Filmstitute interview: I Am a Ghost's H.P. Mendoza and Anna Ishida / by H.P. Mendoza

In 2013, we attended Nocturna: The Madrid International Fantastic Film Festival. Of all the films screened at Nocturna, the most surprising film of the festival was H.P. Mendoza's I Am a Ghost starring Anna Ishida. We couldn't just attend the festival, but had to meet director H.P. Mendoza and actress Anna Ishida who were there to present the film. Besides being really nice, they were also very open with their work and agreed to keep in touch. Recently, we did an interview with the two of them to coincide with the screening of the Final Cut in San Francisco. 

FILMSTITUTE: Why do you make movies?

H.P. MENDOZA: It's the only thing I know how to do.

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ANNA ISHIDA: I've made one feature film in my career: I Am a Ghost. And it was because H.P. invited me to do so. I had always wanted to do film, but was very wary of the medium because as an actor, you have to trust your director/editor implicitly with your performance. Fortune smiled when she put me in H.P.'s path. 

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FILMSTITUTE: It seems surprising that such a small team created such a well-rounded film. What's been the most difficult phase of the whole project? At any point did you think that you wouldn't be able to finish it?

H.P. MENDOZA: We had a team of seven people, including the cast. For me, the most difficult part of the project was pre-production. All I had was a file called iaag.pdf sitting on my desktop and I had no idea how I was going to afford to make this movie. Getting started is always the hardest part. I was surrounded by people telling me it was a bad idea and that my movie didn't make sense. Even through early rehearsals, I had to sit through constant second guessing. That's when you feel like it might not happen. But once we started shooting, and there was nothing but a camera in between me and Anna, my confidence came back.

ANNA ISHIDA: The most difficult part of filming for me was conceptualizing being "captured on film." Relaxing was also one of the more difficult things to maintain and trusting that what I was thinking as Emily was enough for the camera. There was one night where H.P. wanted me to scream at the top of my lungs at about 9:30pm. I looked at him and said "you don't want me to do that" because I had a feeling the entire project would be shut down if the owner got complaints/reports/police called if I were to scream at full voice that late at night in a busy hotel. I think it was the right decision. (Those are MY screams in the film)

FILMSTITUTE: H.P., screenwriting, directing, editing...which do you enjoy most?

H.P.: When it's someone else's movie, I love editing and composing music. But if it's my movie, I really don't know which task I enjoy the most. I feel like I'm an introvert who loves to socialize, which makes the writing and directing perfect for me. But I also love to refine, which makes editing a very comfortable spot.
 

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FILMSTITUTE: We love the the shots, the color, the texture. What camera did you shoot with?

H.P.: I shot with the Canon 60D. Since I knew that I would be the person shooting the movie, I even put the optics in the screenplay. The first section is all shot with a 10mm lens, which everyone warned me about, but I didn't care. I wanted the first third of the movie to look like a dollhouse. Once we get the first flashes of memory, we start using prime lenses. And when we get to the second third, I'm using every lens I can. One of the trickiest things was knowing how the footage would be processed, so in order to get the shadowy cold look of the movie, I had to constantly shine a super warm light at Anna so I can cool off the picture in post, which is what gives the red walls the purple gradients as well as Anna her deathly cold appearance. And often, we would run into problems because of the lack of space in the house, so there are a few shots where we actually lit Anna with blue light coming from an iPad!

FILMSTITUTE: Anna, were you scared to approach to a character who bears virtually all the dramatic weight of the film?

ANNA: I was absolutely scared. I was stunned with the prospect. It just didn't make sense to me for an established filmmaker to "risk" an entire film on an inexperienced film actress. Trusting H.P. as the director and editor with my performance was a challenge for me at first. I'm so glad I did end up trusting him day 2/3 of the 7 day shoot. He was very generous and gave me final say on each take and that was an instant establishment of trust between us. I realize this will probably never happen again. He'd also assure me that in some cases he was humoring me because he'd gotten what he wanted in the first 3 takes so it was a constant flexing of "trust muscles" on my part. However, as we got to shooting, the intimacy of the shoot and the intense focus of Emily's story was familiar to my experience acting onstage; I was responsible for my performance.

