Richard Wong on “Colma: The Musical”

Richard Wong on “Colma: The Musical” (photo)

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With the all-singing, all-dancing reboot of “Hairspray” fresh in theaters and the successes of “Dreamgirls” and “Chicago,” it’s clear that after a long banishment the movie musical is struggling back into the cineplexes, though not without leaving behind a chunk of its soul — most of these productions have stunt casting, slickly edited song shoots and melisma galore, but are still playing out more like a string of music videos than a story.

But then there’s “Colma: The Musical,” a lo-fi indie first feature written by H.P. Mendoza and directed by Richard Wong. The film documents, in song, the post-high school travails of three friends rattling around the fog-shrouded San Francisco suburb of the title, where those interred in the town’s massive cemetery outnumber the living a thousand to one. Musical numbers dwell on underage drinking, small-town malaise and hipster posturing, as the characters try to figure out if leaving home is really the solution to their problems. The film was shot on DV for $15,000, and looks and sounds like it — the music was recorded in Wong’s garage — which is part of its exuberant charm. After all, the musical isn’t about showstopper after showstopper (though given its scale, “Colma” has more than its share of those); it’s about the effervescent pleasure of watching characters express their thoughts, no matter how mundane, in song. We met up with Wong with New York, where he’s finishing up his next project, a feature co-directed with Wayne Wang.

So you didn’t actually grow up in Colma, but you went to school in San Francisco?

I went to school there. Then I dropped out of school there. I didn’t consciously move to L.A. — I was hired to do a movie there and right after that a TV show, and the next thing I knew I’d been sleeping on my friend’s couch for a year. I ended up getting a place and working in TV for five years, and then decided that I was stuck, so I needed to get out of that. I moved back to San Francisco and didn’t know what I was doing with my life… then decided to do “Colma.”

There’s a lot of that feeling in the film, with these characters fresh out of high school, going through those moments when you have a pause in your life and you wonder what’s next.

I’ve had so many of those pauses — the last pause before “Colma,” I could have done anything. I could have gone off to Paris! I probably should have made the film then. But I went to do this movie [in L.A.] and the next thing you know five years went by and I was an engineer. It was like, wow, that was fast. So I felt what these kids were going through. I think we all kind of experience it on some level.

Were you always a musical fan?

I was always a musical fan. My mom introduced me to musicals when I was young, and I always liked them until I realized that it wasn’t cool to like them anymore. When I met H.P. at college, that’s what we had in common, and we were really the only ones.

Any in particular? There seems to be some “West Side Story” in “Colma.”

Yeah, “West Side Story” really is my favorite one. I don’t like all of them — I don’t really like “The King and I” that much. I hadn’t seen nearly as many as H.P. The ones that I do love are special — “West Side Story” changed the way that I watched movies altogether. It wasn’t just about music, even though it is brilliantly infused into the story. It’s really about characters. That was the first movie in which I realized none of the characters are bad guys. I don’t know if it’s something about the musical part of it, but “West Side Story” had a huge influence on me.

Musicals have been out of style for such a long time — what was your approach when you set out to make one? “Colma” isn’t an ironic musical, which is what one might have expected from an indie take on the genre.

It’s cool that you say that — some people think that it is, and I’m like “What do you mean?” It’s fine if you liked it, but no, it is not ironic. It is because we love [musicals]. It’s all loving! Even the subtle jabs at musicals are done lovingly.

I wasn’t clinical about it. We shot it just like we would shoot any movie. If there was no music, we would have shot exactly the same way. I think that’s what’s wrong with today’s musicals. Music videos have had a huge influence on music-to-picture — that’s just a reality of the way MTV has affected our culture. You watch “Chicago” or “Dreamgirls,” which are valid musicals, right? But the musical numbers are really just ten cameras and edited. And that’s not really the way musicals, I think, were before. The main difference between modern musicals and the old musicals is they’d show scenes. And that’s how we approached it, as scenes: what’s the emotional content, where should the cameras go? I prefer that — it wasn’t just “blast away and find it later.”

What was your approach to staging these scenes? You have some ambitious shots and choreography — in terms of the party scene [“Crash The Party”/”Could We Get Any Older?”], isn’t it all one take?

Yeah, it is all one shot. That’s something that I wanted to do from the very beginning, conceptually — this big oner, especially at a party, because it makes you feel like you’re a part of the party. Not everyone recognizes it as one shot — you just feel like you’re following these kids around. That was probably the biggest thing we did — it was one whole day of blocking and one whole day of shooting. With everything else, I think we were just really resourceful. Everything looked a lot bigger than it was. That bar scene really wasn’t that big — there were only 15 people there.

How’d you find your cast? Were the actors people you’d known from before?

I didn’t know any of them except H.P. We’d never planned for H.P. to play Rodel. We tried to do as much as we could in San Francisco — we sent out a casting call, but oddly there was another Asian American film casting and shooting at the same time, and there just weren’t enough actors to go around, I guess.

It sucked up all of the Asian American actors.

All of the Asian American actors were gone. It was a bigger movie than ours. We just couldn’t find anyone for Rodel, so one day H.P. said “I can do it.” And once he said it, it made sense. It was small movie syndrome — whoever can do it, let’s just try and make it work.

Was the whole thing self-financed?

I had raised some money at one point — $50,000 or so, and then I thought to myself, “You don’t need $50,000 to make this.” Then I thought that if I didn’t need that much, I should just pay for it [all] myself. I was always worried about the money part — having investors decide that the music wasn’t a good idea. I really just wanted it to be me and H.P. making the decisions on our own and not having to worry about anything, about making our money back. I would have been worried about making the money back if someone else paid for it. It was a very conscious decision to do it cheaper, so that I could afford it — although I don’t know that it would have been much different. People always ask me what it would have been like if I’d had more money, but I think that it would be pretty close [to what it is now].

Is it true that you recorded all of the music in a garage?

Yeah. Part of my video engineering days… sometimes you get lumped in to do audio, so I had access to a bunch of production sound gear. And I’m also really conscious about audio sounding different when people sing and when they talk. That kind of thing took people out of musicals in the 60s, 70s and 80s, because the singing sounds so different than the talking — it just comes out of nowhere.

We set up in the garage and did it all on a computer, burned it on a CD, played it on a boom box — and it sunk. The whole movie is synched that way. It’s super low tech. I realize the reviews say how shitty it looks, but this was never intended to be glossy. I never wanted to light it. I shot some super gorgeous stuff, and it just didn’t look right. This movie needs to feel real…

…like the suburbs?

Yeah. It’s like an Off-Off-Off-Broadway version of a movie. Or a movie of an Off-Off-Off-Broadway show. I kind of like that.

“Colma: The Musical” is now playing in theaters (official site).


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.