Interview: H.P. Mendoza – I Am a Ghost
I Am a Ghost is a classic definition of low budget indie filmmaking. Shot over seven days in a mostly DIY fashion, I Am a Ghost follows Emily (Anna Ishida), a young woman who doesn’t realize that she’s a ghost who’s still haunting her old house. The current residents hire a medium (Jeannie Barroga) to remove Emily’s spirit and, through their conversations, try to figure out what’s keeping Emily from moving on to the other side. H.P. Mendoza’s talent shines through every frame, relying on atmosphere and form to make one of the more original indie horrors to come out in the last few years.
Mendoza took out some time from his busy schedule to talk to us about what he calls his “tiny movie.” We talk about the state of horror today, the various influences seen throughout the film, the spooky location and the casting process among other things. Read below for the full interview, and be sure to read our review. You can find more information about I Am a Ghost at www.iamaghost.com.
Your film is one of the more original takes on the horror genre I’ve seen recently, mainly because of its focus on form which tends to be rare with horror films today. How do you feel about the horror genre’s output today, and did you make sure to try and avoid using some of the more familiar genre elements while working on the film?
The truth is that, while I love horror films, I started giving up on them. I haven’t been scared in a really long time. And I’m constantly daydreaming of new ways to scare people. I’ve wanted to do a formalist film for a while but never thought I’d have the guts to do it, especially when I’m at a point where I’m “supposed” to be doing the right thing if I want to be noticed. I Am a Ghost was one of those scripts I wrote and stashed, thinking it would be the film I’d eventually do when I get enough “clout” or whatever to do anything I want. But one day I had lunch with Julia Kwan, who directed Eve and the Fire Horse, and I was trying to sell her on this idea I had for a comedy about California’s Proposition 8 and she said “I think I Am a Ghost should be your next film.” And I laughed! At first. When I saw that she wasn’t laughing, I realized that if I was going to make a horror film, now was the time.
The first 15 minutes mostly involve watching Emily repeatedly perform different chores and actions throughout the house with no real context or explanation. It’s a bold way to start things off. Did you always envision starting the movie that way, and were you ever worried about how viewers would react to it?
Whenever you decide to do something that a lot of people would consider “bold”, you have to accept that an equal number of people will consider it “stupid” or “pretentious”. I struggled with that early on. The screenplay also has little parentheticals that say “NOTE: I know all of this seems weird, but please trust me. Keep reading.” I was in love with the idea of alienating the audience from the very start. Even Rick Burkhardt, who plays the demon in the film, told me that I should be careful seeing as how I’m giving the audience an experimental film for 15 minutes and then suddenly thrusting them into a two person theatre-piece. But I really do believe that those first fifteen minutes are crucial to enjoying the rest of the film. I think that when all of the weird supernatural stuff starts to really hit the fan, you need to have seen those experimental images to know exactly why these ghostly occurrences are so disturbing.
One of the major themes in I Am a Ghost involves repetition and memory. One of the more interesting and creepier aspects of the film was how the only memories Emily preserved were about mundane things as opposed to something more exciting or memorable. Can you explain what interests you about memories and how they affect us?
The challenge I had when I was coming up with these mundane memories was to write them in a way that made them memorable. Like having Emily yawn in an overly theatrical manner. I think I wrote those exact words in the script: EMILY yawns in an overly theatrical manner. Or having her yawn in a really awkward way while she fries eggs. Anna Ishida, who plays Emily, kept saying that she found Emily disturbing. She’d be on set, re-reading the script and saying “What is WRONG with her?!? I want to figure her out!” And during the shoot, she was aware that I’d be cutting to black at the most inopportune times, so it must have been pretty alienating for her, as well. Someone at a film festival asked me why I thought memories are so scary. And I told her that when I was a kid, I used to have strange fears. I used to play dodgeball with my friends and think, “I’m having a great time, right now. What if this isn’t happening? What if I’m actually 90 years old and everyone around me has died and I’m so sad and lonely that I’m stuck in this memory of being happy?” I was a fun kid.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining felt like a major influence throughout, but I was more surprised at how much the film reminded me of European cinema. The opening reminded me a lot Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. What were your influences for the film, cinematic or otherwise?
You’re only the second person to compare the opening to Jeanne Dielman! That makes me so happy. Yeah, I am really influenced by Kubrick and especially The Shining (with A Clockwork Orange coming in second as far as how influential Kubrick has been to me) but I really wanted to make a film that felt like the formalist films of the sixties and seventies, so I’d have to cite Ingmar Bergman’s Persona as a major influence, down to the repeated scenes. Formalism aside, I was also influenced by Picnic at Hanging Rockwhich I feel is, for all intents and purposes, a supernatural horror film. In a cheeky way, I was hoping to echo the character aesthetic of Hanging Rock by putting Emily in Victorian garb but giving her a 70’s hairdo. And as far as the dialogue driven “less-is-more” approach, I have to cite The Haunting as an influence. The Robert Wise original from 1963, not the Jan de Bont action remake. And for the second act of the film, that twenty-minute segment after first contact between Emily and Sylvia, I owe it all to Stan Brakhage. At one point, I even considered making the middle of the film silent so it really felt like a Brakhage film, but I slapped myself and said “that’s not bold, that’s pretentious.” That and I would be getting rid of all of the sound design that was baked into the script and story.
