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BIRTHDAY GIRL
Peter Bowen learns how Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland turned the story of a young Latina’s 15th birthday into a Sundance prize winner.

QUINCEAÑERA STARS J.R. CRUZ, EMILY RIOS AND JESSE GARCIA. PHOTO: HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.

Richard Glatzer’s and Wash Westmoreland’s low-budget slice-of-L.A.-life Quinceañera — winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — is the quintessential independent film story, both in terms of its against-all-odds approach and its confirmation of what exactly those odds are for a modest film produced in Los Angeles today.

As with many classic independent films, the filmmakers depicted a world that was dear to them by developing a film style and language appropriate to both their story and their budget. At the heart of the film is the quinceañera, a well-honored Latino rite that honors a young girl’s entry into adulthood by celebrating her 15th birthday. The film, which, as Westmoreland jokes, covers two quinceañeras and a funeral, follows the various people who cross paths with the main character, Magdalena (Emily Rios), at her upcoming quinceañera. Central is her Uncle Tomas (Chalo González), who takes her in when she becomes pregnant. On the non-family side are an Anglo gay couple who have bought the land that houses the uncle’s casita. This simple framework allows the filmmakers to unfurl a rich, multigenerational tapestry of characters and issues ranging from gay sexuality to class inequalities and gentrification.

STORY DEVELOPMENT

The film’s story began long before the production, when the filmmakers, a couple in real life, bought a house in L.A.’s Echo Park and met the neighbors. A few years later, Westmoreland remembers, “we were asked to be the official photographers for our next-door neighbor’s quinceañera. They asked us months and months in advance, so we got a glimpse into all the preparations that went into it. Their school friends would come by every week, and there would be all these shaved-headed boys learning how to dance in the backyard.” The experience stayed with the two, so that a year later, as they waited for out-of-town guests to wake up on New Year’s Day, it hit them that, Glatzer explains, “this ritual could be the basis for a small film. Wash knew these investors in the Valley who were likely to fund a movie. We started thinking of a multicharacter study of a family centering around a quinceañera, with Echo Park as the backdrop.” The investors, as Westmoreland recalls, “were first-generation Americans — two Greeks and one Israeli — who had made their own fortune and were really into the family and immigrant aspects of the story. We had a handshake deal with them before the script was even written.”

While Glatzer and Westmoreland didn’t have a script yet, they had a pretty good idea of the kind of film they wanted to make. “We would write it quickly and have some improvisation,” explains Westmoreland. “Then we would shoot it fast and light, make it very local and use non-union and non-professional actors.” Glatzer adds, “It was inspired in a way by a doc [Gay Republicans] Wash had made for under $200,000 — we thought of our movie as a doc with scripted performances.”

JESSE GARCIA AND EMILY RIOS IN QUINCEAÑERA.

Unlike many filmmakers who, script in hand, struggle to secure financing, Westmoreland and Glatzer raced to pound out a script to keep up with the financiers’ expectations. “I had made two independent films before this one,” recalls Glatzer, “and even though Grief was low-budget, nothing happened as fast as this movie. The producers were pushing us to start production: ‘We want to recoup our money as soon as possible. Shoot it!’ We had to tell them, ‘Just wait — we have to write it first.’” Westmoreland remembers, “We wrote the script in three weeks. We locked ourselves in the office, and we would not allow ourselves to answer e-mails in the morning.” Working as a team helped the process. “If Wash didn’t have the feeling of a scene,” explains Glatzer, “I’d tell him to walk into the other room, and I would knock it out. Or vice versa. Given the fact that it is a culture that is not ours, everything fell into place really neatly.”

In their portrayal of the Los Angeles Latino community, the two sought assistance and inspiration from two foreign cinematic traditions. First, Westmoreland explains, “we were really interested in British Kitchen Sink dramas, especially A Taste of Honey, which has some similar story elements. The Kitchen Sink films were a sort of poetic realism, taking the everyday and pushing it a little bit further. You would not go for absolute gritty realism, but at the same time you are not going for fluffy working-class stereotypes that are comic; you are going for realism that has a little spark. I think that to try to create Kitchen Sink dramas in England right now, you’d have all the old stereotypes dooming you to failure. But using this model to tell a story in Echo Park, Los Angeles made it fresh.”

