Oct. 22--San Francisco native H.P. Mendoza's directorial debut was the musical "Fruit Fly," which premiered at the Castro Theatre in March 2009. The 93-minute film, with an offbeat script and '80s synth-pop, was set in his hometown city and explored gay and Asian identity.
Mendoza, 36, lives in the Mission District with his partner, Mark Di Lima, an illustrator and animator. The director's new horror film, "I Am a Ghost," will have its theatrical premiere at the Castro Theatre on Oct. 29.
Q: Tell me about your new film, "I Am a Ghost," which has done the film festival circuit and garnered a lot of awards.
A: It is completely different from anything I've done before. It's not a musical. Not a comedy. It's a horror film, and there's a twist to it from the get-go. The mysteries around the ghost's death are revealed.
Q: Where did the idea for the film come from?
A: I was one of those really morbid kids. I went to Catholic school for 8 years. When you take religion class every day, and go to Mass seven days a week, you can't help but get existential about things. When I was a kid, when I was happy and experiencing joy, I would say, "What if this is not happening? What if I'm 80 and I'm in a convalescent home but I'm so miserable that I'm stuck in my happiest moment?'
Q: So how does that connect to "I Am a Ghost"?
A: Fast forward 30 years to me at 36. I always wanted to make a movie that was so disorienting. I thought I'd write a screenplay, the weirdest screenplay, with one person on screen with ghostly things happening all around her. I'll write it with almost no dialogue. I kind of set it aside, thinking it was something I'd do when I had more "clout."
Q: So you arrived at a point where you had that "clout"?
A: I called Richard Wong, who directed "Colma: The Musical" (which Mendoza wrote), and we went to Dolores Park and had a long meal. I trapped him and recited the entire "I Am a Ghost" film. He got excited and then I got more excited. I said I was going to shoot it myself, film it myself, and it will be the smallest film but also the most ambitious. I went home and said, 'What am I, nuts? A supernatural horror film with no budget?' I saved up paycheck by paycheck.
Q: You made "Fruit Fly" for $35,000 and "Colma" was made for $15,000. What was your target with "I Am a Ghost"?
A: I shot "I Am a Ghost" for $7,500. We ended up raising $10,000 through Kickstarter, so the whole thing with post production was $10,000.
Q: Who did you work with on the film?
A: Mark (his partner) was the producer and was the set and prop designer. We were the crew, carrying the lights and boom and I'm doing all of the lighting. We had a makeup person. Anna Ishida is my actor, who plays Emily, a troubled spirit. She (Ishida) lives in Oakland. She was incredible.
Q: Where was it shot?
A: A majority of it was shot at a bed-and-breakfast called The Inn on South Van Ness. The hotel is beautiful. But it's funny because I was thinking, 'How am I going to approach the hotel management with this story where a murder occurs in their hotel?' As I was walking up the steps, I told myself I was making an art film, not a slasher film. So I walked in and said, 'I'm H.P. Mendoza and I'm a filmmaker,' and he cut me off and said he'd seen 'Fruit Fly' and was a big fan. It's one of the joys of being a local filmmaker. You have such support.
A: So the movie doesn't have any of the more raunchy elements of "Fruit Fly"?
Q: No raunchy stuff. There is some humorous stuff, like when you listen to the patient-therapist conversations. It's also very stylized language. But the movie is rated R. Once you have a grisly death, it's automatically an R.
Q: What did this teach you about filmmaking?
A: It was such a small outfit. I wanted to craft a really tight story that would appeal to a few people like myself and my partner who like weird films. We've been going to all of these festivals and winning all of these awards, best director, best picture, best actress. It's a tiny movie. I handled the camera. I did all the sound. I was the cinematographer. It felt like the freedom of being in film school. I felt like that 18-year-old running around campus with a camera and feeling like the camera could take me anywhere. Who would've thought this cheap movie would get the exposure it has?
Q: It sounds like it was a reaffirming experience.
A: What I've learned from this whole process, from conception to distribution, is no matter how far the technology goes, no matter how inflated and hemorrhaging the budgets have become, in the end, people just want a good story.
Q: You write music and screenplays, direct and act. What is next?
A: I do have a bunch of things I want to do next. One happens to be a children's film. One is a race relations comedy. One is a Coen Brothers-style family mystery. I'm leaning to the comedy, but I have to say I like being dark.
Q: So maybe another horror film?
A: "Colma" was pretty dark. With 'Fruit Fly,' I was seeing if I could hold down the sarcasm and darkness. That was an exercise for me. But I truly like being dark. The comedies I have written are truly dark. I'm not morose, but I am having my most fun when I can entertain the dark side of myself or -- even better -- entertain the dark side of others.
Julian Guthrie is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: JulianGuthrie
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