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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).

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