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DID YOU READ

Richard Wong on how to make an indie musical

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"Colma stays, but I have to go."

With the all-singing, all-dancing reboot of "Hairspray" opening in theaters tomorrow 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 — these productions may have stunt casting, slickly edited song shoots and melisma galore, but they’re 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."

Richard Wong.
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).

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.