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Colma Rocks the Indie World

COLMA: THE MUSICAL.

Accustomed as we are to lavish, star-studded productions like Dreamgirls, Chicago and Moulin Rouge, it’s rare to hear the words “low-budget” and “musical” uttered in the same sentence.

Contrary to high-priced expectations, however, Colma: The Musical is an upstart indie produced on a shoestring budget in the San Francisco Bay Area that has built a groundswell of support on the festival circuit over the last year, earning awards and prominent placement on year-end critics’ lists. Colma director Richard Wong received a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination in November for the IFC/Acura Someone to Watch Award, which “recognizes a talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received appropriate recognition.” And it all began with a collection of original songs about Colma.

Small-town Colma, CA is located just south of San Francisco, but worlds away from the high profile of its cosmopolitan neighbor. Dominated by 17 cemeteries that serve the surrounding region and comprise most of the town itself, it’s often seen as a literal dead-end — not exactly the center of Bay Area cinema culture.

COLMA: THE MUSICAL DIRECTOR RICHARD WONG (CENTER) AND STAR JAKE MORENO (RIGHT).

Colma: The Musical tracks the exploits of three recent high school graduates facing uncertain futures in their hometown. Although they may prefer slacking, best friends Billy (Jake Moreno), Rodel (H.P. Mendoza) and Maribel (L.A. Renigen) are beginning to face adult realities. Billy has to take a thankless part-time job at the local mall to save money for college, but things look up when he’s cast in a local play and meets a new girl who helps him move past his prior unpleasant dating experience.

Although Rodel tries to earn his conservative single Dad’s confidence as the good kid in the family, his gay relationship with a close friend may force him out of the closet before he’s prepared to deal with the attendant complications. Meanwhile, Maribel enjoys a mild state of denial, preferring to focus on chasing the next party rather than her own future.

With original lyrics and music by H.P. Mendoza (who also wrote the script and co-stars as Rodel) the film’s musical numbers form the backbone of the narrative, setting the scene (“New York’s got New Jersey, San Francisco’s got the place where Colma stays”), introducing the characters and motivating much of the action throughout.

Initially, however, the music for the film began as a selection of songs that Mendoza wrote for a friend about their high school experiences in Colma and recorded on CD as a gift — what Wong describes as a “fun, concept, joke album called Colma: The Musical.

Originally from San Francisco, Wong met Mendoza when they were classmates studying film at the College of San Mateo before Wong attended the motion picture and television program at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco, specializing in cinematography. He left there to take a job at high-end camera rental house Videofax, where he worked as a video engineer, training on the equipment the company rented out to professional filmmakers.

After relocating to L.A. and working on Larry Charles’ digital feature Masked and Anonymous, Wong moved on to television, crewing as a video engineer and DP for several years on various Fox TV shows, including a number of pilots and short-lived series, as well as the second season of “Arrested Development.”

With his experience in television, Wong decided to direct his debut theatrical feature and returned to San Francisco in 2005, where he encountered Mendoza’s “Colma” tunes for the first time and suggested that his friend write a script centered on the characters and incidents in the songs. “When I heard the CD of ‘Colma,’ I was like ‘You know what, we should make this movie’ and it kind of just clicked,” Wong says.

Within a week, Mendoza — a multi-talented musician, actor and writer — had completed a first draft of the screenplay and after incorporating Wong’s notes, finished the shooting script with 13 new or rewritten songs in a month. “The first time I read the script, I kind of saw it already,” remembers Wong.

Drawing on similar incidents and amalgamations of people from Mendoza and Wong’s youth, Colma also channels the verve and visual style of Broadway musicals like West Side Story. “We had always talked about doing musicals. It’s just a passion we both have — we love the format,” says Wong. “It was a real good chance to do something that H.P. and I both connected to because part of the story is our story.”

Wong completely self-financed the project on a budget that he jokingly compares to “the cost of a used ’98 Honda Civic” and brought on Paul Kolsanoff and Angel Vasquez to help him produce. Casting took place in San Francisco and L.A. prior to the 18-day shoot on location in Colma, San Francisco and nearby Daly City, where the small crew, with Wong serving as director, DP and camera operator, took on multiple roles and tasks. Shooting digitally in 24P DV lent the crew maximum mobility to shoot many scenes handheld with available light and make creative use of practical locations.

During pre-production Mendoza recorded reference music and vocals for the actors to rehearse, and the cast then sang all their own songs, recording in a DIY studio that Wong set up in his garage. The music and lyrics were played back later on a CD with a boombox for the actors to lip-synch during shooting.

Rather than a showy Broadway style that focuses more on the audience, Wong chose a conversational visual style for the musical numbers that has the actors addressing their lines to one another in many of the songs. “I really wanted it to be a little more classical in the sense where you still shoot it like a movie, you shoot it like dialogue really,” Wong observes.

The 2.35:1 widescreen format allowed Wong to include all three principal actors in many of the shots or divide the frame up with a variety of dynamic split-screen techniques when he was editing the footage in post-production. The filmmakers utilized a typical dramatic approach in the narrative scenes, inflected with frequent situational humor. “We always kind of thought this would be the only movie we’d ever have creative freedom over, so this was our one shot [to be really innovative],” comments Wong.

The filmmakers adopted a variety of techniques to minimize costs on the production, including the use of original songs and music (which avoided licensing fees), shooting with practical locations, using donated or personal equipment, keeping the cast and crew small, and posting the film themselves.

Colma’s universally accessible coming of age storyline, impressive production values and infectious musical numbers made it a near-irresistible hit on the festival circuit last year, where it picked up three special jury prizes. The film made several year-end listings of top undistributed films for 2006 (including a Filmmaker “Best Film Not Playing in a Theater Near You” Gotham Award nomination) and a Film Independent Spirit Award directing nom for Wong. Reflecting on the reasons behind Colma’s popularity, Wong says “I think it’s a musical for the non-musical lover.”

Whatever the outcome of the Spirit Awards on February 24 — held in Santa Monica the day before the Academy Awards — Wong and Mendoza aren’t resting on their laurels. Late last year, the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) — sponsor of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival — commissioned the two to produce the musical trailer for the festival’s 25th edition March 15-25, a rousing one-minute short with a remarkably large cast of singers, dancers and performers.

In a significant stylistic departure from Colma, Wong and Mendoza are moving ahead with their next feature, an original noir musical written by Mendoza and set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, that’s already partially financed by CAAM and attracting significant interest from industry insiders. Meanwhile, the filmmakers are close to finalizing a theatrical distribution deal for a 2007 release of Colma.

“The primary reason I did Colma was so that I would have no regrets later in life about giving directing a shot and I was in a very fortunate situation to be able to make it happen,” notes Wong. “We all have dreams of our work making a splash, but I always kept a sense of realism — so to actually see it happen is flattering and honestly surreal.”

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