H.P. Mendoza and I meet via Zoom on the last day that his newest film, The Secret Art of Human Flight, is playing at Tribeca Film Festival 2023. Immediately — because how could we not — we talk about how rare it is for each of us to encounter someone else who’s Filipino, let alone someone who’s both queer and Filipino, on either side of these interviews. “I can count on, maybe, one and a half hands how many Filipino journalists I’ve talked to,” Mendoza says. “So, right now, I’m feeling a lot more comfortable.”
Of course, the bigger celebration is the fact that this year’s Tribeca marks Mendoza’s festival debut, one that he describes as “surreal” because of how long it’s taken him to get here. “Every single film I’ve submitted to Tribeca [was rejected]. It’s always after the fact, when I get to meet a programmer, that they’re like, ‘You were this close. If only you were this, if only you were that,’” he says. “I’d find out that Tribeca had a theme that year, and between 2005 and now, it’s not hard to imagine that there was never a Filipino-themed year.”
This isn’t to say that Mendoza bears any ill will towards Tribeca and its programmers. On the contrary, he reflects on the perfect timing of “being on this side of the velvet rope” this year with this film in particular: “Had this happened to me any earlier, I wouldn’t have been as ready. Every premiere I’ve had [before] has been local, queer, and/or Asian film festivals, so for me to fly to New York to premiere this film that no one’s ever seen — it’s intense, but I’m loving it.”
The Secret Art of Human Flight follows Ben (Grant Rosenmeyer, who also serves as co-producer) in the midst of grieving the death of his wife Sarah (Reina Hardesty). He turns to a self-help book written by self-proclaimed guru, Mealworm (Paul Raci), that he buys via the dark web. Per the film’s title, the book aims to teach Ben how to fly. When Mealworm shows up on Ben’s doorstep, Ben must undergo a series of unorthodox trials and changes designed to help him achieve his goal of flight. Naturally, this raises eyebrows and alarm bells for the loved ones around him, who are doing their best to guide Ben through this dark time.
What immediately drew Mendoza to directing this film was the fact that it wasn’t one he had written, a prospect that he calls “freeing.” “I get to take someone else’s work, and I get to put so much of myself into it,” he says. “The way I directed this, the way I composed the music, and edited this is so unabashedly me that I would like to think that anyone who’s been following my work for the past 20 years would say, ‘Oh, this is something else, but [still] feels queer and Asian.’”
At one point in our interview, Mendoza jokes — “I don’t know if it’s going to make me sound super Asian or not” — about his “mathematical” approach to The Secret Art of Human Flight.
“I wish I were more spiritual about it, but maybe this is just my version of spirituality — I basically treated the whole film as if we were shooting a musical and/or composing a piece of music together.”
Indeed, while shooting, “finding the rhythm,” as he calls it, was a continual direction he gave the actors, from the principal talent to the extras. He would even compose music on the spot by humming into his phone while directing. “There were moments in the movie, where people felt choreographed to the actual songs that I composed.”
The result is a film that is a delicate dance between absurdist comedy and an exploration of grief, while also leaning into horror territory and ideas of spirituality. This is most epitomized by Ben and Mealworm’s relationship, which is simultaneously earnest in the way the former leans on the expertise of the latter and somewhat terrifying when you remember they met via the dark web and the latter takes over his home and personal life.
“I needed a character dynamic, and I didn’t want to force one on them if we didn’t have time to rehearse it,” he says, which meant leaning into what was naturally already there between his actors, specifically Rosenmeyer and Raci. “Grant was in a space where he was — I won’t speak for him — going through his losses in the pandemic, [and] Paul was coming from a place of spirituality. He followed a bunch of different gurus who he knew were coming from places of turmoil, and so he was drawing from them.”
What’s more, to bolster the film, which could have easily slid into “dead wife movie” territory — wherein the wife’s death (and her character as a whole) is merely in service of the husband’s emotional journey — Mendoza was intentional in giving Sarah full presence in the movie even after her passing. So, taking advantage of the, in his words, “director’s pass” that he was granted, “I said, why don’t we have some scenes where we actually see what the relationship was like?” This largely ended up taking the form of video messages Sarah records for Ben peppered throughout the film, which unearth their lives (and, more importantly, their struggles) as self-publishing children’s book authors.
To edit the film, Mendoza used Adobe Premiere, a program that is perpetually open on all his computers. “It’s kind of unhealthy,” he jokes. “I have two Macs — I have a desktop Mac at home and I have my laptop — and I have this gaming PC and another PC for projection gaming. I have Premiere [on all the computers] because I’m always editing. When you’re someone like me, who doesn’t necessarily have a machine — I don’t have a big PR company that does ‘H.P. Mendoza stuff’ when it comes to my corporate work or my movies — I have to have Premiere open at all times.”
To close out our interview, the one thing Mendoza underscores is the kindness that permeated every step of production between everyone involved. “[Producer] Tina Carboni was a force on-set. She had this thing where she was all about good people,” he says. “We’ve spent the past 20 years in toxic environments, and people say that’s just the way things are supposed to be, and Tina and I are kind of like, ‘Oh yeah? Well, watch us.’ It shines through, and I’m really happy about that.”