FILMSTITUTE: Anna, you're on tour with Red Virgin, a musical about the Paris Commune. Is it difficult for a stage actor to move to film? What things do you enjoy the most of each discipline?

ANNA: With theatre, I enjoy the journey/experience of living a character night after night - living the arc of a character's journey. With an audience in the room my performance is completely affected by the energy of the audience. It can be absolutely electrifying - I've never felt so alive when I perform in front of an audience. With film, I appreciate something a teacher told me "trust that thinking is enough." It is a totally different set of muscles and stamina for an actor - in film there's no arc or throughline to build up/ride down from - everything's filmed out of order. I love the experience of rewinding seconds in a favorite movie to watch an actor/character's reaction: seeing their love, horror, anger, anguish, incredulity, sexiness, etc. captured in seconds on film. I love watching behavior and I love how film captures those moments. Theatre is so fleeting - ethereal. Film is forever.

FILMSTITUTE: H.P., when filming, which directors inspire you the most?

H.P.: It depends on what I'm working on. For my first film, Fruit Fly, I was really trying to do something different - because that's what you do when you first start! You try to separate yourself as much as you can from your influences. But for I Am a Ghost, I basically wanted to make the kind of movie that would scare me. And that meant that it had to look, sound and feel like a horror film from the late 60's/early 70's. That meant that I'd be digging into inspirations like Polanski, Bergman, Peter Weir, David Lynch andespecially Stanley Kubrick. It didn't mean that I was trying to make some unholy combination ofRosemary's Baby, Eraserhead and The Shining - but those movies had styles of their own that were such a part of the 70's and they carved grooves in my brain.

FILMSTITUTE: In some moments of the film, the treatment given to the spirit feels very much like therapy, which makes us think of the late 19th century work of Carl G. Jung. Is there any of that? What do you non-cinematic things influences your work?

H.P.: I saw counselors growing up mostly because I went to Catholic School and I was struggling with hiding my sexuality. Interesting that you should point out Carl Jung because for such a long time I dwelled on how much of an introvert I am. And I thought about the collective unconscious for as long as I can remember. So growing up, I gravitated toward analytical psychology. When I was a child, I used to wonder if I was merely reliving memories. I used to wonder if I might be a robot programmed by my parents. I used to wonder if I was a girl. So, yes - without ruining too much of the ending of the film, individuation plays a big part in I Am a Ghost.

FILMSTITUTE: For us, assembly is the key to the film. How did you deal with it? Do you have a reference? Is there any tool without which you do not think you could have to get it?

H.P.: The editing of a film is what makes movies such a tricky medium. I can honestly say that I only have a few rules for editing. 1) Your movie is a song. Stay on beat. 2) Don't withhold. If you're immersing an audience in a world or in a character, show the audience what they visually and psychologically need to stay inside. If you get too clever, the editing doesn't work, and the audience gets pulled out. 3) Treat individual scenes like a social interaction. Am I being entertaining? Am I being informative? Am I dominating this conversation? Am I overstaying my welcome? Or am I not staying long enough?

FILMSTITUTE: There is a specific scene in the movie that really impressed us. The one when Emily opens the house door. Can you tell us something about it? Does it mean anything special for you?

H.P.: Again, I went to Catholic school so I went to mass every morning and we were taught by nuns and priests. In the third grade, a kid my age turned to me after mass and said "you know this is all bullshit, right?" And I thought that lightning was going to strike him down. But for years after, the thought of nothing after death haunted me. It haunted me so much that I had to talk about it with everyone I met. Priests, nuns, teachers, counselors, friends, bus drivers. And when I started getting really into ghost stories, I thought that the idea of a ghost trusting "the light", like in Poltergeist, was just as scary as a haunting. So in the fourth grade, I wrote a short story about my class taking a field trip to the zoo. In the story, the bus driver keeps telling us that we're almost there and if we behave, we'll get ice cream at the zoo. And at the end of the story, the bus plunges off a cliff. It wasn't subtle. At all.