Glatzer acknowledges that “the other big influence for us was Ozu, especially in the way he represents different generations of family and in the way he uses restraint. When Uncle Tomas [Chalo González] asks Carlos [Jesse Garcia] if he has a special friend, we shot it from behind and tried to give the scene a sort of stately quality.” Eschewing the high drama of much indie film, the filmmakers emulated Ozu, explains Westmoreland, “especially in not having people overplay emotions direct to camera. We just allowed internal things to happen. You have this cumulative effect of all the characters’ feeling and thinking growing slowly through the movie.”

The final, and perhaps most important, influence for the filmmakers was the cast and community, who helped define cultural details. “We consulted with the cast constantly,” Glatzer acknowledges. “We also had friends read the script and give us their take on it. One guy, who is a gay gangbanger, set us straight on how things would be said. Throughout rehearsal we were constantly updating the script. And we encouraged the cast to improvise, especially the teenage girls.”

In addition to cultural nuance, the two faced a language barrier. “When we started shooting,” Westmoreland joked, “we were like, ‘Uh-oh, we don’t speak Spanish.’” Again the filmmakers turned to their cast for help. “One of our actors, Jesus Castaños-Chima, had worked as a director in theater in Mexico, so he became the person we depended on most for getting the translations right. He would even show up on days when it wasn’t his scene, just to keep an ear on the Spanish. We had an additional problem trying to make a Mexican-American family sound the same. Some of our actors were from El Salvador, and one was from Chile. So we had to try to equalize all the accents.” While the two didn’t always know the exact translations, Westmoreland stresses that “you can still tell if it is a good take or not.” In the end, the film provided an unexpected perk for Glatzer: “It was like doing Spanish 101, and just recently I actually did an interview for Telemundo in Spanish.”

CASTING AND PRODUCTION

QUINCEAÑERA WRITER-DIRECTORS RICHARD GLATZER AND WASH WESTMORELAND. PHOTO: HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.

The film’s rushed schedule created a myriad of challenges for their producer, Anne Clements, a friend and collaborator who started off as Westmoreland and Glatzer’s competitor. Years before, when the two were about to distribute their first co-directed feature, The Fluffer, a behind-the-porn-camera comedy, they searched their film’s title on IMDb. “We discovered another film named Fluffer,” remembers Westmoreland. “How could someone steal that from us? We saw it was made by this person, Anne Clements, and we said, ‘Well, we just hate her.’ Then, when I was working at World of Wonder, she applied to work as an associate producer, so I was like, ‘Great. Now we’ll have a showdown.’ But as soon as we met, we just clicked. She brought a tape of her movie, so right away it was ‘I’ll show mine if you show me yours.’”

Unfortunately for Clements as a producer, the one thing the filmmakers couldn’t show her for this project was a script. Yet she still had to come up with a workable budget. Initially the backers’ handshake agreement gave the filmmakers $300,00 for the film. It fell to Clements to ask for the increases that eventually pushed the film’s budget above $400,000 (which included the transfer from HD to film). Says Westmoreland, “When the budget went over, the money guys would bitch at Anne now and then, but they loved her and the film. I don’t think they really thought they were going to get it at the initial budget anyway.”

One of the first decisions the two directors made was to cast non-union actors. For the most part this wasn’t problem, because, as Westmoreland points out, “Most of the characters in our movie are teenagers, who aren’t usually in the union anyway.” But one of their leads, Chalo González, was. For Chalo, explains Glatzer, “there is something called financial core, [in which a member] says, ‘I am not able to support myself through SAG productions.’ While they have to allow [the SAG member classifying him or herself as financial core] to do non-union productions, they give you a diminished status and try to make you feel like a traitor.”

While González had a filmography that includes working with Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch, the other actors were relative unknowns. Casting director Jason Wood used the Internet and a Los Angeles organization Los Altros that works with Latino actors to find potential cast members. Glatzer recalls, “Since we were off the radar, talent agencies weren’t exactly breaking down our doors. For Magdalena, we wanted somebody from Echo Park who seems like a 14-year-old. But a lot of actresses [who came in] were from Pacific Palisades or from Beverly Hills, and were 18. The differences between a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old are massive — that is the age when everything is changing real fast. And so when Emily Rios walked in — she really was that age, and she grew up in East L.A. And on top of that, she’s an incredible actress.”

