Richard Montoya keeps a mental library of depictions of L.A. gleaned from "Chinatown," "Repo Man," "Mulholland Drive," the novels of James Ellroy, and other pop-culture texts.
So when he began adapting his neo-noir stage drama "Water & Power" for the screen in 2007, as a Sundance Institute film fellow, it was natural for Montoya to seek advice from Walter Mosley, author of Angeleno classics such as "Devil In a Blue Dress," and one of Montoya's literary idols.
Montoya quickly learned that he had a lot to learn about filmmaking.
"It was complete tough love," recalls Montoya, an actor, playwright and member of the Chicano comedy-theater ensemble Culture Clash. "He [Mosley] throws my script on the table, and he says, 'This is still a play, it's not a film yet."
Was he right? "Absolutely," Montoya says.
Six years and $600,000 later, "Water & Power" is being screened Saturday and Sunday as part of the revived L.A. Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF). The movie was adapted and directed by Montoya from the Culture Clash stage play that premiered in 2006 at the Mark Taper Forum.
"I know for a fact there are people that saw the play three times, four times," says Marlene Dermer, LALIFF's executive director and co-founder. Montoya, she adds, "is a multi-faceted artist" whom "more people need to know."
The film doesn't yet have a distributor. What it does have is a lyrically two-fisted, tragi-comic vision of Los Angeles centered on the city's Latino-centric Eastside, a region that movies largely ignore with rare exceptions such as "Zoot Suit," "Stand and Deliver" and "American Me."
"I often think that its grandfather is 'Zoot Suit,' its father is 'American Me,' and this is the son," Montoya says of his feature directing debut. "There's a lineage there that I can only hope for."
If those earlier movies were, albeit in very different ways, about L.A. Latinos aspiring to equality and opportunity, "Water & Power" is about what happens once that influence is actually acquired. The play was first produced soon after L.A. had voted in its first Latino mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, in a century. Sometime this year, according to U.S. Census estimates, Latinos will become the city's dominant ethno-cultural group.
"The film hopes to be a kind of a cautionary tale with how we're going to proceed in this city and how are we going to deal with each other," Montoya says.
The movie tells the story of the Garcia twins, nicknamed Water and Power by their father, a DWP laborer who coaches his sons to fulfill their worldly ambitions but keep faith with their Eastside origins. Gilbert, a.k.a. Water (played in the film by Enrique Murciano), grows up to be a state senator who stakes his integrity on pushing a green-space bill for the congested Eastside. Gabriel (Nicholas Gonzalez) grows up to be a cop struggling to reconcile his personal and professional obligations with society's situational ethics.
Shot in 12 nights in September 2012, the movie takes place in the course of one moody, rain-swept evening that transports viewers to a motel room, a police station, a strip club and other bluesy haunts. By the time dawn breaks, sibling loyalty and civic idealism have collided with harsher realities: greed, racism, corruption, violence and — the most self-immolating force of all — noble intentions.
Aficionados of L.A. theater will spot many familiar faces among the cast including, in a fleeting role, the late Lupe Ontiveros in her final screen performance. Clancy Brown plays the smoothly menacing powerbroker called the Fixer. Roger Guenveur Smith is a cop who in one scene confronts the movie's burly Chicano homeboy narrator, Norte/Sur, portrayed by Emilio Rivera, whose television roles include Marcus Álvarez in the FX drama "Sons of Anarchy."
Rivera, who portrayed a different character in the stage version of "Water & Power," said that as the film shoot progressed, he watched it transform from a creature of the stage to a creature of the screen.
"When I first saw the first cut, it looked like they put together a play," Rivera said during a recent interview at the Eastside Luv bar. A key challenge in making the conversion from play to film, Rivera said, was to "bring it down and make it real."
Smith, who directed one of Culture Clash's earliest shows, "Radio Mambo," said he thought it would be crucial for the film "Water & Power" to preserve the "psychic claustrophobia" of the stage play.
"If anything, it's been enhanced," Smith says, "because those intimate moments are something that really takes the audience imaginatively, and work in ways in which a stage play could never work."
Regardless of how the movie fares with critics and audiences, it may already have captured an important moment in L.A.'s historical and cinematic evolution. At a screening, Howard Rodman, a USC professor and an artistic director of the Sundance Institute Screenwriting Lab, said that with "Water & Power," Montoya had "turned the camera around 180 degrees" on L.A. and its long arc of filmic representation.
"He challenged us to imagine that Los Angeles is a Hispanic city," Rodman said. "He challenged us to see what is in front of our eyes that we never see."