Colma: The Musical and Me

Richard Wong world premiered his debut feature film, COLMA: THE MUSICAL, at SFIAAFF and since then the film has gone on to play at numerous film festivals, screened theatrically and now has just come out on DVD. The guest blogger of the month, Rich writes about his journey with COLMA: THE MUSICAL.
Colma - Could We Get Any Older

Rodel (H.P. Mendoza) dances at a party in one of the musical sequenes in COLMA: THE MUSICAL while Director/Cinematographer Richard Wong captures the action.

Richard Wong world premiered his debut feature film, COLMA: THE MUSICAL, at SFIAAFF and since then the film has gone on to play at numerous film festivals, screened theatrically and now has just come out on DVD. The guest blogger of the month, Rich writes about his journey with COLMA: THE MUSICAL.

In 2005, I had been living in Los Angeles for 4 years and had been pretty well established in the TV world as a Digital Imaging Technician (DIT), which is to say a Video Engineer…which is to say the guy on the set who sits by the big monitors and spends the day dialing knobs on the boxes that control the cameras. It’s like Photoshop Live, and not like “Rent Live!” or “Chicago Live!”, but more like live color correction. It’s a great training ground for an aspiring Director of Photography (DP) and soon it became apparent that I was going to get my shot to move up to DP.

But…is that what I went to film school for (despite the fact that I dropped out)? As a DIT, I had these huge 24in HD monitors that were generally known as the “God” monitors. And because of the way it was setup, I sat in the middle of all the action. The director sat there, and the DP, and the execs, and the actors hung out there in between takes, and when big wigs visited, they’d sit there too. It was a cool job.

In 2004 to early 2005, I worked on the TV show “Arrested Development”. The show hired directors from the independent film world opposed to exclusively TV directors (though later it started to hire more TV directors). Nonetheless, I got to know a few of these directors and I started to think of myself: Why are these guys directors and not my friend the camera assistant who also came to LA to be a director? (Of course, being the self-deprecating person that I am, I didn’t include myself in this initially). I started to realize that these guys weren’t necessarily more talented, though they definitely were talented, but they had gone out and made something and had gotten it seen. That’s what made them directors – they directed.

Colma - Crazy Like Me

So, at the end of Arrested I was really burned out and decided to come home to San Francisco and decompress and spend time with the people I missed and loved here. One month later and I was bored. But I didn’t want to go back to work. I wanted to do something else, but I wasn’t sure what it would be.

One night I was with my girlfriend and another couple at Little Shop of Horrors and ran into a friend of an old friend, the old friend being H.P. Mendoza. H.P. and I were very close friends at College of San Mateo, which served as our first film school. We instantly became close and were always together during those years. We had a common love of musicals. But at a certain point, and for no clear reason, we drifted apart and I went off to a different school and eventually LA and he went off and did his own thing.

So there I was, standing there with H.P.’s long time best friend. I ask him how H.P. is doing and he tells me that he had moved to Philly. “Well, tell him I said ‘Hi’ and email if he wants.” And that was that.

A few weeks later, I get an email from H.P. and from that we instantly reconnected.

Colma - Cementary

Now back to my boredom, I knew I wanted to be creative again. My time in LA had taken some of that out of me, but I wasn’t really sure what to do.

One day H.P. sent me a couple of songs he had made for the best friend I had run into. The songs were called “Goodbye Stupid” and ‘Colma Stays”. (Disclamer: This is going to sound super lame and cliché, but I had a flash when moment I heard these songs.) I thought, “You know what I should do next? I should make a movie!” And with H.P. All the pieces seemed to fit. H.P. and I always had wanted to do a film together. It seemed completely appropriate that our first film would be together and a musical no less!

On top of that, I was in the very fortunate position professionally. Having worked over 4 years straight, I had very little time to have anything resembling fun, which is to say I had amassed a bit of a savings. I was lucky enough to be comfortable in my current job status, and I knew I could always get work in TV should I go broke. And, as if that weren’t enough, I had a very supportive girlfriend who in every way supported the monumental task of making a movie. Being in a position like this is not something to dismiss. In short, I would have been a fool not to do this.

My friends did often say I was crazy though. “Shouldn’t you buy a house instead,” said some and others were like, “Why a musical? I hate musicals.” As if I were making the film specifically for them. No, we were making this film for us. And we weren’t sure if people were going to like it, but hell, we had nothing to lose.