For Glatzer, “we got really lucky with those kids. The only time we really started to sweat was for the adult roles.” Jesus Castaños-Chima (who plays Magdalena’s father), who used to be a soap opera star in Mexico and now works in a car rental agency during the day, was discovered through an extended series of phone calls. The directors found Carmen Aquirre, who plays the feisty Aunt Sylvia, at the Mark Taper Forum, only she wasn’t an actress but a playwright working on a reading of her play Refugee Hotel. To cast the older half of the gay couple, the two turned to the casting director himself. Glatzer explains, “Every time Jason would read other actors, we would say, ‘Jason, no one is as good as you. Would you consider doing James?’ But he refused, claiming it was a betrayal of his job. Then, after losing a week to casting, we said, “Look, Jason, you owe us. You have to bite the bullet and act.’ And he agreed.”

One of their happiest actor surprises was discovered right in their own house: their cleaning lady. “She turned out to be a great actor,” says Westmoreland, “and so we expanded her role to also teaching the kids in the backyard how to waltz.” But even more important, she brought her own family on board. “Alicia’s niece had just had her quinceañera,” recalls Glatzer, “so she got us her dresses, flowers and the tiara, as well as the video of her quinceañera, which we mimicked shot for shot for our own quinceañera video. She also got all of her friends to be extras. I thought that once they realize being in a movie meant sitting on a set for six hours, they’d lose interest. But they were all incredibly responsible and excited to be there.”

SHOOTING HD

In planning their film, Westmoreland admits, “we had this French new wave idea of running around the streets with a camera and no crew.” But when they arrived on set, they realized such an approach was not to be. “When we saw how much equipment we needed, our first thought was horror,” remembers Glatzer. “We had never worked with HD, so we had no idea how much lighting you need.” In fact, Glatzer adds, “our biggest expense came from our d.p. [Eric Steelberg] really wanting [the film] to look good, so we had a lot of grips and grip equipment.”

In addition to the budgetary demands brought on by the lighting demands of HD, the filmmakers had to contend with a complicated shooting schedule brought on by working with underage actors. Westmoreland says, “We had to find a cinematic language that was doable and that would allow us to work within child labor laws that only allowed us to only shoot six hours a day. So we decided to make everything handheld — no dollies, no tripods. Our d.p. was such a great operator that he was able to do handheld without calling attention to it.”

In fact, as Westmoreland adds, “we were not trying to create a fictional universe that wasn’t there. We just worked at finding the light in the room and pushing it a little.” And the two learned to accentuate what HD did best. “The night stuff was gorgeous and really easy,” explains Glatzer. “But bright daytime scenes took a lot of time.” “In working with HD,” says Westmoreland, “we weren’t interested in making it look like film, but to make it look like HD on film.”

PRODUCTION DESIGN

In shooting a local story, the filmmakers underlined the word “local” in their locations. “We shot across the street, next door and in our house,” explains Glatzer. “[People] would let us into their house for no money, or very little.” And the production designers [Denise Hudson and Jonah Markowitz] worked with their neighbors to get the film’s look. According to Westmoreland, “Much of the design was about losing things from the locations rather than adding them. They also loved that in Latino communities there is no fear of color.” Glatzer remembers “that in some places they painted things baby blue and bright yellow, which I was a little unsure of. But they assured me it would read well on camera, and they were right.”

The filmmakers confess that they also benefited from the fact that many of their Echo Park neighbors didn’t fully comprehend what it meant to invite a film production into your house. As Glatzer says, “Film people are going to keep asking for more,” and, for some, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The sign they created for a storefront church proved so popular that the church leader asked, “Oh, we love that. Can we keep it?”

POSTPRODUCTION

“However crazy we were,” Westmoreland says, “we did have a plan on how to get the film we wanted out of what we shot. It was all storyboarded in great detail, and we had a very worked-out shot structure for every scene.” Their focus in the editing was to bring out the nuance of individual scenes. “When we first cast Emily,” Glatzer recalls, “one of my fears was that she is such a tough chick, and you had to believe she was in love. When I saw a first cut, there was a shot of Magdalena with her eyes closed that made her look so in love. I didn’t even remember seeing that shot. At times it felt like [editor] Robin Katz was inventing footage.”

