Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer moved to Waterloo Street in Echo Park about five years ago, when real estate was reasonable and the working-class Latino area seemed on the verge of gentrification -- a great thing for a pair of filmmakers just moving in, a potentially disastrous development for the many immigrant families scratching to hold on.
The couple knew next to nothing about quinceaneras, the elaborate rites of passage for 15-year-old girls that are very much like groomless weddings. But they understood that something momentous was going on next door when they saw young couples practicing the courtly waltz that is part of the ritual. The neighbors, Jose and Maria Campos, knew the men were handy with cameras and asked them to photograph their daughter's ceremony and party.
What Westmoreland and Glatzer got was the inspiration for "Quinceanera," which will have its premiere Monday afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival. What Waterloo Street got was a starring role in a heartfelt story about -- as the filmmakers put it -- "what happens when teenage sexuality, age-old rituals and real-estate prices collide."
The film stars unknowns Emily Rios, a 16-year-old senior at West Covina High School, as Magdalena, the quinceanera of the title. A very tough Jesse Garcia plays her gay cousin, Carlos. (Garcia is also in Edward James Olmos' upcoming HBO film, "Walkout," about the 1968 Latino-power student movement in L.A.) The story centers on what happens when both cousins are kicked out of their homes -- Magdalena's preacher father explodes when she refuses to admit having sex even though she is pregnant; Carlos has committed a sin that becomes obvious as the story evolves. They are taken in by a kindly old great-uncle, played by Chalo Gonzales, who rents a cottage behind a home that has just been bought by an upwardly mobile gay couple, played by David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood.
In a refreshingly transgressive way, the gay men are the nominal villains of the piece. "We felt we could get away with that," said Glatzer, smiling. "Some of what they say [in the movie], we have been guilty of saying. We moved onto this block and housing was really cheap, and now everyone goes on about 'Oooh, what a great investment, and the neighborhood has so improved,' and it's really kind of Realtor-ese for a kind of racist take: We're booting the people who have lived here for so long."
The movie flows easily between English and Spanish, capturing how immigrants and their first-generation children talk bilingually.
"Quinceanera" has been chosen as one of 16 competitors in the festival's prestigious dramatic film category. (Last year's winner, "The Squid and the Whale," is a critical favorite that may end up with an Oscar nomination or two.) And while it's an honor to be nominated, as everyone knows, Westmoreland and Glatzer are hoping for a nice fat distribution deal.
"Being in that competition means that you will get the distributors' attention, and it means that they will come to your premiere, and that's all you can ask for," said Glatzer, 44, a veteran of the reality show genre, who worked on "The Osbournes" and co-created "America's Next Top Model." He co-directed "The Fluffer," a feature about a certain niche job in the porn industry, with Westmoreland, 39, who wrote and directed the 2004 film "Gay Republicans."
On Tuesday evening, as the sun sank and the towers of downtown Los Angeles lighted up, Glatzer and Westmoreland chatted about the movie in the living room of their Craftsman cottage, where they shot some of the film. Outside, from their porch, they could point to several other homes on the block that they used. Now the house next door is about to be torn down to make room for condos. On the other side, the Camposes, who helped inspire the film, were forced to move after 28 years there. Their 16-year-old daughter, Leslie, is an extra who appears as a member of Magdalena's court. (A quinceanera has seven girls, "damas," and seven boys, "chambelanes," who attend her during the ritual.)
"We wanted a story that was realistic but at the same time very unusual," Westmoreland said. "Something that took everyday life and pushed it a little further."
Westmoreland, who grew up in northern England's industrial Leeds, said they were inspired by the "kitchen sink" dramas of British filmmaking in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In particular, they cite "A Taste of Honey," Tony Richardson's gritty film about an English teenager, pregnant by a black sailor, whose gay roommate prepares to raise the child as his own. "At the time, it gave voice to characters in cinema you hadn't really seen before," Westmoreland said. "We wanted a realism that had a sparkle to it."
The spontaneity of nonprofessional actors added a sense of authenticity to the movie, said the filmmakers, who were surprised to see what happened on the dance floor of the party scene when the Strauss waltzes ended and the reggaeton music began. Young couples dancing a minuet one minute are "freaking" in the next, shocking the older folks, many of whom were extras from Echo Park, watching from the sidelines.
Nor could they have predicted what would happen when they rolled the camera in a rented Hummer stretch limo (not a product placement, they swear) that transported a quinceanera court to the party. The Hummer, to everyone's surprise, came equipped with a stripper pole.
"The stripper pole and the freak dancing," Glatzer said with a happy sigh. "Those were gifts to us."
When they introduce the film at Sundance on Monday, the filmmakers said they plan to talk about their deep respect for their neighbors, who, during 18 days of filming, spent 14 or 15 hours a day as extras and cheerleaders, as Glatzer put it, "just keeping the party alive, never getting frustrated or complaining, just having fun. The movie is really a kind of valentine to them."