The writer-director team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who previously collaborated on “The Fluffer,” a comedy about the adult film business, go in an entirely different direction with their second joint effort, “Quinceanera,” a drama about the travails of an extended Latino family living in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles at a time of accelerating gentrification. The title comes from a celebration marking a girl’s sixteenth birthday, an event that, in this family, sets off a chain reaction of recriminations and reconciliations, all in the context of major change in the neighborhood.
The script was inspired, Glatzer said in a recent Dallas interview, by the neighborhood in which he and Westmoreland lived. “Definitely. I moved there in 2001–Wash and I both moved there,” he explained. “And we became part of the neighborhood. The block’s very Latino, and we were the first Anglos to move in. It was just very welcoming, and it became part of everyone’s lives very quickly. We were living in West Hollywood before, and it was very impersonal.
“And we were asked to photograph our neighbors’ quinceanera, not knowing what we were in for. We were kind of amazed by the whole process–learning formal waltzes and taking it very seriously for months in advance. That was the first hint for me of what this was going to be. And I remember afterwards, I said to Wash, ‘Somebody’s going to make a movie about that,’ but I did not think it was going to be us. But time went by, and we started to see things on the block, and a year ago New Years Day Wash knew these investors who wanted to get into independent film, and we was, like, ‘We’d be very interested in making a movie about what’s going on on this block, because there’s just such worlds butting up against each other.’ And that was what our initial seed of the idea was. And we just started thinking about things and just feeling like there was a movie there. And the peg to hang it on was a girl’s quinceanera.
“And once we got the idea, the characters just kind of presented themselves and it happened. We really thought through the whole movie in two hours or something. It just came to us in a rush. Then we went to the investors and they said, ‘Oh, we love that idea!’ and they did a handshake deal. And they said, ‘Get going–we want to be in production fast.’ I’ve never had a situation like that–waited years to get most movies off the ground. We just started writing it immediately and wrote it in three weeks. That was January, and we were shooting by April.”
Many of the supporting players in the picture are locals, and virtually all the leads are newcomers, not members of the Screen Actors Guild. (One is the film’s casting director, who, Glatzer said, was better than the actors he was interviewing. “He was horrified by the idea of acting,” Glatzer recalled. “He felt he was betraying all the actors who came in to read for the role.”) The exception was Chalo Gonzalez, who plays the octogenarian uncle with whom two of the script’s younger family members go to live when their parents throw them out, and in his early days had acted in several pictures directed by Sam Peckinpah.
“He’s amazing,” Glatzer said of Gonzalez. “He spent his whole life playing bit parts and being a prop manager. He was at a bar in Tijuana [in 1968] and there was a fight brewing because there was some gringo who didn’t speak Spanish well and was saying all this awful stuff in Spanish–he didn’t know what he was saying–and Chalo intervened. [It was Peckinpah.] He just became Peckinpah’s right-hand man from that point, scouting for ‘The Wild Bunch’ and playing a couple of scenes. And then Peckinpah wrote a part for him in ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.’ And Peckinpah married his niece.
“And basically after Sam Peckinpah died, he didn’t really act. So for about twenty years, until he retired, he was a full-time property master at Paramount. And then he retired and started acting again, doing commercials, but he’s never had a leading role in his life. And we had to twist his arm. He’s an old SAG member, and had to go plead with them to allow him to be in this [non-union] movie. He had to turn his [SAG] card that Peckinpah had gotten him back in. And the moment the shoot was history, he got the card back and paid the fine, and was reinstated as a full member of SAG.
“He’s a wonderful actor, and brings so much history, and his life, to bear on the role. At Sundance he got such incredible accolades. He got this huge standard ovation. I could see he was crying. It was a wonderful moment.” And Glatzer recalled that Gonzalez explained his performance by saying, “You can’t be on the set watching actors for twenty years [as prop master] without picking up something.”
But, Glatzer noted, the neighborhood remained the inspiration and the star of “Quinceanera.” He said, “A lot of the things in the movie that seem kind of colorful, and you think we made them up, they’re real. All those details are just from the neighborhood.” And when it was pointed out that since he and Westmoreland were, as he said, the first Anglos to move into it, they’d actually been an important part of its gentrification, he protested.
“We were, but we don’t like to think of it that way!” he said. “Because we liked the neighborhood the way it was, and we didn’t want to see it change. And it has changed. It had this homey, kind of Mexican feeling to the place. Now it’s changing very, very rapidly. In a way we were part of it, but we didn’t really mean to be part of it.”
And their film is certainly testimony to their love of the place, as it was.