Richard Montoya is on a mission to show a Los Angeles most haven’t seen on the big screen. The playwright and actor from legendary Chicano satire troupe Culture Clash has taken his highly successful play Water & Power, which debuted on stage in 2006, and updated it for his first film. Shot in 12 nights mostly in East L.A., Montoya’s neo-noir depiction is set in the wake of Occupy L.A. and tells the story of twin brothers nicknamed Water (Enrique Murciano) and Power (Nicholas Gonzalez) by their father (Jacob Vargas), an irrigation worker for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Water is a senator whose mission of planting a million trees in East L.A. is deferred when his brother Power, a cop with strong ties to the streets, takes fate into his own hands. Forced into hiding after a tragic shooting, they hole up in a seedy motel room with a cholo named Norte Sur (Emilio Rivera) who acts as their eyes and ears to the harsh world waiting outside. Together, they struggle to stay true to themselves and each other in a society that can’t function without them.
"Montoya’s unique style of homeboy highbrow captured the attention of the godfather of Latino filmmaking, Edward James Olmos, who helped get AMC to distribute it. Tackling everything from environmental issues to karma, Montoya was eager to release the film on the heels of Cesar Chavez.
“I worked with Culture Clash for 30 years and more than once Cesar [Chavez] was in the audience,” Montoya said of the famed farm worker. “He applauded and supported, but he had notes. As we were walking across the courtyard--me, him, and his bodyguard--he said, ‘I know you’re in a hurry to make your success and put your stories out there, but take it from me, it doesn’t matter when you get there, it just matters that you get there.’”
Fast forward to 2012, when Water & Power was filmed, and Montoya managed to get a rock solid cast that also includes Clancy Brown (Shawshank Redemption), who plays a one percenter who got his street cred from Tupac, Wanda De Jesus, and a cameo by the late Lupe Ontiveros (the last before her death). Add an Aztec drum-heavy score composed by Indian American artist Gingger Shankar, which features rebel cries by Zack de La Rocha and Las Cafeteras, and it’s as if you’ve been smudged by sage.
“We are part of the structure of Los Angeles and the country,” said Olmos, who scarfed down a bowl of cocido from his favorite eastside haunt at press day. “Everybody needs water and power.”
Though critics may be thrown off by the depiction of L.A. gang culture and corrupt cops, Montoya doesn’t dumb down any of his characters, showing the authenticity of everyone from the cholo to the police officer. References to Morrissey-obsessed Chicanos and L.A.’s patron saint of gang members, Father Boyle (founder of Homeboy Industries), pay homage to the locals. Native American symbolism like a deer lost in Mariachi Plaza, which stumps the cops called to duty, foreshadows the ultimate sacrifice that lies ahead.
“He kept the lingo so true to cop shop talk that at one point he subtitled a scene,” said De Jesus, who plays a tough yet sexy LAPD officer with a steamy strip club scene. “Richard is a wordsmith. He made love to L.A. in the best way possible.”
Gonzalez is no stranger to East L.A. stories. He starred alongside Michael DeLorenzo in Showtime’s Resurrection Blvd. about a family of East L.A. boxers, but was thrilled to work with Montoya. “So many times the projects we do—the ones that pay, the ones everyone sees—fall short from being art.”
Casting actors without any disconnects to their characters paid off. Rivera, who plays the wheelchair-bound gangster shot years ago by Power, narrates the film like a Latino Morgan Freeman. Star of the upcoming FOX series Gang Related, he knows the crazy life well.
“Two of my homeboys were cut down by bullets,” said Rivera, sitting inside Eastside Luv, a bar used in the film. “When I was doing that role I was thinking about them—Flaco and Popeye.” The eldest of five brothers, Rivera can relate to Power giving the ultimate sacrifice so his brother could live his dream. “I’d do that for my carnal and he’d do it for me.”
The bond between blood is deep and Montoya hopes viewers leave feeling a little more connected to that which is solid. The words ‘Nothing in L.A. is concrete except the river,’ which are laced throughout the film, are reminders that in an ever-changing city, it’s important to get back to that which grounds us.
“To succeed and have agents and headshots and go to the gym,” Montoya said. “I hope people would also be concerned about the people that helped get us there.”
Water & Power opens in theatres May 2