You have a lot of credits to your name on this film including: Director, writer, producer, editor, score, cinematography and special effects (just to name a few). Do you prefer having that much independence and control with the production?
I actually do love how many hats I wore to make this film. My first film, Fruit Fly, was a little more adherent to the standards of institutional filmmaking, and it needed that. But I Am a Ghost was a chance for me to sort of empty my head onto the screen. It was a very personal shoot with me and Mark Del Lima behind the camera, Anna Ishida, Jeannie Barroga and Rick Burkhardt in front, and Diana Tenes and Juliet Heller off to the sides. And for a couple of days, L.A. Renigen, the lead actress from Fruit Fly, came up to San Francisco to line produce. It may be the last time I have complete control of a production, and that’s O.K., really. For all I know, it might be a good thing.
You’ve said in other interviews that the house in the film is actually a very friendly-looking bed and breakfast in San Francisco. Did you look at other locations before deciding on this specific place? How much did you do in terms of set design, lighting, etc. to make the house look more ominous?
Mark Del Lima and I had toyed with the idea of shooting in an old Victorian on the east coast, specifically Maine. I really wanted an isolated house with lots of space on the sides. Why? I don’t really know for sure. It just felt right. And I figured that if I wrote it into the screenplay, it would be an official requirement. But what I didn’t realize was how hard it would be to deal with a real old house, having to deal with rickety floors or dangerous attics. Mark suggested The Inn San Francisco to me and I was a little skeptical, truth be told. It’s so warm and friendly and well-lit. Mark told me that he could make props that would “creepify” the rooms. And as far as the ominous look goes, there’s a lot to be said about blaring a single strong light through a window and replacing all of the lamps with low-wattage bulbs. We only had seven shooting days, so we often had to shoot “night-for-day”, simulating sunlight however we could. I laugh at one scene where Emily says “But I can see sunlight streaming in through the windows” and Sylvia responds with “That’s not real.” That’s right, Sylvia. It most definitely wasn’t.
Here’s a picture from my Instagram feed of the difference between the real look of the place and the lit version for the movie.
Since the film really has only two main characters, with one of them being a disembodied voice, was the casting process difficult in terms of finding the right actresses to play Emily and Sylvia?
I stalked Anna for a while, hoping that she would be available to play Emily. I’d seen her in various plays and she always ends up being the actor who gives me chills. She has an amazing voice and an electrifying presence, so I was hoping to get her to read the screenplay at some point. As it turned out, she’d seen Fruit Fly and really wanted to work with me so we worked hard to find out how much time we had with each other before we both got swallowed up by our own lives and we found seven shooting days in which we could shoot.
As for Sylvia, I always wanted to work with Jeannie Barroga, who I only knew as an established Filipino-American playwright. When I met her in 2006 at a screening of Colma: The Musical, she introduced herself to me and told me that she liked my work. When I heard her voice, I knew I’d have to follow up with her for something in the future, maybe even Fruit Fly. We promised each other that we’d work with each other one day. And “one day” happened. We talked on the phone about psychics, ghosts in the Philippines, Sylvia Brown, and a bunch of other supernatural stuff and we settled it. We were going to work with each other.
Part of your funding for the film came from Kickstarter. As an independent filmmaker do you think it’s easier to make films now as opposed to years ago when options like crowdsourcing weren’t available?
I do think it’s easier to make a film now because of the major leaps in technology over the past seven years and especially because of crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter. I raised money via Kickstarter for post-production, but I Am a Ghost was already pretty low-budget. I’d look at the other filmmakers raising hundreds of thousands of dollars on Kickstarter and think “wow, they’re all in a different circle. I’m still just a guy who pays rent. Even in the crowdfunding world, I’m a small fish.” The new hardship is in visibility. With the amount of new media being produced, you have huge amounts of money being thrown at internet memes on one end of the continuum and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on the other. Which eeks out what Dave Boyle calls “the middle class of filmmaker”. How do you pierce through this total noise? How do you get past the gatekeepers? Do you become a gatekeeper? It’s an exciting time for independent film, but it’s also really scary and it leaves a lot of us wondering how sustainable it all is.
Finally, what’s the current status on I Am a Ghost’s possibility for release, and what are you working on next?
I Am a Ghost is finally done and is wrapping up the festival circuit. I don’t know what I’m going to do just yet, as far as distribution goes. I’m normally an “aw shucks, this old thing?” kinda guy when it comes to pushing my work, but we’ve won Best Film awards, as well as Best Actress and Best Director awards on top of being put on a bunch of Best of 2012 lists, so I’ve been shameless about pushing I Am a Ghost to distributors. I’ve also been talking with a lot of filmmakers about what they’re doing and I’m getting really inspired. Really inspired. I hope to post an update on the website within the next few months.
I’m setting a deadline to make my decision soon if I have any intention of shooting my new violent family comedy this year. It’s called Bitter Melon. You know those Christmas comedies where the whole family reunites for one evening and “hilarity ensues”? The hilarity in question, here, is that the whole family is reuniting to murder the black sheep of the family. It might be autobiographical.