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Interview with Water & Power writer-director Richard Montoya

Richard Montoya
Richard Montoya

Richard Montoya was born in San Diego, the son of Korean War veteran Jose Montoya, a poet, and one of the founders of the Royal Chicano Art Front (later named the Royal Chicano Air Force). Montoya the younger went on to help found the Culture Clash performance troupe in Los Angeles.

Now, some 30 years later, he’s directing a film version of his play Water & Power. The title refers to a pair of Latino brothers from the East Side of Los Angeles — one a rising politician, the other a prominent cop — who must deal with a life-or-death crisis over the course of a night.

Water and Power: Artist's representation

Matthew Lickona: So, you’re from San Diego. How did you wind up in L.A.?

Richard Montoya: I was born in San Diego, but really, just a couple of months later, my dad got a job at Oakland High School, right out of San Diego City College. But we lived on Louisiana Street, and I still have an emotional connection — Balboa Park, the Navy Hospital. I just go and sit out there. Last week, I was at Chicano Park; the guys who ride the bikes in the movie, they’re all from San Diego, and one of them is godfather to my son.

San Diego represent!

ML: Where did Water & Power come from?

RM: In 2006, it was a nice big stinking hit of a play here in downtown L.A., coming on the heels of another play we did, Chavez Ravine, which was about the building of Dodger Stadium, and it looked at the power structures of L.A. in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s. The next logical step for me was looking at how the paradigm had shifted, because we were just celebrating our first Latino mayor in 100 years in Antonio Villaraigosa. So I really started looking at the new power, and I thought a cautionary tale about the abuse of power would be good.

Scene from the stage version of Water & Power

This was about six months before the South Gate indictments of the city council there, before the Orange County sheriff was indicted, and before Governor Schwarzenegger had his Latina maid, and so forth. It was really all around, and it wasn’t something that skipped over the Latino community. Now Latinos were politicians and cops. We know gang bangers abuse power, but I still find it surprising, the degree to which cops and politicians do it. So the play was kind of perfect at the time for LA, and it worked really well. And when it came time to adapt it to a screenplay, those issues hadn’t gone anywhere. We had our LAPD rogue cop, and of course, this is almost ten years after Rampart, but really, this idea of corruption hadn’t gone very far.

Abuse of power: It ain't just for gang bangers!

ML: Do you still see art as having the power to have political impact?

RM: I do. I’m an admitted romantic about that. We’ve been kind of stubborn about that with Culture Clash, whether we’re crossing the border with border-crossers in Otay, or sitting with Marines, or with Border Patrol Officers, or cops, or gang members. It’s been our bailiwick. But what I hope I’ve gotten better at is humanizing people. I’m not interested in the political message so much any more. In the movie, Power is a very human cop. Even the fixer for the city has got humor and three dimensions. I don’t think there’s an overt political message at the end of Water & Power. I think the harshest message is saved for those very ambitious Hispanic kids who want to take short cuts to money and power. I guess what I hope I’m doing is shaking it up, banging my drum, rattling [cages].

The Fixer has three-dimensions, but rhythm isn't one of them.

I mean, I’m middle class. I’m upwardly mobile. I’m not a communist; I’m not a socialist. But when I visit the prisons, when I see the new homelessness in L.A., when I see a declining middle class and the growing Occupy movement in a rich-get-richer America, I find that the remnants of colonialism are alive and well. In the barrios, on the reservations, and certainly in parts of the Sonoran desert on the American side.

Homeless in L.A.

ML: How is this a uniquely Latino story, as opposed to the story of, say, the Irish rising in Boston?

RM: Well, I was greatly inspired by The Town and The Departed. Those are specific stories. The Godfather is specific. A lot of times in Hollywood, young Latino and Latina writers are told, “It must be a universal story,” and that really means, “Don’t be too specific; you’ll pigeonhole yourself.” But after 30 years with Culture Clash, I’m okay with being specific and pigeonholing myself. I’m okay with saying that there are universal themes of corruption and brotherly conflict, but it’s set in the specific world of East LA. You know, the way an August Wilson play is not set in Duluth or Peoria, but in the Pittsburgh of his youth. I felt I was doing my audience more of a service if I was specific, because we’re treading in areas that are relatively new for Latinos. I just remember writing Water & Power, and every day, there was a headline about some politician going down in flames.

Scene from The Town

ML: A cynic might say that this is a film that warns the Hispanic community, “If you want to rise in America, there’s going to be a crime at the beginning that is going to get you on your way.”

RM: It did seem kind of true to me that there’s always something in our lives and our families that gets sacrificed [to make advancement possible]. Someone gave something, whether it was my dad in Korea or men and women serving in a world war. My dad sacrificed in Korea, and then took his GI Bill and went to art school, and I’m still riding on that wave. But for me, being an ethical playwright, I’ve done pretty well. I haven’t had to fuck anybody. I haven’t had to take gobs of money and create a horrible TV show or some other bullshit. And it’s not like I’m righteous.

