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Richard Montoya Adapts His Famed East L.A. Play Water & Power Into a Film

Richard Montoya
Richard Montoya
PHOTO BY RAFAEL CARDENAS

In the summer of 2006, the core trio of Latino sketch comedy troupe Culture Clash — Richard Montoya, Herbert Sigüenza and Ric Salinas — were gathered for a photo shoot at the Paradise Motel at Sunset and Beaudry, near downtown. The shoot was for an L.A. Weekly article on Montoya's play Water & Power, about Eastside L.A. politics and the love between two brothers.

Set on a single, rainy night in a room of the Paradise Motel, the play's story eventually homes in on the complexities of a state senator named Water (then played by Montoya) trying to rescue his renegade cop brother, Power (Sigüenza), who was holed up in the motel after committing deeds that had all the city authorities after him.

The play was slated to receive its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum within the week. Salinas — dressed as a wayward cholo in a wheelchair — kept rolling around the parking lot. Eventually the motel manager pleaded with them to take back their $60 room rental fee and leave (they didn't) because the residents — mainly prostitutes, their clients and sundry drug dealers — were all freaking out at the sight of the uniformed Sigüenza on the premises.

Montoya promised the motel manager that the actors would remain in their room for the rest of the photo shoot. Shortly after sundown, a full moon rose behind the hill on which the Mark Taper Forum sits. Montoya gazed over a bannister and remarked about looking from the west toward the Mark Taper Forum. Growing up, he'd always seen the city's prime theater from the east.

Almost eight years later, a movie of Water & Power, based on that play, written and directed by Montoya, with Edward James Olmos as one of the producers, is slated for release on May 2. It stars Enrique Murciano and Nicholas Gonzalez in the title roles.

Montoya's signature is his love of florid, colloquial language. Apart from his nimble wit, honed in the tradition of sketch comedy, he's a poet, a Federico Garcia Lorca for East L.A.

Poeticism poured from his play. Characters spoke like poets, as they do in great plays from Shakespeare to Beckett.

In the movie, the dialogue is terse. The lingering poeticism is reserved for voice-overs and supertitles, such as in the movie's opening shot: "Nothing is concrete in L.A. — except the river."

Montoya's screenplay adaptation was worked and reworked at the Sundance Institute for a year. He describes "my tough-love relations with the advisers," who told him, " 'Your language is killing your characters' — that the cinema is a venue for the visual, and that the theater is the place for language.

"It was a yearlong process of getting the play removed from the screenplay, so that there were no vestiges of the play," Montoya explains. "I shot it in 12 nights, but it took 12 months to find the picture in 12 nights."

The premise of removing language from a film can be called into question, given the warm critical reception to many movie adaptations of plays that were left more or less intact, including Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, an adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya set entirely in a decrepit Broadway theater, and Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited.

That said, Montoya's visual and aural cityscape in the movie is masterfully noir. Montoya describes his influences: "There's a dash of Chinatown. Ed Wood is an L.A. movie. I loved Zoot Suit. I loved American Me. It's strange when you make a film, and you're looking at L.A. not from the Westside but from the Eastside in — we're under the bridges, in South Central, we're in Boyle Heights. The Eastside isn't just a backdrop. It's the central player."

Montoya says the play's foundation and the tent poles are still there: "The love of two brothers, the things that their father is teaching them, the story unfolding on one rainy night, the dark and the shadows of a place most known for sunshine."

Sigüenza and Salinas are in the movie, but not in the main roles they played onstage. "They play the Sam Peckinpah guys, the lords of death," Montoya explains. "I wanted to honor all the work they had done, but once we got into the film world [for the leading roles], we needed players with a track record of screen acting."

Producer Olmos saw the play twice at the Taper and has become one of the movie's major backers. He said he fell in love with Montoya's language, and believes that, given this is Montoya's first film, "He's proving himself to be a master."

Unlike Montoya's Sundance advisers, Olmos values language. "Mamet, Shakespeare — any one of these people who structure their characters by what they're saying, you have to listen to every word. They don't write one-liners," he says.

"The language hasn't changed, the density of the piece hasn't changed either," Olmos says of the adaptation. "You just couldn't put it all in. You won't miss it."

Richard Montoya
PHOTO BY RAFAEL CARDENAS