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VIFF ‘06 Interview – Colma: The Musical director Richard Wong

Colma Stays at the 25th VIFF (
by Jason Whyte

“The story of three kids just graduated from high school dealing with the sudden prospect of growing up...through song.” Richard Wong, director of “Colma: The Musical” which has three screenings at the 25th Vancouver International Film Festival (Sep. 28 – Oct. 13)

Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you have any other festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favourite and least-favourite parts of the festival experience.

This is my first film but it's played about 14 festivals so far. This will be my first time at VIFF which is exciting because I have heard so many great things about it. I'm currently in Venice where my film played as part of a Venice gay themed festival that ran concurrent with the big festival. Chances are in the coming years the big festival will absorb this sidebar. Being around the big Venice festival has been exciting because it is such a big festival and there is a great village sense which I think is one of the most important factors for a festival. A high standard in the programming is the most important in my opinion.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I never considered film until my first year of college when I thought it would be a hell of a lot more fun than business. It also struck me as a really distant choice and next to impossible to succeed at but then figured "what the hell." I felt like I had a fairly natural instinct for it so I kept at it and it became my major within a year. That said I always loved film despite not considering it immediately. I mean how many kids who grew up in my generation didn't love film? But when I made my first films in school is when I really fell in love with the whole process, something I still love to analyze - the creative process, particularly because it varies in so many ways from person to person and making a film requires diversity within one's own creativity.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!

When I was growing up I notoriously did not have an answer to that question and many others like it.

While you were making the movie, were you thinking about the future release of the film, be it film festivals, paying customers, critical response, and so forth?

Honestly HP Mendoza (who wrote the lyrics) and I were primarily setting out to make a movie we liked and served our aesthetic. That's my philosophy on filmmaking in general; people will either love you or hate you for your specific aesthetic but it has to be yours or you don't really have a voice. And movies shouldn't be for everyone. They can't be. Human nature is too diverse to please everyone. That said I could only try to please myself and hope people responded to it positively. "Well, this movie isn't for everyone" quickly became the most popular thing out of my mouth on set. Being a musical makes that statement an automatic, but surprisingly the majority of people who have seen it seem to like it and it makes me glad we stuck to our own aesthetic. What a curse it would be to be successful for doing something you don't yourself like and then be condemned to having to continue to do that because that becomes what people know you for; which I think happens fairly often in Hollywood.

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.

This is a long story. I'll try to abridge it as much a possible.

HP wrote Colma: The Musical as a concept album for his best friend's birthday. It was a fun concept musical in album form about their high school years together growing up.

HP and I were very good friends in college where we often discussed musicals. Eventually he dropped out of college and I went on to Academy of Art, where I would eventually drop out too because I started working and figured I was learning more working than I could in school AND was getting paid to do it. Anyways, we drifted and lost contact rather amorphously, not too different than what happens in the film.

Cut to 10 years later. I run into his best friend at Little Shop of Horrors and I ask how HP is doing. He tells me he moved to Philadelphia. So, I pass along my info and next thing you know HP and I were communicating again over email.

Then one night he asked me to listen to a couple of songs he was thinking of putting on his MySpace. It was “Goodbye Stupid” and “Colma Stays.” I thought wow, I had just spent the last 4 years working in TV, was burned out, had some money saved, just moved back to San Francisco and had nothing to do. So I asked HP how much it would cost to make this a movie. And from that moment on it was nothing but Colma in our heads. He pumped out a first draft in 7 days and we spent all of May 2005 working it and reworking it. He'd write a draft, I'd have notes and he'd write another one. We talked on the phone non-stop about all kinds of things, but mainly our experiences in high school and common themes we saw in our separate experiences. By the end of May we had a shooting draft. HP flew to San Francisco and I asked my friend Paul Kolsanoff, who was on hiatus from working at The Orphanage, to come on and produce. As you can see, timing was incredibly on our side.