I called H.P. that night and asked, “Hey, do you think you can make these songs into a story? Like, can you write a script?” His response was, “yeah give me say….seven days, would that be okay?” Okay? Seven days? I had a hard time believing it could be done in that short amount of time.

And seven days later I was making notes in the park to our first draft of Colma: The Musical, struggling with myself over whether this was a pipe dream or actually doable. After reading it, I decided it wasn’t only doable, but absolutely necessary.

Colma - Free Willy

The month of May 2005 was all about getting the script to where we wanted it to be. Changes were made, songs written and discarded – all the usual stuff in the process of making a film – but accelerated. By the end of May we had a script, I think it was the ninth draft. I also enlisted a friend, Paul Kolsanoff, to produce the film along with Angel Vasquez who was about to leave to teach filmmaking in Ohio. Paul just happened to be in between projects at The Orphanage, a visual effects studio, and it was just more luck that he was able to be a part of the project.

June and July were devoted to pre-production and soon this became a full time job. My apartment became an office and the adjacent empty apartment became the audition space. This was a truly homespun production, right down to us alternating cooking dinner every night. In these two months we cast the film, found and secured all the locations, recorded the music, diligently broke the script down and carefully planned our shooting schedule.

Then we shot in August. It was a very smooth shoot. The shoot is a whole paper in itself but some of those stories are probably better left private.

After the shoot I spent the next few months editing, then took a break and went back to work on a TV show for a couple of months where I continued to edit on the side. The final cut that would play at film festivals was done March 2006.

But wait, let’s go back just a bit, because while I was editing, I had to start thinking about film festivals. This of course is as well a paper in itself, if not a 13-volume dossier. Now, I had come from the TV world, which is very far removed from the independent film world. In fact, my feeling is that people in the TV business kind of look down on small independent projects. I think most of that is cynicism, something rampant in the bottom heavy film world. So I knew nothing of festivals. I had a very laymen’s knowledge of festivals, which is to say Sundance and Cannes. With some research I figured Berlin and Tribeca were good ones, and this being a musical, I decided to aim for Tribeca thinking it would be right up New York’s alley. I rushed a 20-day cut over to Sundance, which did not get in. A 25-day cut to Berlin, which did not get in. But really I had thought that Tribeca was the festival for us and I had some confidence that it would get in.

Meanwhile, we were invited to premiere at San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. I hesitated for a second, not really knowing or understanding what I “should” do, but decided to accept. My logic: What better place to premiere than in San Francisco? After all, I didn’t make this film to sell.

Tribeca emailed, and big surprise we didn’t get in. So, SF Asian it was. But I didn’t mind and as the date got closer and the cut got tighter I started to think about how exciting the premiere would be rather than it’s chances at selling. In fact, its chances at selling were next to nothing in my mind.

Colma - Premiere

The day came and Colma world premiered on March 24th, 2006. ::sigh:: What an amazing premiere it was, a full house of 700 plus and we had to turn away a hundred or so folks. It was to date one of the liveliest screenings. And at the screening I met Nguyen “Wyn” Tran who was representing Journey From The Fall, which was closing night at the Festival. Wyn told me he’d help any way he could, though the concept of selling the film still was quite distant for me. But lo and behold, after that first screening, we got an offer. Not a great one, one just to DVD, but I would at least have broken even and it would have secured a life in DVD. I started to realize maybe this film could sell.

A few months later, the film at this point had been accepted into just about every LGBT and Asian American film festival in America and also a few abroad. It also was getting accepted into some non-niche festivals, but not a single “major” festival, partially due to that fact that it had already world premiered. Wyn had decided to take on Colma and become its sales agent and was able to get it seen by most of the indie and mini-major distributors. There was definitely interest in the film. At Outfest, the Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival, Roadside Attractions saw the film, and had expressed serious interest but wasn’t quite sure.

Let’s cut again, this time to December 2007. Colma had played at around 30 festivals, but all interest in an acquisition had faded. I was tempted to revisit that first offer we had, which at that point had still been the best offer. Then Colma got nominated for a Gotham Award and Independent Spirit Award. Suddenly there was a renewed interest.

In January 2008, Colma sold to Roadside Attractions and eventually would go on to play around 12 cities and get a DVD release through Lions Gate. Not huge, but pretty sweet for a little movie that was essentially a romantic summer project. Like any story there’s quite a bit untold here, but I think the thing that drove Colma was that we didn’t make it with the intention of selling it. We made it because we wanted to make something and wanted to be creative again. And in the end, I’m just glad it was the film H.P. and I set out to make.