I AM A GHOST Filmmaker Discusses All Sorts of Fascinating Things
At the 2012 St. Louis International Film Festival, I saw a very interesting horror movie called I Am a Ghost. Review for that film will be coming soon. Here now is an interview with the film’s writer/director H.P. Mendoza, who is a talent we will be hearing a lot more from soon.
Paul: I saw the movie at the St. Louis International Film Festival. There were quite a few films being shown at the festival, but this is the one people seemed to know about. When I was asking friends to come to the showing, many of them already knew about it. What luck have you had so far on the festival circuit and has this anticipating buzz been something you noticed at other festivals?
H.P.: I’m glad to know that people knew about I Am a Ghost at the festival seeing as how I’d never screened at the St. Louis International Film Fest before. When I screen at festivals I’ve frequented, people DO turn out, but they tend to raise a brow when they find out it’s a horror film. I think people have grown to expect foul mouthed sarcastic musicals from me. So, when I hear that folks from a NEW festival have heard about the film, that just means that word of mouth is actually helping it.
“I wanted to make a movie that scared me; the movies that scared me just happened to be from the 60’s and 70’s.”
Paul: Going through your filmography, it seems like this is one of the first endeavors into horror, at least on this scale. What attracted you to the genre?
H.P.: I started off with musicals because those stories were top of mind. I have this stack of screenplays under my bed that I intend to go through, and I never write them thinking about WHEN I’m going to do shoot them. Honestly, I Am a Ghost was a screenplay I wrote thinking that I wouldn’t do it for YEARS. But I’ve always loved horror films and actually believe that the genre holds some of the best cinematic experiences you can find. I can get highbrow and talk about my love for Carnival of Souls and Rosemary’s Baby, but trust me: Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and Evil Dead both carved grooves in my brain, as well.
Paul: Even though I Am a Ghost seems to be a small movie, I don’t know if I have ever seen a movie that gets the most out of its resources. One location. Primarily just one actor. Was the genesis of the movie a matter of seeing what you had and then working it into a narrative, or did the idea for the film come from somewhere else? Or possibly a hybrid of the two?
H.P.: I originally had this fantasy of making a movie that was all white noise, drifting in and out of consciousness, from the literal point of view of the ghost. As in “the-entire-film-is-through-her-eyes”. When I decided that the movie would be more formalist, playing with composition, color and focus, I automatically assumed that I’d NEVER be able to afford to shoot it, so I kept it under my bed. Under the science-fiction one, too. But when director Julia Kwan actually convinced me that I Am a Ghost should be my NEXT film, I had to consider it. After combing through the story, I’d realized that I can tell the story exactly the way I want to with my existing budget. It just meant that I had to be cinematographer, gaffer, sound recordist, editor and composer. And why not? As I read through the script, I realized I just had to find the right rooms for each scene. This was no different from location scouting for any other film I’d worked on! And instead of finding the confidence to do it, I just decided to be confident.
Paul: I hear the movie being compared to The Sixth Sense and The Others, at least that’s how it was explained before the screening at St Louis Film Festival; however the movie it most reminded me of was Polanski’s REPULSION. One woman, dealing with her sanity, dealing with what she is and a prisoner to the walls around her. Am I right in saying REPULSION was an inspiration? If not, what inspirations did you have for the movie? And were you influenced possibly by any non-horror genre films?
H.P.: I’m flattered by the comparison to Repulsion, but it’s probably only ONE inspiration! Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock were my main inspirations for the film, but I can also cite The Haunting from 1961 (not the crappy Jan De Bont remake) and The Innocents. I honestly didn’t really set out to make a movie that was an homage to old films. I wanted to make a movie that scared me; the movies that scared me just happened to be from the 60’s and 70’s. Non-horror films influenced me, too. I think that I really wanted to make a movie that messed with form in a really unsettling way, like the opening of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. And the second section of the film was really inspired by Stan Brakhage’s Water Window Baby Moving (a film that I really do believe ALL aspiring filmmakers should watch). I know this is sounding dense, but it all makes sense, and hopefully I’ll get to talk about it in the commentary track of the Blu-Ray.
Paul: Well I also noticed some of the slow-burn elements of a movie like Takashi Miike’s Audition, which builds and builds and then explodes at the right time. Was a movie like that in the back of your mind when you were making this movie? A movie that respects the audiences’ patience with knowing the reward would be worth it in the end.
H.P.: Audition and many other films are great examples of slow-burn suspense, but the main film that sat in my head during the writing process was The Shining. The other film that also floated around my head was Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. One is a slow burning horror film that really ratchets up the tension by allowing the audience to melt into a scene, the other is a drama that shows you the details of everyday household activity before it leads to an unexpected event. Both of them are films that reward you for your investment. Some extended family of mine saw the I Am a Ghost in Philadelphia saying that I could have cut out the entire first third of the film and they still would have “gotten the point”. And seriously, if you think you can “get the point” of the film without the first thirty minutes, then you did NOT get the point.
Too many people arrogantly review a film for what it’s NOT. I wanted to make a film that FORCES the audience to take it on its own terms so you can judge it for what it IS. So often, I hear “oh that movie could have been a half hour shorter” or “that film would have been better if this scene were cut” and I see them as victims of corporate brainwashing. They don’t realize that we’ve been socialized to believe that a film should be a certain length by movie executives and theater chain corporate heads who want to make sure they can sell a film that’s 80 minutes long so they can fit eight screenings in a day for $12 a pop. Seriously, when did we all become seasoned film critics who can’t stomach the idea of “another slow Mallick film”?