FILMSTITUTE: Recently you screened the Final Cut at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, Does it differ much from the cut we have seen in previous festivals in Europe? Are you very critical of your own work?

H.P.:I'm always critical of my work, but I learned to embrace it and not try to go back and fix things. I Am a Ghost premiered in San Francisco in its rough cut stage in 2011, and it did quite well. But recently, it came back to the Castro after having been completed and shown at festivals around the world, so I had to make sure that people in San Francisco knew it was a new cut. The cut we screened recently in San Francisco versus the version in 2011 is very different. It's longer now. But compared to the version that played in Spain, it's only a little bit different. You'll see when it releases in Spain in February.

ANNA: H.P. answered the first part of this question. I am a perfectionist. I am extremely critical of my work, which is why I have stayed away from film for so long because I was afraid of what I'd discover! What if I was a fool all along thinking I could do this (acting)? When I first watched the film, I forgot I was watching myself, Anna. I believe that was a quiet message that I'm on the right path.

FILMSTITUTE: How do you see the scene in San Francisco Independent Film?

H.P.: I used to have a good handle on what the independent scene was in San Francisco, but I've become so reclusive. Friends started leaving San Francisco to go to Los Angeles or New York. I think the indie film scene is changing in San Francisco because it has to. Ted Hope, the executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, stepped down after only having been appointed for a year. San Francisco is quickly becoming one of the most expensive cities in the world and let's face it: the old model of filmmaking is proving to be way too costly. I'd like to think that with Silicon Valley on our side and the embracing of transmedia, San Francisco is going to be a launchpad for a new wave of independent filmmaking. But what do I know? I just shot I Am a Ghost with a team of seven for $7500.

ANNA: I am brand new to the independent film scene in San Francisco. I'd love to become more involved. It is a very interesting experience when people tell me "you want to do film? Go to LA. Go to NY." But I think "but...I made an excellent film in San Francisco!"

FILMSTITUTE: In 2014 is scheduled for distribution. Has it been hard? ? Asia, Europe, America where you think your film will work best?

H.P.: So far, Europe has been the most receptive of our film. Only in France can we be nominated withGravity and win Best Film and Best Director! And in Spain, our ratings were high, too. I should remind people to rate our film on IMDb, too. Then, I can see exactly where the good reviews are coming from.

ANNA: From what I heard about and witnessed with HP and his company Ersatz, distribution is incredibly difficult! I wanted so badly to do a Japanese overdub for Japanese distribution - all of my father's side of the family live in Japan! But that didn't work out. I knew early on that I Am a Ghost would FIND its audience and vice versa. It is not a film meant for mass/risk-free consumption; it requires time and attention and a certain curiosity and interest in the unusual/unknown. Those who want to see the film will FIND it. To quote an early interview with Frank Lee very early on in the journey of "I Am a Ghost" re: "being bothered by potential obscurity" I said: 'Obscurity is GOLD because oftentimes it's what makes the piece memorable - because it is different and leaves an impression; its quality comes from pure heart and skill."

FILMSTITUTE: Can you tell us something of your upcoming projects?

H.P.: I've learned that every time I tell someone what I'm doing next, I'm wrong! I have a stack of screenplays under my bed and I'm not sure which one I'll be doing next. But I know, whatever it is, I want to do it soon.

ANNA: I will be working with the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco in early Spring on an ancient Chinese myth play with music titled The Orphan of Zhao. I also hope to relocate from the west coast - I have my eye on New York and beyond. Spain, for sure. 

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