This month on Cinema Asian America (available through XFINITY On Demand), film director, songwriter, actor and San Franciscan H.P. Mendoza presents his debut film, “Fruit Fly.” An indie musical, set in the gay, Asian-American and arts communities in San Francisico, “Fruit Fly” is a toe-tapping poem to the city, and poignant journey of self-discovery. Centering around a young Filipina adoptee, Bethesda, the film charts her quick immersion into San Francisco’s many subcultures, her quest to find her birth mother, and her own voice.
What inspired you to make an independent, micro-budget musical? After the success of “Colma: The Musical” (which I wrote and composed), I was inspired to just make an independent micro-budget movie. Working with Center for Asian-American Media (which produced the film) made me realize that if there’s any time to make a movie unencumbered by conservative values, now was the time! So, not only was I out to make a film that both really gay and really Asian-American, but it had to be a musical!
You are the film’s director, producer, songwriter, editor, screenwriter and actor; in short, you almost made the entire film yourself! How did you juggle all of these roles? I have no idea how I juggled those roles. It’s kind of how I like to function. And I feel that the people that were attracted to this project were those types of people, too. When you’re dealing with a budget of $32,000, you don’t really have the luxury of hiring a huge crew. I didn’t see it as an impediment, by the way, so this isn’t a complaint. I flourish creatively when placed within certain restraints or limitations.
“Fruit Fly” is about a young Filipino-American artist who is on a journey of self-discovery, and on a quest to find her birth mother. It’s also a film about San Francisco and its vibrant gay community. Can you tell us how these stories developed and became intertwined? I wanted to tell the story of a lost, slightly slacker-ish artist using stories from my lead actress L.A. Renigen’s experiences as well as mine. The character Bethesda is sort of an amalgam of me and L.A. and I wanted to place the character in a world that echoes my own personal rants. I knew that the film would play the Asian-American festivals as well as the LGBT festivals, so I wanted to reference something that had been on my mind ever since “Colma: The Musical” did its festival run. At every LGBT film festival, there was always the one film that had the emasculated Chinaman, while every Asian-American film festival had a film with the limp-wristed “fag,” ready to get beat up for comic relief. I always felt that, since these festivals were about proper representation of marginalized and/or misrepresented faces on the big screen, they needed to be more sensitive to other minority groups that suffer media oppression, as well. We forget that people can belong to two minority groups. So, I like to think of “Fruit Fly” as my gay Asian musical. It’s “gaysian.”
You also present a very distinctive, local perspective of San Francisco. We don’t see the usual spots like the Golden Gate Bridge, but rather, places which you might encounter on a daily basis if you lived there. Why was it important for you to represent San Francisco in this way? I’m a San Francisco native, born and raised in the Mission District. I’m so tired of seeing movies that make it look like the entire city is the Financial District. I think filmmakers like to shoot those areas because it proves that San Francisco is a “real city.” But, as much as I love San Francisco as my home, it doesn’t have the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, and we should embrace that. There’s something prosaic about setting a story in a city and showing only the touristy areas. That’s the difference between Tommy Wiseau’s San Francisco in “The Room” and Ozu’s Tokyo in “Tokyo Story.” Yikes, did I just make an Ozu reference? I’m such a pretentious Asian.
What is your favorite musical number in the film, and why? It’s hard for me to choose what my favorite musical number, but if I were to categorize them, my first pick is the “Fruit Fly Overture,” mainly because I love the sound of 8-bit synthesizers and it has that post-punk sound, even if it’s coming from a video game console. I think it’s the sound of Asian men in their thirties. We all grew up with Ataris, Nintendos and Segas. Lyrically, I think it’s a toss-up between “Enough About Me” and “We Have So Much in Common.” I’m really proud of those lyrics. Interestingly, those are the two waltzes in the film.
Who are some of your artistic influences? Where we might we see some of the film and musical lineages in “Fruit Fly” coming from? As far as storytelling goes, my influences run the gamut from Armistead Maupin to David Lynch. Music? I’d say the range is just as wide. Stephen Sondheim, They Might Be Giants, Kander & Ebb, Anamanaguchi. After “Colma: The Musical” and my two albums were made available, people asked me if I’d ever heard The Magnetic Fields. I hadn’t, and I was introduced to the music of Stephen Merritt and The Magnetic Fields; they are now influences, as well.
What do you make of the recent explosion of musical-based films and TV shows like “High School Musical,” “Glee” and others? I think it’s all good and all a move in the right direction. I’m waiting for the next “Guys and Dolls” or “West Side Story.”
What projects are coming up next for you? Are you interested in continuing to make musicals? I’m directing three features in 2011, and none of them are musicals. I need to take a break from musicals for a couple of years. I’ll still be scoring people’s films and releasing albums, but I need to get out of this pigeon hole I’ve fashioned for myself. Let me do at least six non-musical films, and then I’ll go back musicals. Maybe.