Paul: I tried making movies years ago, and I once tried directing a movie with just one actor being haunted by a house. And having that actor not be able to act off of another actor was the hardest thing I ever directed, and the final project was a disaster. So I can respect so much how you were able to get a performance out of just one actor. How did you deal with that challenge of having your actress Anna Ishida give her performance without being able to bounce off of someone else?
H.P.: Anna Ishida is a great actor. Plain and simple. She’s an accomplished stage actor and I’ve seen her on stage in many different roles. She always nails it in a way that leaves me breathless. When she told me that she was nervous about playing Emily because she’d never been in a film before, and the idea of a huge lens shoved in her face was weird, I realized that the logical step was to make her part of the creative process.
Sometimes, Jeannie Barroga would be on set to provide the voice for Anna to act against, but the real intense moments were pulled out by L.A. Renigen (from Colma: The Musical and Fruit Fly), who wore multiple hats for two days on set. One of those hats was reading for Sylvia, and she really brought the scene to an intense level of horror for Anna to work with. Hopefully, I’ll be able to put the raw footage on the Blu-Ray so you can hear Anna acting with L.A. Renigen.
Paul: To address again the comparisons with The Sixth Sense and The Others, your movie seems to deal a lot more with perception. In those two movies, the ghost’s perception was a twist, almost a gimmick, but in I Am a Ghost, it seems you are making much more of a commentary on perception. Without going into spoiler territory, about 2/3 the way into the movie, you had another presence or an extra layer. And that extra layer helps change the perception later in the movie. Are you trying to make a statement on the power of perception along with making a terrifying movie?
H.P.: I Am a Ghost is all about perception. I was one of those kids who would be enjoying himself with his friends in school and then suddenly thinking “what if I’m not here? What if I’m actually 90 years old, having outlived all of my friends and I’m actually miserable and retreating into a happy memory?” I wanted to write a script that touches on how you perceive death, how you perceive the afterlife, how you perceive mental illness and how you perceive time. There are multiple shifts of perception throughout the film, and I think almost everybody in the audience gets that. And there is a shift in perception during the last five minutes of I Am a Ghost that only about 60% of the audiences have noticed. I like that. I have no intention of making anything more obvious.
Paul: I notice you are out of San Francisco. We are based out of St. Louis, and so many local actors make the trip to LA and come back a year later, broke, unsuccessful with sad stories about being extras in B movies no one will ever see. But staying in St Louis is an equally bad option. What is San Francisco like as a filmmaking city? Would you ever recommend it as an alternative to LA for anyone making the trip out west?
H.P.: Shooting in San Francisco is all I know, to be honest. I’ve only ever done guerrilla films like I Am a Ghost, so I’ve had a lot of support from several communities in San Francisco, especially for my last film, Fruit Fly. Before I say that San Francisco is the place you want to be, I suggest aspiring filmmakers watch the works of San Francisco filmmakers like Terry Zwigoff, Barry Jenkins and Richard Wong to see what’s being made before the make the move and realize they’ll never get to make Avatar 2 in this city.
(Paul’s note: Barry Jenkins is the director of the fantastic indie film Medicine for Melancholy. Take it now from both of us and see that movie)
Paul: Ten years ago the big question aspiring filmmakers had was how do I get a film MADE? Today it seems the more pertinent question is how do I get my film SEEN? Do you think a filmmaker can trust the festival circuit to pick the good from the bad, or are there other means you have taken with I Am A Ghost to make sure the movie gets in front of people?
H.P.: I think the festivals are THE way to see great independent film. I’ve seen so many films that wowed me but disappear (Stephen Palmer’s Blindscape, anyone? Sheesh, it was nominated for an Oscar, why has it VANISHED?!?) and the festivals are the best way to see curated work. They’re sometimes the only way to see some indies on the big screen, and honestly a lot of indie films have big screen cinematography. I depend on the film festivals to get butts in seats to see my films. That’s how the past films I’ve worked on have gotten distribution. Here’s hoping I can get I Am a Ghost distributed soon!
Paul: So what is next for the movie? Any upcoming festivals on the horizon?
H.P.: I Am a Ghost is in its last quarter of domestic festivals, even though it’s done a couple outside of the U.S. (It won Best Actress at MIX Mexico and Best Picture at Bram Stoker International in the UK) so I don’t really know what’s in store. I’d love to have some sort of theatrical run (since people seem to be demanding it) and I’d really love a Blu-Ray and DVD on top of digital distribution. So many filmmakers I’ve been traveling with are self-distributing and it seems to be the new model for independent film. We’ll see. Every time I decide to jump into a film, I’m jumping into uncharted waters and I’m green as hell. I hope I never get jaded and see any of these processes as old hat. I want to always be excited.
Paul: And what is next for you as a filmmaker? Any other projects in any stage of production you are working on?
H.P.: The next film is called Bitter Melon and it’s a comedy about a family who conspires to kill the black sheep of the family on Christmas Eve. I’m getting ready to finish a new draft of the script so I can start looking for funding and actors. It’s bloody and violent, but I promise it will be funny!
Check out H.P. Mendoza’s website at www.hpmendoza.com