Cinema Asian America: Making ‘Colma: The Musical,’ with Rich Wong

by | March 15, 2011 at 7:32 PM | Cinema Asian America, Indie Film Club

Time to crash the party! I’m talking about “Colma: The Musical,” a charming, toe-tapping musical and one of the biggest independent break-out hits the past several years. Made by San Francisco filmmaker Rich Wong on a shoestring budget, what it doesn’t have in cash it makes up for with heart, creativity and talent.

Set in the city of Colma, just outside of San Francisco (famous for being the home to many of San Francisco’s cemeteries, which were moved there as real estate became a premium in the city), the film is a coming-of-age story about three teenagers trying to make their way into the world, with 13 original songs that are guaranteed to stick in your head. The film has screened at festivals around the world and was nominated for a prestigious Gotham Award. The New York Times called it “an itty-bitty movie with a great big heart,” and this month you can see it on XFINITY On Demand.

“Colma: The Musical” was made in 2006, and in many ways, helped to revitalize the musical as a genre, particularly in the independent film world. You made it long before the current craze around “Glee,” and before the “High School Musical” films caught on. For many, it came out of nowhere, and was an incredible discovery. What drew you to making a musical?
RW: There’s something magical to me about moving pictures and music. It’s a natural combination. In that sense, it will always work, which is part of what works so well about music videos. But, when you add a story on top, telling a narrative through music and pictures, I think real magic happens and there’s just something about it that my chemical makeup is drawn to. There’s not a lot of science behind it, it’s just my taste.
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The film is set in the city of Colma, which is outside of San Francisco, and is famously a place where “the dead outnumber the living.” How did this come to be, and why was Colma as a place important for your story, which is about three friends with big dreams and aspirations seeking to find their ways?
RW: I think the town of Colma is representative of so many towns out there that neighbor big cities or hell, any town that is next to a larger one where fresh bright eyed kids look towards as a symbol of progression in their lives. Moving to “the city” always seems to represent a move forward growing up, even if it is only five minutes away. The characters in our movie are at a crossroads, and staying in Colma or moving to a big city is very symbolic to them and the film.

You worked very closely with your collaborator, HP Mendoza, who wrote all of the songs in Colma and also is one of its lead actors (Mendoza also directed the film “Fruit Fly,” seen on Cinema Asian American earlier this year). Can you tell us how you two crafted the film? For example, did the songs come first and then the script? Or did the two organically come from the same cloth?
RW: The creation of this film started when my friend H.P. Mendoza and I reconnected after drifting apart for about eight years. A major part of our friendship had always been our shared love of musicals, so as part of our reconnect, he shared with me a concept album he had written and sung for his best friend called Colma: The Musical. At the time I had been working on TV shows in LA for five years straight and was taking a break, thinking about what to do next. And it just hit me, seriously. I said to him “we should make this into a movie.” And it never became a question after that, that we were going to make this a movie. It just made so much sense for us to do something together like this. Seven days later he had a script. Thirty days later he had ironed out the songs and refined the script. By that time I had also recruited another friend Paul Kolsanoff, who also happened to be in between movies, where he works as a VFX supervisor, to help me produce, and we were off and running. I think we all took it seriously and that made a difference. We had this spirit of “doing something” and that drove all of us. I always call it this “romantic summer project” and considering the perfect storm of people and timing, it really was!

Colma features thirteen original songs and some ingeniously choreographed dance sequences. What is your favorite? And why?

RW: I really love all the musical numbers. I tried to do something interesting and creative with our limitations in each, but I think the one where we outdid ourselves most is “Crash the Party.” In the first draft of the script it was like 15 pages of party sequence – all dialogue and no songs – and I asked HP if we could make it into one big song instead. I wanted to give the party this feeling like the viewer is there walking with our characters – it is all composed of one, unedited shot, a single take. But on a purely geek level, I wanted the audience to be able to think, “Oh we are going to cut here for sure, right? No? It’s still going?” Many people have told me they weren’t aware that it was one shot, and I think that’s great also, because it means they were invested in something other than the camerawork and the camerawork served the story. I then added a split screen to the last part of the song, which I thought would be the topper. It was not an easy shot to get – we spent a whole day choreographing and planning and a whole day to get the shot.

You are also an acclaimed cinematographer; how did both shooting and directing the film at the same time determine how it was made? For example, did you choreograph the dance sequences and movements with the eye of a cinematographer, or that of a director?
RW: At the time, I was shooting a lot of things and was very interested in being very stylized photographically. Directing this movie changed that. I became more aware of the art of making the camera more “invisible.” I don’t like watching a movie and being overly aware of the camera and cameraman. I think the pictures should serve the story and not become too self0-conscious. Don’t get me wrong, I love flashy camerawork, but I when I pictured this movie in my head it just seemed to want to be real, and I think that’s what’s reflected in the camerawork.

What projects have you been working recently?

RW: Lately I’ve been working with the director Wayne Wang, serving as the cinematographer on his last two films (“The Princess of Nebraska” and the forthcoming “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”). I’ve been able to learn from watching him work and seeing his complete process, which has been an invaluable experience. I feel very lucky to be working with him, and a lot of this is because of where making Colma brought me.