The story behind ‘Colma: The Musical’

San Francisco filmmakers Richard Wong and H.P. Mendoza show tons of heart and soul in their movie “Colma: The Musical.” Surprisingly, neither spent his entire childhood there.

But the movie, which opens Friday at the Embarcadero in San Francisco, does tell a personal story. It’s based on teen years the two spent living in the town before they went separate ways — Wong to Los Angeles, where he became a video engineer and worked on major TV shows including “Arrested Development,” and Mendoza to the East Coast, where he pursued music.

Yet while making the movie clearly was a labor of love, it wasn’t something they slaved over for years. It took only several months and $15,000 supplied by Wong himself.

Its origin, both say, was similar to what happens in Turner Classic Movies. But instead of saying “Let’s put on a show,” they came together when director Wong, who had some money saved up, said, “Let’s make a movie.”

They had been reunited through a mutual friend, who had received an unusual birthday gift from songwriter Mendoza — a recording of 11 songs called “Colma: The Musical.”

“I was so broke,” Mendoza said in a recent interview. So instead of buying his friend (now an actor working in Bay Area musical theater) a present, he created a CD with tunes that looked at their lives together in Colma, songs about “how dumb we were,” Mendoza says, and some with heartfelt moments, too.

The friend helped Mendoza, who wrote the book and music, and co-stars in the movie, reconnect with Wong. It had been 13 years since Wong and Mendoza had seen each other.

Having tired of Hollywood and being at a point where he didn’t know what he was going to do with his life, Wong asked Mendoza to write a script to go with his CD.

He did it in a matter of days. The next thing they knew, they were arranging location shots around Colma (they say they had permission for almost all the scenes), and after that, hit the film festival circuit.

The movie premiered at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in March 2006, to positive response, and it’s been the subject of tons of buzz ever since.

It hasn’t yet played in Colma.

The filmmakers said they sent a screener to Colma officials, who decided not to sponsor a local showing, possibly because of some adult language and themes.

“I think they were expecting something that looks more like a musical travelogue,” Mendoza says, describing the movie as “a really big PG-13.”

Still, Mendoza says he believes there could be a day his indie offering makes the local multiplex. He says, “‘Colma: The Musical’ in Colma — why not?”

lkatz@examiner.com


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