A wanna-be Filipino gangsta pimp, a carjacked traveling perfume salesman and a militant Black country star are just the start in Steven Mallorca’s hilarious road comedy “Slow Jam King.” This month, Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand offers Mallorca’s debut feature, which finds a multi-racial, motley crew of misfits traveling through the American South, getting into trouble, finding love, and perhaps even finding themselves.
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The plot for Slow Jam King is so completely weird and wonderful that it only could have been dreamed up. How did you come up with your wild cast of characters, Jojo, Vance, Devaun and Buck Garvey?
SM: Oddly enough, the seeds of “Slow Jam King” were planted when I actually worked as a traveling perfume salesman in Ohio. When I was being “trained” I was mentored separately by two different people, one a White guy who listened to country music, the other a Black guy who was an 80’sR&B electro-funk guy. Although it was never all three of us in the same car, the situation definitely served as a jump off point for comedy and cultural observation, and I ended up putting it into a screenplay. But at the end of the day, I wanted these characters to be real characters who, no matter how absurd the situation, still had real emotions and personalities, and I thought all the actors, especially Ron Domingo, were able to really make these characters real people who you love, warts and all.
“Slow Jam King” is a road comedy that is built around a motley crew of misfits whose lives are thrown together, but still has an embedded commentary on race too, from its Filipino American lead to the militant Black country star that he stumbles across. Tell us a bit about what you had in mind as you considered the American South and casting while writing the film.
SM: To me this is a very American film, because we have a country that is built out of race and culture issues, for better or for worse. And I wanted to take a lot of those issues and turn them upside down, then go another layer below that and make it even crazier. The character of Buck Garvey is an example of this – he’s a militant Black country singer who uses music as a platform to talk about how he’s going to steal his peoples’ music back from Elvis. But when the cameras are off, so too is his act, and we see how he’s actually using this as a schtick to sell records.
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As for the lead character of JoJo, I always wanted the film to have a Filipino American protagonist, but have him lead a cast of predominantly non-Asian characters. I feel like we see Asian and Asian American characters onscreen, most of the time like they can only be “leads” if it’s an all Asian cast. Otherwise, they’re a side character. So, in “Slow Jam King”, I really wanted JoJo, this misguided, delusional Filipino kid, to really be the one taking the reins and being the “leader,” literally driving these other characters around the country, and letting his issues spark the plot and the comedy. But at the end of the day, his issues are also what make him a real character that people will hopefully relate with.
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In addition to directing, writing, editing and shooting the film, you also composed much of its music. The film is a kind of mash up in many ways, combining lots of film genres as well as musical styles. You yourself are a musician too; tell us about the kind of sensibility that you wanted to bring to the film with the crossing of all these lines. There are so many opposing styles and ideas that they seem like they will all conflict, but the film builds a real harmony out of them.
SM: When you’re in a band, you start to write music that will fit the band, and in that way, you’re also constraining yourself. By writing music for “Slow Jam King”, I felt really liberated to write music without being tied to any one genre. And this sort of reflects the themes of the film as well – so much of who we are can be attributed to what music we listen to. Especially growing up – the music you latch onto as a teen really helps you define yourself. So I wanted that idea reflect the mish-mash that is in “Slow Jam King”. It was definitely a challenge writing the script, and even more of a challenge trying to raise money. The looks on peoples’ faces when I’d pitch the film were great. But as convoluted as it seemed on paper, it made sense to me.
For some reason everything I do, whether it’s film or music, ends up being a mash up in a lot of ways. Maybe it’s because being Filipino I’m already a mash up to begin with! But I did think about that when I was starting to write “Slow Jam King” – it’s so not the indie filmmaking paradigm where I was trying to make a simple, quiet story. It’s loud and brash and ridiculous, like the characters in the film. I guess in a way, knowing this would be my first feature film, and not knowing when I’d be able to make another one, I wanted it to be ambitious and flavorful and energetic. If I failed, I failed knowing that I was trying to tell the story I wanted to tell, my way.
From the zany energy of what we as the audience see in the film, it seems that “Slow Jam King” was a lot of fun to make. Do you have any favorite stories from the production?
SM: The whole shoot was so intense, that I wish I took the time to document it more, because we did have a lot of fun. The county fair scenes were really fun, and I’m really happy with how that whole scene came together. We had to split that shoot up amongst three actual county fairs, and one day on a set. I basically knew the schedule for every county fair in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. The days we shot at the actual fairs mostly consisted of verite style shooting where the actors would just ride rides and eat and hang out, but in character and wardrobe. It was so hard to schedule because we had so many actors with different schedules. And I remember the last day we shot at a fair – it was pouring rain in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – but it was the only day we could have all the actors. So we drove all the way out, almost to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to shoot, even if we had to move it all to interiors. But by the time we got to the fair, we had driven so far that we passed the storm and got beautiful sun. Everyone had a blast, and I remember leaving the fair just purely elated. We literally went the extra miles to shoot what we needed.
Even the bad stories ended up being good stories. Like when were shut down by the Freehold, NJ police (stupid move – we were shooting a scene without permits, and it involved a gun- oops!) – surrounded by seven cars, guns drawn, all of us face down on the ground. That was scary, but ended up being a good laugh. Our joke was that even the White characters in the film fit some sort of police profile.
What are you working on now?
SM: I feel very lucky to be able to make a living doing what I love. I work as a commercial director, producer and editor by day, but I try to balance out my more corporate work with indie work as well, particularly music videos for independent bands. Being in a band and running a record label (Riding Mower Records), I inherently am drawn to music videos, and I enjoy working with bands and trying to come up with ways to make cool work that can help them find an audience. My band, P.I.C, just released our fourth album, Cookin’ from Scratch, so I’m going to have to budget some time out to make some videos for us. I’m also working on another musical project called Sulu and Excelsior which I’m hoping to record this Spring.
And of course, I’m always working on the next feature film. I’ve been working on my latest script, an offbeat comedy entitled “Alternate Side”, for a few years now, submitting it to various screenplay labs, and I’m currently in the midst of a pretty major re-write which has been a little painful. Besides “Alternate Side”, I’m also developing another screenplay, entitled “Mayor Mayor”, about a Filipino American widower who moves his family to a farm in rural Illinois and decides to run for mayor of the town.
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