With nearly no music budget, the two turned to friends, family and the Internet. “My brother did the music,” recounts Westmoreland, “and this was a bit controversial since he lives and works in London and we wanted the feel of Echo Park.” But after a few go-rounds via the Internet and FedEx, they arrived at the right sound. In addition, the filmmakers were interested in the alternative Latin music known as reggaeton. Westmoreland explains, “Reggaeton is the underground music that is coming up right now. It has that dancehall reggae sound crossed with hip-hop crossed with rocking español. We wanted one of the first reggaeton soundtracks out there.” To find the music, their music supervisor advertised over the Internet. “We had an understanding,” Westmoreland adds, “that the people who sent us CDs would make a deal with us. Everyone on this movie worked for next to nothing, so the music had to be the same.”

While the filmmakers finished cutting picture in August 2005, they needed all of autumn to deal with the transfer. “We originally thought of shooting for the Toronto film festival,” states Glatzer, “but thank God we didn’t. We had so much back and forth in terms of synch issues, color corrections and sound mix because of HD.” One major glitch, for example, showed up right before Sundance. “A great thing about HD is that you don’t need a whole bunch of lenses to get an anamorphic look,” says Westmoreland. “We shot the film 2.35, but when you transfer to film, you push in 2 percent, which we didn’t know. We had a lot of subtitles because of the Spanish, and the bottom half of the subtitles got cut off by the frame. We had these low-flying subtitles at Sundance, so one of us had to be with the theater manager who was on a walkie-talkie with the projectionist to push the frame up a bit, then down a bit.” To correct the problem, Westmoreland adds, “the guy who did our color correction called up six of the top HD people in L.A., including George Lucas Ranch, to find out the actual pixel count where the subtitles should sit, and nobody knew. There is a bit of the Wild Wild West with HD.”

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

“We never realized what were up against until we were at Sundance,” recalls Glatzer. “All the attention was on the star-driven movies. It really hit me there that if you don’t have a big-name actor in your movie you really have an uphill battle.” Cinetic Media’s John Sloss, who was selling the film, positioned the film as a “Sundance surprise.” Glatzer explains, “Sloss had this idea to let it open after the weekend. By that time, everyone would have either bought their star-driven movies or have been disillusioned by them. We would be this unexpected discovery, which is kind of what happened. Critics, like Variety’s Todd McCarthy, did his slam of all the premiere films without having seen our movie.” To gauge public opinion, the filmmakers and their people listened to people on the street and on the transit buses. Westmoreland remembers, “After our first screening, we noticed something; it was like the Sundance sleeping giant had woken up and noticed us.” And Glatzer tells the story of how “somebody from Sloss’s company who saw Roger Ebert after the film pretended to be just an audience member, saying, “I really like that movie.” And Ebert reportedly replied, ‘You can be making movies 20 years and not make one that good.’”

The film’s final success, walking away with both the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, ultimately raised as many questions as it answered. While October Films founder Bingham Ray told them, “If I were still in the business, you would have had your deal 20 minutes after the screening,” attending distribution companies were much more cautious. Glatzer felt that “what makes the film special is all these different factions butting right up against each other. But distributors felt, There is a gay story, but it is a Latino movie and it’s multigenerational, so is it a teen movie?’ Instead of seeing this as a plus, they were worried about how to market [the film]. One company that I respect who passed on the film told us, ‘We really love this movie, but we have a full slate and we don’t really want to put in the amount of work that this movie will need.’”

Westmoreland confesses that at one point “I really felt that independent film was dead. For a little film like this you could not have done better, and yet for three weeks [after the festival] there was no one willing to take it into the world.” Eventually, Sony Pictures Classics bought the film and brought the filmmakers a happy ending. The process also taught the filmmakers an important lesson. According to Glatzer, “I think that it is so good for the soul when you go out and make a movie. I know that if we don’t get something [up next] with a budget that will give us enough to live on, we’ll be back making another Kitchen Sink movie before you know it.”

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