What’s a young, modern, and open-minded San Francisco couple to do when their relationship begins to stagnate? In the rollicking new comedy “Yes, We’re Open”, available this month on Xfinity On Demand’s Cinema Asian America, director Richard Wong and writer H.P. Mendoza of “Colma: The Musical” fame team up to explore sexual mores and competing carnal desires amidst the seemingly civilized landscapes of open-air farmers markets, independent bookstores, and the latest foodie trends.
Starring Parry Shen (“Better Luck Tomorrow”), Lynn Chen (“Saving Face”), Sheetel Sheth (“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World”) and newcomer Kerry McCrohan, “Yes, We’re Open” portrays an array of relationships in a city that proudly flouts convention, all while affectionately satirizing the city’s inhabitants: adults who are socially astute but who possess personal and emotional blind spots that entrap their best intentions. (Text adapted from CAAMFest.)
Was there a certain, particular spark that planted the seed for this film? What was it about open relationships that you felt made for fine comedy and drama?
RW: One day (writer) HP Mendoza and I were hanging out ay my place and I busted out, “I want to do a movie about sex.” HP replied, “I’ve got a movie for you!” Like all of HP’s films, the idea had been mostly fleshed out in his head already, and a couple months later there was a script. Open relationships make for good comedy and drama because both rely on conflict, and the subject of open relationships are primed for that.
What was special about the creative dynamic that emerged from the quartet of actors who are at the core of “Yes, We’re Open” – Lynne Chen, Perry Shen, Sheetel Sheth and Kerry McCrohan? Were they all in the original roles that you imagined for them, or was there any kind of swapping happening as the film developed?
RW: This movie, a lot like my previous film, “Colma: The Musical,” was a blur in terms of setting it up. HP had finished the script years back, but when he did I was in New York working. So he had written it for New York with the idea I might be able to turn it around and do it there quickly. It was always intended to be micro-budget. I had friends in New York who I thought would be great in the roles. But my schedule didn’t pan out, and I ended up going to China and working on Wayne Wang’s “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” for essentially an entire year. Inspired by that process, and with about two month off between projects, I decided to take my own money and just make it. The built-in deadline would force the production to happen, which sometimes is the only way to get something to happen. “Colma” was very similar and I enjoy being spontaneous and just making a decision to make something and then doing it. Stars of course had to align right and producer Theresa Navarro, who had been pining to make the movie and often would ask about its status also happen to be available for a couple of months between work. I think projects like this and “Colma” cannot happen with out very strong creative partners like HP and Theresa. So once I had them in place I knew we could make it happen.
So we had to cast it very fast. The folks in New York I had planned to use were unavailable and I had just seen Dave Boyle’s “Surrogate Valentine,” and he happened to be staying with me while he was visiting San Francisco for a screening. I was intrigued by Lynn Chen and Parry Shen who play a couple in his film, but you only see them in one or two scenes. I thought it would be interesting to see them together in a whole movie. Of course I knew both their work and Dave was happy to make the introductions. I sent both of them the script and they both responded within hours saying they’d do it. Lynn then suggested Sheetal Sheth for Elena, which was a no-brainer and Kerry was a friend of mine from film school and he’s somehow always who I imagined for Ronald. Now we really had a movie!
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How would you describe your relationship with writer HP Mendoza, with whom this is your fourth collaboration? How might you describe the storytelling sensibility that you two share?
RW: I consider HP to be one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. Need I say much more than that? On top of that I feel like our sensibilities are very similar – we both like that same kinds of things, and have a similar sense of humor, so working together is definitely awesome from that standpoint. We are, of course, at the same time quite different. I’m sure that if he had directed “Yes, We’re Open” the movie would be different. I think individually we are who we are, but as partners are create a different entity, an interesting cocktail.
As a seasoned cinematographer, you’ve worked on many big-budget films, but for your own directorial projects, you’ve chosen to use a micro-budget approach. Why? Is this purely a question of economics, or are there another kind of challenges that you are posing to yourself by working within these restrictions?
RW: I might not say “big budget,” but bigger budget. I see my cinematography career and directing career as totally separate. I work on one and then I work on the other. As a cinematographer, my career is further along, and I would say I am starting to be more recognition for it. As for directing, I’m still on first rung of that ladder (directing something that gets noticed, only gets you onto the ladder to begin with). But I think because I’ve ended up focusing on cinematography primarily since I made “Colma: The Musical” my directing career had gotten a bit stagnant. So making “Yes, We’re Open” was kind of a refocusing on that path. And part of financing it myself is the comfort of having total control over it. Movies this small are difficult, but they have their luxuries too. One of them is not having to answer to anyone. And that creative freedom is something that one has to embrace and take advantage of when doing a movie of this size. Of course I’d love to direct something bigger, so hopefully the film will get some notice and I can take the step to that next rung.
What are you working on now?
RW: I’m currently shooting a film called “La Vida Robot” in Albuquerque. I’m having an incredible time with a director I really admire, and again getting inspired to direct something.