Welcome back, friends! This week’s featured member is H.P. Mendoza. He took some time out in the middle of making the film festival rounds with his latest project I Am a Ghost to join us. Here he talks about being known for making musicals, gets philosophical about back up singers, and discusses the illegalities of filmmaking on small (read: tiny) budgets. Let’s go!
Courtney Jones: When or what do you consider to be your genesis into film? When do you feel like you got started?
HP: Got started making films? Or got started liking films?
C: Liking films, making film, either, or.
HP: As far back as I can remember. Like when I was a kid. I was one of those kids that had a super-8 camera.
HP: When you’re five or six years old, you’re not looking to make new media, you just say, “I want to make the wizard of OZ!” And you film your stuffed animals. But it never really took.
C: When did you decide that you were going to go for it, go to film school and start making films?
HP: Well, (laughs) I suck at life. I suck at everything else. And I’m not saying that I’m outrageously good at what I do, but it’s the thing I’m most proud of. And also for the record I did drop out. I’m one of those. But I remember thinking; I’m just going to go make film. I think that’d be best. And it’s funny, cause Rich Wong and I are both from San Francisco, but we decided we’re going to find this college that’s two hours away from San Francisco because they were the only ones still using “real film” because we were arrogant 17-year-old pricks. But, yeah, it turned out it didn’t matter. If you want to make a movie, you’ll make a movie.
C: So at least one of your films is listed as a gift for a friend. How does one get to be your friend? And where else do gather your inspiration?
HP: I’m constantly writing. And If I’m writing something right now it doesn’t mean that it’s next, because I have a stack of screenplays under my bed. And it’s not necessarily a great thing to write so much, because you might never do them. For example I Am a Ghost, I never thought I’d do it. My next movie was this comedy I was writing about California’s prop[osition] 8, called Propwise, and I was really excited to do a political comedy. And it was really funny cause every time I would tell people they’d be like “Oh! It’s a musical about Prop 8!” And I’d have to say, “No, it’s not a musical.” Then they would sort of glaze, and start to walk away while I was talking. It’s really funny, because Julia Kwan, she directed Eve and the Fire Horse, she came to town and asked me what I was doing next, and I mentioned Propwise, and she said “What else do you have?” I had all these synopsis and random storyboards under my bed. And she says, “I’m kind of into horror right now.” And I say, “ Well, I’m working on a horror script. But it’s too weird. It’s one of the scripts I wouldn’t be able to do for years!” And she looks at me and says “Why?” I guess I felt like this was one of the movies that I needed a lot of permission to do. But I told her the entire story up until the ending; I didn’t want to spoil it. And she said to me, “I think you should do that.” And I did. So constantly writing helps me. It’s how I process things. My movies are how I process things.
C: Tell me about Colma: the Musical, your first feature. What lessons did you take away from filming it, or advice do you have for others attempting their first feature?
HP: I feel like I’m the last person to ask for advice about anything. The film was just so scrappy and DIY.
C: But that’s what we need to hear about!
HP: Well, that involves some, illegalities.
HP: Because we’re so low budget, we couldn’t get permits for a lot of things. A lot of it was stolen, primarily all of the public transportation stuff, the BART train, and all that. Interestingly on Fruit Fly, when I was on Craigslist trying to line up a bunch of extras for the musical numbers on the train, we actually got someone who works for BART. And on the day of filming she said, “By the way, great job stealing those shots on the train for your last film.” And I didn’t know if this woman was out to get her revenge, or what. But instead she said, “Next time, call me.” And she gave me her card. But I mean, for Fruit Fly we were working with a budget of $25,000, so we had to get it done by any means necessary. When you don’t have the resources, how are you going to make your movie? And more importantly how are you going to tell your story? You make sure you tell your story. Don’t get bogged down by the perfect shot, or the things you might be missing, like cranes or a dolly.
C: Wow. But do you feel that made you more resourceful? To force yourself to adapt to challenging constraints of a smaller budget?
HP: I tend not to be precious about the script, however it isn’t worth it if the budget changes your story. I don’t like that. I never like someone standing over my shoulder saying, “We’re running out of time, can we have the character not die. Because we don’t have time to shoot it.” Wait a minute! That’s a bit much now. So I was really happy to have the producers I had for Fruit Fly and the help that I had, because they really wanted it to work. And the thing I’m really proud of is the fact that we stayed true to the script, and it was ambitious without much more of a budget than Colma did. With I Am a Ghost, I’m still working within an invented world, but I want it done my way. Sure I had to budge on some things, but I did it on my own terms. I wrote it, I shot it, lit it, and edited it. Because I have so much ownership, if someone says “Oh I didn’t really like it.” I can say, “Oh, well. That’s ok. Maybe you’ll like the next one I make.”
C: That’s a great attitude to have.
HP: I know I’m sounding very “self-help” right now. But it kind of just happened. It just came out of my mouth, and I couldn’t believe that I’d meant it.
C: You surprised yourself!
HP: I did. (Laughs) I’m awesome!
C: You are awesome! It seems like productions are getting smaller, and so are budgets, because a lot of people are taking projects into their own hands. How do you feel about new media? You know, the likes of YouTube, Vimeo, and other online options. How do you feel like that’s impacting the way filmmaking is occurring?
