Richard Montoya, co-founder of the satirical theater troupe Culture Clash, has gone deep into film noir with two long-in-development yet timely films. Both are showing soon in his hometown.
Montoya’s film-directing debut, “Water & Power,” will screen Wednesday at the Tower Theatre. The film follows two East Los Angeles brothers – one a cop, one a state senator, nicknamed Power and Water by their utilities-department worker father – who have been corrupted by power and are experiencing a dark night of the soul in a run-down motel.
The Tower screening, which Montoya will attend, is sold out. But “Water & Power,” based on a 2006 play that debuted at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, is available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon.
Montoya, an L.A. resident who grew up in Sacramento, hopes to make it back to town May 3 for a Sacramento International Film Festival screening of “The Other Barrio,” in which he stars as a San Francisco housing investigator confronting landlord arson and other examples of greed. But a production of Montoya’s play “American Night” is happening in Portland, Ore., at the same time.
Montoya also co-wrote “The Other Barrio,” directed by Dante Betteo and based on a 2005 short story by San Francisco poet laureate Alejandro Murguía.
Montoya, son of the late poet and activist José Montoya, left Sacramento as a young man. His current films reflect his history-hungry dives into the cities to which he relocated – San Francisco, where he helped start Culture Clash in 1984, and L.A., home since the early 1990s.
When he first moved to L.A., “I was just fascinated with all the James Ellroy novels and Raymond Chandler novels,” Montoya said by phone. “I liked opening a book and then going and finding that hotel in Echo Park (from a book), or that seedy Hollywood hotel on the eastern edge of Sunset Boulevard. I just drenched myself in that sort of cinematic lore. Then I ended up moving right next to the apartment house where the girl gets killed in ‘Chinatown.’”
That building was in Angelino Heights, near Dodger Stadium. Much of “Water,” filmed over 12 nights, was shot in a real-life motel close to both landmarks.
It’s where Los Angeles police officer Power (Nicholas Gonzalez) holes up, snorting cocaine and waiting for the blowback from a murder he has just committed. Water (Enrique Murciano), the senator, tries to assist his brother. As the film unfolds, various misdeeds by both come to light.
Newbie film director Montoya said he felt “glee” at trying a new medium. But directing for the screen required adjustment.
“Luis Valdez said it long ago: The beauty and the frustration of theater is it is one permanent long shot,” Montoya said. “You never get up close in someone’s eyes. And that kind of blew me away (while shooting) a close-up. That was all new storytelling for me, and I had to figure it out on a very fast learning curve.”
The play sprang from Montoya’s interest in the 1990s LAPD Rampart scandal and from being “drunk in love with the first (L.A.) Chicano mayor in 100 years, Antonio Villaraigosa,” Montoya said. Montoya also took inspiration from a wall at his favorite Sacramento haunt, Simon’s on 16th Street.
“Water” is “a hard look at corruption and power,” Montoya said. “And a lot of it goes back to Simon’s bar with all the pictures of the politicos – of which ones made it, and which ones didn’t.”
The film arrives amid high-profile corruption scandals involving Latino lawmakers, including recently indicted U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and, closer to the world of “Water,” Southern California’s Calderon brothers.
“The idea of power is relatively new” to Southern California Latinos, Montoya said. “True, elected power. We haven’t had it for more than 75 years. … As a result, there are slip-ups all over the place.”
“Barrio” seems of the moment as well. “It is based on the rise of rents in San Francisco, and how pertinent is that now?” Montoya asked.
Murguía has said he based his story on lore surrounding the 1975 Gartland Hotel fire, which many believe to be an inside job meant to oust tenants.
In January, fire tore through a Mission District building holding apartments and businesses. One man died and more than 40 people were displaced. Arson is not suspected in that fire, authorities said. But the fire intensified the spotlight on skyrocketing rents in the Mission, where Google buses now seem to outnumber murals and where tenants in rent-controlled buildings like the one that burned hold little chance of finding similar arrangements.
Montoya said the “cultural tourism” at work in the Mission also has occurred in Los Angeles neighborhoods such as Echo Park.
“It is a desirable area that has the charm and flavor but none of the people in it who actually created the area,” he said.
RICHARD MONTOYA MOVIES
What: The Sacramento-raised actor, playwright and screenwriter makes his cinematic directorial debut with “Water & Power,” showing at a sold-out screening Wednesday at the Tower Theatre (the film also is available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon). He also stars in “The Other Barrio,” screening May 3 at the Sacramento International Film Festival.
When: “The Other Barrio,” 11:30 a.m. May 3
Where: The Delta King, 1000 Front St., Sacramento