It was a hot afternoon, much like today. Walking into the cool darkness of East Side Luv in Boyle Heights was a relief. It was crowded, about two dozen people milling about, some busy setting up recording equipment, others huddled in small groups. Waiting. It was “media day” for Water & Power, which comes out today.
I’d watched the movie the night before in a small screening room somewhere in Hollywood. Dark, unsettling, violent, suspenseful, heartbreaking, redemptive … I had questions, but so did everybody else.
I was finally called over, and before long, the movie’s writer and director Richard Montoya and Edward James Olmos, the film’s presenter, were seated in front of me. I had 15 minutes, more or less.
Abelardo de la Peña Jr. (AdlpJr): What got you involved in Water and Power?
Edward James Olmos (EJO): The single most important thing about movies: The script, the story, the writing. Richard is a genius. Go watch the movie. You watch the movie, and you see, all of a sudden …
What happens with people, they start to look at the movie and they start to criticize it, they start to critique it. And the full story is too immense. You have to see this movie way more than one time to get the full impact of this writing. And you know, this guy [indicating to Montoya] has been doing it forever so he, like his father (Jose Montoya) who’s done (it, too) … they don’t even know how impactful they are … they just do because they love doing it. ‘Well, I’m glad you like it Eddie.’ Well, you’re welcome, man! You know what, this is possibly one of the most incredible pieces of writing I’ve ever seen on film.
He really outdoes (Quentin) Tarentino. These guys don’t even get close. The psychological point of view of his characters is so well drawn…
The bar is getting noisy.
Richard Montoya (RM): Shhhhhhhh
Sudden quiet, stillness.
EJO: What ends of happening is, you are watching from a safe place in the screening room and watch these images that go directly into your subconscious mind and what these guys do is that they try to manipulate the audience. Tarentino, Speilberg, Scorcese. They manipulate the audience into what they want to get to.
This movie allows you to experience the situations. Then, these situations talk directly, because they are truthful and talk directly to what the experience is. Everybody comes out of this movie with a different feeling. Nobody is spoon fed. And he pointing to Montoya doesn’t know it. He doesn’t even know it. That’s what the beauty is.
I told him, ‘Listen, you have no idea.’ This is my aesthetic. What I am talking about is my aesthetic. I saw it in Richard’s film. Richard knows nothing about my aesthetic. I said, ‘You got it, Richard’, without him knowing that he got it. ‘You didn’t manipulate anyone, you didn’t play any results, you didn’t try to romanticize or glamorize the situation, at all!’ It’s pretty basic.
As a matter of fact, at times it’s so honest, that people are going to say, ‘Holy shit, did you have to go ahead and say that?’ I did that on American Me and people got really pissed at me. ‘Did you have to do that? Did you have to show them that? Did you have to go there?’ Watching the movie, they’re saying it to themselves. He does the same thing. He does the same damn thing. It’s really impressive. So I told him from the beginning, the very first time I ever saw the film, there was something like five of us in the room, and I just said, “Richard … man, this is a masterpiece. Thank you.”
RM: Thank you! But when he says, ‘You don’t know what you have’, I tend to cross my eyes and say, ‘I don’t even know what I am! Yo no se…yo no se’.
EJO: Thirty years from today you will.
AdlPJr: The movie does works on your subconscious mind. I felt that. After watching the movie, my wife and I were kind of quiet. But then that night, I was woke up, thinking ‘Oh, shit, what did I just see?’ It worked so well: the story, the characters and the visuals. Where did you get that visual palate from? You show L.A. in a way I haven’t seen before.
RM: I love filmmakers and films that get it right. What’s funny is that even though ‘Zoot Suit’ was shot on a sound stage, there’s something that said, ‘That’s L.A.’ And Eddie goes into Blade Runner and Blade Runner is the future of L.A. and then American Me, when the boys are running along the barrio in 1959 and the camera sweeps and the boys are running through the gullies and the secrets that only people from those areas would know. You know that shot I’m talking about, Eddie, where the guys are running along the fence and there’s another gang down there, and it’s like, ‘My God, what part of L.A. is that?’ As a viewer, I’m intrigued, and I file it away somewhere and I won’t outwardly steal it but get inspired by it.
I’m in love with L.A., I want to show that love, to look at the City of Los Angeles from the East Side looking west, not from the West Side looking east.
I’ve said this before: [I want] to treat the East Side not as a backdrop but as a character, a real character. And now that I live in City Terrace, it’s brought home to me every day I go home. This is a real place. People are from here. They often try to leave, or leave, but It’s a place you come back to.
AdlPJr: One of the key lines is: ‘L.A. is not for everybody’. So who’s L.A. for? And who is ‘Water and Power’ for?