We pre-produced in June and July and shot for 18 days in August. I edited off and on till March, with a 2 month break while I worked on a show called Pepper Dennis to recoup funds. The film world premiered on March 24th at SFIAAFF (San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) where it won the special jury prize and has been doing the circuit since.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it pr. incipal photography or post-production?

The major challenge was how three guys, 2 of which had very little to no production experience, put on a whole production and get a good product at the end of it. The challenge of small production is a constant one that never rests. Paul was constantly busy as was HP and I the entire time. We each had 7 or 8 different hats, but luckily, we were all apt at multitasking. I also had a lot of experience in small production and larger production so I think I was able to fuse the two and cut the corners that were necessary without compromising beyond a certain point.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

I was the cinematographer on the film. A: because I couldn't afford one and B: cinematography was my major focus prior to making this film. I had tastes of directing occasionally and worked with and observed some really good directors and ultimately wanted to take a stab at it myself. But cinematography will always be something I do. Even if I made it as a director I'd still DP because it's so much fun. As a cinematographer the story is always number one. In this story Colma represents what is perceived as dullness in these kid's lives so the photography I thought should reflect that. The first half of the movie -- where the friends are still fresh out of high school and relatively carefree --- has a lot of movement in it and is lively while the second half, where the kids start to realize that life is starting to move on, is almost completely locked off. There was very specific use of handheld. Essentially I wanted every choice made in the film, whether it be photographically or acting or production design, to be motivated by the story or even more immediately the scene. I'm not a huge fan of cool for the sake of being cool, though I know sometimes it’s pretty hard to resist.

Talk a bit about the festival experiences, if any, that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? (This can also apply to non-festival screenings as well, if you have had one.)

The festival experience has really been amazing. We didn't premiere at a huge festival like Sundance but rather San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which was probably one of the best decisions I could have made considering a film this small would probably get lost in the shuffle of a bigger festival. Instead we had a huge crowd and a lot of press at this festival, and went up from there. We've had a really overwhelmingly positive reaction to the movie. It's been a real surprise. The major test for us was when a film club in San Jose selected the film to play; they are the largest film club in the US and the way it works is that you sign up for this club, show up once a month and you have no idea what they are going to play. So, this was our version of a test screening I suppose, though we had already played 2 or 3 festivals by then. I remember walking ino the theater and seeing that it was almost completely older white folks. It was probably the most nervous I have ever been at a Colma screening. But they really liked the movie and they all stayed for the Q and A and asked very thoughtful questions. Then they waited for us outside and spoke with us out there for a while too. It was really quite a reaffirming experience.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

I'd say certain films were very inspirational to me. Not necessarily filmmakers because I think the decisions they make in a certain film inspire me, but not necessarily one's in other films they have made. I'd say the films that inspired me most are West Side Story, Fargo, Rushmore and Thin Red Line. These are general influences and I think they have an overall influence in my work though I try not to watch anything while in the process of making something. I didn't watch any movies the entire time making Colma save one scene in "Oliver!" which HP and I watched to help rethink, re-block and shoot the Goodbye Stupid sequence which we only had 5 hours to shoot.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself directing larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

I don't think about any of those things. I honestly sway back and forth. I'd like to direct a bigger picture where there is a fuller crew, but then again I don't love working on huge crews having come from that world. I hate moving slow and big movies move very slowly. But Also I watch most big movies and they aren't really my taste in films. If I could get 50 million dollars to make the kind of movies I want, I most definitely would not turn it down. On the other hand if I'm given just enough to make a movie comfortably, well, I'd be pretty happy then too.

If you weren't in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?

I always say that I'd rather be a still photographer than a cinematographer. I love to take stills; I really don't see myself outside of the world of photography in a professional sense. I mean you have to do what you love or you could end up miserable, so I don't really plan or think outside of that realm.

Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

I'd love to work with certain directors as a cinematographer. My goals as a DP and director are completely separate. I think even if I were very successful as a director I would still DP because it's so much fun. I would love to shoot for Terrence Malick because I think our aesthetic is very similar and his movies really changed the way I look and think about movies. As far as actors, I honestly have never thought about that. I rarely think of characters with specific actors in mind, which makes things a bit harder I think, but I just don't.

