There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Among the central characters in Quinceañera are James and Gary, two gay men, an older American and a younger Briton, who bought a house together in Los Angeles’ predominantly Latino Echo Park. Across a conference table in a Georgetown hotel are the writer-directors of Quinceañera, 54-year-old American Richard Glatzer and 40-year-old Briton Wash Westmoreland, who live together in Echo Park. The question almost asks itself.
“Everyone was going like, ‘Oh, you two are a gay couple and you live in Echo Park, and one of you is English,’” recalls Westmoreland, who has previously directed both gay porn and a sober documentary titled Gay Republicans. “That’s what everyone’s going to think.”
Yet James and Gary, who are not especially sympathetic characters, don’t reflect the filmmakers’ self-image. “Ultimately, we don’t feel very much in common with those guys,” Westmoreland says. “They are definitely part of our peer group, but they have a lot more money than us and very different attitudes to the neighborhood.”
“We were aware when we moved onto the block that we were the first white guys there,” allows Glatzer, who’s worked on such TV shows as The Osbournes, Road Rules, and America’s Next Top Model. “But I think the big difference between us and James and Gary is that we liked the neighborhood the way it was. We hoped not to see it change. In fact, one time these guys were cruising around and saw us and said, ‘Do you live here? What’s it like?’ And we said, ‘Oh, it’s very dangerous!’”
They both laugh, although the comment wasn’t exactly a lie. Echo Park was the location for Allison Anders’ 1993 Mi Vida Loca, a film that took Latino youth gang violence as its backdrop.
Though Westmoreland doesn’t duck the issue of gentrification in Echo Park, he identifies not with James and Gary but with the film’s major Latino characters, who are the couple’s tenants in a bungalow at the rear of the property. The house is the longtime residence of Tio Tomas, a veteran street vendor. He’s lately been joined by teenage cousins Carlos and Magdalena, who’ve been expelled by their fathers—Carlos for being gay and Magdalena for getting pregnant just before her quinceañera, which celebrates a Mexican girl’s 15th birthday.
“Carlos’ whole situation—being rejected by his father because of his sexuality, and then having a sort of new father in this unexpected older relative—that came right from my life,” says Westmoreland. Tio Tomas is modeled on Thomas Patterson, “Great-Uncle Tom. He came and was, like, the third parent who was very nonjudgmental. It’s interesting to transform a character from Yorkshire into Echo Park, and it just seems to work.”
The relationship between Carlos and Magdalena also derives from the Leeds-born filmmaker, but in a different way. It’s adapted from A Taste of Honey, a 1961 British working-class drama that acquired a new notoriety in the 1980s, after Morrissey borrowed some of its dialogue for such Smiths songs as “This Night Has Opened My Eyes.”
“I was born in the early ’60s in Britain and into a working-class family,” Westmoreland notes. “Movies like A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life—I saw them when I was young, and then we had them on our Netflix queue a few years ago. We saw a lot of kitchen-sink dramas and really enjoyed watching them.”
“It’s funny the way films go in and out of vogue, even with yourself,” Glatzer remarks. “There was a time when I didn’t want to see gritty, realistic dramas. It just sounded uninteresting to me. Then watching them recently, it was a real rediscovery for me. Seeing that the films have a variation in tone, and a kind of poetry to them that I hadn’t remembered.”
“It’s a little golden age of British cinema, from about 1960 to 1963,” Westmoreland continues. “These movies had characters you hadn’t really heard from in cinema before. I felt the same way about Quinceañera. The kitchen-sink idea was [that] it was about everyday life, but it touches on larger issues. We wanted to have a movie that started very small, just about the mechanisms of a quinceañera, but without your really noticing, grew to touch on a lot of the social and economic issues affecting that community.”
The film didn’t start, however, with memories of the co-director’s uncle. It began with two events that happened to align neatly: The filmmakers were offered $500,000 to make a low-budget film around the same time that some neighbors asked them to photograph a quinceañera.
“It was a complete revelation,” Glatzer says. “They’re kind of a poor family, and we didn’t really know what to expect. I’m a Jew, and I was bar mitzvahed, and it’s more elaborate than a bar mitzvah. They spend months learning those choreographed waltzes, which are so old-fashioned. It just boggles your mind to see these modern hip-hop kids taking these waltzes very seriously. The boys are nothing in a quinceañera. They’re kind of the drones on the arms of the girls.”
“It’s all about the girls,” Westmoreland interjects, grinning.
“At the end of that quinceañera, I said to Wash, ‘Somebody’s going to make a film about this,’ but did not think it was going to be us. It was only when we were looking for something to make about this neighborhood that we started thinking about how cultures are so different right next door to each other, on our block. And then the quinceañera idea came back.”
“A quinceañera is an event that commemorates a change,” says Westmoreland, “so it seemed like a great marriage of theme and background and character.”
With such a small budget, Quinceañera “was never envisioned as something to take to the studios or the mini-majors,” Glatzer explains. “It happened so quickly because we knew these people. It was conceived on New Year’s Day 2005, and by the end of April, it was shot.”
“We wanted to shoot everything within one mile of our front door,” Westmoreland adds. “And we more or less did it. I think 95 percent is in that radius. We wanted Echo Park to be a character in the movie in the same way that Manchester or Nottingham are characters in kitchen-sink dramas.”
The filmmakers took a documentarylike approach, using mostly nonprofessional actors and essentially restaging the coming-out party they had already experienced. “That’s the same church where we saw our neighbor’s quinceañera,” Westmoreland enumerates. “It’s the same dress our next-door neighbor wore, the pink dress. The same tiara. Basically, we just borrowed our neighbor’s quinceañera. And our cleaning lady’s niece had just had a quinceañera. She became our consultant and brought all her friends who were in her quinceañera to be in the movie. None of these kids had ever acted before, but they were so into it.”
Although the directors did assemble aspects of different houses to create the image of a single home, nothing was shot on sets. “It was all real houses, real situations,” says Westmoreland. “Many of our neighbors just let us in for next to nothing. So it kind of had this community feel.”
This doesn’t happen, Glatzer interjects, in the Anglo community, When he and his partner made The Fluffer, a 2001 comedy set in the gay-porn industry, “we tried to use friends’ houses as locations, but they all know about film production, so they’re like, ‘You’re not coming near here. Good luck!’ But for this film, people really opened their doors.”
For all their dedication to verisimilitude, Glatzer and Westmoreland did give Quinceañera a fluky plot element. Based on their memories of cautionary tales from high-school health classes, they decided to have Magdalena’s baby be a “virgin birth.” After allowing her boyfriend to ejaculate near her vagina, she gets pregnant without penetration, and has an intact hymen when she goes into labor.
“It gives it an unexpected element,” Westmoreland argues. “It makes the drama very fresh, because you haven’t seen this before. And it has all this resonance culturally, with the icon of the Virgin Mary, who’s worshipped, and the Magdalena, who’s cast out. It just seemed to work.”
The development resounds personally with at least a few viewers, says Glatzer. “We’ve had two people come up to us after a screening and tell us they were the products of virgin births.”
Westmoreland laughs. “A previously unheard-of minority speaks out!”—Mark Jenkins