An interview with filmmaker H.P. Mendoza

From H.P. Mendoza's Bitter Melon

N. Pasquariello is a filmmaker and journalist, author of Sounds of Movies: Interviews with the Creators of Feature SoundTracks.

H.P. Mendoza, an innovative award-winning filmmaker, composer, lyricist and actor, who lives and works in the Mission, sat down with me recently at Borderlands to talk about his new film, Bitter Melon, which will have its world premiere at CAAMFEST, May 12 at the Kabuki Cinema.

It will also show at the Roxie Theatre in the Mission on May 19, and at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland on May 23.

Bitter Melon is the story of a Filipino-American family that reunites for a Christmas party at a house in the Excelsior. The holiday takes a dark turn when the relatives conspire to murder the abusive bully of the family.

The dark comedy tackles domestic abuse, toxic masculinity, misogyny and homophobia — all told by a predominantly Filipino-American cast and written/directed by a gay Filipino-American.

The Mission appears in scenes that were shot on Dearborn Street, 18th and Guerrero, Mission Street, WesBurger ‘N’ More, the Alamo Drafthouse and Doc’s Clock.

Mendoza’s earlier successful film was the satirical Colma: the Musical (2007). Made on a budget of $15,000, it garnered $129,000 the box office.

NP: Where does the screenplay and story come from?

HPM: I wrote this in 1997 when I was a very different person.  It wasn’t called Bitter Melon, it was called He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother [named after the song recorded by The Hollies in 1969].  It was really wacky and I think I was trying a little hard. I was trying to be as dark as possible and maybe as gory as possible. What happened is, that screenplay sat under my bed for years. I had tons of screenplays sitting under my bed; now they’re all files sitting on my desktop.

I revisited the script 20 years later — how I would do this differently now — it was so over-the-top dark and over-the-top violent that it didn’t feel dark at all. I felt like a grand guignol where you’d just be laughing at domestic violence, and I thought, “This is not real. This is not who I am.”  

So now I’m way more interested in examining the cycles of violence. Where do men learn to treat women in a certain way, specifically when this happens in immigrant households? There is something very common that I grew up with in Filipino-American households. They would have violence in the family, but they would always be made to hush each other up.  You don’t go to the police. You don’t complain about it. You keep up appearances.

H.P. Mendoza, 2012 Photo by By Amber Dubya (flickr)

NP: How much of the story of Bitter Melon is your own story?

HPM: It’s almost a roman a clef. There were very little things that changed for my family.  I had an abusive father. I touched on that in my first film, Colma: the Musical, and I thought, “I’ll delve into this a little further.” I haven’t seen my father in a very long time. One thing that’s not shown in the movie is that my mother made the right decision to leave him. He was a very abusive guy.

The thing that I always felt in a lot of movies about abuse is that they paint in broad strokes.  [They say] “Oh, there’s a bad guy. There’s a good guy.” And once you get rid of the bad guy, the movie has a happy ending. I remember thinking to myself, “I’d really want to see a movie where the abuse starts at the top and it just trickles down. It affects everybody.  It doesn’t just stay there and wait to be eradicated. It transfers down generations.”

That’s what I wanted to do with this movie, but I also thought it couldn’t be too serious. It also had to have a comedic element to it that made it easy to enter using the Christmas comedy as a Trojan horse. I felt how interesting it would be to make a Christmas comedy that snuck in this story of domestic abuse.

NP: Where did the money come from to make this movie?

HPM: We received a $100,000 grant from a Filipino company called ABS CBN International; they’re the largest Filipino media conglomerate. They have some tendrils in America, but they don’t really have any American Filipino movies so they started this initiative to start funding Filipino-American films, and mine is the first.

NP: How did you find them?

HPM: They found me. They’ve been trying to contact me for a couple of years. I’ve just been very busy, but I finally found some downtime to visit them. I thought they were asking for some advice on where to get some films. That’s why I pushed them off. The emails weren’t very clear, they just said, “We’re trying to produce an American film and we wanted to pick your brain.” I thought they wanted to ask about some filmmakers I might know, so I said to them, “We’ll eventually meet.” I didn’t know they wanted to produce a film that I wrote.

So when I had that downtime, I sent them the script and it came back almost immediately and they said, “OK, let’s do this.”

I was shocked.

NP: How do you think your work as a composer and lyricist has changed or evolved since your first professionally produced album in 2003?

HPM: I think in 2003 I was a lot more ironic. I think I was influenced by a lot of clever musicians like They Might be Giants, who were a huge influence on me.

I think what I was doing was, I was protecting myself. I was putting a shield up. Without me saying it [directly], I was saying, “Well, if you don’t like my music, then you don’t just get the joke.”  What happened in 2005 when I was tasked with turning Colma: the Musical into a film, I was forced to admit I was just writing a lot about myself, which forced me to write more sincere music, and from that I found myself getting hired to write — not the most glamorous thing — weepy, sappy commercials.

NP: What are your favorite film musicals?

HPM: I love Cabaret (1972), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Little Shop of Horrors (1986).  I’m a big fan of Guys and Dolls (1955), Westside Story, (1961), My Fair Lady (1964).  Lerner and Lowe, and Comden and Green

NP: Tell me about working with the Film Commission.