Scene from The Best Years of Our Lives

I think it’s unchecked ambition that’s the problem. When politicians and police take an oath to serve the public [and then break it], my viewpoint is that Anglos and African-Americans don’t have a corner on that market. It happens in the Latino world, too. There’s such an emphasis on portraying positive images of Hispanics: watchdog groups saying, “We need more doctors and lawyers.” I’m okay with that. But I’m not okay with the fetishizing, the infantilism in making things more folkloric and dumbing them down, so that all you see on TV are sassy, sexy, devious maids. I’m saying that we have Soprano-esque problems. We’re not telling the truth; we’re not writing our Chinatowns, our Godfathers.

Devious Maids!

We were doing a show in Orange County once, and the Sheriff was going down, and the archdiocese was paying out almost a billion dollars. I went to a Social Distortion show in Anaheim, and I was listening to Mike Ness sing and I thought, “The only guy in Orange County that I trust right now is this rockabilly greaser.” You know something’s up in the world when you can’t trust the priest and you can’t trust the cop. But I could trust the artist.

ML: In the film, the father advises his young sons, “Don’t ever wear a rubber. Spread your seed all over.” Where did that come from?

RM: Our fathers gave us lots of advice, man. There was a kind of entitlement in it. Our dads said that menudo was good for you, and it wasn’t. There’s a whole generation of our people who are obese and have cancers because...you know, I have a three-year-old now, and I’m careful what I say. As for that line, my dad could easily have said something like that. He wanted grandkids. But the bigger point is, the father told [Water and Power] many things. Some of those things will help them on this fateful night, and some will hurt them. This is kind of my way of undoing some of that stuff, by letting the line lay and letting people debate it. More people get it than don’t.

ML: Tell me about taking this story from the stage to the screen.

L.A. from overhead

RM: I was able to use the play as a resource, but I had to try to find a cinematic language for a noir-ish dark poem that still had the signature kinds of humor that I’m known for with Culture Clash. Theater is a venue for language, but cinema forces you to have a visual language. We had 12 nights of shooting and just barely north of $500,000, but I still wanted to break the shackles of the stage and use this very different toolbox. For example, the helicopter shots, to me, really capture LA in an operatic and cinematic way. And when you go in for a closeup, you can have a look that conveys everything that’s in a half-page of dialogue in a play: “You’re my brother, I love you, I cannot stand you, and we’re in trouble.” It’s a small film with a huge heart and, I think, a huge vision. Somehow, we were able to capture it.

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Richard Montoya
Richard Montoya

Richard Montoya was born in San Diego, the son of Korean War veteran Jose Montoya, a poet, and one of the founders of the Royal Chicano Art Front (later named the Royal Chicano Air Force). Montoya the younger went on to help found the Culture Clash performance troupe in Los Angeles.

Now, some 30 years later, he’s directing a film version of his play Water & Power. The title refers to a pair of Latino brothers from the East Side of Los Angeles — one a rising politician, the other a prominent cop — who must deal with a life-or-death crisis over the course of a night.

Water and Power: Artist's representation

Matthew Lickona: So, you’re from San Diego. How did you wind up in L.A.?

Richard Montoya: I was born in San Diego, but really, just a couple of months later, my dad got a job at Oakland High School, right out of San Diego City College. But we lived on Louisiana Street, and I still have an emotional connection — Balboa Park, the Navy Hospital. I just go and sit out there. Last week, I was at Chicano Park; the guys who ride the bikes in the movie, they’re all from San Diego, and one of them is godfather to my son.

San Diego represent!

ML: Where did Water & Power come from?

RM: In 2006, it was a nice big stinking hit of a play here in downtown L.A., coming on the heels of another play we did, Chavez Ravine, which was about the building of Dodger Stadium, and it looked at the power structures of L.A. in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s. The next logical step for me was looking at how the paradigm had shifted, because we were just celebrating our first Latino mayor in 100 years in Antonio Villaraigosa. So I really started looking at the new power, and I thought a cautionary tale about the abuse of power would be good.

Scene from the stage version of Water & Power

This was about six months before the South Gate indictments of the city council there, before the Orange County sheriff was indicted, and before Governor Schwarzenegger had his Latina maid, and so forth. It was really all around, and it wasn’t something that skipped over the Latino community. Now Latinos were politicians and cops. We know gang bangers abuse power, but I still find it surprising, the degree to which cops and politicians do it. So the play was kind of perfect at the time for LA, and it worked really well. And when it came time to adapt it to a screenplay, those issues hadn’t gone anywhere. We had our LAPD rogue cop, and of course, this is almost ten years after Rampart, but really, this idea of corruption hadn’t gone very far.

Abuse of power: It ain't just for gang bangers!

ML: Do you still see art as having the power to have political impact?