Do you think that you have "made it" in this profession yet? If you don't believe so, what do you think would happen for that moment to occur?

I believe I have made it in the sense that I made a feature that has been well received before I was 30 which was something I always wanted to accomplish. I always made this film saying that good or bad I can die happy knowing I tried. In the more immediate sense, I won't really feel like I've made it until I have a collection of films that people respect and/or like, not just one, AND am continuing to make films. But that's a long way off and oblivion is always feels like it's around the corner.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

I think media response is very important, for better or worse. The press has really helped this film. Conversely with the amount of coverage we have had, which has been generous, it could have equally hurt us if the reviews were all negative. I think the work always speaks for itself. And the cream usually rises to the top. Not to say we are that, but I most definitely never expected this film to have any press. The film grew a life of its own and I kind of just get to sit back and watch.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

The Alhambra or The Coronet in San Francisco; [which are] huge old time movie palaces that I would frequent growing up. Both closed down and turned into a Crunch fitness gym and a retirement home, respectively. Heartbreaking. Theaters that are still opened? I guess the big screen at the Kabuki in San Francisco which holds just as much significance to me in terms of moviegoing growing up. Also, the theater the film world premiered in, so you can imagine how special that was.

Do you have an opinion on the issue of "A Film by (Insert Director Here)" ? Is this something you use? Many people collaborate to make a film yet simultaneously, the director is the final word on the production.

I think film is definitely a collaboration but the director is the person who every decision that goes on screen goes through. Certainly there are decisions that aren't on screen that are very important and that is what the producer is for, but on-screen is the film you are watching and the director is the responsible party. My idea on what a director should be, especially since I worked on crews for a long time, is someone who basically takes everyone's talents and rangles them in the direction that serves the story which is to say the film itself. Errand talent can make the difference between a good and bad film. The director has to have the singular vision and know exactly what he/she is going for. A very talented cinematographer could not have enough direction and not be on the same page and shoot something with the wrong feel for the scene. As a cinematographer I have experienced this myself, where the director had no vision and what I shot was completely the wrong feel for the scene or film he put together in the final film. This of course is most important with working with actors. I think the great benefit from my cinematographer experience has been watching really good directors and equally important, watching really horrible directors and watching how frustrated actors get and then watching the final product and clearly seeing how an actor didn't know the proper inflection of a line in the context of the story.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the Paramount?

One thing I thought while reading the script, planning out the film, executing the film and now watching the film is that I can't really think of another film that is quite like Colma. People always want you to have a "X film meets X film" kind of line so people know exactly what kind of film your film is, but that has been very hard with Colma. I think it really is like nothing out there.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

Everyone's path is different so there is no clear one. When I was working on TV shows I started to take notice who directors since I was sitting next to them everyday and I thought, "Why him and not him over there?" What did this guy have that the other guy didn't? They are both smart and funny and can work with people. Certainly some are more gifted than others, but I came to the conclusion that of all the variables that go into becoming a successful director, I think the primary one is to just go out and keep making stuff and show people what you got. The very act of doing it alone is 29 steps ahead of the guy who didn't. Of course the work needs to be good, but that was a major factor in what made me decide to just make this film. Working on crews is a great way to observe and learn the jobs of the people around you, which I think is invaluable. But no one is going to hire anyone to direct without seeing something first or having someone who saw something of yours and believes in you.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

That's close to impossible to answer. No close, that IS impossible to answer. Films that I saw lately that blew me away are Eve and the Fire Horse and The Conventioneers. I haven't been blown away by a film like those did in a while. Maybe since City of God.

The 25th Vancouver International Film Festival runs from September 28th to October 13th, 2006. To see when this film is playing, and for more information on other screenings, happenings and what is going on at this year’s VIFF, point your browser to – Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 09/28/06 18:51:04
last updated: 11/01/06 12:39:41
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