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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

From Sundance: Todd Haynes moderates `Quinceanera' panel

Director Todd Haynes is moderating a panel about the film “Quinceanera” this morning at the Film Center on Main Street. The panelists includes writers, directors, producers, and actors from the film. (Haynes is also the film's executive producer.)

The plot summary from IMDB: “As Magdalena's 15th birthday approaches, her simple, blissful life is complicated by the discovery that she's pregnant. Kicked out of her house, she finds a new family with her great-granduncle and gay cousin.”

It sounds like the two co-writers/co-directors, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, put together the financing relatively easily. (They’d previously made “The Fluffer.”) Wash: “It felt like the low-budget version of being Quentin Tarantino, where you say, `I want to make a movie, and the money just appears.’” They say the budget is under a million. Haynes asks if it was under $500K, but they demur. They wrote the film in February 2005, and shot it in April.

The two had moved into a mostly Latino part of LA, Echo Park, and started making friends with their neighbors. They got invited to be the official photographers at a neighbor’s quinceanera (fifteenth birthday) party. That got them thinking about trying to capture the gentrification and culture clashes happening around them – and which they were part of.

Emily Rios, who plays Magdalena, says she is a Jehovah’s Witness, so she didn’t have a quince. She went to a few as part of her research. (Jessie Garcia, who plays the cousin, mentions that he, too, is a Jehovah’s Witness, and hadn’t been to quinces either.)

Haynes: “One thing I remember Julianne Moore telling me about acting is that a lot of younger actors think you’re supposed to have this adrenaline rush. You’re going to use all that tension and energy. [Julianne] says it’s so much about relaxation. You guys [Jesse and Emily] seem to know that already.”

Wash and Richard acknowledged that they didn’t know many of the nuances of Hispanic culture… or the types of things that a fifteen year-old girl might say. Wash says, “all the time, it was just being open [to suggestions from the cast and others]…then we had to make the critical judgment of whether it works emotionally.” Cast members were responsible for translating their own lines into Spanish.

Haynes observes: “You have to be a sponge absorbing all this new information and being open to it, but also making decisions,” because the pace of production was so fast.

The script originally had 44 locations, two quinces, a funeral. They pared back a bit, but not much.

They looked at shooting on HD, 35 mm, and Super 16.

Haynes: Let’s talk about the HD decision. How did that emerge?

Producer Anne Clements: My friend Rafael made a movie. He gave me a DVD. I asked him, how did you shoot on 35? He said, I shot on HD. Eric Steelberg was his director of photography.

Richard: “Initially, we thought, oh no, we’re leaving 35 behind. But it gave us so much freedom, if we had to shoot night scenes with almost no lights, we’d get these very velvet-y blacks. The mobility of it. We shot the film in eighteen days. We couldn’t have come close [with film].”

Wash: “There are also no lab costs. There’s an economic part of it. With the French New Wave, they were looking for the cheapest way you could shoot a film, and they made it look cool. It’s still the wild west [with HD] – kind of open – everyone’s trying to make HD look like film. You can also explore HD’s own aesthetic qualities – the ability to see every grain of dust in a room. Just embrace that, and work out, what is the HD aesthetic? [We wanted to] experiment with that in our film – and create a [new] look here at the beginning of the HD era.”

Haynes says, I don’t know if this is bad to say, but it looks like film. It’s so beautiful.

Wash: “When it’s HD projected, it has a little more sharpness. We went to film, because that is still the way that HD movies are getting out in the world. But the projectors are so varied. [The image quality they produce is random.] And the expense of the projectors is one of the things that’s holding it back.”

Anne says they blew it up to film for Sundance – so that killed most of the cost savings.

Eric Steelberg: “We were trying to use [HD] for speed and to keep costs down. Wasn’t like, make sure it’s perfect out of the camera [they used a Sony F900], and let’s spend a lot of time looking at the monitor tweaking it. It’s just like, we’ve got to move fast. [He used a handheld camera for 95 percent of the film.] Not handheld where it’s really noticeable. Even the stuff that was static -- it gave it a little bit of energy. Wash and Richard wanted it to be authentic – felt like this pseudo-documentary feel would make it feel more like you were there.”

Haynes: “To me, it gives it a sense of human-ness – that slight breathing of the camera.”

Eric: “Our whole thing was just to make it as natural as possible. Don’t over-emphasize anything. Make it transparent.”

Haynes observes that the film was shot in about a five-block radius of where Wash and Richard live.

Richard: We shot in four houses on our block. One was our house (the gay people’s house).

Haynes says the cast included just one SAG actor, who had to temporarily give up his SAG card to be part of the production.

Wash says he is 1000 percent supportive of SAG. But, “there just needs to be a little bit more flexibility for low-budget films. We never would’ve been able to make this movie [if we had to hire all SAG actors].”

They talk about the option of starting to edit the HD footage while the shoot is still going on. They chose not to. Haynes also isn’t a proponent: You wrote the screenplay in a dark room, he says, and then you’ve got all the bright lights and chaos of production. Going back into the dark room is important.


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