"This is a dead wife movie" that isn't maudlin says "The Secret Art of Human Flight" filmmaker

HP Mendoza describes his movie about grief that is part psychedelic, horror, home invasion and buddy film

Published June 8, 2023 8:30PM (EDT)

Secret Art of Human Flight (Grant Rosenmeyer)
Secret Art of Human Flight (Grant Rosenmeyer)

"The Secret Art of Human Flight," nimbly directed by H.P. Mendoza, is a gentle fable about letting go — and letting your freak flag fly. Quirky, without being overly precious, the film has Ben (Grant Rosenmeyer) despondent after the loss of his wife, Sarah (Reina Hardesty). He finds comfort by learning to fly "with no plane involved." His instructor is Mealworm (Paul Raci), whom he found on the dark web, who puts him through a rigorous program — e.g., eat only vegetables for a week, then eat only meat for a week; go on a quest for spiritual enlightenment, etc. Ben's training distracts him from his loss and gives him a renewed sense of purpose. His friendship with Mealworm, as well as his wife's friend, Wendy (a sublime Maggie Grace), helps Ben get out of his rut. 

Mendoza, who has previously directed the infectious low-budget musical, "Fruit Fly," and the dark comedy, "Bitter Melon," connects with the material here by creating flights of fancy while also grounding the story with scenes depicting grief and mental illness. It's a tricky balancing act that shifts from comedy to sadness, sometimes within the same scene. Mendoza manages it well coaxing a wily performance from Raci and infusing the story with some clever visual touches. 

On the eve of the film's world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Mendoza spoke with Salon about "The Secret Art of Human Flight."

Ben takes a big leap in "The Secret Art of Human Flight." This film is a big leap for you having made a series of indie films like "Colma: The Musical" and "Bitter Melon." Can you talk about work on this level?

I learned to see the pattern in my career. Every time I make a film, people come to me and say, "Great DIY job, you indie punk kid. Now I'll show you how to make a real movie!" And when I try to work larger, we hit snags and problems, so I have to work as the scrappy DIY guy I am. Even though this film was 10 times more money than I usually work with, I still had to be scrappy and wear a lot of hats. So did my DP. This is the probably the scrappiest I had to be since "Colma: The Musical." This felt no different to me. It just happened to have Paul Raci in it. 

It was interesting because I always thought of myself as someone who was going to stay on the outskirts. I was going into darker territory with "Bitter Melon," and going into experimental territory with my current film project [in development.] When I got this script, I thought it was an '80s film that threatened to whisk you away with images of flight, like "Always" and "Radio Flyer," which were marketed as "emotional movies about flying." I'd never been handed a script before, nor have I worked with Hollywood people before. I was looking for outs, because I am always busy, and I am insecure. Grant talked me into it, and it gave me a chance to exorcise some things I was going through during the pandemic. This film deals with loss, and I was dealing with loss, so I took the plunge.

What I appreciated about the film was how it asks Ben to confront his fears. After his wife's death, he is treated with kindness and compassion, but Ben doesn't want folks to treat him like a wounded hummingbird. What themes clicked with you emotionally? You talked about loss during the pandemic, but it isn't sentimentalized. 

I think that over-sentimentalization goes hand-in-hand with something I don't like about dead wife movies. This is a dead wife movie, and I said, "Either we lean into making a dead wife movie in 2023, or we cut the dead wife out altogether." I was really happy to be given the chance to flesh Sara out as a character. Sara is a version of me and my husband rolled in one. When you have been married for 17 years, you get a little more pragmatic. For me, Ben having to deal with things head-on, we had to skip past the sentiment, and show that there were some cracks and fissures in their relationship. I grew up with messages like, "In order to move past something you have to let it go." We absorb that, but they never meant anything until I had stuff to let go of. I wanted to put my lens on that and have Grant echo that. 

"The Secret Art of Human Flight" is a very layered film both in terms of content and style. There are surreal moments and scenes of magic realism. You incorporate personal videos, a psychedelic sequence, and other episodes. How did you approach telling this story visually? 