HPM: The truth, is I’ve never worked with a film commission until this film. So I just wrote the script with no budget in mind. Our producers were saying, “We have to go to the Film Commission for all of this.” You can’t steal the shots like you used to. In Fruit Fly, we stole everything.  We didn’t get permits for any of the public transportation; for all the musical numbers, we had to scramble so we didn’t get arrested.  So this was quite different. We went to the Film Commission, and I remember feeling very nervous, thinking, “I hope we get all the locations we wanted.”

So we opened the door, and the Film Commissioner had the script notated with all of these colored tabs on every page, and I’m thinking, “Are those red flags?”  And before we could say anything, she said, “By the way I just want to let you know, I’m a fan.”

Well, that’s a good sign.

So she went out of her way to get us a bunch of these locations like the MUNI bus and SFO.  They were able to get the fees discounted for security guards and police. I don’t remember where the discounts landed, but they helped out a lot, and they helped us get a lot of free things, too.

NP: Did they pull the permits for you, which is an additional expense?

HPM: They did.

NP: How did you cast the picture?

HPM: Luckily, ABS [CBN International], the media company, they have the Filipino Channel here in the States, were able to cast all of the tertiary characters, the older relatives, the party members, the father — but the main ensemble, I cast myself.  These were people I wanted to work with for a while. I had known all of them from the Bay Area theater acting from 20 years ago. They’ve since moved to New York and Los Angeles, where I had to fly them in from.

NP: Do you have experience in theater?

HPM: I used to work with The Exit Theater. I worked with a lot of different theater troupes, either writing their music, or performing music with them, or even performing their pieces.  I worked as a dramaturge for a couple of different theater troupes, and that’s how I met a lot of the actors from the cast.

The one person I did not know at all was the lead, Declan, John Norman Schneider. He was recommended to me by Annie Ishida, who had the monologue in the bar scene in the pool hall about how women don’t go through the same midlife crisis because they’re too busy getting shit done.  She also played the ghost in I am a Ghost (Mendoza’s 2013 feature).

She was the one who found John Norman Schneider being featured on the front page of The New York Times.  She said, “Look, I found this Filipino actor in New York.” And I remember telling her, “I don’t know if I can get that guy, he’s kind of big.”

She said, “What harm is there in trying?”

So I said, “OK, fine. Can you get his contact info?”

So she stalked him a little bit and got his contact info.

So I sent him the script. And I remember I went to sleep after that, and I woke up the next morning, he’s emailed back, saying, “I read your script and I want in.”

I was shocked.  I texted Anna right away, “What do you know, it worked.”  He was the only person I didn’t know.

NP: Why was he on the front page of The New York Times?

HPM: He is a native New Yorker and he was in a very New York play called Awake and Sing [Clifford Odets, 1935].

NP: You have a good deal of musical talent; it shows in your films. Where does this come from?

HPM: Thank you.  It definitely did not come from any classical training. I grew up with a piano in the house, but my two older brothers were forced to take piano lessons and they hated it, so, as soon as they were done with their classes, they threw it away. They did not ever want to touch a piano again.

[After] I was born, I would play with it. I wanted to learn piano, but my parents would say, “Oh, no.  We know you’re probably going to do what your brothers did. You’re going to give up just like they did.” Which made me fascinated with it just because I couldn’t get the lessons.  And I taught myself how to play. From there … I would watch TV while playing piano, and I would try to score. I would turn the volume down and I would try to score the cartoons.

NP: Which cartoons?

HPM: Looney Tunes, Warner Brothers.  A lot of them are so dialogue-free anyway.  And from there I would copy movie scores as they would play on television, like Dr. Zhivago would come on and I would play along with that. I fell in love with movie scores.

I joined a band when I was in my 20s.  I was the only person in the band who wanted to make anything cinematic. They all thought that was cheesy. They were a rock band. They were too cool for school.

So what ended up happening was, I said, “Forget it. I’m going to make my own album. I’m going to perform this myself, and play it all myself.  I don’t care if anybody thinks it’s corny or cheesy, this is what I want to do.” And it became my sound. I wasn’t afraid of A, being silly, or B, sounding a little as if I’m scoring a film.

And it just so happened that as I was getting jobs scoring other people’s films, that was my outlet. When I wasn’t scoring my own films, I was scoring other people’s films or scoring the work I was doing for corporations.

NP: I have the sense that you’ve had a change in the way you’ve composed and written lyrics.  What have been those turning points and what caused them?

HPM: In 2003, I was very insecure, so I would write humorous lyrics and play my music on the cheapest instruments possible.

NP: What alleviated the insecurity and gave you more confidence?

HPM: When I started scoring other people’s movies. When I started realizing that people wanted my music — not because they thought I was funny but because they thought it was emotionally resonant.  Then I scored this Mexican film called Velociraptor (2014).

It tells me that I have value. It culminates in my writing the final song in Bitter Melon, where there is not a single ironic note in that song.  It’s a pretty heartfelt song. And that’s the difference between my first produced work and what I did a few months ago.

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2 Comments

  1. BITTER MELON not BITTER LEMON! (:

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