RM: I do. I’m an admitted romantic about that. We’ve been kind of stubborn about that with Culture Clash, whether we’re crossing the border with border-crossers in Otay, or sitting with Marines, or with Border Patrol Officers, or cops, or gang members. It’s been our bailiwick. But what I hope I’ve gotten better at is humanizing people. I’m not interested in the political message so much any more. In the movie, Power is a very human cop. Even the fixer for the city has got humor and three dimensions. I don’t think there’s an overt political message at the end of Water & Power. I think the harshest message is saved for those very ambitious Hispanic kids who want to take short cuts to money and power. I guess what I hope I’m doing is shaking it up, banging my drum, rattling [cages].

The Fixer has three-dimensions, but rhythm isn't one of them.

I mean, I’m middle class. I’m upwardly mobile. I’m not a communist; I’m not a socialist. But when I visit the prisons, when I see the new homelessness in L.A., when I see a declining middle class and the growing Occupy movement in a rich-get-richer America, I find that the remnants of colonialism are alive and well. In the barrios, on the reservations, and certainly in parts of the Sonoran desert on the American side.

Homeless in L.A.

ML: How is this a uniquely Latino story, as opposed to the story of, say, the Irish rising in Boston?

RM: Well, I was greatly inspired by The Town and The Departed. Those are specific stories. The Godfather is specific. A lot of times in Hollywood, young Latino and Latina writers are told, “It must be a universal story,” and that really means, “Don’t be too specific; you’ll pigeonhole yourself.” But after 30 years with Culture Clash, I’m okay with being specific and pigeonholing myself. I’m okay with saying that there are universal themes of corruption and brotherly conflict, but it’s set in the specific world of East LA. You know, the way an August Wilson play is not set in Duluth or Peoria, but in the Pittsburgh of his youth. I felt I was doing my audience more of a service if I was specific, because we’re treading in areas that are relatively new for Latinos. I just remember writing Water & Power, and every day, there was a headline about some politician going down in flames.

Scene from The Town

ML: A cynic might say that this is a film that warns the Hispanic community, “If you want to rise in America, there’s going to be a crime at the beginning that is going to get you on your way.”

RM: It did seem kind of true to me that there’s always something in our lives and our families that gets sacrificed [to make advancement possible]. Someone gave something, whether it was my dad in Korea or men and women serving in a world war. My dad sacrificed in Korea, and then took his GI Bill and went to art school, and I’m still riding on that wave. But for me, being an ethical playwright, I’ve done pretty well. I haven’t had to fuck anybody. I haven’t had to take gobs of money and create a horrible TV show or some other bullshit. And it’s not like I’m righteous.

Scene from The Best Years of Our Lives

I think it’s unchecked ambition that’s the problem. When politicians and police take an oath to serve the public [and then break it], my viewpoint is that Anglos and African-Americans don’t have a corner on that market. It happens in the Latino world, too. There’s such an emphasis on portraying positive images of Hispanics: watchdog groups saying, “We need more doctors and lawyers.” I’m okay with that. But I’m not okay with the fetishizing, the infantilism in making things more folkloric and dumbing them down, so that all you see on TV are sassy, sexy, devious maids. I’m saying that we have Soprano-esque problems. We’re not telling the truth; we’re not writing our Chinatowns, our Godfathers.

Devious Maids!

We were doing a show in Orange County once, and the Sheriff was going down, and the archdiocese was paying out almost a billion dollars. I went to a Social Distortion show in Anaheim, and I was listening to Mike Ness sing and I thought, “The only guy in Orange County that I trust right now is this rockabilly greaser.” You know something’s up in the world when you can’t trust the priest and you can’t trust the cop. But I could trust the artist.

ML: In the film, the father advises his young sons, “Don’t ever wear a rubber. Spread your seed all over.” Where did that come from?

RM: Our fathers gave us lots of advice, man. There was a kind of entitlement in it. Our dads said that menudo was good for you, and it wasn’t. There’s a whole generation of our people who are obese and have cancers because...you know, I have a three-year-old now, and I’m careful what I say. As for that line, my dad could easily have said something like that. He wanted grandkids. But the bigger point is, the father told [Water and Power] many things. Some of those things will help them on this fateful night, and some will hurt them. This is kind of my way of undoing some of that stuff, by letting the line lay and letting people debate it. More people get it than don’t.

ML: Tell me about taking this story from the stage to the screen.

L.A. from overhead

RM: I was able to use the play as a resource, but I had to try to find a cinematic language for a noir-ish dark poem that still had the signature kinds of humor that I’m known for with Culture Clash. Theater is a venue for language, but cinema forces you to have a visual language. We had 12 nights of shooting and just barely north of $500,000, but I still wanted to break the shackles of the stage and use this very different toolbox. For example, the helicopter shots, to me, really capture LA in an operatic and cinematic way. And when you go in for a closeup, you can have a look that conveys everything that’s in a half-page of dialogue in a play: “You’re my brother, I love you, I cannot stand you, and we’re in trouble.” It’s a small film with a huge heart and, I think, a huge vision. Somehow, we were able to capture it.

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