I've always been a fan of mixed media. It inspired me to have Reina Hardesty in the film. She was talking about her experiencing as an Asian American with me. That unlocked this link to my previous work. So, I wondered, what would it take to make "The Secret Art of Human Flight" into something mixed media, without being "Natural Born Killers" or "Sans Soleil." When I had the opportunity to write the flashbacks, I talked with my DP about how could we differentiate them and make them like the films that made our hearts soar? How can we make this feel like big moments in Hollywood films? So that lead us to shoot in 4:3. That makes it feel bigger. We shot in a small house in Pittsfield, MA. I wanted to shoot wide angle as much as possible. I wanted things to be unsettling. Let's make every shot look weird. My DP, Marcus, said, "I feel you want this to be like a horror film," and I responded, "If you want things to be a rollercoaster, it has to be a little bit scary." So, we built this aesthetic together. "The Tree of Life" was a big inspiration for me; I spiritually don't connect that that film, but the visuals really live with me. 

There are several scenes that address issues of grief and mental illness. Can you talk about incorporating these topics into what is, at times, a buddy comedy?

Even though half of it is a buddy movie, I was trying to make the other half like a home invasion film. I think Mealworm is scary; he is not the genie from "Aladdin." He could be there to kill him, which is said by Tom (Nican Robinson), the cop. You witness this big struggle inside Ben's head. The idea that the other side of isolation is connecting with people, and once Ben starts connecting, there is a moment he blows up and talks about how he doesn't care. It's borderline suicidal. It's a heavy scene, but it does have to be there. But people don't run away from him We all struggled through the pandemic, but we didn't struggle though it alone. People talk about how isolated they were during the pandemic. What was interesting was watching people I know blaming everyone for their depression. I never saw that before. His sister, Gloria (Lucy DeVito) forces Ben to open up about his feelings. The scene was supposed to be played for laughs, but I thought, I can't in good faith do this as a joke. It has to be heavier. It's a movie about grieving, so it deserves to have a few heavy moments. 

Both Wendy and Mealworm counsel Ben differently. What approach would you take with Ben?

My knee-jerk reaction to how I would deal with Ben is that I'm definitely a Wendy. But I wonder how much of me is Mealworm, too? When I first got the script and I was reading what Mealworm is saying about leaving western luxuries aside and becoming the barefoot goddess as she connects with the earth, I don't know that this is wise advice. Maybe that's the point, but it feels like faux mysticism and orientalism. I brought that up with the team and that became a line in the film! I don't want to come across as a guru or someone who has all answers. I want someone to come along with me on this ride called life and share experiences. That's what I do with people. I say, "I can't fix your problems, but I'm your sponge." That's what I appreciate most about Wendy. I didn't want her to be an oracular character, or a fixer. When she talks about her dead husband, she should be off in her own world, not looking at Ben. Her sharing her experience is a lot more impactful. She is this grounding force. There are certain things about Mealworm that do speak to me. Mysticism and orientalism aside, I appreciate what he says about letting go. But I am more of a facilitator than a guru.

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You are a composer as well as a director, and often create songs for your films. You wrote two songs for "The Secret Art of Human Flight." Can you discuss that form of storytelling in this film?

Interestingly, that song is Wendy's theme, evolved. I was composing on set and just coming up with little tunes. I had a keyboard in my backpack at all times and use it to show how I wanted a rhythm to be on any scene. There is a scene of Paul playing a guitar on the floor in front of candles. He was knocking out some chords and seeing what sounded pretty. That is what got captured in the movie, and those chords became Wendy's theme. Imagine if the film is a musical — what would Mealworm's speech sound like as a musical number? 

Wendy says she copes with grief by drinking a potion she creates. Ben learns to fly. What do you do to get out of a rut? 

There are several things I do to get out of ruts. I always try to take myself out of my element —whether that is taking psychedelics or trying something new, like joining the Bay Area flash mob and choreographing for them. Or moving to Tokyo. Or just traveling for a while and not knowing when I am going to come back home. Things that are uncomfortable. Things I might have been afraid of in the past. Any rut I fall into is based on a block, and not sure I know what it is or where it lies, but maybe I can do something to shake it free. 

"The Secret Art of Human Flight" screens June 8, 9, and 13 at the Tribeca Film Festival.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Grief Hp Mendoza Interview Movies The Secret Art Of Human Flight Tribeca Film Festival