Film focuses on neighborhood, Latino culture
At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, "Quinceanera" will appear on a national stage as part of the American Dramatic Competition. But the film began and is quite closely tied to a specific neighborhood.
To find the inspiration for "Quinceanera," Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland who both wrote and directed the film simply stepped outside their door. Living in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood, the subject of the movie rose up around them.
The starting point for the film came when Glatzer and Westmoreland were invited to photograph a Quinceanera at their next-door neighbor’s house.
A Quinceanera is a celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday commonly practiced by Latino cultures. The event marks the time when a girl becomes a woman.
"It’s a girl’s coming of age," said Westmoreland. "It involves everything from a church service to a banquet and special dances. There’s a whole court, like for a wedding."
Glatzer and Westmoreland describe the event they attended in their directors’ statement for the film.
"On the big day, in a storefront church on Sunset Boulevard, the ceremony was breathtaking. All the girls were dressed in pink, the church was decorated with pink, garlands of pink flowers were everywhere. Our neighbor, suddenly revealed as a luminous beauty in tiara and silken dress, paraded down the aisle to the march from Aida. The court of young men, sporting tuxedos and number-1 cholo fades, stood by with masculine detachment; this day belonged to the girls."
"We weren’t aware of the preparation behind it," said Glatzer. "We were sort of really interested in the tradition."
At the same time, the two men wanted to make a movie about the evolution of the distinct Echo Park neighborhood, from a mostly Latino area of L.A. to a gentrified neighborhood populated by the upper middle class.
"In real estate terms, it’s seen a benefit, because property values go up," said Glatzer, "but culturally, it’s often a bad thing."
"The movie started to come together there," Glatzer added.
The film tells the story of a girl, Magdalena, played by Emily Rios, who, as she prepares for her Quinceanera, learns she is pregnant. Kicked out of her family’s home, she finds refuge with her great, great uncle Tomas, played by Chalo Gonzalez, who is also housing Carlos, Magdalena’s cousin who was disowned by his parents for being gay.
But while Thomas, Carlos and Magdalena begin to form a sort of family, a Tomas’ landlords sell the home where he lives, forcing further change upon the group.
Westmoreland and Glatzer said the film is both a coming-of-age story and the story of a neighborhood. The inspiration for the film, they said, came from the British "Kitchen Sink" dramas of the 1950s and ’60s.
"This movie is a drama, and it has social realism," said Westmoreland, "but it has a celebration of life."
The filmmakers said the project happened quickly.
"Things were accelerated beyond our expectations," said Westmoreland.
The pair came up with the idea on Jan. 1, 2005 and obtained funding for the film shortly afterward. They wrote the script in three weeks that spring and filmed the project over a period of three weeks in March.
"By the end of March, the project was in the can," said Glatzer.
The movie was shot mostly with hand-held HD cameras, and according to the filmmakers, between 90- and 95-percent of the filming was done in the Echo Park area. Westmoreland and Glatzer used the homes of their neighbors and drew heavily on the local population for the movie’s cast.
"We were casting people from the street," said Westmoreland.
Most of the other actors were discovered in auditions, Glatzer added. Rios, the film’s lead, makes her feature film debut with "Quinceanera," and Jesse Garcia, who plays Carlos, plays in his biggest film role to date.
The lone veteran actor is Gonzalez, who saw his first and perhaps his most significant film role in the 1969 film, "The Wild Bunch."
The directors said that with the local extras, new actors and low-budget set up, they were able to make a straight-forward, realistic, life-like and ultimately inexpensive film.
"That was definitely the best way to make this movie," said Westmoreland.
The group, he noted worked without a lot of setup, quickly and efficiently.
"We just made every penny in the film into a dollar," he added.
That was possible, he and Glatzer said, with a non-union cast and the support they received from the neighborhood. Ultimately he and Westmoreland said they hoped the public would embrace the film in the same way. The project, they said aims for an accurate representation of the Latino community, despite the fact that both Glatzer and Westmoreland, who hails from Leeds, England, are anglos.
"I’ve never felt cultural barriers to making films were insurmountable," said Glatzer.
"We never felt any opposition from the Latino community about two white filmmakers making a Latino film," Westmoreland added.
The two said they simply deferred to their actors when they had questions or needed help with a scene or piece of dialogue and otherwise simply treated their subject matter with respect and an eye toward realism.
"We don’t just want the indie, art-house film lovers to watch it," said Glatzer. "We want it to go out to the Latino community."
With much of the film’s cast coming to Park City for the film festival and a relative lack of Latino dramas, the directors said they were interested to see what people think of their work.
The film already has an interesting history. Nine months, from start to finish, is lightning fast in the movie industry, illustrating the momentum behind the film.
"It just felt like everything fell into place," said Westmoreland.
"We’re very excited to see how people react to it," said Glatzer.
" Quinceanera" will premier Monday, Jan. 23 in the Racquet Club Theatre at 2:30 p.m. For more information, or a full list of screening times, visit http://www.sundance.org.
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Daniel Lewis, an Old Town resident who unsuccessfully sought a spot on the Park City Council in 2019, said this week he will mount another campaign this year.