilla tactic in the book to get the film done.

What were some of your influences?

I wanted, at face value, Fruit Fly to look like some Asian Tales of the City. But I also really wanted it to feel like some of my favorite aspects of some of my favorite musicals. There are winks and nods to Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Into the Woods, Cabaret…even an old Tommy Tune show called Busker Alley. But I really wanted the music to sound different from Colma. I’m actually prouder of the music in Fruit Fly because it’s all over the map. It’s very musical theater yet very modern electronic, as well.
As for my own personal influences, so many movies influenced me growing up, but if I were to pull the five that are at thre front of my mind, right now, I’d say Picnic at Hanging Rock, Akira, Dog Day Afternoon, Desperate Living and Peyton Place.

One thing I don’t like saying to too many people because it makes me sound pedantic is that Stan Brakhage (particularly Window Water Baby Moving) influenced me in such subliminaly systematic ways that it got me out of tough situations regarding editing and composition during the post process of Fruit Fly. Don’t look for it. It probably only makes sense in my head.

What do you feel are some significant challenges that face filmmakers today? Specifically those working with LGBT content?

Filmmakers will always face challenges, regardless of how our country’s economy is doing. I think it’s great that digital filmmaking is becoming more common, now. And I roll my eyes at the purists who talk about how they will never shoot on video. Sorry, but, aside from digital being much more ecologicaly sound, if you can’t overcome the look of your film with the content, then maybe you should work on the content some more. I just saw a great short called Falling in Love with Chris and Greg and it blows away a lot of shorts I’ve seen with twenty times its budget and technology.

Filming LGBT content is nowhere near as difficult as distributing LGBT content. Dozens of gay films are made every year, but very few make it into the mainstream. That’s why these LGBT film fests are necessary. That’s why the goal of an LGBT film fest should be to extinct itself.

What are you most looking forward to at Outfest?

I’m looking forward to hanging out with friends that I haven’t seen in a while. I also can’t wait to meet Randall Kleiser on this panel I’m doing called Words, Pictures and Music.

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