RM: L.A. is an acquired taste. A lot of people come here, but think about all the dreams that are broken. People come to L.A. to find that stardom or success. A lot of people end up going back. You know, that song by Gladys Knight? ‘L.A. proved too much for the man.’ History is full of people that leave, in different ways. And people that come from the south, from Mexico, go up north. You have to work hard to live and to stay and to work in L.A. It’s both an easy place, and a hard place.
Who are Water and Power for? At the end of the night, they [the lead characters, two brothers nicknamed ‘Water’ and ‘Power’] are selfishly for each other, and I want to be truthful about that. They have forgotten everything that their father had taught them. Some things should be forgotten, some things shouldn’t, but idea of caring for those less fortunate then themselves was sold down the river in order to save each other’s neck.
And in the end, they may or may not lose that battle, but they are going to be reminded that there’s an entire group of people that really believed in them, that need them, that live and work in the East Side.
That is a message to our politicians: Don’t forget the people who put you in power.
Oftentimes that happens, whether it’s a corrupt sheriff or a corrupt politician or the Catholic Archdiocese, people forget who the followers are, and now and then, we’re reminded, those most fortunate ones, are reminded, that they are human and fallible, I don’t see enough of that in our Latino storytelling.
I loved that about the Cesar Chavez movie, that Cesar was far from a perfect man. And these are not perfect films. It takes a lifetime. Akira Kurosawa [acknowledged that he] barely mastered the film.
But ‘American Me’ is the closest, and I’m really proud to now — quite literally through Eddie — have a lineage to that film. That was a masterpiece. That reminded me of my dad’s pachuco paintings. The way they used light, the way it was subdued. It was sparse, there wasn’t even that much language in that movie. You didn’t need to. If Eddie smiled at you and put his arm there, you knew you were dead. Laughs.
De Niro does that. Joe Pesci does that. Eddie Olmos does that.
A lot was shot at night. That perspective of the city at night, it lent to the darkness of the story.
AdlPJr: Do you see the audience being able to relate to that?
RM: Yeah, because the sun goes down every day. Like today, its 89 degrees outside, in April. There’s still snow on the ground in many parts of the U.S. But it’s almost like it’s summertime. But then the sun sets and the sun goes down, and now L.A. becomes a different place at night, from a desert city to a kind of city of thirst, of cactus, of succulents.
We are still a city of the West, a Sonoran desert. And only when the sun goes down do other things begin to happen. The movie is told in the span of one night.
I think people will recognize their L.A. and themselves and always remember, that even in our film, the sun comes up in the morning. And we are different. We know something, and we’ve learned something. Hopefully we are better people in the end, and then we see the East Side for all its beauty: The people, the East L.A. Parade, the trees on the river. As a reminder to the brothers, don’t forget this part. The bargain you made to acquire your power, you said you were going look out – cuidanse – after these people, and you’re not doing it.
AdlPJr.: There are so many references to recent political events and personalities …
EJO: You’ve got to remember when it was written. It was written approximately seven years ago — Water and Power the play — and brought to film just last year. And the shit that’s hit the fan right now is this year, and it really shows you that art has a very interesting and uncanny way of being more intense than reality. Fiction can outdo reality at times, because it’s imagination. And sometimes imagination leaps way ahead of the curve. So now you look at the news and say, ‘That’s what’s happening now.’ But he wrote it seven years ago!
AdlPJr: But can people find it relatable?
RM: I think anyone that grew up in a Latino family, anyone who recognizes the American story of striving and the American dream [will]. I do feel it will play well with Anglo audiences [also]. They enjoyed the play and the play was even more intense. in some ways, and even more specific. I mean we named streets, we named liquor stores, we named housing projects, We retained a lot of L.A. reality, [much like] The Departed has or The Town [retained Boston reality].
Why am I so interested in tough Boston Irish guys from Southie? I should be just as interested in guys from the housing projects here in East L.A. and I find that oftentimes that they are. It’s indie American filmmaking, in a very pure sense. And I think lovers of film will like the movie very much like lovers of theater like Culture Clash. I’ve always been able to enjoy an audience from the West Side, the East Side, LA and Orange County. They just love theater and they recognize a bargain when they see one. With Culture Clash, they will make you laugh, they will make you sing, they are going to give you a little indigestion. Where else are they going to do that?
AdlPJr: It’s part of the bargain.
RM: I just think Eddie is a tremendous guy, I just have to pinch myself that this guy … when an icon is in your corner, and he works hard, he doesn’t walk around like an icon, he walks around like the hardest working guy. He’s concerned about your health, talking about plants that can help you. He can never forget Water and Power, that one fateful night
He’s the padrino of the film and there is so much justice in that. I have to pinch myself and say, I’m sitting next to Eddie.
AdlPJr: As padrino of the film, what’s your advice?
EJO: Stay strong and keep writing. Always.
Republished courtesy BFF LatinoLA.com. All rights totes reserved.