Q&A with Fruit Fly director H.P. Mendoza

San Francisco-born writer-director, singer-songwriter H.P. Mendoza introduced his new musical Fruit Fly to Toronto audiences on Thursday.

Film critics have called his film “filthy” and “utterly filthy” but that doesn’t faze the director in producing stories that really speak to the Asian-American experience.

We caught up with the 33-year-old Mendoza before the screening and talked about his directorial debut, being Asian in the queer and trans community, and why fruit fly is the more acceptable term than fag hag.

Reel Asian: Coming from the west coast, how do you like Toronto?

H.P.: It’s my first time in Toronto. It’s been sort of a solitary and insular experience for me because I’ve basically been killing time by walking around, exploring and observing people. It’s very nice, and it’s very east coast.

RA: (Laughs) What have you seen so far?

HP: The CN Tower, I know it’s very touristy. But I’m like why not I have time to kill.

RA: You have to. It’s like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower.

HP: Yeah exactly. I’m totally cool being that dork that does the whole touristy thing. Everyone’s been telling me to go to Church and Wellesley and I probably won’t have time to do that. It’s so cool all these straight people are telling me where to go.

RA: How have your experiences helped you from doing all these different shorts from a few years ago and now leading up to your directorial debut?

HP: I think it was inevitable. I think most people that I ran into — and it’s such a cliche to say but — I think they all have it in their heads that they all want to direct. The truth is I have been hired to write a bunch of these different scripts that I would not direct.

To have the Centre for Asian American Media actually green light this really gay Asian film was mind-boggling to me. They had no qualms with anything, which is funny because coming from a non-profit with a high political stance I was shocked they would just say, “Fine we don’t want to cut anything up.”

A couple of critics have called it “filthy”. Barbara Scharres at the Gene Siskel Film Centre called it “filthy” but she loved it. Then Dean Carrico with the Honolulu Weekly called it “utterly filthy”. It’s funny because PBS wants a cut of it too and it has to be clean.

Most people would think who funded this? More mainstream people would have said cut out this word, cut out the gay relationship, cut this stuff but the Centre for Asian American Media was like, “Ok green light. Do it.”

It’s flattering.

RA: Sometimes these issues aren’t really heard in the Asian community. How important do you think these dialogues and conversations are regarding queer and trans people to be showcased in a festival like Reel Asian?

HP: I think it’s really important … I really feel that I’m equal parts gay and Asian. I don’t feel like I’m a gay guy who kind of delves into Asian issues. I don’t think I’m an Asian guy who once in a while would bring up gay topics. I talk about them equally.

I have nothing against what has been coming up but you see a lot of gay media that is blatantly anti-Asian. You see a lot of the emasculated male who still is the “ching-chong China man” delivering pizza for the gay white couple.

I’m really happy with all the Asian and Asian-American films that have been coming out over the past 10 years, but in any given year there’s always the one that has the faggot and he gets beaten up and it’s supposed to be hilarious. I’m all for proper representation on the screen but I think both sides can learn a lot from each other. They shouldn’t dehumanize each other.

RA: How long did it take you to make the film?

HP: The script took about two months to write because I was writing the script and the music simultaneously. I didn’t write the music first, and then say let’s write a story about this, and I didn’t do what is even more common which is to write a story and leave gaps for music.

I wanted this to feel different from Colma: The Musical that I wanted people to sing to each other this time. It had to be a musical-musical so I wrote it like a script. And it took about 23 days to shoot, and about six to eight months to edit and colour correct.

RA: What was the basis of Fruit Fly?

HP: Well Colma: The Musical was about me growing up. I was born in San Francisco but I spent four years in this tiny suburb just south of San Francisco, and I really wanted to make this musical about me growing up. So when we did Colma: The Musical, I became really good friends with the female character in Colma, L.A. Renigen, and I thought she was really interesting.

When I met her, she was a performance artist and she had this show called L.A. Renigen: A Work In Progress , and she was dealing with different issues, Filipino issues, finding her family, and I said you know what, “Would you work with me again?” And she said, “Yes, absolutely.” So I said, “You know what I want to do another musical, but this time I want it to be about you.”

The film is about this Filipina performance artist who’s trying to find her identity and in the process she just finds out that she’s a fag hag. At its core, Fruit Fly is really about a Filipina performance artist trying to find her biological mom, and it’s a musical. What I like is it does mirror what L.A. Renigen is and no matter what happened, people pigeonhole her.

RA: Is it safe to say that a Fruit Fly is a fag hag?

HP: Fruit Fly is a term that was created by the fag hags who didn’t like being called fag hags. The term fag hag did not come from the gay community. It was created by straights … Of course there was this act of reclamation where a bunch of women just said, “Yeah that’s right I’m a fag hag.”

But at the same time, you have a lot of people who are still using it and they don’t realize how misogynist it is to call a woman a hag. A lot of women just don’t like it. The preferred term is actually a fruit fly.