HP: To be completely honest with you, there’s so much new media out there that I really enjoy; that is what I feel real new media is. Just really scrappy and all about content, and embracing what the Internet can offer. I think a lot the money that’s being thrown at new media is focused on making huge blockbuster films for YouTube. But this is a lot of money, and you’re still making something in a format with a structure that’s informed by theaters and TV. That doesn’t make it new media. That just makes it online media. To me, that’s not new.
C: So, onto other aspects of your career. You write musicals. That’s incredible. Do you consider yourself to be a composer, or a songwriter? How do you categorize yourself, or do you even categorize yourself in terms of writing music and musicals?
HP: That’s a good question. I think it’s really easy for me to just say I’m a writer/director, who happens to do music. But then whenever I come out with a whole album, and people say, “You’re a writer/director who happens to do music.” Then I say, “Hey! Take me seriously! I made a whole album!”
There was this movie that I edited for a director named David Lewis, called Long Horns. It was an 80’s sex comedy, a period piece. He asked me to do the music, to score it. Well I said I didn’t want to “score” it, because 80’s sex comedies weren’t scored. They had a catalogue of music performed by different bands. So let me pretend to be twelve different bands, and I’ll write a different song for each scene. When the movie came out he asked me why I didn’t make it known that [all the songs] are from me. I wanted to be authentic. I wanted them each to have that sound from the era of the 80s. You have to watch the movie to see the end credits where it says “all music by H.P. Mendoza.” That’s when all of the sudden I started getting a different recognition. People started to say, “Oh wow, you do music and you do movies.” And I sort of lost that moniker of “Musical Guy”, I became the guy who does music and movies. And it’s sort of nice.
C: Wonderful! So how did you get involved with the National Film Society?
HP: I met Patrick Epino at the disOrient film festival in Oregon. I went to see his film Mr. Sadman, and he saw my film Fruit Fly. And he was the coolest guy. Everyone had been talking about this guy, and I met him. And we clicked on so many levels, and we talked all night. You know when you meet someone, even if it’s drunken, you know you can talk about anything, even if you disagree on something? But he was super eloquent about our both being Pisces and introverts, but he’s a ham. So I started following him, and thinking “dude, this guy is funny.” And I never met Stephen, but watching him with Patrick online, and well now there’s new media, by the way. They really understand the form and the timing, and it’s not a TV show.
C: I know! The first time I saw a video of theirs, I was like a) I’ve never seen an interview conducted like this, and b) it’s so uncomfortably fun.
HP: And they actually understand the touch. They use edits to covey the awkward. It’s so efficient, and shows that they trust you and your intelligence. I finally met Stephen in Los Angeles. My film was playing at the film festival there, and that’s when they told me about PBS. I was floored. I was shocked that PBS was so future-forward in their thinking. That they accepted their form, and since there’s something so new and different about what they’re doing, it was a pleasantly surprising move by PBS.
C: Ok, silly questions time. To keep it from getting too serious. If you could have back up singers for your life, do you choose to do it? And if so, whom would you pick?
HP: So are you saying that, these singers are singing as back up music to the story of my life? Or are you saying that they are backup singers, for which I’m the lead singer?
C: Ok, let’s start with you’re not singing. And then we’ll go to, if you are singing, whom would you harmonize with? Does that work?
HP: Oh man. That’s a good question. I think a lot about this stuff. I think because I’m at a film festival, in the non-stop hustle and bustle in New York. I would say my life would be sung by the Magnetic Fields.
C: Good one. Ok, so they would be following you around. Today, what would they be singing about you?
HP: Today would be hard. I’m tired. I don’t care about today. I’m over it. So I think it would be a toss up between two songs, or even a mash up of “How Fucking Romantic” and “I Don’t Really Love You Anymore.”
C: Perfect! Ok, so if you were the lead singer, whom would you harmonize with?
HP: Who would harmonize with me in the musical of my life? In the headier days when I’m more neurotic, I’d pick They Might Be Giants. When things are more relaxed and blissful, I would be harmonizing with Annie Lennox and Jill Scott.
C: Love it. That’d be a good combination. How do you think your different perspectives, as someone who makes movies and music, work for you in your work?
HP: I Am a Ghost has proven to me that I don’t have control over this stuff. I really thought here’s a chance for me to break free from being the musical guy. But I did write a lot of the music, because I wanted to. There was a certain sound I wanted. I really thought that would be the extent of music appreciation where the audience was concerned. After screening it at a few festivals, people were saying, “Did you purposely write this film like a song?” And I’d never thought of it that way. Not that it was like a song, but like music. Quite a few people said, “No, but you have your stanzas, your choruses, your verses, and you definitely have a bridge in there. And it’s all building on top of each other.” And I may not have intended that, but I really wanted the film to be about form. And in the words of Boards of Canada, “Music is Math.” When I say that to people, they get bent out of shape about it. And you’d think that was a bad thing. But Music is beautiful because it works, and so many things work in this world because of really beautiful math. And the film works because I had a sort mathematical approach to it, not to say that the film is clinical, by the way. But it’s interesting to hear people who’ve watched it saying it feels like a song. And I have no control over the perception. I’m going to take that. It’s cool. A recent epiphany for me.
C: Well thanks for chatting with me today H.P.!
Courtney Jones is a writer and book reviewer in Chicago(land). Follow her on Twitter @shymoxie.